Tag Archives: Socrates

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Things You Hear at Conferences

It will be a great disappointment to you, I’m sure, to know that I finally went to a conference without my friend, the philologist, whom I often accompany to philological congresses. I enjoy going with him to those meetings in no small part because every time I do something exciting happens. I would write about that now, but frankly you would probably not believe me if I did write about it, as the events that follow him around are, frankly unbelievable. There has been gun fire, mad pursuits in swiftly driven automobiles, occasional fisticuffs, vel sim. And, add to that, an acute awareness of what vel sim. actually means.  One can guess based on etymology; and one does guess, of course, for rarely would one hazard looking up such an abbreviation in a dictionary, as 1) there’s a decent chance it won’t show up there; and 2) even if it did, there’s a better than decent chance it will be exactly what you thought it was: “or similar” or “or the like.”  But having him around obviates the need for a dictionary or even guesswork, and obviates, too, the need to look up the word “obviates.”

But that is off the topic of my particular congress, one that I went to quite on my own, one for writers; thus, to return to that topic. I am writing to respond obliquely to one of the papers that address the YA (young adult) audience.  I’m not even sure now why I wandered into that session, but I did; and when I got there I got an earful about Generation “Z”.  That’s the latest generation, the one that was born in the year 1995 or later. And what I learned was that they are a generation that expects service, particularly individualized service, and a generation that has a deep sense of solidarity.  The speaker saw this as a strength; could it not be argued that it is as indicative of a herd mentality? Populist movement? Probably the latter is, admittedly, going too far.

The speaker disapproved of, for example, the University of Chicago, where there has been, on the part of the administration, a deliberate move to coddle students no longer. His point had some validity: if students of Gen Z are expecting certain things—individualized treatment (what used to be called, disdainfully, “special treatment”), then it is a rather stark slap in the face not to give them what they are used to.  And he might be right.

Conversely, might it not, someone could ask, be good for them?  But this is not why I am writing about this topic. Rather, it is the fact that I think that what I’m concerned most about is the idea that, as they are used to being affirmed, we need to act around them and, more germane to me as an author, write YA Afiction that affirms them in whatever position they might wish to adopt.  In short, we should encourage them to believe something, even if it is something we don’t agree with.  Just “believe.”  And act on that belief. That’s enough.

But it is, I’m afraid, not enough.  If we write just to affirm having an opinion about something qua telos in and of itself, we are no different than the fifth-century sophists who said that what really counted was the ability to argue any side of an issue. Put simply, they affirmed style over substance.  The issue itself meant nothing compared to the capacity to argue for it.

The great anti-sophist, Socrates, however, held quite the opposite point of view.  He argued that what you say is more important than how you say it.  He chose questioning via dialogue (the “Socratic method”) because he felt that driving an argument like a lawyer was, in the end, less convincing. You might gain a temporary victory—convince your listener for a season—but in the end, the issue that you “convinced” him does not become his own.  It only does so when he or she dialogues about it and understands it from the inside out and, in the end, makes it his own.

Okay, where does that leave us with the things you hear at conferences, spAecifically about Gen Z? The same place as with the Millennials, Gen X and the Boomers, and, I suppose the Silent Generation and anyone else who will listen.  Let’s dialogue about something real.  Let’s challenge, not coddle, and love on but not simply cheer on each other of any generation.  And, as different as the generations might be, let’s remember this. We’re all in this together.

Tan y tro nesaf…  (“until next time…” [in Welsh])…






Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Three C’s plus one for the Holidays

christmas-decorations First, let me say that rambling on about words that start with “C” is unlikely to be quite as ridiculous as suggesting that one should vote based on the latest trends in syllables, whether more or less of them. Yet that’s precisely what I suggested a week before the presidential vote. And apparently the notion of a more syllabically flexible presidential name prevailed, because someone named Donald John Trump was elected, whose name has but a grand total of a slender four syllables, even with the middle name; yet when one adds a “The” to the front his name—and many have called him “the Donald”—one then gets the expanded version of five syllables. And that, my friend, is greater syllabic flexibility than Hillary Clinton could offer, even with her maiden name inserted.

Then, a few days after the presidential vote, someone offered me a safety pin so that I could indicated to anyone who saw me that I was “safe to talk to” about the election results. I think the idea was to comfort those who were afraid because the Donald had been elected. Of course I declined the offer of the safety pin, for I learned in college that my best interlocutors were my professors who were more like Socrates than unlike him. And then, just as she offered me the safety pin, the question of “What would Socrates do?” (WWSD) occurred to me, and I decided that it would be better to play the Socratic gadfly whenever possible. As such, I would, I thought to myself, challenge that interlocutor to courage, not safety. But then I’m not keen on safe spaces, as I think they can be dangerously deceptive. The world is not a safe space; heaven is. To try artificially to make a heaven of earth—ask John Calvin sometime how that worked out in Geneva—would certainly involve misleading someone, likely to their detriment. And thus I declined the safety pin. I told the person I was not “safe” and that I did not want to be viewed as such. Another person, with whom I was walking at the time, laughed audibly, and the disillusioned safety-pin-donor went on her way.


But that is off the topic, as the first word is not challenge but “courage.” For courage is what we need in this dark world and wide. Courage to press on, courage ever to seek the best, not just for ourselves but for our communities as well. Courage well applied, involves transference of that courage also to those around us. And that may involve challenging someone to courage. And that is why I declined the safety pin.

The second C-word is “Christmas,” of course. I was reminded of Christmas today when I heard some carolers in a hospital in Houston singing quite beautifully Christmas carols. Of course, properly, the C-word should be an A-word, “advent.” But as advent leads to Christmas, I think it is safe to use the more definitive, if syllabically identical, term.

The third C-word ismd-anderson “cancer.” By cancer I do not mean the astrological sign “Cancer,” nor do I mean the Latin word cancer, which actually signifies a “crab” or “crawfish,” even though a crawfish is much more like a lobster than a crab. Rather, by cancer I mean just that, cancer, the destructive and debilitating disease. And I mean it because I was in Houston this week in a large hospital complex known as M.D. Anderson. There I saw some noble souls battling cancer with courage, and doing so just now in this Christmas season. None seemed to me to be feeling sorry for himself, none seemed overly concerned with the fact that that her hair had fallen out. One and all, so it seemed, presented the face of courage, of confidence, yet another C-word—the “plus one” of our title. And that confidence and courage were not the regular kind that many of us have. Rather this was a case of courage and confidence in the face of the imminent danger of cancer.

houston-hospital-complexThose folks’ confidence may have derived from them being in the midst of such a vast medical complex, imposing in its size, rife with competent research doctors, kind nurses, and a wonderfully caring staff. Or, perhaps, it came from the fact that they saw so many like themselves walking around—still walking, still living, still fighting cancer. Or it may have been generated by or at least fostered by the Christmas carols they heard being performed in the lobby, carols of hope and renewal, of God caring about mankind so much that he became a baby in a stable. Or was it something that was infused in them from a spouse, a friend, or maybe even God himself? In any case, courage and confidence went together there and seemed to me to take some of the fear out of the word cancer.nativity-sceneAnd I wish you all but one, of course, of these C-words, this advent season. If you happen to have the one I certainly don’t wish upon you, then I firmly hope that the other three will be there to help you stand against it.” If you’re fortunate enough never to have the Latin crab or crawfish eating your body away, then I pray that you’ll know those other three for whatever challenge, whether health related or not, you might encounter. And I know that these good C-words—courage, confidence and Christmas—exist (to which we could add others like care, comfort and compassion), for I saw them in the faces and heard them in the voices of some quite ill, but in many ways very healthy, people in Houston in a hospital called M.D. Anderson.







Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Shirt

theshirtIt is always a strange and wonderful privilege to go to a philological congress. That word, congress, may sound to some perhaps a bit old-fashioned. Nowadays, in the States at least, such a meeting is called just that, a meeting, usually preceded by the word annual and followed by specifics such as “of the A. E. Houseman Society” or “of the Shakespeare Society” or “of the Milton Society” or “of  the T.S. Eliot Society” or the like.

In my case, I was tagging along with a friend of mine who was speaking at just such a literary meeting in France on epic poetry, the poetry of sagas. Now, as I was saying above, while these gatherings are called “meetings” in America and sometimes even in the U.K., in France they are called congresses or colloques. This time it was the latter, though the two terms are often interchangeably used. And there were some famous folks at this colloque, which is in part why I tagged along. I won’t mention their names which are, in any case, to an Anglophone audience nearly as unreadable as they are unpronounceable.

Front entrance to the Sorbonne, Paris

But suffice it to say that there was a famous professor from the Sorbonne there, a famous Italian professoressa and an exceptional teacher at a collegium in northern France who has more publications on Theocritus than Theocritus had poems.  And I, though but a writer, was allowed to crash this party, as it were, simply because one of my friends was speaking. His speech, given in French, of course, seemed to me to have gone well. Fortunately I have enough French to have followed it, and I told him that it went well, which of course pleased him.

But none of this is any real part of this story per se. Rather it is merely explanatory, providing the setting for it. The saga of the shirt began at the colloque’s opening dinner, when one of the participants accidentally spilled wine on my friend, who was at the time wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. That rich, red liquid went cascading across the tabletop and soaked rather quickly into the waiting weave of the soft cotton fabric that was my friend’s shirt. Sure enough, his shirt absorbed the drink like an alcohol-starved alcoholic or a fresh diaper, and like a diaper, was quickly stained, as were my friend’s pants. His tan pants were his immediate priority, and he managed to get the major part of that wine stain out in the bathroom by dousing them with water right away, as if they were on fibordeaux-winere. But the shirt, alas, as the wine in question was red (specifically a Bordeaux as we were in the Bordeaux region of France) was a goner, a casualty on the especially delicious epicurean battlefield of southern France.

When he got back to his hotel, so he told me, he originally had thought to place the shirt in the small, round trash can in his room. Indeed he had done so. But, even though he is slightly less Welsh than I am—though he may be precisely as Welsh as I am for all I know—he immediately felt guilty. The reason for his guilt, so he told me at breakfast, was because he had come to the congress from Paris where he had seen hundreds of middle eastern refugees living in the streets, many of them dwelling in small pup tents, each tent quite often inhabited by an entire family. Those tents had been provided for the refugees, mostly from Syria, by the Parisian police and rescue society. Indeed the city of Paris is in crisis mode. Ironically, while radical Islamic terrorists seek to destroy the city—four cells associated with various mosques were broken up while I was there last week—the Parisians are nonetheless reaching out to those needy refugees, many of them of course Muslim, giving them shelter and, for now at least, some measure of hope, how ever small a measure that might be.paris-refugeesMy friend, though it took him all night, as I was saying at the outset of this blog, eventually came to view the wine-blood of the shirt differently than an object merely to be tossed away into an undersized garbage can. He regarded the wine as the blood of Christ spilled on his shirt.

“How is this so?” I queried of him as we boarded the train quite early this very morning, he going to Paris-Bercy, I getting off at another stop to catch a plane from Paris’ CDG airport.

“I washed the shirt out and, save a slight red stain on one of the sleeves and near the stomach, is almost dry, entirely clean and, if a bit wrinkled, nonetheless quite wearable. It was nearly a new shirt, you know.”

“No, I don’t know, or rather I didn’t know nor would I have known. How could I, as I was not with you at the dinner?” To which, no response. Of course not, I thought, he’s a philologist proper, he finds no need to waste words, even if (or especially because) he supposedly loves them. So, of course, I followed up. “How does the wine spilled on your shirt have anything, even remotely, to do with Christ?”

“It has everything to do with Him,” he responded.

Now, if you had the luxury of a college education, at this point you may be recalling that annoying professor, you know, the one who usually answered obliquely, a Socrates to your Euthyphro. I think that is why I like this friend of mine, because he does that very thing to me. So, of course, I followed up again, eventually worming out of him the notion that the act of spilling of the wine reminded him of the sacrifice of Christ, blood spilled redemptively, even propitiously for the whole world. And that reminded him of the love of Christ. And that he (strangely, to my mind) connected with the shirt, for he had seen refugees sleeping in tents on the streets of Paris—one such encampment on the Rue d’Hôpital, not far from Paris-Bercy. paris-refugees2His idea was, rather than having simply tossed the shirt in the trash (as he nearly did), to walk from Bercy station to the encampment and to give the shirt to one of those in need, then to walk to Denfert-Rochereau to catch the bus to Orly, whence he is flying later today—indeed will have flown, by the time you read this.

“That is a lot of walking,” I said. He indicated that recognized as much, but the blood spilled on the shirt reminded him to do that. “Couldn’t you just give money online?” I queried.

“Too sterile,” he responded in his not infrequently (indeed usually) unusual manner. His look seemed to be kind and understanding, yet at the same time he seemed to me clearly to be issuing a spiritual challenge. Soon he expanded on the theme unprovoked. “Too sterile, even unworthy of the blood, for Christ always got his hands dirty. That’s how we can know his modus operandi. That’s how we recognize the fingerprints of love.”

I alighted, as I said, before my friend so that I might catch a train to the Charles DeGaul, where, upon my arrival I found myself wandering in my thoughts about the spilled wine, the shirt, the striking metaphor of fingerprints of love—striking, yes, but nonetheless a bit incongruous for a shirt. “Can a shirt even bear fingerprints?” I wondered. “Maybe it bears my friend’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, except of course on the buttons.” I tried to give my mind and spirit a rest as I now physically wandered about the airport, passing a fancy men’s clothier with a bright white well-pressed shirt in the window, one sporting sharp-looking silver cufflinks.

“My thoughts are beginning to sound rather pedantic,” I mused. “I have been hanging out with my philological friend too much.” Still, I wondered about the shirt, the other one, the one with Christ’s blood upon it, its saga. Did it make it to a refugee? Did it bear my friend’s DNA? Christ’s fingerprints? What refugee would ever even figure that out? And then I thought of the ten lepers. Though only one figured it out, all ten were healed. “I hope that shirt, like a message in a bottle, made it to it where it was supposed to go,” I muttered, half thinking, half praying. I suppose I will only find out at the next literary congress in France, when I hope to see my philological friend again, or perhaps, if I get back to Paris first, I may see a poor refugee wearing a white shirt with a sleeve slightly stained by the wine of the cup of salvation.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: True North and the Moral Compass

Gorgias of Leontini

Moral relativism is not new. It has been around since Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) arrived in Athens in 427 BC, and really even before that. In his Protagoras, Plato interpreted the teacher of the same name’s dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” to be an advocacy of moral relativism, i.e., that any human being is capable of determining what truth is from a personal vantage point. In other words, from the mid-fifth century B.C. on, Protagoras’ view competing with the notion of a moral absolute was established, an early form of phenomenalism that suggests that a single individual deems true what is true for that person. It would quickly devolve into an essentially nihilistic view expressed by the Sicilian sophist Gorgias in his now lost (but preserved piecemeal in two other sources) treatise entitled On Non-Existence which suggests that nothing exists (i.e., being has no existence) or, if it were to exist, what it consists of would be impossible to know, explain or be understood.[1] (Coincidentally, these are the very opinions most of my agnostic friends advance about God).


The most important aspect of Gorgias’ argument—what he has successfully transmitted to the modern age—is that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, for each individual’s point of view is precisely that—individual. And that is where his argument dovetails with Protagoras, and it is on that confluence that I want to focus this blog, for I met a man in Italy who happened to be advancing essentially the same argument as that of Gorgias and Protagoras.

Now a disclaimer: normally these kinds of conversations happen to me on an aircraft but this time it was at a bar. Still, the argument, which I am paraphrasing here, was worthy of any aircraft: it was stated in very anti-platonic terms (but of course, as it is essentially a sophistic argument) that since there is no objective vantage point, all moral codes are constructs. No one can say whether any is better than another or, for that matter, which is good at all, since even the notion of good is a construct. Put metaphorically, there is no “north”; there is only an agreed upon direction that many folks say is north, but if even one person should say that north is not north, then there can’t be a true north. Or, even if there is a true north, it is not knowable, as each person interprets the direction “north” in his or her own way.

compassOn this view, the question of what north is ultimately becomes a preference—do I find north preferable or not? I may have my own ideas about north, but those are just my ideas, constructed for me, most likely, out of the worldview that I inherited. So, even if I say I prefer my interpretation of north I cannot discount another person’s interpretation of north, which might really be east, or south, or west, or some other direction. I cannot say to that person, “No, if you go west when you’re intending to go north it will be quite dangerous for you. I really want to dissuade you from taking the wrong direction.”

And the reason one should not do that, according to the view of the man at the bar, is because we ourselves actually can’t possibly “know,” however certain we may feel about it, where north really is; we only know what we prefer about what is called north and we may like (or simply be habituated to) our own “north” but we have to recognize that someone else’s west might serve just as well as a north as our own north does.

This sounds clever, and at first blush, even generous. Let’s start with the positive: it is generous and very “non-judgmental”—so much so, though, that even when it sees someone going the wrong way, it doesn’t intervene on the principle that true north is not a knowable concept. To press the north analogy just a bit, one might say, “AftWrong wayer all, true north is not precisely magnetic north, which itself differs from grid north. So, who is to say what ‘north’ really is anyway?” And thus it is that the person who has thoroughly adopted this mindset can’t intervene when someone is going the wrong way on the principle that he or she should not presume to know that his own way is the right way. He prefers his direction, but it is only a preference.

The only comfort I can find in this argument really is that it is an old one; as Solomon wrote (though obviously not in Latin), nihil novum sub sole, and he was right, there is nothing new under the sun. The relativistic argument has been recycled nowadays and fobbed off as new, sc. post-modern. But really it is very un-modern, a bit humdrum, and in any case very old. And it is also countered not only by the obvious—that we do exist and that there is a such a thing as life, liberty and happiness, honor, dignity and worth—but by the fact that north itself does exist, entirely independent of us, our point of view, or even whether or not our compass should be working properly. While what we call “north” may vary both in terms of precisely where it is (as magnetic north does move a bit) and by what it is called—the Chinese (Mandarin) word for north is Bei, Japanese is Kita (though the symbol [北] for both is virtually the same, since the Japanese calligraphic kanji is based on Chinese Hanji), Hebrew is tzafon, Hungarian is északi; yet despite all these differences, north is, in the end, indeed northward, however tautological that may sound. Since that is true, it is especially important to call attention to the direction in which north lies when we find a person heading west but thinking that he is going north, who we know is clearly sailing into dangerous waters.

Thus it is not ethnocentric cultural superiority to say to the cannibal that it is simply wrong to kill and eat one’s fellow human being. Nor is it a matter of going too far to say that if one sees a woman being beaten by a man, it is good, even necessary to intervene. It is not wrong to tackle a bad guy who is running from the police, not wrong to prevent a terrorist from being successful in his attack (if it should fall to one’s lot to be in a position to do so), not wrong to stop any act of sheer evil. It is not the case that we should say to ourselves, “But I can’t know what the precise motives of that person happen to be, nor can I say that this or that person’s version of right and wrong are the same as my own, so I can’t and shouldn’t intervene.” We are not hardwired to conform to the non-interventionist “prime directive” of the old Star Trek series—the consistent failure to do which, by the way, made Captain Kirk the admirable hero of the series; indeed, do we not innately wish to do precisely what Kirk does?

Mother Theresa
Mother Teresa

Thus, we are born with an internal compass that suggests to everyone from every culture a sense of right and wrong and those of us who can recognize true north, actually have a kind of moral obligation—for we ultimately believe in morality, that morality is something given to us by a higher power, by God himself—to direct lovingly, wherever possible, those who are so far off track, whose moral compass is so broken, that they are likely to render harm to themselves or others. Is that ethnocentric cultural superiority? Someone might try to make that argument, but the moral code I am referring to as “north” has been transmitted by the votes of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “Democracy of the Dead,”[2] handed down in many cases by wise teachers like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  All of those individuals had a pretty good idea of the direction in which north lies.  And what has been demonstrated for us by their example is instilled in us, ultimately, by God.

In closing, what can we learn from my friend at the bar? Well, first, we should recall that his ideas are not new: they are very old. They devolve from Protagoras and Gorgias. Second, we can learn that while being empathetic and seeking to understand as best as one can, the point of view of another is certainly a good thing—love your neighbor as yourself is an unqualified command—that does not mean that to do so we must deny our God-given internal compass. (And one should be very careful here, for if we deny it long enough, we may corrupt it or simply lose it, as so many of those who have joined the ranks of ISIS clearly have.) Rather, let us gage our journey by the North Star which means, from time to time, if we are following the internal compass aright, we may even have to direct others trying to find their way on the same path on which we are going. I am heading north; please feel free to join me.

[1] This treatise, by the way, enjoys the highly ironic title Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως, which, when translated, means “‘On Not Being’ or ‘On Nature’,” the latter of which the former clearly undermines.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), p. 85.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Lost Art of …

Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.

Sprowles letterThis week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High SchoolNHS High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.

Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly)  “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.

Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.


And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.


This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.

I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.

First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.

And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.

Augustine writing
Fresco of St. Augustine

Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.



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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angelification

David Crowder is a musician whom one of my dearest friends really doesn’t like but of whom I happen to have firsthand knowledge. Having met him in a grocery store, I came away with a thoroughly positive impression; he even told me to call him “Dave.” His music is remarkable. Dave sings songs that sometimes involve angels or are suggestive of the beating of angels’ wings. When he mentions “the rush of angels,” compositionally Crowder does something interesting in his musical arrangement: he introduces a change in tempo. For example, he might adjust a time signature, just for a measure, and then quickly return to the previous signature (e.g., in his song “Shine,” which is a particularly powerful and emotional song on a variety of levels). As I am fortunate to be able to perform Dave’s music fairly frequently, I’m especially sensitive to rhythmic changes; I can say, from the vantage point of a drummer’s stool, at least, it seems to me that it is owing to angels that David Crowder’s music can be more difficult to play than that of other musicians.

Though angels are, of course, known in the Old Testament, the English word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos. Both it and the Hebrew (malak) have approximately the same connotation, “messenger.” While many of us (i.e. Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general) may think of angels as oversized cupids (or worse, cupids to scale), the ancient descriptions of them do not bear this out. The mistaken, erotic image  seems rather to have been the product of a strange form of syncretism.

Clarence Another fictionalized portrayal of an angel, in this case one that I rather like within its storytelling (i.e. mythical) context, is that of Clarence in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bungling, charming, human, Clarence defies any angelic stereotype. He is not the bold image of St. Michael expelling the fallen parents of humankind from the garden.

Tile flooor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri
St. Michael Expels Adam and Eve, Handpainted Tile Floor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri

Nor is he Gabriel, charged with the impossible task (but pulling it off brilliantly) of having to announce to Mary her soon-to-be, quite-difficult-to-explain-to fiancé/parents/friends new situation.


Leonardo's annunciation
Leonardo di Vinci, Annunciation

However much one may adore the early work of Leonardo, one nevertheless might say or at least think, “Come on, nobody seriously believes in angels today.” Well, about that one might be both wrong and right at once. It is right in the sense that, if one says “nobody” in such a sentence, one does not intend to be taken literally.  Rather, the speaker’s purpose with such a statement to be perceived as fan of folk wisdom, a purveyor of practical advice, an unsolicited but hopefully helpful social commentator. Yet this overarching truism is obviously wrong, as David Crowder has such high regard for angels that not infrequently he even changes time signatures for them.

But this blog is not meant to engage in a debate about the existence of these heavenly beings. Rather, it is meant to analyze them, ever so briefly, so as to suggest that they can help explain, on the one hand, the strange behavior of some of your friends who might bring to you strange-sounding “religious” information and, on the other, to suggest that we can all, religious and non-religious alike, take a page out of the angelic playbook. Let me start with the latter of these two ideas.

One role of angels that I have alluded to in a previous blog seems to be protective; hence the idea of a “guardian” angel. For this reason the notion of a fallen angel seems particularly evil: the guardian has turned into the predator—how perfectly Satanic. One thinks of the abuse of power in the hands of any person given charge over a dependent. Few would disagree that such abuse of a guardian’s role is evil, even if fewer yet would admit that it is Satanic. Yet it is, as I said above, not merely Satanic, it is perfectly so, precisely because it is the abuse of one’s authority. Would that our elected officials or any overpaid overlord bear that in mind.

Battista Hagar
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hagar Assisted by an Angel
St. Peter and Angel
Bartelomé Esteban Murillo, Liberation of St. Peter

The concept of a “guardian” angel no doubt derives from the notion that angels appear in the Old and New Testaments fairly frequently in this role. I need not burden this piece with examples, as one or two will do. An angel appears to Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah and helps her in her time of need.[1] Peter’s escape from prison is another example.[2] In both cases angels show up unexpectedly and deliver someone from distress. And in our lives, there may be times—hopefully there will be—when we can show up to help someone in distress. One need not be a true believer to conclude that one should help a person in distress. The degree to which one engages in such help may correlate to the depth of one’s faith (or may even provide a path to faith), for such a merciful act is fundamentally God-like. Yet it is also fundamentally human. But I posit that as a challenge to believers, not as a rebuke of those who reject the faith. Suffice it to say that anyone can “angelify” in this sense of helping another human being in need.

I now turn to the second aspect of angelification which must begin with a kind of apologia. I use the Greek term here, borrowed of course from Socrates’ famous defense speech in which he explains the sum of his life’s work successfully to generation upon generation of readers but unsuccessfully to the jury at the time. Thus I use that term to explain how the Greek term differs from its English cognate (the English word “apology” obviously derives from the ancient Greek). The ancient kind of apology is not meant to express regret or remorse but rather merely to offer an explanation, an “after word,” which is what apologia means in Greek. And that explanation is simply this: those Christian folk—for I offer this apologia only for that group—who are eager to bring others with them to church or a group meeting or the like, are acting as messengers in the truest sense, for what they try to explain to their fellow human beings is a message.

A touch more explanation here may be required, as it is not just any message that that person is trying to share: it is the good message (Greek, euangelion), sometimes translated as “good news.” My apologia, then, is not for that news, which, since it is good, needs no apology. Rather, it is for us messengers who, not being angels and thus imperfect creatures, might sometimes come across poorly, misspeak, or even jumble up the message—not explaining that good message in every instance as well as it deserves, for it is a message of hope and forgiveness, a good message indeed in a world full of grief and sorrow.

In trying to bless in either of these ways, whether by offering a helping hand or acting as a messenger, one is playing the part of an angel. One thus “angelifies”; one metaphorically becomes an angel, like Clarence trying “to win his wings,” which, if not the best theology,[3] is nevertheless the narratival catalyst for that old, quite wonderful movie. And in the process, one is blessed—one does get one’s wings, so to speak, though not the kind that Clarence seeks. Rather, by blessing, one becomes blessed, by understanding others and meeting them where they are, perhaps one can, oneself, be better understood.

Thus, figuratively speaking, one can angelify and be blessed by so doing, helping another, speaking the blessing of good news to a desperate world. If one does, one must be careful of the rush of angels’ wings roundabout, for those wings will be beating close by, as a being from outside our own time bumps up against our mortality. That will effect a change of time signature, a new beat, and it can affect the way we think about life and even how we might live our lives, now and forever. There are indeed, at least in that sense, angels among us. And I myself have heard of others, too—a chapter in the Curious Autobiography (pp. 225ff.)perhaps, in the distant future, of yet another blog on angels.

 [1] Genesis 16.

[2] Acts 12.

[3] Milton says it quite pithily: “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts” (“On His Blindness”).