The Growlery

"Sit down, my dear," said Mr. Jarndyce. "This, you must know, is the Growlery.
When I am out of humour, I come and growl here."

Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter VIII

Monday, January 30, 2017

Wisdom from St John Chrysostom

'Christ of Maryknoll' by Br. Robert Lent
"Do you really wish to pay homage to Christ's body? Then do not neglect Him when he is naked. At the same time that you honor Him here with hangings made of silk, do not ignore Him outside when he perishes from cold and nakedness. For the One who said "This is my body"...also said "When I was hungry you gave me nothing to eat"...For is there any point in his table being laden with golden cups while He Himself is perishing from hunger? Don't neglect your brother in his distress while you decorate His house. Your brother is more truly His temple than any Church building."

--Homily 35 on Matthew

"The poor man has one plea, his want and his standing in need: do not require anything else from him; but even if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger. Christ also commanded us to do this, when He said, ‘Be like your Father in heaven, for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ The almsgiver is a harbor for those in necessity: a harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck, and frees them from danger; whether they are bad or good or whatever they are who are in danger, it escorts them into its own shelter. So you likewise, when you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune. Why do you make trouble for yourself? God has excused you from all officiousness and meddlesomeness. How much most of us would complain, if God had bidden us first to examine each person’s life exactly, to interfere with his behavior and his deeds, and only then to give alms? But as it is we are freed from all this kind of annoyance. Then why do we bring excessive cares on ourselves? A judge is one thing, an almsgiver is another. Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy. Paul also advises us to do this, when he says, ‘Do not grow weary in well-doing … to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of faith.’ If we meddle and interfere with the unworthy, not even the worthy will ever willingly come to us; but if we provide also for the unworthy, undoubtedly both the worthy and those who are worth all of them together will come into our hands. This is what happened to the blessed Abraham, who, because he did not meddle or interfere with those who passed by, was able once to receive angels. Let us imitate him, along with his descendant Job. For he also accurately imitated the generosity of his ancestor, and because of this he said, ‘My door was open to every comer.’ It was not open to one and closed to another, but was simply unlocked for everyone."

Homily II on Lazarus and the rich man

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

On Grampa and grieving

Grampa roasting hotdogs at Kako, the camp in Alaska he built. 

Dave Penz 
(September 8, 1934-May 11, 2014)

My grampa died today. He had had leukemia for a while, but the terrible infection that killed him took us all by surprise. 

This is how I'm feeling: 

Childhood is the Kingdom where Nobody Dies 
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don’t die.

And if you have said, “For heaven’s sake, must you always be kissing a person?”
Or, “I do wish to gracious you’d stop tapping on the window with your thimble!”
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you’re busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, “I’m sorry, mother.”

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries;
they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake
them and yell at them;
They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide
back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.
But I also feel this:  
Psalm 16:2, 5-11
 I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
The airplane graveyard at Kako. I think Grampa crashed at least 2 of these planes. 
Being a bush pilot is no joke. To be honest I always expected him to die in a crash.

Grampa was a missionary, serving in Alaska since 1962. I am very proud of all that he did to create Kako and all the work in villages he did before that. There are many amazing, crazy stories. So many times he could easily have died.

Maybe I'll blog about them sometime. But what I'm thinking right now is how his life was always in God's hands. I am so thankful to be in season of Easter, to be reminded of Christ's conquest of Death.

When I was a camp counselor at Kako back in 2006, this was the passage we were supposed to get the kids in our cabin to memorize (picked because most of them have experienced death, despite their age):
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory."

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 This reality confounds and comforts me. 

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

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Saturday, August 03, 2013

Psalm 27 Reflection

The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
I was introduced to Psalm 27 as a child in the context of a Christian kids tape that centered around not being afraid. I wasn’t a particularly fearful child, so it was a while before I saw the application to my life. A while before I realized that fear could be being afraid of pain, or of being alone, or being afraid that your life is always going as messed up as it is today. It was that last bit that I found most difficult—I had enough painful experiences in my early life that I had difficulty trusting God that things would actually ever get better.  I feared that I would always be unhappy, that I would never see God’s goodness in concrete ways.

This feeling was most intense after I graduated from university and had no idea what to do with my life. I recently reread emails to friends I wrote in that period—in which I had finally decided to apply to grad school, and was rejected by every single one.  You see, although I have academic gifting I also have a learning disability which has dogged me throughout my schooling—a brokenness even in my greatest strength. There’s a strong sense of desperation in these old emails, of just barely treading water as I waited to apply again next year. I remember how little confidence I had that God had any sort of good plan for me. It was in this period of my life that I discovered the ending verses of Psalm 27:

I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Despite my lack of hope I clung to this promise. God would show me his goodness in this life; I wouldn’t have to wait until heaven.  It might not look exactly like what I was expecting, but I could trust him. I just needed to wait.

These verses remind me of that famous verse in Hebrews: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I think that just about sums up the Christian calling and condition. We somehow have to be okay with seeing partially, with glimpses of God’s goodness in this broken world as we wait for the renewal of all things.

Yet God does show himself in our lives in surprising ways. For me it’s been through evidence of his grace as I traveled to far away Toronto for school, had a terrible first year, found Knox, and learned to love my fellow grad students.  I have truly seen God’s goodness and I confidently expect to see more. When I doubt I remind myself: Take heart. Do not be afraid.

Written for the Psalm series in my church's newsletter.

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

To Bury the Dead: the Necessary Rediscovery of a Medieval Spiritual Practice

Friday I spent most of the day in the library studying. On my way out the door I spent some time reviewing an extensive display set up in the library lobby on the Katyn Massacre. The top two thirds of the display were gave the historical details of the massacre (locations, reasons, impact, etc.) and the bottom third displayed photos of some of the men killed in the massacre. Such a horrifying, sad waste of life! So many wonderful young men killed, an estimated 22,000 of the best of 1940 Poland. The display talked quite a bit about the recovery of the bodies--the discovery of mass graves and the exhumation and reburial of the bodies. There was discussion of the care with which this was done--with a concern to do honor to the dead by the care taken of their bodies.

Then I came home and saw this news story about Tamerlan Tsarnaev's burial in Virginia. And I was deeply frustrated. Angry, even. I had been following the saga of Tsarnaev's body, because I was frankly scandalized that people were so unwilling to give his body a final resting place in Massachusetts, and that even Muslim clergy had indicated their unwillingness to preside over his burial. And now when someone had finally had the guts to step up and offer a place of burial, the community of  Doswell, Virginia had been downright begrudging to find themselves in the role of unwitting host to an displaced body.

I understand that people are grieving and it's hard to be in generous in such a state. But the majority of us (including this community in Virginia, presumably) didn't lose someone in the bombing, and thus can't be excused in that way. The talk of raising money to ship Tsarnaev's body back to Russia (lest he pollute apparently sacred American soil!) smacks of xenophobia, which I find deeply troubling. I'm all for patriotism in response to terrorism, but I get concerned when that seems to entail deciding someone's worthiness to be buried based on their nationality (or faith?). Or when we seem to believe that someone's basic humanity is negated by their involvement in terrorism (Some of those protesting the Worcester funeral home who accepted Tsarnaev's body had held a poster reading "Bury the garbage in the landfill.").

It seems to me it's time to rediscover some Medieval Christian wisdom on the subject. In specific the seven Corporal Works of Mercy:

The seven works of bodily mercy be these: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and needy, harbor the houseless, comfort the sick, visit prisoners, bury the dead.
                                                           --Middle English Sermons.
These works come from  Matthew 25:34-40, and thus are the works that Jesus gave as distinguishing the righteous from the unrighteous in the final judgement. Those who are blessed in this judgement are those who have done these works to the least (the poor, the unlovable, the undeserving) but which Jesus proclaims they have in reality done to him. The Medieval church embraced these teachings, painting them on their church walls as teaching aides and reminders.

The last work, "Bury the Dead" is not part of the Matthew 25 list; its addition to the list was apparently inspired by the apocryphal Book of Tobit, but also likely out of Medieval plague necessity (think "Bring out your dead!"...). Preparing a body for burial in such circumstances was not only nasty, intimate, but also possibly life threatening act. Handling the dead was a decidedly costly work in an age prior to refrigeration and embalming, where disease might have ruptured the body's envelope, where contagion risks were frighteningly mysterious. Think of the masked rescue workers in the Bangladesh Factory collapse painstakingly unburying the weeks-old dead. Not pretty. Not a glamorous role.

In modern Western society, there is little need for the laity to prepare the dead for burial, and the injunction "Bury the Dead" has an archaic ring to it. But now, here, is a sudden application. A sudden test for our attitude toward the least among us.

I don't know what the secular response to Tsarnaev's dispossessed body ought to be. I know there are both traditions that also honor the dignity of the human person, and those who take a disenchanted view of the world and wouldn't be too fussed about how the physical remains of a person are treated, terrorist or no.

But I do know what a Christian response ought to be. We ought to bury him with all the care and honor that the Polish buried their Katyn dead. If that seems wrong, that's the point. If it seems impossibly hard, then we know we're on the right track.

We ought to do what the funeral director in Worcester did: offer his body a dignified refuge from a state morgue.

We ought to do as one Connecticut man did: offer a burial place next to his mother's grave. 

We ought to do what the woman in Virgina did: recognize that Tsarnaev is the enemy Jesus told her to love and arrange for a burial in accordance with his religious and cultural background.

We ought to bury the body of this terrorist, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as if it were Jesus' body.

Because the Christian story is all about grace. About undeserved goodness from God. About grace upon grace. Grace for Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Grace for Ariel Castro. Grace for Jerry Sandusky. Grace for Kermit Gosnell. Grace for Bashar al-Assad. In other words, grace for those we think should by rights be beyond grace. Grace for me.

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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Literary Christmas Treats

Not this fall but last fall, I started composing a post about all the wonderful books and movies I enjoyed over the summer. Unfortunately my blogging ambitions are rather out of touch with grad school reality and the post was never more than a list of titles on a scrap of paper.

But some of those titles were really worth sharing and I was recently inspired by buying a friend some of my very favorite children's Christmas picture books. So I've decided to recast the list as a Christmas present recommendation/Year in Review list. As it's even a little late for Christmas now you can use it as a birthday shopping list in the new year and astound all your gift recipients with goodness -I'm willing to vouch for every item! As this represents two years worth of saving up, I've chosen two entries in each of 5 categories: 
1. Christmas Picture Books
2. Books                                                                                  
3. Movies                                                                                  
4. TV                                                                                  
5. Music

1.a The Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman by Helen Hooper, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak 1967. (this is important--don't get the recent reprint with the horrible pictures!)

This has got to be my absolute favorite Christmas book ever (although I do have a real soft spot for this one too). The story is simple, yet moving. It's not religious yet it has some very biblical-feeling themes of the reconciliation of all things (Isaiah 11:6 stuff). It has the most beautiful illustrations, with a Russian fairy tale look. Imagine a Russian Little Red Riding Hood and you've about got the idea. Only instead of a girl, there's a woodsman with a fantastic red beard, and the wolf is well, more sympathetic and interesting. 

"It was Christmas, and the Great Wolf was very lonely. He was a mighty hunter, fleet of foot and sharp of tooth, and so he was feared by all animals in the forest."
1.b Ernest and Celestine, by Gabrielle Vincent.

Just about the sweetest picture book you ever did see. Ernest, a bear, is the guardian of Celestine, a young mouse. No further explanation needed given their tender love for one another. Celestine loses her precious stuffed bird Gideon in the snow and Ernest clears out a toy shop to find a substitute to no avail. A very simple, understated story but with charming watercolor illustrations. There are a whole bunch of sequels but this one's the best. 

2.a Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I've raved about this one before but it bears repeating. Reverend John Ames, an elderly minister writes letters to his young son since he expects not to live to see him grown. Seems like a simple story, but what with Ames' family history, which includes a wild abolitionist preacher grandfather, and the present which includes Jack, the questionably intentioned prodigal son of a fellow preacher who keeps hanging around town and annoyingly wants to talk theology, the tone quickly changes from elegy to drama. It's filled with so many beautiful images and moving passages it's hard to choose just one quote.

I can tell you this, that if I'd married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I'd leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother's face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying that I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world - your mother excepted, of course - and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face. 

2.b Queen of Attolia by Meghan Whalen Turner

“This is the stupidest plan I have ever in my career participated in," Xenophon said. "I love stupid plans," said Eugenides.” 

And that in a nutshell is the character of Eugenides, or Gen, one of the most irresistible literary characters you'll ever meet. This book recommendation is really cheating a bit, since you must read The Thief, which introduces Gen and his world, prior to reading Queen of Attolia if you want to enjoy it at all. But what better tribute to a rascal like Gen then smoothly slipping an extra book into the list? This series is set in an alternate past that's sort of a late Medieval-Ancient Greek blend. There are gods, legends, and several clever plot twists. But by far the best thing is the vivid characters and dialogue, and this book, with its clash between Gen and the Queen of Attolia is the finest of the lot. I'd say more but I'd hate to spoil something so good.

“Please," he whispered. His voice was low but clear. "Don't hurt me anymore."

Attolia recoiled. Once, as a child, she'd thrown her slipper in a rage and had knocked an amphora of oil from its pedestal. The amphora had been a favorite of hers. It had smashed, and the scent of the hair oil inside had lingered for days. She remembered the scent still, though she didn't know what in the stinking cell had brought it to mind.”

3.a Of Gods and Men

This film tells the story of French Trappist monks living in loving harmony with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria who must decide whether to flee when the Algerian Civil War threatens their lives. I've heard this described as the best depiction of faith in modern cinema, and I have to concur: it sensitively captures the very human struggles to live in obedience to God. In addition it is gorgeously shot and has an appropriately contemplative pacing which serves to amp up the tension as the film moves towards its painful ending. The last supper scene, set to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake is truly moving and feels like a Dutch painting come to life (the faces of the monks are illuminated against dark backgrounds). I love when films allow you to focus on the beautiful faces of actors and really allow their characters to shine though, and this film does this perfectly.

3.b I've Loved You So Long


A heartbreaking love story between two sisters, that is to say, it plays out like some love stories--with one party pursuing emotional intimacy and the other withdrawing, with deep, unconditional love ultimately held out as the answer to suffering. There is some amazing acting from Kristin Scott-Thomas who portrays the sister recently returned from prison with a completely believable combination of hardness and brokenness. In addition to the delicate portrayal of emotion, this film also depicts the joy of family life and bonds in all its significant details. Bonus: get a glimpse of French country living that will make you want to buy a ticket there pronto--I  thought this depiction was unrealistic until I actually visited the French countryside last summer!

4.a Little Dorrit 

One of these days, post-gradschool, I will finish reading Bleak House and all the other Dickens that I haven't had time for. But in the meantime I'll enjoy BBC's recent Dickens productions like Bleak House (so excellent!) and Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit is a typical Dickens tale in terms of involving rags-to-riches and a convoluted conspiracy plot-line, but of course as always with Dickens it's the colorful and loveable characters which really draw you in. This production has an Amy with a wonderful, expressive face (she rated my interesting faces post), and some top-notch, moving acting by Russell Tovey, as the faithful John Chivery. If the economy has got you down, enjoy this tender love story and remind yourself that bank crashes and lost fortunes are not exclusively modern phenomena.

4.b Downton Abbey 

If it's not too hipsterish to say it--I loved Downton Abbey before it was cool to love Downton. As a result I have mixed feelings about recommending it now, particularly given the upsetting rumors I've heard of the ruthless treatment of beloved characters in later seasons (I've only seen all of Season 1). Nonetheless, there are so many good, loveable things about this show, I can't not recommend it.  The opening credits themselves are worth the price of admission, and it provides a foretaste of the upstairs/downstairs pleasures to be found in the series. Chief among the show's virtues are its lovely and interesting characters. Well, to be precise, there are some lovely, more 'interesting.' But who can help loving Bates, Anna, Mr. Carson, Daisy, Mrs. Padmore, Lady Sybil...?

5.a The Songs of Songs, Andrew Rose Gregory

In the Garden of Ein Gedi.

A lovely modern interpretation of the Song of Solomon. The Gregory Brothers are the folks behind Autotune the News (whose coverage of the US presidential debates and candidates was my favorite part of the election). Turns out their autotune skills result from some serious musical chops, and middle brother Andrew Rose Gregory takes the lead in this sensitive, jazz-folk version of the best bits of Song of Songs. Besides being a fan of their music, I'm a fan of what seems to be a really interesting, fun loving family--to see what I mean take in their Wiki Wars competition videos.

5.b If On a Winter's Night, Sting

Soul Cake

I had never taken in any Sting prior to this album but I really like this Christmas album--he takes some more obscure Medieval Christmas carols, folk songs, and lullabies and does some interesting things with them (mostly American folk style renditions). I believe in the liner notes he mentions wanting to capture the underexplored melancholy of Christmas, and with songs like Cold Song, The Snow it Melts the Soonest, and The Hounds of Winter, I'd say mission accomplished! 


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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pity and Romantic Love

I recently finished Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. I rarely cry, even when genuinely moved by a book, so I was astonished to find myself tearing up on the subway (where I do my leisure reading these days) at the bittersweet beauty of the story. Lest this gushing make you suspect that you are in for Oprah Book-of-the-Month-type chaff, I appeal to authority: Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In other words it's in the same class as To Kill a Mocking Bird and Grapes of Wrath. You should read it; savor it.                                     
One passage in particular struck me: 

It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity. And this is truer of women than of men. So they get themselves drawn into situations that are harmful to them. I have seen this happen many, many times. I have always had trouble finding a way to caution against it. Since it is, in a word, Christlike.

I was struck by this because I have previously had occasion to ponder the relationship between pity and love. I have never been in love, but I dated someone who I pitied, and that emotion had a strong effect on me which I think was similar to love and could have grown into love. I was never blind to his faults, but he became more dear to me as I watched him struggle with his weaknesses. I was well aware all the tropes about women being hurt in by broken men who they intend to fix, but I chose to date him (in part) on the conviction that true, Christ-like love does not mean being blind to flaws or expecting perfection but having compassion for weakness. But when the relationship ended, it made me wonder whether I had been right about the role that pity ought to play in love.

Shortly after that I reread Lord of the Rings and was surprised to find pity in the love story of Faramir and Éowyn. Here pity is mentioned in the description of Faramir and Éowyn's first meeting and conversation in which Éowyn wishes Faramir to release her from the Houses of Healing:

The Lord Faramir was walking alone in the garden of the Houses of Healing, and the sunlight warmed him, and he felt life run new in his veins, but his heart was heavy, and he looked out over the walls eastward. And coming, the Warden spoke his name, and he turned and saw the Lady Éowyn of Rohan; and he was moved with pity, for he saw that she was hurt, and his clear sight perceived her sorrow and unrest."
'What would you have me do, lady?' said Faramir. 'I also am a prisoner of the healers.' He looked at her, and being a man whom pity deeply stirred, it seemed to him that her loveliness amid her grief would pierce his heart. And she looked at him and saw the grave tenderness in his eyes, and yet knew, for she was bred among men of war, that here was one whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle. 
'Then quietly,  more as if speaking to herself than to him; 'But the healers would have me lie abed seven days yet,' she said. 'And my window does not look eastward.' Her voice was now that of a maiden young and sad. 

Faramir smiled, though his heart was filled with pity.   

When I read this passage it seemed to me that Tolkien was using the word pity in a broader way than its modern, primarily negative usage, which, given Tolkien's philology background, made me suspect an archaic definition of pity. This deserves a far more thorough investigation, but the entry in the OED seems to confirm this hunch. The OED records a transition in the word from a meaning that is more similar to a deeply felt compassion (with religious undertones, given its etymological relationship to 'piety') to a modern usage that implies "disdain or mild contempt for a person as intellectually or morally inferior." Clearly the latter type of pity would be a very poor foundation for romantic love, but the former might actually be a solid one. Does not love (in the long term) require one to be able to smile with a sort of fond pity on the foolishness of one's spouse?

In Faramir's case we see that he is a virtuous man (Peter Jackson's slanderous depiction notwithstanding) and that being "a man whom pity deeply stirred" is a positive attribute. Indeed, earlier in the book this characteristic is revealed in his interaction with Frodo and Sam; his sensitivity towards others stands in stark contrast his father's callous nature. However, as Éowyn perceives, this tenderness does not mean Faramir is weak, pity is a virtue which is compatible with his warrior identity. To summarize, Faramir's pity is a laudable emotional response to suffering which seems to prime him to act with compassion towards others. In other words, to love them.

Going on the evidence of this first meeting of Faramir and Éowyn, it would seem that love and pity (of the archaic definition, of course!) are very closely related: at the very least pity grows into love and perhaps at points is not even distinguishable from love. It seems that there are other examples of this in literature. At the moment I'm in the middle of Anna Karenina and pity comes up quite a bit. For example, Karenin, the jilted husband, is recorded to feel pity towards his wife, son, his wife's lover, but towards his newborn daughter (the product of his wife's affair) he had "a sort of special feeling, not only of pity but of also of tenderness. At first it was only his feeling of pity that made him turn his attention to the delicate little girl, who was not his child and had been so badly neglected during her mother's illness that she would certainly have died had he not taken care of her, and he did not notice himself how he grew to love her."

But this sort of simple model (pity --> love or pity = love) doesn't explain what the risk is in loving someone who you pity. If pity and love can/should be so naturally allied, then why the problem that Robinson mentions and that I experienced? Is it simply that it's normally okay to love some you pity but that sometimes people get unlucky and pity undeserving people who hurt them? Or is there something that is inherently wrong dangerous (because I agree with Robinson that it's not wrong) about loving where you pity?

For a solution to this I think we need to return to Faramir and Éowyn since a couple pages later Tolkien complicates things by using pity in what would seem to be a more modern sense. In this scene Faramir and Éowyn are having a little DTR in which starts off with the fun fact that that Éowyn was very recently in love with Aragorn. 
'I wished to be loved by another,' She answered. 'But I desire no man's pity.'

Eowyn, Shield Maiden
'That I know,' he said. 'You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth. And as great a captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is, a lord among men, the greatest that now is. But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle. Look at me, Éowyn!'
And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily; and Faramir said: 'Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Éowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without any fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Éowyn, do you not love me?'

I think it's not a stretch to say that this conversation is a contest between two competing views of pity. Éowyn's, which pridefully rejects pity as demeaning, and Faramir's, which categorizes the sort of pity he and Aragorn offer her as "the gift of a gentle heart." So far so good, since Éowyn's view and Faramir's view nicely map onto the modern and archaic definitions of pity that we have been discussing. 

But Faramir, although he defends pity, makes a clear distinction between his pity and his love. He esteems and would love Éowyn even were there no cause to pity her. His love for her would not be diminished by the fact that he would not be needed by her and could not pity her were she completely well and happy as queen.

This, I think, is the key to the puzzle. Everyone has elements of brokenness and sinfulness that they will never be able to escape. Loving where one pities is indeed essential to the Christian calling, and a part of romantic love. Waiting for someone who you will never have to pity is unrealistic in the extreme and being unable or unwilling to pity weakness in a partner is an unwholesome state of affairs that is unlikely to lead to marital bliss.   

But it is perilous to love where you pity because feelings of pity can be easily confused for love. They can cloak the fact that you do not actually admire the person, and would feel deprived of your role as healer/savior/enabler were the person completely healed of whatever spiritual or emotional afflictions they have. Faramir's test is a good one. Would you still love this person even were they completely whole and well, and did not need you to become so?

Even with the risk, I believe in loving where you pity, because in the real world we cannot jump to healing on our own. Ultimate healing is unattainable in this world, yet even human love has a capacity for healing, and two broken people can be a source of healing for each other. I think Tolkien agrees with me because this is how the story of Faramir and Éowyn ends (post DTR and post kissing):

And to the Warden of the Houses Faramir said: 'Here is the Lady Éowyn of Rohan, and now she is healed.'

In case this post was too serious:

If you don't get the joke then it's time for a little JRR read/reread!

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Sunday, June 03, 2012

What 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' Should Have Been But Wasn't

(More like this!)

Like all right-minded folks, I was very disappointed by the travesty that was the new Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie. As with The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, the trailer looked promising (the visuals matched or at least approximated the books), but the execution, or perhaps I should say the spirit of the film, was all wrong.

It's not just changing the plot (although really, if you are going to change the plot you have GOT to do better than green mist and a 7 swords MacGuffin!) but the fact that the film doesn't feel like Lewis. Why, oh why do movie writers insist on throwing out the perfectly jolly dialogue of the books and substituting their own trashy dialogue? For example, just compare the dialogue from the movie and the book on the romance between Caspian and Ramandu's daughter.


Caspian: You are most beautiful.
Ramandu's daughter: If it is a distraction for you I can change form.
Caspian and Edmund: No!!
Lucy: [rolls eyes]


"In the world from which my friends come" (here he [Caspian] nodded at Eustace and the Pevensies) "they had a story of a prince or a king coming to a castle where all the people lay in an enchanted sleep. In this story he could not dissolve the enchantment until he had kissed the princess."

"But here," said the girl, "it is different. Here he cannot kiss the princess til he has dissolved the enchantment."

"Then," said Caspian, "in the name of Aslan, show me how to set about that work at once."

[Later, when leaving]

"Lady," said Caspian, "I hope to speak with you again when I have broken the enchantments." And Ramandu's daughter looked at him and smiled.

The movie dialogue is good for a cheap laugh at best, and sexist at worst. The book dialogue is beautiful and subtle, the stuff of honor and fairie.

I'm not the only one has noticed this cheapening of honor, in a Narnia Web podcast, commentator "Rilian" points out (around 22:30) that the movie totally abandons the emphasis on honor which in the book provides the motivation for their quest to find the missing Narnian lords. As Rilian notes, the view of honor in the Dawn Treader is best articulated by Reepicheep, when they are contemplating withdrawing from the darkness around the Dark Island without exploring it.

"But what manner of use would it be ploughing through all that blackness?" asked Drinian.

"Use?" replied Reepicheep. "Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures."

In stark contrast to Reepicheep's (and Lewis') valuing of honor over usefulness, the movie makers' plot change elevates pragmatism: the seven swords must be found to break the mysterious power of the green mist which is stealing people away.

The failure of the modern pragmatically oriented filmmakers to grasp what an essentially Medieval view of chivalry is not terribly surprising. After all, chivalry and honor belong in the same category as the list of words that Thomas Howard, in his C.S. Lewis: Man of Letters (which is, by the by, the best book on Lewis I have yet read) reports so bewildered his students. Howard would distribute a list of archaic moral words (majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, purity) to his class at the beginning of term with predictable results. "The entire list of words lands in their laps like a heap of dead basalt meteorites lately arrived from some other realm. They don't know what to do with them" (Howard, 1987, p. 20). In the same way the filmmakers' inability to interpret and understand this critical element in the book is entirely predictable.

What is surprising is that the filmmakers similarly abandon (or misunderstand, perhaps) another theme equally central to the book but not so morally freighted, and moreover one which could only have aided their efforts at creating a blockbuster. This theme is the love of the sea and of ships--essentially all things nautical.

This theme is obvious from even a cursory reading of Dawn Treader. Just four pages in Lewis is describing the titular ship "She was obviously running fast before a gay wind, listing over a little on her port side" in a way that suggests both seafaring knowledge and love of the sea. This is confirmed by one of Lewis' asides:

"By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don't know already, you had better get it straight into your head that the left side of a ship when you are looking ahead is port and the right is starboard."

There is abundant other evidence of Lewis's nautical love: early on the Pevensies are taken on a tour of the ship (which is accompanied in the book by a cross-section map of the ship), and the Dawn Treader is described in loving detail ("she was a beauty of her kind, a "lady" as sailors say, her lines perfect, her colors pure, and every spar and rope lovingly made."). Even our main characters' response to the ship serves as a key to understanding their characters: Lucy is rightly entranced by Caspian's snug cabin with its windows looking out on the sea while the depth of Eustace's folly is shown by his preference for submarines and ocean liners over the little ship's charming lines (at one point he calls it "a rotten little tub"). 

Lewis' description of the Dawn Treader and his use of correct technical vocabulary (starboard, port, aft, prow, spar, rigging, forecastle, galley, poop deck, amidships, tiller) demonstrate is that he is fully alive to the enchantment of sailing. The nautical details are not mere window dressing on the way to adventures and treasure, they are the source of keen pleasure and adventure in themselves. Of course these shipboard pleasures are inseparable from the appeal of the power and beauty of the ocean, which Lewis also depicts ("blue waves flecked with foam, and paler blue sky, both spreading without a break to the horizon", "they were alternately golden with sunlight and dim green with the sea", "a great grey hill of water far higher than the mast rushed to meet them"). A graceful ship moving on the immense, dangerous sea is a beautiful, poetic thing well worth depicting in its own right. That Lewis realizes this can be seen by the Pevensies' joy upon the conclusion of the tour of the ship:

"..the other two were delighted with the Dawn Treader, and when they turned aft to the cabin and saw the whole western sky lit up with an immense crimson sunset, and felt the quiver of the ship, and tasted the salt on their lips, and the thought of unknown lands on the eastern rim of the world , Lucy felt that she was almost too happy to speak."

Any child can tell you of the charm of a sea-faring life, how it joins the beauty of the sea and the promise of adventure in one intoxicating draught, and renders glorious even the most lowly vessel. Yet the Voyage of the Dawn Treader film makers seem to be entirely innocent of such pleasures. Despite (or perhaps because of) their big budget and resources, they clearly don't get it, and their realization of the ship fails as a result. Forget the ocean, they didn't even bother to shoot the movie in a water tank!--the ship was essentially a stage supported by hydraulics to make it pitch and move. The 'ship' is not a true ship--it has no 
The movie prop Dawn Treader
hull, so never touched the water. It was suspended above the water at an Australian oceanfront park and in front of green screens for the storm and sea monster scenes. As a result, it doesn't feel real, and the ocean doesn't look particularly beautiful. The Dawn Treader as it appears on screen is gaudy, weighed down with impractical ornamentation that undermines the simple beauty that characterizes real working ships. One of the creators of the set was apparently inspired by carousels, and this comes through--its feels about as real as the pirate ships rides in amusement parks.

Perhaps this criticism of the film seems unfair, or that I'm impossible to please, so let me give some examples which both demonstrate both what I am talking about and that it is possible to produce a literary product with a proper appreciation for the sea.  Without further ado, here are 3 works which get it--which clearly love seafaring and possess the spirit which was so missing in the Dawn Treader movie. 

1. Swallows and Amazons 

The story of a family of four children learning to sail and finding adventure during their summer holiday in the Lake District in England. Both in its book and movie form, Swallows beautifully demonstrates the pleasures of sailing which are accessible even to a child, and the beauty of a boat, even on a very small scale. We witness the children learning the rules of sailing (among them the gem from their father "Better drowned than duffers; if not duffers won't drown."), honing their navigation skills, and developing a fierce pride in their boat, Swallow.  Imaginative Titty's frequent literary references to books in the seafaring tradition (Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island) remind us of the close association between sailing and the best romantic adventures (deserted islands, pirates, maps, hostile natives, treasure, and intrigue!). 

Here is a clip of the 1973 movie that shows some sailing (watch to the end to see the Swallow under full sail). And here's another clip if you can't get enough of this goodness. I'm a big fan of this version of Swallows and Amazons for a variety of reasons. I love that it accurately depicts children's imaginative play and the delights of camping without loudly calling attention to them. I also love the slower pacing of the film, which allows us to actually see what's going on, including some truly beautiful moments, like Titty looking at the shadows of the leaves on her tent when she first wakes up. Add this to the short list of movies that my children will be allowed to watch!  

Most important for our purposes, the movie version does an excellent job capturing the beauty of the water. 'Dawn Treader' could have learned a thing or two from them! 

2. Master and Commander 

The story of a charismatic British sea captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, who leads his ship full of fighting men half way around the globe on a chase to capture a wily French privateer. If you thought Swallows and Amazons sounded too tame, this is the movie for you! The potential for maritime adventure is fully realized here, there are sea battles, exotic foreign ports, cunning strategy, and truly scary storms. A fair proportion of the movie's appeal comes from how real of the ship feels--its wood palpably groaning under pressure or damaged by war, decks crowded with men and cluttered with rigging. There is realism in the depiction of shipboard life too: it makes clear how the men are bound by strict hierarchy, obedience is mandatory and punishment for infractions severe, and their time is precisely divided into a series of watches. Yet despite its realism the movie also has a romantic perspective, capturing the glory of the ship in battle and sailing under full sail. 

As an aside, did you notice the blonde boy in the trailer whose arm is broken and who is told he'll take command of the ship during the battle?  That's 13 year old Lord Blakeney, played by Max Perkis, and I think it's worth pointing out that this boy is much closer, both in age and appearance, to how Caspian is described in Prince Caspian. Ben Barnes' swarthy appearance not withstanding, according to Lewis, Caspian has golden, curly hair. So if it were up to me, you'd have cast Perkis (or someone like him) for Prince Caspian and a young man version of the same for Voyage (remember there is supposed to be a 3 year gap in Narnian time). This would clearly be a huge improvement over Barnes' simpering (and don't even get me started on his obnoxious Eurotrash accent!) and make the movie 100% more bearable at a single stroke. But the main thing to notice about Blakeney is that since he's a lord he's given a adult level of responsibility at sea (he is maimed and could easily be killed) and he performs magnificently! So basically the moral of Swallows and Amazon + Master and Commander = young kids at sea for the win! Luckily Lewis is brilliant enough to have figured this out for himself, if only the filmmakers would help him out by not casting actors far older than they ought to be. 

3. The Riddle of the Sands

The story of two British young men frolicking around in the North Sea, who through many daring feats of seamanship uncover a dastardly German plot. This spy novel is the least well known of my three examples, it was written in 1903 and has since fallen into obscurity.  But is well worth rediscovering (you can read it here), if only for the pleasure of getting to know the delightful character of Davies. Davies is a character completely in love with sailing and his boat, the DulcibellaDavies takes a childlike delight in the cramped living quarters of the tiny vessel: a tiny kitchen in which things have a tendency to roll away and break, cramped bunks, little head space and knee room leading to bruised foreheads and shins, etc. Davies' perspective ("there's plenty of room to sit upright...Some people make a point of head-room, but I never mind much about it.") is contagious, both to the more sophisticated Curruthers, who narrates the adventure, as well as to readers. You can get a taste of Davies' character in the following passage, in which a chagrined Curruthers, who had imagined natty white flannels and uniformed sailors, not gumboots and a two man crew when he agreed to join Davies for "yachting", has just arrived on board the Dulcibella, and delivered Davies a a number of requested of ship-related items, including a new stove. 

'There's your stove, you see,' he [Davies] ended; 'I've chucked the old one overboard.' It was a weakness of his, I should say here, to rejoice in throwing things overboard on the flimsiest pretexts. I afterwards suspected that the new stove had not been 'really necessary' any more than the rigging-screws, but was an excuse for gratifying this curious taste.

But Davies is deadly serious about certain things: the state of the British coastal defenses, accurate coastal charts, and a certain young woman. He's also serious about seamanship and skillful navigation--the book contains descriptions of such ingenious uses of the characteristics of the  Dulcibella, the tides and sands, that you come away convinced that sailing requires as much clever strategy as spying itself. 

Speaking of strategy, there's plenty of that in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader book that is completely dropped in the movie version. For example, take the ruse that Caspian uses to retake the Lone Islands--it is eviscerated in the movie, becoming a contrived and pointless action sequence.

But it doesn't have to be like this. For proof that there is no reason that this scene can't be portrayed in a movie version check out this clip from the old BBC miniseries version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

In fact, despite (because of?) being low budget and literal the BBC version is a whole lot better at capturing the love of the sea and adventure. Even more important, this clip shows how the sense of honor present in the books could be simply and easily communicated in film--the restoration of Caspian's dominion over lost territory is an solemn occasion, in which all the players act formally in order to do honor to the majesty of Caspian's kingship and restored empire. This is important to get right in an adaption if you care at all about the integrity of the story (honor and kingship are clearly important to Lewis) but especially if you care about the potential Christian allegory in the story. 

But while I don't expect the filmmakers to get say, Lewis's allusions to mystical voyages, it really doesn't seem that hard to understand the basic appeal of a boat!

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Toronto Goodness

When I had first arrived in Toronto, I had rather a hard time of it what with not knowing a single person in the city and having my backpack (with a lot of important things in it) stolen within the first couple months of arriving. I was experiencing a bit of culture shock (mostly the anti-Americanism that was particularly obvious during the US presidential primary) and so I wrote a rather annoyed blog post about Canadians. Although I still agree with the main thrust of my argument, I've since come to appreciate some things about Toronto, things that I will really miss when my grad school years come to an end. So in penance for my earlier anti-Canadian sentiment and to remind myself to be thankful for the many good gifts, I present the following list.

Things I love about Toronto
-watching the snow fall outside
-when the colors of the fall leaves are lit up by nearby streetlights at night
-when you can see the patterns of the snowflakes
-the amazing tulips and daffodils in the spring
-the lilacs and irises in the summer
-being able to buy ingredients for Ethiopian food (injera)
-being able to try all sorts of international foods (my first time to try Caribbean, Korean, Thai, Sushi = in Toronto).
-old buildings, particularly the U of T buildings, and particularly when transformed by snow
-Gerstein and Graham Libraries--both old buildings that have been renovated while retaining their old charm. My favorite places to study.
-Kensington Market--in particular the fruit market where I buy my fruit and veggies
-Toronto Brickworks and surrounding trails
-flowershops--especially the smell them when you walk by
-used bookstores, especially Balfour Books
-Bulk Barn (okay, I've only ever been to one in Guelph but I love the concept)
-E.D. Smith jam--apparently a Canadian brand, since 1883--the raspberry and apricot are delicious!
-buskers, especially the old man who plays strange but beautiful Asian instruments I don't recognize in the Spadina subway
-the cool houses on Palmerston Boulevard, especially their amazing brickwork.
-old oak trees, especially the ones in the neighborhood near Casa Loma. Cool houses there too.
-the sound of the wind rustling the leaves of the trees in the city--so peaceful!
-All the people on the subway (and my students) from such a wide range of cultures. Such beautiful, interesting faces, such a variety of dress.
-The Royal Ontario Museum
-cardinals--I love their song and their color and we don't have them in southern CA.
-watching and listening to little kids play games for P.E. in the field near my house as I walk by-- always some kids hanging out near the fence, rather than participating, so cute!
-watching the boys passionately playing hockey/ball hockey at the nearby park as I pass, only to realize they are all grown men in their 40s--oh Canadians, you amuse me!
-Guildwood Park and its amazing statuary
-also the Scarborough Bluffs
-iceskating--all those outdoor rinks
-Porter Airline--the way the flying experience should be! (and best mascot ever!)
-streetcars--they're pretty! and I pretend I'm on an amusement park ride when we go though tunnels. I like seeing the world from a bit higher off the ground.
-all the funny city animals--pigeons, squirrels, raccoons, sparrows. It's not like I would like to cuddle with them, but they enrich my life in their scruffy way.
-My street. Especially the way the old fashioned brick houses are sort of pastel colors, and when they are lit up at night remind me of dollhouses or decorative lanterns.
-My favorite Victorian house in the neighborhood, complete with gingerbread, turret, canary and African violets in the windows and adorable old couple.
-My church (meaning the people, obviously, although the building is nice too).

Postscript: To-Do While in Toronto
-Go to Niagara Falls (still haven't been!)
-Go to Toronto Islands (ditto!)
-Go to a ballet (was so annoyed that I missed this one)
-Go to another play or two (have been to 1 Shakespeare and 1 Stoppard so far)
-Go to the ROM more often (It's free to York students on Tuesdays)
-Go ice skating more
-Learn to play hockey
-Try snowshoeing
-Visit St. Anne's Anglican Church
-Go camping somewhere in Northern Ontario with friends
-Visit Montreal, Ottawa, and Prince Edward Island

Look, here are some other people collecting Toronto goodness! Mmmm...lovely!
Occasional Toronto
Blog TO
Daily Dose of Imagery

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