Thursday, January 15, 2015

Faith in the Night Sky: Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star"

Winter nights are best for stargazing. The dark comes on early, and the air--if bitter--is beautifully clear. Often, if I happen to be outside for a moment on a cloudless winter evening, I stop to greet a few old friends--the sweeping Big Dipper, the jagged Cassiopeia, the faint but distinctive Pleiades, and marching over all, the majestic Orion. They're not much compared to the grandeur of the Milky Way, but considering that I live in a Chicago suburb, I just take what I can get.

On that note I'd like to pull out a Robert Frost poem concerning stars. "Choose Something Like a Star" is one of the final pieces in Frost's Complete Poems 1949. It's one of his more metaphorically profound poems (and Frost is really, really good at being metaphorically profound), and, I think, a particularly pointed reminder to us as Christians and American citizens. Read away.

Choose Something Like a Star
By Robert Frost
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Let me say it outright. I think the entire poem is one long metaphorical reflection on faith in God. However, the metaphor is gorgeously layered. Take a look at the first three lines from this angle:
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
To me this comes across quite clearly as an appeal to a Divine Being. I.e., "Dear God, you are so infinitely greater than our human minds, that we admit we can't understand you fully. So go ahead--be a little mysterious." Of course, "we" don't stop there. We'd like a word or two of guidance:
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'

The cryptic poignancy of that response echoes the scene of Moses and the burning bush. Indeed, since it is a star that is speaking, "I burn" seems a similar statement of essence to the Lord's "I AM"--in poetic terms, of course. But "I burn" also carries the meaning, "I desire." Desire what? It's no wonder we're a little confused:
...And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
Here, on the surface, Frost contrasts the poet's understanding of the star with the scientist's. The scientist wants something to measure; Frost makes it clear this star's meaning is immeasurable. The line of thought is the same if the star represents God. God's existence cannot be explained (or unexplained) by time- and matter-bound measurements. Not that He is irrational--rather, He is rational and more. The next lines give us a hint of this.
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height...
A certain height--the height, hope, and dignity of faith. A height that lets us think and act above the bewildering vicissitudes of changing times and social mores:
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
(The pun in the final line is brilliant, by the way.) This is the bit I thought particularly relevant to us as Americans. Although we may technically live in a republic, when it comes to general culture we are definitely a democracy--as in, mob rule. The pressure to be politically correct, "to carry praise or blame too far," can be almost overwhelming. That's why "we may choose something like a star".
But even that isn't quite the right way to put it, considering what we've seen from the rest of the poem. Remember? "It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height". The title of Frost's poem may be "Choose Something Like a Star", but that is a line of ultimate understatement and irony. In reality, the Star chooses us.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Ordered Inner Life: Socrates' Portrait of the Just Man

When you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself; it is as though you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble friend; there is another bond on you thenceforward, binding you to life and to the love of virtue.
~Robert Louis Stevenson, "Books Which Have Influenced Me"
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the beautiful sentence above in reference to the relationship he felt with his favorite authors. It happens to be a great description of how I feel about Stevenson. But there's another literary character I've come to know recently, who fits the bill perfectly as well--Socrates.
Although Socrates did not technically write any of his famous dialogues--his student Plato did--it is still Socrates' personality which dominates the text. Anyone who has even skimmed works like the Republic or the Apology will be familiar with his persona: witty and yet methodical, clear-minded, inquisitive, humble, and never budging an inch from his principles. The most vivid impression I have received of Socrates is one of immense integrity. Here is a lover of truth and virtue the world has seldom seen.
Over the past few months I have been meandering my way through the Republic. Although it's not exactly what you'd call light reading, I have found it surprisingly refreshing. The clarity of Socrates' speech and logic seems a mental cleansing which sets my thoughts in order. Besides that, Socrates' own enthusiasm for the topics at hand is infectious. He livens the long abstract discussions with amusing metaphors like the following, from the fourth book of the Republic. The context: Socrates and his disciple Glaucon have been trying to pin down the essence of justice. On the way they've gotten a bit sidetracked, creating an ideal State. But now Socrates wants to return to the original issue:

The time then has arrived, Glaucon, when, like huntsmen, we should surround the cover, and look sharp that justice does not steal away, and pass out of sight and escape us; for beyond a doubt she is somewhere in this country: watch therefore and strive to catch a sight of her, and if you see her first, let me know.

I can picture him speaking, with a twinkle in his eye, like a jovial professor. It's little things like that which distinguish Great Books from textbooks--a Great Book conveys a person.

The longer passage I'd like to share with you today is a bit more serious, but an equally vivid painting of Socrates' personality. A little later on in Book IV, after a long and winding discussion on the nature of justice, education, and the State, Socrates finally lays out his portrait of the ideal just man:

But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,--he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has...become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act...always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.

I'm afraid I cannot convey the whole genius of this little summary without diving into an explanation of Socrates' definition of justice and his division of the soul into the rational and the passionate. But that second phrase which I highlighted above simply arrested me the moment I read it. In the light of Socrates' piercing insight, I recognized that many of my own anxieties, frustrations, and failings are a result of a disorganized inner life. More often than not my desires are self- and pleasure-centered, when they should be love- and truth-centered. I found the call to set my inner life "in order" an inspiring one. And unlike Socrates' ideal man, I don't have to be "my own master" and "my own law". Considering my imperfections, that's probably a good thing. Instead, as a Christian, I discover both in the Person of Christ.

I hope I have succeeded in conveying at least a little of Socrates' unique personality through these quotes. Reading his dialogues has truly been what Stevenson described: a blessed obligation, binding me to life and the love of virtue.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Year (And A New Blog)

Dear fellow-explorers of literature,

The past several months have been happily successful for "The Pen and the Sword". I've explored Catholic tradition, liberal education, and literary greats from Robert Louis Stevenson to Robert Frost.  I have very much enjoyed this opportunity to share my thoughts on all these topics. On the statistical side, I'm delighted to report that this past December broke my previous record for monthly pageviews--nearly 850! Thank you, readers, for all you've done to support this new and fumbling blogger.

However, I do have one small request. Although I'm happy to see my stats moving up, I find little satisfaction as a writer not knowing who my readers actually are! Numbers don't read blog posts. People do. But when people do not leave comments on said blog posts, how am I to be the wiser?

(Now, admittedly, I am hardly an exemplary blog commenter myself. However, I here make a New Year's resolution, with the World Wide Web as witness, to comment on more blogs this year.)

My request is simple: if you have enjoyed any of my posts this past year, please comment and let me know. What topic interested you most? What would you like to see more of (or less of)? I did not start this blog merely to "add my voice" to the blogosphere. I want to connect with people of like mind, and to share my love of literature in dynamic discussion. So please--leave a brief comment on this post and let me know.

I've one last favor to ask before letting you go. When you've finished reading (and commenting on) this post, please visit this page: "Der Holzburg" ("The Forest Castle" in German) is my older brother David's brand new blog. He and I share interests in culture, literature, and theology, but David also has a penchant for history, political philosophy, economics, and current events. In other words, if you've enjoyed "The Pen and the Sword", chances are you'll love exploring "Der Holzburg" as well. Here's a sneak peek at his latest post--a comparison of the recent Disney movies Tangled and Frozen in the light of traditional fairy-tale symbolism:

Urban legend has it that the protagonists of "Tangled" appear briefly in the movie "Frozen" among the guests at Elsa's coronation, and some try to use this as evidence of deeper connections between the two stories. It's fun to try and find the little hints that point to a broader picture of Disney's reworked fairy-tale world. In fact "Tangled" and "Frozen" are closely related. They are sister movies with almost identical themes, and they both aim to put a thoroughly modern spin on an old story. The difference? "Tangled" failed to overcome the power of moral symbolism, and what was meant to be an iconoclastic revolution against the princely hero and damsel in distress, accidentally became a traditional, original fairy-tale. On the other hand, "Frozen" beat moral symbolism and achieved a victory which Disney has been pursuing for decades: the creation of a modern fairy-tale.

Intrigued? Read on...

Thank you again for a wonderful 2014. May God bless your endeavors this year, and let us all remember to comment on each other's blogs. Amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nollaig Chridheil! ~ Two Gaelic Christmas Carols

Nollaig Chridheil dhuibh, a h-uile duine. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Today I'm afraid you, my readers, will have to endure another outburst of my Scottish geekiness. Fortunately, this one is appropriate to the season, and it involves more listening than reading. So turn up your speakers and prepare yourself for a wash of musical Christmas beauty.

Last Christmas I taught myself one Gaelic carol. That was all I had time for, what with the host of other preparations I had to make for the feast day. But this year I was eager to discover more: traditional Gaelic music holds a special place in my heart and I was sure there were some gorgeous Christmas songs out there just waiting for me. I was not disappointed. In my search I quickly uncovered the album Duan Nollaig: A Gaelic Christmas, by Fiona Mackenzie.
The album is lovely as a whole, including, along with the traditional Scottish carols, translations of some English favorites, like "In The Bleak Midwinter" and "Silent Night". Two of the native Gaelic songs in particular caught my attention: "Oran na Nollaig" (The Christmas Song) and "Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear" (There Were Shepherds in an Eastern Country). Below I post the videos and English translations of each song.
As soon as I read the lyrics to this song I knew I had to learn it. The words tell the story of a different kind of "Night Before Christmas"--this time, the midnight visitor is not a jolly St. Nicholas, but the voice of the Holy Spirit Himself. I invite you to read along as you play the video.
Oran na Nollaig (The Christmas Song)
The night before Christmas sleep fled far from me,
I lay on my elbow with a whisper in my ear
Saying, "Arise, get dressed and we'll go for a wander--
To a town far away across the ocean.
"There'll be a star in the sky," said the voice in my ear:
"Follow it and you'll get your reward:
You will glimpse the child they call the Lamb
Lying in a manger--his cheek like a star.
The Lamb of Reconciliation in the manger. Give him hospitality and welcome.
The Savior of the world, the beautiful child of joy,
What the prophets reported in the Bible
You will see tomorrow night--come sail with me."
"Who are you," I asked, "Whose voice do I hear?
Who leads me to the sleeping child?
Why did you invite a poor, wretched sinner?
Come and tell me the reason--don't leave me so quickly."
"Farewell," said the whisper, "I'm the Author of the book;
May the song of Christmas be daily on your lips
May the child's mercy follow your steps--
As long as you're on earth give honor to Him."
If you've read this far, it means you've survived the beauty of Fiona Mackenzie's voice and the heart-wrenching violin interludes. I congratulate you! But you ain't seen nothing yet...
When I first heard the opening harp chords of "Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear", a chill pricked my spine and felt my heart pulled into a kind of swoon. This I had to learn! To my surprise, when I looked up the lyrics, they were merely a straightforward account of the angels' appearance to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. The story itself was utterly familiar, but the Gaelic poetry and swoon-inducing melody infused it with a new beauty, gentleness, and wonder. The song sounds like stars. I'm sorry, that's the only way I can describe it.

Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear (There Were Shepherds In An Eastern Country)
There were shepherds in an eastern country,
Watching their flocks by night,
When there came an angel from heaven,
And the slope lit up with light.
The men were terrified but he said to them,
"Fear not, for I bring good tidings of great joy
To you and all generations."
"The Savior of the world,
The Christ, the Holy Lord,
Tonight has come to Bethlehem,
A helpless, gentle child;
And you shall find him securely wrapped
In a warm manger in the hay,
The precious, heavenly babe
Promised to us since the beginning of time.
Thus said the angel to them,
And suddenly the heavens were full
Of angels singing sweetly
And this was what they sang:
Glory to God in the heavens,
Everlasting peace of earth!
Glory to God in the heavens,
Everlasting peace of earth!"

I have no doubt these two carols will become part of my favorite Christmas repertoire. There is something breathtaking about viewing Christ's birth through the eyes of another culture's language. I have enjoyed it immensely, and I hope I've helped open your ears to another world of Christmas music. Beannachd leibh, agus Nollaig Chridheil! (Blessings and a Merry Christmas to you all!)


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Four Advent Candles...Plus Two More

If a Roman Catholic walked into our dining room at dinnertime during the last week before Christmas, he might be a bit perplexed. Yes, there would be the familiar Advent wreath with its four candles...but there'd also be two additional candles lit, making a mysterious total of six. What's with the extra candles?! he might wonder.

My father was a practicing Roman Catholic for the first 40 years of his life. Then, when I was about 4, he discovered the Byzantine Catholic Church. Feeling God's call, our whole family switched to the Eastern rite. But with so many beloved Advent practices left over from our Western heritage, our preparation for Christmas became a unique amalgamation of traditions.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the Eastern Church's Philip's Fast starts two weeks before the West's Advent. Thus our family keeps the Advent wreath, but adds two candles for the two extra weeks. At meals we sing Byzantine hymns during the beginning of the fast, but during the final week carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". We set up our Western-style nativity scene and tree, and then on Christmas Eve sit down to a traditional Slavic meal of sauerkraut and mushroom soup.

Personally, I love the hodgepodge. We breathe with both lungs of the Church and share the best of two worlds. Today--since I'm guessing most of my readers are more familiar with the Western side of things--I'd like to share a bit of Byzantine hymnography for this final week before Christmas.

Like Advent, the Eastern Philip's Fast is a time of preparation. Through our hymns, we remind ourselves of the miracle about to take place. Just read this text, from the prefestive troparion of the Nativity:

Bethlehem, make ready,
Eden has been opened for all.
Ephrathah, prepare yourself,
For the Tree of Life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb has become a spiritual paradise
In which divinity was planted.
If we partake of it,
We shall live and not die like Adam.
Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.
In a single hymn, we cover the redemption of the old Adam, the prophecies about Bethlehem and Ephrathah, the Incarnation, and even a hint of the Resurrection at the very end. The prefestive troparion clearly places Christmas in the wondrous context of all salvation history.
This is also the theme of the Emmanuel Moleben, a short prayer service that can be said during Philip's Fast. Near the end of the service, the priest recites a long "kneeling prayer" (so called because it's one of the few occasions during the year when Byzantines actually kneel!). It too recounts the crucial place Christmas holds in the true epic of our salvation (emphasis added):
O God and Father, the Almighty One, you created the human race in your image and likeness, and when we fell through disobedience, you promised to send a Savior. When the fullness of time had come, your favor rested on your only-begotten Son, and he was born of the Virgin Mary. Thus, what Isaiah the prophet foretold was fulfilled: "Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Emmanuel, which means 'God with us.'" His birth filled all creation with light; he gave us the baptism of repentance, and restored our ancient dignity. Now most compassionate Lord, you bring us to these honored days of the Christmas Fast that we may do battle with the desires of the flesh and draw strength from the hope of resurrection. Receive us, then, as penitents and forgive our wrongdoing, those done knowingly and unknowingly, through malice and through weakness. And may our prayers our fasting, and our works of mercy rise up before you as incense, as sweet spiritual fragrance, that in the company with the Magi and the shepherds we too, with pure hearts, may be found worthy to bow down before the Nativity of Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To him, together with you and your all-holy Spirit, belong glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and forever. Amen.
Christmas is both an arrival and a turning-point, a culmination and a beginning. The long-promised Savior is now visible to the world, but His mission is only just begun. As for us, Eastern and Western Catholics alike, the Christmas Fast is not quite over. Keep battling, soldiers! The King is almost here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Literature, A Mode of Knowledge: "The Lost Country"

This week I'd like to share with you a small but fine literary journal I have discovered--The Lost Country. It's a bi-annual publication of fiction, poetry, criticism, and reviews produced by The Exiles--a group of men and women in Forth Worth, TX, who in the tradition of the Inklings have founded a club for the creation and appreciation of great literature. The magazine is only in its third year, but they already have some fine work to showcase. This fall's issue includes an essay on William Wordsworth, a fairy tale with a generous dose of cracked humor, a plethora of insightful poems (including--I admit it--one of my own), and much more. I encourage you to take a look at it online for free.

While exploring The Exiles' website a bit more deeply, I happened across their philosophical vision statement, "Literature as a Mode of Knowledge". By the first two sentences, I was hooked:

The members of The Exiles share the conviction that literature is one of the modes of knowledge through which truth becomes accessible to man. The contemplation of a literary work of art, far from being a momentary diversion, an escape from reality, is, rather, a vision of that deeper reality which we mean by the term Truth.

As a young woman who feels a vocation to write, this idea is extremely exciting to me. Of course, I have read such speculation on the purpose of literature before, but every time I encounter it, it reminds me all over again of the real, joyful, intimidating nature of my art. I'll explain what I mean in a moment.

Often in the daily (well, almost-daily) grind of working on my novel--agonizing over adjectives, bridging plot holes, chiseling out characters--I can forget what all the labor is actually for. That's why I enjoy stepping back and realizing the true end of my craft, which The Exiles express quite beautifully:

...[L]iterature presents an eschatological view of human life and experience, a view as though from the end of time when the meaning of everything that has happened is seen, a view in the light of eternity which is beyond our ordinary mode of perception. By seeing human actions in relation to their end, the literary work of art reveals that all the events, the agonies and the conflicts, of human life have meaning.

Now you see what I mean by intimidating? What a calling! The writer not only has a responsibility to hone his or her craft. The craft is inextricably bound to the pursuit of transcendent truth in the human condition. Keeping the physical ear tuned to the sound of the right words is just as important as keeping the spiritual ear alert for that inner harmony, that music of meaning. Writing requires perceptiveness on multiple levels.

This concept is as fascinating as it is frustrating. Lately an odd sense of the mystery of reality, in relation to the writer's craft, has been pressing on my mind. Every detail of real life seems overwhelmingly important. How does one really describe the glimmer of wet grapes, or the whistling hush of bird wings, or the satisfying pain of a hard run in the cold? Or, on the spiritual level, how does one truly pin down that elusive, irrepressible impulse bound in our beings, Love? Each experience has its own unique reality, which we only encounter directly when undergoing the experience. Words are comparatively vague. Writing seems to me a bit like trying to hand-mold a fine clay sculpture while wearing very bulky mittens. Words, those little meanings enfleshed in sound and shape by language, are all we have to trace the inimitable outline of God's reality.

This is the "mode of knowledge" that is literature. Like any art that tries to reconcile the real and the ideal, it's tremendously difficult to do well. In fact, given that no human can be all-knowing, it may be impossible to perfect. Nevertheless we try. The people behind magazines like The Lost Country try. On the whole, the results are quite beautiful. So I applaud their efforts, and quietly return to my own work, re-inspired.

Quotes in this post are copied with permission from the article "Literature as a Mode of Knowledge",

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Staggerford", by Jon Hassler

The following is a book review written for

Losing. That was the melancholy strain running through dozens of papers every year. Parents lost in death and divorce, fingers lost in corn pickers, innocence lost behind barns and in back seats, brothers and uncles lost in Vietnam, friends lost in drug-induced hallucinations, and football games lost to Owl Brook and Berrington.

Thus middle-aged bachelor Miles Pruitt's impression of his hometown of Staggerford, Minnesota. Set in the 1970s, Staggerford--like most small rural towns--has its share of saints and sinners. Miles, a high school English teacher and fallen-away Catholic, is an observer. Quiet and unobtrusive, he seems content to let life trundle along in its ordinary way. But he has had his share of losses as well--most significantly, the loss of both of the women he loved and might have married, to other men. Yet while Miles shares in the vague malaise of regret infecting the town, he does not seem to have the will or direction to pursue a deeper purpose.

The novel Staggerford is a chronicle of one week of Miles's life, taking place between October 30 and November 7. Thanks to a host of colorful supporting characters and side-stories, the main plot can be difficult to trace. In that way the book marvelously resembles a detailed snapshot of small-town life, rather than a traditional novel. However, the main story can be said to center around Miles, his landlady Agatha McGee, and one of his English students, Beverly Bingham.

Agatha and Beverly are the only two characters to whom Miles means, in the words of the landlady, "a deep, abiding lot." However, they could hardly be more different. Agatha, an elderly spinster and a staunch Catholic, has taught in the town's Catholic school for over forty years. Coming from an orderly, uncompromising moral worldview, she too feels loss as she witnesses the upheaval in both the Church and the secular world. But she gets along with the steady, uncomplaining Miles (though they do have their differences--he teases her about her pre-Vatican II missal while she prays every day for his lost faith). Agatha is the very picture of discipline, loyalty to tradition, and common sense.

Beverly, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. Although one of the brightest students in Miles's English class, she carries the burden of a terrible home life, a deranged mother, and a devastating family secret. Terrified for her future, she comes to Miles more and more often for advice and support. She is attracted to his steadiness precisely because her own life is so off-kilter. Miles, meanwhile, begins to wonder if he, a middle-aged bachelor and a teacher for over a decade, is actually falling in love with this 18-year-old girl. This new relationship sets off old memories of his previous failed romances.

While Miles struggles with past and present loves and Beverly endures her broken family, Agatha grapples to understand the purpose of evil in the world. In a central passage of the novel, she attempts to draw an analogy between the moral order and a bed of ferns in her garden:

"So what I was thinking, Miles, was that maybe there is a similar process going on in human affairs. If you let sunshine stand for the goodness of the world and you let rain stand for evil, do goodness and evil mingle like sun and rain to produce something? To bring something to maturity, like those ferns? Does God permit sin because it's an ingredient in something he's concocting and we human beings aren't aware of what it is? Is there sprouting up somewhere a beautiful fern, as it were, composed of goodness and sin?"

Although this analogy does not put Agatha's mind entirely to rest, it does reveal her deep trust in Providence. Throughout the rest of the book, goodness and evil mingle, eventually climaxing in a great good--a healing relationship between the motherly Agatha and the desperate Beverly. However, it will take a tragedy to accomplish it.

These hints at Providence, along with Agatha's moral compass, provide a quietly Catholic backdrop to a very real story. With gentle soberness and humor, Jon Hassler also brings to life a medley of supporting characters--a female librarian obsessed with facts, an ambitious but nervous principle, a superintendent with a phobia of death, and many more. Each brings a mingling of good and evil to the landscape of Staggerford.

Overall, Staggerford is a comfortable, easy read, with a memorable cast of characters and a poignant ending. Hassler does not preach Catholicism with this story. Instead, he uses it to gently illuminate his characters' actions, in a quiet attempt to make order of our small, sometimes messy, ordinary lives.