Commonplace Book: November 2007 Archives

Compare and Contrast


A couple of days ago, I gave an excerpt from The Unvanquished which serves well to set against this excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!.

from Abasalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

it was a summer of wistaria. The twilight was full of it and the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies flew and drifted in soft random--the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr Compson's letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin's sitting-room at Harvard. It was a day of listening too--the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which he already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833 (and, on Sundays, heard even one of the original three bells in the same steeple where descendants of the same pigeons strutted and crooned or wheeled in short courses resembling soft fluid paint-smears on the soft sumer sky); a Sunday morning in June with the bells ringing peaceful and peremptory and a little cacophonous--the denominations in concord though not in tune--and the ladies and children, and house negroes to carry the parasols and flywhisks, and even a few men (the ladies moving in hoops among the miniature broadcloth of little boys and the pantalettes of little girls, in the skirts of the time when ladies did not walk but floated) when the other men sitting with their feet on the railing of the Holston House gallery looked up, and there the stranger was. He was already halfway across the square when they saw him, on a big hard-ridden roan horse, man and beast looking as though they had been created out of thin air and set down in the bright summer sabbath sunshine in the middle of a tired foxtrot--face and horse that none of them had ever seen before, name that none of them had ever heard, and origin and purpose which some of them were never to learn. So that in the next four weeks (Jefferson was a village then: the Holston House, the courthouse, six stores, a blacksmith and livery stable, a saloon frequented by drovers and peddlers, three churches and perhaps thirty residences) the stranger's name went back and forth among the places of business and of idleness and among the residences in steady strophe and antistrophe: Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen

One long paragraph, and still only half the length of the normal "period" of motion in the book. What is wonderful is the mechanism whereby we are moved from the here and now present of the novel (1909) into the world of 1833 and the beginning of the saga of Thomas Sutpen in the village of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. We move from the present smell of wistaria into the future (five months later) and then smoothly into the past in one long singing, rolling phrase.

The sentences are not difficult, but they are like Latin--before the real sense of each becomes clear, the entire sentence must be taken in and disassembled and the constituent parts placed in proper relation to one another. It is, undeniably, work. And yet it is a work that has such a fine pay-off--one comes to know the mind of the narrator and one enters the time and the world of Faulkner's fiction in a way that rarely happens in light fiction treating of similar subjects. There is substance here that goes beyond the status of "literature" or "classic" and enters the world of simply satisfying--solid, grounded and grounding, substantial--the author has authority (ever wondered about the similarity of the two words) and the world is authentic. To read Faulkner is to enter a world that is accessible in no other way (the same is true of every author worth his or her salt), but there is a pleasure in reading Faulkner that comes from acquaintance with a master. Too bad our early experiences cause us to shy away, often thinking that the work is beyond us or ill-conceived, or otherwise not available to us. In their enthusiasm and desire to introduce us into these new realms some of our early literature teachers do inestimable harm. But stop blaming them and avail yourself of the wonders of great prose despite those bitter early memories. You'll be glad you did.

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Faulkner's Humor


It's out of context, and it may be hard to situate, but Ringo is Bayard Sartoris's best friend, brother, slave. Ringo has been sitting and drawing a picture of the Sartoris House before the Yankees burned it to the ground. Looked at in the present of the text, the house consists of four chimneys and a yardful of weeds growing out of the ruins. As this excerpt begins, a Yankee officer is speaking to Ringo; Granny has been using a variety of names to steal donkeys back from the Yankees, sell them and split the proceeds with the needy of the town.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

"All right," he said. "Who lives up there now? What's her name today, hey?"

Ringo was watching him now, though I dont think he suspect yet who he was. "Dont nobody," he said. "The roof leaks." One of the men made a kind of sound; maybe it was laughing. The lieutenant started to whirl around the then he started not to; then he sat there glaring down at Ringo with his mouth beginning to open. "Oh," Ringo said. "You mean way back yonder in the quarters. I though you was still worrying about them chimneys."

This time the soldier did laugh, and this time the lieutenant did whirl around, cursing at the should; I would have known him now even if I hadn't before; he cursed at them all now, sitting there with his face swelling up.

It's played so straight that it is funny, and it is a detail that could easily have been left out of the narrative--but what a robust richness it lends to the tale--what a sense of versimilitude. I have always loved Faulkner, even while I struggle sometimes to understand where he's going. His wordplay and his ability to get into his characters and convey something real and yet something nearly surreal are astonishing.

Oh, and for those who have asked--no, I don't read these things because I'm supposed to, or trying to show off, or anything of the sort. At my age, to paraphrase the great Dr. Johnson, "No one but a blockhead reads for anything other than the desire to do so."

I've spent too much time reading things that simply don't have the substance to warrant having read them. And yet there is much joy in reading both the bad and the great. And the great is even greater when set beside the mediocre or poor. Some say that Faulkner can't write, and my usual reaction is polite silence as I think, "Some people can't read." Faulkner or Dan Brown, let me think a moment. . .

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Motion Toward Freedom


A beautiful and moving passage from Faulkner in which he describes the movement of the emancipated slave population of Yoknapatawpha County toward the river, the crossing of which symbolizes for them freedom.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

We began to see the dust almost at once and I even believed that I could already smell them though the distance between us did not appreciably decrease, since they were travelling almost as fast as we were. We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind; they covered and hid from sight the road exactly as an infiltration of flood water would have, hiding the road from sight and then the very wheels of the wagon in which we rode, our two horses as well as Bobolink breasting slowly on, enclosed by a mass of heads and shoulders--men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.

But mostly they did not look at us. We might not have even been there. We did not even ask them to let us through because we could look at their faces and know they couldn't have heard us. They were not singing yet, they were just hurrying, while our horses pushed slow through them, among the blank eyes not looking at anything out of faces caked with dust and sweat, breasting slowly and terrifically through them as if we were driving in midstream up a creek full of floating logs and the dust and the smell of them everywhere and Granny in Mrs Compson's hat sitting bolt upright under the parasol which Ringo held and looking sicker and sicker, and it already afternoon though we didn't know it anymore than we knew how many miles we had come. Then all of a sudden we reached the river where the cavalry was holding them back from the bridge. It was just a sound at first, like the wind, like it might be in the dust itself. We didn't even know what it was until we saw Drusilla holding Bobolink reined back, her face turned toward us wan and small above the dust and her mouth open and crying thinly: "Look out, Aunt Rosa! Oh, look out!"

And what happens next falls into the realm of tragedy or bathos as the Yankees, for inscrutable purposes of their own, destroy the bridge but fail to stem the tide of yearning. And then, a moment of redemption with a compassionate Yankee officer coming to the aid of Granny--an officer who allowed her to protect her two charges in a previous episode, even while he denied their existence.

This book is Faulkner, pure Faulkner, and yet immediately more accessible and comprehensible than say The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. And it is enjoyable--a visit to the roots that gave rise to the blossom of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.

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Memento Mori

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Another powerful and beautiful reflection from Fr. Beck's book:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

Is it true that death gives meaning to life or, at least, informs life? Saint John Climacus writes, "Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. . . The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it b the hour is surely a saint." The knowledge of our mortality is therefore an incitement to live more fully. When we realize that we have a limited time to revel in the gift of human life, we are infused with an urgency that an endless life might not offer. There is only so much time to climb that beautiful mountain, or swim in that pristine ocean, or appreciate the sound to that bird calling to its mate. More significantly, our time with those whom we love is limited. Why waste the time with the nonessentials: family feuds that last for years, long-held grudges, opportunities at loving never taken?

The absolute certainty of death is something most of us look at (if at all) with a sidelong glance--perhaps detecting it most of the time in our peripheral vision. It would be better for all that if be faced squarely and clearly.

We know this--we don't face it. However, it is expressed beautifully in this song:

"Live Like You Were Dying"
Tim McGraw

He said I was in my early forties, with a lot of life before me
And one moment came that stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays
Talking bout' the options and talking bout' sweet times.
I asked him when it sank in, that this might really be the real end
How's it hit 'cha when you get that kind of news?
Man what did ya do?
He said

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

He said I was finally the husband, that most the time I wasn't
And I became a friend, a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden goin' fishin, wasn't such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
Well I finally read the good book, and I took a good long hard look
At what I'd do if I could do it all again
And then

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Shu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

Like tomorrow was the end
And ya got eternity to think about what to do with it
What should you do with it
What can I do with it
What would I do with it

I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And man I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I watched an eagle as it was flyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

To live like you were dyin'

Another way of asking the same thing is, "Why wait for judgment to try to do what you know you ought? Then is too late." Our time is now. It can be intolerably brief, or it can seem like an eternity of waiting. Either way, if we live it knowing that it will end, perhaps it will serve to make us a little more patient, a little more tender, a little more willing to risk vulnerability, a little more inclined to take risks to help others. Think of how those we love could blossom, those with whom we work could grow into new possibility. What if I took my position as a manager seriously and used that position to truly serve others? Because our leaders, ideally, are in fact our servants. They blaze the trails for us and point the direction. They don't do all of the work, but they help clear the way for work to be done. Or, perhaps they would, if they lived in the shadow and foreknowledge of Eternity--knowing that this ends and afterwards comes Judgment. And perfect love casteth out fear--particularly fear of judgment because we do what we do not for hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, but solely for the love of God.

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How What is Divided Grows


I post two separate entries on Dante because while they abut one another in the poetry, they seem to go separate directions in thought. And this particular point is one that a lot of people have difficulty remembering because this world is so limited.

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"How can each one of many who divide
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?" He replied:

"Because within the habit of mankind
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

As much light as it finds there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so above,
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.

If you visit colonial houses, you will often find on the wall sconces with convex mirrors or polished surfaces behind them. The purpose was to capture the light from a single candle and use it more efficiently. And so Dante's metaphor. Love that falls on a surface ready to receive it both lights that surface to the degree that it is prepared to be lit, and is "multiplied" to reflect from other such surfaces. Love, as we are well aware, does not diminish in the division, but paradoxically, multiplies. The metaphor of reflection is a clear and perfect trope for the activity of love.

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From Dante: The Remedy for Envy


Here, Virgil explains to Dante how to remedy the evil of envy:

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"It is because you focus on the prize
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for your sighs.

But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere,
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;

for the more there are there who say 'ours'--not 'mine'--
by that much is each richer and brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine."

In Heaven, as we will discover in continuing our reading, there is no zero-sum game--no, you do better so I do worse. St. Therese expressed it in a metaphor of flowers--some are lilies, some are roses, and some are the little buttercups that grace the feet of the most high, but all are loved equally and all are pleased to be what the Lord has ordained that they be. Our place in Heaven, whatever it is ordained to be, like our crosses, are uniquely made for us--no other person will fit into them. Nor will we be able to fit into that place designed for another. This is the economy of salvation and blessedness. We may not stand with Dominic or Francis, or John of the Cross. We may be rubbing elbows with people who we would disdain here on Earth. But there, we are exactly what God fashioned, corrected of all fault and flaw through the suffering of purgatory and placed exactly where we will do the most good for all.

Envy has no place on heaven; hence, it should have no place on Earth. Our object, in so much as aided by the Holy Spirit we can, is to make this world a true reflection of the kingdom of Heaven.

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"The Figure a Poem Makes"


from "The Figure a Poem Makes"
Robert Frost

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.

The entire essay or, at least, a longer excerpt, here. For those interested--here's a link to an Arabic translation. Isn't it lovely even to look at?

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Another Country Heard From


from The Good Fight
Ralph Nader

Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized this in a message to Congress: "The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism:ownership of the government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power." We would do well to heed this age-old wisdom as we ponder why our corporate and political leaders assume more and more control over our lives and futures.

[and later just one memorable, highly evocative sentence]:

Society, like a fish, rots from the head down.

[And a last notion from a bit later]

This vulnerability results from the absence of an absorbed information base to provide a shield against artful propaganda and deception.

In one context or another, we are all powerless. The society is simply too complex. Contemplating participation in power in most contexts--environmental, political, social, economic, technological--invites anxiety. Yet, to throw up one's hands in defeat guarantees anguish and deprivation. Individual obligation absorb daily time and attention, of course, but ignoring our civic obligation, our public citizen duties, profoundly affects our daily lives as well.

In a sense, I am obliged to participate in these debates to the extent that I can. I can't participate in all equally, nor will much that I have to say be particularly astute or profound. However, it is part of my duty as a citizen to be concerned about things beyond my front doorstep. For example, I am deeply concerned that most of the civic associations in local communities are more concerned about lawns with brown patches than they are about diminishing water tables and corporations that want to siphon off water to create "bottled water" products. The crises in Georgia and in Tennessee (it is hoped that they are transitory) point to the importance of wise, careful, and considered use of water. Creating a perfect magnificent monoculture--one long golf-course of lush green is not among these careful uses.

But that is only one example that springs to mind as a result of personal experience with these type of deed-restricted communities. Perhaps, as a result, I should be working with my local government to put restrictions on what kinds of things deed restricted communities can regulate. In some communities nearby, for example, it is prohibited to xeriscape your property. It is outrageous that we put in place restrictions on the plants that grow naturally in environment, favoring instead highly fragile, laboratory developed strains of ground cover (St. Augustine turf is NOT grass but a low growing exceedingly thick and unfriendly green vine). A small, small issue, but one that is something I CAN act on.

And so, look around you. Is there something you can do in/for your community that you've not yet started to work on?

One final note from Mr. Nader:

And civic motivation can start with our personal experience, from which we derive the public philosophies that nourish and animate our consciences. It can start with family upbringing, or a jolting event.

I don't know about nourishing and animating the fullness of our conscience, but they certain inform and help us articulate those things that occupy the civic portion of our consciences. They don't require that we change who we are, but they do require that we act upon it.

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Bearing Our Crosses


I don't do this often, and probably should not do it even as often as I do; however, this notion has been on my mind a great deal in recent months. This is a meditation composed for another web site.

My thanks to Joachim who maintains the site and who gets a really good proof-reader/copyeditor to help improve each meditation.

Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me . . .
(Luke 14:27)

This passage may contain some of the most difficult words that Jesus shared with us. Hating father and mother, carrying crosses, renouncing possessions--what does it all mean, what sense can we make of it? There is such richness here it's impossible to encompass it all, but what I hear almost every time I go back is "whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." And I am always encouraged to remember that crosses are not "one size fits all."

Sometimes we look at others in our religious and secular lives and wonder, "Why is it so easy for them? What cross are they carrying?" It does us well to remember that what is a cross for one may not be a cross for another. Crosses are not one-size-fits-all. They are individually tailored to the person we are, and they are excruciating (literally) precisely because they are designed to straighten out what we have made crooked--they are designed to rectify what we have corrupted through our poor choices. Sometimes they are to help others bear their own burdens because we all participate in the economy of salvation--what another cannot carry, we help to bear so that we all advance together.

We must always bear in mind that, like Simon of Cyrene, we do bear the cross, but we bear it for the One who takes away all sin, the One who makes the crooked straight and the lame walk. Jesus doesn't say we need to be nailed to it in the way He was. Rather, He tells us that our job, like that of Simon, is to bear part of the burden for all of humanity. We carry our crosses, but ultimately it was and is Jesus who is nailed to it. We bring the burden of sin--He takes it all away.

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A friend sent this link to a very interesting article on the prayer life of Clarence Thomas.

In the course of it, there is a litany from Cardinal Merry del Val, that struck my friend as a hard teaching:

Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honored ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should...

My friend noted that to take it seriously seemed to invite despair. But I pointed out that it was a detailed version of St. John of the Cross' todo y nada. That is, the litany does not prohibit one from accepting such graces as come to one, but asks God to grant us the freedom from fear or desire of these things, because such fear and/or desire was distracting from the "one thing necessary." It isn't that the objects mentioned are not legitimate things to desire or to fear, but rather that in either desire or fear of them we may find ourselves doing things that are not part of our particular vocation--going out of our way to seek or avoid things.

But this seems to be an interesting point and I'd love to hear what others think of the article and especially of the Litany.

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Dante's Purgatory


Two points from Ciardi's translation that I found fascinating and beautiful. At the end of Canto IX, Dante and Virgil enter purgatory proper, having spent the first part of the book in a place at the base of the mount called ante-purgatory. And the passage below describes the first experiences of purgatory:

from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

The Tarpeian rock-face, in that fatal hour
that robbed it of Metellus, and then the treasure,
did not give off so loud and harsh a roar

as did the pivots of the holy gate--
which were of resonant and hard-forged metal--
when they turned under their enormous weight.

At the first thunderous roll I turned half-round,
for it seemed to me I heard a chorus singing
Te deum laudamus mixed with that sweet sound.

I stood there and the strains that reached my ears
left on my soul exactly that impression
a man receives who goes to church and hears

the choir and organ ringing out their chords
and now does, now does not, make out the words.

Which sounds should be sharply contrasted with the first sounds heard in Hell.

On another point, Ciardi makes the following note:

from Purgatorio Note to Canto IX
John Ciardi

I owe Professor MacAllister a glad thanks for what is certainly the essential clarification. The whole Purgatorio, he points out, is build upon the structure of a Mass. The Mass moreover is happening not on the mountain but in church with Dante devoutly following its well-known steps. I have not yet had time to digest Professor MacAllister's suggestion, but it strikes me immediately as a true insights and promises another illuminating way of reading the .

And I would add to that last line, of reading our lives in faith. Part of our Purgatory are the hours gladly spent here on Earth working out the scars and physical remains of sin in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Attended with proper reverence, attention, and intention, the Holy Prayer of the Mass advances us far beyond any other activity in which we might engage. Done in the proper spirit of confession and contrition for sins, the activity of Mass begins here on Earth what is completed afterwards by those who have not achieved God's perfection in Purgatory. And perhaps that begins to help us understand what Purgatory actually is.

One final, wonderful point. The efficiency and efficacy of Ciardi's notes are such that one is led to the following passge of Lucan's Pharsalia:

At this Metellus yielded from the path;
And as the gates rolled backward, echoed loud
The rock Tarpeian, and the temple's depths
Gave up the treasure which for centuries
No hand had touched:

Read the entire work--a recounting of Caesar's return from the battle of the Rubicon here.

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I particularly cherished the following experience recounted by Fr. Beck. It spoke to me intimately and provoked a line of thought that I had never really considered. We start as Father Beck is trying to avoid the eye of a modern-day John the Baptist in Time's Square:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

I maneuvered to get around him, but, seeming to sense that I was an unwilling convert, he would have none of it. He made a bee-line for me as I lowered my head and tried to get lost in the crowd that I now appreciated. He held a tattered black Bible that he massaged gently with his thumb.

"Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, young man?"

He was standing right in front of me, blocking my passage. (At least he called me young.) I didn't answer, pretending I thought he was talking to someone else.

"You, sir, do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" he persisted.

I looked up, unable to ignore him any longer.

"What?" I said, though I'm not sure why, since I had clearly heard the question.

"Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" he repeated more forcefully. A woman bumped me from behind letting me know in her own not-so-gentle way that I was blocking the path.

"Yes, I do," I said. "I do, thank you." I walked around him and started to make my way down the street.

"Hey," he called to me. I looked back. "Isn't it wonderful?" His eyes were glowing.

"Not always," I answered truthfully.

I continued walking and was about a hundred feet from him when he shouted, "Well, then, repent, blue eyes, and it will always be.

I don't necessarily take the street-corner prophet at his literal word here, but it occurred to me that with a good deal more repentance, and a good deal less Steven, that personal relationship might be made more manifest to those around me. And a personal relationship with Jesus is next to useless if it isn't influencing the world around us. Perhaps what I need more of, then, is a spirit of continual repentance--heaven knows there isn't a day I go through that doesn't encourage me to confession before participation in Mass. I'm one of those who wishes that confession were offered moments before Mass so there would be some likelihood of making it to Mass before needing to get to confession again. I often wonder whether I've ever really managed to gain a plenary indulgence for any of the poor souls because the conditions are so rigorous. If Mass immediately follows confession and/or the action that merits the plenary indulgence, there is a remote possibility. Otherwise. . .

Repentance, it's not just a seasonal thing--it's a way to live, really live, a life.

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Detachment á la Beck


I have read about halfway through Father Beck's marvelous book and find a scattering of thirty or so tags--things I want to remember, things I want to share. By sharing, I remember better, but choosing among all the wonderful points is so difficult. In the chapter on detachment alone there must be ten or eleven vital points, but one of the most pointed in made in the story below:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

There is a classic Zen story about two celibate monks who are on pilgrimage together. As they approach a raging river, they see a beautiful, distressed young woman standing on the bank afraid to make the crossing. The yonger monk picks the woman up, put her on his shoulders, and wades into the river as the older monk looks on, horrified but saying nothing. When the three reach the other side, the monk puts the grateful woman down safely, and the two monks continue on their journey in silence. Hours go by without the two speaking. The older monk is obviously angry and upset. He finally looks at the younger monk and says, "How could you have done that?" "Done what?" says the younger monk, surprised. "How could you have carried that woman? You know we are to have nothing to do with women and yet you intimately carried her on your shoulders." "My dear brother," replies the younger monk, "I set that woman down on the shore of the river hours ago. Why are you still carrying her."

Of course, this passage speaks to more than mere detachment. It speaks to our habit of nurturing anger over perceived slights, over differences of opinion on religion that make no difference, on matters such as liturgical preference or any number of opinions held either rightly or wrongly by either side of a dispute on religious matters. One could say with almost equal equanimity to either side of the dispute on, say, women's ordination--"The church set that issue down on the banks of the river years ago, why are you still carrying it?" Because, most naturally, we cling to those things for which we feel we have the proper scope of righteous anger--just as does this monk.

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With merely the title of this post I have chased away half of the small audience that might drop by on a regular basis. Renunciation is not a popular subject--most often because it is not fully understood.

However, renunciation is one step on the road to union with God that we all can consider and that with God's grace we all can effect.

There is such a wealth of possibility in Father Edward Beck's Soul Provider, it is difficult to choose among the possibilities; however, for the purposes of supporting the main contention of the chapter, perhaps the conclusion would be most useful:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

Renunciation is therefore a kind of purification and asceticism that does not exist for its own sake but rather for the sake of higher goods. Thus, I renounce excessive use of alcohol so that I don't destroy my marriage or my work. Or I renounce consumerism so that I don't lose my soul to what money can buy. . . .

In view of John Climacus's Ladder of Divine Ascent renunciation lights us and frees us so that we can climb less encumbered, ascending without restraint toward the good. Renunciation exists for the sake of freedom. It liberates us and ultimately allows us to love more wholeheartedly. Who of us doesn't want that?

The man who renounces the world because of fear is like burning incense, which begins with fragrance and ends in smoke. . . . but the man who leaves the world for love of God has taken fire from the start, and like fire set to fuel, it soon creates a conflagration.

(Climacus Step 1)

Fr. Beck's book seems to be a very hard-headed, light-hearted, full-spirited survey of how to improve one's life with God. The advice given is solid, orthodox and complemented by insights from other religious traditions that both inform and help to bring out implicit aspects of each topic. Each chapter ends with a set of very hard, very pointed questions that allow the reader to reflect upon his or her own state with respect to the Ascent to God.

In coming days I hope to quote more from this book and to share more of Fr. Beck's insights. In the meantime, if this excerpt interests you, you might do well to seek the book out on your own and not wait for what small portions I might share.

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