"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 December 2008

New Year's Resolutions

This morning as I’ve browsed the web I’ve of course run across numerous references to the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. “Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet?” (of course not; the moment after I make one I’ll break it, so why bother?). “Highlights of 2008” (more depressing than encouraging to me, as a rule – what many people seem to think of as a “highlight” often strikes me as a new low). “How to make your dreams come true in 2009” (sure; it’s all so simple and will certainly happen
this time).

Then I came to one of my favorite sites – Touchstone’s Mere Comments – and found what I wanted: a post by my favorite contemporary writer, Tony Esolen, which offers true wisdom and food for thought – “Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot?” he asks, and answers, of course, “by no means, and here’s why.”

The comments are worth reading, as well, and led me to some thinking about time and how it is described in one of my favorite plays, A Raisin in the Sun. Walter has lost his father’s life insurance money on a scam, and Beneatha, having counted on part of it to help her through medical school, is in the depths of despair. Her suitor Asagai, a Nigerian who plans to return to his country to help free it from Britain’s rule, challenges her. I don’t have the text with me, so what follows is from memory.

Beneatha tells Asagai that man never changes, and simply walks the pointless circle of time, repeating evil again and again. Asagai says no, time is a line whose end you cannot see and thus cannot despair of. Man marches forward, doing what he can in his own day to reach the unrealized dream of a better future, which does exist.

I was trying to explain the difference to my class last semester, and found that I couldn’t show Asagai’s concept as a simple straight line, as he initially states it: he goes on to say that if his country is liberated there will of course be upheaval again, and he may even become a martyr because of new persecutions by different people, but that liberty and peace will still come in some unseeable future if people like him continue to work for that dream. And so I found that my picture on the board became a series of Beneatha’s circles moving across the board in a kind of helix toward the future.

Beneatha’s circle by itself holds a certain appeal as a description of truth – doesn’t it often seem that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” that “nothing new under the sun” means mainly that life is made up of evil and despair? Asagai’s line seems so much more optimistic, more hopeful: it is going somewhere, not merely repeating itself, even if it contains repetition within it.

And yet . . . there is nothing – nothing – in Asagai’s philosophy which justifies optimism. He envisions a future of freedom and prosperity for his people, and he is pursuing the means (education, medical care, political action) that he believes will bring about such a future – yet with no actual foundation for that belief. Education, for example, may bring about better health conditions and greater political involvement, yes, but it may also bring seeds of greater discontentment and ideas which will be just as destructive as those which he sees as now holding his people down. What kind of education is the key to a better future . . . and nowhere does Asagai seem to see the need to consider this key question. It is mere “education” in itself, mere “political action” in itself, which will somehow bring about the bright future he envisions.

So I was encouraged in reading Tony’s post and the comments on it to consider time in both its repetitive cycles (for Beneatha is not entirely wrong) and its movement to somewhere – but not an abstract movement to a merely hoped-for earthly end (as Asagai would have it). Rather, this journey through the cycles of time is a journey to a very specific destination: an eternal life either in the presence of God or separated from His love, either in the presence of those who have gone before or separated forever from human love as well. (C. S. Lewis reminds us somewhere that we have never met a mere mortal.) That destination should determine what means we use to move closer to it -- not just any kind of education, for example, but education which gives us a true image of who and what we are so that we will choose our course wisely.

Several of the images various commenters brought up following Tony’s post bring out time's dual nature as both cycle and line: “a continually widening upward spiral toward God,” one called it, or another suggested that “from another angle, the spiral could be seen as ever-narrowing”; another gave the picture of Abba Dositheus: “a movement inward along the spokes of a wheel: we all begin on the rim, and as we move in towards Christ, who is the hub, we move closer to Him and to each other.” I like these; they help me to see the concept and understand
all the better this journey we are on.

And that perspective of time, a journey with its cycles and its known end, reminds me of the only resolution that’s important each new year, each new day: to live well within time’s possibilities, loving God and my neighbor, for God’s glory and my neighbor’s welfare.

27 December 2008

Happy Birthday

The YM turns 18 tomorrow. Our youngest, growing up so fast.

He's always been talented in artistic kinds of ways, and now it's amazing to see how quickly he has grown with instruction. Film is his favorite, but he's an excellent still photographer, and you can see his some of his work at Vesta Photography. (I don't have access to any of his film work, but he's done some short films for his class and has worked with his friends on some significant projects. He does a great job of it.)

And as he grows in his knowledge and his skill, he's the same funny, loving person he's always been, though with greater depth and thoughtfulness. He enriches my life every day by his smile and considerate actions and good conversation. I am grateful that he is my son.

For you, my son, a birthday prayer:

"Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be, keeping him unspotted from the world. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

(from the Book of Common Prayer)

25 December 2008

Not Quite Christmas

I’ve been trying all day to think of a happy Christmas message to write, but I don’t seem to have one this year. It’s been an odd break, not Christmas-like – I’m used to being with my parents this time of year, and I haven’t had the energy or inclination (hooray for end-of-semester exhaustion, plus toothaches, plus medication that adds headaches as a final insult) to be the least bit festive. Not that I’m especially able at creating that mood even at my best.

So it’s been a quiet day at home, nothing very special except for the phone calls to and from family members elsewhere. I’ve mainly spent the break, including today, sleeping and working on prep for next semester’s classes; we ordered books for the YM’s spring classes today and a few for me. And part of me has struggled with feeling sad and lonely and generally in a the-world’s-not-fair mood.

But one of my tasks has been re-reading Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell, prepping to teach it next semester. And so I am reminded that I am not here to feel good. I am here to love God and my neighbor, to take joy not in circumstances but in Him and in His people, to bear the burdens of others as others have so often borne mine, to recognize His love in all the wild and quiet, wonderful and quotidian ways that it is manifest in this world He created, marred though it has become. Under the Mercy, as Peter Stanhope would say.

So . . . my youngest turns 18 in two days – that’s something to celebrate. We drove around town and enjoyed Christmas lights tonight – what beauty God allows us to create.* My oldest son and his family sacrificed his leave time to make the long drive to visit my parents – how God manifests His love in His children. I have a husband who loves me and does so many lovely sweet things to show it – not every wife is so blessed. I sit here surrounded by books – and how less rich my life would be without those many voices that challenge and comfort and bless me. Tomorrow, then, I shall try to remember His blessings, and not allow the inevitable sorrows of a broken world to negate His beauty that still shines forth in it. Under the Mercy . . .

* (You can see the YM’s excellent photographs from the drive, along with many others, at Vesta Photography. He’s good – really good. And I don’t think I’m overly biased . . .)

23 December 2008

Charlie Peacock, part 3

So I survived the last projects, essays, and final exams. I’ve been trying to write about the things Charlie said concerning being a Christian and an artist in today’s culture, but constant interruptions and distractions tend to give me severe writer’s block. So, finally, here are some of the ideas he brought up that I especially appreciated.

Charlie made it clear that not only artists are creative – artistic creativity is only one kind. Everyone is creative: the scientist, the engineer, the businessman, the teacher, the homemaker, all of us. I loved this definition of the church that he gave us: “We are God’s gifted ones gathering as communities to do God’s work.” Any meaningful labor is worthy of any Christian’s time; no vocation is more worthy than another.

Christian who is an artist in today’s culture has a special tension, however, because of the increasing separation between “secular” and “religious” publishers and markets. I appreciated Charlie’s insistence that the individual Christian must have the freedom to choose to serve the church directly and primarily – too many of us have become sinfully cynical about the quality of Christian-labeled work, and we forget that one job of the Christian is to build up other believers. If this is one’s call, pursue it, wholeheartedly and with excellence.

However, the only reason the artistic works of a Christian should be in the Christian bookstore, Charlie said, is if they have been created for that primary purpose of teaching and building up believers. The
Christian who is an artist must not be limited to this purpose, and should not be pressured into using his creativity in solely or primarily this way; he must be equally free to pursue his art simply because it is meaningful art. He should be able to do his work “anywhere, everywhere, and without apology,” whether he names it as “Christian” or not, and with the support and blessing of his brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Why? Because we are called to serve not only other believers, but “all the nations.” We are “image-bearing ambassadors” who are to “contribute to and transform culture,” being salt and light within it. Our work should be good for the community, for our neighbor. The artist’s work no more has to be named Christian than the mechanic’s or the carpenter’s or the engineer’s: if we excel in our work, we glorify God and serve our neighbor, and a fish sign on it won’t make it any better quality.

Charlie told us that he is not hesitant to declare “I’m a Christian,” but he has chosen not to call himself “a Christian musician”
because he wishes to disconnect himself from the cultural baggage of that name; then he can go wherever he is called by his work, not be assigned in people's minds permanently to only “church music.” He mentioned doing some work with jazz, and then being invited to join a “Christian jazz” forum on the web. He refused because his goal was to be a part of the “ongoing jazz story” in its totality and not to suggest that his particular work is somehow different because of his faith rather than simply because he is a musician.

He talked too about answering the question “Are you a Christian?” and how he prefers to answer with a question rather than just say yes: “Why do you ask?” he might respond, or “It depends; what do you mean by the term Christian?” This opens the door to discussion, and allows him to be a witness to his faith in the way the person asking most needs to hear it, rather than letting that person think that Charlie represents whatever misconceptions he might hold. He has no desire other than to boldly be a Christian, but he has learned to be wise in the way he names himself, to try to have the most winsome and effective influence that he can.

For me, perhaps the most important point he made is summed up in this: some of us are called mainly to talk to the family – to teach and build up believers – and we must do this with excellence (which is going to mean speaking, lovingly, to the lack of excellence in too much Christian art today), and others of us are called to serve the broader community – and we need the support and encouragement of the church to do that work with excellence and to remain faithful to God as we work in a world that can hold out many strong temptations. “We should be God’s [artistic] people everywhere and in everything,” Charlie said; “we must not have too narrow a scope but be about His business throughout the world.”

10 December 2008

Baby News

My friends' baby was born last Thursday. I got to see pictures on Friday while endangering my soul with envy of those who went to see him that night. Yesterday, Mom and Dad brought him up to the college to be introduced. Right now he is a sleepy, contemplative little fellow, with the perfect beauty of a C-section birth.

As I held him, he squirmed and yawned now and then, squinted up at me, and sighed himself back to sleep. So lovely, this precious new life with all hope and potential lying before him. Such complete trust in and reliance on those around him to love and protect him and care for his every need. So like we should be, babes in our Father's arms . . .

04 December 2008

New Literary Magazine

A friend who is an assistant editor has drawn attention to a new online literary magazine, The Christendom Review. What I've read in the first issue so far is excellent, and I highly recommend a look. For some of you who are writers, this may be a good place to submit.

Yes, yes, I know, I haven't posted the new post about Charlie. Chalk it up to too tired to think coherently. It's in progress, though.

03 December 2008

Charlie Peacock, part 2

No, I didn't get lazy over break; I finished the grading and got domestic -- a bit of embroidery on a baby gift, a new hem for a favorite coat, watched a movie with the family . . . and now it seems I've a moment when I'm rested enough to think about something besides class prep and grades.

Today, snippets I especially appreciated from Charlie:

* In giving his testimony, he referred to "the relentless tenderness of Jesus" -- what a wonderful image, and one we so often don't understand (the heavenly hound, "terrible goodness").

* Several times he urged us to be "interested in what God is interested in -- which is everything."

* Ask yourself each morning, "What kind of creative person will I become today?" (And he reminded us that all people are creative; creativity is not a gift solely of the artist. The church is "God's gifted ones gathering as communities to do God's work.")

* Read the Old Testament to learn what it means to be human, to understand the glory of man and his shame -- then "bring both the glory and the shame to God and use it in creative work through Him."

* When a student asked an especially insightful question, his face lit up, he pointed to her, and said, "You have wisdom, Little Sister!"

* And I loved this: Take your creative work and offer it to God: "Look what I made, Father!"

Tomorrow, God and grading willing, what Charlie said about the tension between being Christian and being an artist in today's culture.

20 November 2008

Charlie Peacock

This week we’ve had a star on campus – singer, songwriter, pianist, producer, author, and more. Yet you wouldn’t have known it to see him walking the campus in jeans and sneakers, and a sweatshirt to hold off the sudden cold, with a quiet word and a warm smile for anyone who greets him: self-effacing and God-honoring, humble – and yet confident in his identity as a child of the Father called to be a musician for His glory in the created world.

I’ve appreciated Charlie’s wisdom these past three days. I hope to give more specifics when grading subsides (or I give up pretending that I might get caught up), but one thing I especially appreciated is his emphasis on story. The gospel, of course, is a story, from Genesis – “I am making all things” – to Revelation – “I am making all things new.” Can you tell this story, beginning to end, he asked us – with or without reference to Scripture – to anyone? Can you apply the story to the world – all the world? because the Creator is interested in everything He has made, contemporary church life, yes, but all the rest of His world just as much.

Creativity is a spiritual labor, Charlie reminded us: submit your creative work to the Holy Spirit and tell the story to point people to the truth, to leave the world a better place than it was when you arrived. He spoke of this gospel story as the “controlling story” of the world, of our lives, and reminded us to wake each morning with thankfulness for His new mercies, then step into the story and live out our roles, wherever God has called us.

I kept thinking of the Willow Tree angel
LuCindy gave me, the one holding a book, called the angel of learning. But LuCindy wrote this for me on the accompanying card: “She’s called the angel of learning, but to me she is a constant reminder [. . .] to turn loose and trust my Abba to write my story, moment by moment, in faith that He will make it more light-filled and wondrous than I ever could.”

So a bonus blessing from Charlie’s time with us – a reminder of my friend’s loving generosity and of her message through his. Blessings abound; if I can remember that the story is His, I will better see them as I walk through each day in His grace.

09 November 2008

Autumn Life

The baby gingko lifts its glossy leaves to the sun they mirror; the elder dogwood’s stately rust-covered branches greet their young neighbor in a bowing dance. In back of the house, the burning bush’s fiery finery bursts on the eye, and the maple next door announces the joy of burnished copper. It’s been a lovely autumn, with summer flowers still parading lavender and coral among the colors of the dying year. The breeze rises, cold now as it presages winter, but the dance of leaves and flowers it conjures is a dance of life, life that is, life that lies beneath the earth awaiting spring, the cycle that reassures us of our Father’s loving presence.

05 November 2008

Collects for our Country

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (I Tim. 2:1-4)

Collects from the Book of Common Prayer:

A Prayer for The President of the United States, and all in Civil Authority.
O LORD, our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee, with thy favour to behold and bless thy servant THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way. Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Prayer for Congress.
MOST gracious God, we humbly beseech thee, as for the people of these United States in general, so especially for their Senate and Representatives in Congress assembled; that thou wouldest be pleased to direct and prosper all their consultations, to the advancement of thy glory, the good of thy Church, the safety, honour, and welfare of thy people; that all things may be so ordered and settled by their endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, may be establish among us for all generations. These and all other necessaries, for them, for us, and thy whole Church, we humbly beg in the Name and mediation of Jesus Christ, our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.

For a State Legislature.
O GOD, the fountain of wisdom, whose statutes are good and gracious and whose law is truth; We beseech thee so to guide and bless the Legislature of this State, that it may ordain for our governance only such things as please thee, to the glory of thy Name and the welfare of the people; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

For Courts of Justice.
ALMIGHTY God, who sittest in the throne judging right; We humbly beseech thee to bless the courts of justice and the magistrates in all this land; and give unto them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, that they. may discern the truth and impartially administer the law in the fear of thee alone; through him who shall come to be our judge, thy Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

For Our Country.
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

23 October 2008

Early Morning

A quarter moon and diamond stars sparkling in the crisp air of early morning dark; a light mist swirling about the car on the old ferry road: beauty that makes the reluctant early rising much less painful.

15 October 2008


Sitting on the porch steps in the late evening, a cool October breeze fanning my arms. The only functioning street lamp hiding behind the thick-leaved ginkgo, a neighbor flicking off the only porch light on the street. Two jet streams sectoring the sky, and two bright stars shining directly above me. Smoky clouds floating lazily, the moonrise flinging itself above the neighbor’s roofline, creating an alabaster glow. The Yorkie sisters barking, Sadie at last flying over to cuddle for a while.
A lone car passing, leaving blessed silence in its wake. The jet streams melding into the clouds, more stars winking into view as the sky deepens.

Lovely retreat from the weariness of pain and politics, renewing heart and soul for another round of life in a world so fallen, yet with so much beauty still.

30 September 2008

Taunted Again

My muse had hidden herself for quite some time until the recent full moon. That morning she greeted me in soft ivory, lighting up the rag-tag remnants of clouds that had made their way across the South from the latest hurricane . From the day after that to the last visible sliver two mornings ago, she taunted me with icy brilliance in a star-studded sky, beauty to take the breath and deepen all known and hidden longings to follow her call . . .

But taunting it was, as ideas flooded my mind with no energy, no time, no space physical or emotional, to pursue any of them into more words on a page than now-illegible or incoherent notes. And so, the urgent still filling my days, helpless hopelessness has led to lassitude, with its familiar omens of the lurking darkness that always haunts me . . .

20 August 2008


The best friends say the hard things, and that's why one can truly love and trust them, why they become best friends. Love isn't about feeling comfortable, even though it includes encouragement. It's about truth. It's about caring enough to take risks, even the risk of making one's friend sad or angry or discouraged if necessary, and then to be by her side in prayer and compassion as she walks through it. What a remarkable privilege to have such a friend.

04 August 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, RIP

One of the greatest men -- perhaps the greatest man -- of the twentieth century has died.

If you aren't ready to tackle Gulag Archipelago or Cancer Ward, try One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to begin to understand the horror that was Stalinist Russia.

But Solzhenitsyn saw the wrong directions of the West, as well. Here are two of his addresses which serve as reminders of who we have become and why, and what we must do to rectify our errors:

The Templeton Address

The Harvard Commencement Address

These ideas made him unpopular after the initial warm reception which followed his exile from Russia. But he was not concerned with the praise of men; he was concerned to speak the truth as he saw and understood it, and hope that men of good will would be able to hear and embrace it, however hard it may be.

May he rest in peace with the God he served.

29 July 2008

Worldview and Art

From Joyce Cary, in Art and Literature (quoted in the anthology The Christian Imagination, edited by Leland Ryken, which was recommended to me by LuCindy):

All writers [. . .] must have, to compose any kind of story, some picture of the world, and of what is right and wrong with that world.

(Yes, Bryan friends, I'm teaching at Summit this week . . . and what a privilege.)

21 July 2008

Stitchin' Again

My dear friend LuCindy sent me, years and years ago, a crewel embroidery kit of a unicorn -- a lovely piece. I started it, then all that other stuff of life crowded it out, and it languished in my sewing cabinet for a very long time.

These days I need to write. A seemingly infinite number of inchoate thoughts are whirling about, colliding with each other, begging for expression and perhaps even some resolution. But I find that I can't write them; it's simply not in me just now.

So the other night, I thought, well, if I can't write, maybe I can pick up one of my old stitchery projects and work on it. And lo and behold, there was the unicorn -- satin-stitched leaves curling around the border in varied colors of green on stem-stitched vines, the black trim on a monarch butterfly fluttering in the foreground . . . So I gathered it up, made sure it still had all the yarn it needed, found my kit of needles and scissors (and added to the collection some nice strong magnification glasses), and began to stitch.

I have always loved embroidery work. But I had forgotten how remarkably relaxing it is. I've done quite a bit of cross stitch in the past several years, for gifts mostly, because it's fast and nice-looking, and I enjoy it, but it's not the same as embroidery, with its variety of stitches and textures -- and its infinite possibilities for correcting errors without pulling everything out. Because my mother taught me well, so that I am not only able to do the familiar but understand how to learn new stitches and techniques, my perfectionist nature is well-served in this medium.

It's a good place to be right now, and I already feel that the writing is going to come soon -- perhaps because I am giving my mind a rest by using a different way of creating my world for a time. But I think I won't put the embroidery aside again, now that I've remembered how much I love it and how much I need it.

When the unicorn is done, a sampler: any suggestions for designs that allow for a wide variety of stitches and that capture something of my heart home are welcome.

15 July 2008

Beauty will save the world

I found the following under "Notables" (see the sidebar) at a site recommended by Francis Beckwith, The Catholic Thing.
"Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time."

Joseph Ratzinger, "The Beauty and the Truth of Christ"

08 July 2008


I've just read Steven Faulkner's Waterwalk, a memoir of his canoe journey from the upper North to St. Louis to "discover" the Mississippi with his son Justin, following the route of Marquet and Joliet. It's a good book -- Faulkner is a good descriptive writer, and his meditations on his relationship with his son are honest and thoughtful. There are days of lovely solitude, of excitement and near-disaster, of back-breaking boredom. There's history as he weaves the two journeys together. I found his discussions of environmental and technological issues a bit heavy-handed; even though I agee with quite a bit of what he says, it felt more like being preached at than reflective musing, which is what the rest of the book seems to call for. But despite that particular flaw (to me; others won't mind it), the book is well worth reading to encourage one to think again about the need to slow down, to see what's around us, to reflect, to try to connect with mind and heart instead of cell phone and Facebook. And, in the end, to remember that we can only know so much of any other created being, that we are mysteries even to ourselves, that wisdom can be passed on but must also be learned, each of us in his own unique journey. We may travel together for a time, but even together we may be in very different places; finally, we can only love and pray.

03 July 2008

God Bless the USA

I'm too tired to write anything profound today, but I do want to note that I'm deeply grateful to live in America. Believe me, I am aware of our faults as much as anyone. But there's no place better that I know of, no place I could love as well. I have been challenged by the best of the values our country holds as ideals, and I stand humbled before those like my grandfather, my father, my son who have given of their service so we can remain free to pursue those ideals. May we return to God, and to the many in every walk of life who make our freedom possible, the honor of using it for the sake of unselfish righteousness.

28 June 2008

Home Sweet Home

All I can say is, it's really, really good to be home.

Thanks to all for the prayers and encouragement.

19 June 2008

Just Sensible

Found while working cryptograms today:

"Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing." --William James

Hmmm . . . so my lack of a sense of humor means I also lack common sense?

03 June 2008

“The Parthenon and the Optative”

C. S. Lewis opens his essay by the above title (which I found in his collection On Stories) with a remark from “a grim old classical scholar” as he was marking college entrance exams: “The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking about the Optative.”

Lewis then explains what is meant by the two terms as symbols of two types of education: “The [Optative] begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The [Parthenon] begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush. When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn't care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn't care for it, and he knows he hasn't got it. But the other kind fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can't construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect. It plays havoc with the very distinction between truth and error."

He goes on to discuss the purpose of examinations: “to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good.” They are not to determine if his soul has been touched, if he sufficiently appreciates literature and is moved by it. These things cannot be tested – but if the student does the reading well, then “[a]t best he may have learned [. . .] to enjoy a great poem. At second best he has done an honest work and exercised his memory and reason. At worst, we have done him no harm [. . .].”

His final paragraph addresses the laments of people who claim they would have loved poetry if they’d never had to take exams over it. “It is theoretically possible,” Lewis muses. “Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. Perhaps they would have been strategists or heroes if they had never been put into the school OTC. It may be so: but why should we believe that it is. We have only their word for it; and how do they know?”

I think I shall have to place this essay before my students . . .

My favorite line, though, is this: “I am not sure that the best way to make a boy love the English poets might not be to forbid him to read them and then make sure that he had plenty of opportunities to disobey you.” Definitely a man who knew human nature!

01 June 2008

Love is . . .

“Love is what you go through with someone” – James Thurber

Unknown saints quietly work their magic in homes across the country, often exhausted and sad and frustrated, but choosing to love and care for those whose lives have been bound up with theirs, despite often being misunderstood, lashed out at, and finally not recognized at all. They are the loving and tireless caretakers of spouses, siblings, or parents with dementia.

I hate that word, “dementia.” It has such strong connotations of insanity, and yet it is not really insanity as we think of it in popular culture. True, the person with dementia is “out of his mind” to the eye of the observer; but the causes are solely, purely physical: there is as yet no hope of recovery from use of medication, and – because there is no psychological element – there can never be hope of help from psychiatric treatment. I would just say “Alzheimer’s,” which doesn’t have those connotations, but all dementia is not Alzheimer’s, as my father’s is not; different causes exist, and the progression is not exactly the same, and it seems to matter to be precise.

“Vascular Cognitive Impairment” is his condition: dementia caused by a long series of “mini-strokes” – TIAs – that in themselves don’t leave the kind of lasting damage of a major stroke (the typical loss of muscle use, for example, on one side of the body), but over time damage the brain so that dementia occurs. (They are also likely precursors to a major stroke, of which my grandmother, Daddy’s mother, died when she was 90; Daddy will be 89 this summer.)

Dementia begins slowly – perhaps a struggle with numbers or more forgetfulness than comes with normal aging. But its progression is inexorable, and it is surely one of the most painful processes to watch a loved one endure. The puzzled look of a spouse who doesn’t seem to know you; questions like “Do we have any children?”; remarks about “my first wife” when you have been married for 63 years . . . The anger and frustration when you must take away the car keys or insist on a certain diet or give reminders to eat slowly or use the bathroom . . . The fear and sadness and shame in his or her eyes . . . The knowledge that this man or woman you love will never be better, and only worse is to come . . .

And yet these saints who suffer in seeing their loved ones suffer continue to love, to remember what was and to assure dignity despite the loss of return. They learn to speak patiently, to bring beauty, to give respect, to elicit laughter as often as possible. They know that love is not what they receive, but what they give, and they give without reservation. When they are weary and longing for a good night’s sleep, they rise without complaint to help a spouse to the bathroom; when they are berated, they give a hug and set aside the unintended hurt; they never fail to say “I love you” again and again, to offer the reassurance of speech and touch so desperately needed by the one who is losing his or her understanding and grasp of reality.

I stand humbled before these quiet, unknown saints and pray that I may learn from them the grace of giving.

25 May 2008

Memorial Day

I am privileged to spend this Memorial Day with my father, a WWII veteran, and be listening to stories of his work in the war, reminding me of the "ordinariness" of men who considered themselves simply to be doing their duty to the best of their ability -- and yet without their sacrifices, we would not have the freedoms we have today.   

From The Book of  Common Prayer:

general prayer for Memorial Day:
"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead; We give thee thanks for all those thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country.  Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence, that the good work which thou hast begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."

for all soldiers:
"O Lord God of Hosts, stretch forth, we pray thee, thine almighty arm to strengthen and protect the soldiers of our country.  Support them in the day of battle, and in the time of peace keep them safe from all evil; endue them with courage and loyalty; and grant that in all things they may serve without reproach; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."

And I have to add this special one for sailors, of whom my oldest son is one;
"O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens and rulest the raging of the sea; Vouchsafe to take into thy almighty and most gracious protection our country's Navy, and all who serve therein.  Preserve them from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that they may be a safeguard unto the United States of America, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our land may in peace and quietness serve thee our God, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."

18 May 2008

Off for a While

So before the YM finished, the college term was also over, and I am free for the summer -- well, relatively speaking:  no courses to teach and papers to grade, just prep for the fall, with new books for the two old courses, and two new courses . . . 

I spent this week, other than the day we finished up the last of the YM's work, clearing out my office at the college.  I don't know how many bags of paper I threw out -- 8 years' worth.  And a friend helped rearrange some of the furniture.  Although one desk still needs the drawers cleared and straightened, I will walk back into a clean, neat, almost completely prepared space when I come back at the end of June, a wonder to contemplate.

Tomorrow, I fly to visit my parents, to stay for a month or so; whenever J. gets leave after 9 June and comes to visit, I will return with him and his family.  I look forward to this visit so much!  My mother needs my moral support and help, along with my brother, in making decisions concerning my daddy, whose health continues to decline.  And I need time with both of them, more than the few days we usually are able to spend on our Christmas break.  I expect it to be both wonderful and very hard; all prayers are welcome.

I shall miss K and the YM, of course, and I hope they shall manage to stay out of trouble in my absence.  :)  I do not know if I will have internet access or not while I'm gone -- if so, I'll make an occasional update; if not, I'll be back sometime in June.

Blessings to all.

14 May 2008

No More High School!

So the YM graduated from high school today.  I shall report his final grades and order his final transcript sent to the college he will attend and a diploma.  He has done his work faithfully, made me proud, and it's hard to believe he is moving on now to a new phase of life.  

Of course, I'm not sure what it says that his immediate response to putting away the books was a slide down the hallway to the Playstation . . . :)

13 May 2008

Beauty and Terror

I haven't any idea where I garnered this quotation of Frank Bidart; I found it on a sheet of notebook paper while cleaning out "stuff" from my office now that the semester is ended. But it goes along with what I posted the other day about "terrible beauty," and the comment Cindy made on it :

I'm after something that will make sense of the chaos in the world and within us. The result should be something that is, well, "beautiful," but beauty isn't merely the pretty, or harmony or equilibrium. Rilke says beauty is the beginning of terror.

12 May 2008

Blue Skies

I have had several occasions this semester to remind students that we stand before God and not before man. There was the young woman who had to finish several incompletes, the result of illness last semester, and so fell behind and did poorly on her first essay for my lit class. "Did you do the best you could with what you had?" I asked her. When she nodded through her tears, I reminded her, "Then you can stand before God without shame and be unconcerned with your grade. His judgment of your character is far more important than your performance on this essay, or my evaluation of it." And with the incompletes out of the way, she went on to do well in the class; God did not let her fail because of circumstances beyond her control.

He may have done so, however. There was, too, the young woman pouring herself into her classes, valiently fighting freshman homesickness and discouragement, and yet -- despite her intelligence, understanding, and hard work -- somehow not making the grades she could have legitimately expected. "What might God be teaching you about trust?" I asked her when we talked about an assignment she had done poorly on. "Might He be inviting you to trust Him without seeing results, to know His love for you despite a less-than-stellar performance? Perhaps the struggle itself is His gift to you this semester?"

We can only ever do the best we can in any circumstances. We don't have any more. We have only the knowledge and the wisdom thus far gained, only the time and energy granted, only the desire to give enough, knowing that what we have may never be enough, not from man's perspective, and not in a broken world. And after that -- the results are His, and our job is to learn to accept them, not rail against them or despair over them when they aren't what we'd like . . .

On a Jorma CD, Stars in My Crown, that a dear friend sent me, my favorite song has become "Heart Temporary":

Blue skies in the morning,
Stars, they fill the night.
Fall wind rustling through the trees
Sings a song of great delight.
On such a day you think you'd say
Exactly what you mean.
But in God's perfection, things ain't always
Just the way they seem.

When the best you have to offer
Falls short of the mark,
Self-inflicted holes are piercin'
Deep within your heart.

Blue skies in the afternoon,
Breeze, it starts to still;
Two dogs sleepin' in the sun,
They lie upon that grassy hill.
At such a time you think you'd find
A way to share your heart,
But though you're reaching for her hand,
Still you walk apart.


Sun upon that old barn roof
Celebrates the day.
I hold this moment in my hand,
Follow it along my way.
The future flows; this feeling grows
Outside my window sill.
By letting go, I might escape
The prison of my will.


When the best you have to offer
Is all you have to give,
Enjoy the moment: God has granted
One more day to live.

Blue skies out my window
Said good-bye to early morning rain.

03 May 2008

Simple Beauty

Between allergies and end-of-semester urgencies, I've spent little time outdoors this spring.  After several hours rain this morning, the day began to warm up, so after completing senior grades for one class I've wandered onto the front porch while K and the YM are trimming trees and pulling weeds.  An intermittent breeze cools the air; the westering sun remains hidden behind the last of the grey, but most of the sky revels in clear washed blue, a few fleecy clouds wandering its vastness.  Birds chirp and sing their spring tunes amid the deep green of dancing dogwood and gingko leaves, and my bare feet are warmed by the red brick of the steps.  Roses -- pink, crimson, coral -- waltz lazily among the variegated greens of the flower beds alongside the saffron coreopsis and purple-black clematis.  For a few minutes, the world is simple, and my soul slides peacefully into its trusting beauty.

28 April 2008

"Terribly Good"

Standing outside the car this morning at home, I looked up at black clouds churning against a charcoal grey background. "Beautiful!" I exclaimed. "Threatening," another voice murmured in my ear, as I thought of lightning strikes and tornado warnings. A few minutes later, as I stepped out of the car on campus, the chill wind whipped tree branches and my fresh-washed hair. "Invigorating!" I cried. "Destructive," that other voice whispered, as I trod on pear blossoms and broken twigs littering the ground.

A "terrible beauty," Yeats called the martrydom of the Irish rebels. A "terrible gift," Byron called melancholia. The world is "terribly good," says Stanhope in Charles Williams' novel Descent into Hell.

Life is made of paradox and mystery. I want to accept it -- no, more than accept -- embrace it, run toward it, or at least not run from it and let it embrace me, as Pauline finally allows her most terrible fear to overtake her, only to find it is precisely what makes her most fully herself, most wonderfully able to serve others, most joyfully confident in a Power greater than any she could conjure or imagine, and which she now understands is indeed "terribly good."

22 April 2008

Under the Mercy

So I got two novels by Charles Williams last week -- War In Heaven and Descent into Hell -- and inhaled them both over the weekend. (Really, they are pretty short, I swear.) I've been finding in the past couple of years that I much prefer to just take in a novel wholesale and then, if it has spoken to me, go back and re-read it, perhaps many times, at a slower pace to figure out why I fell in love with it. I shall revisit both these novels, and the other two Williams novels I have , over the summer, not to mention adding to my collection till I have them all . . .

War in Heaven is a grail story, superbly done in Williams' inimitable style, bringing together the most unlikely group to save the holy object. Williams suggests through the story also the most unlikely -- from our human perspective -- possibilities for individual salvation, reminding me of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who also make much of our human frailties and God's mercy.

But Descent into Hell is the one that had me barely breathing Sunday evening. Williams takes the understanding that self-absorption is hell and shows the temptations to it, the ways out of it, and the consequences of choosing both rightly and wrongly. It is horrifying in its picture of Lawrence Wentworth's fall, and there is nothing simplistic about Pauline Anstruther's salvation from the same fate. It is a true book . . .

Rambling notes:
There are doppelgangers, suicide, ghosts walking, visions of heaven and of hell, the temptress Lilith (whose story I really must become more familiar with; so many of my favorite writers make use of it), the doctrine of substitution applied in our lives in a more compelling way than I've ever seen it, and again the constant suggestion that the slightest choice that is not evil could serve to put us on the way of salvation . . .

Early on, one of the characters says to poet Peter Stanhope, whose latest play they are going to produce, that "nature is so terribly good."

He agrees, but taking her literally: "it comes from doing so much writing, but when I say 'terribly' I think I mean 'full of terror'. A dreadful goodness."

She replies resentfully, "If things are good they're not terrifying, are they?"

Pauline, who confronts daily her own personal terror, interjects at this point the question, "And if things are terrifying, can they be good?'

Stanhope: "Yes, surely. Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?"

At the end, "Under the Mercy," Stanhope tells Pauline. "Go in peace, under the Mercy."

20 April 2008

"Because I do not hope"

from T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for
there is nothing again.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry

maller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

-- T. S. Eliot

29 March 2008

"Thanks, Robert Frost"

Thanks to my dear friend Pamela, who yesterday handed me a copy of a poem by David Ray which gives a lovely and needed perspective on hope.

Thanks, Robert Frost

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought . . .
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed 
upon their tender necks.  Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage, 
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

25 March 2008

Hoping for Hope

Somewhere the other day I saw a rainbow of light reflected wanly from some unknown source onto a bleak off-white wall. I stared at it a long time, unthinking.

When I got home, I told K. I want to find some clear faceted balls like the ones in Mom's kitchen window. I want to see prisms of light brilliant against the walls of our home. I want to see her in the light she so loved.

I miss her. And I fear the deeper aches to come. On days like this, hope is merely a word; the future is too far away to comprehend. Yet one can always hope for hope.

13 March 2008

Reading Merton Again

From Thomas Merton's The Inner Experience:

But the exterior "I," the "I" of projects, of temporal finalities, the "I" that manipulates objects in order to take possession of them, is alien from the hidden, interior "I" who has no projects and seeks to accomplish nothing, even contemplation. He seeks only to be, and to move (for he is dynamic) according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires.

04 March 2008

"Oh, Taste and See . . ."

You wouldn't often know, to watch my daily irritations, that I love and trust God the Father, through Jesus the Son, by means of the Holy Spirit. But He keeps showing me His love in kindnesses that startle and amaze and humble me . . .

I'm used to waking up at odd hours of the morning with words on my mind: usually something like "I'm soooooo weary . . ." or, all too often, "I wish I could just die."

On a recent morning, however, I woke at some odd hour with the words "I love You, Father" on my mind.

I was so startled I withdrew them -- oh, I don't really love God; I'm so far from loving God; where did that come from!

I fell back asleep for awhile, bemused, and a bit annoyed with myself for rejecting a gift I'd never before received -- the love that Jesus had given me, the love that Jesus had made me, welling up to my conscious mind upon waking from a deep sleep.

When I woke again, a half-hour or so before the alarm was set to go off, the same words were there: "I love You, Father."

And all the time I was preparing for the day and driving to campus -- a sense -- an actual sense -- of gratitude, of longing, of delight. I prayed in thankfulness, I prayed what I desired without rancor or desperation, I prayed my felt love. This I have not experienced for years; I can only barely remember this sense of God's presence from my college years.

"Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good . . ." I see it much of the time, whenever and wherever I'm willing to look, and rejoice in it. But tasting it? Oh, so few times!

Where do words on the mind come from when one wakes? I wasn't thinking about my love for God when I fell asleep -- as I recall, I was screaming, silently but madly, at my brain to shut up and leave me alone, stop keeping me awake with a litany of the multitude of urgent tasks awaiting me, or those pathetic, pounding notes of "music" that usually presage a depressive episode.

So where do such words come from? Many times over the years, I've been startled by someone's thanking me for being an encouragement, because I'd smiled, or done some small service, or said some salient word, when I knew I'd been in the worst of moods, deep in depression, mired in myself. And yet . . . they saw, not me, but Christ in me.

And perhaps I begin to see: Christ dwells in me, and somehow my deepest desire, instilled in me because it is His deepest (only) desire and I am in Him, is, truly, to serve the Father.

Polycarp, in his old age, was told to deny Christ or die. He said that he would no longer be Polycarp if he were to deny Christ: because he was in Christ, because his identity was Christ, for Polycarp to deny Christ would be for Christ to deny Christ -- an impossibility.

And so, even when the flesh or circumstances or depression gets in the way, He is still in me desiring to serve the Father -- and fairly often, it seems, He does so quite apart from whether I'm thinking about it, or willing it, or getting myself out of the way, or doing whatever latest thing we've been told to do so that He can work in us.

And this morning, He said in me, because it's true for me because I am in Him, "I love You, Father" -- and I tasted, for a short time, His goodness, with my heart and soul, and not with my mind and strength only.

Oh . . .! Christ in me; I in Him . . . "Let naught be all else to me save that Thou art . . ." -- may I know it every moment whether I taste it or no . . .

Again, and again, and again . . .

Weariness, physical and emotional, a mild but steadily worsening depression . . . thus all night and morning the tormenting repetition of words, phrases, bars of musical notes, like a sledgehammer on the frantic and exhausted mind. Then backing the car out of the garage into yet another driving rain and the windshield wipers pounding, cha-chunk, cha-chunk, cha-chunk, all the way to campus; trying to keep from screaming aloud the constant refrain to it all, just shut up already. These are the days that only the will carries one through -- the will to believe that Truth exists and His will does the carrying despite all apparent evidence to the contrary.

29 February 2008

Joy in Heartache

The sky deep indigo, pale clouds scattered through its panorama, a glowing quarter-moon reminding me to rejoice in beauty even in the aching desire for something other.

25 February 2008

Gray Days

I believe that one should really not complain about the weather. It's not, of course, a belief I often live out.

So, today: I am weary, bone-weary, of gray skies and rain and mist.

In the last month or more, we've seen the sun two or three times, for a few cold afternoon hours at most. Glorious, but not enough to warm heart or body. Once, at the full, Phoebe's yellow-ivory glow lit me down the old ferry road and gave me hope. Once a sliver of moon on the highway and a star above the student life building.

I always feel it's somehow in bad taste, at best, to pray about the weather. Surely something so grandiose serves far greater, far more important purposes in God's scheme for the world than to play nursemaid to my petty moods.

But, today, I can't help just this: if it wouldn't spoil some such greater purpose, could we, perhaps, have a couple of days of sunlight and warmth? Just to remind us that the leaden sky isn't all that's left us. Either way, praise; I will praise Thee.

Update: So I walked out of my class at 9:00 a.m. to actually see the sky itself -- blue it was; I 'd almost forgotten -- and individual clouds, as many white as gray. Nice! Looks like it may be clouding back up, but still . . . it was a kind reminder. So thank You, Lord, You who care about even our mundane and silly complaints.

Update 2: So now it's mid-afternoon and one of the loveliest days -- need a jacket but not a coat, beautiful sun in a cloudless sky . . . Oh, yes, what a treat, what a kindness! Some days my expectations are just far too low . . .