"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 August 2010

Harvest Moon

Driving home from opening convocation last night, dusk not quite yet falling into dark, I rounded a curve on the old ferry road to be greeted by a harvest moon, just above the horse pasture, huge in the sky and a pale coral I've never seen before. Back home, I ran onto the porch to see it again, although, higher in the sky now, it appeared only its normal size and darker in color. Still, so much beauty to begin the semester, such a lovely reminder of our place in the world as reflected light. This morning, Phoebe still sailed in the sky, lighting the scudding clouds with her faithful glow, blessedly marking the day at just-dawn.

23 August 2010

"A love that is above 'flesh and blood'"

What with teaching half the summer and prepping for this semester the other half, I find myself tired and out of sorts, not ready for the new semester that begins on Wednesday. What I really want is to become Emily Dickinson, talking to people through the door, if at all, and dropping little notes out my window to encourage the neighbors.

Looking back over the opening chapters of Thomas Merton's The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation reminded me tonight of some excellent truths to carry into the new school year, in light of this mood and tiredness. In Chapter 3, "Society and the Inner Self," Merton writes about the relation between contemplation and love; contemplation is the work of love, and love needs an object -- not only God but the neighbor as well. This love is "above flesh and blood": "not something pale and without passion, but a love in which passion has been elevated and purified by selflessness, so that it no longer follows the inspiration of mere natural instinct. This love is guided by the Spirit of Christ and seeks the good of the other rather than our own momentary interest or pleasure. More, [. . .] it rests in love for love's own sake, and attains, in Christ, to the truth not insofar as it is desirable but above all insofar as it is true and good in itself. This is at the same time our own highest good and the good of the others, and in such love, 'all are One.'"

Merton continues, discussing the solitude necessary for contemplation: "Solitude is necessary for spiritual freedom. But once that freedom is acquired, it demands to be put to work in the service of a love in which there is no longer subjection or slavery. Mere withdrawal [from the world for contemplation], without the return to freedom in [. . .] action, would lead to a static and deathlike inertia of the spirit in which the inner self would not waken at all." Solitude should lead to "the freedom and spontaneity of an inner self that is entirely unpreoccupied with itself and goes forth to meet the other lightly and trustfully, without afterthought of self-concern [. . .] ." Writing a little later of the Desert Fathers, he says they went into the desert "not to study speculative truth but to wrestle with practical evil; not to perfect their analytical intelligence but to purify their hearts. They went into solitude not to get something but in order to give themselves, for 'He that would save his life must lose it, and he that will lose his life for the sake of Christ, shall save it.'"

This is a reminder I need. In my sometimes desperate need for quiet, for solitude, for space to reflect, I find myself desiring these for their own sake, not for the sake of service. I must remember both to set aside time to be quiet -- for contemplation is a necessary part of the life well-lived -- but to be mindful that such time leads to renewed desire to serve others, to put myself aside, to die in Christ so that I can live for Him.

And there is a related idea Merton reminds me of as well: the need in my work of service for "detached activity -- work done without concern for results but with the pure intention of fulfilling the will of God." It is not I who will "save" my students, in or out of the classroom, for the Lord or for effective writing. I can only give myself to Him, do as He directs, and be unconcerned about myself and about that which is beyond my control.

My prayer for all my colleagues, here and across the country: May we remember and learn to live in these truths more faithfully every day.

19 August 2010

The Pursuit of the Absolute

Here's a piece I wrote to help my freshmen understand the final chapter of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life a few years ago. I ran across it today and thought some of my readers might enjoy it.

We can live comfortably, coming to very little harm, Annie Dillard tells us in Chapter 7 of The Writing Life, or we can risk our lives for the freedom and exhilaration of seeking God in His creation.

Dillard attended the Bellingham air show “with a newcomer’s willingness to try anything once” – not because she likes air shows, but merely to try out the local culture. Several pilots did some interesting stunts – then Dave Rahm flew. Dillard first noticed him, as she might a book on a subject in which she had little inherent interest, “idly, paying scant attention,” then found herself interested “reluctantly” – until at last she was drawn completely into Rahm’s “inexhaustibly glorious line” and “[began] to learn about beauty.”

What so impressed her was not merely the quality of the individual stunts Rahm performed – the other pilots had done these too, and well. It was, rather, the way he did them one after another without pausing to straighten out the plane between them: “he never quit,” she writes; “the music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease.” Rahm was using the plane as a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe, to explore the limits of beauty that can be created in his form of art, even as master composers, poets, writers, sculptors use their tools. He was not content to do the same things that others do in the same safe way; rather, he combined the stunts he had learned from others in original ways in order to “move back the boundaries of the humanly possible.”

When Rahm took Dillard up in the plane, she discovered the depth of physical pain and disorientation a pilot experiences, the fact that this work, this art is not one that “feels good.” Yet Rahm chose it and pursued it with a passion that made him the best there was; he became the master that could inspire the very swallows to imitation.

As the writer uses the line of words to discover meaning and articulate for others something of the vision he finds, Rahm thought of the air as a line which he followed from end to end, paying attention to the light so that his audience wouldn’t have to stare into the sun, considering the effect of the plane’s line on the audience’s senses. Dillard describes him as reticent, a “figure,” a stereotypical “strong, silent type” who appeared perfectly ordinary, maybe even boring – but, she adds, “the machine gave him tongue.” His art allowed him to express beauty as he could not with words, and that expression was worth the risk of the fiery death that ended it.

This, Dillard implies, is the task of the writer. Anyone can keep out of harm’s way by refusing risk, by staying on the surface of life and thought. But there is gain – for both the artist and his audience – in taking the risk.

Why are we here? Dillard asks, and answers: “for the sake of the choir” – to offer praise. We cannot praise what we know only superficially; we must “penetrate the universe,” “ride the point of the line to the possible,” seeking truth, seeking beauty, following the vision where it leads us. And that vision we follow, that truth we seek, is, ultimately, the “Absolute” who “fills the world” – the knowledge of the Creator whose life and love are evident in His creation. The pursuit of the Absolute is the only life worth the sacrifices, worth the risk of danger and death – because these are a small price to pay for the exhilaration of that freedom available only in the glimpse of Truth offered us along the way.

15 August 2010

Falling in Love Again . . .

. . . this time with Hilaire Belloc. An essayist I should have known long ago, and so I see the utter inadequacy of my education once again.

Atkins refers to Belloc's "The Mowing of a Field" often, and I enjoy it, but in the collection On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, arrived from amazon recently, I discovered the perfect essay. The problem with essays, of course, is that they are like poems -- in that you can't just summarize them, because the craftsmanship is part and parcel of the meaning -- but they are longer than poems and do not lend themselves to being copied full text. You can, however, find this one in the book I linked to above (just search the contents): "On the Pleasure of Taking up One's Pen."

Belloc notes the controversy over whether there is a "tangible pleasure in the mere act of writing: in choosing and arranging words." But this, he goes on, is not his subject: he is writing on "the pleasure of taking up one's pen, which is quite another matter."

"You are alone," he writes, no matter where you are, the moment you lift your pen, "and that is the beginning." He then writes that you are going to "create" -- which leads to a delightful digression on how we cannot create, followed by "anyhow [. . .] you are going to do something devilish pleasing: there is a prospect before you. You are going to develop a germ: I don't know what it is, and I promise you I won't call it creation -- but possibly a god creating through you, and at least you are making believe at creation. Anyhow, it is a sense of mastery and of origin, and you know that when you have done, something will be added to the world, and little destroyed [only a bit of paper, ink, and quill]."

Then another digression as he imagines his audience exclaiming: "Affectation! Affectation! How do I know that the fellow writes with a quill? A most unlikely habit!" And the admission that he actually writes with a "Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen," whose gold nib leads to a lovely sally into describing Charlemagne's throne and his journeys with it, ending with wondering if the reader has read these stories: "No? You must read about these things."

Next a blessing on the pen, which he promises that he will write a poem with someday, or at least copy out someone else's with it, because the pen is deserving and will someday "live in a glass case with a crowd of tourists round [it] every day from 10 to 4." He ends, logically, with the lovely thought that you may lay down your pen any time you choose. You cannot stop whenever you please at bridge or public speaking or conversation or life itself -- but to lay down your pen? "At any moment: without remorse, without anxiety, without dishonour, you are free to do this dignified and final thing (I am just going to do it) . . . You lay it down."

Well, go read it, and you will see. Why is it perfect? Because it carries the essay form -- its loose structure, its sense of exploring a topic and inviting us to come along, and yet everything really to the point -- perfectly. Because it has what Phillip Gerard calls the apparent and real subjects intertwined perfectly: in writing about the simple act of picking up a pen, Belloc is really writing about the power of the written word. Because every "digression" is not really digressing, but is integral to both the apparent and real subjects, if we attend carefully. Because he obviously took delight in it, delight in which we share with every word.

Where were you, Mr. Belloc, in my misspent youth?

07 August 2010

Angioma Alliance

For those who are interested, here's an excellent site for information on cavernous angiomas:

This page in particular explains symptoms:

06 August 2010

Doctor's Appointment

DeeDee is waiting right now to see the neurosurgeon. Prayers are always appreciated, and I will update this post after I talk to her.

UPDATE: So she saw two neurologists who looked at the MRI/CT scans she had sent (from a year ago, when she had severe seizures, and a month ago), and decided they wanted an updated one to see if the angioma is bleeding now -- they put her at the head of the line to get it done so that she could do it today and not have to take yet another day off work; also because they have deemed that it is urgent to decide what to do. They did tell her something we hadn't known before, which is that a major blood vessel is feeding the cluster, which makes surgery more of a risk. They confirmed that it must be the occasional bleeding of the angioma that causes her seizures, and that it could be causing her headaches, though they are not as certain about that.

She will go back on Monday to consult with another neurologist, when he has had a chance to read the new CT scan and compare it to the one from a month ago, about how to monitor the angioma and whether/when/how they should treat it. She did find there is a slightly less invasive surgical procedure, where the skull doesn't need to be laid open, but it would still mean a lot of trauma to the brain, of course.

Thanks to all for continued prayers!