Thursday, April 6, 2017

A UD Education: The Road Goes Ever On

Ten days ago I sent the letter below to the University News at Dallas. I haven't seen it published yet; maybe they had a stack of better stuff coming in. In any event, I thought I'd share my sentiments here.

In May I will again visit the University of Dallas campus to attend graduation. It has been 11 years since that spring morning when I received my Bachelor of Arts degree, concluding an idyllic season of my life. With the passage of time the memories have lost some of their sharpness, and yet the insights, the vision, the thirst for recovering the great ideas of our civilization remain with me, making themselves apparent nearly every day. Far from fading into the darkness, my UD education continues to grow.

This may seem obvious to those currently steeped in the world of ideas that is the UD campus. It is far less obvious when you consider my present circumstances. Since graduating I have moved more times than I care to count, completed two additional degrees, married, settled into a career, started a family, published a book, and purchased a house. Much of my time is spent washing dishes, changing diapers, folding laundry, or drawing pink puppy dogs for the umpteenth time. But somehow, my UD education, time and again, worms its way back into my life.

One day last year my eye fell upon a copy of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua­ on the shelf. (My wife had purchased it for a graduate class that never actually used it.) Although I wrote a paper on Newman for one of Dr. Norris's classes, I was too intimidated by Newman to actually read more than a couple pages. More than a decade later, I righted that shortcoming, and Newman did not disappoint: with every page his erudition and firmness of purpose show through, bathed in the light of eloquence, honesty, and joy.

Earlier this year a coworker mentioned that she was taking a class on the history of political thought and was writing on Aristotle's critiques of Plato. Excited conversation followed and the next day two large volumes came with me to the office, so I could read the Republic and Politics literally side by side. Just the other day a fellow dad mentioned Jean Leclercq's understanding of Benedictine education; that evening I pulled down my collection of essays in honor of the late Fr. Louis J. Lekai, O. Cist. and turned to Leclercq's contribution to that volume.

But these examples may be misleading: they suggest that a UD education is something contained in books and resting on a shelf, to be brought down as a curiosity. It is far more than this. To paraphrase Dr. Frank's introduction to my Phil & Eth class, a UD education is a sense of wonder, a quieting of the mind to focus on the things that matter most, and a relentless determination to seek the Truth, heedless of the cost.

Learning that I have a PhD, people often ask where I received it. Though I valued my doctoral studies, and am happy to share about them, I try to gently turn the conversation from that final degree to my UD education, the foundation that supports all my subsequent work. Whatever I have accomplished as a researcher, analyst, and writer comes from the skills I learned at UD. But even more important, UD nurtured within me the habits and virtues needed to be a citizen, a friend, a father, a husband, and a disciple. These are the things that matter most.

One cannot repay the kind of debt I owe to this school, just as one can never repay parents for their love. But I write to thank the amazing faculty, who taught me, and my fellow students, with whom I lived, studied, worked, and prayed, for four fantastic years. You are some of the most incredible people I have yet met. May God, who has so richly blessed us, continue to pour out his grace on this school and keep its spirit ever strong!

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Tolkienian Reading of the Annunciation

This morning I published a reflection on the Annunciation and what it means that its celebration, also known as Lady Day, falls during Lent. I would like to add, however, one other thought on the holiday.

Tomorrow is Tolkien Reading Day, an international holiday organized by the Tolkien Society, in which enthusiasts are encouraged to read their favorite passages from the great storyteller. Why March 25th? According to the Society's website, the date was chosen because this is the day Sauron was defeated and Barad-dûr thrown down. Now I have not investigated the matter in any detail, but I think it is unlikely to be mere coincidence that Tolkien chose this major feast day - one of the four great medieval Quarter Days - as the day in which good triumphs over evil in The Lord of the Rings.  I can only conclude that he saw in the Incarnation of God's only Son a similar triumph of good over evil.

(And a quick check of the internet suggests I am definitely not the first to notice this non-coincidence!)

Finding Joy Amidst the Sorrow - A Lady Day Reflection

The Annunciation, by Matthias Stom

Tomorrow, Saturday 25 March, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, traditionally known as Lady Day. It celebrates the announcement of the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. (Notice anything about the date? Nine months until...?) One of the odd things about Lady Day, a great day of celebration, is that it falls during Lent, a period of penance. In the midst of all our fasting and sacrifices comes this solemnity - liturgically on par with Sundays - when we not only cease from our fasting, but actually commence feasting.

In some ways this odd juxtaposition is simply the result of calendar constraints. If the Annunciation is to be celebrated the biologically proper nine months before Christmas (there, I told you), it's got to be in Lent. But I think we can also discern a deeper meaning to this scheduling coincidence. While Lent is traditionally associated with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, the Annunciation is the first of the Joyful Mysteries. And yet, if you give some thought to these so-called "Joyful" Mysteries, you see that their circumstances are rather ambiguous, possibly rather unhappy.

At the Annunciation, Mary - an unmarried young woman - is told that she will bear a child. At best, her neighbors and friends will presume she and her fiancé lack the continence to abstain from intimacy until marriage; it is quite possible they will assume far worse things about her character or that she will be exposed to the life-threatening provisions of the Jewish law regarding fornicators.

Mary, the single expectant mother, then travels "in haste" from the town of Nazareth to visit her kinswoman in Judah, to the south. Is she fleeing from Joseph? From her neighbors? Perhaps she simply travels to assist Elizabeth at the end of her own pregnancy. But no matter how noble Mary's actual intentions may be, they probably do little to quell the gossip. And then there is the matter of traveling - which, in Mary's day meant walking - probably by herself, for several days between Nazareth and Judah, while probably experiencing the morning sickness of the first trimester. Having arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary experiences the joy of hearing Elizabeth's inspired words of praise, but also has to deal with the difficulty that Zachariah has been struck mute, no doubt complicating chores and plans for the new baby's arrival.

At Christmas, as Mary's due date approached, she and Joseph - yet still unmarried - are forced to travel to Bethlehem because the Roman occupiers want to conduct a census. Oh joy. There in Bethlehem she gives birth to a son in a cave that's serving as a barn, because no one will offer them even a simple place to stay. Not exactly an optimal delivery experience.

While still in the Greater Jerusalem area - Bethlehem is not far away - Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord. There the prophet Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. A short while later, Joseph is told in a dream by an angel that King Herod is trying to kill Jesus - and will indeed kill many innocent children in pursuit of the messiah. So the whole family, with only whatever possessions they happen to have with them, travel to Egypt, to live in exile for an indefinite length of time.

Finally, having returned to Nazareth after the death of Herod, Mary and Joseph might have thought they could settle into a quiet life. Then they lose track of Jesus while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Is this the thanks they get for trying to fulfil the Law and observe the pilgrimage festivals? For three days they search about, doubtless with great anxiety.

These are the Joyful Mysteries: an unplanned pregnancy, gossip, foreign occupation, inhospitality, exile, heartbreak, and anxiety. If this is joy, I don't want to hear about sorrow!

Mary and Joseph were not naïve or oblivious. They recognized and experienced all these hurts and challenges. But the Joyful Mysteries are joyful because the Holy Family recognized much larger forces at work, the grace of the Incarnate God filling their lives.

Lady Day, the celebration of the Annunciation, is not simply a break from Lent, a moment where we can ignore our penance and the reality of suffering. Rather, Lady Day is a clarion call to see the world and all of life with the eyes of faith, by which we will perceive that God stands ever at hand, ready to transform our sorrows into joy, if only we will say with Mary: "May it be done to me according to your word."

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day

For this St. Patrick's Day, instead of delivering a lecture on the history of traditional Irish music, I will simply post a few videos that are important to me personally.

Most of my music I originally learned from my dad. He kept a small collection of whistles next to his favorite seat in the living room, and he often used to pick one up in the evening after dinner and play for a few minutes. I just loved the sound. And so when in elementary school we started to learn the recorder, while all the other kids dreaded having to practice it in music class, I took right to it. My dad saw this and he bought me a silver E-flat Generation whistle. At home I listened to as much traditional music as possible And so the first video I will show is of Mary Bergin, a whistle player from Dublin, whose debut album, Feadoga Stain, I listened to over and over on our record player, trying to learn her technique.

Besides listening to tin whistle music, I loved the sound of the wooden flute. And as soon as my grade school offered flute lessons (in 5th grade), I signed up, even though it was for a metal Boehm flute. And I practiced and practiced, until my parents had to lay down some rules for when I could play my flute, e.g., not before everyone else was awake! My favorite Irish flute player growing up, and still today, is Matt Molloy, who is well known for his work with the Bothy Band and the Chieftains. I also felt a little more of a connection to him when I found out that he owns a pub (which I visited during my Rome semester) in Westport, Co. Mayo,, my grandfather's hometown. Here he is playing a set of tunes on a low-pitched B-flat flute, starting with the slip jig "A Fig for a Kiss" (the video, unfortunately, is just a slide show of Scandinavia):

I also especially love this set of reels that Matt Molloy plays with Sean Keane, a fellow member of the Chieftains, with whom he recorded another album I loved to play at home, Contentment is Wealth. The middle reel, "The Providence," was written by Michael Coleman, the famous New York fiddler, when he visited Rhode Island.

Finally, while I do like some experimentation within traditional music, the most enjoyable Irish music really is the old-fashioned way of playing. It shouldn't be too slow, because you can't dance to that. But it also shouldn't be too fast, because you can't dance to that either. The best musicians can set a brisk, but steady rhythm that makes you instantly start tapping your feet. And last of all, this music is about friendship. This final video shows Noel Hill on concertina and Tony Linnane on fiddle, two men who made a duet album together (with Alec Finn accompanying them on bouzouki) toward the end of the 1970's. The album was a fruit of their friendship and the many hours they spent playing tunes together. And this video--starting with a rainy day, a humble cottage, a pot of tea and a plate of scones--conveys some of what this music is really about. They play two reels: "Esther's" and "Jenny's Welcome to Charlie" (an allusion to Bonnie Prince Charlie).

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Beautiful Indian Summers - But to What End?

A little while ago my wife and I began watching Indian Summers, a show about the British Raj's annual move to Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya, where it sheltered from Delhi's summer heat. The show is visually stunning, marked by the natural beauty of the landscape (actually shot in Malaysia) and the pomp of the Raj. For a historian of the British Empire, the draw is obvious. But we've been on an Indian Summers hiatus of late. By tacit agreement, we just started doing other things in the evening.

The show's characters, though interesting, may have missed a certain je ne sais quoi. The plot, though intriguing, was not quite compelling. But my disquiet about the show was something else. Something more fundamental.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, described three kinds of history. Monumental history glorifies the past; it holds up the heroes of yesteryear as models to be imitated. Critical history highlights all that was wrong in the past, and in so doing spurs us on to do better today. Antiquarian history is less dynamic: it describes the past as essentially the same as the present. It takes comfort in the great continuity of human society.

Viewed through this lens, Indian Summers is puzzling. It is not monumental. Although the splendor of the Raj is on display, the show clearly conveys that the Raj was oppressive, dishonest, and generally out of touch with the people it governed. And yet I would hesitate to describe the show as critical. The Indian nationalist movement - at least in the episodes we watched - comes off as morally justified, but not dramatically so, not enough to decisively turn our sympathies against the British characters. Given the enormity of the questions at stake, there is a surprising amount of moral ambivalence.

So Indian Summers must be antiquarian, right? Here we come to the crux of my complaint. At first glance, the show would not seem to fit the basic antiquarian mold: its power struggles, deceptions, and unbridled lust for power and the pleasures of the flesh bear little resemblance to my own life. Is this essentially the same as the present day?

Indian Summers is a mirror reflecting many of the worst qualities of 21st century America. The quest for power is taken as a given. Fornication and adultery are essentially no different from a good meal: if the cost is not unreasonable, well worth enjoying. Truth and justice, though not entirely banished, have become moral garnishes. For those who live in this version of modern society, Indian Summers conveys the message that the Raj looked much like the present. That which is enjoyed or feared, valued or despised today was held in similar regard in every age, was it not?

But for those of us who still inhabit those corners of contemporary society where desires are subordinated to duties, where power has value only in relation to the ends it accomplishes, where fidelity is not merely a burden to be carried but a virtue to be celebrated, Indian Summers is a depressing scene. That these shortcomings are not even recognized is more depressing still.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Journey to Colonus: A Historical Novel and Much More

Franklin Debrot's debut novel, Journey to Colonus, though a work of historical fiction long in the making, is a work for the present day, with themes of racial conflict, political divisions, campus agitation, and Russian influence in America. That all this is discussed in a novel which is well crafted makes it a very worthy candidate for your 2017 reading list.

The story begins in 1969, on the campus of a fictional black college in North Carolina, at a time of considerable political maneuvering, with alliances and factions abounding. Our main character, Thomas Doswell, a college professor, stands oddly apart from all this, focusing instead on great works of literature and philosophy. Through his unfolding relationships with his teaching assistants, we learn not only about his approach to education and the vicissitudes of their personal lives, but first and foremost about Doswell's secretive and dynamic past, including involvement with the Communist International.

Journey to Colonus has a measured pace. It takes much of the novel for all the key pieces to get into place, but Debrot ensures that these parts are as compelling as the whole. There are a few moments where the jumping between decades is a bit disorienting, but I was overwhelmingly impressed by Debrot's ability to develop characters and weave together the disparate elements of their stories. (As someone who has toyed with writing fiction, I can tell you that it's harder than it looks, arguably far harder than writing non-fiction.)

Debrot's novel rests on solid historical ground. An extensive appendix points to many of the author's sources for historical context. (From my own reading in American history and the history of the Comintern, including this biography of one agent, Journey to Colonus gets both the broad dynamics and the particular details right.) Moreover, the novel overlaps heavily with Debrot's own biography: growing up in New York, among the West Indian community, and teaching at a black college in North Carolina in the 1960s. This is familiar territory for him.

Some might object to what they see as an overly conservative book. After all, Senator Joseph McCarthy's role in the Tydings Committee's investigation of Communists in the State Department, for example, comes off broadly positive. But accusations of partisanship would be a superficial misreading of Journey to Colonus. The novel acknowledges that McCarthy was right, or very nearly so, about matters of national importance, but it also recognizes some unsavory elements of his personal life and tactical mistakes in his pursuit of Soviet influence. More to the point, Debrot's profoundly humane novel shows that people's actions, both personal and political, arise from a wealth of diverse influences. Without excusing immorality, Journey to Colonus acknowledges that results often differ from intentions, that people are sometimes funneled by their pasts into certain paths, and that appearances are not always what they seem.

At its heart, this novel addresses a topic that has been of considerable interest to me in the last few years, a topic found from Shakespeare's plays to such recent television shows as The Crown and The Man in the High Castle, namely the intersection of the personal and political. National and international politics do not simply happen on their own: they are the products of individuals and their interactions, with all the quirks that entails. Likewise, politics does not simply exist in newspaper headlines, but has real implications for the lives of individuals. All of which makes the pursuit of wisdom and authentic relationships so important. Journey to Colonus is an enjoyable and enlightening guide along that path.