Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nollaig Chridheil! ~ Two Gaelic Christmas Carols

Nollaig Chridheil dhuibh, a h-uile duine. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Today I'm afraid you, my readers, will have to endure another outburst of my Scottish geekiness. Fortunately, this one is appropriate to the season, and it involves more listening than reading. So turn up your speakers and prepare yourself for a wash of musical Christmas beauty.

Last Christmas I taught myself one Gaelic carol. That was all I had time for, what with the host of other preparations I had to make for the feast day. But this year I was eager to discover more: traditional Gaelic music holds a special place in my heart and I was sure there were some gorgeous Christmas songs out there just waiting for me. I was not disappointed. In my search I quickly uncovered the album Duan Nollaig: A Gaelic Christmas, by Fiona Mackenzie.
The album is lovely as a whole, including, along with the traditional Scottish carols, translations of some English favorites, like "In The Bleak Midwinter" and "Silent Night". Two of the native Gaelic songs in particular caught my attention: "Oran na Nollaig" (The Christmas Song) and "Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear" (There Were Shepherds in an Eastern Country). Below I post the videos and English translations of each song.
As soon as I read the lyrics to this song I knew I had to learn it. The words tell the story of a different kind of "Night Before Christmas"--this time, the midnight visitor is not a jolly St. Nicholas, but the voice of the Holy Spirit Himself. I invite you to read along as you play the video.
Oran na Nollaig (The Christmas Song)
The night before Christmas sleep fled far from me,
I lay on my elbow with a whisper in my ear
Saying, "Arise, get dressed and we'll go for a wander--
To a town far away across the ocean.
"There'll be a star in the sky," said the voice in my ear:
"Follow it and you'll get your reward:
You will glimpse the child they call the Lamb
Lying in a manger--his cheek like a star.
The Lamb of Reconciliation in the manger. Give him hospitality and welcome.
The Savior of the world, the beautiful child of joy,
What the prophets reported in the Bible
You will see tomorrow night--come sail with me."
"Who are you," I asked, "Whose voice do I hear?
Who leads me to the sleeping child?
Why did you invite a poor, wretched sinner?
Come and tell me the reason--don't leave me so quickly."
"Farewell," said the whisper, "I'm the Author of the book;
May the song of Christmas be daily on your lips
May the child's mercy follow your steps--
As long as you're on earth give honor to Him."
If you've read this far, it means you've survived the beauty of Fiona Mackenzie's voice and the heart-wrenching violin interludes. I congratulate you! But you ain't seen nothing yet...
When I first heard the opening harp chords of "Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear", a chill pricked my spine and felt my heart pulled into a kind of swoon. This I had to learn! To my surprise, when I looked up the lyrics, they were merely a straightforward account of the angels' appearance to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. The story itself was utterly familiar, but the Gaelic poetry and swoon-inducing melody infused it with a new beauty, gentleness, and wonder. The song sounds like stars. I'm sorry, that's the only way I can describe it.

Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear (There Were Shepherds In An Eastern Country)
There were shepherds in an eastern country,
Watching their flocks by night,
When there came an angel from heaven,
And the slope lit up with light.
The men were terrified but he said to them,
"Fear not, for I bring good tidings of great joy
To you and all generations."
"The Savior of the world,
The Christ, the Holy Lord,
Tonight has come to Bethlehem,
A helpless, gentle child;
And you shall find him securely wrapped
In a warm manger in the hay,
The precious, heavenly babe
Promised to us since the beginning of time.
Thus said the angel to them,
And suddenly the heavens were full
Of angels singing sweetly
And this was what they sang:
Glory to God in the heavens,
Everlasting peace of earth!
Glory to God in the heavens,
Everlasting peace of earth!"

I have no doubt these two carols will become part of my favorite Christmas repertoire. There is something breathtaking about viewing Christ's birth through the eyes of another culture's language. I have enjoyed it immensely, and I hope I've helped open your ears to another world of Christmas music. Beannachd leibh, agus Nollaig Chridheil! (Blessings and a Merry Christmas to you all!)


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Four Advent Candles...Plus Two More

If a Roman Catholic walked into our dining room at dinnertime during the last week before Christmas, he might be a bit perplexed. Yes, there would be the familiar Advent wreath with its four candles...but there'd also be two additional candles lit, making a mysterious total of six. What's with the extra candles?! he might wonder.

My father was a practicing Roman Catholic for the first 40 years of his life. Then, when I was about 4, he discovered the Byzantine Catholic Church. Feeling God's call, our whole family switched to the Eastern rite. But with so many beloved Advent practices left over from our Western heritage, our preparation for Christmas became a unique amalgamation of traditions.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the Eastern Church's Philip's Fast starts two weeks before the West's Advent. Thus our family keeps the Advent wreath, but adds two candles for the two extra weeks. At meals we sing Byzantine hymns during the beginning of the fast, but during the final week carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". We set up our Western-style nativity scene and tree, and then on Christmas Eve sit down to a traditional Slavic meal of sauerkraut and mushroom soup.

Personally, I love the hodgepodge. We breathe with both lungs of the Church and share the best of two worlds. Today--since I'm guessing most of my readers are more familiar with the Western side of things--I'd like to share a bit of Byzantine hymnography for this final week before Christmas.

Like Advent, the Eastern Philip's Fast is a time of preparation. Through our hymns, we remind ourselves of the miracle about to take place. Just read this text, from the prefestive troparion of the Nativity:

Bethlehem, make ready,
Eden has been opened for all.
Ephrathah, prepare yourself,
For the Tree of Life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb has become a spiritual paradise
In which divinity was planted.
If we partake of it,
We shall live and not die like Adam.
Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.
In a single hymn, we cover the redemption of the old Adam, the prophecies about Bethlehem and Ephrathah, the Incarnation, and even a hint of the Resurrection at the very end. The prefestive troparion clearly places Christmas in the wondrous context of all salvation history.
This is also the theme of the Emmanuel Moleben, a short prayer service that can be said during Philip's Fast. Near the end of the service, the priest recites a long "kneeling prayer" (so called because it's one of the few occasions during the year when Byzantines actually kneel!). It too recounts the crucial place Christmas holds in the true epic of our salvation (emphasis added):
O God and Father, the Almighty One, you created the human race in your image and likeness, and when we fell through disobedience, you promised to send a Savior. When the fullness of time had come, your favor rested on your only-begotten Son, and he was born of the Virgin Mary. Thus, what Isaiah the prophet foretold was fulfilled: "Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Emmanuel, which means 'God with us.'" His birth filled all creation with light; he gave us the baptism of repentance, and restored our ancient dignity. Now most compassionate Lord, you bring us to these honored days of the Christmas Fast that we may do battle with the desires of the flesh and draw strength from the hope of resurrection. Receive us, then, as penitents and forgive our wrongdoing, those done knowingly and unknowingly, through malice and through weakness. And may our prayers our fasting, and our works of mercy rise up before you as incense, as sweet spiritual fragrance, that in the company with the Magi and the shepherds we too, with pure hearts, may be found worthy to bow down before the Nativity of Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To him, together with you and your all-holy Spirit, belong glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and forever. Amen.
Christmas is both an arrival and a turning-point, a culmination and a beginning. The long-promised Savior is now visible to the world, but His mission is only just begun. As for us, Eastern and Western Catholics alike, the Christmas Fast is not quite over. Keep battling, soldiers! The King is almost here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Literature, A Mode of Knowledge: "The Lost Country"

This week I'd like to share with you a small but fine literary journal I have discovered--The Lost Country. It's a bi-annual publication of fiction, poetry, criticism, and reviews produced by The Exiles--a group of men and women in Forth Worth, TX, who in the tradition of the Inklings have founded a club for the creation and appreciation of great literature. The magazine is only in its third year, but they already have some fine work to showcase. This fall's issue includes an essay on William Wordsworth, a fairy tale with a generous dose of cracked humor, a plethora of insightful poems (including--I admit it--one of my own), and much more. I encourage you to take a look at it online for free.

While exploring The Exiles' website a bit more deeply, I happened across their philosophical vision statement, "Literature as a Mode of Knowledge". By the first two sentences, I was hooked:

The members of The Exiles share the conviction that literature is one of the modes of knowledge through which truth becomes accessible to man. The contemplation of a literary work of art, far from being a momentary diversion, an escape from reality, is, rather, a vision of that deeper reality which we mean by the term Truth.

As a young woman who feels a vocation to write, this idea is extremely exciting to me. Of course, I have read such speculation on the purpose of literature before, but every time I encounter it, it reminds me all over again of the real, joyful, intimidating nature of my art. I'll explain what I mean in a moment.

Often in the daily (well, almost-daily) grind of working on my novel--agonizing over adjectives, bridging plot holes, chiseling out characters--I can forget what all the labor is actually for. That's why I enjoy stepping back and realizing the true end of my craft, which The Exiles express quite beautifully:

...[L]iterature presents an eschatological view of human life and experience, a view as though from the end of time when the meaning of everything that has happened is seen, a view in the light of eternity which is beyond our ordinary mode of perception. By seeing human actions in relation to their end, the literary work of art reveals that all the events, the agonies and the conflicts, of human life have meaning.

Now you see what I mean by intimidating? What a calling! The writer not only has a responsibility to hone his or her craft. The craft is inextricably bound to the pursuit of transcendent truth in the human condition. Keeping the physical ear tuned to the sound of the right words is just as important as keeping the spiritual ear alert for that inner harmony, that music of meaning. Writing requires perceptiveness on multiple levels.

This concept is as fascinating as it is frustrating. Lately an odd sense of the mystery of reality, in relation to the writer's craft, has been pressing on my mind. Every detail of real life seems overwhelmingly important. How does one really describe the glimmer of wet grapes, or the whistling hush of bird wings, or the satisfying pain of a hard run in the cold? Or, on the spiritual level, how does one truly pin down that elusive, irrepressible impulse bound in our beings, Love? Each experience has its own unique reality, which we only encounter directly when undergoing the experience. Words are comparatively vague. Writing seems to me a bit like trying to hand-mold a fine clay sculpture while wearing very bulky mittens. Words, those little meanings enfleshed in sound and shape by language, are all we have to trace the inimitable outline of God's reality.

This is the "mode of knowledge" that is literature. Like any art that tries to reconcile the real and the ideal, it's tremendously difficult to do well. In fact, given that no human can be all-knowing, it may be impossible to perfect. Nevertheless we try. The people behind magazines like The Lost Country try. On the whole, the results are quite beautiful. So I applaud their efforts, and quietly return to my own work, re-inspired.

Quotes in this post are copied with permission from the article "Literature as a Mode of Knowledge",

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Staggerford", by Jon Hassler

The following is a book review written for

Losing. That was the melancholy strain running through dozens of papers every year. Parents lost in death and divorce, fingers lost in corn pickers, innocence lost behind barns and in back seats, brothers and uncles lost in Vietnam, friends lost in drug-induced hallucinations, and football games lost to Owl Brook and Berrington.

Thus middle-aged bachelor Miles Pruitt's impression of his hometown of Staggerford, Minnesota. Set in the 1970s, Staggerford--like most small rural towns--has its share of saints and sinners. Miles, a high school English teacher and fallen-away Catholic, is an observer. Quiet and unobtrusive, he seems content to let life trundle along in its ordinary way. But he has had his share of losses as well--most significantly, the loss of both of the women he loved and might have married, to other men. Yet while Miles shares in the vague malaise of regret infecting the town, he does not seem to have the will or direction to pursue a deeper purpose.

The novel Staggerford is a chronicle of one week of Miles's life, taking place between October 30 and November 7. Thanks to a host of colorful supporting characters and side-stories, the main plot can be difficult to trace. In that way the book marvelously resembles a detailed snapshot of small-town life, rather than a traditional novel. However, the main story can be said to center around Miles, his landlady Agatha McGee, and one of his English students, Beverly Bingham.

Agatha and Beverly are the only two characters to whom Miles means, in the words of the landlady, "a deep, abiding lot." However, they could hardly be more different. Agatha, an elderly spinster and a staunch Catholic, has taught in the town's Catholic school for over forty years. Coming from an orderly, uncompromising moral worldview, she too feels loss as she witnesses the upheaval in both the Church and the secular world. But she gets along with the steady, uncomplaining Miles (though they do have their differences--he teases her about her pre-Vatican II missal while she prays every day for his lost faith). Agatha is the very picture of discipline, loyalty to tradition, and common sense.

Beverly, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. Although one of the brightest students in Miles's English class, she carries the burden of a terrible home life, a deranged mother, and a devastating family secret. Terrified for her future, she comes to Miles more and more often for advice and support. She is attracted to his steadiness precisely because her own life is so off-kilter. Miles, meanwhile, begins to wonder if he, a middle-aged bachelor and a teacher for over a decade, is actually falling in love with this 18-year-old girl. This new relationship sets off old memories of his previous failed romances.

While Miles struggles with past and present loves and Beverly endures her broken family, Agatha grapples to understand the purpose of evil in the world. In a central passage of the novel, she attempts to draw an analogy between the moral order and a bed of ferns in her garden:

"So what I was thinking, Miles, was that maybe there is a similar process going on in human affairs. If you let sunshine stand for the goodness of the world and you let rain stand for evil, do goodness and evil mingle like sun and rain to produce something? To bring something to maturity, like those ferns? Does God permit sin because it's an ingredient in something he's concocting and we human beings aren't aware of what it is? Is there sprouting up somewhere a beautiful fern, as it were, composed of goodness and sin?"

Although this analogy does not put Agatha's mind entirely to rest, it does reveal her deep trust in Providence. Throughout the rest of the book, goodness and evil mingle, eventually climaxing in a great good--a healing relationship between the motherly Agatha and the desperate Beverly. However, it will take a tragedy to accomplish it.

These hints at Providence, along with Agatha's moral compass, provide a quietly Catholic backdrop to a very real story. With gentle soberness and humor, Jon Hassler also brings to life a medley of supporting characters--a female librarian obsessed with facts, an ambitious but nervous principle, a superintendent with a phobia of death, and many more. Each brings a mingling of good and evil to the landscape of Staggerford.

Overall, Staggerford is a comfortable, easy read, with a memorable cast of characters and a poignant ending. Hassler does not preach Catholicism with this story. Instead, he uses it to gently illuminate his characters' actions, in a quiet attempt to make order of our small, sometimes messy, ordinary lives.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Love of Bare November Days: Frost's "My November Guest"

November is typically the month people start complaining about the cold. I personally don't feel the need to complain about weather, unless there's a tornado in the vicinity. But there are particular reasons I actually enjoy the "ugliest" month in the year. Mostly they relate to Advent.
The season of Advent, for most of the Catholic Church, starts ten days from now. But for us Eastern Catholics, it's already here. Our "Advent", called Philip's Fast (it begins on the feast of the Apostle Philip), lasts six weeks instead of four. The middle of November is just the time when the soul-stressing noise and empty glister of the "holiday season," begin in earnest. It is just at this time, that Mother Church opens her arms to us, hushes us, and tells us to steady our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Fasting, good works, and re-focused prayer are the main tools she gives us. But even nature itself encourages the ascetic ethos. By mid-November, the blazing autumn colors have withered. The grass is damp and yellowing. The wind begins to have a vicious bite. Beauty has gone, at least until the first real snow. Or has it?
Robert Frost might disagree. Recently while reading his volume of poetry, A Boy's Will, I ran across this short piece which is truly a November gem:
My November Guest
by Robert Frost
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks, and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
At first it seems as if Frost views November like anyone else--a cold, dark, unpleasant, even unnecessary time of year. As we see, his Sorrow persuades him otherwise. But how can we understand this strange love of bare trees and cold fog? Is it a morbid obsession with pessimism and death? I think not. I also think the Church's wisdom can give us insight into Frost's fondness.
The two major fasting seasons of the year, in the Eastern Church, both posses an ethos of what we call "bright sadness". This is in obedience to our Lord's command, "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men" (Mat. 6:16). It is a fused spirit of deep repentance and buoyant hope, which prepares us for the greatest feasts of the Church year.
Bright sadness and Frost's Lady Sorrow are close cousins. In fact, November as a season epitomizes this attitude. The world has been stripped of its outward beauty and warmth, just as we strip ourselves of bodily pleasures. Nature grows stiller, darker, more rigorous, as we strive to keep a more peaceful spirit and a deeper prayer life. For six weeks we humble ourselves, preparing for the coming of Christ, just as November becomes naked, in preparation for the baptism of glittering December snow.
This is the "love of bare November days"--a love of quiet, repentance, and purification. It's not always pleasant--I don't like a November blast breathing down my neck any more than the rest of us--but it is good. A good chill, which reawakens our souls to the task before them: the task of loving God and each other. Ponder that the next time you're tempted to grumble about the forecast.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Battle of the Round-house: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" (Part 2)

Happy 164th, RLS
One hundred and sixty-four years ago on this day, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a great storyteller was born. Yes--Robert Louis Stevenson. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while already know how much I admire him. This post, the second in a series of posts on his novel Kidnapped, is the one "birthday present" I can give to the fine writer who only lived 44 years. So thank you, Stevenson, and happy birthday.
What is it about great stories that is so real to us? My siblings and I talk of the Shire, Minas Tirith, and Mordor as if they were quite real places. Not in a literal sense, I suppose. But it seems that way, because although Middle-earth can only ever live in our imaginations, it's still something we share. We feel the fireside at Bag End must have really existed, in some sense, because we've all "been" there; we have the same memories of it, though we all read Lord of the Rings at different times. Those worlds--in books that are very precious to us--seem to take on a life that does not depend on our imagination.
Perhaps this is foolishness. But I bet that at least a few--if not many--book-lovers have had the exact same experience. So allow me, over the next few posts, to share with you a handful of the places I've lived, and loved, between the covers of a book called Kidnapped.
The Round-house

The roundhouse was built very strong, to support the breaching of the seas. Of its five apertures, only the skylight and the two doors were large enough for the passage of a man. The doors, besides, could be drawn close: they were of stout oak, and ran in grooves, and were fitted with hooks to keep them either shut or open, as the need arose. (Kidnapped, Chapter 9, "The Man with the Belt of Gold")

Welcome to the captain's quarters of the merchant ship Covenant. If you're an ordinary sailor, you're probably not in here much. But if you're a lad named David Balfour, this is where you lived for a while--an involuntary cabin boy, waiting on a dour captain and a drunken first mate, on your way to seven years of slavery in the American colonies. By all rights, the round-house should be one of your least favorite memories.
But it's also the place where you meet Alan Breck Stewart. It's the place where you decide to save a man's life, though he is a stranger--indeed, might have been an enemy in any other situation. You're a law-abiding citizen; he's a wild outlaw. And yet, for the sake of the right, you throw in your lot with his:

...I walked right up to the table and put my hand on his shoulder.
"Do ye want to be killed?" said I.
He sprang to his feet, and looked a question at me as clear as if he had spoken.
"O!" cried I, "they're all murderers here; it's a ship full of them! They've murdered a boy already. Now it's you."
"Ay, ay," said he; "but they haven't got me yet." And then looking at me curiously, "Will ye stand with me?"

Your answer to that question is the true beginning of your story. In the next few hours, through the heat of battle, you will forge a friendship with this "wild Hielander" that will change your life. "Let your hand keep your head, for the grip is coming," says Alan. It comes fiercely, and against all the odds--you win out. So far you've been deceived by malicious relatives and kidnapped by greedy sailors; the round-house is your first victory. 

The roundhouse was like a shambles; three were dead inside, another lay in his death agony across the threshold; and there were Alan and I victorious and unhurt.
He came up to me with open arms. "Come to my arms!" he cried, and embraced and kissed me hard upon both cheeks. "David," said he, "I love you like a brother! And O, man," he cried in a kind of ecstasy, "am I no a bonny fighter?"
So he is, though you're rather too shaken by shedding your first blood (albeit in self-defense) to compliment your new friend on his swordsmanship. But the night isn't over yet. You and Alan have driven off the treacherous sailors for now, but there's no sense taking any chances. Inside the little fortress of the round-house, you set up your night-watch:
So I made up my bed on the floor; and he took the first spell, pistol in hand and sword on knee, three hours by the captain's watch upon the wall. Then he roused me up, and I took my turn of three hours; before the end of which it was broad day, and a very quiet morning, with a smooth, rolling sea that tossed the ship and made the blood run to and fro on the round-house floor, and a heavy rain that drummed upon the roof.
There's something haunting about that muted rain, after the clash and fury of last night. But you are glad of it. It gives you a chance to take a breath, regain your wits, ponder this strangely fortunate twist of fate. Your comrade-in-arms stretches out in the captain's bunk, sleeping like a child. Who is this Alan Breck Stewart, after all? Well--you'll know him better presently.
The triumphant duo
To be continued

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Very Old Friend: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" (Part 1)

It's an undisputed fact among book lovers that some tomes simply feel like friends. These titles may or may not be on the Great Books list. They may or may not have led you to deep insights on the nature of man, or the purpose of the universe. They are simply the books you fall in love with, the ones you crave to live inside, for a little while.

This book, for me, was Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. I could try to make some profound literary analysis of it, or unravel its eternal themes. But I can't say that Kidnapped ever pointed me, directly, towards those lasting truths that I typically look for in a good story. And yet it is a good story--a braw tale, to put it in the Scots--easily my favorite, and strangely monumental in my memory.

This is simply my excuse for the fact that this post, and any other posts I write on Kidnapped, are less like a literary analysis and more like a love story, littered with random details no one is interested in except myself. But it's the only way I can ever hope to convey my experience with this book. Kidnapped is an old friend. I couldn't write about it any other way.

I met this friend on a gray Sunday morning in February of 2011, on my older brother's dresser. I had wandered into his room bored, looking aimlessly for something to do in the half hour or so before we left for church. The book was a fat red one, a collection of Stevenson's more popular poems, short stories and novels. I couldn't tell you why I decided on Kidnapped. I had heard the title before, of course, but had no conception of the plot. Actually I had a vague notion the whole story was set in America. So I had no preparation for a plunge into 1750s Scotland.
Straightaway I fell in with Davie Balfour's honest, pleasant narration. So what if the style was a bit old-fashioned? So what if the dialogue threw out these strange Scottish words I'd never seen before, like "muckle", "siller", "kittle". It all drew me into a new, entrancing, very real world.

For the rest of the day, I could hardly tear myself from the book. It didn't matter that I knew, at the time, virtually nothing about the Jacobite Rebellions. The pure thrill of story carried me along at a breakneck pace. Each emotion-packed scene made a deep impression--David's first dark hours aboard the brig; the victory of the roundhouse; the flight through the heather; the quarrel...scenes that I read and re-read, almost trembling with excitement. Kidnapped had kidnapped me, completely.

I finished the book that same afternoon, in a kind of delirium. Never had I been so utterly absorbed in a story for an entire day. And yet the experience was exhausting. I had read so furiously that the plot was a blur, and even the names of the characters did not stick in my mind. Only those particular scenes, those moments of high romance, the memory of the thrill.

Besides that, hardly a thought of the book crossed my mind for the next year. Then one night in March 2012, a friend in church choir gave us a big box of books (always an event in the Woods household). Wedged somewhere between a coffee-table book on Versailles and a Michael Crichton novel, sat a splendid old edition of Kidnapped. Charles Scribners's Sons, 1946. Dark blue cloth binding, only a wee bit tattered, emblazoned on the front with a gorgeous N.C. Wyeth illustration. (N.C. Wyeth deserves a blog post all to himself; I have a mini-obsession with his work.) Inside, pages softly browned, deeply scented with that wise, musty, old-book smell.  Graced throughout with more N.C. Wyeth gems.

Delighted, I immediately claimed this treasure as my own. That night, flipping through it almost with awe, I fell upon this passage, at the beginning of Chapter 7, which had overwhelmed me a year ago:

I came to myself in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water as of a huge mill-dam, the thrashing of heavy sprays, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world now heaved giddily up, and now rushed giddily downward; and so sick and hurt was I in body, and my mind so much confounded, that it took me a long while, chasing my thoughts up and down, and ever stunned again by a fresh stab of pain, to realise that I must be lying somewhere bound in the belly of that unlucky ship, and that the wind must have strengthen to a gale.

Instantly I was there again; no, I was David Balfour again, bound and despairing in the stormy bliges of the Covenant. The adventure had not faded. It awaited me once more.

To be continued

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 wouldn't if I'd first read it in a book. 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'm there I always stumble upon some gem I had no idea existed. A year ago I discovered Stevenson's Father Damien letter (see my post on that here). More recently, 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 no 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)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 2


The second installment of a multiple-part series about my journey towards a true liberal arts education--particularly towards my dream school, Wyoming Catholic College. Part 1 can be read here.

After reading Anthony Esolen's book, it seemed I had never had another option. Going to a Great Books college was the next logical step from the quasi-classical education I'd received so far in homeschooling. I realized at last the source of my vague disappointment. I didn't just want to study English, or literature, or creative writing. Those, on their own, could never be enough. I wanted to learn about truth--in everything. And the Great Books method was the only one which addressed education as something more than a means to intellectual or material success. Its aim was to form the person. The whole person, body-mind-soul, for his ultimate destiny: knowledge and love of God.

That was what had been silently missing from my horde of college brochures. They talked an awful lot about the "what"--the number of majors, the small class sizes, the statistics of successful alumni, etc., etc., ad nauseum. So much "what" and so little "why". The purpose of higher education was presented as essentially utilitarian--fun on the side, perhaps, but really a tool for clambering higher up that ladder of highly-praised, poorly-defined, and sickeningly earthly success. So that the pamphlet I got from Harvard read just as hollow to me as the one from Joliet Junior College.

But the Great Books approach was different. While its method does prepare a person well for a career--perhaps better, even, than the so-called vocational or trade school approach--that is not the primary point. The point is not material welfare. It is not even intellectual satisfaction. The point of education is the right ordering of the soul. Not that every class must be a theology class, but every subject ought to be taught integrated with eternal truth. To me this meant something. It meant everything. The more I read about it, the more it filled me with a longing, desperate joy. I would have nothing else.

This resolve fell upon me so deeply that for several days I was afraid to tell my parents about it--for fear they'd caution me against making a college decision so quickly. My fear was groundless, but quite seriously nothing else appealed to me. Only a few schools in the country still based their curriculum entirely on the Great Books. Among those, only a few stood out to me: St. John's College in Maryland, St. Thomas Aquinas in California, and Wyoming Catholic College in...well, in Wyoming.

At last I knew what I wanted. I was going to school, not to learn more about literature, but to learn how to be a human being. Sounds a bit silly. We all know how to be human, don't we? Well--that's the question, isn't it? (I sense a Socratic discussion coming on...)

(To be continued)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 1

Wind River Peak. I lift up mine eyes to the mountains, from whence shall come my help...
In beginning my application to Wyoming Catholic College, I've had the chance to revisit my truly God-guided journey to this school and this community. Here, then, is the first installment of a ramble on the Great Books.
The call I've felt towards WCC, ever since I really started exploring it, has been very strong and certain. I began having my first thoughts of college during my junior year of high school. I was pretty sure I wanted to go into higher education, with a vague intention of becoming an English major. I'd been given a gift for creative writing and discovered a love of classic literature. I was already fairly certain of my calling to become a Catholic author. Among the streams of college pamphlets pouring into my mailbox, I was definitely attracted to the liberal arts rather than the trade schools. But amidst it all I experienced a foggy anxiety, a deep disappointment. This is it? I thought. Going to college was supposed to be the first step into my new, independent, fulfilling adult life. Why did I feel, even before I'd touched any application forms, that it wasn't enough?
To be sure, I enjoyed learning. I loved coming to new insights in literature and history and theology, felt satisfaction when mastering a new mathematics concept. I knew I could get a good intellectual education just about anywhere, if I applied myself. And wasn't that what college was about--to train your brain in a certain area well enough to earn a degree to secure a successful career? So screamed all the shiny brochures mounding on my bedroom floor. But my soul, and the faith my parents and God had instilled in my heart, ached and cried out. Something was still missing.
But even in the darkness of my uncertainty, God drew my steps. In my reading, for school and for enjoyment, and in my personal journaling and insights, I felt Him calling me again and again to understand Him and His Church through beauty. Absolute beauty. Not something static, sickeningly romantic, or overblown, but real, the living ideal, the light and desire of every human heart. Beauty, not off in its own little creative box, enjoyable but unnecessary to our other human occupations, but essential--as in twined in our essence. Harmoniously and gloriously weaving itself into our reason, and spirit, and body. If, as the adage said, beauty was in the eye of the beholder--in other words, if it contained no reigning truth--I thought I may as well go out and blind myself.  
Finally, in the spring of 2013, I received a clear answer to my wondering. I discovered at a friend's house, on Easter Sunday, a book by Catholic professor and author Anthony Esolen. His book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, described in detail how our secular Western culture has exchanged its classical and Christian heritage for moral relativism and chaos. To combat this, he advocated--he championed--a classical liberal arts education.
And all at once, the missing something inside me solidified and snapped softly into place. A certainty. I had to go to a Great Books school.
(To be continued)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Mystery of Martyrdom: Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral"

They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action.
~T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, Pt 1
The Wyoming summer wind ripped across the church steps, flapping books and tearing the words out of our literature professor's mouth, making both lecture and discussion impossible. But it was useless to hold class inside--although it was only ten in the morning, the warmth and stuffiness of the classrooms had made all our heads buzz with sleep. At last in desperation we tramped over to a protected nook of the building. Here we circled up on the concrete in the lee of the wind, and proceeded to dive into passages such as these, from T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral:
Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
I had read the play once, before I knew it was on the reading list for Wyoming Catholic College's summer program. Back then the height of language and plot, dramatizing the final weeks of the life of St. Thomas Becket, had affected me deeply. But even on multiple readings, I couldn't get my head around obscure passages like the one above. I grasped the outline of the play but seemed to be missing its essence.
To do all what we did in class at WCC--to dive into historical context, draw out major themes, make comparisons between Becket and Christ's Passion, and dwell on the meaning of martyrdom--is impossible in one blog post. Suffice to say I came away with a much fuller understanding of Eliot's purpose in writing the play. The conflict centers, not so much on the fatal disagreement between Thomas Becket and his king, but on Thomas's own inner struggle. As he proclaim in the first act: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
For Thomas knows he is going to be killed, to be "martyred". He has defied King Henry's claims of power over the Church. But is he really dying for God's kingdom, or for his own spiritual pride? This is the terrible question: Can a man never escape pride, even when he is trying to serve God? But Thomas sees the way out. As he explains in the middle section of the play, in his Christmas day sermon:
A Christian martyr is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.
If Thomas submits himself totally to God's plan, he cannot be acting out of pride. That is his salvation and ours. Before Becket's martyrdom, the tone of the play is one of terror and foreboding, mounting to ultimate despair--the despair of the soul trapped in pride. But afterwards, the world of the play, so to speak, is cleansed and re-ordered. For by accepting God's will, Becket became a channel of grace to Canterbury, drawing down God's eternal plan into time. This is the eternal action and pattern so obscurely spoken of--perhaps because it is indeed a mystery. God's love, being this mystery, but also being real, bewilders and even frightens us. As the Chorus pleads near the very end of the play:
Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,
Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.
God's love is fearsome. But He requires us to embrace it, as Becket did, because He is our purpose and fulfillment. That is the wonderful mystery of the martyrs.
St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Wild and Sacred Way

To all of my fellow P.E.A.K. participants, and the incredible students and staff of Wyoming Catholic College: Thank you, thank you, thank you, for two of the most beautiful and challenging weeks of my life.
Wyoming Way
by Mary Jessica Woods
God's river roars in the crease of the land,
Gray rock, aspen-glitter on either hand;
O, shale-streaked cliffs and mountains pine-high,
String up my soul to the top of the sky
And there let me dangle, my spirit ensnared,
My boots on the ground and my heart in the air.
Or else, when the nightfall turns sage-green to black,
And I ease to the earth and lie stretched on my back,
Let that meteor-streak, a mere pulse-length in flight,
Be infused in my veins as eternal light:
A sharp breath of beauty for all of my days,
And a flame of the wild and sacred ways.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wyoming, here I come!

A P.S. to my last post: on Saturday I am taking off to Wyoming Catholic College for their two-week summer program. And the week after that I am attending my very first writing conference in Chicago with the Catholic Writers Guild! Whoo! However, all that excitement likely means no more blog posts for the rest of the month. But never fear--I will have loads to write about when I get back. :)
In the meantime, you may feast your eyes on Wyoming Catholic's very amazing crest above.
God bless and see you in August,