Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Flight in the Desert

by Brother Antoninus

The last settlement scraggled out with a barbed wire fence
And fell from sight. They crossed coyote country:
Mesquite, sage, the bunchgrass knotted in patches;
And there the prairie dog yapped in the valley;
And on the high plateau the short-armed badger
Delved his clay. But beyond that the desert,
Raw, unslakable, its perjured dominion wholly contained
In the sun's remorseless mandate, where the dim trail
Died ahead in the watery horizon: God knows where.

And there the failures: skull of the ox,
Where the animal terror trembled on in the hollowed eyes;
The catastrophic wheel, split, sandbedded;
And the sad jawbone of a horse. These the denials
Of the retributive tribes, fiercer than pestilence,
Whose scrupulous realm this was.

Only the burro took no notice: the forefoot
Placed with the nice particularity of one
To who the evil of the day is wholly sufficient.
Even the jocular ears marked time,
But they, the man and the anxious woman,
Who stared pinch-eyed into the settling sun,
They went forward into its denseness
All apprehensive, and would many a time have turned
But for what they carried. That brought them on,
In the gritty blanket they bore the world's great risk,
And knew it; and kept it covered, near to the blind heart,
That hugs in a bad hour its sweetest need,
Possessed against the drawn night
That comes now, over the dead arroyos,
Cold and acrid and black.

This was the first of his goings forth into the wilderness of the world.
There was much to follow: much of portent, much of dread.
But what was so meek then and so mere, so slight and strengthless,
(Too tender, almost, to be touched)--what they nervously guarded
Guarded them. As we, each day, from the lifted chalice,
That strengthless Bread the mildest tongue subsumes,
To be taken out in the blantant kingdom,
Where Herod sweats, and his deft henchmen
Riffle the tabloids--that keeps us.

Over the campfire the desert moon
Slivers the west, too chaste and cleanly
To mean hard luck. The man rattles the skillet
To take the raw edge of the silence;
The woman lifts up her heart; the Infant
Knuckles the generous breast, and feeds.

* * *

This is kind of a long poem to do a very complete commentary of. I found it in my mother's prayer book, and despite its modern style it appeals to me. (I don't know who Brother Antoninus is, I'm afraid.)

Setting the Flight into the Desert in a desert which seems straight out of the American Southwest seems incongruous, but it makes the biblical event seem much easier to understand. This is what desert means to us; it's not a vague idea of wilderness but a dry, abandoned, rather frightening place.

The phrase "God knows where" at the end of the first stanza is striking. God knows where the road ends if no one else does.

And of course the paradox of the Child whom they guarded guarding them . . . not a new idea, but it's never old. It's a nice parallel between that and the Eucharist, how we carry Christ forth into the dangerous world, "the blatant kingdom."

The last bit is homey and familiar, as Joseph cooks over the fire and tries to make noise because it's too quiet, and Mary nurses baby Jesus.

The entire poem tries to make the biblical story real and practical to the modern mind without compromising any of the eternal meaning -- and, in my opinion, succeeds very well.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fire in the Earth

by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

It is done.
Once again the Fire has penetrated the earth
Not with the sudden crash of thunderbolt,
riving the mountain tops:
does the Master break down doors to enter his own home?
Without earthquak.e, or thunderclap:
the flame has lit up the whole world from within.
All things individually and collectively
are penetrated and flooded by it,
from the inmost core of the tiniest atom
to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being:
so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy,
every connecting link in the unity of our cosmos,
that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.

* * *

I have heard of Teilhard de Chardin, but I never read anything of his before this poem. I like it: it seems to convey the paradox between the extreme subtlety of Christ's coming -- silently in a manger where He might have come in the loudest thunder -- and the vast extent that the universe has been silently changed.

To all my fellow bloggers: "a very merry Christmas, and many may you see!"

(Internet cookie to whoever names that quote.)

A Defence of Blogging

I never did a fisk before, but this letter to the editor I read in the last National Catholic Register seemed to demand a response. This woman replied to an article about gossipping in the blogosphere with a long rant about blogging in general. She actually does give reasons for what she thinks -- but I still think she's wrong.

My first objection to blogging has to do with the cult of the individual. Just what is it that makes every blogger, Catholics included, feel that their views are worthy of public display? Why the need to broadcast to "whomever" the way I feel about something? Or addictively check to see how others have responded to my comments, or the comments of others? Why this need to elicit, from strangers, a response to my feelings?

My second objection is the weirdness of the virtual relationships among bloggers. Bloggers act as though they are buddies who really know each other, who have actual involvement in one another's lives. I think this "virtual community" is an illusion at best, dangerous at worst.

The blogosphere isn't a real community. It invites the dangerous high of abandoning our real families, those in our real lives who are waiting for us to get the heck off the computer and find time for them. The people in our real lives are waiting for us to come to dinner, read us a story, give us a kiss, hear about our day, empty the trash.

How different is the fleeting, stimulating, anonymous interaction -- focused on our refined areas of interest and stripped of real-life pressures and stresses -- from using por.nography? Not much.

Jennifer Heath
Greenfield, Massachusetts

Okay, first off, let me try and see if this might apply to things other than blogging. Let's try seminar-style classes. We have a lot of those at college, after all. But let's imagine this is a large public college, where the people don't live together and don't know each other all that well. Here we go.

My first objection to seminars has to do with the cult of the individual. Just what is it that makes every student, Catholics included, feel that their views are worthy of public display? Why the need to broadcast to the whole class the way I feel about something? Or listen to see how others respond to my comments? Why this need to elicit, from people who I don't know well, a response to my feelings?

My second objection is the weirdness of relationships among among students. They act as though they are buddies who really know each other, but really, they're in an artificial environment. They haven't even visited each other at home.

College isn't a real community. It invites the dangerous high of abandoning our real families, those who are waiting for us to come home from staying late after class and find time for them.

How different is the fleeting, stimulating interaction -- focused on our refined areas of interest and stripped of real-life pressures and stresses -- from having an affair? Not much.

It works, I think. If you start from the premise that having conversations with people who are not close friends and family about our "refined areas of interest" is wrong, then college seminars are wrong too. So are conversations about work with work buddies. These people have never seen you wake up in the morning, have never sat beside you at Mass, have never made you take out the trash, so how can you really be friends? And if you're not "real" friends, how can you presume to talk to these people?

Answer to Objection 1. I really don't think it's a "cult of the individual" when individuals want to express their individual ideas. It's the same as when one old gentleman in a pub puts his feet on the table and says, "You know what I think of that politician?" Once he's finished, he wants to hear what the other men have to say about his idea. If they think he's a moron, he wants to hear it so he can refine his ideas. This is what people do. We do it all the time, and it's not a new, modern idea either. It's the same, I would put forth, as a woman writing to a newspaper to put in her two cents about what the newspaper said. Why does she think her views are worthy of public display? Probably because she realizes the public is no different from herself: ordinary people who read the paper and are looking for what people think on these issues. And I simply do not see any moral or logical difference between a newspaper that is in print and a blog that is on a computer: if either is an arena to share your thoughts, it doesn't really matter what the medium is.

Answer to Objection 2. The "it's just weird" argument. I don't find this one carries much weight. Bloggers do know they don't have much actual involvement in people's lives. We just accept that it's a different kind of relationship than the kind we have with our family and close friends. It's an intellectual relationship, the kind you have with an author when you read a book of theirs and feel you know them. You write to the author saying whether you agree or disagree with what they said, and if they write you back, you have a relationship. It's a long-distance relationship, and of course they don't know you like your mother does, but that doesn't mean it's completely not worth your while to write to this person. You and this author are exchanging ideas, which helps both of you think.

Answer to Objection 3. "The blogosphere isn't a real community." Depends on what you mean by "real," doesn't it? I hold that ideas are real, and sharing real ideas makes a real community. It's a different kind than the community of people you talk with in person, of course, but no one's denying that. I still think a community of ideas is worthwhile. It's not a new idea to have communities of "men of letters" who read each other's work and write letters to each other. The fact that the internet now makes it available to more of us than before doesn't change much.

Answer to Objection 4. "It is a fleeting, stimulating, anonymous interaction, focused on our refined areas of interest and stripped of real-life pressures and stresses, so it's just like por.nography." I could see that's how a housewife might feel, stuck with the baby and the cooking while her husband is discussing lofty subjects with his friends off somewhere. To her, he might as well be having an affair. But isn't it because she's a little jealous, and she'd rather he were discussing things with her? I certainly think no one should neglect the home folks just because they'd rather have intellectual conversations with people who don't ask them to take out the trash. But I do think both the intellectual conversations and the trash have their proper place. Studying philosophy or poetry may seem like pretty useless things in the "real world." But it's only when you dedicate the time to them to unpack the kernel of deep truth within the subject that you can bring that kernel and make it bear fruit in your daily life.

Sometimes you can focus on your refined areas of interest, and sometimes you have to focus on real-life pressures and stresses. But to demand that all of every person's time must be spent "eating dinner, reading a story, emptying the trash" is a bit much. One's primary duty is to his family, of course. But can't he take a half hour every day to think about "higher things" which he can bring to his family later, enriching everyone? That's the point, you know.

If anyone is blogging just for a sense of self-satisfaction that someone else is reading what they wrote and thinking, "Wow, what a smart person that is," they're wasting their time. But if they're trying to refine their ideas through submitting them to the eyes of others, they're forming themselves. And if they're refusing to hide the light that is their thoughts and their ideas under a bushel basket, but instead sharing them with other people to enrich their lives too, they're doing an act of charity as well.

N.B. Blogging can be addictive. I think every blogger knows this, because you can hop from one blog to another, trying to keep up with everything people have to say. The sheer volume is just too much, and so you're just going to have to stop before you've read it all. A reasonable and self-controlled person will stop with plenty of time to take care of what needs to be. If those around us are complaining that we're always sunk into the computer, we have to listen and consider: are we spending more time on blogging and less on the most important things than we should? It is a danger of which we must all be aware.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

For the Time Being

by W. H. Auden

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

* * *

I came across this poem in the back of my mother's prayer book, and was rather struck with it. It's awfully paradoxical, but I think that's why I like it.

The first stanza is fairly simple. Man is lost in the knowledge of evil, and is so surrounded by it he begins to wonder if God might be evil too. He is too afraid to seek the Father, and is stuck alone.

The second stanza is brimfull of paradox. It's looking back to the time when we had faith: we broke the law of man for the Law of God; we denied our flesh's passion and our mind's freedom for Justice. But faith, the Law and the Justice of God, are gone. We are separated from them.

The third stanza shows despair. This is when I think it becomes clearer that the poem deals with man before the coming of Christ. We tried, the poem says, but it didn't work. We tried following God and here we are stuck in the forest, so conscious of our own sin we are afraid of Him. The old Law was so demanding that it was impossible to follow, so it only led to despair when man found he could not live up to it.

The fourth stanza shows the answer: only a miracle will save us. But we know, looking back from after the birth of Christ, that this miracle will happen. Of course it's impossible for the Infinite to become finite -- but nothing possible can save us. We need a miracle.

And we received a miracle: God became man, and no amount of familiarity with the old Christmas story can really blunt the shock of the miracle. God came through and gave us an impossible thing to save us.

Monday, December 18, 2006

from Epigrams and Epitaphs

by C. S. Lewis

Have you not seen that in our days
Of any whose story, song, or art
Delights us, our sincerest praise
Means, when all's said, 'You break my heart'?

* * *

One of my favorite little short poems. Why is it that the most beautiful things always break our hearts? Is it because only what we love can break our heart -- or because we love what already breaks our heart?

It reminds me of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "My soul is all but out of me" -- things can be too beautiful to bear, so beautiful they hurt, and yet we don't want to stop looking at them. I suppose it's just because our hearts hurt from being overfilled, and yet we want to fill our hearts with beautiful things all the same.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dante's Tomb

As promised, here are some pictures of Dante's tomb in Ravenna. I finally managed to upload these now that I'm on a different computer. (We evacuated to my grandparents' house after a huge storm hit our area and left us without power or heat. news story )

The tomb.

Me with Dante.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Pinecone

Yes, Meredith, it's true.

This is me with a pinecone in Ravenna. It was just sitting outside the church, on this pillar, with palmettos all around it.

Where did the idea of Catholics worshiping pinecones come from anyway?

Monday, December 11, 2006

from The Imitation of Christ

by Thomas a Kempis

On the Advantage of Not Having Everything Our Own Way

It is good that everything is not always to our liking; for adversity makes people look into their hearts in order to realize that they are exiles and must not put their hopes in any wordly thing.

It is good for us to run into opposition and have others think badly of us, even when our intentions are good. For these things help us to be humble and rid us of pride. Then we seek God more earnestly, Who alone knows our inmost self, when outwardly we are ignored and discredited by others.

2. Therefore, people should rely so entirely on God that they have no need to look for human consolations when adversity comes. When people of good disposition are afflicted or tempted or distracted by evil thoughts, then they understand the need they have of God and that without Him they can do nothing.

Then too they grieve, while they sigh and pray because of the miseries they endure. They grow weary of this life and long for death in order to be with Christ, their Lord. It will also be clear to them that there is neither perfect peace nor security in this world.

* * *

Advent is a good time for a little spiritual reading, and I have been enjoying The Imitation of Christ, which I got in Rome. Thomas a Kempis is a hard teacher, though. He might be better for someone in religious life. He says you should be detached from everything, speak no unnecessary words, avoid spending time with young or foolish people, and so forth, while I think that since my vocation is to be in the world, some of that advice might be a bad idea if I were to follow it. If I did half of what he suggests, I'd be much holier. If I did all of it, I might be Jansenist. Still, I would advise the book because it reminds me of my many shortcomings.

He's certainly spot-on in this chapter. I've often found that the only time I lose something I valued is when it is more important to me than God. It happens again and again: God gives me something, an object, a situation, a task, and I accept it because He gave it to me. Then I love it because it is God's will. Then I love it for itself. Then I start to focus on it and forget the One Who gave it to me. The next thing I know, it's gone because earthly things do go, and God is looking at me and asking, "Why are you so distressed? You didn't lose Me, the one thing you said was most important to you."

And that's when I have to learn that nothing is of any value apart from Him. I guess only adversity can teach me that.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On first looking into Chapman's Homer

by John Keats

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

* * *

This Petrarchan sonnet shows how important the task of the translator can be. There are so many "realms of gold" quite untravellable to the English speaker without a translation. Furthermore, the translation has to be a good one, like Chapman's seems to have been: "loud and bold." The good translator transmits the tone of the original and not just the facts, so that the reader does not simply know the story, but actually travels in the realm of the story.

The pictures is of a "realm of gold" I travelled: Ravenna. I had expected a few more echoes of its Byzantine past than I found. Unfortunately, you have to pay to get to see any of the mosaics -- nearly all the churches with Byzantine art cost to get in, and I was too cheap to try it. But there was plenty of gold in the gingko trees, which God never asked payment for.

I also saw Dante's tomb. (Blogger refuses to upload the pictures. I will just have to post them later. Sorry.)

Dante died in Ravenna, exiled from Florence. Once he was dead the Florentines wanted his body, but Ravenna refused, on the reasonable grounds that they hadn't wanted him living, so they certainly weren't going to get the glory from him dead. The fight over his body lasted centuries. Finally the Florentines got the Pope on their side. He ordered Ravenna to surrender the body. Reluctantly, the Ravennese opened the sarcophagus, only to find that Dante wasn't inside! A Ravenna patriot had stolen and hidden the poet's remains. They were finally returned in the 19th century, and have stayed in Ravenna ever since.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


I've finally had time to browse a bit through the blogsphere. A while ago Meredith wrote a post on triolets which everyone who enjoyed the triolet contest should read. Apparently many people wrote triolets besides Chesterton, I just never came across them myself.

Also, she linked to a fascinating site written in the persona of Chaucer, which, although sometimes quite inappropriate (as Chaucer was in life), is quite funny-bone tickling with its use of Middle English. The review of the recent movie Serpentes on a Shippe made me laugh enough for my mother to hear upstairs.

I'm working on some more posts, but I have to sort through an awful lot of pictures. It seemed at the time that I'd taken a lot, but now I see that a lot of them would only be interesting to me. But don't worry, I'll get some up, and maybe some poems soon too.