Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Shield of Faith

In today's first reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, we heard about the "shield of faith" (Ephesians 6:16). In the ancient world, the shield went through a number of phases. In the heroic age, individual combat was the rule and a champion generally employed his shield without respect to others. But from time to time, one hero's shield would come to the aid of another, as in Book XI of the Iliad:
Three times [wounded Odysseus] called, as much voice as a man's head could hold,
and three times Menelaos the warlike heard him shouting
and immediately spoke to Aias, who was near by him:
'Son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, Aias, lord of the people...
let us go to [patient Odysseus] through the battle...'
Now Aias came near him, carrying like a wall his shield,
and stood forth beside him, and the Trojans fled one way and another.
Then taking Odysseus by the hand warlike Menelaos
led him from the battle...
(XI.462-5, 469, 485-8)
And so the mighty Aias the Greater used his shield to protect Odysseus and pull him back to the safety of the Greek camp.

In classical Greece, warfare was no longer about heroic individual combat, but massed infantry, called a phalanx (seen left).  Discipline, holding the line, was key.  In this age, soldiers carried large round shields, the upper lip of which rested on their shoulder.  Because the shield was on his left arm, a soldier (called a hoplite) was well-protected on the left side, but his right was a little bare.  Here he depended upon the man to his right, and in turn the man to his left depended upon him.  Thus, if one man ran, the man to his left would be exposed and he too would run. Soon the whole line would fold.

In the Roman Republic, the manipular formation replaced the old Greek phalanx. Shields once again became an individual matter, tall rectangular things that did not overlap much with one's neighbor. But in certain situations (usually when storming enemy fortresses) the Roman legions would sometimes form a so-called tortoise formation (seen below), holding up their shields to create a box, protecting everyone inside.

Well, you can probably see where this is going... St. Paul not only spoke Greek, but could even quote the Greek poets (Acts 17:28). So whether he had in mind the epics of Homer, the battles of classical Greece or the contemporary military practice of the Romans, when he wrote the phrase, "the shield of faith," there would have been a communal quality attached to it. Faith is by its very nature intercessory: it not only protects us from "the flaming arrows of the Evil One," but we are also called to reach out with that faith to protect those around us. It is not always a fun thing to do - indeed, sharing our shield of faith in the midst of battle can be dangerous - but St. Paul seems to be calling us to nothing less.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Visiting the Dead

I was admonishing my students today that next time they are in the Federal City they need to make a trip across the river and visit the tomb of Field Marshall Sir John Dill in Arlington National Cemetery (pictured below). Dill did a great deal to preserve the Anglo-American alliance during World War II and a grateful American nation honored him after his death in November 1944 by awarding him the Distinguished Service Medal and allowing him to be buried in Arlington, complete with one of two equestrian statues in the whole place. Virtually everyone visiting Arlington passes Dill's grave. Few notice it.

Sunday, November 2nd, is All Soul's Day, the day the Catholic Church sets aside to pray in a special way for the dead. Traditionally, this has included visiting a cemetery to pray for those interred there. I would encourage all of you - particularly those of you living in or near the Federal City - to take some time out of your Sunday to visit the tombs of the deceased and to pray for them. Though I'll be on the road in the morning, I hope to make a visit to the College Station Cemetery that afternoon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Geographical Celibacy

I am generally sympathetic to the values and arguments of localism. I still vote in all the city, county and school district elections back home in Arizona. I favor the repeal of the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators) to focus concerns away from the national government and back to the state legislatures. And I oppose statehood for the District of Columbia, on the principle that no one should be from the Federal City, which belongs to all the states; no one's loyalty should be to the entity which exists only to contain the national government.

In spite of this general sympathy with localism, I have not been a particularly shining example of its notions. It has been years since I read a local newspaper on a regular basis; my daily reading is the international Financial Times. Since 2002 I have lived in four different metropolitan areas, in three states and the Federal City. (Not to mention a semester in the Eternal City.) Moreover, I hope to return to the Federal City, quite possibly living out my days there. Though I sometimes buy local products - such as honey in Arizona - I cannot really claim to know anything about local markets. My sense of music is national or even international in scope; I can name few local acts for any of the places that I have lived. And though I have many friends in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, where I once lived, I cannot claim to have really known any of my immediate neighbors at this or any of my previous houses, except the one in which I grew up.

Am I simply a hypocrite, living a contradiction?, I asked myself not too long ago. Well, that is probably part of it. But there is also another explanation at work. In the past, I have made three moves, each of approximately 1,500 miles. Why? It has been an educational calling, at each stage going to the best school I could find (and afford) in the field in question. And in the future, why will I probably end up in the Federal City? Because I hope to teach diplomatic and military history to a rising generation of foreign policy practitioners. In each case, the lure of local life has been overruled by a particular call, a vocation. The result is a sort of geographical celibacy, a renunciation of many of the joys of place, of a home, in order to serve in a different way.

If there is a certain amount of validity to this line of thought - and I would like to think there is - that does not necessarily give me or anyone else a carte blanche to ignore local life. Even amidst the frequent moves and the awkwardness of Federal City's special case, I can - indeed, must - try to enter into and contribute to the local community, the local discourse. That is not always an easy thing to do in a here-today-gone-tomorrow situation, but I guess that is just one of the consequences of geographic celibacy, being a sojourner in strange lands.

Photo credit: I believe this picture is the work of Miss Abigail Jovanovich.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Catholic Vote 2008

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but a good reminder that, amidst all the talking heads and humorous commentary, real things are at stake in this election.

How should we sponsor art?

How do artists make a living at something that is, in a strictly economic sense, useless and unprofitable?

Most importantly for my purposes today, where should they get their money from?

I just read an article claiming that in America about 90% of art is sponsored by private means, and 10% of the money comes from government subsidies. In certain European countries, on the other hand, the numbers are the other way around; governments there subsidize 90% of art, while private donations make up the other 10%.

The author of the article also implied that it is rather crass for private corporations to sponsor so much art, as if the millionaires were saying, “Art is a luxury, not a necessity. And you owe this luxury to Mr. Moneybags.” The author of the article obviously held just the opposite, that art is a necessity that should be provided for by the state.

As we all can recognize, however, private corporations aren’t the only organizations with ulterior motives for supporting certain artists over others. How many state subsidies for art go to completely unworthy artists because they are friends of a politician or because they support a certain political agenda? Neither government nor private enterprise is safe from trying to use art for its own purposes.

At the same time, however, it is obvious that many great works of art are due to the patronage of government (e.g. court painters) or business (e.g. Charles Dickens writing for profitable magazines).

Where, then, should the money come from? Should it come from the government, from private corporations, or from somewhere else? Is there a best solution?

Monday, October 20, 2008


'Tis the season - up here at least, since the South has some time left of summer, I think. This is still the best poem I have come across in describing autumn, perhaps because, as a friend once noted, it's more about the mood, a kind of melancholy, than a pictoral description.

The Wild Swans at Coole - W.B. Yeats

THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Of Textual Analysis and Presidental Elections

Some time ago I was reading a book by a fellow named Rex Mason and I came across this passage:
It is difficult to know exactly how the 'kingship' to which Saul was appointed was understood. There are conflicting accounts of how he came to be made king. In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and demand a king, much to Samuel's displeasure. In 1 Samuel 9.1-10.1, Samuel, the prophet, is directed by God to anoint Saul, who turns up at his house asking for an oracle to guide him to his father's lost sheep. In 1 Samuel 10.17-25, Saul is chosen by lot at an assembly of the Israelites convened by Samuel. In 1 Samuel 11, Saul is designated because of his military prowess against the threat of the Ammonites and is 'made king' at Gilgal.

In the midst of all this confusion, Mason concludes that this jumble results from pro-David, anti-Saul propaganda cranked out by the Davidic court, obscuring the truth about how Saul really became king.

I find this sort of interpretation terribly aggravating not because Mason ignores the claims of Scripture as God's revelation and in the process badmouths one of my favorite Old Testament figures. No, I find the interpretation of Mason and those like him aggravating because it's so darn uncreative. Are they so naive as to believe that coronations are always cut and dry affairs, and any other sort of account must have been manipulated?

Let us assume that years from now a Masonite analyst is reading over an account of our own times; his commentary might run something like this:
It is difficult to know exactly how the 'presidency' to which George W. Bush was elected was understood. There are conflicting accounts of how he came to office. In 1 Linderman 8, a faction of the people come to Bush and 'nominate' him president. In 1 Linderman 9.1-10.1, Bush loses the popular vote of an election, and presumably the office. But in 1 Linderman 10.17-25, Bush wins the votes of a body known as the 'Supreme Court,' which does not make him president, but allows him to win an election in one particular state, called Florida. In 1 Linderman 11, Bush wins yet another election, this one in a body called the 'Electoral College'. Then in 2 Linderman 1 Bush is 'sworn into office' by a judge, election by yet another means.

Clearly, nothing that complex could ever have really happened...

This post first appeared on the Quincy House blog in September 2007, under the title, "A Note on Textual Analysis."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Just When You Think You've Seen It All...

So I guess it is no secret among those who know me that I like maps. I am the proud owner of a National Geographic Atlas of the World (sixth edition), a massive blue thing that could kill an unsuspecting bystander if you weren't careful.

But now an even more excellent atlas has come to my attention, the Millennium House Earth. With 576 pages, 154 maps, 800 photos and four six-feet by four-feet fold-outs, the leather-bound Earth weighs in at 70 lbs. And costs $3,500.00 There is also a special deluxe edition with gold leather, gold gilding, and gold plated corners. Oh man!

PS Special thanks to CrunchGear and CNN for covering this important product. And to Paul of the Quincy House for telling me about it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Advertising Chicanery

This morning I was listening to Pop Radio, which I will admit that I sometimes do. I could excuse myself and tell you it was to listen for traffic, but I must admit that sometimes I just have an interest in psycho-analyzing the newscasters and what they choose to announce. While I was conducting this 'research' an advertisement came up for a spa that does those essential things such as liposuction, skin lifts, and hair-lasering (note the sarcasm). They proudly announced that in light of the financial crisis no payments would have to be made till October 2009.

Now I ask you- how is anyone's financial crisis going to be lifted if in a year's time they are billed for expenses they couldn't afford and forgot to budget for? Advertisers, as well as many businesses, do not hesitate to capitalize on lending false sympathy to individuals, while trying to deepen their debt.

Whatever happened to advertising as a means to fulfill a need of the public? Whatever happened to businesses who were honest about their products? Whatever happened to the news as a public service? Okay...rant over, perhaps I should lay off the radio.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Deep Delight

Aaron's post below brought to mind two things. The first is a series which I've been watching lately by BBC called Planet Earth. It is perhaps a mix between a nature documentary, a travel show, a poem, and a great work of art. It reflects the vastness of our universe and the wonders of our planet. The most striking aspect, however, is that the simplest scenes give you a deep awe and joy. Whether it be an African Elephant roaming miles to an oasis, the sea cresting on the Antarctica coast, or a antelope escaping, it is a series worth watching.

The second is a poem which I would like to share with you. It is one of my favorites because it describes so aptly this wanderlust or the deep seeded desire to see beauty in unknown places.

Tell Me a Story

by Robert Penn Warren
[ A ]Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.

[ B ]Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.


Ever feel the need to just get up and go somewhere? While - alas - stuck in front of your office computer? Well the folks over at GOOD Magazine have solved your dilemma, mapping historical and fictional journeys on a nifty interface with quotes, pictures, and neat little facts. The voyages chronicled include: Magellan's Circumnavigation, Phileas Fogg's 80 day race, Marco Polo's known route, and Charles Lindberg's flight over the Atlantic. It's a great time-killer...

Special thanks to Margaret Perry, whose Ten Thousand Places blog first brought this to my attention.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Tale of Two Tshirts

The other day I saw a tshirt that read, "I got ninety nine problems but a BABY ain't one!" At the bottom some sex ed program proudly declared its sponsorship of this apparel. My heart sunk. If you consider babies a problem, let me suggest that your issues may run far deeper than the mere mechanics of procreation (or the inhibiting thereof).

But my moral and sartorial spirits were lifted on Sunday when a visiting priest told a story about being at the local park with his parish's youth minister, who pointed out a parish family across the way. It was a fairly young couple, with husband and wife both about thirty years old. With them were five children. The wife and children all wore matching tshirts which read, "No, we're not done. We're just getting started." Awesome!

Not having seen the young family myself, I cannot venture much of a guess, but it would not surprise me if the young parents were far happier people than the wearer of the sex ed tshirt (who did not seem a particularly happy gal). It is a situation almost universally observed at pro- and anti-abortion rallies, where the people who support baby killing just seem like bitter people. The selfishness and loneliness inherent in viewing the lives of others as problems will catch up to you sooner or later.

Just another reason I'm glad I'm Catholic.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sixteen Military Wives

For you fans of the Decemberists out there, here's one of their videos I came across:

Stephen Colbert described the Decemberists as "hyper-literate prog rock." I once mentioned that in a loud bar and someone thought I had said "hyper-lyric." It could be true; you would be hard pressed to find another musical act with music so full of rich vocabulary, esoteric allusions, dramatic twists and buckets of pathos. (I think pretty much any of their albums could safely be titled "Love and Death.") One of the fun things about their videos is that they do not content themselves with a few shots of the band playing, interspersed with fairly vague and generic scenes which probably have to do with the lyrical content of the song. No, they usually proceed to tell another story, similar to - but often different from - that told in the song. It is almost as though the song is simply the soundtrack for a film short, rather than the film simply being the image side of a music video. In any case, the result is a highly complex assemblage of instruments and vocals, words and images. Like their music generally, the Decemberists' music videos are probably considerably denser than our usual fare, but I think they are quite worth the added digestion.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Do We Have a Canon?

The other day I was conducting a certain thought experiment: What if there were an old-fashioned boarding school - let's call it St. Boniface College - with lots of ancient buildings and esoteric old traditions. And let us assume that among those traditions are readings at the beginning of meal times, somewhat like in monastic refectories. To what sort of readings would I have the boys (and girls too, if this is a coed place) listen?

Some countries have a national epic or a pretty short list of canonical works that express who they are, where they have come from and what they stand for. But do I, an Anglophonic American Catholic Christian, a child of the Western Tradition, have a short list of works that I could share with a rising generation at the beginning of each meal? Well, I've endeavored to produce such a list.

Certain works have been excluded because their genre does not fit the context of the thought experiment. (Aquinas' On Being and Essence, no matter how important it may - or may not - be, is never going to make good reading for communal meals.)

Sacred Scripture

Homer, The Iliad
--, Odyssey
Virgil, Aeneid
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Polybius, Histories
Livy, From the Founding of the City
Unknown, Beowulf
Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Willibald, Life of St. Boniface
Various, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
William of Tyre, History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Unknown, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Thomas Mallory, Le Morte D'Arthur
Edmund Spender, The Faerie Queene
John Milton, Paradise Lost

William Shakespeare, Tragedies, Comedies and Histories

In the end I decided that Sacred Scripture and the works of Shakespeare were too large and too important to have to share a rotating schedule with anything else, so they each get their own meal. I'm fairly happy with this list, except that there are no American works. Granted, there are a number of works that we can safely say the American Founders read, so I'm not overly concerned about it, but, still, it would be nice to see something from this side of the Pond.

There were several honorable mentions that almost made the list:

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans
Tacitus, Histories or Annals
Nennius, History of the Britons
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain

Any thoughts from the readership? Suggestions? Things that didn't make the cut, that should have? Or things that I let in that should have been excluded?

Post script: A little while ago on another blog I wrote a post about things that changed my life: books, music, other works of art. There is some overlap, though I think you'll find the scope is somewhat different. Still, if you find one list interesting, you may be intrigued by the other.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tired of the 24-Hour News Cycle

I must confess something. I do appreciate the fact that the Internet can bring us obscene amounts of information in just a couple seconds. For example, I can't imagine doing legal research without Internet databases. Looking up every case by hand would be brain-numbing and a waste of time.

The dark side of the information superhighway, though, is that most news stories last only a few hours. To compensate for our short attention span, the news media just flood us with more and more information. I simply cannot keep up with the news media.

That's where the 1783 edition of The Onion comes in handy.

(To view a larger version simply click on the image.)