"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Charles, King and Martyr

In the Church of England calendar, January 30 is the feast day of Charles, King and Martyr.  Having touched off, and then lost, the English Civil War, Charles I was the only king in English history to be executed, and there is considerable debate about his commemoration.  Was he a martyr to the faith, or to his own inflated sense of self?  The Covenant blog and Catholicity and Covenant have some worthy reflections on this topic. Not surprisingly, a king who was executed for insisting upon his divine right to absolute rule is not exactly popular on this side of the pond; there is no official commemoration of Charles I in the American church.

It would be easy to gloss over the complex history of the period, or to unfairly and inaccurately judge Charles through a modern lens that would have been wholly foreign to him.  Whatever else may be said, it seems that Charles was sincere in his beliefs regarding his rights and responsibilities as king.  And although I think it is understandable, even appropriate, to debate the merits of celebrating his feast day, I believe it is a fitting commemoration.  Charles had faults, to be sure (what saint doesn't?), but I think it is difficult to dispute that he did die a martyr to the faith, even if it was a view of the faith that many today may disagree with in theory or practice.  At the very least, he is a witness to another era, which we in the Church would do well to remember both for good and ill, when kings and queens as well as common men and women were indeed willing to die for their faith; for theirs was not a self-exploring, intellectual religion to be debated in coffee shops and online forums with cool detachment, but a revealed, self-evident way of seeing the world, about which there could be no doubt.  The following excerpts are from a letter given by Charles, before his execution, to the Bishop of London, for his son the Prince of Wales.


...With God, I would have you begin and end, who is King of Kings, the sovereign disposer of the kingdoms of the world, who pulleth down one and setteth up another.  
     The best government and highest sovereignty you can attain to is to be subject to him, that the scepter of his word and spirit may rule in your heart.
     The true glory of princes consists in advancing God's glory, in the maintenance of true religion and the Church's good; also in the dispensation of civil power, with justice and honour to the public peace ...
     Above all, I would have you, as I hope you are already, well grounded and settled in your religion, the best profession of which I have ever esteemed that of the Church of England, in which you have been educated; yet I would have your own judgment and reason now sealed to that sacred bond which education hath written, that it may be judiciously your own religion, and not other men's custom or tradition which you profess ...
     I pray God bless you and establish your kingdoms in righteousness, your soul in true religion, and your honour in the love of God and people.
     And if God will have disloyalty perfected by my destruction, let my memory, with my name, live in you; as of your father, that loves you, and once a king of three flourishing kingdoms; whom God thought fit to honour, not only with the scepter and government of them, but also with the suffering many indignities and an untimely death for them; while I studied to preserve the rights of the Church, the power of the laws, the honour of my crown, the privileges of parliaments, the liberties of my people and my own conscience, which I thank God, is dearer to me than a thousand kingdoms.
     I know that God can – I hope he will – restore me to my rights. I cannot despair, either of his mercy, or my people’s love and pity.
     At worst, I trust I shall but go before you to a better kingdom, which God hath prepared for me, and me for it, through my Saviour Jesus Christ, to whose mercy I commend you, and all mine.
     Farewell, till we meet, if not on earth, yet in heaven.

Monday, January 28, 2013

An excerpt from Tobias Wolff's "Old School"

A poem requires a design -- a sense of orderliness.  Part of our pleasure in the poem is that it is a well-made thing -- it gives pleasure through the authority and sweetness of the language used in the way that it is used. 
~Mary Oliver

One of my resolutions for this new year is to read and memorize more poetry.  I also want to read more fiction.  Last weekend, I picked up the novel Old School, by Tobias Wolff (I was sitting in the rocking chair with my nine-month-old son, who had just fallen asleep; I didn't want to wake him, and among the books on the shelf that was near at hand, I decided on this one).  As it turned out, it was an excellent choice.

The story is told by a high school senior and would-be writer at a prestigious Northeastern prep school in the 1960s.  Every semester, the school arranges to have a famous author come and speak as a guest of honor.  In the course of the book, we witness visits from Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, and a planned visit from Ernest Hemingway that never comes to pass.  I found it an engrossing read, not least because of the constant references to enduring authors and their works, which made the book a quasi-educational experience for me.  Also, I simply loved the setting.  I freely admit it: as a public school teacher, I'm jealous.

Perhaps my favorite passage from the novel is in the chapter in which Robert Frost visits.  After his talk before the students and faculty, he takes some time for questions.  The resulting exchange between Frost and a young faculty member by the name of Mr. Ramsey pretty well expresses, I think, my own views about art, particularly poetry, and the endurance of ancient truths amidst the onslaught of our modern age.  With warm regards for Mr. Wolff, for providing a work I thoroughly enjoyed, I have transcribed that passage at length here (the use of quotation marks to designate speakers was not employed by the author, though interestingly this seems to present no difficulty in following what is being said).

     Your work, sir, Mr. Ramsey said, follows a certain tradition.  Not the tradition of Whitman, that most American of poets, but a more constrained, shall we say, more formal tradition, as in that last poem you read, "Stopping in Woods."  I wonder --
     "'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'" Frost said.  He put both hands on the pulpit and peered at Mr. Ramsey.
     Yes, sir.  Now that particular poem is not unusual in your work for being written in stanza form, with iambic lines connected by rhyme.
     Good for you, Frost said.  They must be teaching you boys something here.
     There was a great eruption of laughter, more caustic than jolly.  Mr. Ramsey waited it out while Frost looked slyly around the chapel, the lord of misrule.  He was not displeased by the havoc his mistake had caused, you could see that, and you had to wonder if it was a mistake at all.  Finally he said, You had a question?
     Yes, sir.  The question is whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness.  That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?
     Modern consciousness, Frost said.  What's that?
     Ah! Good question, sir.  Well -- very roughly speaking, I would describe it as the mind's response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  Surely these things have had an effect on us.  Surely they have changed our thinking.
     Surely nothing.  Frost stared down at Mr. Ramsey.
     If this had been the Last Judgment, Mr. Ramsey and his modern consciousness would've been in for a hot time of it.  He couldn't have looked more alone, standing there.
     Don't tell me about science, Frost said.  I'm something of a scientist myself.  Bet you didn't know that.  Botany.  You boys know what tropism is, it's what makes a plant grow toward the light.  Everything aspires to the light.  You don't have to chase down a fly to get rid of it -- you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out he goes.  Works every time.  We all have that instinct, that aspiration.  Science can't -- what was your word? dim? -- science can't dim that.  All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.
     Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kept going.
     So don't tell me about science, and don't tell me about war.  I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War.  So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters.  There've always been wars, and they've always been as foul as we could make them.  It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history -- but then everyone has thought that from the beginning.  It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness.  But about my friend.  I wrote a poem for him.  I still write poems for him.  Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you, with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning?  Would that give a true account of the loss?
     Frost had been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke.  Now he broke off and let his eyes roam over the room.
     I am thinking of Achilles grief, he said.  That famous, terrible, grief.  Let me tell you boys something.  Such grief can only be told in form.  Maybe it only really exists in form.  Form is everything.  Without it, you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry -- sincere, maybe, for what that's worth, but with no depth or carry.  No echo.  You may have a grievance, but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.  Does that answer your question?
     I'm not sure -- but thank you for having a go at it.
     You wouldn't have guessed, seeing Mr. Ramsey settle back with a smile, that he'd just been stepped on by Robert Frost in front of the whole school.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reflection over a Christmas sermon

From a sermon by Mark Frank:
... But though he was content to be wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and those none of the handsomest, neither, may we not look for a cradle at least to lay him in?  No matter what we may look for, we are like to find no better than a manger for that purpose, and a lock of hay for his bed, and for his pillow, and for his mantle too.  A poor condition, and an humble one indeed, for him whose chariot is the clouds, whose palace is in heaven, whose throne is with the Most High.  What place can we hereafter think too mean for any of us?  Stand thou here, sit thou there, under my foot-stool -- places of exceeding honor compared to this.  What, not a room among men, not among the meanest, in some smoky cottage, or ragged cell; but among beasts?  Whither hath thy humility driven thee, O Saviour of mankind? ...
Thy poverty, O sweet Jesu, shall be my patrimony, thy weakness my strength, thy rags my riches, thy manger my kingdom; all the dainties of the world, but chaff to me in comparison of thee; and all the room in the world, no room to that, wheresoever it is, that thou vouchsafest to be.  Heaven it is wheresoever thou stayest or abidest; and I will change all the house and wealth I have for thy rags and manger.
I was struck by these words when I read them during my prayer time the other day.  I find the closing sentences particularly well crafted, eloquently expressing such a noble and loving devotion to our Lord.  Though, I suppose it would be easy enough to dismiss them as so much sentimentality, that is not how I read them (and I certainly don't doubt Frank's sincerity).  Rather, they have given me pause to consider my own devotion, such as it is.  Can I honestly say that I consider all the riches of this life as "but chaff in comparison" to Christ?

I think of myself as a fairly simple person.  I'm not ambitious.  The idea of being wealthy has never held much attraction for me (good thing, since I don't think I ever will be -- at least not by American standards, which, I grant, are obscene).  I tend to eschew extravagance.  I'm pretty easily satisfied.  Like Tolkien, I'm really a hobbit at heart.  Give me a pint of ale, some good food, and a stack of books by the fire, and I'll not ask for more.  Simple.  And yet, if I'm to be honest, I must admit that I'm pretty attached to my own little luxuries.  I may have relatively modest ideas about what constitutes "the good life", but it's a life I thoroughly enjoy.  Can I honestly say to my Lord, "I will change all the house and wealth I have for thy rags and manger"?

With Saint Brendan I ask, "Shall I abandon, O King of Mysteries, the soft comforts of home?"
And with him I pray, "Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown.  Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with you."