29 April, 2007

Joan of Arc and Mark Twain

In my spare moments, I've been reading Samuel Clemens'(Mark Twain's) Joan of Arc (among other things). Clemens' portrayal of St. Joan rather surprised me. It is unequivocally positive; in fact, it's practically gushing. He praises the saint as one of the only figures in history who was "stainlessly pure, in mind and heart, in speech and deed and spirit."

This was so surprising because Samuel Clemens was very anti-establishment in his religious views - the prototypical Bible-belt sects are attacked in Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court takes many shots at the Catholic Church. In these cases, the books are "saved" (i.e. - it's still possible for me to read them without steam escaping from my ears) by the fact that it's very plausible to interpret such attacks as aimed only against hypocrites in any religion. (I always like to look at the meaning of the book from my own perspective the second reading around, taking little notice of what the author thinks he means. I don't know how valid that method is...) However, if the hypocrisy was what he disliked, it's hardly possible to deny that Clemens thought hypocrisy the defining characteristic of organized religion - which makes a big difference in his personal life, but as I like to think, very little in his literary portrayals.

Despite all his personal anti-religious furor, Clemens is enthusiastic in his approval of Joan. And to my even greater astonishment, he was very fair in his portrayal of the Church's role in her life and death. His profound respect for the saint seems to have caused him to respect the Church, at least in this book, for her sake. He stresses the fact that the Council at Poitiers was generous in its support for Joan, and states firmly that the "Church" tribunal which condemned her was no true representation of Church opinion, but a mock trial run by puppets of the vile Bishop of Beauvais.

Samuel Clemens spent 12 years researching this book, travelling all the way to France's National Archives to read the account of the trial. He published it under a pseudonym, for fear that his reputation as a humorist would cause the book to be taken less than seriously.

"I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none." – Samuel Clemens

16 April, 2007


This is one of my favorite poems. I've got it quoted in the heading of this blog, actually. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote it in the 1930s, after CS Lewis - still then an agnostic - said that although myths and legends are beautiful, such tales must be worthless, because they are "nothing but lies".

The poem is distinctly opposed to Rationalistic and Materialistic idea that the only reality is that which can be counted, seen, felt or measured. Mythology expresses truth, but it is truth which Rationalism rejects: the truth that there is more to nature than biology and physics, that there is more to human behavior than self-interested psychology, that there is more to life than a career and food and cars. It's true that pagan mythology isn't quite sure what this "something more" is - knowledge of that comes with God's revelation. But recognizing the fact there is more makes life much richer than denying that fact altogether.

To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'.

Philomythus to Misomythus

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are 'trees', and growing is 'to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o'er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain's contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not 'trees', until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech's involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers bencath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

Yes! 'wish-fulfilment dreams' we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise -- for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

It's rather long for a blog post, I know. But my part was short, and Tolkien's eloquent.... that's got to work together well somehow.

12 April, 2007

And to continue....

Fr. Chris said that one of the most undervalued virtues today is hope. I think he's right. I know that I often do more than my share of complaining about injustices in the world, inefficiencies in the state government, the state of my parish,. And many of the complaints are valid. But if all you do is complain, you tend to lose sight of the good things that are happening, or lose hope in the possibility of a reform in the Maine government. Most unfortunately, if you complain too much, you can forget that Christ promised to give the Church the Holy Spirit, that He promised not to abandon us, but to stay with us to the end of time.

Another thing Fr. Chris mentioned, something which I had never really considered before, is that the Church on earth is constantly being perfected. We still have the responsibility to "make disciples of all nations". "The Church . . . will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven, at the time of Christ's glorious return." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 769) At the end of time, the Church will indeed be perfect, and so too then, the world, if a perfect Church will have made disciples of every nation.

What a thing to look forward too! Really, Catholicism is the only religion I know of that allows for the idealism of a perfect world. To most non-Catholic Christians I know (I understand that you can't perfectly generalize), the world is something completely sinful that must be rejected. Only the Catholic Church says that this world, though it may seem so far gone, is salvagable... more than salvagable: it can be brought to a higher level of perfection than it originally had. All this is possible though the grace of God, who loves His creation enough to want to perfect it.

After such an Easter homily, the words of Pope Benedict's Urbi et Orbi message resonate deeply.

"May the Risen Lord grant that the strength of his life, peace and freedom be experienced everywhere. Today the words with which the Angel reassured the frightened hearts of the women on Easter morning are addressed to all: “Do not be afraid! ... He is not here; he is risen (Mt 28:5-6)”. Jesus is risen, and he gives us peace; he himself is peace. For this reason the Church repeats insistently: “Christ is risen - Christós anésti.” Let the people of the third millennium not be afraid to open their hearts to him. His Gospel totally quenches the thirst for peace and happiness that is found in every human heart. Christ is now alive and he walks with us. What an immense mystery of love!

Christus resurrexit, quia Deus caritas est! Alleluia!"

Christ is Risen, because God is Love. Alleluia!

09 April, 2007

Easter Hope

We went to two Masses yesterday morning. No, we weren't feeling hyper-pious... It was like this: my brothers, being good altar servers and therefore of a rare variety, were in great demand. Because of a scheduling mix-up they ended up on both the general schedule for Easter morning Mass at Notre Dame, and they ended up on Fr. Paul's "special request for good servers" schedule at St. Theresa's. Therefore, they had to serve two Masses, one after the other. My Dad, in the meantime, had to read at the same ND Mass the boys served at. Then he had to stay for the later ND Mass to sing Gregorian Chant. So.....

The last paragraph is very confusing, so if you've made it this far, my compliments to your tenacity. On to the actual subject of my post.

Fr. Chris said both Masses at Notre Dame. He's an older priest; Italian, humble as pie (presuming that the saying about humble pie has any truth, which I think it does not, since I like pie and am hardly humble), owner of a brilliant sense of humor, and quite othodox in his devotion to our Blessed Mother. He spoke that morning about the virtue of hope and it's relation to the Resurrection. I've heard similar things before, but he put it so eloquently that hope took on a rather new importance for me.

The Passion, he said, was like the birth of a child, painful but joyful at the same instant, especially for the Blessed Mother, who had to watch her Son die, and yet had a better understanding than any other human what joy would result from His sacrifice. And at the end of the Passion, as her Son lay in her arms, she would probably have been filled with hope. What would this death, the voluntary sacrifice of the One Who was Life itself, mean for humanity? And the result, after three days of waiting was revealed in the Resurrection. Death was defeated, and hope restored to the world.

Not to sound like a corny serial story, but............................


(I have schoolwork to do.)

06 April, 2007

O Sacred Head Surrounded

St. Bernard of Clairvoux (1091-1153)

O sacred head, surrounded
by crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding head, so wounded,
reviled and put to scorn!
Our sins have marred the glory
of thy most holy face,
yet angel hosts adore thee
and tremble as they gaze

I see thy strength and vigor
all fading in the strife,
and death with cruel rigor,
bereaving thee of life;
O agony and dying!
O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying,
O turn thy face on me.

In this thy bitter passion,
Good Shepherd, think of me
with thy most sweet compassion,
unworthy though I be:
beneath thy cross abiding
for ever would I rest,
in thy dear love confiding,
and with thy presence blest.

04 April, 2007

A Couple American Books...

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are two novels very often cited as the greatest works of American literature. Whether or not these two books are greater than other American novels in a simple literary sense, it is nearly incontestable that each one is intensely American in setting, plot, and theme.

The story of The House of Seven Gables unfolds in 19th Century New England. The setting is quintessentially American, evoking the bustling ports, wealthy sea captains, crusty old tars, and Yankee clipper ships for which New England was internationally renowned during Hawthorne’s life.

The theme is even more characteristically American. Essentially exploring the topic of freedom, Hawthorne concentrates outwardly on the conflict between Old World aristocracy and American democracy. The Pyncheon family, around which The House of Seven Gables centers, is almost uniformly distinguished by a ludicrously exaggerated pride. Under the influence of this arrogance, the worst members of the Pyncheon dynasty plunder and prey upon the lower classes of New England.

Ironically, however, this self-aggrandizement makes the Pyncheons the least “free” people seen in the book. The “house” of the title is like a prison for its elderly residents, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon. A dark, dank, oppressive building, the mansion is repeatedly described as a living, growing entity, overpoweringly rank with the presence of previous Pyncheon generations. The building becomes a sort of tangible representation of the sin of the family’s dynastic arrogance; it oppresses the entire clan, and yet, in a grotesque paradox, each Pyncheon is absurdly proud of the edifice. Even Hepzibah, broken and distraught by the house’s darkness, cannot resist taking pride in its history and the legacy of the family’s “original sinner,” Colonel Pyncheon.

In The House of Seven Gables, Hawthorne takes an American setting and uses his plot to explore the theme of freedom on two different levels. The more external investigation centers around the specifically American conflict between aristocracy and democracy, while the deeper study focuses on an aspect of freedom that is more universal, but still especially pertinent to America. This second level throws an interesting light on the theme of class conflict in relation to freedom as Hawthorne reveals that those who oppress others are in fact the least free of all. In this sense, the author’s theme is religious (the sin oppresses the sinner more than the sinned-against). However, for Americans, the message is also partly cautionary. Hawthorne points out that the evils associated with aristocracy are not unique to Europe, contrary to what many Americans assume. Complacency in the face of sin has no place in a free society, for freedom will quickly disappear wherever evil is allowed to take root and produce pride and oppression.

The setting of Huckleberry Finn could hardly be more different from that of The House of Seven Gables, yet it is as emblematically American in flavour as any New England seaport. The action progresses along the banks of the Mississippi, where Huckleberry and his friend, Jim, coming from a peaceful little mid-western town, encounter feuding Southern gentry, a “wild west” shanty village, slippery hucksters, and a plethora of other icons of American frontier lore.

Freedom is a theme of this book as well. Here it is most ostensibly explored in the particular issue of slavery. Huckleberry’s comrade during his travels is Jim, a runaway slave, who plans to escape his pursuers by river. Huckleberry defies the Southern society of the time by choosing to assist his friend, rather than turning him in. Ironically enough, Huckleberry’s misinformed conscience causes his to feel a considerable amount of guilt over this noble decision. His defiant exclamation, “Alright, I’ll go to hell!” uttered when he decides to stay loyal to Jim, underline a theme which, as in The House of Seven Gables, is deeper than the most ostensible theme of the book although closely related to it.

No less than Jim, Huckleberry Finn also finds freedom on the river, though not in a simple physical sense. The Mississippi acts in the book as a sort of no man’s land, uniting a gamut of American ways of life, but participating little in any of them. Unfortunately, society outside the Huck’s and Jim’s raft on the river is rife with hypocrisy. This hypocrisy comes in a variety of guises, but in each instance, it has the inexorable result of repressing the freedom which should have been easily realized along the banks of one of the world’s largest rivers.

A primary example of such hypocrisy in Huckleberry’s own hometown is that displayed by the dreadful Miss Watson. This horrid, puritanical old woman is the one responsible for teaching Huck, among other things, that helping runaway slaves is a sin, and will send one to hell. She (speaking for her community) commits the ultimate hypocrisy of pretending that good is evil and evil good in order to justify the slave-owning lifestyle, and in so doing, not only denies the slaves their freedom, but also corrodes the freedom of Huck’s conscience by misinforming it.

Huck’s adventures involve similar instances of repression of the truth through hypocrisy throughout the novel. The deadly feud of the Grangerfords and Shepardsons, for instance, creates a tyranny of violence for miles around that stifles love by redefining their mutual hatred as noble. Huck encounters the most blatant hypocrisy of all, however, in the characters of the “Duke of Bilgewater” and the “Lost Dauphin of France” – two brazen con men who force Huck and Jim to cooperate with their fraudulent schemes. The interesting twist to this episode is that here the hypocrisy of society on shore (in the form of the con men) creeps onto the raft to tyrannize its passengers. Freedom on the raft is not something Huck and Jim can take for granted, despite the fact that the river had originally been a haven of independence for them. If hypocrisy and evil are allowed to take root, Mark Twain emphasizes, freedom even in traditional strongholds of liberty will soon be destroyed.

The two “great American novels” are so steeped in the flavour of this country that each one can be said to be a veritable icon of American life. From the seaports of New England to the banks of the Mississippi, each is set in an intensely American atmosphere. Even more essentially each book revolves around that same theme on which America was founded: freedom. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain alike emphasize that although this country has the privilege and advantage of being committed from its outset to a desire for true liberty, pride, hypocrisy, and other sins of society will quickly lead to a decline in this gift. Freedom, like any privilege, can never be taken for granted.