The Habit of Perfection

Hopkins

A young Hopkins looking every bit the romantic poet

It is early in the year 1866 and Gerard Manley Hopkins is contemplating a long Lent. He is a future cleric for the Church of England, studying at Oxford, and heavily under the influence of the aestheticism of Ruskin. He has a bright future. He has been privately writing poetry for some time now, but is beginning to feel as though everything about his present situation is actually trending toward glorification of self. This is not at all what how he desires to live, and for a sensitive soul such as his, this is not a nagging thought to be brushed aside and thought of no more. He longs to serve God humbly and truly. Even the poems he has agonized over and painstakingly crafted begin to feel as a weight around his neck. Many of them are burned never to be read again.

During Lent, many of us impoverish ourselves by denial of simple pleasures. This is a good habit. But Hopkins wants more. He wants to achieve a habit of perfection. To accomplish this he must sacrifice everything, for saints desire only God. Not only are the poems discarded, so too is his comfortable Anglicanism and beloved Oxford along with career and friends. He enters a personal Lent of uncertain duration, trudging on pilgrimage to the grim-grey factory town of Birmingham to consult with the most famous and downtrodden of all Catholic converts in England, John Henry Newman.

Hopkins2He becomes Catholic and life changes forever. Eventually he begins writing poems again, but no one cares to read them. A few are published here and there but he really only has two interested readers while he is alive. He also enters the Society of Jesus and is more or less a pastoral failure, eventually shipped off to exile in Ireland to teach at a failing university. And yet, at the end of his illness-shortened life, he lies on his deathbed far from home and cannot help but repeatedly exclaim, “I am so happy. I am so happy.”

By what standard is this man able to claim happiness? He has finally reached the end of his life-long Lent and in the process has found himself completely, totally impoverished along with Our Lord. Perhaps we do not really believe this when we are told, but the experience of the saints teaches that there is no greater joy than the happiness of the Cross.

I often reproach myself that I give too little to God, am overly concerned with creature comforts, hesitate to fully place my own sacrifice on the altar to be joined with that of Our Lord. Perhaps this is why Gerard Manley Hopkins is my hero. He faithfully accomplished what it seems I cannot. He was not a successful man, but he was holy and he was happy. In the end, he shows how God cares for those who are weak and humble, feeding us with his very lifeblood and clothing us in marriage garments as gorgeous as lilies of the field.

I’m getting ahead of the liturgical season, though. The lily-coloured resurrection garments still await. We are still in the dark night of Lent. Back in 1866, while still agonizing over the decision to enter the Catholic faith, Hopkins reflects on the approach of Lent and achieving The Habit of Perfection. This one evaded the flame and emerges as a sign to us of eternal love.

 

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Last week was one of the most life-changing weeks of my entire life. My life–or what I thought would happen in my life–changed drastically. Twice.

It all started on February 2nd, when I launched a Kickstarter appeal to fund a production I wanted to do on the California Missions. Here’s the video for that appeal:

It was just two weeks after Pope Francis announced that he’d be canonizing Bl. Junipero Serra, and since I was born in San Diego, I’ve always loved the Missions, so the series was a no brainer for me. Our goal was lofty–we had 45 days to raise $50,000 to produce a 10-13 episode series in English and Spanish in time for the canonization in Sept., in addition to everything else I was already doing. But I knew that if God wanted it to happen, it would.

Part of the reason why we decided to launch a Kickstarter appeal was because we wanted to know, once and for all, if people really cared enough about The Faithful Traveler to help us produce it. Funding has always been an issue. We produced the first series on our own, and while our Holy Land series was sponsored by Select International Tours, there are always fees and other things you have to pay for that add up. Eventually, we started getting invitations by other sponsors willing to cover our travel expenses, which was not only amazingly generous, but made us feel so much better about how people felt about our program. Some people got it and saw the value in supporting it financially. And we were so grateful. But, again, there are always more costs involved in producing a travel series than just the travel expenses, and those costs added up. Aside from what we were spending to produce the series, neither David nor I have ever been paid anything for the work we do on the show. It’s always been a labor of love for us.

So we decided to do a Kickstarter project.

At some point in the Kickstarter appeal, I mentioned that I saw the incipient canonization of B. Junipero Serra as a sign that I should do this project that has long been in my heart. I also said that the real sign that would prove to me that God wanted this series to happen would be whether we raised the funds we needed to produce the series.

I got that sign. In one day.

The first day I launched the Kickstarter appeal, I received an email from someone I’d never met or heard from who thought our project was so worthwhile, he wanted to donate all $50,000 of what we needed.

I thought it was a joke. Wouldn’t you?

Clearly, this was the sing I was looking for! God was saying that He liked The Faithful Traveler and he wanted more, right? He had to have motivated this person to make such a generous donation, and while others continued to make their own extremely generous donations on the appeal, I knew already that the series was going to happen.

Then, last Friday, I got another sign. (Don’t ever say God is silent…)

Looking back now, it makes me laugh. Have you ever gotten a gift that you like, but when you see how hard it is for the person who gives it to you to continue doing so, you have to tell them, as gently as possible, that they don’t have to give it to you anymore?

I imagine that’s what God was thinking.

To avoid getting too personal with a story that is not my own, my husband suffered some health setbacks last weekend that put him in the hospital. After a weekend of sleeping alone and thinking about what life would be like without him, I shot this.

I am so blessed, I can’t even count the ways.

I am blessed that I married a guy who wasn’t even Catholic and then went on to not only convert, but to indulge me in this crazy idea of producing a television show about Catholic travel!

I am blessed that God gave me the ability to produce a television series that wasn’t half bad… Wait. Scratch that. It was awesome.

I am blessed to have been able to travel to so many amazing places and to meet so many wonderful people.

I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to tell others about how much I love my faith and I love the Church, and to hope that it made some kind of a difference in their life.

I am blessed to have been invited to write here, and to share with you all my silly stories and to invite you to join me on adventures. Thank you for indulging me.

Now, I am blessed to be able to step back into the shadows with my husband who is still alive and move on to the next adventure, whatever that is.

This will be my last post at Dappled Things, and while my stay here was brief, I’m grateful to you all for hearing what I have to say.

For now, if you would do me one last favor and please pray for me, as I finish up these last two productions of The Faithful Traveler. But most especially, please keep my husband David in your prayers.

Thank you. And so long.

*Oh, and that title is from Douglas Adams’ mind-bliowingly awesome book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you haven’t read it… go read it. It’s one of my favorite books.

Take a Swing Break

swingWhen I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a Broadway star, so I took every acting class and auditioned for every show that I could cram into my schedule. As you probably know, the first rule of acting is that it is not supposed to be acting–that is, the actor suspends his or her own feelings, thoughts, and identity in order to completely empathize with the character he or she is playing. One important tool my teacher used to help us achieve this was to have her classes play like small children. We would run around school, a bunch of seventeen and eighteen-year-olds playing Tag or Simon Says or Duck-Duck-Goose. The idea was to help us let go of our self-images and inhibitions, to forget what others thought of us and open ourselves to the emotional world of a five-year-old, a world of endless possibilities. No matter how sophisticated or simple, malicious or benevolent the character we needed to portray, the first step in becoming that person was to get rid of ourselves.

As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, it strikes me that my teacher–a crusty old dame who, as far as I know, practiced no religion–was instilling in us would-be actors very excellent Christian principles. We are not called to be ourselves in this world; we are called to be Christ to one another. The first step in becoming a good Christian is to empty ourselves and allow a new creation to be born.

If you are pondering how to approach your Lenten journey this year, allow me to suggest that you go back to being five years old. Play Red Rover. Hop on a swing and let your imagination soar. Build a pillow fort in your living room while you tear down the carefully-constructed walls of your everyday persona. You do not need any children to do these things with you, but of course, games are more fun if you can share them. If you do not have young children, then go borrow some. No parent of little ones will object to an offer of free babysitting. Faith, like talent, is only free to mature when it is not strangled by self-doubt or pride, both of which are hard to maintain when you’re whizzing down a slide. So, why not make Lent fun this year? Repent, and come unto the Lord as a blank slate, like a little child.

Friday Links

A literary study finds that all modern narratives derive from the classic “Alien vs. Predator” conflict; along similar lines, Kirsten Andersen explains the reason why 50 Shades of Awful has been a commercial success; Prufrock ponders political poetry; the Poetry Foundation brings you some poems for Valentine’s Day; and Nick Ripatrazone, one of the most talented among the new generation of writers who are Catholic, talks to Kevin Catalano in a marvelous new interview at The Spark.

Till They Have Faces

When Thorne Smith liberated the gods from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the results were as disappointing as they were hilarious. His 1931 novel, The Night Life of the Gods, involves an eccentric scientist, a mischievous leprechaun, and the Greek gods set free from their pedestals to roam the streets of Prohibition-era New York. The story is witty, absurd, and strangely poignant. The gods are, at first, delighted by the joys of swimming pools, department stores, and illicit whiskey. Venus enjoys a good deal of attention, with and without arms, and Neptune is fascinated by fish markets. But in the end it is all too much for them, and for us. “In a world that has forgotten how to play there was no room for the Olympians,” muses Meg, the leprechaun. True enough. The gods become statues again. And so, in terms of interest, does everyone else.

Would they fare any better, now? The Icelanders are building their first pagan temple in a thousand years. One wonders what kind of welcome Thor and Odin would find on the streets of modern Reykjavik, if they were restored to life. Those who plan to frequent the temple hasten to remind us that the gods are merely metaphors, which seems a little unfair. These are gods without faces: they have no personalities, they demand no sacrifices. They are museum pieces: missing an arm here, a head there, stripped of their paint, cold, austere, damaged, and distant. What life the statues of Greek gods now have for us is in their material history: the hands that shaped the stone, the eyes that first beheld them. It’s something to meditate upon, certainly, although a place like the Metropolitan can overwhelm the imagination. But it’s not the same as what we’re looking for.

To live in a world that is charged with the grandeur of God is no light undertaking. The gods of Thorne Smith are both playful and terrifying. It is their playfulness that makes them terrifying and masks it at the same time. They are above consequences, even more so than their Homeric antecedents; they are also, of course, without consequence, because this is a comic novel, not an epic poem. But for Smith and his protagonists they are also alive in a world that has forgotten how to live. That is why we seek them out, desire their company, and overlook their terror. Unless we cannot, in which case we run the other way. No one in their right mind now would want to live among the Greeks, the Romans, or the Vikings, let alone their gods. Nor should we worship their statues, unless we are prepared to see their faces. But they can still remind us how not to be statues. Thorne Smith was right about that much.

It should be pretty clear that the gods will not save us from a world without God. One might say that they have had their chance. But one might also say that we are living in the Golden Age of mythology, and that is an interesting thought. The gods were never so free to be themselves as when they stopped having to be gods. Somewhere between statues and metaphors, they still roam free in the Metropolitan, and everywhere else. But with what faces they will meet ours in this present age remains to be seen.

Snow Forts, Super Bowls, and Fatherhood

Last Sunday brought the first significant snow of the year to our town. This wasn’t just any snow, mind you. We’re talking about the perfect snow–32 degrees, large flakes, wet, packy snow. This is the snow that exists almost exclusively in the dreams of a child. For most grown men, such snow presents to the mind the dreary hour or more to be given to the task of shoveling and salting (not to mention the back ache that might follow). In all honesty, the beauty of the snow and the potential it presented for playing with my five children completely blinded me to the impending need for removing it from around the car and the driveway, walkway, and sidewalk. The snow fell like flakes of fun from the sky, piling up the possibilities for smiles, laughs, and wrestling.

With mass celebrated, Sunday school taught, lunch eaten, an agonizingly long rest-time taken, the children’s zeal for fun exploded onto the front yard in a flurry of poofy snow-pants, silly hats, mismatched gloves, and boots on the wrong feet. After figuring out wardrobes, the fun could begin in earnest. There were no questions asked, a snowfort must be constructed, to be followed by an all-out snow-pocalyptic war against Papa. With walls nearly as tall as my 8-year old child, the snowfort was a feat to behold, the eighth wonder of the next Ice Age. As you might predict, the sheer joy that followed in the pummeling, planning, running, tackling, laughing, freezing, and finally warming up inside was not only the stuff of a child’s, but a father’s dream as well.  There was only one thing missing….

I didn’t have any Dove Soap or Lotion to put on after we came inside, nor did we all hop into a Nissan vehicle and drive home. (I guess that’s two things missing.)

Anyone who watched the Superbowl cannot but know what I am talking about, but for those of who didn’t watch, take two minutes and “google” the ads for Dove and Nissan that ran during the Superbowl. I’ll wait…

Glad you’re back, with the remains of the tear that likely swelled in your eye as you watched. My immediate reaction to these commercials was both joy and sorrow. Consider first the joy. These ads show a cultural awareness (whether explicit or implicit) of two things: (1) the absence of fathers and the crisis created thereby; and (2) the constancy of the true father, his presence and nurturing, guiding care at every moment is key to his identity and role. The Dove commercial shows the father’s caring presence in the whole stream of life’s events; whereas the Nissan ad shows the tension between the presence and absence of the typical father, and the corresponding love and resentment such habits form in a child. The soundtrack for the Nissan commercial (“Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin) only added to the commercial’s effect (perhaps ironically). Both the song and the ad show the ambivalence of the father-son relationship, and the son’s tendency to re-enact the moral script his father’s own life provides.

Now to the sorrow. In watching these ads, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve witnessed a kind of profanation, or a banalization of something sacred. The Dove ad attempts to link its soap and lotion to the most sacred duties, rites, moments, values of the vocation to fatherhood. The ad, in fact, is not selling soap, but the idea (or rather the feeling) of fatherhood. It commodifies “care” or “strength,” and fatherhood itself. The ad is, therefore, a most brilliant piece of marketing. Why? Because it doesn’t bother to generate some artificial desire, rather it taps into one of the deepest desires inhering in each man: to imitate the caring, unreserved, unconditional presence of the Father Himself. Furthermore, it ties the fulfillment of this desire silently, subtly (as far as ads go) to the brand. The idea is to find my mind and soul branded just as each of the product bears the company’s “brand.” Whenever I see “Dove,” I’ll remember the beauty of fatherhood; or whenever I consider the joy of fatherhood, I’ll recall how “Dove” had captured it so well. They don’t need to tell me anything about the product, because it’s not what they’re selling. If I’m an American consumer, I’m going to buy soap. The question isn’t which soap works better, but which soap do I associate with my most fundamental hopes, dreams, values, and desires. Which brand of soap “embodies” for me those fundamental truths I hold dear? How could I buy anything other than “Dove” now?

The Nissan commercial does much the same thing. The ad makes no explicit claim as to the benefits of the vehicle. It doesn’t tell me anything. The ad embeds the information about the product into the narrative of the tension between husband-wife and father-son. The ad centers around the near-death of the father in a race-car crash. Thankfully, his car was a Nissan. He was able to walk away, and make a return to his anxious wife, and aloof-yet-anxious son. The ad sells safety not cars. The ad ties safety, moreover, to the guilt fathers have at their need to be “away” at work. Not only does Nissan sell safety, but also the feeling that I can always make things right with my son.

You might be saying I’m a bit harsh. It seems an ad agency can’t win with me. I mean, c’mon! These ads are trying to promote fatherhood and I’m raking them over the coals! Here’s the problem. Fatherhood is a sacred role and duty, a sacred practice. Being a father is not coterminous with buying the right product. To associate what is good and beautiful in fatherhood with a brand borders disingenuous and manipulative. What is it about Dove that is more closely tied to being a good father than any other kind soap? Indeed, Unilever (the megacorporation that owns Dove) also owns Lever 2000, Suave, Axe, and other health-and-beauty brands. Each of these brands is marketed as a different values scheme. It is principally that values scheme that I associate myself with when I buy the brand. The constancy, care, and presence essential to fatherhood cannot be purchased. They are the fruit of devotion and love. Safety and an eased conscience, moreover, cannot be purchased. Safety is an ever-elusive idol, only and ultimately found in the One who saves. An eased conscience is only available through an encounter with the one we’ve hurt, whether or not we go to pick him up in a Nissan vehicle. Advertisements that promote good practices, habits, and values are perhaps the best kind, but they nonetheless run the risk of leading us toward the error of thinking that our chief moral act is buying well rather than being good. Don’t buy fatherhood, be a father.

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all Fatherhood and all family on heaven and earth are named, that he might grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit” (Eph 3:14-16.

 

 

 

The Art of Tushery According to Tolkien

Yeah, he seems like he would be okay with archaic things

Yeah, he seems like he would be okay with archaic things

Last week we began a discussion on archaic language and its uses according to TS Eliot. If you missed it, you can check it out here. Today, we will continue our discussion with JRR Tolkien.

When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he filled them with archaic language. He made this choice deliberately as the “translator” of the languages of Middle-earth. This is a land wherein creatures are felled and cloven and smote, the Hobbits are afraid of Oliphaunts, and faithful Samwise “shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess.” Not everyone cared for what they considered affectation. Tolkien’s critic Hugh Brogan referred to the narrative style of Two Towers as “tushery.” Amusingly enough, the criticism is now far more dated than the book! Tushery (which my word processor won’t admit is an actual word) is writing of poor quality affected by archaism. In a letter to Brogan, Tolkien defends himself, “But a real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom.” It is worth quoting the letter at length:

But take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible): Book iii, “The King of the Golden Hall’. ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’ This is a fair sample — moderated or watered archaism. Using only words that still are used or known to the educated, the King would really have said: ‘Nay, thou (n’)wost1 not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall . . .’ etc. I know well enough what a modern would say. ‘Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties’ — and then what? Theoden would certainly think, and probably say ‘thus shall I sleep better’! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used. Like some non-Christian making a reference to some Christian belief which did not in fact move him at all.

Or p. 127, as an example of ‘archaism’ that cannot be defended as ‘dramatic’, since it is not in dialogue, but the author’s description of the arming of the guests – which seemed specially to upset you. But such ‘heroic’ scenes do not occur in a modern setting to which a modern idiom belongs. Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility. I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields, hauberks into modern uniforms.

I am sorry to find you affected by the extraordinary 20th.C. delusion that its usages per se and simply as ‘contemporary’ – irrespective of whether they are terser, more vivid (or even nobler!) – have some peculiar validity, above those of all other times, so that not to use them (even when quite unsuitable in tone) is a solecism, a gaffe, a thing at which one’s friends shudder or feel hot in the collar. Shake yourself out of this parochialism of time! (Letter 171)

For Tolkien, the way he employs old language is not an affectation but, rather, it is the most efficient way to express the mind of the speaker. He is able to accurately portray psychology through the way he writes. Without archaism, one is left with the distinct impression that the world of Middle-earth would be impoverished.

As if tushery is Not Safe For Work enough, how about another example taken from Deadwood. Deadwood is a television show written by David Milch. Although the stories are fictionalized, they take place in one of the last, true lawless towns of the wild west. Deadwood was once upon a time the site of a gold rush; it is now mostly a tourist trap. At the height of the mining boom, life here in fictionalized Deadwood is marked by blood, feuding, and cheating. As the town slowly develops rule of law, language plays an important role. In fact, it is the way in which men speak to each other that first evinces signs of potential civilization. The characters do not talk like us. In fact, they don’t even talk like people in the actual Deadwood would have talked. Instead, they use a blend of extremely foul, modern curse words (I do not know that I would actually be able to recommend the show to anyone for this reason) and archaic, almost Shakespearean sentence construction that comes across in a gorgeous, metered lilt.

For instance:

Who would argue that the venue was the cause of these happy memories, nor the bill of fare? The bitter coffee, the rancid bacon, those stale biscuits that were tomb and grave to so many insects. No, gentlemen, it was the meandering conversation, the lingering with men of character – some of whom are walking with me now – that was such pleasure to experience, and such a joy now to recall.

Who would have expected this from a popular television show about the old west? The language imbues the town with a sense of life and vitality that is unexpected. I would quote more to illustrate my point but, again, it is all pretty much loaded with profanity.

Something is odd about this town and these people who seem like unto us and yet also somewhat foreign. They may curse like us, but they sure do express their minds differently. An air of wonderment descends on this Dakota outpost; a mining town is not merely a mining town but an incubator of culture. In all manner of conditions mankind tends to create civilization. Foundational to the enterprise is our ability to communicate using intricate language full of symbol and loaded with meaning. This is how tradition is carried forth and developed. Words, including archaic words in their own particular way, are the gateway into the life of the mind. The inner mind is a whole wild west of its own, a place to mine the true riches of humanity. This is the beauty of these words and the men who use them.

Soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

Soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

From the profane to the sublime, let’s compare two translations of Psalm 23.

The NAB is the modern translation used in Mass:

The LORD is my shepherd;

there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures he makes me lie down;

to still waters he leads me;

he restores my soul.

He guides me along right paths

for the sake of his name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff comfort me.

You set a table before me

in front of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life;

I will dwell in the house of the LORD for endless days.

This is fine, I guess. Our other example is the KJV, which is more or less the Elizabethan-language translation:

The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

thou anointest my head with oil;

my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The King James, although a deeply flawed canon that shows its political influences and (no fault of the translators) is missing essential ancient manuscript input, renders the scriptures in gorgeous, old language. This language is considered archaic today, but I ask, which version of Psalm 23 do you prefer? Which one is a better representation of a religion as strange and original as Christianity? The oddity of the language is a feature, not a defect.

You might object that the words only seem archaic to us today but were modern at the time and, further, the Scriptures have a unique standing in literature. Ah, but would you be interested to learn that when the translation was first made it deliberately employed words that were already considered out of date? “Yea, verily” would have made the grandmothers in the gallery at Shakespeare’s theater nod their heads in approval about the golden old days. The Victorians who later revised the King James embraced this principle and actually made it even more archaic!

It seems as though, even if words have a life cycle, perhaps we have given up on many of them far too soon. There is a richness, a grandeur, and a precision that archaic language (and only archaic language) can bring to literature. Yea, very, I say unto thee that these words are not so dead after all.

Do Something: Letting Obstacles Become the Way

Life can be overwhelming. Sometimes, it throws too much good at you. Or bad.

IMG_4171Other times, despite what life throws at you, whatever is left inside of you after the last bout of things life threw at you can prevent you from accepting or moving on to the new batch of stuff.

IMG_4242

Life is complicated. And frustrating. And we don’t make it easier, either.

I have gone through enough times in my life when I am angry about this or sullen and resentful about that to know that my response is often to vacillate. To do nothing. To rebel.

I’ve gone through enough of them to know how to snap out of it, too. And when I can get up the gumption to kick myself in the butt and force myself to take that first step out of the hole I’ve been hiding in… well, it’s awesome.

What is that first step?

DO SOMETHING.

Let’s take an example: a messy, messy room. We’ve all had them. And we’ve all had to clean them up, too. (‘Cause, hi mom!)

How do you handle a room that is so overwhelmingly messy that, really, the only thing you want to do is shut the door and walk away?

Image-1

There is simply too much to do. Your brain is exploding. Your heart is racing. You cannot imagine everything you’re going to have to do to get this room clean.

How do you fix that situation?

DO SOMETHING.

Start small. Baby steps. pick up one thing and put it where it belongs. Then another. And another. Don’t look too far ahead or you’ll freak out again. Just focus on the one task at hand, and when that is done, move on to the next.

It really so simple, and yet we psyche ourselves out all the time about it. Living in the present. Focusing on the NOW.

Sometimes, when my office is a mess–it usually is at the end of every single week (WHAT PIG WORKS IN MY OFFICE?!)–I dump everything into a box and pull one thing out at a time and put it in its place.

Sometimes, when I have used up all of the laundry baskets to store my clean and unfolded laundry for three weeks… (yes… ask my husband) I take them downstairs, one by one, and I Fold. Each. Piece. One. At. A. Time.

Eventually, my office is clean and the clothes are put away. Until next week.

babysteps

The dishes are another matter…

Things in life can be sorted like this, too.

Right now, I am overwhelmed (and blessed) with the amount of work I have on my plate. I’m finishing up my special on Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I’m working on The Faithful Traveler in Portugal. I’m editing and writing a variety of videos about Catholic Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. I have a job that requires some attention, and a husband who requires some, too. Oh, and then there’s my dog, who insists on playing ball, being fed, and being taken outside (ugh! the nerve!) I’m trying to keep working out. I need to eat and sleep.

There are things I must do, and sometimes my days just don’t seem long enough. Sometimes, I lie in bed, my mind racing, and I pray, “Dear GOD! What am I doing?! I can’t do all of this!”

And then I pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.” over and over and over and over again until I fall asleep and start the next overwhelming day.

It works.

But sometimes, things happen that prevent you from doing that one thing that you set out to do. And what then?

apple

The answer then is also simple: BE FLEXIBLE. AND KEEP DOING SOMETHING.

This Tuesday, I decided I would spend that day working on my website. The setting was perfect: my husband was out of town, so the only time I had to spend with him was when he called (LOL. I love my husband, I do! But sometimes being overwhelmed makes me go into BEAST mode and he gets neglected.). It had recently snowed, so I didn’t have to take the dog out (he’s potty trained). I had cancelled my personal training appointment that day because of the snow storm that never came.

Basically, I had ALL DAY to do what I wanted to do.

I never got it done.

First, my website was being slow. I thought it was the wifi, so I moved downstairs with my laptop and connected directly to the modem. GREAT. I had super fast speeds then.

But whenever I tried refreshing my page, it was still super slow.

exploding

I called my host, and they kindly walked me through a bunch of things. I emptied my cache. They sent some test emails.

Eventually, the answer was that my media files–the file that holds all of the photos and videos clips and everything else on my website–is huge. In fact, the guy on the phone told me it was one of the biggest he’s ever seen. Nice.

He also said that my photos were out of someone’s bucket list, which was a nice compliment!

The good thing is, the solution was easy. All I had to do was back up my website,  delete my old blog posts, now that my blog has moved over to Patheos, and back to work! Simple. The CS guy pointed me to some plug ins, and away I started downloading right away.

It is now Friday. That plug in I downloaded is still backing up my website. FOUR. DAYS. LATER.

I still haven’t done what I wanted to do on my website. But in the meantime, I went through all of my external hard drives and identified what was on them and how much space they had and labelled them all. I wrote a press release. I wrote a business plan. I wrote a script. I edited some legal books. Made some calls. Sent some emails.

Do you know what I wanted  to do when this whole thing started? I wanted to freak out, throw my computer out the window and throw a big ol’ tantrum.

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But what good would it have done? Instead, I just moved on and did something else.

You may think I’m bragging. I’d have to say that I am. I’m proud of how I responded to this frustrating situation because, for the first time in a long time I actually responded to a situation in a way that I wished I would respond. I’m not normally like this. Normally, I do freak out and throw tantrums. Even if they are just on the inside.

 

IMG_4250Recently, I came across a book called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s a really good book essentially about stoicism. I enjoyed it so much I’ve listened to the audiobook twice. I may listen another time. And maybe another. I want the concepts to stick in my head.

I saw so much of the saints and how we are called to be Christians, trusting in God and being grateful in this behavior, I think if he knew it, the author would have been frightened.

One concept he mentioned was the art of loving everything that happens to you. Recognizing that everything that happens to us can be a lesson, can help us grow, if only we see it that way.

It reminds me of something my mom says: no hay mal que por bien no venga. Translation: There is no bad from whence good does not come.

The Table of Contents for this book is a lesson plan.

The first part is the first thing what we must do: PERCEPTION.

I perceive the room to be so messy that it is uncleanable.

I perceive that room to be cleanable if I take it one step at a time.

I simply have too much to do. I cannot do it.

I can do it.

Let’s throw the Catholic version in there: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.

Change how you think. Awesome.

Part TWO: Action.

First step: DO SOMETHING.

If something goes wrong, be persistent.

Is an obstacle in your way? Let the obstacle become the way.

challenge

From a Catholic perspective… on Tuesday, I tried to do something on my website. I couldn’t. Perhaps God wanted me to do something else. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to tackle that job. Whatever the case may be, I will do whatever else I can to make my day productive.

Part THREE: Will.

Are you disciplined?

Are you humble?

Are you humble enough to love everything that happens to you, good or bad?

Do you trust in your God as much as you say you do? Do you trust in Him in all things?

It’s a remarkable book. I highly recommend it.

For now, as my website continues to be backed up, I’m going to move on to another task, and them maybe another. Eventually, I’ll get that website done. But at least, in the meantime, I won’t have allowed whatever obstacles rolled in my way to keep me from getting things done.

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*All images were created using Bitstrips. Which is an awesome app.

The remembered mercy of broken things

This is a guest post by Thomas Springer.

Brett’s 1/2 –ton pickup, righteously dented and rusted per farm truck specifications, backed into our barn driveway on a winter Saturday with a special delivery. Attached to the rear hitch was an empty flat-bed trailer that was long enough to carry another entire pick-up if necessary.

“That’s a pretty big rig just to haul 50 lbs. of frozen meat in,” I hollered, over the phlegmy cough of the truck’s exhaust.

“It would be,” Brett said, “if this was my only stop. But I’m headed to Muncie (Indiana) for a load of hay after this. I found it on Craig’s List. There’s none around here because of the drought. They want $100 for a round bale if you can believe it.”

It was a custom delivery from Brett and Debbie Green’s M&M Beefalo farm in nearby Mendon. The packages we unloaded were frozen so hard that they clanked like porcelain dishes when we stacked them in the freezer.

A beefalo is two-thirds cattle and one-third buffalo. It’s leaner than cattle, but with a wilder, more complex flavor. Brett feeds his animals hay, pasture grass, green corn stalks, some grain and even over-ripe watermelons when he can get them. But no growth hormones. They live a clean, happy life, until, as farmer/writer Joel Salatin says “they have one bad day at the end of it.”

“I hope this batch lasts you!” said Brett with a conspiratorial grin.

We usually buy a ¼ of a beefalo from him each fall, but this year we needed a second order. That’s because misfortune intervened — although that’s a secret heretofore known only to me, my wife, a few family members, and now, our cattleman.

It befell us on a Saturday evening in July, one of those lingering, saffron-twilight interludes that’s perfect for grilling burgers over hardwood coals in the backyard. As I fiddled with stick matches and kindling to start the fire, I asked Emily to retrieve two packages of 1/3 lb. patties from the freezer in the barn.

“Be sure to shut the freezer door tight!” I instructed. I said it in a shrill, fatherly tone, born of the time-tested expectation that such dictates often fall on deaf ears. Seconds later Emily sailed passed with packages in hand, ran them to the house and within a minute was back outside on her trampoline.

After a quick defrost in the microwave the meat was soon asizzle on the wood-fired grill. It’s an imprecise operation. There’s no control knob on an open fire, no steel burners to ensure an even distribution of heat and flame. So you’re forever flipping here and nudging there to center the meat between the too-hot spots and the too-cold spots. You know the patties are ready when the muddy brown “done” juice seeps out and dangles from the grill’s underside like a high-protein stalactite.

While campfire cooking in mid-summer makes for a lot of sweating and squatting, the eldest daughter’s imprimatur during dinner made it all worthwhile.

“Dad,” her eminence pronounced, “these are the best burgers.”

And so they are. Beefalo patties, even when cooked well-done as my wife insists hers be, retain a ruddy color and rich flavor. Garnish with pickles, garden lettuce and home-grown tomatoes and you’ve got a fast, slow-food that can — mirabile dictu! — make an American teen forego the Golden Arches.

Not until the next afternoon did I realize that this would be our last beefalo cookout of the summer and fall season.

I was mowing by the barn when an ominous thought came to mind: “Had I checked the freezer door last night?”

It’s an old freezer with a weak door seal that must be firmly closed. As I rushed in I could see from the 30 feet away that it was not. It had been left ajar for 24 hours. And the barn’s indoor thermometer read 92 degrees.

I instinctively shut the door tight as if doing so now would make any difference. Then I opened it slowly, with the wincing trepidation usually reserved for one who has, with a sickening crunch, just backed over a child’s favorite toy in the driveway.

“Son of a, son of a, son of a … arrgggghhh!”

It wasn’t just the packages of beefalo –about 25 lbs. — that were thawed and dripping a wretched pink fluid onto the floor. There were also five pounds of gorgeous steelhead and Chinook salmon filets, caught from a boat on Lake Michigan. We’d won the trip in a church raffle and it would not be repeated. There were 20 bags of strawberries, picked on my wife’s family farm, the promise of winter fruit smoothies to come (and now bound for the compost pile). There were venison steaks for which I’d traded six pounds of honey from our hives.

It was such a wasted blessing. In all, several hundred dollars’ worth of food had been reduced to an oozing heap of vacuum-sealed offal. Apart from the money, these were prized provisions of a sort that only our home place can provide. We’d caught the fish, picked the berries and harvested the honey that we’d used for barter. It was our hands and those of our friends that had done this: Brett and Debbie, Brian and John. Their care and handiwork was the food’s provenance.

The loss was beyond infuriating. And someone – I knew exactly who – would have to pay for it.
Picture a hot, dirty, angry father as he stomps to the house. Imagine his self-righteous fury about to be unleashed, channeled into a tongue-lashing about waste, irresponsibility and carelessness that a guilty child would not soon forget.

Then, as the magma of recrimination reached its eruption point, an unlikely thing happened.
Near the patio a memory came to mind of a 10-year-old boy on a Saturday morning in December, some 40 years ago. It was before catechism classes, outside the old Catholic school on South Main Street in Three Rivers. A large puddle on the playground had frozen into an ice rink that made a perfect place for the boy and his friends to go sliding.

Earlier that week, the boy had gotten his first pair of glasses and what a marvel they had been. For the first time in his life he could see, in fine detail, high branches of the tall trees that lined his street.

Such an expensive accoutrement must be protected, thought the boy. So with reasoning that could well be described as recklessly imbecilic, he removed the glasses … and stowed them carefully in his back pocket. It was, inevitably, just minutes before the long-legged, uncoordinated boy fell flat on his rear end. Thus did the new glasses shatter and their lens fragments cut painfully into his skinny buttocks.

My father was a barber and those glasses probably cost him a day’s worth of haircuts. On the way home, I feared his wrath. But it’s telling that my last memory of the event ends here. All I recall is that he didn’t explode. He lashed me neither with his hands nor his tongue. Did he sigh deeply and wonder how such an addle-brained son could have sprung from his loins? Perhaps — but he never let on that he did.

Anyway, by the time I reached the front porch I knew that I couldn’t tell Emily what had happened. I couldn’t lay this temporal loss, so inconsequential in the scheme of things, on the shoulders of a sensitive and usually conscientious 9 year-old girl. It would unjustly grieve her spirit. My father had stayed his hand, and in remembrance of that, I would stay mine.

His example of leniency was a fruit that took four decades to ripen.

Yet those of us who insist on thawing hamburger patties in a microwave oven aren’t inclined to wait long for anything. The head-long immediacy of modern life, the instant availability of all knowledge (even the proper spelling of availability, which the computer’s squiggly red underline now orders me to correct) precludes the long view. We live in a PayPal, overnight-shipping-from-anywhere culture. Instant gratification has been enshrined, even deified by our consumer-driven economy. By design, it’s a world that devalues and even derides patience, self-denial and self-control.

It’s instructive, then, to learn from those whose livelihood requires that they heed the seasonal limits that nature imposes on creation.

When Brett had mentioned “the drought” as the source of his hay shortage, I was at first surprised. The drought? Oh yes, the drought, from last summer. It was long since over for me and everyone else who doesn’t farm.

But when Brett says the “drought” he doesn’t qualify it with “last summer’s drought.” It’s still in the present tense for him. It’s as real as a barn full of bawling beefalo that need hay from somewhere if they’re to survive the winter. Brett will shoulder the drought’s burden until the spring rains, God willing, make his dormant pastures green again.

I told this to Nancy, who worked fall weekends at her family’s orchard and she understood completely. Last March weeks of record high temperatures in the 80s had made the fruit trees blossom far too early. Inevitably, when the weather corrected to seasonal norms, frosts came and destroyed nearly all the apple blossoms. Without blossoms there’s no fruit and the trees won’t bloom twice in a year.

But by fall? When customers came for their squash, pumpkins, garlands of onions, ears of dried Indian corn and, oh yes, bags of apples?

“We’re sorry,” Nance would say, “but there’s hardly any due to the hard frost last spring. We hope they’ll bounce back next year.”

Some customers were puzzled, others a bit put off.

“Well, yes,” they seemed to insinuate, “but we want our apples now.”

As if, through some digital chicanery, we could subvert natural law and produce pixelated Ida Reds on a virtual assembly line. Thankfully, we can’t. But next season, given the trees’ stored-up root energy, there could well be a bumper apple crop. Even should we forget last spring, we can count on nature to keep an accurate set of books.

Within these books – at least if you’re a tree — are pages ordered by a fixed, cellulosic memory of seasons past. It’s a record imprinted with concentric certainty upon their inner-most being. When I was a boy I used to wonder why people couldn’t be more like that. Wouldn’t it be crazy fun to lop off an arm or finger and count the growth rings? (To a curious boy, such thoughts are not morbid.)

While not anatomically true I may have been on to something. People and trees alike do bear within their circumference a lived history of plentiful growth, as well as indelible marks of injury and hardship.

In the haunting poem “Rings,” Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian poet, conveyed that sentiment about a load of old-growth trees that he saw chained to an Oregon logging truck. Even the smallest log, Bruchac observed, “has more than a hundred/scars around/the wrists of seasons.”

Alexander Pope, writing in 1732, had younger trees in mind (and certainly curious boys) when he composed this timeless proverb: “Just as the twig is bent so the tree’s inclined.”

The trick here is to bend with judicious care. In my experience, when maple saplings are bound too tight in the upright position the guy wires can leave harmful wounds of their own. One must loosen the wires as needed to accommodate new growth. It’s an apt reminder that all discipline should lead to freedom, not enslavement.

Finally, an image closer to home comes from Rachel Peden (1901-1975), an essayist and Indiana farm wife who wrote of rural life with a luminous sense of the ordinary. While raking her front yard, she compares the tree’s annual crop of leaves – meticulously grown from bud to leaf, then recklessly discarded as debris – with her own endless round of meals cooked, beds made, chickens fed and floors swept.

But the colored leaves now lying on the grass are not all. Inside the dark, rough trunk, the tree has added a new layer of live wood around its core … And something remains from a year of farm living, too … a layer of strength that will persist as a permanent record, long after the tedious household chores are raked up and carried out to the midden to disintegrate.

Peden strikes me as one who would understand the remembered mercy of broken things. A traditional farm is a place abundant with life and death, wonder and catastrophe. There must be times when even the strong can’t bear to hear the undiluted truth of it all.

Meanwhile, I’ll save the freezer story for a time when my daughter’s old enough to see humor in it. Until then it’s a door to the past that will have to remain shut – and with more gusto than she managed the first time around.

Thou Shalt Speaketh Up-to-Date(th)

or

How I Learned to Relax and Love Archaic Language

 (Part I)

 A word, like a person, lives and dies. We cannot fight neologisms. Time marches on and languages rise and fall. Even though we might quietly shudder at the thought of “googling” information and living a “green” lifestyle, it displays a lack of gentlemanly noblesse oblige to put up too much of a fuss. Friends, let us not stand athwart the progress of history and impose a false conservatism on a living, breathing language. Words change definition, old words fall out of use, new ones are created, and we must make our peace.

Princess Bride

However, one must absolutely draw the line somewhere. I absolutely will not “hack” my life for convenient living, or believe that a “feminist” is a pop star who dances on a stage in her underpants while wheezing out a vocal. And don’t even get me started on the way that errors eventually become the norm, such as “chomping at the bit” and “irregardless.” I also hate how words like “terrible” and “awesome” have entirely changed meaning (but I admit that I am venturing into curmudgeon territory here).

Language changes, yes, and sometimes that is a bad development. Not all change can be automatically ascribed to a positive evolution, sometimes it is Darwin warning us our culture has wandered into a cul-de-sac and we need to put the car in reverse and step on the gas.

Darwin Award

Words, because they are alive, stretch their legs and take a walk out into the ether, suspended somewhere between speaker and listener. The speaker may intend one meaning and the listener have understood another. The word has taken on a sign value not entirely in our control anymore. (which is why silence is the wisdom of the Fox). This holds true, in fact, for all art. I am not such a good philosopher that I would want to make any specific claims for meaning and symbol and just how much is subjective and how much is objective, but hopefully we can all agree that language, while retaining a healthy level of objective meaning, is often deceptively complex. What we think we communicate is not always the case.

This difficulty becomes the absolute joy of a poet, for language offers infinite possibilities and shades of meaning. A poem, Aristotle reminds us, is the language of possibility. It is about what might be and what ought to be. If facts and specificities are employed at all, they are always in service of the whole, which exists beyond individual instances. The ambiguity of words allows the poet to refer to the mysterious reality that intertwines with ours and yet is well beyond it. Gerard Manley Hopkins defines the problem as how one is to use words to make present The Word. He solves the problem by essentially breaking language down to a song of related words that inform each other by their proximity. For instance, in “Pied Beauty” he writes:

Glory be to God for dappled things

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.

Language, for Hopkins, has become a dance of individual words that are related, rhyming, speeding past the reader and dazzling so that the mind is taken away from any specific actuality to which they refer and directed towards the universal, the God who fathers-forth all of creation. In the same way a son is a living icon of his father, so too are all things icons of the Creator God. Hopkins has as his goal a beauty of language that will transport us to the inner heart of all things. It is here that we see the resemblance most clearly.

Poetically, there is another way of accomplishing the same goal, through the use of archaism. This is the intentional deployment of words that have fallen out of regular use or whose meanings have changed drastically over the years and yet the poet refers to the original use, often situating them in a new context. A master of this art is TS Eliot. His Four Quartets are about the cyclical, changing nature of life, how we drill down through the flux of nature and into the still place at the center, from the part to the whole. He talks about words in the same manner as Hopkins; “Words…reach ,/into the silence.” And, “Words strain/Crack and sometimes break…/decay with imprecision.” It is in the space beyond the words (although somehow mediated by those very words) that we encounter the unchangeable Divine.

Here is the Heraclitean flow as described in the Quartets:

 In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Eliot comes back to the cyclical nature of time again and again, making the form follow the theme and forcing language to enter into mortal combat with itself through contradiction. Only after we break through the white noise of words do we find the stillness on the other side,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

Eliot is a great appropriator of the writing of other poets, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that mimics his deconstruction of language. For instance, he quotes Spenser’s “Epithalamion”

 In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Two and two, necessary conjunction,

That is some intense, Elizabethan archaism. What is its purpose in what we would consider a modern poem? Well, it actually introduces into the overall vocabulary itself a contradiction. It is as if there are two dictionaries fighting each other. This is a more fundamental way to accomplish what is done by the individual word pairings such as, “destroyed/restored, rise/fall, extended/removed, flesh/fleshless, past/future.” There is a juxtaposition of modern with ancient, showing that language itself is not exempt from the constant flux of nature; words are not The Word.

Eliot shows the great potential of archaic language when incorporated into poetry by a skilled writer and he uses it in such a way that not only do the individual words contradict but the entire poem itself is a contradiction. The archaic words themselves still retain their meaning (they aren’t turned into neologisms), so they convey the theme both in the rediscovery of their original meaning and by the way they redefine the formal structure of the poem. This works so well precisely because these words have detailed definitions, and although they have fallen out of use, they retain objective meaning. Old words might be dead, but in the hands of a gifted poet there is always the possibility of resurrection. We would be mistaken to dismiss their use so easily in favor of purely contemporary vocabulary.

On a more simple level, archaism will grab the reader’s attention. I admit that this may appear gimmicky when done poorly, but consider the case of the new English translation for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Archaism has been introduced into the very sentence structure as all of the collects have come to both more accurately reflect the ancient Latin rhythms as dependent clauses pile up upon each other as well as to more closely align with older English formulations of those same collects. By doing so, the prayers become more expressive of the poetic intent of the Mass. It would make sense that the Mass would proceed in a poetic manner, after all, it is the very act of a people who are seeking the God beyond them. We are the part seeking the whole.

An unfamiliar word with the whiff of antiquity about it creates mystery for the reader to solve. The Mass is not “contemporary” (a hilariously archaic word in its own right) or “Pope Benedict at Consecrationmodern” (again, funny). It is not an everyday newspaper article that will be out of date the next day. It is a timeless artifact that requires a close reading. It is an adventure! The low-level grumbling in response to the new translation was enough to put the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to shame. Particularly odious to the complainers was the change in the Nicene Creed, which went from “one in being” to “consubstantial.” What old-fashioned nonsense is this, proponents of modern language cried! This new word, the complaint goes, is archaic. It has lost its meaning. It is technical. No one knows the definition and it is not user-friendly. What such a complaint overlooks, though, is that the word has the great virtue of being incredibly precise. It emerges from the crucible of a philosophical discussion with deep roots. This one little word has worlds of meaning packed into it. It brings us back to ancient Nicaea and Plato’s Ladder of Being and Santa angrily punching the heretic Arius in the face. This is a word that is experienced in vibrant color, it smells of incense, whereas in the service of relatability and ease of understanding, the previous phrase was gray and boring. Worse than that, the “modern” translation was quickly falling out of fashion. The now more faithfully rendered translation, archaism and all, is timeless.

(I have a lot more to say and will post more on archaism soon. Hopefully this interests others as much as it interests me! Teaser: Tolkien, the television show Deadwood, and the original King James Bible)