A Litany for Our Time

The names of the twenty-one Coptic Christians martyred by the Islamic State have been released. Let us appeal to some of our newest allies in heaven for their intercession, that the senseless violence will end.

 

Milad Saber Mounir Adly Saad, pray for us

Sameh Salah Farouq, pray for us

Ezzat Boshra Nassif, pray for us

Kyrillos Boschra Fawzy, pray for us

Tawadraus Youssef Tawadraus, pray for us

Magued Soliman Shehata, pray for us

Mina Fayez Aziz, pray for us

Samouil Alham Wilson, pray for us

Bishoi Stephanos Kamel, pray for us

Samouil Stephanos Kamel, pray for us

Malek Abram Sanyut, pray for us

Milad Makin Zaky, pray for us

Abanub Ayyad Ateyya Shehata, pray for us

Guerges Samir Megally Zakher, pray for us

Youssef Shukry Younan, pray for us

Malek Farag Ibrahim, pray for us

Mina Shehata Awad, pray for us

Louqa Nagati Anis Abdou, pray for us

Essam Baddar Samir Ishaq, pray for us

Hany Abdal-Massih Salib, pray for us

Guerges Milad Sanyut, pray for us

2015 Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize

After careful consideration, our judges, Matthew Lickona and Arthur Powers, have selected the stories that will win the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. Look for the first and second place winners in the upcoming Easter issue of Dappled Things!

First Place:

“Ends of the Earth,” by Anthony Lusvardi, paints a fine portrait of a faith not so much tested or lost as exhausted. To use an image from the story, the way has been blocked by a great pile of mud and muck. The Methodist aid worker at center of the story is a stranger in a strange land, homesick and uncertain, doing right without any real hope of doing good. Stymied and stranded, he must engage with the place where he does not want to be, a world of poor Indians, a world rendered with compassion and without condescension. The author shows a good eye for detail, and earns his epiphanies.

Second Place:

“Polish is for Prayers,” by Gabrielle Pastorek, is the story of an aging Polish-American farmer, narrated by his nephew. The story gently unfolds, offering the reader continuously deeper insights into a strong, taciturn character and touching on the ways that men deal with loneliness and loss.

Honorable Mention:

“Bev Trimpy’s Dog,” by Ryan Rickrode

“The First Time I Died,” by Simon Sylvester

“The Order of All Small Things,” by Faydra Stratton

“Carney in Love,” by Christian Michener

The Lamentations of St. Gregory Narek

St Gregory NarekIn the late 10th century, an elderly Armenian monk determined to set down words in a book as if they were his body, the meaning of which was to be his soul.

I am a living book

Written like the scroll in the vision of Ezekiel,

Inside and out,

Listing lamentations, moaning, and woe.

His thoughts were to be his living testament, sighs from the depths of his heart. The prayers that St. Gregory composed have indeed lived on in his native Armenia and they are recited and loved to this day. They have endured persecution and genocide and emerge today as a gift from the local Church in Armenia to the wider Catholic Church.

St. Gregory of Narek was recently declared to be a Doctor of the Church. There are now 36 holy men and women to be recognized as such. Some of the names on the list might surprise you, Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Bellarmine, yes, these are men renowned for theological acumen and massive amounts of brain power. The honors given to them are no surprise, but also recognized are Saints John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegaard. In what sense are we using the title “Doctor” if our list includes poets and uneducated mystics? Clearly, we are not referring specifically to technical facility in philosophy and theology. The common denominator is not education, but that the list is composed entirely of saints.

Narek Monastery

Narekavank in southeastern Turkey

Those who are wise, or doctors of the science of the Cross, are those who are nearest to the divine essence, for it is God from whom all wisdom flows and God towards whom all wisdom returns. If we desire to be wise, we must make our way as close to Him as possible. Yes, academics are helpful (and necessary, especially for those of us without the grace of infused contemplation) because knowing the object of our desire helps us to love it better, but ultimately it is love that brings us into the divine plenitude. The Catechism helps us understand when it teaches that Christianity is a religion not of the book but of the Living Word. For this reason, many of the wisest members of the Body of Christ have a wisdom that may seem simple or foolish to those who do not have the eyes to see. They are communing directly with God and their science does not entirely belong to this world. Instead, it circles about and encompasses the world, explaining it with a knowledge that supersedes it. This is the knowledge of who we are, where we are from, and to where we are going.

This being the case, it is fitting that many Doctors of the Church are not so much academics as they are poets. Poetry is the language of the whole, of that which might be and ought to be. A good, beautiful poem is a mirror reflecting heavenly realities that are otherwise unknowable.

St. Gregory of Narek is a mystic, and his greatest contribution to the Church after his sainthood and prayers, is a book of poems. The Book of Prayers, or Book of Lamentations, is a collection of 95 poems. I was completely unaware of their existence and was quite touched by what I began to read. His work is a treasure that deserves attention. For instance, this one is still prayed today by Armenian priests in the Divine Liturgy as they ascend to the altar:

We beseech you with outstretched arms,

Tears and prayers,

As we appear before you,

You, who strike terror in our hearts,

Judge us as we approach with trembling and fear,

Presenting first this sacrificial offering of

Words to your power that is beyond understanding

If Gregory is a saint and a Doctor of the Church today, if his writings continue to be relevant and move us, it is because they are poems that find their eternal wisdom in prayer to the everliving God. The poems know the source of their enduring beauty. They return to that source and give beauty back from the depths of the human soul. In doing so, the poet and all who wrestle with his work are ennobled, carried up to heaven like incense from a thurible.

The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,

I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,

Placing the fruits of my wavering mind

As a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul

To be delivered to you in the censer of my will.

 

Compassionate Lord, breathe in

This offering…

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.