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

27 February 2009

Where is my heart?

I found this quotation at The Catholic Thing tonight and thought it especially appropriate for Lent (and especially appropriate for me for every day . . .):

"Where is my heart?" What is the prevailing disposition that determines its attitude, the real mainspring that keeps the rest of its movement going? It may, perhaps, be some long-existing tendency: some attachment or bitterness or aversion. It may be just a momentary impression: but so deep and strong that it has affected the heart long afterwards. In the "habitual" examination of conscience, we ask ourselves, "Where is my heart?" And thus, often during the day, we uncover the disposition and inclination of our heart at the moment and so penetrate to its central core, from which our various works and deeds and activities issue. We discover the chief wellsprings of good and evil within ourselves. ---Benedict Baur

24 February 2009

Lenten Thoughts

My lifetime in mainline and evangelical Protestant churches has not given me much understanding of Lent. I have always been intrigued by the concept of “giving something up for Lent,” but I never understood why one would do so and thus never thought about actually doing so myself.

In the past few years I’ve begun to pay more attention, and reading Death on a Friday Afternoon, a meditation meant for any time but especially appropriate for Lent, has given me a glimmer of what Lent might be about. Recently on a weblog of Christian debate where I read regularly, Dr. Frank Beckwith announced his intention of giving up blogs and blogging for Lent , which led to some discussion in the comments section about the purpose of the season. I ventured tentatively to offer my thoughts and was relieved and gratified to have them affirmed by some of the contributors I trust and learn from, and so I have reworked them for Inscapes.

Someone asked that if one gave up something harmful for Lent, something one indulged in too much perhaps, then wasn’t that bad if one merely intended to return to it afterwards. This would be an excellent objection were that the object of the Lenten fast, but it’s a misunderstanding, one I shared until pretty recently. A Lenten fast is not for giving up that which one should give up anyway, something that is bad for one at any time. That shouldn't take Lent for us to do; that we should do as soon as we realize the need. Rather, in giving up something, sacrificing it, for Lent, something which may well be a good in itself, an innocent pleasure or whatnot, one is creating opportunities to reflect instead -- when desiring that thing -- on the far greater, ultimate sacrifice of the Lord that occurred on Good Friday, and on one's own nature which led to the need of that sacrifice, and thus to gratefulness for His doing what we could not.

I think, from what I hear, that it is not uncommon for people to find they can do with less of whatever they give up for Lent, and to form a habit of doing without which may be good for them. But this, if I understand aright, is a side benefit of the fast, a secondary result of the time for reflection it provides, not the point and not a necessary result. The real benefit of the fast is a renewed understanding of what has been done for us on the Cross, which we hope will stay with us in our busied lives, but which gets so easily crowded out that it is always healthy to find time to reflect upon. This is, I believe, the reason for the weekly fasts some traditions hold to, including the fast from meat on Fridays that used to be a Catholic tradition. Instead of indulging in a normal pleasure, one abstains from it, and uses the abstention as opportunity for prayer and reflection: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting provides the paradigm, of course. Someone was concerned about missing Dr. Beckwith’s contributions in a number of places on the web; his is a valuable ministry to many. But I think of how Jesus went to pray on the mountaintop alone, not every minute being available to the disciples. Even He needed rest and renewal and reflection and solitary prayer. As I have been thinking on these things, I begin to see the encouragement that some kind of fast can offer to reflect on the sacrifice and redemption we are going to celebrate at Good Friday and Easter. Jay Watts, another Protestant who had not been much exposed until some years ago to the reasons for a Lenten fast, commented in the same thread: “I found that it truly adds to my spiritual preparation for Easter Sunday. It enhances my Easter experience as the day is always out there in my reflection. Not because I am counting the moments until I can end the fast, but because the reason for my sacrifice is inescapably linked to ‘the event’ as the early Christians called it.”

And so this year I am going to try a Lenten fast. I do not propose to publicize what I am fasting from except to a few close friends, but as I am not very disciplined in certain ways, I expect it shall not be an easy start, at least, and any who wish to pray for me I will be grateful to. I wish to know my Lord more fully, to understand His sacrifice more clearly, to learn more humility before His love which surpasses all comprehension, which He lavishes so abundantly where it is not deserved. I pray that He will show me the way and keep before me His purpose.

22 February 2009

More Neuhaus

Some quotations from Chapter 1 of Death on a Friday Afternoon, which will have to stand on their own. They are making me think, but not necessarily coherently enough to articulate anything worth adding to them.

On our tending to ignore Good Friday (and indeed all suffering) and "hurry on" to Easter (and any good news that sets aside pain): "But we will not know what to do with Easter's light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom's way to light."

On our sin: "This is the awful truth: that we made necessary the baby crying in the cradle to become the derelict crying from the cross" (emphasis added).

On forgiveness: "Love does not say to the beloved that it [the beloved's sin] does not matter, for the beloved matters."

On sin and our identity: "Our lives are measured by who we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. [. . .] The judgment that matters is the judgment of God, who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin. [. . .] None of our sins are small or of little account. To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be." This called to mind Pauline in Descent into Hell: her terrible fear of her doppleganger, whom she believes to be some harbinger of evil, yet is in reality that astoundingly glorious being that God had intended her to be -- and only in learning to see and acknowledge her sins, and then to lean, to trust, and to sacrificially love others, is she at last able to see that glory and embrace it as her own created identity.

A bit further, Neuhaus writes of being our brother's keeper: "[W]e know we are [our brother's keeper]. We don't know what to do about it, but we know that if we lose our hold on that impossible truth, we have lost everything." As, indeed, Wentworth does in his demand to be enough in and for himself: to hell with the rest of the world, he says -- and yet he is the one descending into that terrible place of judgment.

And finally for today, on the cross: "The perfect self-surrender of the cross is, from eternity and to eternity, at the heart of what it means to say that God is love."
All praise to Him.

15 February 2009

Death on a Friday Afternoon

The death of Richard John Neuhaus has robbed us of a great intellect but, far more important, a great man of God. His work has challenged me and changed my life. Two years ago, I first read his meditation on the last words of Christ, Death on a Friday Afternoon. I have decided to try to read it again this year, starting now and reading a chapter each week till Easter. Toward that end, this evening I read the preface and was caught by the following:

Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained.

Good Friday forms the spiritual architecture of Christian existence.

In [the] last words of the Word in descent into death, we come upon the perfect sound of silence, a silence of the completion toward which all good words tend. "It is finished," Jesus said from the cross. It is finished, but it is not over. To accompany Him to His end is to discover our beginning.

Undoubtedly I will repeat myself as I explore this meditation again, but Truth does not erode from constant use, and I find I need much repetition to keep its merest and most basic elements before me . . . It is my heart desire to draw closer to Him during this Lenten season, to once more visit this most basic of Truths that we embrace and find its reality within me.

* I will usually capitalize pronouns referring to God, though Neuhaus does not, for avoidance of any ambiguity or confusion.

12 February 2009

Light in the Darkness

It's been rainy here the past few days, again. The other morning, as we pulled out of the driveway, I could see the shimmering of the full moon behind storm clouds, hinting of an oasis of light in the darkness. Yesterday, we lost a tree on campus to storm winds, warm with impending spring but frightening in intensity. This morning, a gibbous moon sailed among black clouds trying to threaten with rag-tag apparitions, turning to grey, then white, and finally dissipating with the sunrise. Lovely reminders that light is never quenched by darkness; it always rides above, behind, within the storm biding its time and welcoming our faith.

06 February 2009

Connections, Connections

The past couple of weeks have been filled with connections in literature and discussion. It’s driving me a bit crazy because there’s no time to sort them out, write them down, make more than vaguely intuitive sense of them.

So I’m recording impressions today, just for fun (or, more likely and more seriously, for sanity).

Elocution: I’m teaching Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell in freshman comp this semester. The action (if it can be called that) takes place within the scope of a play production, a pastoral comedy written by the eminent poet-dramatist Peter Stanhope. The leader of the chorus, Pauline, is working on her lines one day and enters a discussion with her grandmother, Margaret, who notes in passing that the play’s producer, Mrs. Parry, has always thought a little too much of elocution and not enough of the poetry itself. She goes on, with infinite kindness, to also note that Pauline has been rather like this in her relation to Margaret: more concerned with the outward care of duty, of appearance, than the give-and-take of Love. Pauline, duly rebuked, finds this a help along her way to understanding and living in Love.

Then we read the “Night” section in Goethe's Faust for World Lit 2. And lo and behold, here is Wagner, Faust’s student, prating on about the importance of elocution to public speaking – if one speaks with the right tones and gestures, one will be effective. Faust decries this: what is needed for effective persuasion, he says, is to speak from the heart, not to study form. I am not sure, however, that his understanding and advice is really the same as Margaret’s – I want to bring them together and explore the similarity and what may be some key difference in the ideas.

Negation: This has been cropping up everywhere, it seems. We read Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Flowering Judas” in Intro to Lit recently; the main character, Laura, lives by negation – saying “no” to every possibility for life and love. This negation leads her, she seems to know, to be as cruel as the socialist/Marxist revolutionaries she works alongside, yet she cannot bring herself to say “yes” to any hopeful possibility.

We also read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” in that class, another tale of negation. The man wants only to have his footloose, fancy-free life without responsibility; the girl, it appears, finally gives in to him, choosing the death of her unborn child, still intangible to her, to keep the tangible security of his presence – yet knowing, even as she chooses, that this too will be another death.

And Descent is a story of negation. Wentworth is given the opportunity to choose love, again and again, and each time he refuses, despising everyone and everything that keeps him from being the one in the limelight. I would, again, like to look at these and other pieces I’ve been reading to find the connecting threads.

The serpent in Eden: This one’s been cropping up all of a sudden, too – the Cupid and Psyche myth, Lily Sammile in Descent, somewhere else recently that refuses to come to my exhausted mind on this Friday evening at the end of another lovely but tiring week.

Connections. I’ve always looked for them; they are everywhere in literature. But somehow these are haunting me just now, and I hope to find out why soon.

03 February 2009

Groundhogs and Simplicity

The Groundhog

by Luci Shaw

The groundhog is, at best, a simple soul
without pretension, happy in his hole,
twinkle-eyed, shy, earthy, coarse-coated grey,
no use at all (except on Groundhog Day).
At Christmas time, a rather doubtful fable
gives the beast standing room inside the stable
with other simple things, shepherds, and sheep,
cows, and small winter birds, and on the heap
of warm, sun-sweetened hay, the simplest thing
of all -- a Baby. Can a groundhog sing,
or only grunt his wonder? Could he know
this new-born Child had planned him, long ago,
for groundhog-hood? Whether true or fable,
I like to think that he was in the stable,
part of the Plan, and that He who designed
all simple wonderers, may have had me in mind.

For simple wonder, Lord, make my heart sing.