Monthly Archives: August 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dragon in the Sky

Well, I’ve been traveling … which explains the dearth of blogs for the last couple of weeks. It has been a ridiculously busy time. I would love to tell you that I have been busy because I am a spy for the United States government, but that information is classified, of course. So I won’t. Rather, I will tell a story that I heard during my travels, one that was recounted to me over dinner, to be specific. The dinner was at a delightful restaurant in Geneva, La Brasserie des Halles de I’île, an attractive place with a superior view of the inception of the western half of the Rhône, the lovely river that feeds and is fed by Lake Léman (known as Lake Geneva to much of the Anglo-speaking world).

Ah, how delicious was the dinner there, opening with a few glasses of prosecco and exquisite hors d’oeuvres including bits of Neufchâtel with tasty biscuits and various salami-like products typical of the region, then a remarkable salad—which is more or less difficult, I think, for a salad to be—followed by the piece de resistance, the plat (a succinct yet decorous word for main course). For me, le plat consisted of a succulent steak and scalloped potatoes made with gruyère cheese. I’m not a person inclined to take photographs of food or I would have included one for you here. Rather, let me simply say that it was delicious, as was the view of the gushing, even rapacious Rhône, greedily rolling along and grabbing at both sides of the tiny islet that the two principal portions of Geneva bestraddle.

Rhone river at dusk in Geneva

And that’s when he told me the story of his name, which in Korean means “Dragon in the Sky.” The Korean word for dragon is Yong, and the phrase Dragon in the Sky, when transliterated, is something like Yong-ui Haneul-e. That is his name in Korean. But, of course, being a writer, I had to know more. How did he get this name? (Paradoxically, with a name like Homer, I became a writer. I say paradoxically, because like Jesus and Socrates, Homer was a quite extravagant storyteller not a writer per se.)

Fortunately Yong was willing to tell me a bit of his story. He received the name because his mother had had a dream when she was pregnant with him about a dragon riding on the clouds. This was perceived by her as a significant story, one that might well have bearing upon his life. And thus she named her son for the principal character in that dream. And how did that affect him? I queried. Indeed, it seemed to him that the name had had some influence on his life.

Yong had become a Hapkido master (one of the more prevalent martial arts in Korea), learning the art from an early age because he was in a difficult environment as a child. As he mastered the art, he used it entirely for self-defense, only when several young men tried to threaten him. Like a karate master one might see in a movie, Yong managed to take on several youths at once and teach them a serious lesson about picking on smaller lads like him a school.

But his real challenge came when he had recently married. He and his new bride, on their honeymoon I believe, happened upon a cow pasture. Now I didn’t think to ask why, precisely, he was in a cow pasture with his new bride (his second marriage, as his first wife had passed away). I simply thought, “That seems odd,” but left it at that.

Indeed, it was odder than merely odd. For whatever reason they happened to be there, Yong and his new bride, Brenda, mistakenly thought that they were in a cow pasture. They imagined that the “cows” they saw in the distance were steer—neutered, gentle steer—grazing as they ambled along. But within a few minutes of their cutting through the field, Brenda and Yong noticed that at least one of the “cows” was neither a cow nor a steer, but a bull. Yong continued to call it an angry cow through the rest of the conversation; I corrected him at least twice, explaining that a cow with testicles is not an angry cow—it is a bull. And an angry bull is a very, very dangerous proposition. This much I recall very well from Elaine Jakes’ farming years (the second bit of chapter 9 in The Curious Autobiography).

And then the worst thing that could happen happened: the bull came romping toward them across the pasture, even as they were still a long way away from the other side of the field. Yong told Brenda to continue on and that he would distract the “angry cow.”

As she hurried toward the gate, Yong turned to face the bull. He assumed the proper Hapkido pose (if there is a Hapkido pose proper for addressing a raging bull). Perched on one foot, with one leg slightly extended forward and hands in strike position, he awaited the animal, which was now pawing the ground before him, preparing to charge. And that’s when it must have happened. The bull must have seen Yong not as Yong but as a dragon, indeed a dragon in the sky. He must have, for as he charged, just 10 feet or so away from Yong, who was ready to deliver a powerful roundhouse kick to the bull’s head just below the left horn, the bull stopped. He stopped on a dime, planting his front hoofs firmly in the dirt of the pasture, casting up a small cloud of dust, and shockingly, amazingly, and quickly coming to a dead stop. The bull just looked at Yong and then began to look slightly over his head, higher and higher until it seemed that he was looking at the clouds above. Was it an angel that he saw, preventing Yong from meeting his Maker right then and there? Or was it a Dragon in the Sky?

I don’t know, but I leave it for you to ponder. If it seems incredible to you, consider this: What are the chances of hearing that story in a restaurant know as La Brasserie des Halles de I’ile when eating a delicious dinner on the banks of the Rhône in Geneva, Switzerland? I think they are relatively small. Small, yes, but perhaps no smaller than a bull coming full stop because it thought it saw a dragon in the sky.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Who Made Manna?

Raphael’s “The Mass at Bolsena” (1512–1514)

I was recently in Orvieto, in whose Duomo is the corporal[1] upon which the miracle of Bolsena is said to have taken place. That miracle is the blood that dripped, it is said, from the host when a priest, who personally doubted the notion of transubstantiation, experienced a miraculous event when he broke the host. Orvieto thus became the seat of the festival of Corpus Christi, a feast day that it shares and always shall with the scenic lakeside town of Bolsena.

“I am Catholic and even I don’t believe that,” a friend of mine said over dinner. I thought little of his remark at the time, but a few days later I wondered why he does not believe it, for my personal reasons for not believing it have nothing to do with the fact that it is a purported miracle. My basis for unbelief in the event has to do with my Protestant understanding of Christian doctrine based on the final words of Christ on the cross, not because a miracle can’t or didn’t happen in Bolsena.

In fact, were I God, I could hardly imagine a more scenic place for a miracle than Bolsena. But that has nothing to do with the notion of a miracle. Rather, miracles, whether orally (or artistically) transmitted, like that of the host of Bolsena, or recorded in Holy Writ, like that of the miracle of manna come down from heaven to feed the hungry Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness, simply require a bit of faith, but with that bit of faith added, do tend to make sense in a world that is otherwise too often senseless without them.

Now one could say that I am probably overthinking this, and I probably am, especially inasmuch as one certainly could call, pace Raphael, the miracle of Bolsena merely a minor one. It is, after all, only a miracle that is said to verify a point of Catholic doctrine, not one that healed the sick or raised the dead. But however that may be, it got me to (over-)thinking, and I found myself pondering miracles in general. Thus I wondered whether, were there to be someone who did believe in a minor miracle of any kind, what might that same person do with the major miracles? I have in mind those such as the miracle of the manna recorded in the book of Exodus. That miracle itself prefigures, if not the miracle of Bolsena per se, at least the central feature of it, the Bread of Heaven, which all Christians, whether trans-, con-, or a- substantiators, agree is in some sense the body of Christ. (Those who believe in the real presence, in down and under the bread, I personally think, are closer to the truth; those who do not are not. But that is, to my mind, adiaphoristic in the greater scope of things and certainly will be resolved on the other side of the Jordan, where “real presence” will be played out at a new level).

And thus to return to the manna specifically. The symbolism of manna itself, bread from heaven, struck me, as I pondered it, working backward from Bolsena to the exilic wilderness of the Israelites. It seemed to me to be particularly central to Christian thought, for at the center of the Lord’s Prayer lies a petition specifically for a more mundane kind of manna: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That centrality, that powerful, real sustaining presence of God through bread and wine in our life, to give our bodies true blood and corporal form are not unrelated. The miracle can be fancy, like manna from heaven, or humble, like daily bread, but it is a miracle nonetheless, sustained evidence of a God who is capable of miraculous events, even as that of Bolsena, which I paradoxically don’t believe in, as I said at the outset. But the reason for my skepticism is not because the event itself is said to be miraculous but rather because of Christ’s final words, “It is finished.” And with that, I will parrot those words, for this blog is, likewise now finished, with a hope for you and me and a world that needs them but deserves them not, the continuance of miracles among us.

[1] About that they even made a movie, “The 33.”