The Wise Woman by George MacDonald

George MacDonald, inspiration to the Inklings like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien,

“Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyenas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire.” (81)

In this passage, the confidence of the little girl to run through wolves, inspired by her trust in the wise woman’s words is just inspiring. To us, if we will trust in God’s words, we too can have that confidence. The hard part is the trust.

“A long way from the palace, in a heart of a deep wood of pine-trees, lived a wise woman. In some countries she would have been called a witch; but that would have been a mistake, for she never did anything wicked, and had more power than any witch could have. As her fame spread through all the country, the king heard of her; and thinking she might perhaps be able to suggest something, she for her” (7).

I love this last quote because it is a Christianity unafraid of mythology or unintentional overlap with pagan culture. Sometimes in Christian circles, it seems we run from anything that might remotely hint of other beliefs–which is really too bad, because a lot ideas are compatible with the universal (catholic) if we view it that way. I love that MacDonald’s allegory of the moral life, some have said that focuses on Our Lady, Mary, centers on a “wise woman” figure who some would have called a “witch.” It shows us a faith that focuses on true wisdom, on true faith, that sees good aspects of things instead of everything that could go wrong.

Who are your favorite writers?

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Abandoned Places

[A Note to readers: I seem to lack consistent subject matter lately, but oh well. Here are some recent interests of mine.]

Driving around in Delaware and Maryland, I noticed the variety of old, abandoned and falling part structures–it seems to be cheaper to build new than to tear down and/or restore.

And this

And some winter ones

Thor, growth mindset & hope

In school, I’ve been teaching the students about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset: the idea that we actually get smarter and train our brains to do so by facing challenges believing that we will be able to meet them, that we will be able to learn from them and eventually to gain the skills required to succeed and excel.

It helps in math.

Then it started connected with a bunch of other things in my brain:

  1. Thor Ragnarok. He’s a bit meat-headed at times, but Thor literally runs straight at whatever problem he faces, even after the goddess oimagesf death crushes his mighty hammer.  As hard as it is, we grow when, like Thor, we run at problems–believing that we will be able to overcome, even if we aren’t sure exactly how.

Now, this is very difficult advice to take myself, but still. Running away from problems–like Loki–breeds only fear and a smaller world.

2. Growth mindset also reminded me of the Christian virtue of hope. Rather than succumb to defeatism or despair–which I can prone to–we hope in the future. Pope Benedict XVI said, “To have Christian hope is to know about evil and yet to go to go to meet the future with confidence.”

That’s it. Those are my connected dots of the day: Growth mindset, Thor, hope. Funny how truth from different sources overlaps. Truth is truth.

Love of God allows love of self? Jacques Philippe “Called to Life”

51Tzb5jEmFL._SX344_BO1,204,203,200_Philippe links loss of belief in God to loss of appropriate self-love as a source of our modern misery.

He says: “I’m convinced that people several centuries ago didn’t find it as hard to love themselves as we do now. Those people of earlier times knew perfectly well that they creatures of God–sinners, certainly, but worthy of love and redemption; capable of great mistakes, but eligible for salvation.

“The rejection of God over the last three centuries was accompanied by the illusion that guilt would be eliminated in this way and human beings would finally be free and happy. But those who thought like that forgot something: without God, mankind must carry on its own the weight of distress, misery and failure of all kinds. If there is no God, there is no pardon or mercy. Whoever makes a botch of his life has no way of being forgiven. Not even an army of therapists can teach us to absolve ourselves. Self-esteem must be based on the certitude that, whatever happens, I am loved and can love. And only God can guarantee book.”

This passage follows Philippe’s brief but insightful exposition on the mutually-reinforcing relationship between love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. So far, this book has struck me in that it seems to understand and illuminate my life experiences and struggles.

I don’t see the passage above as discounting the value of therapy, but rather teaching that our suffering and conscience cannot be explained away by modern conveniences. No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, and without God, there is little on which to base our personal worth or the meaningfulness of life in general.

This is something I long agreed with in other phrasings–I see both faith in God and nihilism as logically tenable, but with nihilism–there is no reason to value or enjoy much of anything.

 

Author Ridley Pearson Visited St. Thomas More

ridley20pearson20photo20and20book2007132016Better late than never.

Two Fridays ago, we had an author visit St. Thomas More: Mr. Ridley Pearson, NY Times bestselling author, with his new series about Sherlock Holmes growing up and the development of James Moriarty into an evil genius: The Lock and Key series.

Pearson gave a presentation to the older students and signed books; he encouraged them to use their powers of observation like Sherlock Holmes and practice writing with an eye to drafting, rewriting and editing, editing, editing.

A neat connection to me was that Pearson is friends with Stephen King and Dave Barry; the cohort has played in a charity rock band together and represent to me a generation of American writers. Despite me not loving King’s horror work, I admire him very much as a writer and as a person, particularly in his work discipline and as a family man.

During the talk, Mr. Pearson shared about his time in a private school–the one he based the novel’s Baskerville Academy on, and that it was far more strict than Catholic schools and included wearing a tie six days a week–even on Saturdays.

Meeting an author on the job is a pretty big perk, I’d say 😉

Next–I’ll have to finish the book.

 

 

Happy (belated) Feast Day of St. Francis!

I haven’t been posting much. It’s been a busy summer, and I started teaching 5th Grade at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington. Prepping for each day has been a lot of adjust to. But I do get to teach Religion, so I thought posting shorter posts may be better than not posting at all.

I celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi October 4 with the students and had the chance to tell them about his inspiring example of giving up his inheritance and living contentedly as a beggar. And we aloud St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun.

Front Cover

I have a lovely, illustrated copy from my mother in law that I brought in to read them, and the students were truly captivated by it.

The Canticle of the Sun celebrates all creation and God’s wonder that Francis sees in prosaic parts of nature that we pass by every day. To St. Francis, a blade of grass was not just something to step on and pass, it was a work of a art, a piece of eternity that made a little telescope out for us to view God’s glory.

I especially love Francis’s sense of kinship with nature as being a fellow creature of God.

Here is the full text, unadapted, of the poem:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canticle_of_the_Sun

Francis finds peace and glory even in death. Nothing was mundane for him; the smallest fragment of life held infinite transcendence. Francis is at home in nature and among others as few of us ever really are, and his poem holds it up for us to glimpse what we long to experience, but rarely do.

Happy (belated) Feast Day of St. Francis! Do you have a favorite saint? 

Two Freelances: Wonder Woman and Pro-Life Feminism at CUA

Pop Culture and Theology: Wonder Woman: Facing the Darkness and Embracing her Gifts

“Nevertheless, our calling is precisely to join that inner fight. The Catechism continues, even taking up the analogy of battle: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (409). To see the evil outside in the world and the urges to it inside our own hearts, and to seek to counter that, as Diana’s friends do when they elect to continue their mission despite lack of payment and high likelihood of death, is the central focus on our life on this planet. They master their own selfishness, their inner temptations, and in so doing challenge evil in the great war itself.”

Wonder Woman: Facing the Darkness, Embracing Her Gifts

Truth and Charity Forum – How Abortion Divides the Feminist Movement

“Best, was both sides recognizing the structural factors lead to the demand for abortion and agree that those are problems. The demands of caring for young children can prevent hard-up women from from supporting themselves. As pro-life Catholics, glossing over these realities makes us lose our credibility.

Meanwhile, hearing the abortion supporters articulate the philosophical worthlessness of the person: whether born, developing, dying or suffering was the most tragic part. This mentality that easily permits physician-assisted suicide, abortion in general and abortion of the disabled, poses a rapidly-eroding threat to the value of life which must undergird a healthy society, one that values all its members.”

More here – http://truthandcharityforum.org/how-abortion-divides-the-feminist-movement/

Learning Latin is like learning English

A latin student of mine asked what it would take to get ready to be ready for AP Latin? And it made me reflect on what it really takes to learn a language and how we learn even our native tongue. I thought I would share my answer and my ponderings.

I think that language is more transformative than we tend to realize. (NB I’m not that great at it, but I’m a little further than my students). Language is part of the building blocks of our mind, how we think, how we live. Words make abstract feelings and experiences communicable. George Orwell was onto something when he wrote 1984 and imagined the government limiting language in order to limit thought.

I told my student that to be ready for AP Latin, you need the latin equivalvent of what it takes to be ready for AP English. Advanced English is more than noun/verb agreement. Reading novels introduces the advanced middle-schooler, for instance, to stylistic language, an expanded vocabulary, building scenes, implications, repeated metaphors and meanings that carry between sentences. To make this linguistic level jump, a student must have the basics of language down, as children do. Children converse with their parents about concrete objects; they listen to songs and watch television in it. The Latin student should likewise have a child’s level of fluency before beginning advanced and abstract and stylistic texts.  Learning Latin is hard because the culture that goes along with it just isn’t around anymore. So we have to make it up through anachronisms such as the video above of a latin professor singing Adele’s Hello.

To get to fluency, the language must become our own, internalized. It isn’t enough to memorize charts of verb conjugations; to learn a language we have to care; it has to be part of us; it has to start to form the shape of our thought. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare on the page and being confused, and watching it played out well–seeing the words in action, embodied by actors who express their reality and about whose fate we are actually concerned.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a relationship to learn a language, a person that we care about enough to make the jump of total communication in that language. I think this is true. I recommended memorizing text, reading in basic Latin and listening to songs in Latin. Middle schoolers listen to songs in English–it’s one of the cultural, subconscious ways they experience language as tied to art and emotion.

That’s it. The question was interesting to me because it made me reflect on the effort it takes to learn and what it takes for us to rise the levels of linguistic experience in our native tongue and how that corresponds with learning another language.

For me and Latin, even though I’m not that good at it, a large part of why I care is because I am Catholic. I wanted to learn Latin to read theology, to access the history of the Church, to pray in Latin. I have Latin prayers memorized, and I sometimes try to read the Bible in Latin–which was recommended to me by a professor. It’s smart because as Christians, the Gospel stories are so familiar to us, that it’s almost impossible not to understand them even in another language if we can pick out just a few words. Then our brains can  make the jump to piecing together all the meaning connections between the words. It’s a funny sort of experience. I like it, and I’m still not the best language student, but I do want to keep working at it.

Have you learned a foreign language? How long did it take? What strategies helped? If you could learn any language, what would it be and why?

Video & Song: I heard the Voice of Jesus Say

Music and the Spiritual Life

I have found that music has a profound ability to remind me of truths and lift me out of a dark mood. Also, as I reflect on it, I realize that the Christian musical canon had a more formative impact on my development than I realized.

In school, I did chorus, and we learned plenty of medieval and Celtic music. Sometimes the lyrics were Christians, sometimes not.

In church, I began to recognize the melodies of many hymns because they were the same traditional ballads carried over from the old countries and brought to new life and reshaped by new communities with new lyrics.

It’s both a cultural phenomenon and purely beautiful. I credit my exposure to medieval music and chant as one of the primary reasons I never dismissed the Catholic Church as just archaic and weird. The beauty that rose from the tradition in music and art was already part of my own foundation.

One of my favorite songs I first learned as a celtic ballad and then relearned it as a hymn: “I heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” It’s one I sing to my kids at night

A formal choir version is in the video above. What do you think? Do you have favorite hymns, spiritual songs or others that just put you in the right place?

Paul Simon, The Voice of American Wandering, In Concert

Paul Simon played at Merriweather Post Pavilion last Friday with a full band, and I had the pleasure of seeing him and his opener Sarah MacLachlan, a singer I’ve seen twice, with my sister. Simon is a master and his presence fills the stage.

In his 70s, that legend of the 60s was swaying on stage, nodding and stretching out his arms, bobbing his wrist to simultaneously conduct the band. He led with his fingers and his chest like a much younger man.

The instruments: Mandolins, accordions, xylophones, trumpets and the staples: drums, a piano, and guitars. Some sea shells added sound too and a chime that looked like it was made out of spoons, although it surely wasn’t.

The crowd was mostly white, old and young. We sat and stood, bounced and bobbed, cheered and called.

He played my favorites: America, The Boxer, Graceland, Homeward Bound, Call me Al, many I did’t know and finally, alone on stage, The Sound of Silence–the classic that drew me into Simon and Garfunkle in my freshmen year of college.

There is no word for Paul Simon but master: he moves and commands attention with that easy grace of someone fully self-possessed, with the comfort that lacks self-consciousness and hesitance. His twirling wrist signaled the band and his hips moved with his guitar, whether it was acoustic or electric.

He carries that hard-won air of someone who has passed through the stages of craft and relationship:  1) being enamored with music, sound and fame–then 2) the ever-looming disillusionment at the pitfalls of an industry, fickle audiences and imperfect others, and then finally 3) to fully embrace the American musical scene as an institution and his role within it. To be a master, he didn’t abandon music or the audience, but took up his instruments and his listeners–the imperfections and all, and loved American folk music and its people, thereby lifting it–and us–to a higher level.

That’s what a true master does–he doesn’t abandon the imperfect world to seek a purified craft, but embraces the whole endeavor and so raises the water-level of the culture.

Paul Simon’s America

Simon’s music has wandered decades; he’s been and is the voice, the poet of America. His chords are the anthems of American folk music and the playlist of my dishwashing. The lyrics frequently touch on the peculiarities of the life of the poor. The Boxer for instance, tells the story of a young man gone out to seek his fortune;

“Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know.”

Simon’s heritage, the New York Jew, the Yankees fan, the hippie all bring together strains of America that unite our disparate factions and allow us to remember and cherish the collective past, something our nation often seems to struggle with.

Somehow, we believe that we are a class-free society, that one person can strive and rise, bootstrap-style to upper echelons. We are cantankerous; hard work is its own reward; we welcome the stranger, but aren’t afraid to put up our fists when we have to.

Wandering

Yet we are also highly individualistic and have a sub-culture of roaming–whether for itself or transplanting for work. There is a roaming spirit in Simon’s music that I think speaks for America, for that impulse to strike out alone, to wander, to be pilgrims, in a way, never quite at home.

The wandering spirit pops up in other areas of culture; I think of Jack Kerouac, On the Road and The Dharma Bums. More recently, writer Mary Karr surfed as an idealistic young woman before heading to college after a terrifying encounter hitchhiking. The drive to get up and go, to seek, seems part of our cultural ethos, or maybe it’s just a strain that interests me.

There is nevertheless always a tension or a balance between wandering and stability. The ability to tramp around depends on the stability of most of society–otherwise whose trains would they jump onto? Whose fields would feed them? But the wandering impulse is also a check to a way of a life which has forgotten to wonder.

When I think of the wandering pilgrimage type of life I course cannot help but think of St. Francis and the medieval European pilgrims trailing about from place to place, Canterbury or St. Juan Compostela. We are pre-programmed to search, and that makes sense to  me. Though I live in my home-metropolis, I still search.

But back to Paul Simon: what he captures to me is that wandering spirit, of seeking, of longing, and in the American voice, the poor pilgrim always searching out home. To see him was an honor, a legend who set the water-mark.

Questions: Do I have it right? What do you think of Paul Simon? Is there someone else who also or instead epitomizes American music? Who is your favorite music artist? what does that person’s work mean to you?