Thursday, March 26, 2015

Descent into the Heart: "The Way of a Pilgrim" and the Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

A dozen words. A dozen words make up the most powerful prayer of the Eastern Christian tradition--the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart.

The Jesus Prayer is one of the most ancient in the Church. When exactly it came into being is unclear, but it was certainly being used by the 7th century, and is probably a good deal older. The text itself is clearly drawn from two Gospel passages--the parable of the publican and the pharisee, and Christ's encounter with the blind Bartemeus--blended into a single potent petition:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (Luke 18:13)
And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47)
The purpose of the Prayer is simple: to put oneself into the presence of God. It is an aid to meditation, meant to be recited slowly, with attention, and repeatedly--indeed, unceasingly. As the Rosary, in the West, has its beads, so the Jesus Prayer has its prayer rope, known as a chotki in Russian. The chotki is typically made of wool, a loop of closely-nestled knots, ending in a cross and tassel. The number of knots varies, but is often 100, divided by beads into sections of 25. On each knot is recited one Jesus Prayer. Other prayers can be said on the beads, if desired. The purpose of the tassel--traditionally--is to wipe away tears of penitence.

I cannot remember when I first learned this prayer. My family entered the Byzantine Catholic Church when I was four. I know my father must have discovered the tradition of the Prayer soon after, but I have no memory of him first teaching it to me and my siblings--in the same way I cannot recall first learning the Our Father or the Hail Mary. I do remember getting my first chotki, when I was six or seven. I remember wearing it doubled around my wrist for years, until the knotted loop stretched out of shape and the tassel at the end wore away to a nub. And I remember my father reading us stories from The Way of a Pilgrim.

The Way of a Pilgrim is considered a flower of 19th century Russian Orthodox spirituality. And yet it is a small book, simple in style and approachable in form. And it's probably the best introduction to the Jesus Prayer. Here is the book's first paragraph:

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.

Thus we are introduced to the Pilgrim,  an anonymous peasant living in mid-1800s Russia. While not considered strictly autobiographical, the stories are likely based around the experiences of a real Russian pilgrim, re-written with the focus of spiritual edification. The tale begins when the Pilgrim, attending Divine Liturgy one morning, hears the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, to "pray unceasingly" (1 Th 5:17). These words, recalls the Pilgrim, "engraved themselves upon my mind". From that time on he is launched on a journey--both physical and spiritual--to pursue unceasing prayer.

Before long, he encounters an elder at a monastery, the first person to give him clear guidance on the meaning and method of constant prayer:

As we entered his cell he [the elder] began to speak again: "The constant inner Prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one's imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This Prayer consists of the following words: - 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!' Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it.

The elder then introduces the Pilgrim to the Philokalia--a collection of writings by the Church Fathers on this practice of inner prayer. This book, along with the Holy Bible, is destined to be the Pilgrim's constant companion on the rest of his journey. As they sit together in the cell, the elder gives the Pilgrim his first lesson in the Jesus Prayer:

He opened the book, and after having found the instruction by St. Simon the New Theologian, he began to read: "Take a seat in solitude and silence. Bend your head, close your eyes, and breathing softly, in your imagination, look into your own heart. Let your mind, or rather, your thoughts, flow from your head down to your heart and say, while breathing: 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Whisper these words gently, or say them in your mind. Discard all other thoughts. Be serene, persevering and repeat them over and over again."

This lesson is the foundation of all the rest of the Pilgrim's spiritual endeavors. He stays with the elder for a few more months, learning the art of constant prayer, until the old monk passes away (although that is not the end of the elder's teaching--he appears multiple times in the Pilgrim's dreams, continuing, even after death, to give him guidance!) After this, the Pilgrim takes to the road, reciting the Jesus Prayer, reading the Bible and Philokalia, and visiting shrines and churches. On the way, he encounters a host of characters, from robbers and army captains to priests and pious married couples. Many of these have their own tales of spiritual journeys, to which the Pilgrim listens eagerly for his enlightenment.

But the essence of the book still revolves around inner contemplation and the Jesus Prayer. These passages continue the instruction given by the Pilgrim's elder, describing how to time the Prayer with one's heartbeat and breathing--an integrated body-soul experience--all for the purpose of drawing closer to Christ. The Pilgrim exults in the peace, holy longing, and spiritual insight the Prayer gives him. He has his share of trials, too--spiritual and physical--but the pure joy of the Jesus Prayer always buoys him up once more.

The stories in The Way of the Pilgrim are truly life-changing. The instructions on the Prayer of the Heart are so simple and straightforward, that it's actually hard not to try and incorporate them into one's spiritual life. The most difficult thing, I have found, is perseverance. Often the Prayer seems dry repetition; but then I have never yet labored enough to get past that part of the process. However, even in short spurts, it is a beautiful comfort. I pray it before Liturgy, to focus my mind. I wrap my chotki around my wrist every night and recite it while falling asleep. It is always the first prayer to spring to my mind and heart in times of trouble.

The Jesus Prayer is so simple. It is so powerful. If you feel so moved, I urge you to take it up. Read The Way of the Pilgrim. Most of us don't have the time to devote the entire day to inner prayer, as the Pilgrim does. But that is no excuse for not bringing ourselves to Christ. Set aside a little time. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Take a step into your heart, away from the world, and into the Divine Presence of God.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Mishmash of Masters: My Commonplace Book

Six AM on a weekday morning found me at the breakfast table, bleary from another late night, novel-writing like a madwoman. As I munched my toast and swallowed tea, desperately hoping for an energy burst, I opened up Homer's Odyssey--meals are often my only time for reading-- and stared at the first lines of Book II:

Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Telemachus rose and dressed himself. He bound his sandals on his comely feet, girded his sword about his shoulder, and left his room looking like an immortal god.

I almost burst out laughing. Man! Why can't I get up like that in the morning?

The lines, besides making me smile, also struck my poetic imagination. I wanted to remember them. In fact, they delighted me so much that they urged me to restart my commonplace book.

I have kept a commonplace book since May of 2013. I was inspired to begin by a passage in the "Guide to Daily Reading", an introduction to a set of books The Pocket University, published in 1934. Among a series of lovely little essays on books and the art of reading in general, I came across this passage by Richard LeGallienne, in a section on how to remember what one reads:

Yet it often happens that he [the reader] forgets much that he needs to remember, and thus the question of methodical aids to memory arises.

One's first thought, of course, is of the commonplace book. Well, have you ever kept one, or, to be more accurate, tried to keep one? Personally, I believe in the commonplace book so long as we don't expect too much from it. Its two dangers are (1) that one is apt to make far too many and too minute entries, and (2) that one is apt to leave all the remembering to the commonplace book, with a consequent relaxation of one's own attention. On the other hand, the mere discipline of a commonplace book is a good thing, and if--as I think is the best way--we copy out the passages at full length, they are thus the more securely fixed in the memory. A commonplace book kept with moderation is really useful, and may be delightful.

I have certainly found my commonplace book a delight, and in fact a very helpful tool for memory. I don't always copy long passages, but I may enter a short poem, or a few paragraphs of prose, or verses from spiritual reading and Scripture. The book has proven a good way for me to memorize the latter. In some places it has served double duty as a prayer journal, when I copy down Bible verses and reflection to help me through some spiritual trial. The other entries--the poems, the bits of novels, the Gaelic song lyrics, and other miscellania--are my personal treasure trove of fond memories and future inspiration.

My main criterion when choosing passages for a commonplace book entry is the strikingness of them. Occasionally I will enter things that I think I simply ought to memorize--like the Creed, or, more recently, the list of American presidents--but usually I only copy a passage because it plucked some chord in my heart, of drama, or beauty, or romance. Thus, flipping through my commonplace book is a detailed portrait of the characters, scenes, themes and words which have most shaped my thoughts and writing over the past two years.

Many of these entries I have already shared on my blog--like Frost's "My November Guest" and "The Lone Striker", Stevenson's novels and poems, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and others. But many I have not shared. Here, then, is a selection of my favorite passages from my commonplace book. May they inspire you to read some of the beautiful works they come from!

May 22, 2013

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again. -- Oh Mary! Mary! -- boy! boy! boy! -- But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week may sink with all the crew! Great God, where are Thou? Shall I? Shall I? -- The wind has gone down and shifted sir; the fore and main topsails are reefed and set; she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr Stubb; go thou down, and wake him and tell him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 123

I DARE someone to tell me Moby Dick is a big boring book about a whale.
June 10, 2013
The Gobhaun Saor and his son were left in the dun without light, without food, and without companions. Outside they could hear the heavy-footed Fomorians, and the night seemed long to them. "My sorrow," said the son, "that I ever brought you here to seek a fortune! But put a good thought on me now, father, for we have come to the end of it all." "I needn't blame your wit," said the father, "that had as little myself. [...]"
"If we had light itself," said the son, "it wouldn't be so hard, or if I had a little pipe to play a tune on." He thought of the little reed pipe he was making the day the three Fomorians came to him, and he began to search in the folds of his belt for it. His hand came on the lock of wool he got from Mananaun, and he drew it out, "Oh, the fool that I was," he said, "not to think of this sooner!" "What have you there?" said the Gobhaun. "I have a lock of wool from the Sea God, and it will help me now when I need help." He drew it through his fingers and said: "Give me light!" and all the dun was full of light. He divided the wool into two parts and said: "Be cloaks of darkness and invisibility!" and he had two cloaks in his hand colored like the sea where the shadow is deepest.
"Put one about you," he said to the Gobhaun, and he drew the other round himself. They went to the door; it flew open before them; a sleep of enchantment came on the guards and they went out free. "Now," said the son of the Gobhaun Saor, "let a small light go before us"; and a small light went before them on the road, for there were no stars in Balor's sky. When they came to the Dark Strand the son struck the waters with his cloak and a boat came to him. It had neither oars nor sails; it was pure crystal, and it was shining like the big white star that is in the sky before sunrise. "It is the Ocean-Sweeper," said the Gobhaun. "Mananaun has sent us his own boat!" "My thousand welcomes before it," said the Son, "and good fortune and honor to Mananaun while there is one wave to run after another in the sea!"
They stepped into the boat, and no sooner had they stepped into it than they were at the White Strand, for the Ocean-Sweeper goes as fast as a thought and takes the people she carries at once to the place they have their hearts on. "It is a good sight our own land is!" said the Gobhaun when his feet touched Ireland. "It is," said the son, "and may we live long to see it!"
~ From "How the Son of the Gobhaun Saor Shortened the Road", retold by Ella Young
This is Irish fairy-tale at its most striking and moving. Elements of this story haunt my own Celtic tale.
August 8, 2013
Hotspur: He shall be welcome too. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales,
And his comrades, that daff'd the world aside,
And bid it pass?
Vernon: All furnished, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd,
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Hotspur: No more, no more: worse than the sun in March,
This praise doth nourish agues. Let them come;
They come like sacrifices in their trim,
And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war
All hot and bleeding will we offer them:
The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit
Up to the ears in blood. I am on fire
To hear this rich reprisal is so nigh
And yet not ours. Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales:
Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse.
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 4, Scene 1

Could you possibly heap any more praise on an enemy than Vernon does on young Prince Harry (the future King Henry V of Agincourt fame)? And can't you just see Hotspur fuming in envy as he leaps astride his charger? This Shakespeare play is as gripping as an adventure novel!

Epilogue: If you have actually read to the end of this post, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. There's a heck of a lot more I'm dying to share from my commonplace book, and this post makes me realize I should do it more often. Until next time--happy reading.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The King of Glory Enters: A Journey through the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts


It is a Friday evening during Great Lent. The church is muted, except for the rhythmic rush and jingle of the bells of the incenser as the deacon moves about the sanctuary. The cantor and people raise their voices in an opening hymn--a traditional Slavic Ruthenian chant, perhaps the heartbreaking "Now Do I Go to the Cross":
Now do I go to the Cross,
nowhere else shall I find You,
Jesus Lord, peace of my soul.
There I shall find the Mother of God,
sorrow and pain piercing her heart.
Sorrow now is all I feel.
The deacon strides out through the side of the icon screen, stands before the royal doors, and declares to the celebrant in the sanctuary, "Father, give the blessing!"
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts has begun.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts--often referred to as "Presanctified Liturgy"--is a unique Lenten tradition among the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. In form, it is essentially a Vespers service with the distribution of the Eucharist. Besides that, one important fact distinguishes it from a regular Divine Liturgy--it has no consecration. The reason, as the name of the service implies, is that the gifts of bread and wine are pre-sanctified--they have already been consecrated on the previous Sunday.
Roman Catholics should be familiar with this concept through their commemoration of Good Friday. Good Friday, in the Western Church, is an "a-liturgical" day--meaning it is not allowed to consecrate the Eucharist that day. But in the Eastern tradition, every weekday of Lent is considered a-liturgical. Thus, during the Great Fast, we celebrate Presanctified Liturgy with the already-consecrated Body and Blood every week--typically on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The service begins, as the normal Vespers service always does, with the chanting of Psalms. The words are utterly familiar, but the mournful Lenten melody lends them a special poignancy. Sorrow, joy, peace and longing strain forth in the flow of alternating verses. The Psalms finish with the singing of the Stichera, or propers for the day--liturgical poems often centering on a theme of Lenten struggle or repentance.
The service proceeds with the Hymn of the Evening, "O Joyful Light"--also a standard part of Vespers and one of the most ancient Christian texts. Traditionally, the church is dark or only partially lit up until this point; now, as we sing of the Light of Christ, the church is fully lit:
O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the Father Immortal,
the heavenly, holy blessed One, O Jesus Christ:
Now that we have seen the setting of the sun, and see the evening light,
we sing to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is fitting at all times to raise a song of praise in measured melody to you,
O Son of God, the Giver of Life.
Therefore, the universe sings your glory.
Next come the Prokeimena--the equivalent of Responsorial Psalms--and the readings. Unless the service takes place during Holy Week or some other major feast day, the readings are always from the Old Testament--Genesis and Proverbs, Exodus and Job. These books encompass essential Lenten themes: returning to beginnings to discover who we are and ought to be; humility and desire to pursue wisdom; escape from sin; and the purpose of suffering and repentance.
After the readings, we chant the Solemn Evening Psalm: Let my prayer arise to you like incense, and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice. The people sing this refrain standing, then kneel as the priest chants each of his verses. The bodily gestures of repentance continue with the full prostrations performed during the reciting of the Prayer of St. Ephrem (see this post for the text of the prayer).
During a regular Divine Liturgy, the text sung after the readings is the Cherubic Hymn. As the clergy process around the church with the yet-unconsecrated gifts, we sing of the angels and of the mystical sacrifice in which we are about to participate. But in a Presanctified Liturgy, the bread and wine the clergy hold are already the Divine Body and Blood of Christ. Thus the text is slightly different. This, as the priest and deacon prepare in the sanctuary, is what we sing:
Now the powers of heaven are serving with us invisibly.
For behold the King of Glory enters.
They escort the mystical sacrifice, already accomplished.
When the clergy process out from the sanctuary--the priest holding up God and the deacon incensing Him--the church hushes. The people bend to the ground in a full prostration. In complete silence--the only noise being the slow tread of the clergy, and the jangle of the incenser--we adore Christ passing through our midst.
(To understand the full power of this moment, you have to understand the ethos of Eastern liturgies in general. Unlike in the Western Mass, there are few moments of silence and meditation during services. Literally everything besides the homily is sung, and the litanies, responses, and hymns follow one upon the other with hardly a pause. This fosters an atmosphere of holy exuberance and joy--a gorgeous and occasionally overwhelming experience, especially for newcomers! In contrast, quiet moments during liturgy, even accidental ones, are rare. Thus a period of prolonged, purposeful, and solemn silence--as during the Great Entrance of Presanctified Liturgy--is almost overwhelming. To close the eyes and touch the head to the cold floor and listen, in that breathless hush, to God walking by--I am no theologian, but in my own small experience, it is a pinnacle of love and existence.)
After the Great Entrance, the service moves fairly quickly towards Communion. The text of the Communion Hymn is the beautiful Psalm verse, "Taste and see that the Lord is good." And we do indeed taste and see. In the East, the Eucharist is received not in the separate forms of wine and an unleavened host, but combined--small pieces of leavened bread soaked in wine, dropped into the mouth by a spoon. On regular Sundays, the loaves of bread used are fresh, and soft wine-soaked pieces dissolve easily in the mouth. But for Presanctified Liturgy, the Body of Christ--being, after all, in the physical form of bread which has been sitting in the tabernacle since the previous Sunday--is, well, harder than usual. Hard enough to require chewing. There is nothing irreverent about this. Christ is our Nourishment, body and soul; why should He not come to us solid and physically filling, as well as spiritually saving?
After Communion the service concludes in a tone of solemn thankfulness and joy. In the Byzantine Ruthenian tradition, the short final hymn "Having Suffered" is sung three times, in English and Old Slavonic. Sometimes, during its passionate mournful phrases, the church is darkened again, leaving, once more, only the candles burning before the icon screen, in mystical darkness.
(For the extra-curious or musically inclined reader, below are some to videos I've hunted up, providing a sample of the music I've referenced in this blog post. For the full experience, of course, visit your nearest Eastern Catholic--or Orthodox!--church.)
Now Do I Go to the Cross ~ A slightly different version, melodically, from the hymn I'm familiar with, but with the same text and surging mournful spirit. Beautiful.
Let My Prayer Arise ~ A short clip from a liturgy celebrated in one of our own Byzantine Catholic Ruthenian parishes in the Midwest by our Bishop John Kudrick. The video shows the clergy in the sanctuary; you can see the congregation through the open royal doors in the icon screen. The video includes the recitation of the Prayer of St. Ephrem directly afterwards.
Let My Prayer Arise ~ A choral arrangement of the Solemn Evening Psalm by Russian composer Dmitry Bortniansky. A favorite of mine, and hauntingly performed in this recording.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Celtic Stereotype: A Rant

It's the end of February and Chicago is still buried in snow. But recently I've seen a certain kind of green plant popping up in various places--usually on windows or walls of homes and storefronts, or plastered on posters and event announcements. It's the clover, and it's been making its annual appearance as the United States (prematurely, as usual) prepares to celebrate its absurd version of St. Patrick's Day.

I know St. Patrick's Day is still weeks away. And I know I should be used to how our secular culture trashes real holidays. But the diluting of this particular holiday touches one of my pet peeves--the romanticization of the Celtic.

I've always had a vague interest in Celtic culture, given my heritage. My grandmother's maiden name was Gallagher, and there is a family legend (mostly a joke, but who knows?) that our ancestors were Irish horse thieves. However, my family never put special emphasis on our Celtic background, so it wasn't until I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped that I began unearthing the Celtic riches for myself.

Kidnapped, of course, is set in Scotland, so the book left me obsessed with all things Scottish. Having quickly depleted the list of Scottish stories by Stevenson, I turned next to Walter Scott. In books like Waverly and Rob Roy I discovered more adventure, more romance, more delicious Scots dialect. Soon after I found myself writing a short story (very much inspired by Rob Roy) which featured an 18th century Highland village. Now, in Scott's story, the stereotypical Highland peasant, along with being ragged and uneducated, spoke an unintelligible language called Gaelic. So for fun, I thought I'd translate bits of my story's dialogue into Gaelic. It would give it that more foreign, romantic atmosphere, wouldn't it?

An internet search revealed no automatic translations tools for Scottish Gaelic. But it did turn up a truckload of resources for learning Scottish Gaelic. Curious, I tried out a few websites. (The first thing that boggled me--not surprisingly--was the phonetics. "You mean, mh sounds like v? And th sounds like h?? And what's with dh--it sounds like g???")

Despite my bewilderment, I was hooked. My study of modern Scottish Gaelic launched me into a whole new consideration of Celtic culture. It was more than romance. It was real. Its language was more than unintelligible babble--it was a poetic, expressive tongue, both liquid and edgy. Its people were more than the nostalgically uncivilized peasants portrayed by Scott--they were human beings, who lived, worked, prayed, loved, sang, mourned, rejoiced. Their lives were harsh and often primitive by our standards, but that did not reduce their humanity.

After discovering this nugget of true Celtic culture through the Gaelic, I found I could not return to my old obsession with romantic Scotland. Scott's portrayal of the primitive Highland life irritated me. On the other hand, movies like Brigadoon, with its over-idyllic Highland village (not to mention its Highland villagers who speak in Lowland Scots), annoyed me as well. The truth lay deeper than the bagpipes and plaids, the thatched roofs and hairy cattle. I don't mean to say that these things were not a real part of Highland culture. They were--but not in the picture-postcard way they're often presented.
Brigadoon, the musical
Perhaps I split hairs. But I insist the deeper study of a culture reveals beauties far more engaging than any romantic stereotype, because it reveals real human personalities. To prove it, I here share the English translation of an old Gaelic song, once sung by real Highland women while milking real Highland cows.

Come, Mary, and milk my cow,
Come, Bride, and encompass her,
Come Columba the benign,
And twine thine arms around my cow.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
My heifer dear, generous and kind,
For the sake of the High King take to thy calf.
Come, Mary Virgin, to my cow,
Come, great Bride, the beauteous,
Come, thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ,
And place thine arms beneath my cow.
Ho my heifer, my gentle heifer.
Lovely black cow, pride of the shieling,
First cow of the byre, choice mother of calves,
Wisps of straw round the cows of the townland,
A shackle of silk on my heifer beloved.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer.
My black cow, my black cow,
A like sorrow afflicts me and thee,
Thou grieving for thy lovely calf,
I for my beloved son under the sea,
My beloved only sun under the sea.
(From "Carmina Gadelica" Vol. 1, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael)
This song is chock full of reality. It reflects the deep Christianity of the old Highland peasantry. It reveals their poetic love of nature and animals. And it hints, in that mournful last stanza, of the harsh and tragic side of their lives. No Broadway writer could have reproduced the glinting nuance of joy and sorrow in such a song. Only a real woman, who had prayed and milked cows and lost a son to the sea, ever could have composed it.

In this country St. Patrick's Day is primarily an excuse for a party, featuring small three-leafed plants, small green-clothed men, and green beer. But I challenge my readers this year to treat it as a chance to explore real Celtic culture. Read the prayer of St. Patrick. Listen to a traditional Gaelic song. Never mind the cute cartoon leprechauns--read one of the ancient Irish myth cycles, like The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (a warning, though: Cu Chulainn and company are not for the faint of heart!).

Enjoy a bit of this true heritage. I bet you won't be able to go back to the stereotypes, either.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Arena of Virtues: Selections from Cheesefare Sunday

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Yesterday, for Roman Catholics around the world, marked the official beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a beautiful and solemn tradition in the West. But the Eastern lung of the Church offers its own unique set of services meditating on the beginning of (as we call it) the Great Fast. For us, the Fast began four days ago, on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

The name requires a bit of explanation. The Church, in her wisdom, realizes that the Fast has a tendency to sneak up on us all. So she lets us ease into the penitential season in stages--a sort of pre-preparation period. The Sunday Gospel readings for the weeks leading up to the beginning of the Fast features characters like Zaccheus and the Prodigal Son, who are called to repentance and reconciliation. The second-to-last Sunday before Lent is called Meatfare Sunday--for the very simple reason that it's the day we "say farewell" to eating meats until after Pascha. Similarly, the Sunday after that is labeled Cheesefare Sunday--the final day we can indulge in dairy products.

However, the focus of the liturgical prayers on Cheesefare Sunday is anything but food. Instead, the prayers for Vespers and Matins commemorate the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Through the plethora of hymns we enter into the character of Adam, weeping "over the memory of what used to be". The these verses from Ode 4 the Matins Canon bemoan the sorrow of separation from the Creator:

I was filled with honors when I was with you in Eden, O Master. Woe is me! How was I deceived by the envy of the Devil and rejected far from your face?
Choirs of angels, pour out your tears for me, and also you beauties of Paradise, the magnificent trees; for I was led astray by my misfortune and chased far away from God.
O pleasant meadows, O sweetness of Paradise, you trees planted by God, let your leaves, as so many eyes, pour out tears for my nakedness and my estrangement from the glory of God.
The poetry brims with the tone of a funeral dirge, and forces us to confront our own state of sin. But the Church hardly leaves us to drown in despair. By the second half of Matins, the verses during the Psalms of Praise offer a stern but joyful encouragement for the spiritual struggle to come:
The arena of virtues is now open!
Let all who wish to begin training now enter!
Prepare yourselves for the struggle of the Fast;
Those who strive valiantly shall receive the crown!
Let us put on the armor of the Cross to combat the Enemy,
Taking faith as our unshakable rampart.
Let us put on prayer as our breastplate,
And charity as our helmet.
As our sword, let us use fasting, for it cuts out all evil from our hearts.
Those who do this shall truly receive the crown
From the hands of Christ, the almighty One, on the day of judgement.
(Because I am an incurable romantic, that particular verse has always held a special place in my heart. Being patient and charitable and not taking that extra helping of breakfast cereal become more endurable when viewed in terms of an epic quest.)
The most distinctive service of Cheesefare Sunday--Forgiveness Vespers--takes place after the Divine Liturgy. (Although it's technically an evening service, many parishes, for the sake of convenience, celebrate it directly after the morning Liturgy.) Forgiveness Vespers marks the official beginning of the Fast. During the service, the altar cloths and clergy vestments are changed from gold to the penitential red. The ordinary melodies for the psalms and litanies switch over to the plaintive Lenten tones. Finally, we recite the signature prayer of the Great Fast--the Prayer of St. Ephrem--complete with full-length prostrations after each stanza:
The Prayer of St. Ephrem
Lord and Master of my life,
spare me from the spirit of indifference, despair,
lust for power, and idle chatter. (Prostration)
Instead, bestow on me, your servant,
the spirit of integrity, humility,
patience, and love. (Prostration)
Yes, O Lord and King,
let me see my own sins
and not judge my brothers and sisters;
for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen. (Prostration)
The beautiful words combined with the physical action of humility make for an unforgettable experience of the solemnity of the season.
Finally, the service concludes with the profound Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness. In it, the celebrant and the congregation ask each other for forgiveness, and then each person comes forward to embrace and ask forgiveness of every other individual. It's a moving tradition, which forces us to step out of our personal shells and commit to the Fast as a community. All the while, the cantor quietly intones the Canon for Resurrection Matins--giving us a tiny glimpse of our Lenten goal:
Let us cleanse our senses
that we may see the risen Christ
in the glory of his resurrection
and clearly hear him greeting us:
"Rejoice!" as we sing the hymn of victory.
Christ is risen from the dead!
(But, shhh! Not quite yet!)
Indeed, let us cleanse our senses, body, mind, and soul. A blessed Great Fast to you all!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Call of the Wild

View of Sinks Canyon, near Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, WY
No, this is not a post about Jack London's sled dog adventure novel (although I did have a short obsession with that book when I was younger and could blog about it sometime). It's actually another ramble on my already-beloved school, Wyoming Catholic College.

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following in my journal:

How can I express my excitement reading the newsletters and brochures from Wyoming Catholic College? They speak of the Holy Spirit-filled joy of this community, the students challenging each other in their faith, their studies, and their adventures, the absolute immersion in beauty and sounds like a training ground for the Catholic equivalent of Marines, or maybe knights.

Shortly after this, in a burst of enthusiasm, I printed out an image of the College's gorgeous crest, which I taped to my closet door, bearing the caption, "Knight of Wyoming Catholic College". My heart was set.

Several months later found me and my journal on a grassy June hillside. I was "in training" for the mountain hiking I'd be doing at WCC's summer camp in just a few weeks. Sweating in the Midwestern humidity, I took refuge in daydreams, and then in reflection:
Sitting midst the clovers, looking at clouds, imagining mountains. The other day I re-watched WCC's latest video "Everything in Excellence." It moved me again.... Indeed the whole video reminded me again of the necessity of being both hardworking and joyful, if I want to be a part of WCC. And I think the fact that in this way the college is making me [want to be] a better person, even before I've enrolled or set foot on the place, is is not like other schools at all.
I carried a golden picture in my mind of Wyoming Catholic. And incredibly, my real experiences of the College did not dispel my idealism. They actually confirmed it.
Later on I discovered that the College had on its website a list of "attributes of the ideal WCC student". This I read, admired, and eventually taped up on either side of the eagle and shield on my closet, as a kind of knightly code. The list is a constant inspiration--and intimidation. You'll see what I mean.
The Ideal WCC Student
From Wyoming Catholic College's admissions webpage
"Wyoming Catholic College is focused on educating the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. Since our mission is different than the missions of other colleges, what we look for in an applicant is also different. While we expect certain levels of academic achievement on standardized tests and high school transcripts, we also look beyond scores to find the character of the student. Below is a list of intangible traits we are looking for in our students."
- Unwillingness to settle for the satisfactory, but always striving for excellence.
- More concerned with uncovering the truth than appearing right.
- Desire to know what is true for its own sake, not just to pass a test or get a job.
- Unafraid of the consequences of speaking out about what is true.
- Enjoys listening and asking questions, not just hearing oneself talk.
- Deep personal prayer life.
- Life aimed at becoming a saint.
- Desire to know our Lord through His marvelous creation.
- Willing to consistently break out of his or her comfort zone to grow as a person.
- Willing to work hard to improve in those areas where he or she is not naturally gifted.
- Willing to sacrifice to achieve greatness.
That's one heck of an admissions criteria. This is the call of the Wild, the divine adventure of sainthood. As an incoming freshman at Wyoming Catholic College this August, I am terrified--in absolutely the best way possible.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Mystic Mouse: Holiness in "The Tale of Despereaux"

Before you read this post I'd like you to watch the short video above. It's a trailer for the movie The Tale of Despereaux which came out in 2008, based on the excellent children's book by Kate DiCamillo. Back when the movie first came out, I thought it was a fun film--besides the usual unnessecary, annoying, and even plain absurd changes from the book. However, I realized recently that the most fundamental change the film makes is to the character of Despereaux himself. The differences are subtle but important. They distinguish the stirring, unique fairy-tale which is the book, from the faintly clichéd storyline which is the movie.
Listen to the voiceover on the trailer: "Now when it comes to being a mouse, there's a right way and a wrong way. But Despereaux can only do things his way." The movie proceeds to show a very bravado little Despereaux leaping over mousetraps, facing a cat in a gladiator-style arena, and hang-gliding on his gigantic ears. In fact, the swashbuckling, imperturbable hero portrayed in the film closely resembles the chivalrous-but-vain Reepicheep from The Chronicles of Narnia film series:
Um...yes. Definite similarities. Right down to the scarlet headgear.
But is this the real Despereaux? I invite you inside Kate DiCamillo's novel to find out.
He [Despereaux] said nothing in defense of himself. How could he? .... He was ridiculously small. His ears were obscenely large. He had been born with his eyes open. And he was sickly. He coughed and sneezed so often that he carried a handkerchief in one paw at all times. He ran temperatures. He fainted at loud noises. Most alarming of all, he showed no interest in the things a mouse should show interest in.
Except for a few points, this portrait is the stark opposite of the film Despereaux. The reasons are obvious. A sickly, fainting, meek mouse could never be the hero of a major motion picture. It simply wouldn't do. Despereaux has to survive a dungeon and escape evil rats and rescue a princess. He must be braver, stronger, bolder than the rest of his fellow mice. He must assert himself. He must demand "his own way". Right?
But the Despereaux presented in the book is not different from his mouse community by virtue of defiance. He's simply different by oblivion:
But Despereaux wasn't listening to [his brother] Furlough. He was staring at the light pouring in through the stained-glass windows of the castle. He stood on his hind legs and held his handkerchief over his heart and stared up, up, up into the brilliant light.
"Furlough," he said, "what is this thing? What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?"
"Cripes!" shouted Furlough from a far corner. "Don't stand there in the middle of the floor talking about heaven. Move! You're a mouse, not a man. You've got to scurry."
"What?" said Despereaux, still staring at the light.
But Furlough was gone.
Physically and emotionally, Despereaux is weaker than his fellow mice. He practically has no self to assert. And this is precisely what allows him so receptive to objective truth, goodness, and beauty.
This is nothing less than a symbolism of Divine grace. (Whether this was the author's explicit intention I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out it were.) From his birth, he is called to see and hear things that the other mice, in their mundane, materialistic culture, can't. Despereaux does not break the laws of mousedom by asserting his own will. Instead he is caught up, almost without his own will, in a higher world of light. Throughout the book, he draws strength from many things--love, stories, and even a bowl of soup. Not once does he draw strength from himself. He is far more a mystical, spiritual knight than a self-reliant, swashbuckling one.
But that just smacked too strong of real holiness for Universal Studios.
I'll admit, the movie did keep intact some of the book's other important themes, like the power of forgiveness. But it eroded Despereaux's unique character of saintly knight, replacing it with a stererotyped, "rugged individual" hero. So if you're hungry for a fairy-tale of true depth, spiritual insight, and timelessness--just read the book.