Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Wild and Sacred Way

 
To all of my fellow P.E.A.K. participants, and the incredible students and staff of Wyoming Catholic College: Thank you, thank you, thank you, for two of the most beautiful and challenging weeks of my life.
 
Wyoming Way
by Mary Jessica Woods
 
God's river roars in the crease of the land,
Gray rock, aspen-glitter on either hand;
O, shale-streaked cliffs and mountains pine-high,
String up my soul to the top of the sky
And there let me dangle, my spirit ensnared,
My boots on the ground and my heart in the air.
Or else, when the nightfall turns sage-green to black,
And I ease to the earth and lie stretched on my back,
Let that meteor-streak, a mere pulse-length in flight,
Be infused in my veins as eternal light:
A sharp breath of beauty for all of my days,
And a flame of the wild and sacred ways.
 
 
 
 




Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wyoming, here I come!

 
A P.S. to my last post: on Saturday I am taking off to Wyoming Catholic College for their two-week summer program. And the week after that I am attending my very first writing conference in Chicago with the Catholic Writers Guild! Whoo! However, all that excitement likely means no more blog posts for the rest of the month. But never fear--I will have loads to write about when I get back. :)
 
In the meantime, you may feast your eyes on Wyoming Catholic's very amazing crest above.
 
God bless and see you in August,
Mary


Gaelic Gems: Carmichael's "Carmina Gadelica"

Mansueto and Regenstein Libraries at the U of C


One of the distinct advantages of having a mom who works at the University of Chicago is access to one of the largest libraries in the country--no joke. The University carries over 9 million books (probably more by now; that statistic is from 2010). That may seem like just a number, but when you walk through the miles of musty, cool, dim-lit shelves filled with the knowledge of millennia on virtually every topic known to man...it is an awesome experience.

I have had this experience twice in the past year. I remember last time I was there, standing in front of their (very large) Stevenson collection with my mouth almost watering. One tiny, badly worn volume of The New Arabian Nights caught my eye; I drew it out, and was physically shaken when I realized it was an original edition published in 1882! Those are the kinds of treasures just sitting on shelves at a library like the U of C.

Besides loads of books in English, the University library also carries a large foreign language collection. Tucked away behind the aisles of French, Spanish, and German volumes, are two-and-a-quarter shelves of Scottish Gaelic. Most are old, a few newly-published, but all written in the obscure little language that has stolen my heart.

The last time I visited I borrowed a book called Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael. Just before the turn of the century, Carmichael toured the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, orally collecting poetry, hymns, and incantations among the old Gaelic-speaking population. By this time in Scotland's history most of that population was already gone, thanks to the massive clearances and emigration of the 19th century. So Carmichael's book, by his own admission, represents a way of life and traditions virtually extinct.

Don't get me wrong; Gaelic speakers still do exist (thank goodness!). But I would guess that the oral literature captured in Carmichael's collection is all but gone from today's native speakers. Nevertheless my own discovery of these archaic prayers and hymns has proved a rich and beautiful one.

For example, in Carmina Gadelica are a dozen or so different night prayers. Simple, rhythmic, and quite lovely in meaning, I have started using a few during my own private prayertime. But sharing them with others has proved a dilemma: none of my Gaelic correspondents are church-going, and none of my church-going friends study Gaelic! However, I'll try to remedy that in this post with a little video. Below is a recording of me reading one of my favorite night prayers, "An Achanaidh Anama", with Gaelic and English text. I hope you will find this simple piece as much of a blessing as I have. Beannachd leibh!



Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pillars of the Church: The Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul

 
 
Occasionally on this blog I must share some of the "literature" of the Eastern Catholic tradition. The ancient texts that we sing for great feast days are poetic, scripture-steeped reflections on the theology of the feast, often written by saints. The services of Vespers and Matins are particularly chock-full of them. Beautiful imagery sung to ancient melodies in two- or three-part harmony, for the better part of an hour...a true immersion in the joy and solemnity of the day.
 
Peter and Paul is one of the bigger saints' feasts in the Byzantine Church, if the number of hymns for the services are anything to go by. As I sit here writing I am having a terrible time choosing just one to share. The Church has so much to say about these greatest of apostles! But if I must...here is a hymn from the Litija (pronounced lit-YAH), a portion near the end of Vespers celebrated on particularly important feasts:
 
The wisdom of God and the Word who is co-eternal with the Father
Has truly foretold in the Gospel, O all-praise-worthy Apostles,
That you are the two most fruitful vines;
For you bore in your branches the ripe and fruitful cluster
From which we believers are now nourished
And whose taste brings us both sweetness and delight.
Therefore, O Peter, rock of faith, and Paul, pride of the universe,
Strengthen the flock that became yours through your teachings.
 
I love the metaphor of Word of God being nourishing like wine. And now I can't help myself; here's another hymn from Vespers focusing in particular on St. Paul:
 
O glorious apostle Paul,
Who can describe your bondage and sorrow in the cities,
Your tribulations and hardships,
Your vigils and sufferings?
You have suffered hunger, thirst, and cold,
Nakedness and scourging with rods,
The crossing of wilderness, shipwreck and stonings.
You have both angelic and human character,
Bearing all with the help of Christ who strengthened you,
So that you might gain the world for Christ, your Lord.
We, who celebrate your memory in faith,
Beseech you to intercede for the salvation of our souls.
 
I have long been specially attracted by St. Paul; who wouldn't be, really? His is a story comparable to the most thrilling adventure novels, complete with close escapes, shipwrecks, and encounters with kings (although Paul usually shows up much better than the royalty). And such a protagonist, too! His zeal, wisdom, humor and faith shine out in every line of his letters. Who can forget his hearty boasting of his weaknesses? Or his awestruck words on beings "snatched up to the third heaven"? Or his unforgettable plea to the Corinthians, "I beg you, therefore, be imitators of me!"
 
I would if I could. As it is I've adopted him as my patron saint when it comes to my writing, though I admit I could be a lot more consistent in prayer. I tend to only ask for intercession when sitting down to a scene I've been dreading (and procrastinating) for days. But Paul's come through for me most of the time nonetheless!
 
The feast of Sts. Peter and Paul is one of the Church's major summer celebrations, and a special one to me as a writer. They have given such richness and wisdom to our Faith. Let us all try, as best we can, to be imitators of both of them--holy in life and insightful in word.
 
Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us!
 


Monday, June 23, 2014

Storm Season with Stevenson and Twain


Last week summer storm season came rumbling and rolling into Chicago. Almost every day was damp and gray and on Saturday we had two storms--a short one in the afternoon and a fury of a downpour in the evening. It all reminded me of two of the most vivid storm descriptions in literature that I've ever read--one a passage from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and the other a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I'll share them in a moment, but first I'd like to note that Twain and Stevenson have more in common than thunderstorms. They were contemporaries. They admired each other's work, corresponded, and even met during one of Stevenson's trips to America. Apparently RLS, on first getting Huckleberry Finn, read it twice through; and Twain's family "bathed in" Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

 
The two authors met in New York in September of 1887, where they sat on a park bench and chatted away the hours. Later Twain recalled part of their conversation:
 
Robert Louis Stevenson and I, sitting in Union Square and Washington Square a great many years ago, tried to find a name for, the submerged fame, that fame that permeates the great crowd of people you never see and never mingle with; people with whom you have no speech, but who read your books and become admirers of your work and have an affection for you. You may never find it out in the world, but there it is, and it is the faithfulness of the friendship, of the homage of those men, never criticizing, that began when they were children. They have nothing but compliments they never see the criticisms, they never hear any disparagement of you, and you will remain in the home of their hearts' affection forever and ever. And Louis Stevenson and I decided that of all fame, that was the best, the very best. (from twainquotes.com)
 
A beautiful little reflection from two deservedly famous writers.
 
Now for the first of my summer storms for you:
 
Pretty soon in darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten.... Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely, and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest--fst! It was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of treetops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down-stairs--where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know. (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 9)
 
This has got to be the most lyrical and true-to-life description of a storm in prose that I've ever read. No doubt it was a passage Stevenson loved when he was reading (and re-reading) the book!
 
Stevenson's own contribution to "storm literature" is in poem form, and the setting is transferred from the ole Mississippi to the South Pacific island of Samoa (where RLS spent his last years). But the images created are no less vivid. Read it out loud--his genius use of alliteration summons the very sounds and pictures of a storm.
 
Tropic Rain
(From Songs of Travel)
 
As the single pang of the blow, when the metal is mingled well,
Rings and lives and resounds in all the bounds of the bell:
So the thunder above spoke with a single tongue,
So in the heart of the mountain the sound of it rumbled and clung.
 
Sudden the thunder was drowned--quenched was the levin light...
And the angel spirit of rain laughed out loud in the night.
Loud as the maddened river raves in the cloven glen,
Angel of rain! You laughed and leaped on the roofs of men;
And the sleepers sprang in their beds, and joyed and feared as you fell.
You struck and my cabin quailed; the roof of it roared like a bell,
You spoke, and at once the mountain shouted and shook with brooks.
You ceased, and the day returned, rosy, with virgin looks.
And methought that beauty and terror are only one, not two;
And the world has room for love, and death, and thunder, and dew;
And all the sinews of hell slumber in summer air;
And the face of God is a rock, but the face of the rock is fair.
Beneficent streams of tears flow at the finger of pain;
And out of the cloud that smites, beneficent rivers of rain.
 
His line there on "beauty and terror are only one, not two"...strikes me as very Chestertonian. But we'll leave that literary comparison for another day!
 




Thursday, June 19, 2014

Goodness, Beauty, Truth: Wyoming Catholic College

Since I have run out of inspiration to make a real post this week, I thought I'd share instead a beautiful video from my dream school, Wyoming Catholic College. If you don't know about this college yet, you need to learn more. Although not even a decade old, this school out in the middle of the Rocky Mountain wilderness has a unique mission moved by the fire of the Holy Spirit. It's a deeply Catholic Great Books curriculum combined with an incredible outdoors program. In short, it's not just a college. It's an adventure waiting to happen.

I have my sights set on this school for my college education. Next month I'm flying out there to participate in their P.E.A.K. (Profound Experience of Adventure and Knowledge) Summer Program. Two entire weeks of discussing the Great Books, hiking, horseback riding, and sharing the Faith with my like-minded peers. I can think of no better way to start my gap year.

Watch the video and see why I love this place already.




Saturday, June 7, 2014

Death, The Awakening: Leo Tolstoy and John Rutter


Spoiler Alert! This post discusses one of the climactic scenes of War and Peace. If you'd like to experience that scene on your own, read no further! (But go find your copy of War and Peace--you've got some work to do.)

As my last year of high school closes (hurrah!), I thought I should cap it off by reflecting on the best Great Books experience I had this semester. Interestingly it includes not just a book but also a piece of music.

I am happy to say that before the age of 17 I have already put the accomplishment of reading War and Peace under by belt. It was a long tramp of a story, not always thrilling, but at its high points very moving, and ultimately well worth it. Here I would just like to give a little reflection on my favorite chapter--Chapter 14, Book 12, to be exact.

Prince Andrew Bolkonski is dying. By this point in the story, we have followed him down a long river of life, including several rapids and not a few waterfalls--his dissatisfied marriage, his ambition in the army, his capture on the field of Austerlitz. His return home on the same night his wife dies in childbirth. His regret and despondency. His newfound love for Natasha, their courtship and engagement. His shock at discovering his betrothed's near-elopement with the shallow charmer Anatole. His return to the army, his fear of death, and his fatal wounding at Borodino.

Now back in Natasha's care, he has forgiven her and loves her more than ever. But he cannot survive. He senses this and is terrified. But then he receives a mysteriously insightful dream. In his dream he sees a door, feels a horrifying presence behind it:

Something not human--death--was breaking in through that door, and had to be kept out. He seized the door, making a final effort to hold it back--to lock it was no longer possible--but his efforts were weak and clumsy and the door, pushed from behind by that terror, opened and closed again.

Once again it pushed from outside. His last superhuman efforts were vain and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was death, and Prince Andrew died.

But at the instant he died, Prince Andrew remembered that he was asleep, and at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.

"Yes, it was death! I died--and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!"

This is the insight that brings him profound peace, deeper than any he has experienced so far. And it will be his last:

From that day an awakening from life came to Prince Andrew together with his awakening from sleep. And compared to the duration of life it did not seem to him slower than an awakening from sleep compared to the duration of a dream.

This I found astonishing. Everything that we have gone through with Andrew--ambition and regret, love and hate, sorrow and joy--all this the mere length and vagueness of a dream compared to the Life beyond life? This is a thought to mull over, to hold in one's hands.

When Prince Andrew died I didn't cry. I almost did. I felt an emptiness like I had never felt before at the death of a fictional character. But I had been in this character's mind and soul, been privy to his blackest fears and most brilliant joys. And now he was gone, simply, quietly gone. And I could only ask the same question as his sister, Princess Mary, and Natasha: "Where has he gone? Where is he now?..."

At the same time that I was soaking in this mystery, my high school chorale was rehearsing the first movement of John Rutter's Requiem. And I suddenly realized that the piece drew, in musical terms, almost exactly the same picture as Prince Andrew's death scene. Beginning with bleak and dissonant chords, it moves into mounting moans of despair, only to be abruptly pierced with light and the sweet, serene, gorgeous main melody. It was the same theme--death is an awakening!--translated into sound. For the rest of the year that was my personal connection to the music--Prince Andrew Bolkonski awakening from life to death.

Finally, I invite you to share this experience by clicking on the six minutes of profound beauty below: