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 truth...it 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 telling...it 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.


 




Thursday, January 15, 2015

Faith in the Night Sky: Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star"


Winter nights are best for stargazing. The dark comes on early, and the air--if bitter--is beautifully clear. Often, if I happen to be outside for a moment on a cloudless winter evening, I stop to greet a few old friends--the sweeping Big Dipper, the jagged Cassiopeia, the faint but distinctive Pleiades, and marching over all, the majestic Orion. They're not much compared to the grandeur of the Milky Way, but considering that I live in a Chicago suburb, I just take what I can get.

On that note I'd like to pull out a Robert Frost poem concerning stars. "Choose Something Like a Star" is one of the final pieces in Frost's Complete Poems 1949. It's one of his more metaphorically profound poems (and Frost is really, really good at being metaphorically profound), and, I think, a particularly pointed reminder to us as Christians and American citizens. Read away.

Choose Something Like a Star
By Robert Frost
 
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
 
Let me say it outright. I think the entire poem is one long metaphorical reflection on faith in God. However, the metaphor is gorgeously layered. Take a look at the first three lines from this angle:
 
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
 
To me this comes across quite clearly as an appeal to a Divine Being. I.e., "Dear God, you are so infinitely greater than our human minds, that we admit we can't understand you fully. So go ahead--be a little mysterious." Of course, "we" don't stop there. We'd like a word or two of guidance:
 
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
 

The cryptic poignancy of that response echoes the scene of Moses and the burning bush. Indeed, since it is a star that is speaking, "I burn" seems a similar statement of essence to the Lord's "I AM"--in poetic terms, of course. But "I burn" also carries the meaning, "I desire." Desire what? It's no wonder we're a little confused:
 
...And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
 
Here, on the surface, Frost contrasts the poet's understanding of the star with the scientist's. The scientist wants something to measure; Frost makes it clear this star's meaning is immeasurable. The line of thought is the same if the star represents God. God's existence cannot be explained (or unexplained) by time- and matter-bound measurements. Not that He is irrational--rather, He is rational and more. The next lines give us a hint of this.
 
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height...
 
A certain height--the height, hope, and dignity of faith. A height that lets us think and act above the bewildering vicissitudes of changing times and social mores:
 
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
 
(The pun in the final line is brilliant, by the way.) This is the bit I thought particularly relevant to us as Americans. Although we may technically live in a republic, when it comes to general culture we are definitely a democracy--as in, mob rule. The pressure to be politically correct, "to carry praise or blame too far," can be almost overwhelming. That's why "we may choose something like a star".
 
But even that isn't quite the right way to put it, considering what we've seen from the rest of the poem. Remember? "It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height". The title of Frost's poem may be "Choose Something Like a Star", but that is a line of ultimate understatement and irony. In reality, the Star chooses us.





Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Ordered Inner Life: Socrates' Portrait of the Just Man


When you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself; it is as though you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble friend; there is another bond on you thenceforward, binding you to life and to the love of virtue.
~Robert Louis Stevenson, "Books Which Have Influenced Me"
 
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the beautiful sentence above in reference to the relationship he felt with his favorite authors. It happens to be a great description of how I feel about Stevenson. But there's another literary character I've come to know recently, who fits the bill perfectly as well--Socrates.
 
Although Socrates did not technically write any of his famous dialogues--his student Plato did--it is still Socrates' personality which dominates the text. Anyone who has even skimmed works like the Republic or the Apology will be familiar with his persona: witty and yet methodical, clear-minded, inquisitive, humble, and never budging an inch from his principles. The most vivid impression I have received of Socrates is one of immense integrity. Here is a lover of truth and virtue the world has seldom seen.
 
Over the past few months I have been meandering my way through the Republic. Although it's not exactly what you'd call light reading, I have found it surprisingly refreshing. The clarity of Socrates' speech and logic seems a mental cleansing which sets my thoughts in order. Besides that, Socrates' own enthusiasm for the topics at hand is infectious. He livens the long abstract discussions with amusing metaphors like the following, from the fourth book of the Republic. The context: Socrates and his disciple Glaucon have been trying to pin down the essence of justice. On the way they've gotten a bit sidetracked, creating an ideal State. But now Socrates wants to return to the original issue:

The time then has arrived, Glaucon, when, like huntsmen, we should surround the cover, and look sharp that justice does not steal away, and pass out of sight and escape us; for beyond a doubt she is somewhere in this country: watch therefore and strive to catch a sight of her, and if you see her first, let me know.

I can picture him speaking, with a twinkle in his eye, like a jovial professor. It's little things like that which distinguish Great Books from textbooks--a Great Book conveys a person.

The longer passage I'd like to share with you today is a bit more serious, but an equally vivid painting of Socrates' personality. A little later on in Book IV, after a long and winding discussion on the nature of justice, education, and the State, Socrates finally lays out his portrait of the ideal just man:

But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,--he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has...become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act...always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.

I'm afraid I cannot convey the whole genius of this little summary without diving into an explanation of Socrates' definition of justice and his division of the soul into the rational and the passionate. But that second phrase which I highlighted above simply arrested me the moment I read it. In the light of Socrates' piercing insight, I recognized that many of my own anxieties, frustrations, and failings are a result of a disorganized inner life. More often than not my desires are self- and pleasure-centered, when they should be love- and truth-centered. I found the call to set my inner life "in order" an inspiring one. And unlike Socrates' ideal man, I don't have to be "my own master" and "my own law". Considering my imperfections, that's probably a good thing. Instead, as a Christian, I discover both in the Person of Christ.

I hope I have succeeded in conveying at least a little of Socrates' unique personality through these quotes. Reading his dialogues has truly been what Stevenson described: a blessed obligation, binding me to life and the love of virtue.