"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

24 December 2012

Blessed Christmas

Brokenness sometimes overwhelms me at Christmas, the fog rolling in tonight a stealthy reminder despite its soft beauty.  When I was a freshman in college, we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve to accommodate my brother’s stepson and his other grandparents.  On Christmas morning, my mother’s birthday, her father died at 3:00 a.m.  We’ve opened gifts on Christmas Eve ever since.

Two years ago was the first Christmas without my daddy.  One year ago was the first Christmas without his sister.  This is the first Christmas without my brother, the last of the immediate family.  And here I am in Tennessee, while my mother celebrates Christmas without family. 

Yet we celebrate, because the Babe came to bring hope, to bring light, to offer the star that ever shines above our Mordor, no matter how impenetrable the clouds of sin and sorrow may seem.  On this foggy Christmas Eve, I have our own unique Christmas tree to remind me.

The jade is an offshoot of the one my daddy grew at the University of Kansas; his was quite a large tree when it finally died long after his retirement.  But he had given me a shoot from it when I got married – “it’s the only thing I know you won’t kill,” he teased me, knowing I never remember to water plants.  We lost the original, I fear, to the abuse of some move or other, but this is its descendent.  We never got a “real” Christmas tree, because we always traveled to my parents’ home, where a tree and wreaths and lights and cookies waited, when the kids were growing up – but I love the little blue lights in the glossy green of the jade leaves, and the simple crèche at its foot. 

As this jade with its tiny lights comes from my father’s better-cared-for and massive plant, I am reminded that hope comes from my heavenly Father’s gift – and however much I and the rest of the world may try to darken and twist and destroy that gift, we cannot.  His light will always be shining, always be waiting, anticipating our upturned eyes to see.  And even the tiniest light will penetrate the darkness if we only look.

A blessed Christmas to all, especially to those who suffer loneliness, loss, sorrow this season.  May His light brighten even the darkest moments with His hope.

On Style

One of the books I'm perusing this break is Richard Weaver's Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time, a book which is third in a trilogy about culture along with Ideas Have Consequences and Language is Sermonic.  Visions is his last work, published after his death in 1963.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a definition of culture, an exploration of what has gone wrong in 20th century America, and how we can pursue the resurrection of a true culture.  The following passage, however, is a sort of side trip (to the point but not straight on it) having to do with style -- an issue writers and readers discuss and debate continually.  (I have added boldface.)

"True style displays itself in elaboration, rhythm, and distance, which demand activity of the imagination and play of the spirit.  Elaboration means going beyond what is useful to produce what is engaging to contemplation.  Rhythm is a marking of beginnings and endings.  In place of a meaningless continuum, rhythm provides intelligibility and the sense that the material has been handled in a subjective interest.  It is human to dislike mere lapse.  When one sees things in rhythmical configuration, he feels they have been brought into the realm of the spirit.  Rhythm is thus a way of breaking up nihilistic monotony and of proclaiming that there is a world of value.  Distance is what preserves us from the vulgarity of immediacy.  Extension and proportion in space, as in architecture, and extension in time, as in manners and deportment, help to give gratifying form to these creations.  All style has an element of ritual, which signifies steps which cannot be passed over.

"Today, these factors of style, which is of the essence of culture, are regarded as if they were mere persiflage.  Elaboration is suspected of spending too much time on nonutilitarian needs, and the limited ends of engineering efficiency take precedence.  Rhythm suffers because one cannot wait for the period to come around.  In regard to distance, there is felt that there should be nothing between man and what he wants; distance is a kind of prohibition; and the new man sees no sanction in arrangements that stand in the way of immediate gratification.  He has not been taught the subtlety to perceive that what one gains by immediate seizure one pays for by more serious losses.  Impatience with space and time seems to be driving the modern to an increasing surrender of all ideas of order.  Everywhere there is reversion to the plain and the casual, and style itself takes on an obsolescent look, as it belonged to some era destined never again to appear."

20 December 2012

The Christendom Review: New Issue

The Christendom Review has released its newest issue, which is (if I do say so myself) worth some time to peruse.

Lydia McGrew does her usual excellent work on pro-life issues in an essay on human exceptionalism.

Thomas DeFreitas and Lee Evans offer delightful poetry.

Millie Sweeney reflects on her first year of marriage and the beauty of children.

And, yes, I have an essay on the value of close reading.

Please visit, and don't forget to look them up and "like" them on Facebook!

30 November 2012


photo courtesy of Public Domain Pictures     

This morning moonlight radiated through hazy clouds as Phoebe hung at the tip of new-growth twigs on a winter-bare tree.  The clouds dissipated, her light growing stronger as I drove the old ferry road to work, until she shone unswathed by the time I walked from car to building.

Earlier, making my stumbling way through the dark house to the garage, I had been thinking about the beauty of the plants the college sent to my brother’s memorial service.  Mother called last night, and after we chatted about nothing and everything, she suddenly said, “You should see the plants your friends sent!”  After she had liberated them from the lovely basket the florist had used to send them, they now fill the entire house with beauty and hope.

The white kalanchoe, its waxy blossoms like stars among its greenery, sits on the bureau in the living room, across from her usual chair, where she sees them each time she looks up from her book.  The ivies and ferns liven the hallway and bedroom windows.  And the plant with the glossy deep-green leaves, whose name we sadly do not know but whose beauty captured us from the moment we saw it, holds pride of place on the dining room table. 

Mother has lost three close family members in three years:  her husband of 67 years (my beloved daddy) two years ago September; his sister (the last of their generation) last year September; her only son (my only sibling) this November.  Between the deaths of her husband and her sister-in-law came the death of her great-granddaughter, my middle son’s 17-year-old severely handicapped child.  Many would droop into discouragement or worse, but she learned through a difficult childhood in the Great Depression to simply do the next thing, serve and love where she is, leaving what cannot be understood or accepted in merely human terms to her Lord, whom she loves and knows she is loved by.  Time will not take away sorrow, but it will heal the bruised spirit; and serving others aids its process and grows the soul closer to Christ's.  

Oh, there are no doubt tears in the night, and all the human regrets and frustrations alongside the sorrow of loss.  But these are not what define her.  Rather, the plants that now bring their physical beauty into her home – sent by deeply caring brothers and sisters she has never met but who have prayed for her and her family again and again over these last years – these remind her of the beauty of the hope which does define her, the Lord and His family who sustain her day by day, moment by moment.  Her gratitude is never-ending.

And this morning, as the moonlight mirrored the radiance of the kalanchoe flowers, reiterating the hope they represent, my own heart opened in a psalm of praise.

15 November 2012

RIP: H. Michael Blitch 1948-2012

For my brother (18 March 1948 – 10 November 2012)

When our parents brought me home from the hospital, Mike – then four-and-a-half – wanted to take me for a ride in his wagon.  On being told I was too little, he retorted, “Well, what’s she any good for, anyway, if I can’t even play with her?”  Later, when colic kept me screaming for hours on end, he suggested that they send me back wherever I’d come from . . . 

Four-and-a-half years between Mars and Venus ensured we’d never be extremely close, but our parents’ sacrificial and unconditional love ensured that we grew into a tolerant and eventually a genuine affection, because we always knew that we belonged to a family, a bond that could be distressed and cracked, but never really broken.

Family put us together for camping trips, Christmas Eve candlelight services, regular visits to and from grandparents, birthdays, and Sunday night popcorn during Walt Disney.  We decorated cookies together for Santa’s Cookie Tree, an evergreen beside our driveway which we made into a community tradition.  We went to musicals every summer at the Swope Park outdoor live theatre; we learned to ice skate together on the flooded garden in the back yard and to shoot with bows behind the old barn that served as our garage.  We chased fireflies on summer evenings to put in jars for nightlights and kept a pet turtle in the front yard under the sassafras tree.  I loved curling up on his bedroom carpet to read the stories in his Boys’ Life magazines while he read or studied.

The 60s took their toll, and, perhaps inevitably, came the years of distress when the family structure seemed broken beyond repair.  But the foundation laid in those childhood years held, and, a welder by trade, Mike chose to begin repairing the cracks, restoring love and laughter.  How grateful I was to know that he was there to help – gladly and not from mere duty – when our daddy’s health began to decline and I was half the country away.  How glad to know of Daddy’s delight when his son entered the room, to know that Mother had only to call and he was on his way.  How refreshing to see his smile again when I was able to visit, to put up again with “baby sister” and “kiddo.”  How lovely to have his children and their families in our lives now.

And how good to know that, in the end, love is indeed stronger than death.  Missing him now, we are grateful to have had the years of his life framed in the unity of family.

03 October 2012


Yesterday:  fog and clouds and I never even thought of Phoebe until I reached the stop sign and looked west to check for traffic -- and there she sailed, only slightly past the full, lighting the grey morning and lifting the heart.

This morning:  a denser fog and deeper darkness, as the days grow shorter, gave little hope, but there she was, haloed in gleaming pearl within a sepia frame, obediently shining beauty into the mists of early morning long before dawn.

Last night:  a decent sleep for the first time in weeks (and I know who prayed and am thankful); so much easier to face the draining needs of the week's final days.

There is always good if we remember to look for it, always beauty, always the Son's light reflected into the brokenness.

Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

29 September 2012

"The Teaching of Fiction"

Notes on Flannery O’Connor – “The Teaching of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose.

As I don’t have time for serious reading of and thinking about new ideas at the start of a semester with 55 writing students in four classes (how do high school teachers survive?!), I took O’Connor’s book with me while one group was working on an in-class exercise, and re-read this marvelous chapter in which O’Connor explores some of the issues teachers of literature face.  She was not a teacher herself, but she was of course a student of literature and one of the best writers of literature of the Southern Renaissance. 

“I find,” O’Connor writes, “that everyone approaches the novel according to his particular interest – the doctor looks for a disease, the minister looks for a sermon, the poor look for money, and the rich look for justification; and if they find what they want, or at least what they can recognize, then they judge the piece of fiction to be superior.

“In the standing dispute between the novelist and the public, the teacher of English is a sort of middle-man, and I have occasionally come to think about what really happens when a piece of fiction is set before students.  I suppose this is a terrifying experience for the teacher.”

No kidding!  And for so many reasons.  Some don’t know how to read literature themselves, never having been taught; some know the lack of ability of students and don’t wish to face it; sometimes we fear what inexperienced readers will make of our favorite and beloved works.  It is a tremendous responsibility to try to draw others into the world of mystery.

She writes about some of the ways teachers avoid teaching fiction – substituting literary history for the study of actual literary works, or the study of the author’s psychology, or sociology . . .  And she tells us why these are useless approaches:  “[A] work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it or why.  If you’re studying literature, the intentions of the writer have to be found in the work itself, and not in his life.” 

The teacher’s “first obligation,” O’Connor writes, “is to the truth of the subject he is teaching,” and he must remember that “for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline.  The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft.  They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as story.” 

There’s much more in this short chapter (the book’s title comes from it), but these were good affirmations for today – it’s right to insist on discipline from our students, because only through it will they come to know the pleasure of learning, whether literature or writing or anything else.  And so, marching forward through the homework and the essays – for the hope of opening minds and hearts to love.

30 July 2012

Into Great Silence

I have wanted to watch this film since I first heard about it a year or two ago.  Recently I bought the DVD and have awaited an appropriate time for its viewing.  That time came when I was alone in the house this morning, a time when the neighborhood is quiet.

Into Great Silence is a film of the daily life of the Carthusian monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery.  The filmmaker, Philip Gröning of Zeitgeist Films, requested permission to do the filming and was told to wait; fifteen years later they contacted him to tell him now was the time.  Their conditions were ones he had already laid on himself:  only he would do the filming, there would be no extra lighting, the rules and routine would continue uninterrupted.  He lived in the monastery for six months, and the result is 162 minutes of some of the most powerful film I’ve ever seen.

Warnings:  You cannot watch this film in bits and pieces if you wish to understand and benefit from it.  You cannot watch it while conversing with a companion or surfing the web or reading or chatting on Google or talking/texting on the phone.  It’s not a popcorn-and-coke sort of film.  You should not watch it if you are inclined to be cynical and judgmental about others’ chosen ways of life, or if you are inclined to mock austerity and ritual.  (It would help, if you are unaware, to learn a little about the purposes of monastic life before watching it.)  And if you cannot bear silence – it might behoove you to try, and to work up to watching it in its entirety, so that you can come to understand the beauty and the value of silence and contemplation. 

The Grande Chartreuse is considered the most austere of all monasteries today.  The monks live by a rule of silence, broken only by prayers, chants, bells, readings at meals, certain rituals such as the welcoming of novices to the order, and on their weekly day for walking outdoors in informal companionship, where they talk however they wish with one another.  The days are strictly regimented, following the traditional hours of worship, with work and study delineated between the times of private and public prayer.  When two or more are together during the day, fixing a meal or giving and receiving haircuts or chopping wood, they do not speak, but give and accept service with a silent and companionable grace. 

I was afraid that even I, who desire and value silence, solitude, and contemplation, would not be able to watch it through quietly – but before the end of the first half-hour my mind had come almost to complete rest within the beauty before me.  The smallest sounds became a symphony of life – chopping celery, a spoon lifting soup from a bowl, rain dropping into a pool, footsteps echoing in a cloistered walk, a chair scraping across the floor, a page turning, a pen scratching across paper.  Important sounds, the sounds of life being lived, sounds we never hear for our incessant music and television and talk, talk, talk.  And when they do converse freely, as on their weekly walks, the conversation is seasoned with salt – serious doctrinal debates salted with grace and jokes and enjoyment of fellowship, a sledding competition which leads to admiration of skill and fun-filled laughter for its lack – and surely all of it all the more a joy because not constantly indulged, and all the more gracious because who wants to waste precious limited time together on foolish talk or unworthy conflict. 

And time and space to see, as well.  Instead of barely noticing our environment, silence opens us to the time and inclination to see the shape of a leaf, a drop of water falling from an icicle, the pattern of sun on wood flooring, the peace in a brother’s eyes.  Inscape, Hopkins would tell us, Christ poured out into His creation and especially “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not His / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Just the faces of the monks moved me to tears more than once.  Gröning occasionally focuses on just one face for an intense few seconds; peace is what we see in each one, and while most are solemn at this scrutiny, most also begin to offer a hint of a smile that suggests a great joy sparkling beneath the quiet exterior.  The elderly blind brother who gave the only interview recorded in the film spoke with such deep love of the Savior, such trust and confidence, such acceptance of all that comes as intended to bless our lives; what joy silence and contemplation and thoughtful relationship with God and others has brought to him. 

On the case for the DVD is written “This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one – it has no score, no voiceover [. . .].  What remains is stunningly elemental:  time, space and light. [. . .]  More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative experience [. . .].”  I can only say “amen,” with the hope and prayer that some of that experience will stay with me as I keep trying to learn how to love my Lord more truly.

08 June 2012

On Teachers and Students

It is quite popular to blame teachers for their students' intellectual choices.  Of course, teachers may do a great job or a poor job.  But students, it seems we sometimes forget, have free will.

Once upon a time there was a perfect Teacher.  He taught many, but twelve were part of His inner circle for three years, not just in a classroom a few hours a week but walking and talking and absorbing his teachings every minute of every day.

Eleven of them abandoned Him in His worst moment.

But one had already betrayed Him utterly.

That one must have appeared to the rest to understand and go along with His teachings at least as well as they did; not one pointed his finger instantly at the one rebel they all knew so well when He said that one of them would betray Him.  They all asked "Is it I?"  Only the betrayer knew the answer.

If He hadn't been the perfect Teacher, the only One who could really read people's hearts despite their apparently compliant actions, He might have been deceived, too.  He might have thought this one was learning and accepting His lessons, and been utterly surprised by his defection, his hatred.

It happens to teachers every day, breaking their hearts, making them wonder where they went wrong.  Ordinary teachers surely did go wrong somewhere, but their wrongs may not have had anything to do with a student's defection from their teaching.  

This whole teaching/learning enterprise is a two-way street.  Even the perfect Teacher couldn't make His students all wholeheartedly accept His teachings.  Why then do we expect imperfect human teachers to do better than He did?  Why do we automatically blame them, especially when we don't or only barely know them, instead of considering that the student bears at least as much responsibility for his choices in response to the teaching, that he might have played along to get good grades in the classroom, or changed his ideas after graduation, or a bit of both?

When our students fail in life, we should indeed check ourselves -- did I do the best I could, as a teacher and a mentor?  But when we know we did -- our best not precluding error, but not being error the student couldn't overcome with intelligence and good will -- then we needn't take responsibility, only grieve for the lost sheep.

04 June 2012

A Theology of Reading

I've been working at reading Alan Jacobs' A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love for several months now.  He's an excellent writer, but I don't have the background in philosophy that would make for easier reading, so I can only take it a bit at a time while working at absorbing it.  I'm sure I'm missing more than I'd like, but I do think I'm getting the main ideas.  I'll reread when I finish and would like then to give a review of the book.  Overall, he's making the case for reading with charity toward the text and the author, seeing books as gifts that should be offered and received in a spirit of love.  It's a wonderful book, one I hope to draw from as I read, write, and teach.

In the chapter I was reading yesterday, Jacobs offers this from Petrarch, who is explaining his frequent use of quotations from classical authors:
Nothing moves me so much as the quoted axioms of great men.  I like to rise above myself, to test my mind to see if it contains anything solid or lofty, or stout or firm against ill-fortune, or to find if my mind has been lying to me about itself.  And there is no better way of doing this -- except by experience, the surest mistress -- than by comparing one's mind with those it would most like to resemble.  Thus, as I am grateful to my authors who give me the chance of testing my mind against maxims frequently quoted, so I hope my readers will thank me.
Another reason to be well-read and pass on what we learn.

28 April 2012


In his 1974 essay “The Specialization of Poetry” (anthologized in the collection Standing by Words), Wendell Berry describes how poetry has become “a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home”; this is in lieu of poems being “a point of clarification and connection between [poets] and the world on the one hand and between themselves and their readers on the other” or “an adventure into any reality or mystery outside themselves.” 

In the course of developing this theme, he quotes a line from Yeats that asserts a choice between “[p]erfection of the life, or of the work,” a dichotomy Berry sees as defining the modern state of affairs, which is the choice to make poetry itself life instead of life being the ground from which poetry grows.  There should be no such dichotomy, no such choice, Berry insists:  instead, “the tensions between life and work [. . .] would ideally be resolved in balance: enough of each.  In practice, however, they probably can be resolved [. . .] only in tension, in a principled unwillingness to let go of either, or to sacrifice either to the other.  But it is a necessary tension, the grief in it both inescapable and necessary.  One would like, one longs in fact, to be perfect family man and a perfect workman.  And one suffers from the inevitable conflicts.  But whatever one does, one is not going to be perfect at either, and it is better to suffer the imperfection of both than to gamble the total failure of one against an illusory hope of perfection in the other.  The real values of art and life are perhaps best defined and felt in the tension between them.  The effort to perfect work rises out of, and communes with and in turn informs, the effort to perfect life, as Yeats himself knew and other poems of his testify.”

Words to learn to live by.

04 March 2012

More from Mother Teresa

The remarkable trust of Mother Teresa can only awe. How many of us "trust Him blindly" ever, much less continually? Certainly I don't. How many of us can accept suffering as making us like Jesus, as being a sharing in His suffering for us? Yet how else can we live honestly?

On requesting permission for her work in Calcutta: "I trust the good God blindly and I know He will not let me down, even though I may make a mistake."

In a letter thanking one of her superiors for his help: "Please pray. I have very little courage -- but I trust Him blindly, in spite of all feelings."

And another request: "Please pray for me that I may keep looking up at him cheerfully."

One of her prayers: "O Jesus, only love of my heart, I wish to suffer what I suffer and all Thou wilt have me suffer, for Thy pure love not because of the merits I may acquire, nor for the rewards Thou hast promised me but only to please Thee, to praise Thee, to bless Thee as well in sorrow as in joy."

To a friend: "In my meditations and prayers, which are so full of distractions nowadays -- there stands one thing very clear -- my weakness and His Greatness. I fear all things from my weakness -- but I trust blindly His Greatness."

A comment by the editor: "The aim of the new institute was being realized not in spite of the difficulties and sufferings but precisely through them. Mother Teresa did not want to avoid sacrifice or eliminate it from her life or the lives of her followers. 'Grab the chance to offer something to Jesus,' she would insistently counsel her sisters. She knew their sufferings would bear fruit."

Many people who were so physically disabled or ill that they could not be part of the work in India joined the Society as "second selves" to the Sisters, committing themselves to prayer and encouragement. Writing to one such suffering friend, Mother Teresa tells her, "How the good God loves you [. . .]. You suffer much and your soul is crucified in pain -- but is it not that He is living His life in His Jacqueline? [. . .] You have learned much. You have tasted the chalice of His agony -- and what will be your reward my dear sister? More suffering and a deeper likeness to Him on the Cross. I feel unworthy to be your sister. [. . .] Be brave and keep smiling. You know He loves you with a tender, eternal love."

21 February 2012

Lenten Reading

I'm going back through the collection of Mother Teresa's writings and commentary on them in Come Be My Light this year. The following quotations have caught my eye, for conviction and for encouragement.

Another nun, in the convent where Mother Teresa first served (as a teacher, among other duties) shortly after taking her final vows, wrote of her: "I notice that every day she tries to please Jesus in everything. She is very busy but she does not spare herself. [. . .] Admittedly, her deeds are entirely simple, but the perfection with which she does them, is just what Jesus asks of us."

Mother Teresa tells the sisters under her care: "Don't look for big things, just do small things with great love. . . . The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love."

On her willingness to wait for the Calcutta mission to come into being despite her longing to start the work right away: "[B]ecause she had consecrated her life to God through a vow of obedience, she could proceed only with the approval of her superiors. To her their blessing was not a mere formality but a protection and assurance that God's hand was in her undertaking. Only their permission would give her the certainty that this call was indeed God's will and not some delusion."

On her own abilities for the work she was called to: "I feel sometimes afraid, for I have nothing, no brains, no learning, no qualities required for such a work, and yet I tell Him that my heart is free from everything, and so it belongs to Him, and Him alone. He can use me just as it will please Him best. To please Him only is the joy I seek."


Sabbatical update: I am a much slower writer than I realized! Two essays ready to be set aside for awhile, and an interest in one for publication (have not received a deadline yet). Thanks to all for your encouragement and prayers.