Exploring where life and story meet!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Prophet and Clown

“They are constantly colonists and emigrants; they have the name of being at home in every country. But they are in exile in their own country. They are torn between love of home and love of
something else; of which the sea may be the explanation or may be only the symbol. It is also found in a nameless nursery rhyme which is the finest line in English literature and the dumb refrain of all English poems, 'Over the hills and far away.”
~G.K. Chesterton on the English~

Many have heard of or read C.S. Lewis, but far fewer know of Chesterton.  I love Lewis, but no one amuses me like Chesterton, even if his meaning escapes me far more than I'd like to admit.  Lewis is an academic and a theologian, explaining high concepts to simple minds in a way that allows we common men to easily and wondrously grasp just a bit of the heavenly mystery.  Chesterton is a philosopher and a jester, a frolicsome, lighthearted puppy that likes to chew on the slippers of divine truth.  Lewis is concise, Chesterton a glorious rambler.  Lewis would make an in depth study of those hills faraway, Chesterton gads through those green hills with all the joy and innocence of a spring lamb.

My dilemma with this passage is that I am unsure if Chesterton is stealing the Apostle Peter's 'peculiar people' and usurping the spiritual exiles of the book of Hebrews and applying it to the English or if I am reading a deeper meaning into his words than he ever intended.  I am a closet Anglophile (though I must admit, Ireland and especially Scotland are very dear to me as well).  As I am not technically English by birth or culture, but certainly by literary adoption and heredity, I suppose I am not technically allowed to commentate on this desperate riddle, but as no one else seems intent to do so, I will amuse myself thus.

I think this little snippet a perfect description of not only the English, but of the citizens of that much greater Kingdom of which Chesterton is our most amusing Prophet.  To add to our musings, consider L.M. Montgomery's description of the sea: "The woods call to us with a hundred voices, but the sea has one only — a mighty voice that drowns our souls in its majestic music. The woods are human, but the sea is of the company of the archangels.”

Mystery, adventure, the sea as symbol or definition, the poetry of things barely glimpsed, there is a seed of it in every soul, whether we allow it to grow and flourish is another matter, or whether it lays quiet, forgotten until the rains come at last or it rots through the grip of a hundred endless winters, that is our choice.  We all hear that 'dumb refrain,' but does it resonate in our hearts and souls and inspire us to dream and join the dance, or do we grumble or scowl or turn away in disgust or busyness?  It is the very heart of the 'Parable of the Sower,' but are we fertile ground yielding a hundredfold in our turn or do the birds or weeds or stones bar that 'fine line' from residing within us?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Born this way

Nature versus nurture, heredity versus learned behavior, genetics versus environment, what is cause and what is effect?  The argument goes on and on for any number of conditions, behaviors, traits, and pathologies, but there is probably no easy, black and white answer, unless 'a little of both' counts, except for perhaps one very odd condition: the undying and indefatigable love of stories.  I don't care how old you are or what culture you are from, you love stories, that or you're lying to yourself and everybody else for some really strange reason.  Be it television, movies, books, poetry, anime, music, comic books, a real live bard or storyteller, history, politics, even social media, sports, and celebrity gossip, everywhere you look, there's a story, and we as humans are addicted to it.  But why?

'He has set eternity in the hearts of men.'

I first ran across that little snippet while reading a very practical and bestselling book about a decade ago, I don't remember much else about the book, but that particular verse stood out to me and has haunted me ever since.  The author was quoting from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (3:11), a book thousands of years old that wrestles with the question: what is the purpose of life?  The same question each and every human has wrestled with since the dawn of time.  It is why we love stories: they help us process and understand ourselves, the world around us, and life in general.  It was Jesus's favorite means of helping others understand God and His plan for Everything.

Or we could just be accidental blobs of organic goo that just happen to like epic tales?  I never met a computer, a chemistry experiment, a math problem, or a chimp that was fond of a good story; it is the one thing that sets us apart, makes us unique, is completely inexplicable within our natures from the rest of the created order.  We are dreamers, adventurers, starry eyed children, and there's a Reason for it.

Two timely articles you might find interesting:

On Tolkien and a possibly wasted life?
More on Tolkien and the power of story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Save your life, read a fairy tale

Back in the foggy past, before History began, when man was still muddling through the labyrinthine corridors of Legend, back before the Internet, in the dimmest reaches of Time, when boggles and fairies and ghouls still lurked in the deeps of the woods and haunted the wild places just beyond the hedgerow, we were a far wiser race.  We didn't believe in myths like the infallibility of technology, the boundless wisdom and generosity of the government, or the immortality of our current, physical body, rather our forebears knew all three had their limits and had a healthy skepticism of the utopian promises of each.  But we Western moderns complacently and happily forget that we are actually rather helpless specks cowering on the surface of a galactic rock hurtling through space at an extraordinary speed, that tyrants, war, disaster, disease, and death are not just things found in stories, but hideous specters with whom we must share our existence, and inevitably, will overshadow our own short, tragic stories.

Yes, we have extended lifespans, decreased disease and hunger and poverty for a vast swath of humanity, undermined many a dictatorship, increased the standard of living, saved the whales...but with our success has come pride, and intentional ignorance and complaisance.  Man in the days of legend knew he was fallible, fragile, and finite; he lived like he knew one day soon he would die.  We think there is a surgery, an app, a gadget, an excuse, a pill, a diet, a guru, a government program to fix our problems, whatever they be, and that death, if it comes, is a thing little to be thought of or dreaded, an occurrence on par with being kidnapped by a dragon, unlikely to happen and of no major consideration.

A blizzard just shut down the state for three days, for all our vaunted technology, we were at its mercy as we huddled helplessly indoors from the wrath without.  A dear friend's father was just diagnosed with a fatal and debilitating disease.  A recent truck accident killed a young father of four.  We are still vulnerable, finite, fragile, and fallible creatures, we've just managed to push out the bounds of 'civilization and safety,' the pixies and dragons still lurk in the wilds without, they are just farther away, just enough to make us think ourselves triumphant and safe and immortal.  The 'archaic' man knew himself to be at the mercy of time, fate, and chance, that death hulked like a specter over life, and the wise were prepared when finally it pounced like inexorable night.  But we moderns dither, make excuses, ignore it, pretend it isn't there, think some miraculous cure will spring suddenly from the mind of man and spare us the trouble, but it won't.

What can overcome the darkness, chase back the night, fix the broken, right the wrongs, save us from oblivion?  Perhaps the answer is found in the fairy tales held sacred by the benighted residents of bygone days.  Perhaps believing in what modern men call myths is actually the first step upon the road of Wisdom:

"O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel,
shall come to thee O Israel!"

~O Come, O Come, Emmanuel~

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Can you hear the people sing?

What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall.
~C.S. Lewis~

I've always loved choral music, both listening and performing, though only a mediocre singer myself, somehow, when combined with a hundred or a thousand other voices, something magical happens, something beyond the mere mathematical.  Back in the days of yore (the end of the last millennium) I was privileged to both hear and perform a little bit of sacred music in such a mass ensemble before it was henceforth banned from the public square, including my college's production of the 'Messiah' with over a thousand voices, and I must agree with the esteemed Mr. Lewis, it was indeed a foretaste of Heaven.  I've also seen (and sung) my share of secular music in such performances, which somehow pales by comparison, for in the end, what are we singing about and why?

There is just something beautiful and mysterious, glorious and deep, beyond the expression of words, but captured, however fleetingly, in the strains of mortal music.  'All that is not music is silence...' an intriguing description of Heaven by Lewis's character Screwtape (quoting George MacDonald).  That is perhaps what I love most about the Advent and Christmas seasons: our fickle attempts to capture the feeling, the wonder of the season musically, be it instrumental, vocal, or some combination thereof.  And it is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our modern age: the loss of that glorious heritage of music and its deeper meaning, without it, life seems drab and two dimensional, when it should be bursting with life and light and color and hinting at dimensions beyond our mortal comprehension.

No wonder people hate Christmas: when you are not allowed to play or sing anything in public that even hints at the deeper mysteries of the season, what is it but just another chance for materialism and over sentimentalization to flout themselves in the public square?  People throw up their hands in disgust and move on, more a Grinch or Scrooge than ever.  I certainly never felt inspired to sing the politically correct, socially acceptable songs approved by a certain choir instructor; they didn't mean anything to me or to anyone else, so why even bother, save to get a passing grade?  For fear of insulting someone, we are denying ourselves and our children some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Music as an art and a part of culture is a dying relic of bygone years.  Just listen to the radio and hear for yourself: everything sounds the same, there is no deeper meaning, little true passion, and even less talent.  Though the aforementioned Screwtape would approve (though strangely the Grinch would not), he's a huge proponent of noise: meaningless, distracting, annoying, mind-numbing noise! Which is the best that can be said for much of modern 'music.'

"Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress."  
~C.S. Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters."~

But there is a whole world of music out there, you may have to search for it, but it is well worth the hunt.  So be a rebel, dig into the past, discover forgotten gems from ancient days, remember what this season is actually about.  Discover the story that transcends space and time and reality as we know it, listen to it as told in perhaps the only language that can give it proper expression, then lift your voice and sing along, for here truly is the reason to sing!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A long time ago, in a village far, far away...

I am not a huge Charlie Brown fan (I find him rather depressing), but his Christmas Special does valiantly strive to find meaning in the glitzy phantasmagoria that is the modern celebration of the 'Holidays' in American culture.  We have so much expectation, such high hopes, as if happiness and romance and miracles and family joy and life crises all magically get better or happen during this interesting time of year.  And when they don't, we come away disappointed and even more disenfranchised with the over-glorification and Christmas-cardification of the season, as if we expect to each star in our own Hallmark movie and are rather surprised when real life doesn't end with a kiss under the mistletoe.

I ran across this little blurb yesterday (full article here) that really struck me:

"During this Christmas season, focus on the small, beauty of your life. So much of an emotionally abusive childhood is marked by misplaced urgency, a lack of reflection or quiet. This Christmas, pull yourself out of despair by celebrating the small hidden beauty. That advice may sound cheesy, but there’s a quiet beauty and joy amid the glitzy, chaotic mayhem. Spend time looking for it."

Especially the phrase: 'a misplaced urgency, a lack of reflection or quiet,' really struck me.  You don't have to have an abusive past or broken family to understand that phrase.  Our whole idea of modern life is so hectic, busy, and frenetic, that we can hardly understand the quiet, the peace, the starkness, the fear, the wonder, the mystery of that first Christmas.  We get little hints and whiffs of it from the words of scripture and the seasonal hymns, but it is something altogether foreign to our modern sensibilities:

'While shepherds watched their flocks by night...'
'Tidings of comfort and joy...'
'It came upon the midnight clear...'
'There was no place for them at the inn...'
'Peace on earth, good will to men...'
'Fall on your knees...'
'Glorious now, behold Him arise...'
'Brighter visions beam afar...'
'The Silent Word is pleading...'
'Ground as hard as iron, water like a stone...'

Regardless of your background, your family history, your current circumstances, it is far from foolish to do as both the sagacious Mr. Brown and even a relatively obscure article on coping with the Holidays after emotional child abuse suggest: forget everything and focus on the true Reason for the Season.  Yes, your life is a mess, your family disappoints you, your finances are dreadful, your health is questionable, some crisis is looming, you've lost a dear one, all your hopes and dreams are stillborn, you are so busy and stressed out...that's precisely the reason He came in the first place, no not to fix your checking account, but rather to fix all the brokenness and sin, evil and darkness with which this world is fraught.  Forget it all for a moment, and focus on that child in the manger, let the awe and the wonder and the mystery dwell in your soul, and suddenly the fickle glitz of the season and your own problems matter not at all.

Merry Christmas!



Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tis Advent

Happy Advent!  No, it is not the season of the year dedicated to harried and stressful holiday preparations, rather it should be the time of year where we reflect (with reverence and excitement) on the first and second comings of Christ.  This article is absolutely wonderful and timely, though not purely Advent themed, it well sums up this season of the year, and more powerfully, the unfulfilled longings each of us is undoubtedly dealing with and how to neither make them the entire bent of our lives nor utterly destroy them, but rather to deal with them as we ought and thereby enrich not only our own lives but the lives all around us.