Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Christmas Mystery, as told by The Friendly Beasts

Although I have been known to criticize, in passing, the over-emphasis on carols at Christmas, today I'd like to draw attention to a worthy carol and some aspects of its lyrics. The song is "The Friendly Beasts," known by many people from recent recordings, though the melody and lyrics both have their roots in medieval France.

Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood
Jesus our brother, kind and good

I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown
I carried His mother up hill and down
I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town
I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown

I said the cow, all white and red
I gave Him my manger for His bed
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head
I said the cow, all white and red

I said the sheep, with curly horn
I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn
I said the sheep, with curly horn

I said the dove, from the rafters high
I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry
We cooed Him to sleep, my love and I
I said the dove, from the rafters high

Thus every beast, by some good spell
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel

While a cute story about animals at Jesus's birth, the song also probes the very meaning of the Incarnation, the coming of God as a man. Imagine, for a moment, that the president, the pope, a famous writer, or some other person you deeply respected was coming to your home or church. Think of the excitement, both before and after. For years, you'd tell friends and neighbors, "Right there, on that corner of the deck, Pope Francis and I sat and drank a few brews together."

But consider another wrinkle: God is not merely someone you respect or even a dear friend. He is these things, but He is also your maker and judge. His power circumscribes all things. His will holds us in existence. His judgements are perfect and final, for He circumscribes even time itself. It would be with excitement, yes, but also fear and trembling that you would tell your neighbors, "God is coming to my house."

But then a curious thing happens, and it is this point where "The Friendly Beasts" really begins its reflection: God comes "not as a monarch but a child" (as an Ambrosian hymn reminds us). Almightly God is weak. And, as a consequence, He needs our help. Thus do the beasts recount their deeds of kindness to the Christ Child: "I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town.... I gave Him my manger for His bed.... He wore my coat on Christmas morn.... I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry." As if to emphasize the wonder that they, mere creatures, should render such service to their creator, each of the verses ends with a reminder that this happened to them, personally.

I'm not sure I understand how God became man. I can't explain quite why He needed our help. Indeed, the Church tells us that the Incarnation is a mystery; at its deepest core it is something we cannot fully explain. But we can revel in the wonder of it all. That is what we do at Christmas and that's what the friendly beasts do.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Note from Myself

A couple weeks ago my wife and I visited my family in Arizona. Among other things, we went to mass with them on Sunday, the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Also, I cleaned out some old school notebooks and things while I was there. Scribbled on the back of a reader from a UD History of Germany class, I found this short reflection:
Today's flight was glorious beyond description. We were in a small plane and flew low out of the Valley, due east, over the Superstition Mountains, some open pit copper mines, and a series of canyons. The landscape was so wild, and so beautiful, and so lovely that words fail me. I suspect that standing on the peak of Olympus Mons, surrounded by such barren beauty, would be rather akin to my aerial survey. I nearly cried to think that such wonders are passing away with the rest of the created universe, longing for that same redemption I seek. But I found solace in the thought of sharing such a vision, and in seeing it reborn in the hereafter.

-Sunday, November 9th, 2003
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Guy Fawkes Day Means to Me

Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Day, is a curious holiday.  It commemorates the failure on 5 November 1605 of the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme by a group of Catholics to blow up parliament and the Protestant King James I.  The plotters were betrayed, the barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords were discovered in time, and the king's life was spared.

Members of the Gunpowder Plot
I find this a curious occasion to commemorate because it conforms neither to the major trend in holidays, nor to the primary exception.  Most holidays celebrate glorious triumphs such as victories in battle (e.g. Lepanto Day / Feast of the Holy Rosary), political successes (usually independence), or momentous spiritual events (e.g. the Incarnation or the Resurrection).  Some holidays, such as Thanksgiving, do not celebrate a particular triumph, but point to successes generally.  Apart from this major trend of celebrating victory, there is an exceptional category of holidays, which recall tragic failures, either gloriously defiant (e.g. the Alamo or the July 20 Conspiracy), or horrors from which we have, broadly speaking, taken some meaning or learned some lesson (e.g. Good Friday, September 11th, or Memorial Day).

But why do the English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day?  One might say it has become little more than an excuse for fireworks and bonfires, and this is probably true, but it only pushes the question to one step remove: why this day, and not some other?  The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was as much the fault of bumbling plotters as it was as success for the Crown and its supporters.  More to the point, the Plot was defeated not in honest battle or by national effort, but by shadowy intrigue.  Hardly the stuff of most victories.

Guy Fawkes Day, Lewes, England, 2011
Sadly, the real reason Guy Fawkes Day may have caught on in England is that it offered a chance to spite Catholics.  Indeed, the centerpieces of Guy Fawkes celebrations has traditionally been the burning in effigy of Mr. Fawkes and the pope.  Although other figures are often substituted today, this makes the holiday more than a tad bit awkward for Catholics.

But I have come to see the need for a third kind of holiday, the commemoration which does not yet possess resolution.  Perhaps my recent excursions into the historical books of the Old Testament have pushed me in this direction, for they are mostly filled with rebellions, defeats, and exile, epitomized by  Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon, / there we sat down and wept, / when we remembered Zion. / On the willows there we hung up our lyres. / For there our captors / required of us songs, / and our tormentors, mirth, saying, / 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' / How shall we sing the Lord’s song / in a foreign land?"  We have a small appetite for commemorating such events when they are recent, though memory quickly fades.  But history is replete with such calamities.  The burden of history, though it need not be overwhelming, certainly rests heavy on us, if only we open our eyes to see it.

For me, Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the difficulty of living in the world but not of it.  It commemorates the confusion that results when trying to square the demands of eternal faith with the demands of temporal politics.  It commemorates well-intentioned devotion gone awry.  It commemorates the reality that my co-coreligionists have undertaken actions I cannot always explain or justify.  It commemorates divided Christendom.  This is, or should be, a painful open wound.  Although there are lessons to be learned, I do not think we are yet at the point where we can say that we have learned them.  For now, we must simply recall.  We must bear the weight of history and trust that wisdom, some day, will follow.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

St. Augustine on Music

I have recently been reading through a delightful little volume titled Augustine Day by Day (hence the recent post from his Confessions).  One of the joys found in reading these daily selections is that you start to notice certain recurrent themes and topics, such as these passages on music:
Dear friends, sing the Psalm with human reason, not like birds.  Thrushes, parrots, ravens, magpies, and the like are often taught to say what they do not understand.  However, to know what we are saying was granted by God's will to human nature.  Hence, we who have learned in the Church to sing God's words should be eager to do so.  We should know and see with a clear mind what we have all sung together with one voice. (Commentary on Psalm 18, 2) 
Indeed, Lord, the days were not long enough as I found wonderful delight in meditating upon the depth of Your design for the salvation of the human race.  I wept at the beauty of Your hymns, and I was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing.  Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart.  My feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them. (Confessions IX, 6)
Today's icon of St. Augustine comes from Monastery Icons.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Because Augustine Is Always a Good Idea

A couple passages from Augustine's Confessions for your Monday:
I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”; and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants answered, “Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; and they answered, “Neither are we the God whom you seek.” And I replied to all these things which stand around the door of my flesh: “You have told me about my God, that you are not he. Tell me something about him.” And with a loud voice they all cried out, “He made us.” (Book X, 6)

Belatedly I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved you. For see, you were within and I was without, and I sought you out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. These things kept me far from you; even though they were not at all unless they were in you. You called and cryed aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shone, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for you. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for you peace. (Book X, 27)
From the Outlier translation, brought to you by Georgetown University.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Auden's "September 1, 1939"

Earlier this year I discovered W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939," thanks to an article in the Financial Times. The poem records Auden's reaction to the news that the Germans had invaded Poland. I found the text at this website. You can also find comments on some of the more esoteric lines here.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing the Beatitudes Anew

Recently I have been reading Matthew's Gospel and I was really struck by the Beatitudes, both for their forcefulness and their role in framing the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, indeed, arguably the rest of the Gospel.  I have probably heard these read from the pulpit a hundred times, but here they are again, from Chapter 5:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you  because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For me, and likely many others, familiarity has largely emptied these statements of their meaning.  So permit me the liberty of re-writing these as a kind of manifesto for what it means to be a Christian, a member of the Body of Christ (which, after all, takes its lead from Jesus, the Head):
We care deeply about the holiness of the world and deeply lament the tragedy of sin (5:4, 6). 
We choose the values of the Kingdom over those of the world:
Humility over arrogance (5:5)
Poverty over wealth (5:3)
Purity over lust (5:8)
Mercy over vengeance (5:7)
Peace over war (5:9) 
In all these things, we expect and welcome the persecutions which will come our way, for so were the prophets and Christ Himself persecuted (5:10-12).
Before you go and start quibbling, let me offer several caveats for this rough paraphrase.  Jesus says that such people are blessed; He does not, per se, tell us that we need to choose such things, only that we are blessed if they come our way.  Still, I'm hard pressed to see why a Christian would not want to seek a life of blessing.  Admittedly, some of the terminology has been shifted a bit, for example, Matthew uses the phrase "poor in spirit," whereas I have employed simply "poverty."  However, in Luke's parallel, he simply writes, "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20) and, in any case, I think it is difficult to be poor in spirit without at least contemplating the possibility of literally being poor.  I have tied mourning and thirsting for righteous to the idea of caring about the salvation of the world.  You might argue that there is more to these two beatitudes than this particular reading, and you're probably right, but I think this kind of deep interior mourning over the eternal death of sin is a key part of what Jesus is talking about.  Finally, one might note that Jesus here praises poverty and peacemaking without explicitly condemning their opposites, though such condemnations are certainly to be found elsewhere (e.g. Luke 6:24, "Woe to you who are rich!").

I can only conclude that this is a profoundly radical, even otherworldly, call which is made to us.  You might call it counter-cultural, and so it is, though I think counter-worldly might be a better term.  Notice the nature of the blessings; they are blessings in the Kingdom of Heaven, not here below.  One can easily imagine someone deriding the Beatitudes: The poor receive the Kingdom of Heaven, but you can't put that on the table.  Will the meek really inherit the land?  More likely they'll be exploited.  "Children of God" may be the only compliment the peacemakers are paid; others will probably call them idealists or naïve dreamers.  Right here, at the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus identifies the Gospel with the "Kingdom," a strong, glorious, and strikingly political term.  He then promptly turns this kingdom on its head, marking it as a kingdom of humility.

And far from turning away from the Beatitudes, Matthew's Gospel continually comments on them.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount elaborates upon them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.  
  • "You cannot serve God and money" (6:24).  
  • "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal" (6:19).  
  • "Give us today our daily bread" (6:11).  
  • "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" (6:25).  
  • "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (7:11).   
Blessed are they who mourn.
  • "You are the salt of the earth" (5:13).  Preserve it from wickedness.   
Blessed are the meek.
  • "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others" (6:2).
  • "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them" (6:5).
  • "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites" (6:16).
  • "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).   
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • "You are the light of the world" (5:14).  Bring justice and truth to it.   
Blessed are the merciful.
  • "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" (7:1).
  • "Go first and be reconciled with your brother" (5:24).
  • "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (6:12).
  • "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you" (7:12).   
Blessed are the clean of heart.
  • "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No'" (5:37).
  • "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery" (5:28).
  • "If your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be" (6:23).   
Blessed are the peacemakers. 
  • "When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (5:39).
  • "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44).   
Blessed are they who are persecuted.
  • "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock" (7:25). 
As soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain, having preached all these things, He administers three back-to-back healings (8:1-15).  That's the fruit of this new life of humble dependence upon God: it heals our hearts, our relationships, and our society.  But we are reminded that the costs are high.  In connection with the healings, Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4, "He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Mt 8:17).  Yes, Jesus brings us healing, but at the price of His own suffering on the cross.  It is a life of suffering to which He calls us as well.  Lest we should doubt that this new life should cost us everything, Jesus reminds one would-be disciple that we must let go of our material goods ("Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head," 8:20) and asks another man to relinquish even the desires of his heart ("Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead," 8:22).  Do not doubt, however, that He to whom you entrust your life is capable of fulfilling all His promises, restoring you to wholeness and bringing you true happiness.  For as the disciples discover a few verses later, "Even the winds and the sea obey him" (8:27).  This is the King of Kings, the Lord of the Universe.  His word is good.

In the final story of Chapter 8, Jesus enters a village.  Having proclaimed the Kingdom of God, a radical kingdom of humility but also of healing, having revealed its costs but also His power to save, Jesus now drives out the village's demons and destroys their unholy herds of swine (8:28-32).  The King has entered and offered to extend His blessings to them.  "The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged Him to leave" (8:34).  They want no part in the Kingdom.  May we have the grace to accept His call.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My Short Reading List - Foreign Policy

As you might have guessed, I am a bibliophile.  I collect not only physical books but also lists of them: favorite books of various genres, books I recommend, books I'd like to read.  At one point my Amazon Wish List fulfilled this last function.  In some sense it still does.  But over the last several years this Amazon list has grown far faster than I could possibly keep up with.  It has been subdivided into various daughter lists, each of which now grows at a similarly impossible pace.  It is no longer primarily a collection of titles I would like to own or even read any time soon; rather, it is home to various titles I would like to remember for various reasons, mostly because they come strongly recommended by authorities I trust (though, admittedly, often very diverse authorities).

Hoping that perhaps others could make use of this conglomeration, even if I can do so only rarely, I have decided to share these lists here, for your perusing pleasure, in several installments, beginning with foreign policy.  I think you'll find them a far-flung bunch.  Perhaps you'll see something of interest to you and pick it up.  If you do, please, let me know what you thought.  And if you've already read some of these titles, likewise, please, share a short review.


Military History, pre-1900.  So vast is my interest in military history that I eventually had to bifurcate it.  This list runs the gammut from the ancient world, through the medieval period, all the way to the likes of the American Civil War.  It includes Michael Decker's The Byzantine Art of War, William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, Robert Tonsetic's Special Operations in the American Revolution, and others.

Military History, 1900-present.  This list is my natural intellectual home.  My dissertation on the origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) included discussions of conflicts in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia in the four decades preceding the Second World War and how lessons from those conflicts were applied by the Allies.  This list covers similar ground.  It's heavy on the Second World War and the British Empire in the 20th century (yes, including decolonization).  It includes a look at the Polish-Soviet War, studies of the role of the US Navy in the Allied Intervention against the Bolsheviks and on the Yangtze in the 1930s, several works on Japan and its war in China, and a history of the Stauffenberg family, one member of which tried to assassinate Hitler (about whom I have written).  Other intriguing reads on this list include David French's The British Way of Counter-Insurgency and an account of Karen rebels in Burma (for whom I have a soft spot).  The list also includes works on the Global War on Terror.

Diplomacy & International Affairs.  This list includes theoretical works (such as The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security), books on historical case studies (including Foreign Affairs and the Founding Fathers and The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin), and biographies of both American and foreign statesmen (among them Castlereagh, T. E. Lawrence, and the little-known Frank McCoy).  You'll see that, among other topics, I'm intrigued by Southeast Asia.

Intelligence.  Much of this list's potential material is covered in the above categories, but it includes a few intriguing titles, some critical (e.g. The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture), some historical (The Archaeologist Was a Spy), others decidedly non-Western (Intelligence Elsewhere: Spies and Espionage Outside the Anglosphere).

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Shield of Faith - An Update

Six years ago I wrote a post about St. Paul's admonition to the Ephesians to "hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the Evil One." In that post, I highlighted the communal value of shields in the Greek-speaking world, as when wounded Odysseus "called... [and] Aias came near him, carrying like a wall his shield, and stood forth beside him" to protect him from the Trojans. At the time, I thought this intercessory quality of faith, by which we are protected by the faith of our brothers, was a novel reading of this passage. Not so, I discovered.


Around AD 740, three monks - Denehard, Lullus, and Burchard - who assisted St. Boniface in his missionary work in Germany, wrote to Abbess Cuniburg in England. One of their requests to her was that "you will not refuse to shelter us against the cruel darts of sin with the shield of your prayer," a clear reference to Ephesians 6:16.

As Christians are suffering persecution around the world, and in many cases dying for the faith, please remember them in your prayers and extend the shield of your faith over them.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The City on a Waterfall


The concept of a city built on a waterfall was first brought to my attention by James Gurney's Waterfall City (pictured above) in Dinotopia, published in 1992.  But while the aesthetic appeal of such a city is quite obvious to me - in spite of its equally obvious impracticality - I realized one day that this is by no means the only fictional city built on a waterfall.  Did a number of minds simultaneously come up with this same idea?  Or does it have a single point of origin?

As one blogger points out, Waterfall City bears a certain resemblance to the city of Theed on the planet of Naboo (seen below) in Star Wars: Episode I, which was released in 1999.



In 1999 the British band Ozric Tentacles released an album titled Waterfall Cities; clearly the idea was moving into wide circulation.  But where did it begin?


A quick search of the internet is daunting.  The concept has become so popular in fantasy literature and art that one has trouble isolating a few key instances of it among reams of fan art (seen above and below).



Did James Gurney really conceive this idea, the otherworldly idea of balancing that height of human civilization, a city, on that most terrible of natural objects, a waterfall?  It seems unlikely to me that it took so long for someone to dream up such a place.  And yet, it seems he did...



If you know anything about the origin of waterfall cities, please, share!

None of today's images are used with permission or anything so fancy.  But if you do a quick image search for "waterfall city" you should turn them all up.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Athanasian Creed

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Athanasius (c. 297-373).  While most Christians know the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, less well known is the third of the orthodox creeds, attributed to St. Athanasius.  Whether he actually wrote it is a matter of some debate, but it certainly coheres with the theology he articulated (as well as the long sentences of his Greek!).  Whereas the other creeds focus more on the life of Christ, this one focuses primarily on the two great mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation.


Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith,
which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one,
the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible,
the Son incomprehensible,
and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal,
and yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible,
but one uncreated and one incomprehensible,
so likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
and yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian truth
to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
so are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say: There are three Gods or three Lords.

The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son;
neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers;
one Son, not three Sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another,
but the whole three persons are coeternal and coequal,
so that in all things, as aforesaid,
the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation
that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is that we believe and confess
that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds;
and man of substance of His mother, born in the world,
perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,
equal to the Father as touching His Godhead,
and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood,
who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ;
one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God;
one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ,
who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead,
at whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies
and shall give account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting
and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Voices of Southern Dissent

I currently reside in Virginia.  I have a son who was born here.  But I struggle with the state's Southern identity, an identity which, for many, is bound up in the American Civil War and the experience of secession.  I don't mean to suggest that all Virginians are racist or that Southern pride is nothing more than support for slavery.  But, because the Confederate rebellion was a part of Virginia's history, many Virginians feel the need to support it or at least remain silent on the matter.  As someone opposed to the rebellion of the Southern states and their practice of slavery, I find this position problematic.

But I think it is worth mentioning that the South was not monolithicly pro-secession in the 19th century and thus need not make a pro-secessionist bent part of its identity today.

Consider, for example, the Loudoun Rangers, a cavalry unit raised in 1862 in northern Virginia, a unit which fought on behalf of the Union and tangled with Mosby's partisans.

Or let us consider Texas, a state which was my adoptive home for eight years.  Sam Houston, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Texas, was elected governor in 1859.  Houston was no liberal humanitarian: although he enjoyed warm relations with the Cherokee Indians, he owned slaves and opposed abolitionist efforts to free them.  However, he saw secession as ill-advised and treasonous.  When a Texas convention voted for secession and subsequent accession to the Confederacy, Houston refused to recognize the moves, calling them illegal.  Houston was eventually removed from office for refusing to take the Confederate oath.  He explained:
Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void.
This is the kind of political idealism - whatever the costs - that Southerners love.  It is also deeply Unionist.  Regarding the war to come, Houston proved himself more clear-sighted than his opponents:
Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.
Houston and the men of the Loudoun Rangers were rare, but not unique.  North Texas was full of German and Czech settlers - some of them refugees from the revolutions of 1848 in Europe - who supported the Union.  West Virginia was so off-put by the war of secession it seceded from rebel Virginia.  In addition to the many African-American units raised from among the freed slaves of the South, white Unionist forces were also raised.  The 1st Alabama Cavalry was formed in 1862 by men who opposed secession - most from Alabama, but some from elsewhere, including Georgia.  The regiment fought in various campaigns and was present for the surrender of the rebel Army of Tennessee in 1865.  Arkansas raised eight white regiments and six colored regiments for the Union.  Similar units were raised in Louisiana and North Carolina.  Tennessee formed upwards of 30 regiments in the service of the Union.

I am looking forward to reading David Downing's A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy.  This is a Southern legacy I may be able to embrace and teach to my children.


Quotations are from James l. Haley, Sam Houston, University of Oklahoma Press (2004), by way of the estimable Wikipedia, which also supplied the image.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Toward a Theory of American Heraldry

Readers of this blog will know that I am a strong proponent of heraldry, having proposed heraldic arms for the City of Charlottesville (see left) and Albemarle County, to complement or replace the current seals of questionable aesthetic merit.  But does heraldry have a place in America at all?  Are not heraldic arms associated with monarchy and therefore fundamentally at odds with the American republic?

First, the legal question: Can an American assume arms?  In many countries, such as Britain, arms are legally protected.  They may only be used by a grant deriving its authority from the sovereign.  In other countries, such as South Africa, the governing authority registers arms, but, provided they conform to certain standards, cannot reject an application because it does not grant the arms; everyone in South Africa has a legal right to bear them.  In the United States, no heraldic authority of either flavor exists (the claims of various online organizations notwithstanding).  Thus, the only legal limits on arms are those on any logo: you cannot use for commercial purposes a design that someone else has registered.  You can use your own design without registering it, provided you are not concerned about someone else stealing your design and have no intention of taking legal action against them for doing so.

Second, the historical angle: Do American have a tradition of using arms?  Here the answer is clear: yes.  While American heraldry is less standardized than that of Britain or other countries with heraldic authorities, it is widely used.  George Washington's arms are fairly well known (see left), having been adopted for a variety of uses such as the flag of the District of Columbia and the Purple Heart medal.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the more anti-traditional of America's Founding Fathers also bore arms.  John and John Quincy Adams utilized heraldic arms, as did most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But, you ask, is there still a vibrant tradition of heraldry, or was it only a brief carry-over from the colonial period?  One could likely write a dissertation on such a question, though it seems to me the US military provides a strong answer in the affirmative.  Heraldry may not be used in every aspect of everyday life, but for certain purposes we certainly retain it.  (I highly encourage the perusing of the US Institute of Heraldry's website if you have any interest in military heraldry.)

Third, the ideological angle.  Just because Americans have used heraldry does not mean they should?  Is is truly consonant with America's republican constitution?  Here I think we have to step back from Britain and its heraldic world, much though I love it.  When one does so, one discovers that in much of Europe heraldry had little to do with the sovereign.  In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, burgher arms were assumed by various members of what we would call the middle class: merchants, artisans, clergy, and the like.  Similar practices can be found in Scandinavia, were farmer have also traditionally borne arms.  Thus, heraldry has no fundamental connection to a monarchy and why should it?  Heraldry is simply a method of visual representation of individuals or organizations.  That non-noble heraldry has a long tradition in the German-speaking world is no minor point for the United States; German-Americans constitute the largest single ancestry group in the country and the Declaration was translated into German even before it was passed.

Thus, there is no reason that any American, so inclined, should not assume arms.

But what are the proper sources for such arms?  In one sense, the same answers given elsewhere apply in the US: symbols associated with one's place of origin or residence, profession or interests, or visual puns (canting).  I might add that one should draw on such associations as one deems appropriate.  If you care deeply about genealogy, use the traditional heraldic colors of your country of origin.  But if you couldn't care less about your umpteen greats grandfather, find something else to depict.

But there is a more tricky matter: how does one indicate familial connections?  British heraldry, and most other systems, has methods for handing down arms from parents to children (usually fathers to sons).  But in America, status is - in republican principle, at least - held by virtue of one's innate human nature and one's role as a citizen, not by birth.  So should, for example, a son use his father's arms, differenced with the appropriate mark of cadency?  Certainly, if one wanted to strongly stress a familial connection, one could do so, though I would certainly not want to require it.  Moreover, I think it runs contrary to our republican spirit - not to mention basic creativity - to forgo modifying inherited arms.  Nevertheless, experience shows that we all owe a great deal to our parents, for both good and ill, so if they bear arms, one would do well to incorporate elements from those arms into one's own.

A related matter concerns marshalling, that is, the combining of arms.  Typically a married couple will place their arms side by side (no objections here) and their eldest son will quarter his parents' arms.  I have two objections with quartering.  First, it tends to become very cluttered very quickly, rarely working beyond a single generation, and often not even then.  Aesthetically it is often a failure.  (See, for example, the unnecessarily cluttered arms of Mary and Philip, above left, or William and Mary, right.)  And what is the point of heraldry if it is not clearly identifiable?  Second, quartering again presumes the inheritance of arms.  I think it far more interesting and American for each individual to design his or her own.

Some final considerations:  While Americans are not bound by the laws of other countries, they would do well to respect them.  Thus, I would strongly discourage any American from copying outright arms which are registered not only here, but also abroad.  This is bad taste and runs contrary to the fundamental heraldic notion of unique identification.  Moreover, I would encourage Americans to avoid those symbols which are typically reserved elsewhere (e.g. the use of royal crowns) and use cautiously those elements of heraldry - such as supporters and standards - which are sometimes associated with special privileges.  Perhaps the most common error in this regard concerns the heraldry of Scottish clans.  Americans often assume that, having a certain surname, they belong to the corresponding clan and therefore have a right to use its arms.  Not so.  Under Scottish law, arms belong to the chief of a clan; members of the clan, that is, the chief's supporters, use a crest badge.  So don't go plagiarizing any Scottish chiefs.  It's rude.

While I cannot make promises on the timing, several more posts regarding heraldry are in the pipes, and I hope to expound on these ideas further in the context of some examples.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day

This year in honor of St. Patrick's Day, a few polkas.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the Irish dance polkas, but it's true. In the middle of the 19th century, a polka craze swept through Europe, starting in central Europe and going all over the world--for instance, German settlers brought the style to Texas, where Mexicans adapted it until it became Norteno/Tejano music. Polkas were brought to Ireland at the same time, but until recently the polka craze was generally confined to two small regions within Ireland. The first region was Sliabh Luachra, the hill country along the River Blackwater on the border of Cork and Kerry. In Sliabh Luachra, the style of polka played there is very fast and very syncopated and obviously meant for crossroads dancing. There the fiddle and button accordion were the primary instruments for dance music and still are today. The first clip features two well-known Sliabh Luachra musicians playing a set of polkas: Jackie Daly on accordion and Seamus Creagh on fiddle. Notice how on the first tune Jackie Daly plays an octave lower the second time through.

 

Here is a link to another set of polkas (the video could not be embedded), played by another fine fiddle-accordion duet from Sliabh Luachra: Matt Cranitch and Donal Murphy.

The other region where polkas were played was in the northwest around Sligo. There the style is slower and less syncopated and a bit more graceful. There the fiddle is also popular, but the flute is more common than the accordion. The following video features Matt Molloy, from Ballaghadereen on the Roscommon-Mayo border, playing flute and on fiddle John Carty, who was born in London but whose family hails from Sligo. The second tune they play is called "The Killavil Postman"; Killavil is the village in Sligo where the famous fiddler Michael Coleman was born. The set of polka begins at about 3:30, with "The Killavil Postman"
 starting at about 4:38.

 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian

There is something terrifying about waking up and finding that one's watch or phone or glasses are not where one left them the night before.  Who moved them?  Was someone in the house?  The sudden feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability can be quite powerful, at least until some simple explanation is discovered.

Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, The Historian (2005) is a story about Vlad Ţepeş, better known as Count Dracula.  You could call it a vampire novel, and so it is, though scenes of gushing blood or visceral horror are few.  Rather, the suspense comes from often small incongruities: something, or someone, is not where, or when, or how they should be.  Kostova deftly manipulates such occurrences, building a novel which is strikingly well-paced, always pressing forward, but never hurtling along.

The story is told in four time periods: the present, from which a historian looks back on her own life and that of her father; the 1970s, in which the narrator is a teenage student living with her father, a kind of diplomat, in Europe; the 1950s, in which her father was a graduate student in history, spending some of his time conducting research abroad; and the 1930s, in which the narrator's father's academic adviser was a new historian.  This may sound dreadfully confusing, and in less capable hands it would be.  But Kostova manages to keep all these various periods, and the letters or stories by which we learn about them, surprisingly clear.  The basic problem faced by our protagonists is simple: there is a supernatural evil on the loose, something vampiric, something related to the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş.  Beyond that they, initially, know virtually nothing.  The clues must be pieced together.

Kostova's mother was a librarian and her father an academic.  Clearly she has a historian's heart.  Much of the novel is spent in archives, digging up shreds of evidence, then trying to make sense of what they mean.  Kostova understands and - at least by this historian's judgement - manages to convey the small triumphs and defeats of sifting through convoluted scholarship, incomplete copies of old documents, and frustratingly elusive bibliographies.  Her protagonists' efforts to find the truth and use it for the good of humanity, while never overwrought, may be seen as an ideal to which every historian, in some small measure, aspires.

I doubt Kostova was inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) - though certainly literary agents hoped her debut novel would have similar success - but whether intended or not, I see The Historian as a kind of answer to Brown.  It is everything he attempted to be: a historical/scholarly detective novel weaving together foreign cultures, ancient secrets, and a hint of spirituality.  But Kostova's work may also be read as a rebuke of all that is wrong with The Da Vinci Code.

To read The Da Vinci Code is to feel like a crack addict, constantly turning pages because one cliff hanger follows upon another.  It is tactically adept at setting up such suspense, but the strategic effect is less satisfying.  There is no strong undercurrent to The Da Vinci Code, no constant tug beyond the immediate.  If Brown's work could be described as a page-turner, Kostova's is a chapter-turner.  That it sustains interest over 642 pages is a testament to the careful pacing.

I found Kostova's exposition likewise adept.  In The Da Vinci Code, the history and significance of buildings or works of art are typically explained in dialogue that, at best, sounds like a lecture from art history class, at worst a badly written encyclopedia entry.  These are made all the more gouache by the fact that any semi-educated person will have a passing knowledge of who people such as Leonardo Da Vinci are.  Why Brown's characters stand in need of explanations is often unclear.  In contrast, the historical background of The Historian is mostly the medieval Balkans, caught between Christendom and Islam.  It is a region and period with which many Americans - even educated ones such as Kostova's characters - have little knowledge.  Moreover, Kostova neatly integrates much of her exposition into excerpts of articles or other materials which are more plausible than wooden conversations.

Finally, Brown's work is riddled with historical errors; I recall googling particularly interesting names or locations as I read it, only to discover that Brown had manipulated key details.  In contrast, Kostova nails the historical and geographic context in which her story takes place, while inventing all of the major characters - with the exception of Vlad Ţepeş - out of whole cloth, lest there be any confusion of fact and fiction.

Throughout the novel, Kostova displays restraint.  The pacing is strong, but not rushed.  The secrets are alluring, but not over the top.  There is violence, but it is rare and often occurs "off stage," described in selective detail.  Although there are romantic interests between several of Kostova's characters, their intimacies are neither superabundant nor described in lurid detail.  Kostova does not rely on cheap tricks.

The Historian is not flawless.  The climax and ending, for example, though good, lack the brilliance of other sections of the novel.  Nevertheless, this is one of the finest works of fiction I have read in a long time and I strongly recommend it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Feast of Sts. Cyril & Methodius!


"We have many saints' days in the church calendar, but this one is dear to all those who teach and learn, because it is when we honor the Slavonic heritage of alphabet and literature, and the teaching and learning of many centuries that have grown from Kiril and Methodii and their great invention."

~Anton Stoichev, in Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, pp. 465-66.

Cyril (b. 826/7, d. 14 Feb. 869) and his brother Methodius (b. 815, d. 6 April 885) were monks, missionaries, and inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet, used to bring the Gospel to the Slavic nations.  Cyril, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, as well as his native Greek, undertook missions to the Turkish empire and the Khazar Khaganate on the Black Sea, and taught philosophy.  Methodius, an abbot, traveled with his brother to Moravia, at the invitation of the local king, where they set about translating the Scriptures and developing a new vernacular liturgy for the Slavs.  Though political schemers tried to use the brothers to support the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople against the Bishop of Rome, they were affirmed in their work by several popes, one of whom appointed Methodius archbishop of the new territory.

Cyril and Methodius are commemorated on 14 February in the West and 11 May in the East (or, where the old style Julian calendar is still used, 24 May, by the new Gregorian reckoning).

The brothers are recognized by the Catholic Church as two of Europe's six patron saints, along with Benedict of Nursia (d. 543), Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373), Catherine of Sienna (d. 1380) and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (d. 1942).

Today is a particularly good day to pray for Christian unity, not only because Cyril and Methodius worked with both Eastern and Western Christians, but also because the present Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus, Kirill I, takes his name from one of these great evangelists.

Today's image comes from For All the Saints.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Six Other Books That Will Save Civilization

Thanks to Aaron for suggesting this topic. Before I discuss the six books I have chosen, I would like to make two preliminary remarks.

First, any time a bibliophile is asked to present a list of superlative books, it is a difficult task. But when the criterion for inclusion is not just his personal favorites, or even the most important books in a certain field, but something as grandiose as “books that will save civilization,” he naturally looks back at his own intellectual development to search for the books that were most crucial or enlightening in his own life. But when I reviewed my own intellectual development, I was surprised that what stood out in my memory were not primarily certain books but certain people and certain conversations. The books I did remember were often connected to those people and the conversations I had with them; strangely enough, I also associated a few books with people with whom I have never even discussed them. What this suggests to me is that the preservation of civilization will not depend so much on safeguarding certain texts, but on passing down to future generations the spirit that animates these texts. “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

Second, the scenario Aaron has presented us with is that of a dictatorship. If America ever descends into such a state, I do not expect a brutal fascist or Communist dictatorship but something more akin to A Brave New World. Surveillance of the citizenry will be all-pervasive, but for the most part it will be superfluous, for this dictatorship will deaden the soul through subtle propaganda so that the citizenry will not know that there is more to life than what the state has to offer. As Cardinal Ratzinger stated at his last public Mass before he was elected pope, what threatens the modern world most is the dictatorship of relativism. Relativism, though, does not mean that the dictatorship would never forbid or command certain actions or thoughts in an “absolute” way. Rather, relativism in this sense means what Nicolás Gómez Dávila termed terrenismo, or “earthliness”: the denial of transcendence, of any measure beyond a man's own whims. So, the spirit I aim to keep alive with all these books is a certain Sehnsucht, a yearning for transcendence. They are not systematic, and they are not generally concerned with doctrine, though I would never deny the importance of doctrine. The books I have chosen, then, are books that I think will keep this spirit alive while hopefully escaping censorship. They therefore do not include explicitly religious books, such as the Bible or the writings of the saints; I assume the underground Church would preserve these.

Joseph von Eichendorff, Poems. Joseph von Eichendorff is the archetypal Romantic. Indeed, he is so archetypal that some of his less distinguished poems can come across as mere clichés of Romanticism. But, in an age when the only thing that seems to interest people is sex, von Eichendorff understood that romantic love pointed to something greater than just sex. He understood the restlessness of true love.

Du hast mir wohl gegeben 
Ein Herz, das hat nicht Ruh. 
Und mitten im Leben 
                                         Sehnt es sich immerzu.

                                         Ich weiß nicht, was im Herzen
                                         Mich so lebendig rührt,
                                         In tausend Lust und Schmerzen
                                        Mich ewig nun verführt. 

Joseph von Eichendorff also understood that true love is often accompanied by pain. Indeed, pain is sometimes inseparable from true love; one cannot be had without the other:

Der stirbt vor Liebe nicht, ein Halbgetreuer,
Wer von der Liebe mehr verlangt als Pein.

And finally, there runs throughout his love poems a sense that the whole cosmos is somehow involved in each individual love story. Eichendorff conveys the lover’s feeling that the entire world revolves around his love for his beloved. Even the birds, the forests, the mountains, and the stars play roles within the love story. Love is something so important that it involves the whole universe. However, whereas with some Romantics this leads to a narcissistic solipsism, with von Eichendorff there is a sense that the lover is caught up in something greater beyond himself.

Joseph Roth, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. On the surface, this novella’s plot sounds like the story of just another homeless drunk who dies prematurely because of his vice. In Roth’s telling, though, the drinker’s death is holy because it is permeated with a profound longing for the Lord. Andres Kartak (the holy drinker) loses his way in life because of his excessive zeal for justice: he defends his landlord’s wife against her husband’s abuse, but ends up killing the man and landing in prison. Once released, he winds up living under the bridges over the Seine in Paris, spending every penny that falls into his hands on drink. But one day he is given 200 francs by an anonymous gentleman who asks only that he repay the sum to the shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux at St. Marie des Batignolles. Kartak tries again and again to make it to the shrine but is always distracted by friends and alcohol. And then, on the Sunday when he makes it as far as a bar across the street from the church, he collapses in the bar and is taken to the sacristy, where he dies reaching into his pocket to give the 200 francs to the priests who are custodians of the shrine of St. Therese. Sadly, but significantly, it is only in this death that Roth finds a way to transfigure Kartak’s utter failure on earth into a holy and touching death. Like von Eichendorff, Roth conceives of Sehnsucht as a kind of melancholy love. It is this melancholy that helps the reader to understand the transcendent quality of love—even in the love that makes us happy on earth, there is a sad quality that makes our hearts restless and impels us to search for something beyond this earth to satisfy our hearts.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s outlook on life perplexes many people today. He was a man who wrote a story depicting in heroic fashion the little hobbits who resist evil against all odds, but who privately called this life “a long defeat,” a man for whom even the ultimate victory against Sauron was tinged with melancholy, by the scouring of the Shire and Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens for the Undying Lands. He was a man who wrote humorous poems for his children and merry drinking songs for his friends, but who was also given to brooding and perhaps even suffered a nervous breakdown while trying to work on The Lord of the Rings. It is the juxtaposition of these two qualities that perplexes so many today.

But, it is precisely the juxtaposition of the joyous with the melancholy that makes up life for Tolkien. Tolkien enjoyed a pipe and a mug of ale as much as any hobbit; the comforts of this earth were a blessing for which he continually gave thanks. But, for the homely hobbits, and for many men today, the elves are a strange but necessary presence, an uncomfortable reminder that there is more to life than the bourgeois desire for a warm seat by the family hearth. The elves are the most beautiful people in Middle Earth, and the most ethereal, most sublime beauty any of the hobbits ever beholds always comes from the elves. They also have the longest, most dramatic history of any of the peoples of Middle Earth (a fact constantly alluded to in The Lord of the Rings but not explained except in The Silmarillion). And yet they do not quite belong in Middle Earth. There is a certain sadness about the elves. They are always mindful that they are but pilgrims on this earth, and that there is true home is over the sea. This sad longing makes the elves even more beautiful than they would be. Beauty and melancholy belong together in the elves.

Despite this melancholy knowledge that the present age will pass and despite the fragility of their beauty, the elves can be a stout, courageous people. The Silmarillion is full of their exploits in war. Even in the later age depicted in The Lord of the Rings, the elves have retained something of the mythical Germanic heroes whom Tolkien studied in his professional life, those heroes who were determined to fight the good fight until the end despite the certainty of failure. Of course, Tolkien was a Catholic who confessed God’s ultimate victory over evil; but that victory is a long way off, and only comes after we pass through the veil of death.

Tolkien teaches us that beauty and melancholy have a mysterious affinity in this life, but also that one who reveres beauty can be courageous.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Scholia to an Implicit Text. “The most subversive book in our time would be a compendium of old proverbs.” What exactly Gómez meant by this aphorism—as with so many others—is a bit unclear at first glance, especially outside the context of his other aphorisms. But again, as with so many of his other aphorisms, this one grabs the reader’s attention with its apparent paradox: How could a proverb be subversive? But, as Gómez grasped so clearly, we live in a world that is upside down, politically, aesthetically, and religiously. Our chief task today is simply to recover as much of the wisdom of our fathers as possible and to pass it on to our own children. According to Gómez, we have rejected the old commonplaces only to be ruined by our own attempt to “be as gods.”

The heart of Gómez’s own message is that man must renounce his aspiration to be master of the universe. He calls on his readers to recognize God’s absolute sovereignty, acknowledge their own status as creatures, and then to live out this truth in their own lives. As a being created by God, man finds himself “immersed in religious experiences” from the first moment of his existence; the universe is fundamentally a mystery to man. It is man’s unbreakable desire to find the source of the universe that gives birth to Sehnsucht. Gómez Dávila views this persistent longing for the transcendent as grounds for hope that this world will not surrender completely to terrenismo, the belief that there is nothing beyond this life.

Finally, Nicolás Gómez Dávila is a particularly apt author for this thought experiment since he has already passed through the censorship of political correctness in the modern West. Martin Mosebach tells how in West Germany in the 1980’s bad carbon copies of his aphorisms were passed around from one sympathizer to the next like samizdat literature in the Soviet Union. He was a practically unknown author, but his German readers were certain that he would be widely condemned. And, indeed, some segments of the German press have equated interest in Gómez with neo-Nazi tendencies. It is the mere specter of being on the right politically, rather than expressing any actually despicable opinions, that leads the politically correct authorities to condemn a writer today.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. At first glance, the idea that Tocqueville could inspire any feeling resembling yearning or Sehnsucht is an odd one. Tocqueville was an expert historian and political analyst, whose precise prose is a model of French clarté; he was not a poet. Nevertheless, in all of his writings (both on America and on France) Tocqueville’s passion for his subject shines through; the reader always knows that Tocqueville believes the subject he is examining—the advent of democracy in modern society—is central to the fate of the world for the next several centuries.

It was his remarkable grasp of the central drama of modern history allowed Tocqueville to foresee the danger for the soul lurking in American democracy: “soft” despotism. According to Tocqueville, the soft despotism which democratic societies must fear will rarely torment citizens; it will instead “degrade” or “enervate” them, keeping them in “perpetual childhood.” Men will look to the administrative state to “entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

The ancient tyrants tortured the bodies of their enemies, but in doing so they provoked great acts of courage. Tarquinius Superbus’ cruelty inspired Mucius Scaevola to burn his right hand; the early Roman’s status as a citizen meant that he was called upon to sacrifice for the city in battle. The later Roman emperors’ persecution of the early Christian martyrs only increased the number of converts who marveled at their courage. In the modern world, on the other hand, politicians for the last hundred years or so, when not waging wars on one another, have labored to dull the pains of life for their citizenry and thus preempt rebellion by making the citizenry too comfortable to risk their well-being. Bismarck, for example, was one of the first politicians to realize the effectiveness of this tactic: he attempted to head off his socialist opposition by adopting some of their programs, such as workman’s compensation. Catholics he found to be more intractable, hence the necessity of open persecution in the Kulturkampf. Later on, after the second world war, it was a common complaint of the West German left in the 1950’s and 1960’s that the Wirtschaftswunder had made Germans too preoccupied with wealth to examine the horrors of their recent past or attend to the injustices of the present. Comfort dulls consciences. Tocqueville understood that the modern preoccupation with comfort presaged the deadening of the democratic soul, which would no longer be capable of any great actions once it lost any sense of transcendent justice.

Tacitus, Annals. I hesitate to include among these more poetic books any of Tacitus’ works, for his tone is often biting and sarcastic, rather than yearning or sehnsuchtsvoll. Where he does achieve his stated objective and writes “sine ira et studio,” Tacitus’ Annals are a sober, and sobering, account of the Roman Empire from the end of Augustus’s reign to the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). But where he does write with emotion, what comes through most clearly is his scorn for the emperors whose reigns he chronicled.

The danger of Tacitus, though, is also his greatest virtue: he teaches us to be discontented with the present. Even mankind’s greatest ages can be marked by utter degradation; even the glory and splendor of the Roman Empire are marred by corruption and decay. Even before he reaches Nero, he depicts in detail the pettiness of Tiberius, a man too weak to do what he knew was right. Tiberius originally recognized the sycophancy of his many flatterers and the opportunism of the legions of informants, but he had a deplorable lack of forthrightness in both speech and action. He could not rule except through subterfuge. No longer was it possible for two men in public office to express open, manly disagreement with each other; the ancient republican virtues of virtus and παρρησία were no more. Tiberius’ longing was for the days of the old republic.

Implicit in discontent with the present is a tendency to cynicism. Tacitus must have experienced this temptation in his own life. He rose to the consulship at a time when the consulship did not carry much importance with it. He knew that the supreme political virtues under the emperors were no longer virtus and παρρησία but deceit and cunning. However, Tacitus resisted the temptation to cynicism. He revered his father-in-law as a man striving to live an upright life in a corrupt political system, leaving a monument to him for posterity in his Agricola. Tacitus also gives many examples of men who remained true to the old ways in spite of great pressure, even to the point of death, thus giving us an idea of the courage a man requires if he is going to live a virtuous life in a corrupt age.

Near the end of what remains of the Annals (XVI.35), Tacitus recounts the death of the noble senator Thrasea, who was attacked by senators loyal to Nero for persisting in his “perverse vanity,” their term for his refusal to flatter the emperor. Before he dies, Thrasea speaks to his son-in-law Helvidius words that we would all do well to remember ourselves: “We pour out a libation to Jupiter the Deliverer. Behold young man, and may the gods avert the omen, but you have been born into times in which it is well to fortify the spirit with examples of courage.”

Sehnsucht without courage is nothing.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Texts That Will Save Civilization

During World War II, Karol Wojtyła helped found the underground Rhapsodic Theater, believing that, so long as Polish culture existed, the Polish state could eventually stage a comeback against the Nazis (and subsequently Soviets). But without a culture, there would be no soul left to animate the body politic.

That got me thinking about the defining characteristics of cultures, ours in particular. One of the curious wrinkles is that the most important texts in one sense may not be the most valuable. A work with which people can engage - and I realize that engagement is culturally conditioned; different people interact with texts and one another in different ways, including dramatic performances, poetry readings, morning newspapers, sacred proclamations - may be more important than the intellectual insights of a particularly erudite, but inaccessible, text.

We come then to a thought experiment: If our own country were overrun by tyrants, which works would you preserve for the sake of preserving our particular form of civilization? And why?

A bit Fahrenheit 451, I'll admit. The one parameter I'd place is this: we might as well assume that the tyrants of this little scenario are either foolish enough to permit the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, or so thorough in their thuggery as to prove them untenable for salvaging. There's no point filling our list with obvious choices; I think unusual ones provide far more food for thought.

One problem I have in approaching this question is how to define civilization, our civilization. American civilization? Western civilization? Christendom? Which of these is the most serviceable category? To which do I feel the most connection? Which is most worth saving? After all, I have multiple identities. My Catholic faith does not fit neatly into my American nationality; indeed, for much of American history, many people would have said the two were at odds. My status as an Anglophone (and, yes, Anglophile) links me to a variety of countries around the globe, though America initially defined itself in opposition its Anglophonic cousins.

I have no easy answers to these conundrums, at least not today, though I do have a few texts to offer for discussion:

Homer, The Iliad. This work is foundational to Western literature for a good reason. It does not simply come before later works; it engages with a variety fundamental questions about pride, friendship, free will, heroism, and loss. Little surprise, then, that G. K. Chesterton commented that, "if the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die." Or, as my friend Wondrous Pilgrim explained, "Hundreds of generations have read this and wept. Who am I to argue with them. (And I've wept as well!)."

Shakespeare. When considering the Bard's work, I must confess the inability to choose a single work, or even a single class of works. The histories exert a strong pull on me, not only because I love all things historical, but also because so many deal with questions of public life. But the comedies may prove just as insightful on this account - who would argue that The Tempest is not, among other things, about politics? - while also offering a lightheartedness that may be especially valuable in difficult times. Moreover, I think that drama offers two virtues worth mentioning. First, it is something one does. Whether one actually acts it out or simply reads it in a group, it invites a form of social participation beyond mere reading. Second, and related, drama invites discussion. The conversation over food and drink which follows a performance of Richard III or Julius Caesar may be some of the best civic discourse one can find.

Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order. In some ways, including this work is a cheat. Kirk surveys the origins of the American way of life, reaching from ancient Israel and Greece, through Rome, medieval Christendom, and the English liberal tradition, and on to the American Founding, all the way to Abraham Lincoln. Thus, in one vast sweep, this work encompasses the ideas and cultures of many other works which might appear on this list. At times I suspect Kirk indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, romantically claiming connections which are not quite so clear. But there is much to value in the history here surveyed, and even if America was not founded with all this in mind, modern Americans would do well to consider it.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. Doubtless, this work benefited from the fact that I recently re-read it. But Chesterton's survey of human civilization, from its earliest origins to the Christian age, a survey which greatly influenced C. S. Lewis, makes a number of important arguments regarding the place of religion in society. Moreover, Chesterton reminds us that civilizations can progress but also regress, a worthwhile caution. Most importantly, Chesterton points to the supernatural power of God, which can reanimate humanity in ways even the best of merely natural civilizations cannot. And he writes with a very enjoyable flourish.

Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail. I have written about this letter before. I think it is worth including here for three reasons: (1) it gives a glimpse of America in the latter half of the 20th century, (2) it draws extensively on the Western intellectual tradition, demonstrating how it can be applied to contemporary issues, and (3) it encourages reflection on how the tools of faith and reason should be applied to political injustice, certainly a worthwhile topic in difficult times.

Walter Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz. This is another work I have praised elsewhere. Although a very different genre, like Letter from Birmingham Jail it invites consideration of how people of faith many carry on in difficult times. This novel of monks in post-apocalyptic America also raises important questions about how the remnants of civilization are preserved, suggesting that the work of preservation should be carried on even in the absence of tangible benefits, though preservation should never be assumed to be complete nor should it become an end in itself.



Suggestions for other inclusions?