Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Surprise

Imagine you find out that a relative or a friend has left you quite a lot of money. This actually happened to me once. Well, in all honesty, it wasn’t quite a lot of money, but it was precisely the amount needed at the time to pay a bill that was due to the Ethiopian government (sic) and could not be delayed or sustained by a bank loan.  It was truly miraculous, for it allowed us to do something at the time that wasn’t for myself but was for others.  In fact, the person who passed away—her name was Margot Tully [link]—had done in her death, the very thing I was trying to do in my life, help someone in need.  Suddenly acquiring the precise amount you needed for such a project would be quite the surprise, wouldn’t it?  It was for me on that occasion, and I imagine it would be for you were you to suddenly come into an inheritance or have something quite unexpected like that happen. 

Imagine the surprise of Robert Warren, Hoyt Sherman Place’s executive director, who, as recently as 2016, found Otto van Veen’s “Apollo and Venus” in a closet of the Des Moines Women’s Club in Iowa [Link]. Warren noticed a sticker on the back of the painting that revealed that it had once been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attributed mistakenly to Federico Barocci, but was actually the work of the aforementioned Dutch master. The painting turned out to be valued at four million dollars; thus, to say that Warren stumbled upon something that had somehow been overlooked but was actually worth a fortune would be, of course, an accurate statement.

Reading about this set me to thinking. It’s possible, in the case of an inheritance or another kind of unexpected surprise like that or, even more astoundingly, in the case of the painting we just discussed, to be right next to something of great import the whole time and fail to recognize its value.  That painting was overlooked and might have been thrown in the trash, unless Warren had taken the time to examine it closely and notice its remarkable beauty.  And in my thinking, I wondered if there are other things in life for which this could happen. Of course, in the realm of food, there is.  Someone might think, I shan’t ever eat okra, as it looks rather slimy and gross.  But that person will miss out on a vegetable as nutritious as it is delicious.  High in fiber, okra is, too.  Or a kiwi fruit. Whoever heard of eating fruit with fur on its exterior? Yet ripe kiwis are quite delicious, fur and all—yes, you can eat the kiwi’s skin.

But what about something else quite common in our life, something we all bestride in one way or another, but often either take for granted or want to avoid?  I’m talking about, of course, religion. Well, let me say first that religion, per se, I personally could take or leave. And I’d rather leave it more often than take it, truth be told. But what about God, the God who is often obscured by religious rites, overblown prayers, sanctimonious rituals?  Is it possible to be sitting in church or even visiting a beautiful church, even a superb gothic structure like the Nôtre Dame of Paris, and miss Him altogether? Could we have been standing right next to God all along and failed to see Him?  I think it just might be the case.

Nôtre Dame, Paris

And if that is the case, the next question is whether he is simply a good thing that meets our psychological needs—the way the wonderful and surprising inheritance that I received met my financial needs at the time I inherited it—or if He is more like the painting, more valuable than anyone could have ever imagined.  Yet, unlike the painting, he is a not frozen moment in time—for religion often tries to freeze Him—but alive, like a roaring Lion named Aslan. And his roaring can motivate us to do what Margot did when she left me the $2500 inheritance.  He can motivate us to do something good, even when our personal inclinations toward good are at best often lukewarm.

And I leave you with that thought. Could it have been that your notion that there is no God, that life is to be lived either without God or by pretending he doesn’t exist, have been wrong all along? Couldn’t, rather, the very first breath you ever took have been a gift from God, and all the wonderful things you’ve enjoyed in this life, from sunrises to sunsets to being able to put your toes in the ocean’s tide, really have been gifts from God? If you’ve ever been to a beach in Florida, you might just know what I mean.  The beach is impossible to miss; and a deep breath of that sea air, too, something perhaps we take for granted, is also hard to miss. And for a moment, you feel, when you see it, that you’re looking at the masterpiece of an artist’s hand.  And you just might be right about that.

Sunset at Key West, Florida

It’s hard to miss, too, when a little miracle happens, an answer to prayer for the precise sum of $2500 that my dear friend Margot Tully, in her last will and testament, left me.  And I could see not just the miracle or the timing of it—for that was impossible to deny—but also the greater miracle behind the miracle, which is God Himself. Sometimes we are standing right beside a Dutch master that we think is the work of a lesser-known artist, or maybe we don’t even notice the painting on the wall when its right before our eyes, or maybe we find it in a storage closet and we think to ourselves, “Well, yes, there’s a painting here, but surely that old painting isn’t worth anything. If it were, why would it be in the closet?” 

But, then, perhaps something happens, something surprising—a new friendship, an unexpected turn of events in our life, or sadly, as in Margot’s case, someone dies, and the finality of death shakes us to our core—that opens our eyes to the beauty of the painting that was there all along.  And that’s what discovering God is like. So, thank you, Margot Tully, all these years after you gave me that money, that allowed our family to adopt three kids from an orphanage in Ethiopia. You reminded me not simply of the power and beauty of a prodigious Dutch master but of that of the prodigal Master Himself, the one who paints the fabric of our lives with the beauty of happiness and pain, joy and sorrow, who has many names, one of the finest of which is Immanuel, “God with us.”  And he truly is here with us, for when I arrived in Ethiopia I myself saw Him, in the eyes of three children from a distant land.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cause and Effect

A beautiful poem of Jorge Luís Borges entitled “Las Causas” speaks of the rich tapestry that one life weaves with another, the way our individual stories, the words of our own personal narratives touch upon one another. It is a lovely, stirring poem that delineates the cause and effect that produces relationships, or really a particular relationship, and gives it substance and meaning. Indeed, Borges’ tone, at times even somewhat erotic (and certainly one version on the internet interprets it that way), nevertheless strives to contextualize the poem’s inherent eroticism within the wider context of significance and meaning, the deeper love that beyond all temporary pleasure and distractions, if I may be so bold, that we human beings are all looking for. In other words, Borges’ poem is both synchronic and diachronic at once.

Dido and Aeneas by Rutilio Manetti (Italy, Siena, 1571-1639). Oil on canvas.

An old and not-as-widely-read poem as it once was, Virgil’s Aeneid, is perhaps most famous for its fourth book in which the contrast between the desires of two characters, Aeneas and Dido, comes into sharp focus. My friend, the philologist has been reading that book lately in Latin and we have recently discussed the book’s contents. After several glasses of wine and a bit of squabbling over details, we came to a similar conclusion: Dido is a character who has difficulty understanding the diachronic consequences to her actions. She is stuck, to a large extent, in the present. Her desire for Aeneas burns within her deeply, almost consuming her. Aeneas, who enters into a synchronous relationship with her recalls himself from that, at the gods’ command, reorienting his mind about the diachronic nature of his unique responsibility.

Dido and Aeneas. 4th c. AD mosaic. Low Ham Roman villa, Somerset

Although neither Dido nor Aeneas would seem to have “read” or innately understood Borges, they certainly do understand the erotic bits all too well, as any reader of the symbolism of the “cave scene” would acknowledge. For while the amatory, even erotic side of Borges’ beautiful poem celebrates all the things that had to happen for two people to come together—not unlike, on a more pedestrian but no less beautiful level, the way the George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) meets and loves Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) in It’s a Wonderful Life—it also hints, on the diachronic side, that things don’t ever happen unless other things happen to make them happen. That is certainly true of the tale of Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid. And that, too, is one of the central themes of Frank Capra’s film that I just mentioned. Both suggest that life has profound meaning, and both show, beautifully in their own ways, that we are in this thing called life together.

While Borges’ poem is besprinkled with allusions to the teachings of the words greatest teachers, the simplicity of the message of the film is a point of contrast. That simplicity is heightened by the goofiness of the angel who is sent from Heaven to George Bailey, beginning with his old-fashioned sounding name, Clarence, no doubt archaic even in 1946 when the film was released to less than stellar reviews. Now, however, it is, of course, a classic film, perhaps more beloved than any other motion picture featuring either Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed. So, there is a distinction, then, that I would like to emphasize: the film’s simple message is actually slightly more complex that it seems. Whereas Borges’ fantastic poem would emphasize human cause and effect—something entirely true, by the way—Capra’s film introduces one more element: that God cares and intervenes in the chaos of our lives, and by so doing he reminds us of the power of our own actions for good or ill—for all our actions, moral or immoral, do have consequences. Aeneas’ indulgence in a synchronic relationship with Dido resulted in her death, and there was no angel to rescue her. But Capra, by God’s grace, gracefully reminds us that miracles do happen. And inasmuch as they do, perhaps we shouldn’t be entirely surprised to find an angel showing up in our lives—maybe a capital-A, invisible Angel or maybe a just small-a angel like a friend who is sent to help us understand, maybe even for the first time, a deeper understanding of that simple spiritual truth.

I myself first heard about such truth a long time ago from my grandmother, told to me in the simplest of manners—a song, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” she would sing, “for the Bible tells me so.” Yes, that’s a quite simple teaching, but it is also one that can produce in our lives a wide swath of cause and effect well beyond what we can see or even imagine. It can shape our ethical choices, can give us remarkable strength in the midst of stress, trial or temptation. “You see, George,” Clarence says, as he is granting George’s unsavory wish never to have been born, “you really had a wonderful life.” Indeed, we do, for our lives produce “las causes” as much as they are produced by them. The causas that we effect can touch like an angel even as they themselves are touched, too, by the breeze of Angels’ wings.  And so, you see, your life and my own do indeed have real meaning, and our actions can produce the finest of “las causes.” To paraphrase Clarence, and bring film and poem together, “You really do, Jorge, have a wonderful life.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Where the Party’s at

I know that the title is grammatically unsound, but I figure after the last rather intense blog, it’s time for a lighter theme.  And what poet speaks to that better than Horace, who really knew how to write a party ode?  Indeed, when he penned the words nunc est bibendum, he had in mind a celebration.

Life is full of parties and celebrations.  There are some normal celebrations, like New Year’s Eve or one’s birthday—and I am pretty good at throwing a nice birthday party—and then there are those that are religious or at least quasi-religious, such as baptisms, confirmation days, weddings, and funerals.  And then there are the big celebrations—holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and in the U.S. and Canada (though in different months), the quasi-religious Thanksgiving Day (the hint is in the name). 


Funerals? A celebration?  Well, yes, and I think I generally prefer funerals to weddings, especially if the person who has passed has lived to a ripe old age.  For it really is a celebration of life, a life, whose pages have turned like those in a book.  Of course, when I am at the funeral I don’t know the whole story. We get to hear only the greatest moments, the best chapters; rarely are the sour and sad pages talked about.  But the point is that that person lived, had a life, and their life had real significance.  Their life touched others and shared, with us all, in this fantastic, most amazing thing we call capital-L “Life.” 

Yet when I was watching a classic film the other evening, “Letter to Three Wives” starring Jeanne Crain, Ann Southern, Paul Douglas and a very dapper Kirk Douglas, among others, I saw that one of the couples, really two of them, had a less than ideal life.  The husband of that couple, played by Paul Douglas, is a wealthy businessman, only married his wife (Jeanne Crain) because it would be “a good deal.” Their relationship was essentially transactional, and that showed up very clearly in the film even though it was made in a time (1949) when saying as much might have been seen as somewhat subversive. 

But real love is not and should never be transactional, and at one point in the film Jeanne Crain’s character exclaims that very thing. If there is a give-to-get aspect to it—what the Romans called do ut des—it’s not real love, for real love is self-sacrificing. It cares about the whole person, both in the short term, when one person is enjoying the other, and chronologically, who the other person is on the inside, who they will be when they are old, ugly, and maybe even disabled.  The other kind might look like love at first blush, but it will prove in the end to have been a transaction. The film does a good job of pointing out how unromantic and unpalatable such a relationship is.


Photo Credit: Jacob Windham from Mobile, USA – Flickr.com – image description page, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=346627

But back to parties. It seems like the parties and celebrations listed above are mostly “religious” affairs.  But religion is so dour, so prune-faced, isn’t it?  Yet, paradoxically, I suppose, for thousands of kids, maybe even millions of them, every year Christmas is the happiest of days.  And Easter and even Thanksgiving are celebrated by many folks with at least a modicum of joy; by some, who really grasp the meaning, with great joy.  And how many times have I seen people in church crying tears of joy at a wedding or expressing heartfelt sadness at a funeral, even for those who know they will see that person again on the far side of Jordan? 

You see, at least in its origins or somewhere along the way, Christianity in particular seems to have picked up on Jesus’ words that he came eating and drinking, and somewhere along that same way, someone noticed that his first miracle was the transformation of water into wine.  Some of my atheist and even agnostic friends won’t marry, don’t attend religious services of any kind, and avoid funerals because they offer, they say, a false hope of an “afterlife”, and they hate weddings.  They don’t celebrate Christmas—but of course not—nor Easter (even of-courser not), and they reluctantly sit down to Thanksgiving Dinner mostly because it has a “bad history.”  So they have deholidayized their lives.  But in doing so, it seems to me at least, they’ve also made their lives pretty boring.  Practically no parties, except those in a mad dash after pleasure, and virtually no real celebrations… bummer!

And what about mere Christianity? That’s where the party’s at.  And I didn’t make that up. Christianity is like a party, and you might be surprised to find that the homeless, the forgotten, the despised, and bullied will be the principal guests! To wit I offer my own translation of Luke 14:15ff.:

Jesus said to them: A certain man was preparing a large party and he invited many guests. When the time for the party arrived, he sent his servant to announce to those invited, “Come, because verything is prepared.”

But they all began at once to make excuses. One said, “I have recently bought a field, and I have to go to inspect it. Please excuse me.”

 Another said, “I just bought five oxen and I am about to test them. Please excuse me.”

Yet another said, “I just got married; I cannot come.”

The servant returned and told this to the master. Then the owner of the house was angered and enjoined his servant: “Quickly, go out into the streets and alleys of the town and summon the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”

“Sir,” the servant said, “I have done already what you ordered and there is still room.”

Then the master told his servant, “Go out to the lanes and country roads and compel those there to come, that my house may be full. Not one of those invited, I say to you, will enjoy my party.”


Those who actually come to the party that Jesus describes aren’t the smart set. These aren’t necessarily the physically attractive people either. They are the ones who have been used and abused, have felt inadequate and unloved.  Maybe they have spent their life feeling like outsiders. But when they heed the invitation, they are the ones who get to enjoy the real party.  Hope to see you there!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Aurora’s Rising

It is the first day of spring today, 20 March 2019, so it seems appropriate to speak about the dawn. It has been a long time now since the sun set on Aurora’s life.  She was a friend of mine from many years ago, a time before I believed there was a God at all or, what is more, that there could be the kind of God, who has compassion for and deeply loves his creation.  But in those days I saw only the surface.  I looked at the complicated cosmos as something clear, scientific, black and white.  I hadn’t any idea about the illusionistic nature of nature, something I discussed a few blogs back.  I saw suffering and concluded—in my former self’s defense, my reasoning wasn’t totally unfounded—that there cannot be a God who cares. If there were, he would be like the pagan gods, mercurial, taking some pleasure in or, at best, having no care whatsoever for human suffering. 

I have just finished a recently released book entitled, Circe, by Madeline Miller.  It is an excellent read on a number of fronts.  Miller takes the Greek myth and adapts it, telling the story of Eos’ niece, the nymph Circe, from Circe’s point of view. Donning the first-person narrative voice, Miller explains how that nymph wound up being stuck on Aeaea, what it was like living there, who visited and what happened, culminating with, as a second climax (the first was Circe’s encounter with Daedalus and her departure from Crete), the lengthy stay of Odysseus and his men’s metamorphosis into pigs. I won’t ruin the book for you by telling you the third climax, which seemed to me almost an afterthought, the only real weakness of the book which is in every other way compellingly written, with numerous turns of phrase worthy of a truly great writer.  Still, the end of the book takes a twist that is compelling if the alternative is merely the world of the pagan gods.  Within the milieu of such quixotic and random divine hatred, the conclusion makes perfect sense.

That said, however, one of the most impressive things about the book is its “theology”.  It really is pagan in the truest, purest sense of that word. One feels the arbitrariness of the gods affecting negatively the life of Circe, with whom the reader’s sympathies, naturally enough, lie.  Yet the gods are not Circe’s only enemy: she is her own enemy.  She allows many a sailor to take advantage of her sexually, not simply because she is bored—though that is certainly the case—but primarily because she suffers from/indulges in a stark lack of self-worth.  She really can’t love herself because she has suffered at the hands of men (her perverse uncles, her uncaring father, as well as her offensive brothers) and women (her overly critical mother, her nasty sisters).  Her appraisal of herself is that she is unworthy, and she only derives her self-value from lovers who don’t really love her, even though they might passionately say as much.  She knows it’s all a lie—but she lets them have their way with her anyway, not merely for pleasure but to create in her the fleeting illusion of self-worth.

Circe, by John William Waterhouse

For Circe, in the state she remains in the book, there is no real redemption.  Again, I won’t spoil the end by telling you her earthly solution. But in real life—though some might beg to differ with me on this—there is a far better solution.  It’s not earthly, it’s heavenly.  It involves not unbridled passions that lead to nothing—at one point Circe describes her allowing herself to be had by the numerous visitors to the island as being stabbed by a thousand blades—but the Passion of true Love that leads to heaven.  On Circe’s island, one is surrounded by held grudges, self-doubt and self-pity; the alternative I speak of, the alternative I presented to Aurora, is a life surrounded by forgiveness, new-found confidence and self-worth.

So what about Aurora, where this blog began? Aurora was, as I said, a friend from long ago.  When she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer she contacted me. She remembered that somewhere along the way I had changed from someone like the visitors to Circe’s isle to someone who prayed to a non-pagan God, and now she instinctively knew that she needed that kind of prayer.  I told her, of course, that I would pray hard for her, and I did, every day through her struggle.  Though she was baptized as a Catholic, she had not stepped foot in a church for years; if I recall correctly, her parents were more or less agnostics or atheists.  I asked her if she ever read the Scriptures. She said “no,” but she said that she would read the passages from the Psalms that I sent her from time to time; she found comfort in them. 

“But what about the New Testament?” I asked her by telephone at one point. “Would you read some of that if I sent it to you?’  “No,” she said, it wasn’t her world. She couldn’t fathom really getting that close to God, and at any rate, it was too late for her, she said.  She had lived a life a bit like Circe. The gods she had known, if they were really there at all, were the pagan gods, who afflicted people, like her, randomly. There was no purpose or plan behind most of their machinations.  In fact, she seemed to believe that the “gods” were just extensions of our emotions. The notion of a God like that of the Psalms was comforting, in a way, but in a way, kind of disconcerting or off-putting.  Where had He been all this time? For Aurora was in her early fifties when she was afflicted with cancer. 

I couldn’t answer all her questions, but I asked her again, if I sent her bits of the Gospel of John, for example, whether she might read them one at a time.  No, she said again, for she thought that she wouldn’t understand them. So I tried one last time—what if I were to translate them directly from the Greek for her personally, the “H.R. Jakes translation,” written in a way I guaranteed her to understand.  This gave her pause, and then she changed her “no” to a “yes.”


Codex 047 (Gregory-Aland), manuscript of the Greek New Testament

So, week by week, I got up very early on Sunday mornings to render the weekly installment of the translation for her and then before I went off to church I would send one chapter to her.  I prayed that these old words in my less than polished translation would encourage her in her dire straits , that she might find not only the faith and hope about which 1 Corinthian 13 speaks, but also, and especially, the love which it showcases, for I knew by chapter 11 of John’s gospel that same love was plainly manifest.  I didn’t know how short the time was: Aurora died shortly after I sent her the eleventh chapter of John.  When I learned of her passing I was, of course, broken hearted.  The sun had set on her life, and I felt myself as if shivering, standing on a wintery beach looking at a vast sea just after sunset, with the afterglow of the sun sinking fast into the waves.

A few days later, though, my hope surged like Lazarus leaving the tomb at Christ’s command, for I learned from a friend that Aurora had done something quite unexpected before she died. She had demanded that a priest be summoned to give her last rites, and indeed the priest went to her home and performed the ritual.  Do I believe there was any hocus pocus in that ritual? Etymologically speaking, yes, I think I do. In any case, I believe it affirmed that she had read and understood—had much more than understood; had believed—the Truth inscribed in the texts that I had sent her. She knew that in the midst of the storm there was God who truly loved her.  Aurora’s seemingly stuck inner Circe—you’ll recall that Homer’s character was Eos’ niece and Sun’s daughter—was rescued from her isle by the Son of a greater mythos, one bearing the authority to repair broken souls and defeat death.  For those conversant in Greco-Roman mythology, it will sound almost tautological to say that Aurora has risen, but I believe those last rites were really first rites to the dawn of a new life.

Common Place Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Imagine Forgetting

A couple blogs back we were talking about time—about chronological time vs. living in the moment, and then considering how that momentary time (in Greek, kairos) was redefined roughly 2000 years ago.  In that blog I said how people are like elephants, and we tend to remember a lot of things.  I have vivid memories not only of my adulthood but even of my childhood.  My wife says that’s because I’m a writer; but I say, I’m a writer because I tend to remember.

But this blog is not about remembering but about forgetting.  That may seem to be more than a paradox: it may seem to be hypocritical to say, on the one hand, we tend to remember but then on the other hand, to turn right around, and say that we need to forget.  Now let me say that what you’re about to read won’t be hypocritical.  Nothing bothers me more than hypocrisy, for if there is any way to define sin—and my non-Christian friends like to try to get me to do that because they love to find exceptions to the rule; it’s a kind of game, I imagine—hypocrisy is that way to define it.  Run your eyes over the Ten Commandments, for example, or do it from memory, if you happen to know them.  At any point if you violate any one of them, think about it, you’ll pretend, in certain circumstances, that you did not.  You might confess to a close friend that you stole that thing or lied about something to someone’s detriment (which is what bearing false witness is about), or coveted a friend’s lifestyle or car or garden, but if asked publicly about that, chances are you’d deny it.  Same with murder, which hopefully, you haven’t done, same with adultery, etc. So hypocrisy is definitely not what I’m getting at here. 


Photo credit: Smythe Richbourg, flickr.com

Nor am I writing in this blog about the healthy practice of intentionally forgetting other people’s sins against you. That’s an excellent practice and one that takes time to develop; it’s not easy.  It’s something like mastering a skillful billiards shot or a timely quip at a dinner party. No, that’s not what I’m getting at either.


Photo Credit: Michael Curi, flickr.com

What, then?  I am talking about imagining forgetting.  If I’m right, and we humans tend to remember a lot of things, from the hurts we’ve experienced, to joys to random moments in our lives, then what I am about to suggest is something we must imagine doing, for I want to lay out a scenario where we intentionally imagine forgetting.  Imagine if you could forget all the things people have told you about people.  We are told that we are creatures of our habits; we are told that the world is a certain way—fluid—and we need to adjust to that fluidity, go with the flow, not resist it, for it is unnatural to do that.  We are told this or that political system is best, that guns should carried by practically everyone; that they should be banned. That there should be a southern border wall; that there shouldn’t be one.  That kneeling for the national anthem is an act of patriotism; that it is not.  That bathrooms should not be binary; that they should. That there is no such thing as right and wrong; that the opposite is true, there is such a thing as right and wrong, even if sometimes it is not easy to see. 

And all that endless din of opinion wears us down.  It wears me down, at any rate.  But what if we could forget all that?  What if we could just tune out all the constant droning of the world’s background noise and just go away and think.  What if we could forget the professor in college who said there is no God and equally forget the evangelist who once knocked on our door with some “reading material” to tell us all about his particular version of God—sometimes trying to judge us to make himself feel more righteous, I imagine, rather than trying actually to invite us to church or the like.

But what if we could forget not our lives, per se, but “it”—all the things the world tells us to think, to eat, to wear to become self-fulfilled—and instead, what if we could go, in our mind, somewhere safe to reflect.  What would we find there?  How would we honestly evaluate not who we are but who we have become? 


Photo credit: elmer.O in flickr.com

I think for each person, there will be a different answer.  Let’s take one example: a long time ago, someone named Elijah did this very thing, and he did so when he was in a moment of great distress.  He went to a place called Beersheba and went into the wilderness and sat under a juniper tree and felt that he had had enough of this world—he was, in a sense, at his wits’ end.  He examined his life and felt that he, like everyone else, had lived a life that wasn’t as fulfilled as he might have wished, that was cluttered with the same sins as everyone else.  And he was probably right.  And when he was there, in that uncluttered and quiet moment, something amazing happened. He went into a cave and temporarily forgot all the problems he was having and received spiritual nourishment that would help him through a difficult time, when he needed it—which was over a month long, according to the story.  And he poured out his heart there to God—his deepest concerns, his deepest disappointments, his deepest fears.  And then came a big blast of wind; but no, God wasn’t in the wind; then the earth shook, but no, God wasn’t in that, either; and a fire, too, but no, not there either.  And then came a small, still voice.  And he poured out his fears again when he heard the voice.  And that’s where he found peace, or maybe Peace found him.[1]

Elijah left that cave with purpose, maybe for him for the first time in a long time.  He found a way to put off his burdens, to offload his cares, his sadness, his fears, his shortcomings.  In the modern age in which we live, perhaps it is hard to imagine forgetting long enough to hear that voice.  After all, who has time to go into a cave for several days?  Yet maybe we don’t need a cave.  Maybe we just need to take the time to be alone, to think, to review our lives with God, to imagine forgetting.  Imagine that: if we can only imagine forgetting we might be able to see clearly again or, perhaps, for the first time, the first real kairos.


Small Still Voice, painting by James Ramirez, flickr.com



[1] My summary here is based on 1 Kings 19.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Do Dreams Mean Anything?

Namque ignes inter, quorum in me lucet imago …

Dante, Paradiso 20.30

In the very first year of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud published an important treatise entitled in English, On the Interpretation of Dreams.[1] In it, Freud seeks to explain how dreams work, attempting to use psychology and analysis of emotions and memories to expound upon something that in other cultures and other times had been and still was, at the time of his writing that treatise, sometimes explained in religious terms. 

Now let me say straight off that I don’t think just any dream is a mandate from on high or any such thing. If someone suffering from diabetes dreams that he or she can live without insulin, that doesn’t mean that he or she should wake up in the morning and throw out that medicine.  That is one kind of dream, and it may be a wishful hope or even something that should under no circumstances be acted upon.  Not all dreams reflect a good outcome.

But is it possible that some dreams could suggest something?  One has to be very careful here, I know, for the soil upon which we walk in interpreting dreams is prone to shift rapidly.  Yet, even so, it could be, and has in the history of humanity been from time to time, the case that a dream can offer a premonition or even an admonition.  Take, for example, the account of the three wise men in the Bible. They were ordered by Herod to report back to him about the Christ child but, “warned in a dream” (Matthew 2:12) they stealthily departed for their own country.  In that same chapter, Joseph is warned in a dream by an angel to depart with Mary and the baby Jesus for Egypt.  And there are many other examples.  Daniel was given the ability to understand visions and dreams (Daniel 1:17), and the New Testament author, Luke, notes that such dreams are not to end in antiquity: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit” and “…your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).

That said, I would like to share with you a dream I had the other evening and leave the interpretation to you.  Maybe it was “nothing.” After all, as Freud once famously said about a cigar sometimes just being a cigar, so a dream may just be a dream.  The context is this: I have been sharing with a close friend a bit about what a life with God can look like—the joy, the blessing, the sense of forgiveness and restoration, and even the unfathomable emotional closeness of thelove of Christ—but I did not share everything.  I did not explain that when you go into a lion’s den—and metaphorically speaking you will from time to time, if you’re living the Christian life correctly—people will think you’re crazy, or when you say that everything good in you isn’t really from you but from God, they’ll think you’re nice but a bit crazy, or when you try to tell someone that God actually does answer prayer, you guessed it, they’ll think your nuts.  Why?  It has to do with going in a direction contrary to that of the world. 

Whether or not my particular dream has any meaning, then–well, you can decide.  I and the person about whom I spoke in the previous paragraph were in an airport.  She was waiting in line to board a plane and everyone was in that line, all walking slowly in the direction of the plane.  Suddenly and weirdly (of course weirdly, it’s a dream after all) I was standing next to her in line. Somehow, I knew that something bad, very bad, was about to happen.  (I admit freely that, with all the airplane issues lately, maybe what I had read in the newspaper about Boeing 737 Max 8 planes informed this part of the dream.)  I had been sent to warn her not to go with all the other people—not that the plane was going to crash, or anything like that, but rather not to do what everyone else told her to do. I was sent to call her back from the direction she was headed, the direction that all the world nowadays goes in. That’s the direction of self-fulfillment,  self-realization, self-actualization, self-aggrandizement, self-self-self.  It’s about me, my desires, my wants, my needs.  All those people were heading in that directing, waiting in that line in what seemed to be an airport. And there I stood, warning her that this is really a bad line.  I didn’t say a plane would crash or anything like that but I said, this is not the line you want to be in.  She thought about it for a while, and then suddenly we fled, running the opposite direction, right along the side of the line of people. 

Resultado de imagen para aslan wikipedia

Now here’s the weird part, and the part that surprised me when I woke up, because up to this point there’s nothing all that shocking in the dream.  The people in the line started jeering at her.  Many said despicable things about her—that she was stupid to give up her place in line, that she was an idiot. Some yelled out that she had done bad things, some yelled out that she would never get her place back in that line again. But, though she was by now in tears, she seemed to trust me about this not being the right line, it being a bad line indeed, and we ran outside into a field. When we looked back, it seemed that the building (for by now it was a building and not an airport any longer) was on fire.  And now she was sitting in the field and a giant Lion came from nowhere—at this point I was out of the picture, but I could see her clearly—and that noble beast passed right in front of her as she sat there crying.  She reached out both of her hands to the lion, who passed right in front of her, and touched him as he was passing. And when she touched him she was immediately transformed: she stopped crying and had peace. 

I don’t know how much one can read into a dream like this.  But I can say that the people in the line were not very nice to her when my friend decided to go in a totally different direction based on what seemed a chance encounter in the line.  And the Lion?  I don’t know, but He had a markedly noble quality, worthy of a character in a book of C.S. Lewis. Was it a good dream? Well, you can decide for yourself.  I couldn’t have made up such a dream, for it happened, at least to the extent that dreams happen. But I can say that my favorite biblical character is someone named Joseph, whose life story has in many ways been replicated in my own many times over. So maybe, just maybe, this dream of going in a direction completely opposite to what is expected, what the world tells you is “healthy” (but really is not) will prove to be a good one in the end and for my friend, like the dream of Joseph, will turn out to be true.  Time will tell. In the meantime, a mere caveat lector will suffice: be careful if you reach out to touch a Lion, for He might just leave you changed.


Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers



[1] Available on-line in toto at: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Freud/Dreams/dreams.pdf 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Time and Life’s Narrative

In last week’s blog, I spoke about the possibility of our life being like a book—more specifically, like a palimpsest, a good, even great book that lies beneath an inferior text, a false narrative written over top of it.  And then, based on a conversation with a close friend, I thought and thought (a bad habit of mine) about this a bit more, and I would like to share with you a touch more about this idea.  If our life is like a book then it has a narrative, one that has chapters, an opening chapter and someday, closing one, as well.  It extends from start to finish, turns page by page, like a book. And like a book it has meaning, real meaning.  Thus, it involves the notion of time, which I suppose is what this blog is really about.

A few days ago, over coffee I was speaking with that dear friend of mine about life.  He was saying to me that for him life is about the here and now.  He couldn’t worry about the future because, he rightly stated, who knows about the future?  It hasn’t happened yet and you can’t worry about it.  And he had a point, of course, even one of biblical proportions, as Jesus himself says, in a famous proleptic phrase, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” and he goes on to tell his listeners not to worry about the future, for it will, he says, take care of itself.

But does that mean we should not think about the future at all?  If we don’t, we shall lose hope.  What do I mean by this?  Well, let’s think of it this way: psychologists are right, to some extent, to tell us that we need to accept the reality of our situation.  Yet, while one can’t usually change one’s circumstances entirely, accepting the reality of our situation doesn’t mean not thinking about the future and even planning for it, and it certainly shouldn’t mean giving up or trying to change things for the better.

My friend, who studied the classics when he was an undergraduate, seems to me to find his confusion on this point: he has remembered his Latin but forgotten his Greek. He has forgotten that while Latin has two prevalent words for time (hora and tempus), these terms do not offer the same powerful distinction as the Greek words chronos and kairos.  The latter term means time that is right here, right now, while chronos indicates chronological time.  Living entirely in the kairos and abdicating any serious consideration of the future necessarily involves abdicating any serious consideration of the past, as well.  If you give up hoping—for that is what the future is about, hope—you will find yourself giving up your memories, as well.  Now a psychologist might rush in and say, “Well, maybe that’s not a bad idea; some of those memories can be bad and you needn’t fixate on them.”  But no one said anything about fixating on them.  The reality is that you’re going to have those memories whether you try to forget about them or not, just as you’re going to have a future whether or not you try to plan for it (not worry about it, which by the way, is Jesus’ proleptic point).  We are, in fact, creatures of both chronos and kairos, and pretending one of them doesn’t exist is like pretending we don’t age.  We do, and we do have memories, and we will have a future.


Photo Credit: Fredrik Rubensson (flickr)

If there is such a thing as chronos, then how does the notion of kairos fit into it? The ancient school of philosophy known as Epicureanism argued that within the kairos one should find the maximum amount of pleasure, from food, which is what epicures became famous for, to drink, to sex.  Probably most modern college students live in the kairos, and I remember very well being one once.  I was in a fraternity whose old idealistic motto “Be Gentlemen” had long since fallen by the wayside and had tacitly and unwittingly been replaced with “Seek pleasure.”  They were, though they knew it not, modern-day Epicureans, though not in a fully developed sense, of course.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 3944306234_3ef0c83bac_o.jpg

Religion, badly done, only knows chronos.  It offers no kairos because it is afraid of pleasure.  But that most unreligious (but not irreligious) person, Jesus, takes the term kairos up afresh and appropriates it.  He claims it for his own.  I say this not just because, as He says, He came eating and drinking (Luke 7:34).  Rather, He claims it as His breaking into human existence.  He claims it as His breaking into our lives. He says, pay attention, right now, to what I am doing in your life—right now.  And when He does so He says two other things: your chronos—all chronos—belongs to me.  And that’s a scary thought.  But what’s the second thing he says that makes that scary thought something actually wonderful?

A story will help here.  When I was in that fraternity in college I did some things that I wish I had not; things I felt guilty about and I’ve tried to forget, but I could not because you can’t really forget.  You see, people are like elephants.  We remember, and we grieve like those great beasts, too.  When an elephant loses its mate, it grieves in a way that few other animals do. It grieves because it remembers its lost mate or its lost calf.  We remember our parents, if they have passed away, and we grieve.  We remember things we have done that were wrong or hurtful, things we did selfishly, and we grieve, perhaps because we hurt someone in the process or perhaps because we simply know we did something wrong—something that could, if He exists, offend God—then we grieve.  Something inside bothers us; we can try to forget about it, maybe we even can sometimes, but somehow it’s still there, like bangles on a memory bracelet we got from our grandmother or the hands of a watch that was once our grandfather’s.

That watch’s hands tick, tick, tick, reminding us that we are in chronological time, not simply momentary time.  And that’s where the second thing that Jesus says is so important: I forgive you. I have redeemed you, I have bought you back, and now you’re free. Free from those memories, free from their guilt, free from regrets, free from your sadness.  And He adds: You’re free, too, not simply to enjoy the present, but to enjoy a future, a real future.

How can this be?  “Come on, man,” someone might say, “Get real.  We are living in the twenty-first century. Don’t give me this religious stuff.  It’s a panacea; it’s not reality.”  Let me ask you this: isn’t it possible that we can misinterpret what is right in front of us?  I once spoke to a Catholic priest who told me that the bible is just a bunch of made-up stories meant to help us explore our deeper psychological hang-ups.  I spoke to another priest who told me that Jesus is the Son of God who broke into this world from Heaven and can break into our lives and change everything for the better.  One of those priests went through the motions of Christianity every day.  He gave his parishioners the eucharist, baptized babies, and even preached homilies (God knows what he said in them, though); the other did the same.  One was right on top of Christianity but missed the point; the other got it.

What is that point?  I will close with it, putting it quite simply.  Chronos runs horizontally, like that transept of a church, like the crossbeam of a crucifix.  Our lives are lived on that horizontal plane whether we like it or not.  We have all along the way small kairoi of pain, pleasure, sadness, and joy.  But we may be surprised to know that there is also a vertical beam, just like the central nave of a church or the huge vertical beam of a crucifix, on which the horizontal beam depends.  We may think of it running bottom to top, but from God’s point of view as he looked down on his Son dying on it, it runs top to bottom.  It is God’s moment of kairos, His redemptive entrance into human chronos. He comes into our lives by entering human history with a human name, in human form, not just to teach us, not just to do miracles, but to redeem us. That isn’t merely a metaphor; that’s reality.  And He does the same thing in our lives. He turns up in our personal chronos miraculously, at just the right kairos, more often than not when we least expect Him to.  I told my friend, as I watched him finishing the last dregs of the bitterness in his cup of dark black, and by now quite cold coffee, to be careful lest this moment turn out for him to be a far different kind of kairos than he is accustomed to.  I pray it may be so.


H.R. Jakes with Elaine Jakes a few months before her death.  The answer may be closer than you think.

Common Place Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Studying Palimpsests Naked

Okay, I admit it: I wrote this title just to get you to read this blog.  I admit, too, that I have done so before, when I wrote “The World’s Best Naked Exercise Program” last year.  So, I confess, too, that the word naked is, if not gratuitous, at least meant to be an attention grabber.

Well, the rock isn’t exactly an ancient manuscript, but you get the idea.

But this time, I would argue, it is really justified, because almost no one knows off-hand what a palimpsest is.  So “naked” just offsets the inherent boringness in the word “palimpsest,” even if no one knows what it means.

Not exactly a manuscript, but you get the idea again.

So what does it mean? And what does it mean to study a palimpsest naked?  For I didn’t just put naked in the title exclusively to offset any potential ennui.  Rather, I put it in for a reason, for a palimpsest is a text, normally written on vellum (calf skin) that has been written smack on top of another text.  The original text has been scraped off, normally in the middle ages, because vellum codices were then, of course, very high-dollar.  That scraping process stripped the text bare, removing the original text so that a new one could literally be superimposed upon it.

The problem is, of course—at least for philologists like my friend about whom I write from time to time—that the really important text is the earlier one.  More often than not, there are numerous copies of the tawdry superimposed text, but very few, very rare copies of the first text.  The process of making that text naked nearly destroys it.


Fragment of text New Testament (dating to the 6th century); reused in the 13th century
(https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9396897) 

And then I thought a bit, as I often do, and I thought how, if we can think of ourselves as books for a moment, maybe who we are, how we present ourselves to the world, is really represented by the second layer, our “second text.”  Life circumstances have, too often, stripped away the joy of our youth, the hope, the optimism, the idealism that we once had and replaced them with, well, “morals” but morals that really aren’t moral, “sincerity” that really isn’t sincere, human-made “rules” that really aren’t binding. 

But when we were kids, we knew that when someone promises something, they should do it. When our mom promised a birthday party, we were excited, and we never thought for a moment she would renege, would change her mind or forget about us on our special day.  We knew she would put together a nice little party, with silly hats and balloons, a cake and friends. 

Our younger selves, our first text, as it were, believed in that kind of thing—not birthday parties, per se, but people keeping their word, keeping their promises, and we tried very hard to keep our own because as children we knew innately that there was such a thing as right and wrong.  And, though the specifics of right and wrong can vary a bit between cultures, that there is such a thing as right and wrong—well, nearly everyone knows that, or at least nearly every kid does.  And we knew it was right to keep our word.

But the palimpsest that forms our lives, well, that seems to have been inscribed with a second text that isn’t too pretty—I speak for myself. It is kind of political, it’s kind of judgmental and, if we are honest, it’s sometimes kind of pissy, for lack of a better word.  But we have that first layer still, all these years after our idealistic childhood, if we’re lucky enough to have had a dash of idealism in that childhood.  But we can’t get back to it. Or can we?

Well, if we were inscribed with good stuff originally, then it may take a clever palaeographer to bring to light for us the original creation.  You see, if we’re all palimpsests because we were in a library where the head librarian was too cheap to buy fresh vellum, then maybe a new, a far more gracious Librarian can help us see who we were created to be, to discern what our original text was meant to read.  It may be that that new Librarian, because he has been away and out of our lives so long, has to buy back the entire library at a very high price, as such a rare-book library might just house a lot of semi-sacred volumes. 

It is not hard to imagine that that would be the case, as manuscripts, as we said above, are not cheap. And old, precious manuscripts with richly humanistic tales to tell—say the Odyssey of Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil or Augustine’s Confessions—well, those kinds of works cost a lot of money. They are irreplaceable. And, perhaps to our surprise, they are greatly valued by the new Librarian, even of the old one despised them so much as to allow—even to cause—them to be written over with a less than salutary text.  Perhaps it is so with us. We are so used to our second text being read over and over again and we’ve allowed our pages to be turned by so many rough-handed library visitors that we have become that second text—or so it seems, if we only look at the words written on us. 

But there are other words, less visible, hidden beneath. They are beautiful words, far more beautiful than the more common text written over them.  And now maybe that new Librarian can allow that text to come to light, to be restored.  Maybe our first story isn’t merely worth reading—maybe it’s something far more significant than merely a good read, for it’s the real story of our lives.

So, my friend, that’s what reading a palimpsest naked is all about.  I hope you’re not too disappointed that the palaeographers in this story who examine the manuscript are not actually doing so in the raw 😉. Rather, I hope sincerely that, under the angelic flutter of the wings of that new Librarian, we all can find the deeper text, and written on it, deeper meaning.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Simone, the French-speaking Cat

When someone gives you a gift that has a name, you should pay close attention to what they say.  This happened to me—my not paying attention—when a dear friend named Jenny was moving to Boston and gave me her cat. I assumed that the cat was French because when Jenny told me his name I thought she said “Simone.”  Now I spell it “Simone” with an -e because in English, if I spell it Simon, we would say “Simon” as in “Simon says,” even though in French it would be “Simone” as in “Simon dit.” And that is why I thought he was French, because his name was not Simon but Simone, with the emphasis not on the penult but on the ultima.

And thus, I spoke exclusively French with the cat. Now admittedly, my French isn’t perfect, but presumably neither was his; in fact he knew no French at first, as his real name wasn’t Simone but rather “Sumo” because he walked like a Sumo wrestler. But, as I said, I hadn’t paid proper attention when I was given him as a gift and, because Jenny moved to Boston, there really wasn’t much follow up conversation about the cat, besides, “How’s he doing?” “Has he adjusted?” once or twice by telephone. And the answer was, “Yes,” and “He seems to know quite a lot of French,” to which she didn’t really respond; by her tone, she sounded a bit perplexed, I think, by what must have seemed to her a strange statement; but, she made no real response, and thus for a season I remained in the dark about Simone’s actual ethnicity.

It was, in fact years later that I learned that Simone had been spuriously named and, what is more, spuriously enfranchised as a Frenchman.  But he learned French even though he had to start from scratch.  And he did so because he was smart, genuinely so.  For he also learned to use the toilet. He did that by watching our children stand in line for the bathroom on a school day.  Each would use the bathroom as quickly as possible and then the next, and so forth (seven children, all pretty patiently waiting). And then, far back at the end of the line was Simone, the spurious Frenchman. Il a attendu patiemment, et il est allé au W.C. faire la même chose que les autres.  He would climb up on the toilet seat to relieve himself directly into the commode. This was an amazing way to save money on kitty litter (litière pour chat), and made for no messy clean up (tout propre). 

And so it went, year in and year out, until the children all left the house.  Simone was, without doubt, the most intelligent cat we ever had.  He didn’t like to be petted for very long, but did like it more than Piazza. He spoke only French, liked only dry cat food, and was the only cat I ever had who really deserved to be arrogant, for he earned it.

If you want a cat like Simone, my advice is this: speak exclusively French to the cat.  It will lead him or her to believe he is smart and sophisticated. Then, let him observe your children in the morning. And then, of course, give him full access to the bathroom or spa.  And, voilà!  You’ll have a super sophisticated pussy who deserves to be treated like French royalty, and you’ll never have to change your kitty litter.

As Simone would have said, jusqu’à la prochaine fois…

Mayochup is like Simone, a unique blend
(in Simone’s case, a blend of a Frenchman and a cat)

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Second Thought

I tried to imagine for a few minutes last night when I was unable to sleep what it might be like to consider the possibility of God almost for the first time.  I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the fairy world, how believing in a supernatural world is a kind of therapy.  I didn’t make that up; lots of studies say that those who believe in a higher power are more equipped to face the biggest challenges in life. And I don’t need to rehearse here the notion that successful twelve-step programs are founded upon such a principal.  It that blog I called it, playfully but not trivially, fairy therapy. And one of my friends even said that it gave her pause, made her consider, at least for a moment the possibility that there could be a spiritual reality that we can’t see.

And then, I thought, as I lay there in bed last night, about the best way to explain something you can’t see, a spiritual world that is every bit as real as the world we live in, but invisible.  It’s based on faith—that was the idea behind last week’s blog—which, from time to time, can put air under your wings, as it were, even though you can’t see that air. And that air under your wings can keep you from crashing to the ground; literally, I might add, quite literally.

But that was last week’s blog, and the fairy therapy was a few weeks before that. And then I thought, “No, I’m looking at this the wrong way round.  For, in a sense, God’s stamp upon on his creation is visible.  You just have to look for it.” 

Take for example an optical illusion. You look at it one way and it looks like vases or trees or a duck or a dancer spinning, and then you look again, and you see a rabbit, or faces or people’s silhouettes, or that same dancer spinning the opposite direction.

The Romans knew this, and their mosaics often playfully encompassed examples of this strange phenomenon.  Yet this doesn’t really prove anything about there being a spiritual reality beyond the physical dimension in which we live. Not one thing. 

“What’s your point, then?” someone might well ask.  I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that life is simply worth a second thought, worth a second look.  It’s too easy to see suffering, anger, greedy people, as if they were all pillars or vases and just walk away. And I’m not talking here about something sort of kitch, like a t-shirt design—though perhaps a second look at that, too, might just give you a big hint. 

I’m talking about life itself. And if you take a good look at it, maybe, just maybe you’ll find that what was once “luck” should be transformed into providence. What were our personal inadequacies could even be transformed into our greatest strength.  What were once our vices could be utterly discarded and replaced by virtues.  I’m talking about what were once stern challenges being transformed into blessings, prune-faced judgment being transformed into love of our fellow human beings; even self-hatred can be changed into proper (but not gloomy) self-scrutiny; our selfishness into selflessness, our icky self-righteousness, into God’s imputed righteousness.  Yep, that’s what I’m talking about: a reorientation of one’s mind from a life without God to a life where there is practically no way not to find Him, in the eyes of the needy, the words of a wise friend, the embrace of a parent, sister, or one’s child. 

So maybe, just maybe, it all deserves a second thought, and even a second look.  You just might see it all quite a bit differently on second thought.