"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

25 December 2009

Christmas Stories from NRO

Christmas "Over There"
A soldier remembers Christmas in Iraq

(I don't pretend to have any understanding of transubstantiation, but that's not really the point of the post, as you will see if you read the whole thing.)

A sobering reminder of the way the world tends.

Not exactly a Christmas story but a lovely reminder of the nature of beauty. If you look up the young man's website, you'll find video of his performances -- amazing.

Something to make you laugh, I hope. (If you are one of my liberal friends, this probably doesn't apply to you personally. So I hope you will laugh with me!)

The story of an organization committed to saving babies from abortion -- Room at the Inn

19 December 2009

"Beauty, Beauty, Beauty"

Something I wrote a few days ago:

We arrive on the college grounds before dawn, in mist that has required a slow but steady clicking of windshield wipers. Seen from my office suite's third-floor windows, the dark fog clinging to the trees and wavering over the lawn makes the quad appear submerged in a faerie sea. Later, as the sun rises, the fog thickens and whitens. On my way to class, I pause beneath an ancient pine between buildings: five feet away all is blurred, suffused into the mist, while the tree's rough trunk, its nearest branches with their baby cones, the cracks in the sidewalk, the browning of still-green December grass, all sharpen into relief and startle with a vividness lost in the past weeks' dull wintery grays. "Beauty, beauty, beauty." How can I so often find myself believing that God has abandoned this world He creates and loves, or the image-bearers with whom He has peopled it? "The dearest freshness deep down things" is always pressing its way up to prove me wrong.

14 December 2009


Success: when your students quote Annie Dillard from memory in class presentations and in spontaneous reflection papers. Yes!

10 December 2009

Scars and Destiny

Criminal Minds
impressed me yet again last night.
Last season ended with a serial killer who had escaped from prison finding Hotch (the team had put him into prison in the first place) and stabbing him multiple times, but deliberately not killing him, even taking him to the hospital emergency room to be treated in time to live. When they found that he had Hayley's address, his intent became clear: his goal was to destroy Hotch by destroying all that he loved. (Hayley was Hotch's estranged wife, whom he still loved deeply, and who had custody of their young son, Jack.) So Hayley and Jack were sent into protective custody, unable to have any contact with Hotch.

So this season they've been hunting the killer while dealing with other cases, and finally the killer, in the last episode, found Hayley's FBI protection agent, tortured him, got Hayley's phone number from his phone, and left him to die after calling her and telling her that her agent and Hotch were dead, he was her new agent, and she needed to meet him at her old home so he could take her to a new safe house.

Hotch is talking to her on the phone (the killer, to further his mental torture of both of them, calls him after getting control of Hayley and Jack), and tells her to be strong, not to let the killer make her beg, and so on, then tells Jack that he needs to "help Daddy with the case," code for hiding in a trunk near Hotch's desk. Hayley holds up her courage to avoid distressing Jack into giving away or leaving his hiding place, and Hotch (along with the rest of the team, patched into his phone) hears the two gunshots that kill her. He arrives in time to save Jack, and Morgan, arriving with the team shortly after him, has to pull him off the killer as he continues to pound his face in fury and in terror -- if he stops, and the killer is not dead, he could still harm Jack.

In this week's episode, the team was called away after Hayley's funeral to a case in Nashville. Before they go, Rossi talks with Hotch about his future: will he continue with the BAU, resign, what? It seems clear that he needs to continue using his gift by "catching the bad guys," as Rossi says, but he is broken and scarred, both literally and figuratively. Rossi, without pressuring him in either direction, says to him, "Scars remind us where we've been; they don't have to dictate where we're going." Later, when Hotch indicates his feeling of helplessness before single fatherhood, Rossi says, "You need to decide what kind of father you want to be, then you'll know what to do."

The episode takes us back and forth between the team's work and Hotch as he moves into a new home, comforts his son, and tries to understand his next step. One especially poignant scene: Jack is lying on the couch watching a video taken on his recent third birthday, a time Hotch couldn't share with them because they were under protection. Hotch enters the room, watches until the video is coming to a close, then says, "Time for pjs." Jack, staring at his mother and himself blowing kisses to his daddy, says sadly, "I want to wait a little longer for Mommy."

Hotch's big decision now is whether to remain in the BAU. Jack needs him, and he needs his work. Hayley's sister has been helping with Jack and the household work, and she tells Hotch that if he chooses to stay with the Bureau, she will care for Jack when he has to be gone. "Please let me do this," she says, ". . . for Hayley." Finally, the Chief -- who has been trying to get rid of Hotch forever because his skill and ambition pose a threat to her own ambitions -- brings him an offer for retirement with full pension and benefits. She is startled when Hotch asks for time to consider instead of accepting it immediately.

When the team returns to D.C., Rossi finds Hotch at Hayley's grave. He asks, nodding to the grave, "Have you told her yet?" "Told her what?" Hotch replies. "That you aren't leaving the BAU?" "Oh, I don't need to tell her that," Hotch says; "she already knows."

The voice-over at the end is from Emerson: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Scarred and broken people still have the opportunity and the responsibility to live well, to use their gifts in service.

01 December 2009

Writing is Survival

Deciding to eat breakfast in the cafeteria today, I caught up Ray Bradury's Zen in the Art of Writing to take with me, as I am teaching Fahrenheit 451 again next semester. The preface reminded me of the need for writers to write: "[W]riting is survival," Bradbury writes. "Any art, any good work, of course, is that."

Restlessness sets in when a writer fails to write for any length of time. And so, a few minutes this morning to exercise the writer's means of knowing the world.

Life is, of course, too busy. Urgency upon urgency demands moment after moment until one's days are filled with a frantic attempt to get it all done while perhaps failing to ever approach the truly important. In light of this reality, Thanksgiving break was a true break for me this year. Tuesday after collecting the last essays due, I went shopping for a turkey and all the "fixins," as my grandmother always said. Wednesday I thought to do some grading but ended up taking off altogether, reading, napping, surfing my favorite websites to catch up on the reflections of writers I've come to know and appreciate. The Young Man had declared his intention to cook for the holiday meal, so I took the turkey from the fridge before I went to bed so it would finish thawing overnight and went to sleep without a thought to the next day's work.

I woke Thanksgiving morning to the enticing odors of cornbread, sauteeing onion and celery, pumpkin pie -- and the lovely feeling that there was no rush ahead of me. It was only the three of us; we could eat any time. I ensconced myself in the living room LazyBoy with my laptop and notes for the online course I'm designing, dispensed a bit of requested advice about the cranberry-apple dessert, and got a couple of hours of relaxed work done. Once the dessert was out of the oven, I did my bit -- put the turkey in and washed and sliced the sweet potatoes to boil and mash just before time to eat. The next four hours I worked a bit, watched UP and cried like a baby -- and simply relaxed. Dinner was a delight (except for the occasional infelicity resulting from my failure to be a sufficient civilizing influence on my barbarians' dinner conversation), the men cleaned up the kitchen, and I got some more work done during the evening after a nap.

Friday was another lovely day, waking when I was ready, working on the online course, napping, a trip downtown to the antique store where K. bought me a set of rings (finally I can wear a wedding band that fits again!) and a necklace, Thanksgiving leftovers. Saturday was more of a strain, simply because commenting on freshman essays took longer than I had anticipated. But Sunday morning I was able to finish them, and, surprisingly, completed the advanced comp essays before dinner time with the evening to work on the online course again.

Five days, almost all my planned work completed, and completely relaxed except for a panicked hour Saturday evening when I knew I wouldn't finish the freshman essays and despaired of having time for any rest on Sunday. But the rest was provided, the panic unnecessary.

The details aren't what's important, of course. It was the taste of a few days of the way I think life should be. Accomplishing work but without the constant sense of harried desperation that permeates our culture. Resting without a frantic need to do something and the sense of real leisure for reflection. Surely this is something, however remotely, like what we were designed for?

Last night, K. took me out for a hamburger after work. As we walked to the car from the restaurant, I looked into cold and threatening clouds, darkening into late evening, to be greeted with the nearly full moon faithfully lighting the sky. Hope to hold on to.

23 November 2009

It is Good to Give Thanks

Today was our Thanksgiving chapel. Psalm 145 was the text we followed, and several people shared meditations on various sections of the chapter, with songs between the meditations. It was most well-organized and edifying. I had been asked to do a meditation on verses 13-16. Much of what follows has been gleaned from other Inscapes posts, but some is new and all edited for today. It is indeed good to meditate on the lovingkindness of the Lord.

Psalm 145:13b-16

"The LORD is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.
 The LORD upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.
 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.
 You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing."

It is all too easy to look about this broken world and despair. Where is the Lord? How is His faithfulness and kindness displayed when all around we see the horrors of war and famine and poverty; families devastated by divorce and abuse; illness and death robbing us of those we love; unborn babies ripped from the womb. And too often weariness sets in and makes all the foolish little everyday annoyances seem almost unbearable as well – the printer that won’t work, a thoughtlessly flippant word, piled-up traffic making us late to an appointment.

I am far too prone to focus on the brokenness that surrounds me, to succumb to irritation that sees only imperfections in myself and others. And then God hands me a gem of joy, a reminder that love and beauty and kindness are all around me even in the midst of the brokenness of this world we've tried so hard to destroy. There is still "the dearest freshness deep down things" and God keeps bringing beauty to the surface to delight my heart, if I will be still long enough to see.

A few gems I’ve been given over the last couple of years, that come immediately to mind:

A music CD from an old friend, an office mate from graduate school, whom I haven't talked to in years but who knew I’d like the music and the message.

A decorated balloon tied to my office door, bouncing a cheery face up and down in greeting from a beloved student.

News that my oldest son was returning from his latest six-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Simple Christmas lights in someone's yard -- cheery color leaping out from the gloom of a foggy evening to lift the spirit.

Notes of thanks and encouragement from former students that make it possible to keep going when weariness threatens to overwhelm my sense of duty.

A trip to Knoxville that cemented an already lovely friendship as my writer friend and I shared our passion for books and for family and for the God who has made our love strong and true.

A birthday lunch at Red Lobster, a necklace to match my anniversary earrings, conversation both funny and serious – a relaxing and enjoyable day with my beloved husband of 35 years.

A hand-painted ceramic unicorn whose rainbow colors will forever remind me of a young woman who entered my life unexpectedly to become a cherished treasure.

A cup of hot tea and a shoulder to cry on from a former student become a colleague and now a dear friend and confidant.

Precious hugs and teasing laughter from my youngest, so close to leaving home, giving me memories to light my heart on the days to come when the house will be at times all too quiet.

* * * * * * *

Oh, yes, the brokenness is here, it surrounds us and we have to be blind to deny its devastation in our lives. Even our “happy endings” in this world – graduation, marriage, retirement – will always be tinged with some edge of sadness.

And yet – there is an ultimate happy ending where all tears, all sorrow will be washed away forever, and even now “the Holy Ghost over the bent / World bends with [. . ] bright wings.” In light of this, I desire to seek out, to learn to recognize, the gems of joy that strew my path, and dance in the delight of His always-giving, ever-faithful love.

16 November 2009

Rally in Ohio for Rifqa Bary

Please join in prayer those in Ohio rallying today for the civil rights of our sister in the Lord Rifqa Bary. Pray that those in authority will act on their responsibility to protect this young girl who is in mortal danger from those who despise her and wish to see her dead because she has chosen Christ over Mohammed. Pray that the Lord will be glorified in Rifqa’s life and that she will find comfort and strength in the Lord whom she has come to love.

11 November 2009

Veteran's Day

Here is a reprint of a column by war reporter Ernie Pyle, which first appeared in 1955:

What is a Vet?

Read it and thank a veteran today.

28 October 2009

Pray for Rifqa Bary

I copied this from my friend Lydia McGrew's FB status:

"Praying for Rifqa Bary, Christian convert from Islam. Now returned to Ohio, to foster care; doesn't look good. Ohio judge has ordered her held incommunicado: No phone or Internet. Cut off from Christian friends and Christian lawyer. A real danger of being returned to her parents and dragged to Sri Lanka to be (parents' quote) 'dealt with.' Jesus said he will never leave nor forsake his own. May Rifqa be very conscious of that now."

Please, please pray for Rifqa to have the comfort of the Lord she has sacrificed so much for, and that He will release her from the martyrdom that begins to look inevitable. No matter what happens, may she stand firm in His love and power, and may He be mightily glorified in her. She is, remember, 17 years old and facing possible torture and execution for her faith.

25 October 2009

More Gems of Joy

The last two weeks have held sweet moments of offered love, from the blessings of sunshine and moonlight after weeks of dreary weather to the kindness of friends and family. Phoebe's brilliant white glow has reminded me of beauty again and, a friendly muse this week, even seems to have wakened the ability to put a few words on paper.

Former students have sent notes of thanks and encouragement -- these make it possible to keep going when weariness threatens to overwhelm one's sense of duty. It is always such a delight to hear their stories and know that, however little real influence one might have had, there has been the privilege to watch them grow in their love for the Lord and their pursuit of Him in their journey.

A trip to Knoxville cemented an already lovely friendship as Marcy and I shared our love for books and for family and for the God who has made that friendship strong and true.

My birthday was during fall break, and my sweet husband took me to Chattanooga for lunch at Red Lobster and some window shopping at the mall. We looked at diamond pendants and Vera Bradley totes and came home empty-handed -- we needed to process the diamond information and the bag I wanted was too expensive.

This past week dear Monika came to see me, a box in hand, saying that when she saw the object it contained she knew it was for me. And I lifted out a ceramic unicorn, which she had painted herself in rainbow colors that will lighten my spirit each time I look up to see him.

And a birthday check came from my mother, so we went back to Chattanooga today. I found the tote I wanted, and we found the best deal of any we'd seen the week before for a sparkling diamond pendant (my birthday present for the rest of my life, I'm assured -- and that's fine with me!) which complements my earrings, an anniversary gift several years ago.

Gems of joy, reminders that love and beauty and kindness are all around me even in the midst of the brokenness of this world we've tried so hard to destroy. There is still "freshness deep down" and God keeps bringing it to the surface to delight our hearts, if we will be still long enough to see.

01 October 2009

On The End of Suffering

"How I will cherish you then, you grief-torn nights!

Had I only received you, inconsolable sisters,

on more abject knees, only buried myself with more abandon

in your loosened hair. How we waste our afflictions!

We study them, stare out beyond them into bleak continuance,

hoping to glimpse some end. Whereas they’re really

our wintering foliage, our dark greens of meaning, one

of the seasons of the clandestine year—; not only

season —: they’re site, settlement, shelter, soil, abode."

This is a passage from a new translation of Rilke’s poetry, which Mike Potemra posted this morning at The Corner at NRO. It reminded me of the last line of Scott Cairns’ meditation The End of Suffering: “May our afflictions be few, but may we learn not to squander them.”

Scott graciously sent me The End of Suffering when he read a post in which I’d quoted one of his poems. I’ve been taking my time reading through it and savoring both the style (a poet writing reflective prose: only the poetry itself can be better) and the thought. For the most part, it didn’t hold a great many new-to-me thoughts about suffering – I’ve filled the margins with names of other writers and thinkers his words bring to mind – but his unique approach and stories challenged me to think deeply again, to revisit the subject thoughtfully, to re-see it and be encouraged to press on in my own trials. The Eastern Orthodox vocabulary and perspective deepened my thinking, and the final chapter offers a discussion of wholeness that fascinates me – that was new.

The title is of course a play on words. Someday our sufferings will end – “every tear shall be dried” – but until then we need to understand the end – the purpose – of suffering. Suffering is inevitable, and Cairns reminds us that one of its immediate purposes is to “drag us – more or less kicking – into a fresh and vivid awareness that we are not in control of our circumstances, that we are not quite whole [. . .] .” This in turn leads (or can lead) to the stripping away of self so that we can have fellowship with God – our purpose as created beings.

Cairns writes of the need to rid ourselves of pride, of that modern curse of “self-esteem,” and how suffering, if we respond wisely to it, helps us to do this by bringing us face-to-face with our own weakness and sin: writing of people he has known for whom this was true when they were diagnosed with a terminal disease, he says, ‘It was as if their imminent deaths freed them from petty, distracted lives and freed them into greater, genuine living [. . .] .”

Suffering, Cairns says, “may also provide to us a glimpse of what actual virtue might require.” He writes of how we are united to the body of Christ, and the sacrifices and blessings of understanding what that unity means as we learn to love one another as He loves us. Drawing on his pilgrimages to Mount Athos, he describes how the monks who live there love each other and God, how they take on each other’s sufferings and pray sacrificially for all of us who are struggling together to play our part in this spiritual body – and this is what we are called to in our various places in life.

He writes of how each of us, by virtue of our own sinful nature and actions, is complicit in all the suffering of the world, including the suffering of the innocents. Because no man is an island, as Donne puts it, each individual’s connection to the rest is “absolute.” If an innocent child suffers, it is because “[e]very choice in our lives that separates us from communion with God, and every decision that clouds our awareness of His presence or erodes our relationships with one another has a profound and expanding effect – as the proverbial ripples in a pool.” The striving for autonomy is great evil, and leads to great evil not only for ourselves but for others. Realizing this – taking responsibility for the evil that happens throughout the world – should humble us into a desire to live righteously, to leave sin behind.

But to begin “fixing” this state, it is not enough to merely decide not to sin. “It is not our finally turning away from sin that frees us from sin’s recurrence,” Cairns writes; “rather it is our turning toward Christ – and the mystery of our continuing to turn into Him – that puts sin behind us.” I kept being reminded of Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, the message of which is essentially that every choice we makes sets us on either the road to heaven or the road to hell – and enough choices in one direction will eventually make the end of that road our inevitable end. “We acquire our salvation through partaking of that body [of Christ]” – we must be a part of the body, the church, making choices to live as a member of the body. I especially love the story Cairns tells of the monk who answered the question “Is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” with a smile and no hesitation: “No, I like to share him.”

Cairns quotes a Russian priest: “’And when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it’ is said of the Church. If we do not feel this, we are not within the Church.” The life of the body of Christ is essential for us to learn to live well, to understand suffering, to share the suffering of others, to know God’s love in fellowship with Him, to reach out to a suffering world. It is only here that we can understand suffering as purposeful – that it is “remedial”; it is “grace.”

And so in one sense we are being saved continually. Cairns writes, “I want to be saved from what passes for myself. This is because what passes for myself does not always feel quite like the self that is framed in the image of God and is thus united with those around me and is, allegedly, growing with them into His likeness.” Amen to that.

The book’s final chapter is one I need to mull over a great deal. It is about becoming whole, the reuniting of nous and kardia – what most of our translations render as mind and heart, but Cairns explains is so much more. I’m not going to pretend to “get” this yet; the phrase he quotes from another writer – “the intellective aptitude of the heart” – intrigues me, but I shall leave it for now simply saying that we must watch and pray, we must suffer in the garden with our suffering Lord, in the journey to wholeness. Perhaps I’ll be able to revisit the concept of wholeness as Cairns develops it here after I’ve had time to begin integrating it into my own thinking.

For my literary friends -- Cairns discusses art earlier in the book and its potentially redemptive purpose for its maker and its receiver, a discussion you will find encouraging and profitable.

Scott sent me this book because I had revealed some of the suffering I happened to be seeing and living. The book has certainly been a strong encouragement to keep going, to remain vulnerable, to embrace the purpose of suffering, for which I am grateful. The act of giving, accompanied with his prayers offered up for this complete stranger, has in itself been a reminder of the purpose of the body to be united in loving each other. He wrote on the title page, “for my sister along the way.” May we all remember that we are brothers and sisters along the way and exercise grace and love, lifting each other up in prayer and practical helps as we seek to learn the lessons of suffering.

21 September 2009

Visual Migraines

This morning I showed up in the wrong classroom, planning to teach my 12:00 class at 10:00. Melissa and Rob finally straightened me out and I got to the right place only seven minutes late. And what a great class -- they were discussing their homework while waiting patiently for me to arrive.

Excuses for absurdity are always nice -- so here's mine.

I had been putting together the handouts for the 12:00 class (the 10:00 was already planned). A student came in to talk about an essay; when she left, about 9:20, I turned to my computer and saw strange lights on the screen -- the kind you see if you've been staring at a bright light and then look away. But I hadn't been staring at a bright light. I blinked and closed my eyes for several seconds, but the odd light remained. I got up, walked out into the department suite, and the light came with me: that was when I knew what it was.

The first visual migraine I had was terrifyingly amazing. It looked almost exactly like the top simulation at this site, except that the lines were all jagged instead of blocky, and the colors seemed a little brighter. It happened in the summer, sometime after we had moved here ten years ago. When it faded away, within 30 seconds it began again. Overall, it lasted nearly an hour. When it finally stopped, I got up, stumbled outside where K. was working, and wailed to him, "I'm going blind!!!"

Since then, I've had three or four, none so spectacular, thank the Lord. They've lasted about half an hour, and look more like the "Scintillating Socoma" at the same site I linked above, or the "Optical Migraine," except with color. The simulation half-way down this page captures the shimmering nature of the phenomonon quite accurately. This clock figure shows how they typically grow and begin to fade.

I've been blessed that these visual migraines are not followed by full-blown migraine headaches; for some people they are a headache aura. But still they wear me out, making my brain feel tired and leaving my body a little shaky.

So when the migraine started this morning, and the last thing I'd been doing before was preparing for a class -- that's the class I went to. The migraine itself finally faded out as I entered the wrong classroom. And when I finally got to the right class, I felt like I was slogging through deep sand to pull a thought up and put it into words.

And that, boys and girls, explains why I was more weird than usual this morning. Thanks for your patience and for laughing with me. And may you never experience migraines of any sort!

13 September 2009

On Being Right vs. Loving

Our pastor this morning preached on I Corinthians 13. As he talked about the pre-eminence of love in the Christian life, I was reminded of a conversation I was privy to many years ago.

Two of the tutors in the writing center I directed at the time were both Christians of the same denomination. One -- I'll call him Larry -- planned to become a pastor, and was looking forward to seminary the following year. He dressed neatly, wore his dark hair in a respectable mature cut, always arrived on time and remembered to do the paperwork. He was a good tutor.

The other -- I'll call him Steve -- was also a good tutor. He tended at times to forget things, like what time he was supposed to arrive for his consultations or to fill out the paperwork at the end of a session. His blond hair was shaggy, his clothes poor-student-eclectic. I don't think he yet knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. But the students he worked with always asked for him on repeat visits.

Larry and Steve often argued theology when there were no clients, until I'd set them about other tasks. One Friday evening, waiting for the day to officially end and knowing full well no one would walk in at that hour for help, I let them go at it for their last half hour. I don't recall the subject of the argument -- some important, though I think not essential, point of theology.

Larry was indisputably right. From both Scripture and his church tradition, his argument was accurate and well-reasoned. Steve's rebuttals were so wrong-headed they made me cringe a little. But I walked home that evening knowing that if I were in trouble, I'd far prefer to have Steve, along with his error-filled theology, by my side, than Larry with his indisputable truth.

The reason is simple: Steve loved people. His resistance came from a misunderstanding of the Scripture that made him think Larry's interpretation was harsh and cold and uncaring. And Larry couldn't convince him otherwise -- because Larry couldn't understand Steve's care for people and therefore couldn't address it, couldn't explain his argument so that Steve could see that it didn't mean what he thought. Larry cared only, in the end, about being right -- and so could not frame an argument that showed the mercy and love of the doctrine about which they argued, because he himself had no understanding of mercy and love.

I've often wondered what became of Larry. I hope that he learned love, and that the lesson wasn't too crushing. I hope that he didn't finish seminary and take a parish to be a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal, a man who has all knowledge but no love. I worry less about Steve, despite his lack of purpose. I hope he came to understand how the Lord's infinite love is demonstrated in that and other doctrines he struggled with; I hope he found out what he wanted to be and became it. But I'm as sure as one can be that at least he's given hope to others along his way.

11 September 2009

9/11: Never Forget

This morning I showed this video of the World Trade Center attack and collapse in my class.

The language is not English, but this is the best footage I found.

I try not to be political here at Inscapes, and I know that we can legitimately disagree about our precise response to this horrific evil. But we mustn’t forget that it happened, that it was evil, that 3000+ of our fellow citizens (most of them civilians) died at the hands of extremists who hate us and whose dearest wish is to destroy or subjugate us, and that they have not stopped and will not stop trying to achieve that goal. We cannot do nothing.

Pray for our troops and all those who have kept us safe from another major attack on our soil these past eight years. To all these -- and especially to my son -- thank you for putting yourselves in harm's way to protect us.

9/11: Never forget.

10 September 2009

Happy Days: New Books!

The day an Amazon box appears is always delightful! In this shipment:

Poetry and Creative Nonfiction
  • The Stream and The Sapphire by Denise Levertov
  • Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
  • Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life by Scott Cairns
On Christianity
  • The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller
  • Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI)
  • The Changling Sea by Patricia McKillip
  • The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell (a Kurt Wallandar mystery)
  • Dead Irish by John Lescroart (a Dismas Hardy mystery)
  • Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
  • The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos
  • In the Beginnng: First Novels in a Mystery Series by Mary Jean Demarr
  • The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People are Educating Themselves by James Tooley
  • The Paideia Proposal by Mortimer Adler
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
  • How to Think about the Great Ideas by Mortimer Adler

Yes, I've read the essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk -- I just didn't have the collection itself. A friend lent me The Changling Sea, and I had to have my own copy; McKillip's fantasy writing is some of the most beautiful I've ever read. (I hear it's uneven, but so far -- after three -- I'm a fan.)

I have begun the Kurt Wallandar mystery and am in love. I recall seeing one of Mankell's stories on Mystery and enjoying it -- but one never can judge the book by a television adaptation. They seem, however, to have captured his character quite well. The stories are set in Sweden (the author is Swedish and the books are translated), and I am enjoying the new (to me) setting and Wallandar's meditations on Swiss life and the changes he's seen over the years.

The rest sit beside my LazyBoy in the study awaiting their turn. First, however, I shall finish Scott Cairns' The End of Suffering and post a review of it. It's a lovely book, challenging and encouraging.

I plan to make another order soon -- recommendations are always welcome!

28 August 2009


Just in case anyone here is interested, I've created a new weblog, Reflected Light, at wordpress.com. It's mainly my course website, with the syllabi, schedules, assignments, and so on for each of the courses I'm teaching. I've also posted some of the presentations I've done for the college chapels and various forums.

26 August 2009

Omens of Beauty

Late rising (wondrous summer!) and staying indoors most of the time to avoid exacerbating my many allergies have conspired to keep me from Phoebe's sight for quite a long time now. Last night, as we drove home from the college's opening convocation, there she was, halfway between quarter and new, shining boldly amidst stormy clouds that seemed to quail at her brilliance. Her loveliness so filled the sky that I half-expected to see her still there as we left the house this morning.

If I believed in omens, I would believe that she showed herself at just this time to warn me to delight in the beauty of the new year beginning, at last, today. If I believed in omens, I would praise the Son for giving me just this image of the loveliness of His reflected light at just this time.

A monk once replied to a young man who asked if a rainbow had been a sign to him, "Do you really believe that God determines the weather just for you?" At the time, I laughed with him in a gentle mockery of his questioner. Now, I would urge that young man to say, "Why not?"

For the beauty of Phoebe last night and the beauty she presages: Praise Him.

12 August 2009

Unintended Consequences

The catering service at my college decided last year to eliminate the use of trays. You can still get them if you are arthritic, say (or even just cantankerous), and if you know where the small stash is set aside or are willing to ask for one. But they are no longer available in the regular line and only a few of us use them.

The decision was based on research that shows much less food waste when customers don't have trays on which to stack multiple plates or multiple rolls, brownies, and so on. I applaud this; food is a valuable resource and I am glad our caterers desire to steward it well -- not to mention that it helps keep the cost down for the students. It's also a good thing, I believe, for students to see stewardship in action and learn to be more moderate in what they take.

Some negative consequences were, I'm sure, considered, such as the need to make multiple trips to get silverware and a drink. For some of us, this is a genuine difficulty because of health problems (or even time constraints between classes at times); but the trays are available if one is really needed. And for everyone else, it's one of those minor annoyances that it's not that difficult to become used to. New students may never even notice it.

But there has been a negative consequence that I'm sure was unintended. I won't claim that it outweighs the savings on food and food costs, but I do think it's worth noting: the lack of trays has made it more difficult for us to serve each other during a meal.

For example, a colleague returning to the line to get a cup of coffee and a dessert can no longer offer to get something for two or three or four others, because he can't carry the cups or plates. This was always a boon to conversation and often an important service to someone with a health problem. It's harder to let someone serve you if he has to make multiple trips to do so, after all, and so you do it yourself or say you don't want anything, even if you do.

And this is even more noticeable when people are finishing up a meal. With trays, one or two people who didn't have classes coming up, or one or two of the men when it was a mixed group, would gather all the plates and cups and glasses and silverware and return them to the kitchen for the rest of us. Over and over I was benefited by this service and was glad when I could offer it to someone else, and I was often surprised at who offered it -- not infrequently a student from the next table over would swoop in on us and take our dishes.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with getting one's own after-dinner coffee or taking care of one's own dishes after finishing a meal. But the giving and receiving of service teaches us humility and reminds us of the bond we share with each other in this community; it helps to develop fellowship and Christian charity. I miss its easy availability.

Again, I am not opposed to our caterer's decision; I think it is a good one. But I think it is also a good example of how choices have consequences that are not always directly related to the reasons for making them. No one, after all, would deny that serving each other is a good thing; no one wanted to end or make more difficult our service to each other. Yet it has happened, and it has reminded me once again of the fact that in a fallen world, we cannot "solve" problems; we can only make trade-offs. Every choice we make that ameliorates some difficulty will have some unintended consequences that create or exacerbate other difficulties. If we see it in such a simple thing as whether or not to use trays in a cafeteria, how much more so in the political and social decisions that affect entire communities and nations?

God help us to take seriously the fact of unintended consequences, to consider carefully what they might be, and make our choices with wisdom and understanding, realizing the fallenness of this world.

06 August 2009

Ninety Years

Monday was my daddy's 90th birthday. I've been supremely blessed to have known him for nearly 57 of those years (my brother for 61); he and our mother have been married for 66.

He served in WWII in the Air Force; he managed a pecan orchard; he worked as the landscape architect and the building and grounds supervisor at a major university. He hunted quail and pheasant and deer (a prize-winning deer head is now in the Rockefeller mansion); he fished for trout and redfish and whatever other fish he could catch. He served faithfully in his church at every level, and participated in work trips to a sister church in Mexico, teaching them horticultural techniques and helping with building projects.

But most of all, he has loved his family. I never for one moment in my life doubted his love. At nearly 57, I am still the same daddy's girl that I was at 7, and if I could I would curl up in his lap again and laugh with him over the happenings of our days.

His body and mind are rebelling now. He lives in an assisted living home (and thank God for lovely people who love and honor the elderly), a difficult thing for both him and Mother, but necessary for the health and safety of them both. When I left after a week there last May, Mother went to see him and he said, "Maribeth was here?" But when I had arrived, he had known me immediately, and never wavered in knowing me during the entire week. His mind might trick him about when he saw me last, but it doesn't forget who I am when I'm there. And if it does in the future, if he looks at me and thinks I'm my mother or his sister or whoever -- I am confident that some part of him will still know me and love me, because nothing is stronger than that love.

Last year when I was able to visit for several weeks, he talked to me once or twice, when we were alone together, about his sense of failure -- he was of course upset over not being able to do the many things he has always done and being dependent on Mother and the rest of us, and was feeling useless because of it, but when I assured him that his lack of activity didn't change his value to us or his ability to love us, he teared up and said he "hadn't been as good as [he] should be." It startled me, but opened the way for us to talk about the love of Jesus in a way we rarely had before. He knew it, but the newly clear view of mortality was forcing him to think of it in more urgent ways.

Daddy has never been demonstrative about his faith, but I've never doubted its reality -- not because of his work in the church so much as because of that unwavering love for us. One of his few regular shows of faith was the mealtime prayer that he always spoke. It was a memorized prayer, which he would occasionally change a bit or add to in honor of special occasions, like a birthday or our visits after we'd grown and gone. At one time, in the hubris of a young belief, I scorned this -- but I have learned since then, thank God, that repetition needn't be mindlessness, that it can hold great value in so many ways. And last summer, as I first saw for myself the way his mind had begun to trick him, I prayed that he would never lose that prayer.

Mother called me last night (my late-sent birthday card had still not arrived; I'm a lousy daughter) and told me about the birthday dinner. My brother brought venison for the main meal, my aunt (Daddy's "baby" sister; she's only 81) brought cake; Mother brought flowers for the table. The staff set them up in a private spot. The meals of course are communal as a rule, and there is always someone who says grace -- so Daddy has had very few occasions to pray before a meal for over a year now. So when Mother said, "Let's say grace," she assumed she would need to do so -- but as she reached for his hand, she saw that he had already bowed his head, and he spoke his prayer, perfectly, without so much as a second's hesitation.

And she tells me that the last couple of weeks he's been doing something new: he sings "Jesus love me, this I know / for the Bible tells me so" -- and then says, in complete confidence, "And I know that's true."

Ninety years. I want him here for the rest of mine, and I fear the loss that will come sooner rather than later, but I will always think of him singing "Jesus loves me" as the inevitable approaches, and be thankful in seeing that, indeed, love can't be taken away.

28 July 2009

Seeking Peace . . .

This world is certainly broken. Sometimes this is evidenced in minor irritations and annoyances, or what one reads in the papers that doesn't touch one directly. Those days it's easy to shrug and coast a little, maybe rest a little.

But then the brokenness overwhelms. I know four people who have lost a parent in the last two weeks. Illness -- a student with a spinal tumor; the recurrence of bleeding in my daughter's angioma, causing seizures; my own chronic pain suddenly increasing by a hundred-fold or so . . . People I love losing homes, jobs, families . . .

What is one to do in the face of overwhelming brokenness? Pray, I suppose. But I haven't the least idea how to pray. Who am I to presume to know what to ask God in the midst of all this sorrow and pain? He didn't send His Son to die so we could all be happy and well in the darkness of a broken world. But neither, in the face of His sacrifice, is despair an option.

So I turn to Scott Cairns again:

Stillness occurs with the shedding of thoughts. - St. John Klimakos

Of course the mind is more often a roar,
within whose din one is hard pressed to hear
so much as a single word clearly. Prayer?

Not likely. Unless you concede the blur
of confused, compelled, competing desires
the mind brings forth in the posture of prayer.

So, I found myself typically torn,
if lately delivered, brow to the floor,
pressing as far as I could into prayer,

pressing beneath or beyond the roar
that had so long served only to wear
away all good intentions, baffling prayer.

Polished hardwood proves its own kind of mirror,
revealing little, but bringing one near
the margin where one hopes to find prayer --

though even one's weeping is mostly obscured
by the very fact and effect of one's tears,
which, for the time being, must serve.

*"hesychia" means "peace"
Update: Scott Cairns, in a comment below, graciously tells me that "'hesychia' is more nearly translated as 'stillness,' indicating a deep quiet, of body, mind, and spirit."

10 July 2009

Quotidian Mysteries

(especially for you, Michael R. :) Trying to pull myself out of the grip of depression-driven acedia . . .)

I haven't read Kathleen Norris's book with the title of this post, but it intrigued me yesterday when I was browsing around amazon for a gift. I've been reading and thinking a lot lately about the "quotidian mysteries" -- the tasks of the daily round, the routine of ordinary life -- and their salvific effect in life. (Norris writes a great deal about this in Acedia and Me.) I am not a particularly adventurous type, so the desire for travel, wild events, and so on is not a major temptation for me. Yet with just about everyone, I at times find the daily round "boring" and am tempted to denigrate routine tasks as "menial" -- in the snobbish sense of being beneath my time and energy.

In fact, too often in our Western affluent culture we resent these jobs, doing them under protest and with a sour spirit or hiring them done if we have the resources, and we look down on those who do such work for their living as somehow not as good or as important as those of us who don't work with our hands . . . a horrificly ungodly judgment of God's creation.

Yet the daily routine of life is essential to our well-being. At the merely practical level, daily tasks simply have to be done, by somebody, or we couldn't manage -- most of us want clean clothes and clean dishes, and a reasonably clean and neat environment in both in the home and the community; as well, the daily tasks of any job may not be glamorous but are essential -- teachers have to grade and prep and record, writers have to revise and edit and keep financial records, musicians have to practice scales and chords . . .

But these tasks are essential in an even more important way: they save us from pride, from sloth, from all manner of wrong thinking and being. It is in the daily tasks of life that God meets us most clearly, I believe. I do not deny the loveliness and positive effect of miracles and mountain-top times, but these can only carry us so far; they do not occur every day, and even when we experience them the effects last only so long. I am not changed permanently by one exciting event; I am changed permanently by living for my Lord simply and humbly in the daily round.

Here in the "quotidian mysteries" is where I am tempted by frustrations and irritations of all sorts. Here is where I am tempted to think too highly of myself, that I am above these menial tasks. Here is where I am tempted to desire change and newness for their own sake, glorious deeds for the attention drawn to my wonderfulness.

But here, if I humbly accept the tasks as God's design for my nature, I can find satisfaction and peace and His word working itself out in me. I can hear His voice so much more easily if I listen for it in the daily round instead of solely in the prayer meeting or worship service. He builds patience, contentment, and perseverance, essential qualities in a fallen world, in this daily round.

I quoted a few days ago from Norris's book Acedia and Me about the monk who was shown the vision of daily routine as the way to salvation from sloth and self-centeredness. I know it is true; it has been my salvation from the deadly depths of depression again and again. If I could only hold onto this truth . . .

04 July 2009

God Bless America

Thanks to all from the beginning to now who have worked and fought to make our freedom a reality. May we not allow their sacrifices to be in vain.


The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

— John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton