Summer Reading: July 2020

Does anyone else miss summer reading programs? Although I continue to read more during the summer than any other time of year, there was a great satisfaction to completing reading challenges and earning prizes which adult life sadly lacks.

Still, I thought I would share what I’ve been reading lately—that is, when I am not frantically researching for my master’s thesis. This July, I am trying to cultivate a reading list which will prove both timelessly valuable and culturally relevant.

Short Story: “The Other Foot” by Ray Bradbury
This heart-wrenching story, written in the years leading up to the American Civil Rights movement, presents a stunning consideration of race and reconciliation. Using science-fiction, Bradbury paints a painfully realistic and dynamic portrait of prejudice, justice, and mercy which is as deserving of discussion now as when originally published in the 1950s. This and other selected stories from The Illustrated Man can be accessed online here.

Poetry: “East Coker” by T.S. Eliot
As COVID-19 continues to spread and to become further politicised, it is well worth considering the cycles of time and culture. Illness, contention, and fear are, sadly, nothing new under the sun. As Eliot writes, “the whole earth is our hospital,” yet the “wounded surgeon” continues—even now—to be our hope. Written amidst the death and destruction of WWII, this poem speaks powerfully to both the horror and hope of human life. I highly recommend this gorgeous reading by Jeremy Irons.

Essay: “The Suicide of Thought” by G.K. Chesterton
A man ahead of his time, this essay reminds readers that postmodernism is no intellectual island and considers whether intellectual humility has gone too far in producing a movement of deconstruction which destroys itself—not unlike a snake consuming it own tail. In a society which is pondering whether mathematics are sexist, Chesterton’s observations seem prophetic: “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (Read it online here.)

Novel: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Excuse my adding another Bradbury, but I love him passionately. This banned book about banned books presents an alternative consideration of cancel culture, in which books and authors are eliminated in an effort to avoid offending a multitude of minorities. “Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.” (I have extra copies for anyone local who would like to borrow one!)

Novella: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Although brief enough to read in one sitting, this volume is remarkably deep. With each reading, another chapter absorbs my attention. This time, I was struck most of all by Lewis’ imaginative commentary on individuals clinging to their assumed autonomy above all else, even at the cost of their religious witness or communal harmony. (Another one I have multiples of, in case anyone local needs to borrow one.)

Autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
As Douglass was an outstanding orator, I am primarily listening to this book on Audible. An incredible and important book, Douglass shares the horrors of American slavery with intense clarity and insight, as well as articulates and demonstrates the necessity of faith, literacy, and community in overcoming racism. I also highly recommend the episode of BBC’s “In Our Time,” in which Douglass’ life and legacy are discussed by leading scholars.

Old Testament: Esther
Esther has long been my favourite female Bible character. She is the embodiment of “strength and dignity,” a woman of both conviction and compassion. The story of Esther reminds readers that political unrest and deadly prejudice have always been characteristic of fallen humanity. Esther, however, also serves as a reminder that through dedicated prayer, intentional preparation, and winsome persuasion, we can be examples of grace and truth “for such a time as this.”

New Testament: 1 Corinthians
Throughout this epistle, Paul consistently emphasises that members of the Body of Christ—acting in charity, in holy love—are to seek the protection of weaker members’ consciences and well-being. In an era in which political affiliation is easily confused with spiritual identity, it seems fitting and imperative to return to scripture. Paul here sets an example of humility, surrendering his rights for the benefit of his beloved. The situations we face today are different, but the heart behind them—the heart of Christ—remains the same.

Have any of these selections made your summer list? I would love to hear from you in the comments! I’ve done my best to include a variety of genres and forms and would value any and all feedback and recommendations. I should add that quite a few of my selections are rereads, as I find that in a constantly changing world, returning to the books which formed me and continue to reform me is both consoling and convicting.

A-boat Mercy

“It’s the boats!”

On a walk with my mother along the Oceanside pier just a few days ago, we saw “the boats.” I knew exactly which boats she meant as she pointed them out: the boats which taught me mercy.

You see, when I was about three years old, my family vacationed along this exact stretch of California coastline. I remember it vividly. Perhaps it is even my earliest memory. In any case, it had been a long day of driving and playing at the beach, and my dad promised me that if I was very good, he would take me to look at all the boats in the harbour once my brother went to bed.

Well, as is the way with one-year-olds, my brother did not go to bed as early as I’d hoped. And, as is the way with three-year-olds, I was more than a little tired and more than a little cranky. As I already had the vocabulary of a well-filtered sailor (that is, I could speak in full sentences but was ignorant of “bad words”), I sassed back to my parents and was promptly sent to bed.

My dad, sympathetic to the thwarted hopes of an overtired (if much-too-outspoken) three-year-old, came to get me after I’d finished being angry. He took me to see the boats after all.

Now, I have always been stubborn. I have always, admittedly, preferred cold justice to gentle forgiveness. And yet, I believe that mercy cuts deeper than justice ever could. Even back then, I felt my father’s kindness more keenly than his anger; it is possibly more convicting to be permitted what we do not deserve than to be punished for what we do.

We looked at the boats for a while and I thought with all my might, trying to make sense of what had happened. Finally, I came to my first real theological conclusion:

“Dad,” I said, seriously, “You showed me mercy.”

This, my earliest memory, is also my first memory of the Gospel. I understood at three years old that I had been shown mercy and grace, for I did not get what I deserved. Instead, I got to go see the boats.

It is funny to look at the boats now. I laughed to myself as I ran past them this morning, twenty years later. Taking a cranky toddler go to look at the boats seems such a small thing. And yet, it meant everything. In that simple moment, with childlike clarity, I first understood the mercy of a good father.

Great (Thwarted) Expectations

Choosing to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations now of all times felt satisfyingly ironic. After all, my expectations for this season of life have been consistently frustrated. Like Pip, the novel’s protagonist, I spent the last year building grand, beautiful, ambitious plans only to have them come crashing down in painful succession.

In reading Great Expectations, I found myself continually annoyed by Pip, for he is a blank-slate personality. For the greater part of the novel, his character is completely absorbed in his relationships and ambitions. From his obsessive love for the cold-hearted Estella to his wholesome friendship with Herbert to his ashamed attitude toward his uneducated guardian, Joe, Pip’s entire character seems to be solely informed by his relationships with others. Apart from them, he does not appear a dynamic or overly engaging character.

As the novel goes on, however, each of these other characters develops alongside and apart from Pip, forcing him back to himself. Rejected by Estella, Pip is forced to discover his identity apart from an unhealthy, consuming romance. Excelled by Herbert, Pip works for him in a position below his previous ambitions. Weakened physically by the emotional weight of his many disappointments, he relies upon Joe’s care as he did as a child.

In order to avoid spoilers, I will not reveal the greatest thwarted expectation of them all. It is safe to say, though, that every expectation upon which Pip hung his hat is completely shattered. Indeed, while his story appears to be that of an orphan coming into the happiness of wealth, it takes a sharp downward turn which continues until the very end. The title, Great Expectations, is thus poignantly ironic. Each seemingly-fortunate plot twist is disappointed, each endeavor turned to a surprising end, and Pip is beaten down back into the humility with which his story began.

I easily read myself in Pip’s first-person narration, alternately feeling his buoyant hopes and sinking despair. Perhaps, though, Pip’s story is not so very tragic. Indeed, there may be a hint of comedy in the ending, for he finally grows into himself. Had he continued in his fortune, ignorance, and well-meaning pride, he never would have reached contentment. Unlike the rich man of great expectations we encounter in the Gospels, Pip goes away and sells all he had. He puts himself at the mercy of a dear friend, and learns to live humbly, quietly, and—ultimately—happily.

“Many a year went round…I lived happily…and lived frugally…We were not in a grand way of business, but we had a good name, and worked for our profits, and did very well. We owed so much to [my friend] Herbert’s ever cheerful industry and readiness, that I often wondered how I had conceived that old idea of his inaptitude, until I was one day enlightened by the reflection that perhaps the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

It is not until Pip surrenders and humbly accepts what comes to him—after a 600 page journey of discontent and frustration, of course—that he achieves not only contentment but true character. Although by means of tragedy, in the manner of a true comedy, Pip finds himself and his place in society. Only through thwarted expectations does he become his own person; only through utter failure does he find happiness in moderate success.

Although not shown explicitly, Estella, too, undergoes a transformation via frustration. Meeting Pip in the final pages, she seems an older and wiser woman; she has lost the sheen of arrogance and beauty, but, in its place, demonstrates a more admirable strength and dignity.

“The freshness of her beauty was indeed gone, but its indescribable majesty and its indescribable charm remained. Those attractions in it, I had seen before; what I had never seen before, was the saddened softened light of the once proud eyes; what I had never felt before, was the friendly touch of the once insensible hand.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The final chapter presents an intimate scene of contented friendship where once frustrated romance reigned. This resonated so strongly with my heart, for in the simplicity of this scene, the beauty of thwarted expectations is at last revealed. It is perhaps not often that we see this in our own lives until much later on. I do not know, for instance, what opportunities await me in a place I did not expect to be, nor what friendships may grow from the softness of a battered heart.

Reading Great Expectations within a relatively brief period of time, however, reminds me that I cannot now know what will be the scope of my existence, the arc of my life. I can read ahead to the end of Pip’s story, but I cannot yet know the future of my own. I can, however, find solace in Estella’s words:

“…suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Perhaps it is not that Pip’s expectations were too great to be fulfilled but, rather, that they were not great enough. Perhaps his wisened friendship is more desirable than his tempestuous relationship. Perhaps his honest work is better than a gentleman’s debt. Perhaps the comfort of coming home again and of becoming at home in oneself is more fulfilling than desiring all the world and the prestige of society.

In any case, it seems that Pip’s thwarted expectations were, if not for the greater, for the better. I can only hope and trust that the same will be true of my own.

Unmasking Cognitive Dissonance

It is difficult lately to know which contemporary issue to address. Every morning, I wake to discover another potential disaster. (Today, it was the threat of “meth-gators,” which thankfully do not seem to be a likely threat as I’m pretty sure Steve Irwin would have been the only person capable of dealing with that.)

Today, my hometown mandated mask-wearing in public places and the uproar I’ve perceived—particularly within conservative circles—is frankly astonishing. I myself have an assortment of masks which make me feel like the world’s most floral-printed robber whenever I go to Costco, and I like to think that I’m making the best of it. My concern here, however, is not COVID-19, but cognitive dissonance. Mask-wearing is not the core issue here, but merely another manifestation of the deeper problem of human selfishness.

In more liberal crowds, I’ve seen the phrase “My Body, My Choice” recycled to support an individual’s decision regarding whether or not to wear a mask in public. However, I’ve seen people of the same liberal worldview declare that this mantra does not apply when that person’s choice might put another’s life at risk.

Pro-life advocates will readily see the irony here. (After all, it is human nature to see the flawed logic of the other side.) If total bodily autonomy is not ethical if it harms others, how can we condone abortion, especially beyond the point of viability? If it is not “my body, my choice” in this instance, why is it in another, when the death of a vulnerable human being is not accidentally infected but intentionally terminated?

Vulnerability is another point worth emphasising here. It seems a thing of the not-so-distant past to excuse ourselves from mask-wearing by insisting that only the medically vulnerable are actually at risk. If we are truly caring for “the least of these” in society—as current cultural movements, as well as a Christian ethic of neighbourly love advocate—this ought to move us to exercise even greater caution.

On the left, submitting to mask-wearing in order to protect the vulnerable is an act of great kindness, however, it is also an act of incredible irony. If caring for the vulnerable at the cost of our own bodily autonomy does not extend also to the most biologically vulnerable (e.g. the unborn, the newborn, the differently-abled, and the elderly) then this act of humility and respect toward others represents a cognitive dissonance worth careful consideration.

Now, as I’ve said before, it is remarkably easy to point out the logical fallacies of those with whom you disagree. However, it is vitally important to honestly consider the irrationality and flawed thinking of those with whom we more closely align. Until we examine our own cognitive dissonance, we can achieve neither harmonious dialogue nor rational disagreement.

I have observed many conservatives express anger that mask-wearing has been mandated. The irony here is that the very people who are most often pro-life are, in fact, exercising the same harmful autonomy which they claim to oppose. I am not here to debate the science or effectiveness of mask-wearing. It seems, though, that the refusal or reluctance to wear masks as demonstrated by certain conservatives is evidence of an underlying cognitive dissonance.

Another point worth considering is modesty. Many conservatives advocate dressing with a certain degree of propriety. A popular argument for the fittingness of this is that modesty is considerate of others who may find revealing clothing distracting or discomfiting. For the sake of consistency, these same people ought to endorse mask-wearing as covering-up out of consideration for others’ comfort and well-being.

I turn my attention now to conservative Christians in particular, who hold scripture as their moral authority and yet are subject to the same desire for autonomy as all of fallen humankind.

We all desire freedom, individuality, and comfort. While the Christian Gospel proclaims liberation from sin, is does not preclude liberation from civic and communal responsibility. Indeed, Jesus preaches submission to authorities and humility toward others, except in the case of moral wrong; unless government mandates would force us to harm our neighbour or renounce our Lord—and thus to break the two greatest commandments—we are not to oppose them. Put simply, Christianity does not provide political rights but, rather, bestows spiritual fruits; we are not promised autonomy or luxury, but are instead granted love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

In a way, Christians might adopt the phrase “My Body, My Choice,” inversely. If we are members each of the Body of Christ, our choices impact one another seriously and intimately, and we are called to love our weaker members as ourselves. Whether or not we find mask-wearing effective is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not we make serving our neighbours a priority. I wrote a year or so ago on the “radical” love of 1 Corinthians 10-11, in which Paul advises members of the Church to abstain from certain foods if they cause another member to struggle. The food itself was amoral—neither good nor bad—but caring for others through was and is essential.

The same approach might be taken with masks, which are—in and of themselves—amoral, though much-debated. Refusing to wear a mask in spite of the ethical or physical well-being of others, however, becomes an act of selfishness. Were Paul alive today, I have no doubt that he would wear a mask. To cling to our assumed “right” to wear or not wear a mask is to arrogantly disregard the humility and compassion to which we are called as believers. Regardless of whether or not going without a mask puts others at risk, is it really worth risking our Christian witness to rebel in anger against such a minor inconvenience?

As usual, my only hope with this article is to encourage you, dearest Reader, to honestly examine first yourself and then the culture which surrounds you. I am in no way innocent of irrationality, though I hope that together we can work to combat the cognitive dissonance which creeps into our reasoning, regardless of parties, positions, or preconceptions. Most of all, I hope that we will graciously challenge each other to think critically and to act considerately.

Dear Mr. Potter: An Open Letter on Cancel Culture

Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging
Surrey

Dear Mr. Potter,

We at the Ministry of Magic are writing to inform you of a significant occurrence of which it is imperative that you be informed. To put it bluntly, you are now thrice-orphaned.

The passing of your heroic father and mother, Lily and James, is a loss we still mourn here at the Ministry; their deaths represent a sacrifice—a light which guided us through dark days and which continues to inspire us in the growing chaos of this new era.

Now, it is with great sympathy that we must inform you that not only are you parentless, but also author-less. Your single authoress, who so confidently created and raised you and, in so doing, broke ground for women, single parents, and abuse survivors, has been caught in the crossfire of a spell which we never expected to see used in our modern, educated era: the dreaded ignorare vim extermina curse.

While we are all no doubt aware of the evils of the banned avada kedavra curse—we apologise for even having penned it!—the ignorare vim extermina is even worse. While the former leads to bodily death, the latter enacts a sort of “cancellation,” in which the victim is erased from culture but not from existence. It is perhaps similar to the effect of dementors—those horrid soul-sucking beasts which are only unleashed on the worst of criminals. Worse, though, your Author is allowed to keep her soul and her body, she has been denied the exercise of her voice, mind, and pen; she has suffered the most devastating of vanishing spells.

Just think, Mr. Potter, how cruel the fate of an Author who is denied the freedom of her pen! It is worse than having your wand snapped and your tongue tied by a misused hex. You must accept our sincerest condolences.

Doubtless this is terrible news for you; we are assured, however, that although your Author is suffering the cancellation curse, you will be permitted to continue managing mischief as usual. The perpetrators of the ignorare vim extermina spell are, as of now, willing to spare you, though we advise you to exercise extreme caution. One ill-quilled Howler will no doubt send you into oblivion as well. As awful as it is to be thrice-orphaned, it would be undoubtedly worse to also be obliterated.

We want also to leave you with the final words of your dear Author, penned just before she was miraculously erased from societal recognition:

“It would be much easier to tweet the approved hashtags . . . scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow. There’s joy, relief, and safety in conformity.”

Clearly, although conformity would be the easy choice, your dearly-disappeared Author is choosing to uphold the courage which she sought to imbue in her children, her characters, and her many beloved readers. Now, we at the Ministry are not entirely sure what “tweets” and “hashtags” are, but believe them to be similar to posting on the Hogwarts notice boards or sending messages via owl. Regardless, we hope that these words encourage you, restoring you to the moral of your own story: to be as courageous as a Gryffindor, as kind as a Hufflepuff, as discerning as a Ravenclaw, and as determined as a Slytherin.

We again express our deepest regrets for having to be the bearers of bad news, but we are choosing to trust that, as your dear Professor Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found in even the darkest of times, if you remember to turn on the light.”

Perhaps your Author will return. Perhaps her words will prove stronger than the magic erasers of a culture of cancellation. Until then, Harry, remember to turn on the light.

Yours Regretfully and Respectfully,

Ryanne McLaren

Literary Representative
Phoenix Division, Ministry of Magic
Ravenclaw Class of 2015

Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

Organ Sonnet 1

Until sent stepping down the pedals—scalar,
My feet were not sure of their footing here
But then, at once, my most pressing fear
Became naught but a small organ failure!

And once my frigid fingers found their note
I settled into newfound harmony
In a choir which turned much-loved company
And rendered far-off home not so remote.

But now, removed, another organ aches
To think of all I confess lies undone;
Not of my choosing, my heart once more breaks

—It beats the time of old chorales and makes
Pretend that there are present more than one—

Alone, though, none can hear its sad mistakes.

A small explanation:
I once wrote on my personal philosophy of “Theme and Variations,” the idea that I must identify the small things which make me feel at home, no matter where I may be. When I moved to California, it was finding a little church where I could play music. In Scotland, it was finding a church organist position.

Now, back home in Arizona, I am ironically feeling more displaced than ever. Yet again, though, an organist position came along to make me feel at least partly settled, partly useful and hopeful. Even as I auditioned for this new post, though, I could not help but think back on the one left unfinished, left behind sadly and suddenly in the impending wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

Whatever is Lovely

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
– Philippians 4:8
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I prefer to live my life in double-speed. My long legs are well-suited to covering twice as much ground in half as much time. My planner is generally full of meticulously-crafted schedules. I frequently book work back-to-back because the rush of being busy thrills me. Now, regular readers will recall that my need for speed (efficiency, rather, but that doesn’t rhyme) is problematic as a pianist: my propensity to rush often leads to decreased musicality. I do not tend to let myself linger in loveliness when demanding technical passages beckon me onwards. 
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IMG_3060Suddenly, though, my schedule is wide open: my work is shut-down and my social calendar is much less eventful. I still run to stretch my legs, but they no longer have to carry me anywhere beyond my front door. I am not alone in feeling that I’ll surely descend into stir-crazy madness, however, I am beginning to wonder if the sudden decrease in busyness may be liberating rather than limiting. 
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The other day while cleaning up, I discovered anew the wonder of blowing soap bubbles: such delicate, buoyant things! I spent a few minutes—which would previously have been wasted minutes—playing with them, marveling that such a simple thing has gone unnoticed in my life since childhood. Today, while stretching after a long run, I saw the world upside down. How much greener the trees suddenly looked! And how detailed the dust of the path which was at once beneath my feet and above my head.
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I have the time to just be, something I pridefully disdained before in my desire to stay busy. Madeleine L’Engle beautifully expresses the value and delight of this quiet, still, wondering time in the following:
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“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
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If we embrace this slower time as being time, we may notice once more the small, lovely things that give life its color and order even in the midst of pain and confusion. Maybe our afternoon coffees will seem more flavorful, running errands more interesting, speaking with friends more precious. Maybe we will learn to be comfortable in silence again, to enjoy our own solitary company, and to find fulfillment even in apparent inactivity.
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I am reminded of Philippians 4:8, particularly the phrase “whatever is lovely.” Perhaps now we are given the gift of relative freedom from distractions and demands so that we can rediscover the lovely things we so easily overlook. More so, in noticing loveliness, perhaps we will rediscover how to love well.
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IMG_2909We love our lives and surroundings best when we notice small things with joy. I used to keep a running list of ordinary, lovely things in my journal. Perhaps it is time to resurrect this habit. After all, if you read poetry and stories by writers who deeply love their homes, you will find that they love them particularly: in the broken stair-rail, the sound of a parent coming home, the smell of lemons from a neighbor’s tree. We love well when we notice well.
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In the same way, we can use this time to notice each other, for the best lovers are the best noticers. I don’t mean lovers in a necessarily romantic sense; I simply refer to anyone and everyone who actively loves another person, be it friend, neighbor, family, or partner. The friend who is suddenly incredibly active on Facebook? Check on her, regardless of politics. The family member struggling in isolation? Do what you can, even if it means sitting six feet apart for a masked chat. The neighbor who sets out a “sharing table” and seems to have plenty? Add what you can and commend their kindness. 
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As you learn to notice lovely things and to recognize opportunities for love, take the time to notice yourself as well. These last months have forced me to recognize the good things I’ve allowed to become idols as, suddenly, they have been removed. Noticing this is hard—painful even—but it is allowing me to genuinely check in with myself spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. Notice how you are doing and what it is you are desiring. I realize this is easier said than done, but I entreat you to join me in the effort. And remember that noticing ourselves goes beyond self-care; it involves confronting the reality of our lives and loves and seeking to reorient them toward what is truly lovely, that is, worth loving.
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04276F07-9D93-4829-B0B5-429F78724B8CTo conclude, I leave you simply with the following words from my “About” Page: 
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“It’s the little things, after all, that make life so lovely. And that’s really what this blog is all about: finding the small, lovely things which testify to the enduring delight of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”
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May we use this time not to avoid the ugliness of reality, but to also rejoice in truer loveliness with gratitude and hope.

The Word Kept: a reflection on John 1:1

“IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM”

The Latin for “in the beginning was the Word” is inscribed on the gates of my college at St. Andrew’s. Each day, I was reminded as I walked beneath them why I was studying, why I am a writer, and why I was in that particular place. After all, what is my vocation of writing and reading if not to better contemplate and communicate the Word Himself?

Now, far from the gates of St. Mary’s College, these words call out to me with a stronger voice. Even here, far from the libraries and authors I loved, the Word remains my companion and guide. Even in this dark season, the Word continues to illuminate my path, to be present in my thinking and my speaking. The darkness can not overcome Him, nor the noise drown Him out.

Amidst a continuous newsfeed of conflicting perspectives, in the heartbroken lines of my journal, and in the straining sentences of papers I no longer want to write, the Word endures as He has from the beginning and ever shall.

More beautiful yet, this Word is not separate from our confusion and suffering; He is not some divine-yet-impractical platitude nor a hollow prayer. Instead, He became flesh, entering into the world of noise and broken trusts to recreate it through proclamation and compassion, to suffer alongside us as assurance made action.

He is the first and final Word, the eloquence I cannot achieve and the work I cannot perform. Best of all, He is a promise of love fulfilled.