Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Illiberal Education, Shakespeare, and Campus Rape

It is fun to go on a college campus, even that of a college you never attended. It reminds you how privileged you are. You are walking across a mall that famous scholars have walked across and, more than just famous scholars, so have some of society’s great leaders. The campus that I was on this week for a breakfast with some old friends who are heavily engaged in the academic enterprise once held the soles of the shoes of visiting lecturers such as LBJ, Margaret Thatcher, Desmond Tutu, and Ronald Reagan. So it is that a college or a university campus has a way of making you feel small, small in a good way—small, as in part of something greater than yourself—young and fresh, and eager to learn, whatever your age might be.

Yet today you find two dangerous, and perhaps not unrelated, trends developing on college campuses. These were among the otherwise quite pleasant topics of conversation that I had during my breakfast with old friends when I found myself visiting a local college this past week. The friends and I had been in a Think Tank, or if not quite that, a talent cluster whereby which we had spent a few weeks thinking together about how best to lead—years ago, considering leadership in a variety of settings. And now we had all grown in different directions but, on the invitation of one of us, we were once again sitting and talking delightfully in a campus dining establishment enjoying a delicious breakfast and a rich, multi-various and even for a few moments, disturbing conversation.

I say disturbing because we happened to light upon a ghastly topic, which is one of the two trends that I mentioned above, campus rape. We agreed that it is much more widely reported now than it had been even fifteen years ago when we had been in our select group together. And that, of course, was good. We agreed, too, that in the current climate the alleged aggressor was more or less guilty until proven innocent—not a good thing but perhaps apotropaic or at least admonitory. We spoke about the relative lack of a moral code among college students today, with relative being the operative word, as the notion behind the phrase “it’s all relative” (and old phrase now) had, over the last twenty years not just gained ground but flat out triumphed. Then we all laughed, as we knew that now we, too, sounded “old,” as we once thought, when we were in our twenties or thirties, people in their fifties had sounded to us.

But sadly we only brush-stroked a part of the solution to the current amoral climate. Let me define “amoral” here before I try to address the solution. By amoral I mean not simply that rapes happen on a college campus, but that many young men and women, whether of religious upbringing or not, nowadays are swift to engage in premarital sex. I’m not saying that premarital sex didn’t happen when I was in college—indeed, it did, as my generation found itself in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution. But I am saying that the trend toward premarital sex as the norm that began then has by now supplanted, by and large, even the attempt at chastity. Less people come to college with a moral foundation that was forged in their homes; or, if they do, their parents would seem conveniently to have left out the idea that sex is a special thing to be enjoyed by a married couple, not by just any two people who find each other attractive.

Why? Sociologists and many journalists would say that this is the case, at least in part, because the parents themselves had sex before they were married, whether with each other or multiple other partners.[1] Now parents would seem to feel it is hypocritical to tell their children that they should be married first. Besides, many may reason, that kind of legalistic thought is old-fashioned, not part of today’s mainstream thought, whether that be simply the popular morality one hears espoused at a Starbucks on a Saturday morning or one might hear in a mainstream church. And we want to be in the mainstream, we want to keep in step with our environment, to do what the world around us is doing. Right?

Let me now return to the setting of the delightful breakfast, delightful in every way except, of course, the sad moment when we considered campus rape. It seems to me that the current way of dealing with the vast problem of campus rape is to create a thoroughgoing legalistic culture, with “Report It!” reminders everywhere adorning a college campus—on T-shirts, on posters, on the university webpage—all prompts to the young person that she (or occasionally he) needs to let the authorities know if something dreadful has occurred. Certainly that is important, as the gathering of proof must be done almost immediately after a violent act such as sexual assault.

But to get at the underlying causes—to prevent rape from happening in the first place—that seems to me to be something that should ideally first come from a home environment that teaches young folks that their bodies are not commodities to be “had” by another or “used” by themselves, even if the use is intended to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. That is still “use,” maybe even abuse. Secondarily—and this, too, runs counter to mainstream thought—perhaps another arena in which discussions about one’s body and one’s sexuality might come into play could be a college classroom, via literature. If a student has the opportunity to read Virgil’s fourth Aeneid and have a robust discussion about it, maybe, just maybe, he or she can see the unintended consequences of a relationship founded on sex (what Dido saw as marriage, Aeneas saw as a fling). If those same students might read C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, or read about tragic love in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the humorous circumstances of courtship in Love’s Labor Lost, then real conversations might be held on a college campus—conversations between friends, flowing from classroom to dormitory—about love, whereby love might be distinguished from lust and so on. I know in my college that very thing happened. I can remember Plato spurring conversations about ideas, Aristotle about virtue, Augustine about life’s journey and God’s call.

“Take away those great books,” I said as I directed the discussion to the second topic that I referred to above, “and you take away the opportunities for rich and meaningful conversations. You’ve changed “liberal” education to “illiberal” education. As learning becomes more and more career-oriented, we should expect our young folks to see their education as merely a means to an end, and their bodies, too, as merely something to be used with a view to a goal—even a good goal, such as a loving relationship. That good goal of the loving, perhaps even monogamous relationship,” I waxed on, “parallels the good goal of eventual gainful employment. But the means by which each is achieved—that makes all the difference.”

I was done. As you may have guessed, I had managed to throw a wet blanket over an otherwise delightful social event. I succeeded in wiggling my way out of the momentary yet deafening silence that followed my disputation by making a quip about my penchant for biking just about everywhere and my friends thinking it is because I’ve had a DUI. They laughed about that heartily. But I meant what I had said. The solution to our social ills must rely exclusively on the moral formation that may or may not occur in the home. Years ago that environment may have been the incubator of virtue; it is no longer. Rather, it may be that the last bastion of moral formation lies in books, books with great ideas and great ideals, perhaps out-of-fashion but never out-of-date. These ideals, shared via literature with many of the great men and women who came before, might just make us feel small in a good way, a part of something greater than ourselves, and eager to keep on learning, whatever our age may be.

[1] https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/why-i-wont-teach-abstinence-to-my-son-dncp/

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Suggestive Weirdness

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

In the second chapter of what is perhaps his most renowned piece of apologetic narrative, C. S. Lewis writes, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.” How sadly true this rings these days in light of the tragic events in France and Turkey.
        Yet Lewis is not speaking about current events, not really, for he immediately goes on to say, “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel that we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing that anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”
         Lewis continues, in Aristotelian fashion (as he often does in Mere Christianity) to parse out the question of God, dividing opinions about the divine into Epicurean/Nietzschean/Hegelian terms (i.e., non-existent or at least non-interventionist, detached, beyond good or evil) on the one side, to conceptions of God connected with justice, righteousness, etc., on the other. In this latter group he places Islamic, Jewish and Christian thought.
        Bdonkeyefore I left for Europe, as I walked my dog one last time I was thinking of another idea, not so much about God as about strangeness, which dovetails with the “twist” that Lewis mentions in the above citation. In the story of Balaam and Balak from the perhaps not-too-often-read book of Numbers in the Old Testament, more often known as the “story of Balaam and his ass,” Balaam is summoned by Balak, the king of Moab. Though he is warned explicitly by his talking donkey about going to Balak’s court, Balaam nevertheless complies with the regal summons. After Balaam’s arrival in Moab, Balak requests, presses, even tries to trap Balaam into pronouncing a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22:6-17).
       To grasp fully the implications of Balak’s insistence that Balaam make that curse, one has to recall that in the ancient world curses were really a big deal. Although nowadays I but rarely hear of anyone pronouncing a curse on another person—though it still does happen and is not hard to find on the Internet. In antiquity these were staunchly

idrusus001p1
Germanicus

believed to bring ruin and disaster on the accursed. The third heir to the Roman principate, Nero Claudius Drusus, who was known with the agnomen by the adopted name Germanicus Iulius Caesar, or simply Germanicus for short, died under a curse before he could ever take the imperial reins (described vividly by Tacitus in his Annales 2.69). Some Greek inscriptions—a famous one, for example, from the island of Thasos[1]—even offer instructions about how to get out from under a self-pronounced curse. We have thousands of curse tablets, too—i.e., shards of broken pottery with nasty little curses written on them. Socrates was the victim not only of a death sentence pronounced on him unjustly by the Athenian court but was the subject of many such curses written on potsherds and cast into wells in Athens.[potsherds2] Even in the period of the Renaissance/Reformation, Martin Luther (probably impishly, inasmuch as it comes from his Table Talk [671]) put a quite nasty sounding curse on whoever happens to love the work of Erasmus—and he did so in Latin, no less—followed shortly by a further playful quip, “Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus” (Table Talk, 672).
       But what I am calling “weirdness” and what brings us back from the rare dinner party conversation about ancient curse tablets or the rivalry between Luther and Erasmus to the more likely breakfast-time (and at any rate more edifying) conversation about C.S. Lewis is theastonishing behavior of Balaam. I do not mean the fact that in this story the ass can speak or even what it says, but rather what Balaam himself says, which I shall cite at this blog’s end. When urged, compelled, downright bullied by Balak into cursing, Balaam nevertheless blesses. And that, it occurred to me as I walked my dog, is what is really strange about this story and what is weird about God, for that matter, as I understand him from Holy Writ. Such weirdness, simply put, is that blessing, an unusual thing to do, is a recurrent theme. To wit, St. Paul expands upon this unusual point of view in his epistle to the Romans (12:14-17), “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep… . Recompense to no man evil for evil.”
       When I say unusual, I mean it is simply because I do not feel like blessing when I am wronged. I do not feel like blessing when I am bullied. In fact, I rarely feel like blessing anyone at all. And this to me seems to be the “you could not have guessed” factor that C.S. Lewis is speaking about. It has nothing to do with a debate about Jesus’ miracles or political hot-button issues or even the hot-button issue of whom one should vote for in any election, let alone one as confusing as the next American election. Rather, this teaching, which in a sense goes back to a man known better for his ass than his counterintuitive stubbornness, is central to the New Testament narrative. It must have astounded his disciples when he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor,’ and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). The same theme is even more riveting when it turns up among the words of Christ on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
       These are all, it seems to me, very weird teachings, what Lewis calls “that queer twist.” Yet someone might object: “They do not sound that weird to me! After all, the Bible is a religious book. Why should you be surprised to find pietistic teachings in it?” Yet the notion of “religious” alone does not necessarily evoke such profoundly counterintuitive teaching. In fact, the Bible itself is often indicted for its violence, as accounts of rape and incest are recorded there, as are many a war, many a battle—wars often advanced to claim a land for the Jews at the expense of Canaanites or others already inhabiting those regions. Add to this that one of the more memorable verses recorded by Moses is, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23). And other spiritual books outside of the Bible speak of just retribution, using violence to achieve justice and to right human wrongs on behalf of God. Yet Christianity turns this formula on its head: “Pray for your enemies.” “Bless, and do not curse.”
       In closing, I present neither proof of God nor of Christianity. Rather, I offer here merely an observation indebted to C.S. Lewis’ comment; my own is based not on Balaam’s talking animal but on Balaam’s own speech: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent; hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? Behold, I have received a commandment to bless: and he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:19f.). In these turbulent, violent and inhuman times, may Balaam’s ancient but quite excellent summation offer us a path to sanity and healing in a world gone mad.

 


[1] Russell Meiggs and David Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford Clarendon, 1969), entry no. 83; on the notion of being foresworn, cf. A.J. Graham, “An Ellipse in the Thasian Decree about Delation (ML 83)?” American Journal of Philology 110 (1989): 405–12.

[2] Inscriptiones Graecae 3.3 Appendix, Defixionum Tabellae [=DTA], 7, 10, 97, et al.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mars and French Food

north windAnyone who has ever been outside in a severe and bitingly cold wind knows what wind can do to your face, if you have not wrapped yourself with a scarf. It can dry out your face, crack your lips, and shiver every timber of your being. It can, in short, almost take your face away, if you don’t protect it.

Even on Mars, apparently, there have been such winds, no doubt colder and more severe than even the bitterest of such winds on this planet. Solar winds (gusts supercharged by particles from the sun) have recently been determined—thanks to the interestingly acronymed “MAVEN” observatory spacecraft—to have taken away Mars’ atmosphere.[1] These same wind-driven particles would sweep ruinously over our own planet, too—and do touch down here, but only at the poles, creating our spectacular northern lights

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

—if it were not for our robust atmosphere, an atmosphere held in place simply because of our planet’s fiercely abiding magnetic field. In other words, when Mars lost its sense of north and south, its compass as it were, Mars surrendered its atmosphere to the winds. This did not happen all at once, scientists believe; it happened slowly over time until finally the winds dominated the atmosphere that had once protected and have entirely reshaped the landscape.

IDL TIFF file

Even the dust that covers its surface is foreign to Mars. What appears to us to be, and has long been called the red planet, was once not red at all. It was once a fecund place, or at least had the possibility to be so. It might have looked a bit like earth. It might have been able to sustain life, even if not that of Matt Damon, MattDamon Martianat least some kind of life. Yet when Mars lost its atmosphere, it lost its capacity to do so. Oceans, rivers, everything that could have produced agriculture, and culture, were gone.

My great-grandfather died before I was born, as most do. (His story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography [pp. 169–73], where he is correctly portrayed as a chef for Welsh miners.) He brought his cultural identity—French, in his case—as a contribution to his existing family culture, of which at that time was predominantly Welsh. I was thinking about him (and Mars) recently because, even as I write this, I am in France attending a colloquium. (The colloquium is on philology, not the most poultry area of study these days. If you wish to know more about this “p” word, I commend the fine book along with the series based on it: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese verbs)

Aside from the obvious, such as being in France, sipping coffee in a delightful cafe or the occasional glass of Bordeaux, and superb French dining (from one dish of which I affix a recipe below, one that I understand from family lore my great-grandfather prepared, though what you will see below is not his recipe precisely, but my own recollection of what I ate just a few days ago), one interesting facet of such a conference is the opportunity for rich dinner-time or happy-hour conversations. Such conversations usually are held in numerous “scholarly” languages: German, English, Italian and, of course, French. (It was lamented by at least one Italian philologist that the Spaniards are so sorely underrepresented.) Nonetheless, in case you’re wondering, Mars was not discussed, so I will not yet tell you why I opened with that semi-scientific ramble. Instead, as is often the case with my European friends and acquaintances, topics that come up rather naturally are food (a tasteful subject, of course), life’s difficulties (particularly fiscal problems and taxes), politics, and sex (though chiefly only insofar as sex relates to political issues such as population growth or how impractical having children is, which of course it is for philologists). The first two of these—that is the incongruous coupling of food with worries about the economy—normally dominate the discussion, though I prefer the last of these topics, because I, in fact, like children. Yet at this philological “colloque” (to use the French appropriately), a rich discussion arose about cultural identity. So again, as I said above, I thought of my French great-grandfather, James Jacques, who bore in his person the family name that would later be spelled Jakes and would itself incongruously represent a culturally Welsh family.

To my new European friends, the problem was clear: the bitter chill of a wind of a new cultural identity has begun sweeping across the continent. This chilling wind was not, in the eyes of the person who was speaking to me with a low voice—low not out of shame or embarassment but out of, it seemed to me, grief or desperation—welcome. When I say “in the eyes of” this well-educated, middle-aged Italian professoressa (as such female educators are there known), I speak not of her opinion, but of the clear sense of sadness that I could see in those eyes.

“Italy’s borders are porous,” she said, “there is sea everywhere . . . Tanti musselmani vengono. So many Muslims keep coming in. Have you been to Genova?” She asked me. I nodded. “The culture there—the Italian culture is overrun. It is the same in France. Have you been to Marseilles lately?” she added. “We in Italy are losing our cultural identity. We are losing our food, our country, our heritage.”

Impolitically I added, “Some of that you sadly gave up when churches became mere museum pieces and when you gave your lire up for the Euro.”Lire billEuro

“It’s terrible,” another added despondently, “the loss of the lire, I mean.”

As the conversation ran its course, it became clearer and clearer to me that the professoressa (or any of the Italians present) was not “islamophobic.” She was not a hater of anything new or different. They all had high regard for religion and the shared moral code—what C.S. Lewis calls the “Tao,”[2]—that religions can offer. She was merely stating, as gently as she could, the difference from the old days and the way cultural acceptance is nowadays mandated in a politically correct world. She was affirming but lamenting the obvious: now, instead of the immigrant trying, but ultimately failing, to hold on perfectly to his heritage, he expects society (and society tells him to expect) to accommodate his every wish. He expects full inclusiveness, so that if an author were to be foolish enough to write “he” instead of “he or she” or “he/she” or, now I have also read, “zhe” (for which many a German is secretly rejoicing), or viley to use “they” as if it were the singular pronoun, they would no doubt be pilloried, mocked, or at least corrected.

Yet as I am not politically correct (though I do try to be polite), I not only did not rebuke her, but agreed that the immigrant needs to adapt to the culture, not the other way round. “But we are losing our culture, and I am not sure what can be done about it,” she said raising her voice the way one might at the end of a sentence with a question.

At this point I want to be clear: this fine person was not saying that Italy and Europe should not have a heart for the poor and disenfranchised. Rather, she was saying that in her view solar-charged winds are blowing, winds capable of wiping out a culture. And she is right. “When I was in Paris,” one of the other interlocutors said, “I heard the subway announcements in French and Arabic.”

And then I thought again about Mars, and my great-grandfather. Mars was overrun by winds that destroyed its atmosphere. That happened because it lost its magnetic field. It lost its sense of north and south.

“Europe has lost its moral compass,” another added. “I remember when my grandparents would eat their dinner—even in a restaurant like this one, they would cross themselves and say a blessing—every time! Now, well, nothing, just ‘Buon appetito!’”

And then I thought, yet again, of Mars. It lost its atmosphere because it lost, as it were, its compass. That compass, for Europe had long been not some new, insufficient and intolerant form of impolitical political correctness. It has been, rather, for lack of a better word, the Church. “Now no one crosses himself,” she added, a few seconds later, despondently.

So I close this blog not with an answer, not the answer Elaine Jakes at the close of her autobiography espouses I once gave to a dour presbyter in Wales (Curious Autobiography, p. 253) but with a question. Has America lost its moral compass? Are we more concerned about accommodating others, so worried about ensuring the privileges of a few that we actually harm and debunk the rights of all? My French great-grandfather cooked in the French manner, but what he offered was a contribution to a preexisting society; he did not make demands of it. Even the predominant ethnic group learned the language of Pennsylvania, English. I have learned to speak Texan (as best I can). I would not expect Texans to adopt my predominently Phillyesque accent. Or cook me cheessteak at a barbecue. But I ask again, are we so worried about the privileges of a few that we could actually harm the rights of everyone? If we bow to the demands of a politically correct world, could we soon wind up in the position that Europe now finds itself?

You ponder that one. I will return to my delightful French food. I recommend the potato dish, below. I just had it in Claremont-Ferrond, a city so nice they named it twice.

Tartiflette[1] CNN news (11/5/2015).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, passim.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Serendipity

In a blog on serendipity, nothing can strictly be off topic, if the blog is to be true to its title. Thus, let us begin with something seemingly off-topic, though really not, but at the very least thoroughly recherché, the term “serendipity” itself. That word enjoys an etymology owed, it seems, to a single person, the fourth Earl of Orford, architect/author Horace Walpole, known perhaps more for his literary production (the towering The Castle of Otranto, the outdated On Modern Gardening, and the puzzling Hieroglyphic Tales) than the ripest fruit of his architectural achievements, Strawberry Hill.

Horace Walpole, 1717–1797
Horace Walpole, 1717–1797
Castle at Strawberry Hill
Castle at Strawberry Hill

That selfsame Walpole famously said, “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel” and, at some point between Otranto and Gardening, he chanced to write a letter to Horace Mann, in which he coined serendipity as a new word based on a Persian tale he had read entitled, “The Three Princes of Serendip.”

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

In that work, the protagonists journey through life, ever coming upon more than they have bargained for or are seeking in their quixotic wanderings. Their origin was of Sri Lanka, whose archaic name is recorded in the tale as Serendip (a name that itself is a corruption of a Sanskrit word meaning “Lion’s Island”).[1]

Serendipity seems to me rather like luck or fortune. The former is derived from a Germanic root (cf. German Glück), while the latter comes from an Italic root (cf. Latin fortuna). The Germanic tribes did not seem to have a deity exclusively for fortune or luck—as close as they would seem to have come was Woden, whose chance contribution to our culture shows up only on Wednesdays—but the Romans did: they had Fortuna, “Lady Luck” herself. And those who worshiped her above all, no doubt wanted luck on their side, the way that a modern-day gambler does. DiceAs it is not uncommon to find a restaurant called “Serendipity,”[2] (it obviously would seem to have chiefly positive connotations in English), one does not often find a restaurant called “Luck” or “Lucky Food” (though it is possible).[3]

And as for “fortune,” that word is quite often associated with fortune tellers, whose job description is a discursive construct since the very notion of predicting luck seems impossible when one thinks hard about it; but I’m probably overthinking it now—even if it did, in fact, occur to me when I was being raised as a lad by Elaine Jakes. Elaine did not often consult a fortune teller—though she enjoyed the occasional séance and adored a certain card reader/teller of fortunes, Leni Fontaine, the remarkable artist to whom an entire chapter of the Curious Autobiography is dedicated—but she was just as curious about her own future as the next person. Yet she knew, in the end, that such predictions were rather unreliable.

The Rabbi, oil on canvas by Leni Fontaine
“The Rabbi,” oil on canvas by Leni Fontaine

So what about “chance” then? Well, I don’t pretend to have the final word on that and would enjoy hearing from my readers about it, along with its especially enjoyable cousin, serendipity. Now, while chance may seem contrary to there being a purpose and plan for life—witness the recent tragedy in Tianjin, whither our prayers go—serendipity perhaps is something we can agree on, for it is that kind of chance that, as we said in a previous blog,[4] can make life quite delightful.

I’ll close with an example: a few years ago my dear pastor’s wife, Karen, prayed a prayer I wish she had not—that I would have a good conversation on an airplane about things that matter. I told her I like to write on airplanes, and that I did not want to be disturbed. Yet her prayer somehow produced the serendipity of me sitting next to an effusive, slightly overweight, partially open-shirted (hirsute, with beard and chest bearing prandial vestiges), and well-blinged practitioner of a modern age religion that will remain nameless.Dragon necklace

The serendipitous conversation was tragic, in a way, yet also a bit hilarious—at least for the couple behind us. My seatmate began the conversation by telling me that his dragon—a metal dragon figurine dangled from a necklace about his neck—liked me very much. He pulled its chain toward me and made the dragon kiss my shoulder. I told him that was nice, but I liked to write on airplanes. Undaunted, no doubt because of Karen’s prayers, he went on to tell me that in the practice of his new religion he was permitted, even encouraged, to meet via the internet women of the same religious order and arrange a rendezvous with them in another city in order to effect a sexual encounter. This, he told me with great delight, was in fact ritually a part of his religion, and that he could barely wait to get to Atlanta to for that tryst. It was sanctioned, he told me, or at least tolerated for religious reasons, also by his wife, who, though she did not avail herself of the possibility, was permitted freely to do the same thing with other men.

He also told me about his family life in some detail. He and his wife were having marital problems and were facing the possibility of bankruptcy; he had lost his job; his wife seemed strangely to have contracted an STD—though he did not have it, he assured me—even though she claimed that she was not sleeping with other men. His children were not doing well; his eldest, a son, had recently dropped out of community college, and simply remained at home with no job and no prospects. “Such are the times,” he quipped. In short, by his own admission, it seemed that his life was in shambles; yet, at least now he could live for pleasure’s sake and not have to suppress who “he really was,” which he said that he had been doing up until he joined the religious movement.

Each time I gingerly inquired of him about the details, the couple behind us cheered me on and did so more as the conversation proceeded. I asked him how long he had been in his religious group.

“Four years,” he said, “Four years of pure pleasure with arranged (yet random) sexual encounters.” Then he added, “Serendipity. I find my lovers serendipitously on the web.”

“How long have you been having financial problems?” I queried.

“Hmm, well, it started a few years back. I think about three and a half or four years.”

“How long has your son been having trouble in school?”

“Not just my son, but my daughter, too,” he added. “Like him, she’s doing drugs; Maryjane would be okay with me, but she’s using Molly.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked, playing the role of psychiatrist/counselor as I added, “How old his your daughter now?”

“Let’s see,” well, she’s 16.” He said; then he added, “Well, I think, about three or four years.”

“She started using Molly at age 13? And what about your son?”

“No, I think she was 14. He’s two years older. He is into heroin. He dropped out of college. He lives at home.”

“Now, let’s review,” I said after an appropriately austere pause. “You’ve been in this religious order for four years?”

“Yes.”

“And your kids have been having trouble about three and a half years or so?” At this point, though my seatmate seemed oblivious to it, the cheering from the seat behind me erupted in full.

“And your marital and financial troubles started about then?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think my kids have been stealing from us to buy drugs. My wife and I only use weed.”

“Do you think all the airline tickets and the money you spend on marijuana, too, could be contributing to your financial problems?”

“Maybe. But it’s a part of our religion. And I love it.”

“Pity,” I said, “Because I know a way out, friend.”

“I know, it’s your morality, your social justice.”

“No, it’s not morality. Morality is simply a road map; it is not the stuff needed to make the human machine run,” I said, paraphrasing probably unfairly C. S. Lewis: “morality and social justice are good only as far as they go. The machine can go a few feet, but then it konks out. There is another way out, …”

At this point I began to try to embark on the difficult task of explaining my personal view of faith before he saved me the trouble—in any case, we were beginning our final descent—“I don’t want a way out,” he said. “Not for me at least.” (At this statement a stentorian chorus of boos arose from the seat behind, and possibly even from the seat behind that one, as well.)

The conversation ended with the ominous warning to ascertain that our seatbelts were buckled and to stow away all devices, etc. ending, I suppose, where it began with an assurance that even though I “found a higher moral purpose in life” and even though I “was a church-goer” (his words, not mine), his dragon still liked me.

And thus it was that he went on to his serendipitous rendezvous, and I to my own business. Yet I have never forgotten this, for it seemed to me that in this seemingly random meeting on the airplane there was a purpose. Perhaps one day this man will discover the stuff a human being needs to run on, the only safe way out of his “morality-free” lifestyle. Perhaps. And perhaps the couple behind me remembers this strange experience, and chuckles about it from time to time. I have derived my own lessons from that Walpolian moment, both tragic and comic at once, not the least of which is to be careful what I (or, in this case, my pastor’s wife) might wish for, for this experience alone would suggest to me that the prayer of a righteous woman is powerful and effective, able to arrange even a strange cheer-mustering, dragon-kissing moment of serendipity.

 

[1] Wendy Doniger, Hidus: An Alternative History (Oxford, 2010): 665.

[2] Or, at least, “Serendipity 3.”

[3] In Texas, of course, at least one such restaurant does exist: “Luck”; there is also a “Joy Luck,” though its website suggests otherwise, no doubt modeled on one of my favorite books, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

[4] Last week’s blog, “Unexpected Surprises and Il Commune.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Traveling

piergiacomo
Piergiacomo Petrioli

 

“May you be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Bodily Death, from whom no living human being can escape.”[1] Thus wrote St. Francis of Assisi some time just after 1200 AD. To St. Francis, my good friend Piergiacomo Petrioli assured me just yesterday, everything was good. “That’s the point,” he said as we sat in his living room in Bologna discussing how the Renaissance, which began almost precisely a century after St. Francis wrote this canticle, came about. “The point is that Francis cared about all of creation, saw everything as good because it came from God’s hand. And so,” he added, “even death could be seen as good, as a release from the troubles of this life.”

Giotto's St. Francis before the Sultan
Giotto’s St. Francis before the Sultan

And that, we agreed later in the course of the conversation, was the beginning of the period of Western history in which the focus on repeating over and over in the cold echoing chamber of the high-ceilinged central nave of a Gothic cathedral, “God is Pankrator (Ruler of All)” reverted to the idea that “God is a human being, too.” Piergiacomo added, “The point is that the emphasis of the Renaissance is not that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’—he was quoting Browning, of course—“but that God, as a human being, suffers with us humans, participates in our humanity; that human suffering is thereby redeemed, dignified to the extent that even morte corporale can be nostra sora (i.e., sorella), our sister.” This he said, with my slight adaptation, of course, in a lovely Italian accent. St. Francis himself must have sounded like Piergiacomo, I thought to myself, gentle and warm.

But the title of this blog is not St. Francis’ views on death, but rather “Traveling,” and I come back to that now. For when I am traveling, one of the things I like to do best is to visit my friends on the continent and chat with them about things like the origin of the Renaissance, something I had never before connected with St. Francis. The reason for that is, perhaps, that somewhere in my mind the cautionary words of G.K. Chesterton were still rambling about, for he once wrote of St. Francis, “… it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”

What I think Chesterton is cautioning against is not the importance of the emphasis beginning with St. Francis on all created things being good that Piergiacomo and I were touting as foundational to the notion of humanity that the Renaissance would advance. In any case, such emphasis certainly owes itself much more to the rediscovery of ancient texts than to St. Francis’ memorable declarations about death or Brother Sun or Sister Moon. Rather, I think that Chesterton is railing against those who want to put St. Francis on a pedestal, or more precisely, those who would distort his views about the interaction of man and God. That same group might emphasize St. Francis’ love for animals as a part of creation to the exclusion of his view on redemption and humankind.

Elsewhere in his biography of that saint, Chesterton offers a vivid description of Francis that I think is likely to be precisely right:

“He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.”[2]

As usual, Chesterton gives us more to ponder than we may have wanted. His challenge to his reader is to consider St. Francis not in general, but in particular. And this is the challenge that Chesterton and later C.S. Lewis would lay at the feet of every churchgoer, every human being, to consider God in particular and each person in particular. It is much easier to love the idea of humanity than to love your neighbor.

Which brings be back to traveling, for how can I love my neighbor when I’m journeying such a long way from home? Well, if you’ve been reading any of my other blogs so far, I imagine you may know my opinion about the answer to that question. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell one last story about traveling that might illustrate what I mean.

There once were two couples who went a traveling. One went to a large, impoverished city in Africa and bought bread and carried it with them everywhere they went in case they met any street children there. street children(As it turned out, they gave a great deal of bread away, and much more than food, as well. Indeed, I believe they would have surrendered their bodies to fire, were it necessary, to help those in need.) The other couple went to some other far more luxurious spot—Hawaii, I think it was—on vacation; that second couple gave money to world hunger relief organizations from time to time, especially when there was a crisis in the news. That same couple felt very good about their donations, and from time to time would tastefully mention their own generosity to their friends over dinner. But they could see no reason to encourage the other couple about their trip to Africa, or to help them in their admittedly limited-in-scope “humanitarian” effort. In fact, they gently rebuked them when they were having lunch together before they left. “You know, it’s a vain effort, you going there. It won’t cure all the ills in the world; you might even come back with one—a disease. Better to give money to some relief organization or something—that’s what we do,” they told the first couple in a well-intended, but condescending way.

The first couple was not taken aback. Rather they might even have expected as much, for they had long before come to love Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even to understand that Bodily Death, too, is the sister of the moon and sun, and our sister, too. They were not going to Africa to rebuke that sister. They were going to find and help their brothers and their sisters. They did not love the idea of humanity, they loved human beings.

Now I myself did not and still do not understand one thing about the first pair, the couple who actually went to Africa, for I do not understand St. Francis’ idea that death could ever be our sister. I am rather angered by death, with Herculean emotions welling up from deep within. When a friend or family member dies, I feel that something fundamentally bad has happened, something gone wrong in the universe. But that is me, not Chesterton, not the first couple, nor probably the second. But I wax mystical.

Pope FrancisYet I was speaking about traveling. St. Francis’ travels are well known. Now another Francis, a new Pontifex Maximus, to use a Latin (and quite ancient Roman) term, is traveling, as well. He has just left Italy, to build a bridge to the needy, the poor in another hemisphere, one with which he is quite familiar. I will leave Bologna for a different America, the one with which I am familiar, only a few days after him. This Francis is not voyaging to Africa, but to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, countries where life is rife with challenge, where in every valley death casts a long shadow, where there are needy and weeping souls, real people, about whom it seems to have been forgotten by far too many who could care (but don’t) that they are human beings. In his travels the Pope will—indeed, I believe, already has—like St. Francis, bring warmth and love for human beings, not just for “humanity.”

Compianto
Compianto

In the meantime, until I leave, Piergiacomo and I will sit by and by, eating Parmesan and raising a glass to The Curious Autobiography, which he is now reading, and more especially and fittingly a cup running over to both the pope and the saint, whose love for humanity and human beings was and will be, I hope, remembered and, by the time this blog is posted, seen, as well. For our part, we shall consider the importance of the Renaissance again and again, admiring the work of artists, and reading a piece of literature or two—I hear Petrarch beckoning—and, before I leave, perhaps even visiting again Santa Maria della Vita here in Bologna. To the right of the altar of the central nave one can see the masterpiece of Niccolò dell’Arca, his Compianto, a sculpted work that portrays the humanity and pain of human beings in the face of the most horrific death in history, before history could be changed by a single naked act. But the nakedness of that act involves a trip I once took to Estonia, which will be the story of another blog about traveling, a blog I will write perhaps a long time from now.

For more on Renaissance Art, see Artsy’s website and follow your favorite artists. For example, see on Raphael.

[1] Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare, from Michele Faloci Pulignani (ed.). Il Cantico del Sole di San Francesco di Assisi. Foligno: Tipografia di Pieter Sgariglia, 1888, pp. 10–11; http://www.prayerfoundation.org/canticle_of_brother_sun.htm. My translation.

[2] The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1986), 70, 29.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angels and Headstones

As the title of this blog implies, angels turn up in surprising places. One might not expect to come upon an angel in a store that sells grave markers; that frankly is the last thing one might expect. Truth be told, one rather infrequently enters a grave marker store, normally known as “So-and-so’s Memorials.” Usually such a store’s modestly sized parking lot is far from teaming with customers and, if one does venture within, rarely, if ever, does one learn that that store is out of a certain type of headstone, or that they have a particular marker on “backorder.” And, of course, it would be gauche to suggest putting anything on layaway, as that would be driving the nail a bit too close to the thumb, so to say.

Indeed, the very word memorial is itself already driving that nail rather close, for the term is either a benign euphemism or an apt appellation. I prefer the latter, as I believe in memory, not that it may merely serve to be an ephemeral record of a life well (or otherwise) lived but also as a mental imprint that serves to preserve a record of meaning. It is a mirror image of the hope that can inform one’s future.

Kingston welcome signBut to return to angels and gravestones. I entered that gravestone store, located on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2012 with my uncle Ed Johnson, a retired professor of the school once called Wilkes College, to buy Elaine Jakes’ memorial marker. That place of business is one that I have fortunately had few opportunities to visit; but that cold March day, with its crisp, biting wind, Ed and I were on just such a gloomy errand. Though Elaine had passed away a few months earlier, it was now time to put her ashes in the ground at Fern Knoll Burial Park. We needed, and indeed wanted, a simple memorial, something to put over the place where Elaine’s ashes would rest. I had no idea that I would that day encounter an angel.

Gingerbreak manNow I had only once before encountered someone I thought could be an angel. I was 21 years old and was involved in a very strange fisticuffs. My close friend Tim Hoy and I, then a college senior, were walking home from a fine dining establishment and even better bar known as the Gingerbread Man in Carlisle, Pennsylvania . We had spent a few hours in that bar chatting, Tim drinking beer, I Perrier because at the time I had mononucleosis, a disease during which one is told to refrain entirely from alcoholic beverages. Besides, Perrier was cheaper and quite refreshing, particularly with a twist of lime. I felt, frankly, somewhat sophisticated. We spent a few hours chatting about C. S. Lewis, the Baltimore Orioles (baltimore oriole capTim’s favorite team and, coincidentally, my favorite bird) and, by metonymic association, Cookie, the myna bird that taught me how to talk in a manner comparable to the way that a bear taught Elaine Jakes how to drive.

When it was time to walk home we took a less than circuitous course back to our admittedly shabby apartment, en route to which we encountered some ruffians—eight that I could count—who proceeded to engage us in a fisticuffs. Needless to say, they outmanned us. Tim’s jaw was broken on nearly the first punch. I fortunately did not rupture my then delicate spleen, to protect which I kept my arms over my belly, allowing my face to be knocked about at will, no doubt to the delight of the assailants.

Nonetheless, I don’t think either one of us were frightened—perhaps we hadn’t had time to be frightened, as it all happened so fast—until I heard and then saw one of the hooligans open his switchbladeswitchblade.  For a moment, I thought all was lost. It was not. Just as he was approaching me, pinned as I was against the side of a car, a large man came from nowhere. He seemed, at the time, of superhuman size. Indeed, I doubt I have in the flesh ever seen anyone so large unless seeing an (American) football player, a lineman, at a distance during a football game were to count. But even such girth I am not certain would surpass that man’s—if he was a man. I had a feeling at the time that both the size and the rapidity of his appearance and then sudden disappearance could qualify him for angelic status. Admittedly, he did not sing; nor did he have a harp or a halo or wings. Yet even if he was not a capital ‘A’ angel, he was at the very least a lowercase ‘a’ angel. He came to announce to that entire group of ruffians that it was over and they should go home. And that they did, immediately, without asking questions or even tagging Tim or me with one last upper cut or left hook. They scattered. We were safe, and we stumbled home. And maybe that night, just maybe, we encountered a real live angel.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

But that apparition was vastly different from the angel that Ed and I encountered in the memorial store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, for there we came upon a small, elderly woman who asked about Elaine Jakes. Was this Harry and Blanche’s daughter, she asked? Blythe Evans’ cousin? “Yes,” we said. Oh, she said, I knew Elaine—a bit of a free spirit, that Lainey. What a wonderful lady and what a fine family she came from. Blythe—well, everyone was proud of him, the district attorney. And, her sister—“My wife, Lee Ann,” Ed piped in—well, she was a marvelous person, raised two fine boys, didn’t she? “Yes,” Ed, added, “my sons, Mark and Eric.” Fine lads, the woman said; one became a doctor, the other, was it a professor? “Yes,” Ed and I concurred, adding a few details to round out the family portrait.

But Harry was special, she said. He was a wonderful human being. He bought his mother and his father’s memorials here, you know, and Jemima Jones’ and Lizzie Ann Evans’. Then afterwards he used to come by from time to time just to say hello, just to be friendly and keep us here in the store up with what was going on at his church, with the family and in his neighborhood. A good man, that Harry Jakes, she said. In parting, she gave Ed and me each a small gift; a small metallic medallion of an angel.

Angel medallion
Angel Medallion

Take these, she said, and be blessed. It’s an angel, she said, a small gift to remind you that there are real angels. Ed smiled and took it, as did I, expressing our thanks.

To write this blog, I used Google Earth to try to find that memorial store. I thought it must still be there—after all, it was just three years ago that I was visiting and I bought the headstone. But though I thrice virtually traversed of Wyoming Avenue and looked up and down for it, I could not find it. I could not find even the place where I recall that it was located. It would seem to have come and gone nearly as quickly as that angel, if he was an angel, who delivered Tim and me from the valley of the shadow of death in Carlisle all those years ago. No, I’m sure that that store is there and that I just missed it. And perhaps that woman was not a real angel. But I don’t doubt that she gave us an angelic blessing, and that that blessing is one that points to the angels we encounter in this life, whether they be humans or something or someone, somewhat otherworldly, in human form.