Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mountain Song, by Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Wind River Peak, WY. Photo by Hannah Rose Shogren Smith

I don't have much time to enjoy them now, but I am a big fan of audiobooks. The experience of listening to a story, rather than silently reading it, has its own special charm. My first exposure to Jules Verne was through a book-on-tape version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, at the age of 6 or 7. (It was an abridged edition--still terrifying.) The scene where Axel becomes separated from his two companions in the pitch-black subterranean tunnels still rings extremely vividly in my memory, in a way I'm sure it would not if I'd first read it in a book on my own. The human voices pulled me almost physically into the story.

So imagine my delight when a few years ago I came across a website completely devoted to producing free audiobooks. This website is They are a worldwide group of volunteers who record works in the public domain and post them on the site for anyone to download and enjoy. So it's a perfect place for someone like me, who loves both audiobooks and the classics. They also encourage recordings in other languages than English (so that, when I was studying French last year, I was able to listen to Verne and Dumas in their original tongue--not that I understood it well, but it was an interesting exercise). But one of my favorite things about Librivox is the fact that whenever I find myself there I always stumble upon some gem I had no idea existed. I found Stevenson's Father Damien letter there (see my post on that here). I tripped over George Macdonald's Phantastes--the fairy tale that proved crucial in the conversion of C.S. Lewis. And just a few weeks ago, I uncovered a delightful little poem about mountains by a Norwegian author, Bjornstjerne Bjornson.

The poem, "Mountain Song", is an English translation of the original Norwegian from Bjornson's novel A Happy Boy. Although the poem refers to the mountains of Norway, it attracted me at once because it reminded me of my experience hiking in Wyoming--both physically and spiritually. Here it is--and here is a link to the Librivox page, if you care to listen along!

Mountain Song
By Bjornstjerne Bjornson
When you will the mountains roam
And your pack are making,
Put therein not much from home,
Light shall be your taking!
Drag not valley-fetters strong
To those upland spaces,
Toss them with a joyous song
To the mountains' bases!
Birds sing Hail! from many a bough,
Gone the fools' vain talking,
Purer breezes fan your brow,
You the heights are walking.
Fill your breast and sing with joy!
Childhood's mem'ries starting,
Nod with blushing cheeks and coy,
Bush and heather parting.
If you stop and listen long,
You will hear upwelling
Solitude's unmeasured song
To your ear full swelling;
And when now there purls a brook,
Now stones roll and tumble,
Hear the duty you forsook
In a world-wide rumble.
Fear, but pray, you anxious soul,
While your mem'ries meet you!
Thus go on; the perfect whole
On the top shall greet you.
Christ, Elijah, Moses, there
Wait your high endeavor.
Seeing them you'll know no care,
Bless your path forever.
The language is deceptively simple. Anyone who's ever travelled on foot in the mountains will be familiar with those "purer breezes", that "unmeasured song of solitude". Naturally I am now curious about this Bjornson fellow. Aside from Norse legends, I've never touched Scandinavian literature. Perhaps I should try it?  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Citizenship of Language

I'm happy to announce that one month from now I will be returning--briefly, at least--to Wyoming Catholic College. I am participating in their first-ever Founders' Scholarship competition, which involves two days in Lander writing an essay, giving a speech, and having an interview. The award is a four-year full tuition scholarship--so you can be sure I'm keyed up!

In preparation for speech and essay writing, I recently finished an excellent little book called The Office of Assertion, by Scott F. Crider, an English professor at the University of Dallas. The book, covering topics of invention, organization, and style, is a brief but handy overview of the "art of rhetoric for the academic essay". It was a good, sound refresher for me on techniques of essay writing--but I also loved the way Professor Crider talked about the purpose of writing. Quoting a fine passage from Richard Weaver, he reminds us that even a single sentence is a thing of power: "[T]he right to utter a sentence is one of the very greatest liberties.... The liberty to impose this formal unity is a liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions." Crider specifically emphasizes that the purpose of an academic essay is to lead the soul of the reader towards some truth inherent in the subject. I'd never heard it put that way before. But I liked it a lot.

Near the end of his book, Crider quotes again from Richard Weaver (it seems I shall have to read some Weaver after this), introducing a concept he called "the language citizen": "Like the political citizen defined by Aristotle, language citizenship makes one empowered to decide. The work is best carried on, however, by those who are aware that language must have some connection to the intelligential world...."

This phrase--language citizenship--intrigued me and plunged me into a long muse. If there are language citizens, then, by extention of metaphor, there must be a language city. But what is this city? Is it the collective sphere of the ideas, thoughts, and words of humanity? Do we all have this citizenship--by virtue of being creatures who communicate--or do we have to "earn" it through diligent study of using language well? Does this citizenship imply a duty? What is that duty? Is it merely to keep the rules of grammar and good style, or does it run deeper? Does it have something to do with "soul-leading"--using language to bring the light of truth to another human being?

It occurred to me at this point that if this last point were correct--if the proper use of language were to communicate truth--then the concept of language citizenship is not a mere metaphor. It's actually the lifeblood of real citizenship. Demagogues abuse freedom and justice through their abuse of language--by clouding the truth through words instead of revealing it. Remember how Weaver said above that even a sentence has the ability to influence others' actions? This, then, is the duty of the actual citizen and language citizen--to both seek the truth through skillful use of words, and to act upon it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Batter My Heart: John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14

More John Donne this week, as promised. This contemporary of Shakespeare has been criticized for writing poetry that's too intellectually convoluted, but his Holy Sonnet 14 must be one of the most emotional love poems to God in the English language. I will let the master speak for himself.

Holy Sonnet 14
by John Donne
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me,'and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I like an usurpsed town to'another due,
Labour to'admit You, but O, to no end.
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to You imprison me, for I,
Except You'enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.
Read it slowly. Read it aloud. And marvel at the sheer beauty.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Cross In All Things

This past Sunday the Church celebrated the glorious feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The story behind the feastday is an extraordinary one: on the fourteenth of September we commemorate the day St. Helen, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ gave His life for the world.

I will not attempt today to plunge the profundities that such a feast holds. So many wiser and more beautiful things have been said about the Cross than I could ever write. I simply want to share a few tidbits of this literature on the Cross that have recently caught my attention.

First, a hymn from Vespers before the feast from the Eastern tradition. I love our prayers for Vespers and Matins on holy days. They dive into poetic and theological raptures on the feast, and we bring them to life again every year with voice and melody. Through these prayers we are truly immersed in the mysterious presence of the feast:

O Cross, you are the radiant sign among the stars.
In prophecy you have revealed the sign of victory to the godly king;
And when his mother Helena found you,
She displayed you in the sight of all the world.
Today the choirs of the faithful shout aloud as they raise you on high:
Enlighten us by your brightness, O life-giving and all-venerable Cross.
Make us holy by your might;
Strengthen us by your exaltation,
For you are raised up against our enemies.

Today the choirs shout; today make us holy. The emphasis on the present shifts the focus from a mere commemoration of the feast, to an actual participation in it. It reminds us that we are Christians today and galvanizes us to live as such.

Moving westward, I take my second piece of literature from the Elizabethan poet John Donne.

Although a contemporary of Shakespeare, Donne was not half as famous, probably because his poetry is so intellectually rigorous and not all easy to understand. Nonetheless he wrote some very profound and beautiful lyrics, particularly religious poems. His Holy Sonnets are deservedly called gems and I may well write on them in more detail in the future. But today I draw attention to a few lines from a longer poem that he wrote called, simply, "The Cross":

Who can deny me power and liberty
To stretch mine arms and mine own cross to be?
Swim, and at every stroke thou art thy cross;
The mast and yard make one, where seas do toss.
Look down, thou spiest out crosses in small things;
Look up thou see'st birds raised on the crossed wings;
All the globe's frame, and spheres, is nothing else
But the meridians crossing parallels.
("The Cross", lines 17-24)

In other words, we may as well embrace the cross--because we can hardly avoid it! "All the globe's frame" reflects the astounding and glorious sacrifice of our Creator.

May the Holy Cross protect and sanctify all of us this week in our minds and hearts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 4

The fourth and final segment of a blog series on my journey to the Great Books and Wyoming Catholic College. Click the links to read the previous segments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

My mind, heart, and soul were made up. I wanted to go to a Great Books college. It didn't matter that I had to explain to every other person what the Great Books were, or that some of them gave me strange looks when encountering the concept of a classical liberal arts education. I had a calling. I had been inspired--literally, a new zeal had been breathed into me, and I was not giving it up.

In the very first days of my new excitement I believed I was called to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (see Part 3). I loved their small community, their dynamic classroom approach, their intellectual rigor. In fact I was so overjoyed at finding a college that actually appealed to me, that I was reluctant to search farther. But, for the sake of thoroughness, I did. (Thank the Lord!) The next college website I visited was that of Wyoming Catholic College.

I had actually known about Wyoming Catholic, vaguely, for years. My mother worked in higher education, and we had friends of friends who were involved in its founding in 2005. But the only reason it had remained on my radar was because of its equestrian program. (I had known, even before I wanted the Great Books, that I wanted to ride during college.) Other than that, WCC seemed a mere blip on the map. They were less than ten years old. They had less than 150 students. They had no permanent campus. What kind of future could I possibly find there?

I very quickly found out.

That day in late spring of 2013, I pored over WCC's website. I instantly felt their Catholicity. I had not realized how much I had been missing that element in my college search; now it called out to my like a clarion trumpet. Here was a place a could not only keep my faith, but also nurture it. Next I swooned for their curriculum. From the giants like Plato and Shakespeare, to original scientific texts by Newton and Einstein, to the Bible and papal encyclicals--this was the real deal. I had been terrified of trapping myself in one discipline in college; no fear of that at WCC. Everyone took the same incredible classes; everyone learned to think like a poet, a philosopher, a theologian. And one more thing--a cowboy.

For it the faithful culture and solid curriculum of WCC drew me in, it was the outdoor program that hooked me for good. On the website, I marveled at photos--students horseback riding, scrambling up and down cliffs, hiking in pristine mountain wilderness. This was...different. Very different. This was like no other college I'd ever seen. What other school, first thing freshman year, took its students on a required three-week backpacking trip in the mountains? It was crazy. It was terrifying. It was kind of ingenious.

As a suburban Illinois girl, whose childhood had been filled with adventures in books, I was admittedly starved for wilderness. At Wyoming Catholic, I'd be immersed in it. I'd learn outdoor skills, teamwork, leadership, and wonder. I'd be surrounded by God's glory and the song of the mountains.

At that Wyoming Catholic became my number one college; number two became...actually, there wasn't a number two. But I couldn't wait two years. So I signed up for their summer program, P.E.A.K. (Powerful Experience of Adventure and Knowledge). Those two weeks this past July were some of the most beautiful and challenging of my life. I did study the Great Books. I did feel nurtured and strengthened in the deeply Catholic environment. I did see the song of the mountains, every morning, from the porch of my dorm. I did sleep among the sagebrush and the stars.

I also did a few crazy things, like this:

Australian rappelling--ie., walking headfirst down a cliff! That's me on the right, just starting to freak out...
(Photo by Mikaela Heal and Grace Pfeifer)

When I returned to my Chicago suburb, I found it...depressingly flat. But I know I'll be back. I've left a second home in Lander, WY. My Great Books calling led me to the mountains, where I saw beauty and felt terror and knew humility and joy as never before. In my mind, there is no question: I am a future student of Wyoming Catholic College.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Feathers & Trumpets: A Story of Hildegard of Bingen, by Joyce Ray

Recently I signed up as a volunteer on, a wonderful site dedicated to "news, views, and reviews of classic and contemporary Catholic fiction." The following is my first book review for the site. My Great Books series will return next week.
When I picked up this book I knew little enough about St. Hildegard of Bingen--only that she was a medieval nun who composed music and wrote books, both of which activities were unusual for women of her time. However, thanks to Joyce Ray's beautiful and well-researched novel, I now have a much greater appreciation for this unique saint and Doctor of the Church.
Young Hildegard is an unusual girl. The tenth child of noble parents in 12th century Germany, she is from her birth destined to become a nun, thanks to the medieval practice of "tithing" every tenth child to the Church. As a girl she is plagued by headaches, fainting spells--and visions. She predicts the color and markings of a calf before it is born. She sees fantastic landscapes and ferocious mythical creatures. Troubled about the source of these visions, her family agrees Hildegard will be safer behind the walls of a monastery.
The plot follows Hildegard through her years of preparatory training, her profession as a Benedictine nun at the age of fourteen, her life as a secluded anchoress in St. Disibod Monastery, and later her leadership role among the larger community of nuns. All through these events her visions continue. Some are terrifying, others unbearably beautiful. Because Hildegard is still unsure whether the source of the visions is holy or evil, she only shares them with her two closest companions--her ascetic mentor Jutta and her beloved disciple, Richardis. But when a Voice out of a blinding light commands her to write down her visions, she cannot keep them a secret any longer. With the help of a monk named Volmar she begins recording God's revelations.
Hildegard's visions are some of the most beautiful prose passages in the story. All her life Hildegard searches for love in her fellow man, but she only finds love's consummation in her intense encounters with the living God:
"In the clear radiance, the blue was azurite, as pure as the pigment illuminating her Psalter. The point came nearer, took human form and shimmered with sapphire brilliance. The human figure gazed as Hildegard. She floated on a gentle current....She neared the radiant human, knowing that he was her destination, that he was the answer to her pain. But the current supporting her flowed faster now. It became a torrent of floodwaters that churned and sped her toward the shimmering sapphire which radiated heat. When the figure engulfed her, she knew instantly that the arms of her Lord cradled her."
The strength in God that her visions inspire allows her to carry on her monastic work through much physical suffering and human opposition. In the latter part of the book she receives a vision, which she believes is a command, to move her community of nuns from St. Disibod  and to build a new monastery at Mount St. Rupert. The abbot of St. Disibod, who has enjoyed the funds and notoriety his monastery has received ever since Hildegard revealed her visions, resists the change. But through Divine intervention he is eventually forced to allow Hildegard to follow her calling.
One of the remarkable things about the book is Joyce Ray's skill in portraying Hildegard a character with whom the reader can sympathize. Most of us are not cloistered monastics, nor do we have heaven-sent visions. But Hildegard is not distant or incomprehensible. She loves music and gardening. As a girl she dislikes the tedium of memorizing Latin psalms. She cannot follow the ascetic habits of her mentor Jutta, who flays herself and fasts to the point of sickness. As a young nun, she struggles with her attraction towards the monk Volmar; as an older woman, she feels a mother's pain when her faithful disciple Richardis leaves her to lead a different monastery. In fact, the character of Hildegard presents a remarkable portrait of a person who really is ordinary, but is also given immense gifts by God.
As historical fiction, the book is researched thoroughly enough that the setting feels honest and real. For an added treat, each chapter is headed by a quote from Hildegard's actual poetry, letters, and biography. As a young adult novel, is does an excellent job of turning a character who would at first seem foreign into a person whom the young reader can care about. Under Joyce Ray's pen, the monastic life becomes a drama of love between God the Creator and his created. Feathers and Trumpets is a worthy tribute to this unique and wonderful saint. 
A bonus for my blog readers: a taste of Hildegard's music. Listen to as little or as much as you like; it is all gorgeous.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 3


The third installment of a mini-series on my path towards a Great Books education and Wyoming Catholic College. Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Thus far in my ramble I've shown what I felt was missing in the mainstream college experience, and explained why the Great Books approach, in contrast, drew me so deeply. Typical colleges today (and I'm lumping the Ivy Leaguers into this definition) hone their students into a particular career path, with relatively little concern over the actual formation of the students' minds and souls. The Great Books method, on the other hand, challenges its pupils to understand the fundamental truths of their existence. A human being is defined by more than what he or she does for a living.

So I desired this deeper kind of education. But which school to choose? Fortunately I did not have an overwhelming number of options--true Great Books colleges are a novelty nowadays. (I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain to people what they are!) The first school to draw my attention was St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Of all the college brochures in that oft-mentioned heap in the corner of my room, St. John's was the only one that spoke meaningfully to me. Among the oldest schools in the country (found in 1696), it has retained the classical liberal arts curriculum which most colleges have dropped. Although not religiously affiliated, they respect the integral place of Christianity in Western tradition, studying the Bible and many great Christian works of thought and literature. In class they use the time-honored (and stimulating) method of Socratic discussion. They care about intellectual life--and how it forms you for real life. They are emphatic on the integration of the different disciplines, on the harmony of the whole. I sensed wholeness from St. John's as I had from no other school.

So how did I end up heading west, not east? Why did I forgo the historic school in Annapolis for a tiny, 8-year-old college dropped into the vastness of Wyoming?

Three words: Mountains, horses, and the Catholic Faith.

(To be continued)