Monday, April 29, 2002

Here is G.K. Chesterton on Islam, with his usual prophetic insight. The names of the 19th and early 20th century Islamic militants may not be familiar except to a few students of history, but we are all too familiar with their spiritual descendents:

"There is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets. Of these the mightiest in modern times were the man whose name was Ahmed, and whose more famous title was the Mahdi; and his more ferocious successor Abdullahi, who was generally known as the Khalifa. These great fanatics, or great creators of fanaticism, succeeded in making a militarism almost as famous and formidable as that of the Turkish Empire on whose frontiers it hovered, and in spreading a reign of terror such as can seldom be organised except by civilisation…"

Sunday, April 28, 2002

Here is an interesting article in the Wilson Quarterly on the decline into incoherence of contemporary academic writing. The link comes from the indispensable Arts and Letters Daily.
I will be posting for the next two weeks from Venice, Florida, on the Gulf Coast. Quite a change from springtime in the mountains. Packing for the trip, I had to raid the back drawers of the dresser for clothing that would normally be in storage until late June. As I type, the neighbor's palm trees are rustling in the 80+ degree breeze. This seems appropriate, as earlier today I attended services for Orthodox Palm Sunday. Here at my parents' house I go to Holy Spirit Orthodox Church , just a block away. Holy Spirit is a small congregation, mostly retirees, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The church building is a converted bank. The roof of the drive-thru still projects from the side. The vault is still in place, visible behind the altar. Like much of Orthodoxy in this country it has a improvised, home-made quality about it. The great strength of a living tradition is the ability to adapt without discarding the good that came before. The palm branches we held were bundled with pussy-willows; the willows an earlier improvisation coming from Slavic tradition in regions where palm trees are unknown .

The ad-hoc nature of our celebration yesterday fit with the original biblical scene. Jesus' triumphal entry was itself an ad-hoc affair. No trumpeters, no chariots, no flags or banners. Just people using what was at hand, fronds stripped from trees, garments thrown down in the streets to praise a coming King. In the same way, we raised our voices, some old and wavering, to sing the words of the ancient liturgy in a space salvaged out of the modern age, using what was at hand to praise that same King.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Sudden change in the weather. There was frost on Alonza the llama this morning. Alonza is one of five llamas we keep around the place as sheep guards. He lives in the large lot with the rams, just over the fence from the rose garden. Most of the rams are disagreeable enough to look after themselves, but, after some bad experiences, we are taking no chances. I don't think he really likes sheep, but seems content enough. The five llamas we now have are a replacement for Caesar, our original llama, who died from a lightening strike. Caesar, by contrast, liked sheep, but didn't think much of people. An elegant and faithful animal, it took all five new llamas to fill the spot he left.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Driving up towards the house last night I had to stop for three lambs snoozing together in a pile in the middle of our road. I finally had to honk the horn at them. They hopped up, bleating loudly, and ran off to tell their mothers about me.

Saturday, April 20, 2002

A web page devoted to METROPOLITAN ANTHONY OF SOUROZH, whose book, Beginning to Pray, has had a profound influence on me, as well as countless others.
More good thoughts on Lent can be found at OCA - Life in Christ: Pastoral Reflections.
Here is some classic spring verse from The View from the Core. The poem by Surrey brings to mind an even older verse by Geoffry Chaucer that begins:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engedred is the flour . . .

Someone once said classic works give us the news that stays news. On a morning when the grass is still damp from April's sweet showers, the dryness of March is long gone, and foliage and flower are everywhere, I have to agree.

Friday, April 19, 2002

What's in the CD Player
Listening to Bill Mallonee's quirky mix of British pop and Athens GA alternative on Summershine.
Thunderstorms yesterday. It seems in these times that the chief sign of a storm is the backup power supply for the computer clamping and screaming in alarm. At my office in the old section of the Courthouse I at least have windows. Mine were built for the days before air conditioning, starting waist high, extending to the top of a 14 foot ceiling. It's good to be able to see the rain and not just listen to the electronic detritus of power spikes in some cubicle. Watching it out on the farm is better still. For a farmer, timely rain is a very good thing, and in these years of drought, a hard rain is even better. Sheep are built out of grass, and grass is built out of soil and water. Soil we have, but water has been in short supply lately.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Unexpectedly warm weather threw spring into overdrive today. As I stood on the front porch with Susan, mating flights of bumblebees surrounded us. There was a large cottontail grazing on the lawn with the lambs who had snuck under the yard fence. John Richard, my youngest, was coming across the pasture from my in-laws holding the gift of a piece of pecan pie from my mother-in-law. He stopped just within shouting distance at the little run that flows from the spring by the barn and yelled "tadpoles!" I thought about going down to look, but was too struck by it all to move.
I've been informed of a flaw in my e-mail link to the left labelled "contact me" (Thanks Liz!) The problem should be fixed now. If anyone has tried to use it, and has received no response from me, please click the new improved version and try again.

Monday, April 15, 2002

I mentioned Father Schmemann earlier. Here is a link to a homily on Forgiveness Sunday, at the beginning of Orthodox Lent, that sets a proper tone for the season.
The following was forwarded by a friend. Anyone in a church, Orthodox or not, or in any long-lived organization, church or not, has lived through a variation on this. In Orthodoxy, it takes on a particular piquancy. How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb? Change? What is this change you speak of?

What is the tradition?

In the village of Omsk all was not well in the local Pokrov Parish. Every
year, during Lent, at 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes', half
of the congregation would make a metany (bow) at the waist, and half would make a
full prostration. The little metanists would start whispering sharply, 'No!
No! From the waist!' To which the great metanists would hiss back even
louder, 'Wrong! Full prostration! Who are you following, the Devil?!' And
fistfights would break out and the service could not even be completed.

Finally the war-weary parishioners decided to ask their priest, Fr Veniamin.
'Batiushka, (Little Father) what is the tradition? In Lent, at "Blessed art Thou", do we make
a little metany, or a great metany?' Knowing the rancour attached to the
dispute, poor Fr Veniamin trembled, grew pale, then fainted dead away and
fell backwards.

So next they went to the Skete of the Forerunner, and asked Fr Onouphry:
'Batiushka, we want to know, we have a terrible argument at Omsk--what is the
tradition? Because half the people say to make small metanies at "Blessed art
Thou" now, and half say great metanies. And we start fighting, terrible,
terrible. So, tell us, what is the Tradition?' Seeing the ferocity in their
faces, poor Hieromonk Onouphry simply fainted dead away.

Then someone shouted, 'Let's go to Elder Ioann and ask him!' It was a
marvelous idea. Surely the elder's answer would bring peace, for he was
respected by all, a native of Omsk, and his hoary 94 years guaranteed a
knowledge of what the old tradition had been.

So a large crowd gathered at the elder's dacha on the outskirts of town.
Some 15 men from both sides entered the dacha, and found frail Elder Ioann
lying on his bed. As he struggled to draw himself up and offer tea, they cut
him off: 'Elder Ioann, you have to help us! What is the Tradition? Every year
in Lent, at "Blessed art Thou, O Lord", half of the people at Pokrov make
little metanies, and half the people great metanies, and we start to argue,
and the service doesn't even finish because of the fistfight!'

Then Elder Ioann said firmly, in his voice shaking with age, and with tears
streaming down his joyful face, 'THAT ... is ... the Tradition!'
Here is an interesting essay on the music of Arvo Part, one of my favorite contemporary composers, in Touchstone Magazine: Review - The Bright Sadness of Arvo Part The reviewer doesn't "get" Orthodoxy, for the most part, but he is exactly right in looking to Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann's work Great Lent to understand the heart of Part's music.

Thursday, April 11, 2002

I finished the previous post last night. This morning I read this. I'm afraid I'm not ready for an end of the world scenario triggered by a sacred farm animal. St. John Climacus' difficult and austere book is looking more and more like common sense!

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

St. John Climacus, whose Ladder of Divine Ascent is customary reading for Orthodox Lent, said that "the thought of death is the most essential of all works." I'm not sure if this is what he had in mind. Clicking through the program and watching the seconds count down at the end gives rise to all kinds of thoughts, like "What am I doing wasting time on the computer?" and "You mean Mom was right about fresh air and vegetables all along?" For St. John, by contrast, the remembrance of death did not mean to worry about how much or how little time was left. He wanted his readers to realize that death comes for us all and that facing death meant facing hard facts about yourself, about the world, about God. I should find this much easier than I do. My job as a prosecutor consists in finding out hard facts and rubbing the guilty party's nose in them. Farm life means living with the reality of death. Some lambs will not survive their first days. Some ewes will die giving birth. Behind it all is the knowledge that you are not raising meat animals as pets.

I sometimes think that the mania for "End Times" speculation in some Christian circles comes when we forget death. After all, we are all only a heartbeat away from our own personal apocalypse. If we truly understood this, we might be more worried about loving God and our neighbor, and a less concerned with identifying the Antichrist.

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

I took the border collie out for a short walk at dusk. Susan was inside reading aloud to the boys. Outside the clouds were thick, illuminated from the inside. The pastures are all green now, some trees starting to leaf, others in blossom. The winter quiet is gone, not noticed until spring frogs and crickets sound everywhere. I enjoy the music and recall another of Kodojin's poems:

Fertile fields enrich my household;
a good wife completes my home.
Auspicious trees grow along my paths;
wonderful books fill my carts
. (Trans. Jonathan Chaves)
This post is still getting hits from search engines. If you came here looking for information on Billy Collin's "Paradelle for Susan" I should advise you that my comments below are, to put it simply, dead wrong. The "paradelle" is Collin's own invention, a kind of gentle satire on elaborate verse forms and facile technique. Go here to listen to an interview with Collins that lets the more dense of us in on the joke. The ironic thing though, is that others have since picked up the form and written fine poems in it, making my point in a kind of backhanded fashion. In any event, as the person who corrected my error pointed out, a gag that takes on a life of its own is a thing of wonder in itself.

I have been reading Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems by Billy Collins, our current Poet Laureate. Collins is, by current standards, an enormously popular and critically respected poet. Or, as his agent puts it: "Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal." Big words, and, truth be told, Collins can be a good read, judging by this volume. Nevertheless, I put it down feeling vaguely unsettled. Collins' work, while head and shoulders above what passes for poetry in most small magazines, still shows the signs of one of the great illness of modern poetry; the loss of craft. Exhibit number one is a piece called "Paradelle for Susan." The note at the end of the poem says that "The paradelle is one of the most demanding French fixed forms . . ." Collins' poem turns what should be a tour de force into a clumsy mess that follows form only by abandoning grammar. Perhaps it is meant as parody. Perhaps the breakdown in grammar itself is meant to be a poetic statement. Perhaps it is simply that the form is beyond the poet's technical competence.

I do not mean to be unfair to Collins. He has preserved more of a sense for meter (or at least stress and accent) than most of his contemporaries working outside traditional forms. He is not above the occasional use of rhyme. Far too often however the conventions of typography substitute for the craft of verse. Sometimes this is no hindrance. I quite liked the poem "Japan," on reading and re-reading a haiku. Haiku, a seventeen syllable Japanese form, meant to be spoken, in English is more a visual form; its three line break, one short, one long, one short, as typographically distinct as a sonnet is metrically. The poem begins:

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

The image, while a little precious, is exactly right. The two stanzas look like haiku, even have a haiku feel. But the syllable count and the line breaks are wrong. The poem works, but only at the cost of abandoning the true form of its subject.

Too many poems in this volume are prose with line breaks. The only way to read it as verse is ponderously, dragging out syllables, or rushing here, inserting an accent there, even if it is not found in the verse itself. As Robert Frost put it in his poem "How Hard It Is To Keep From Being King":

Free verse leaves out the metre and makes up
For the deficiency by church intoning.
Free verse so called is really cherished prose,
Prose made of, given an air by church intoning.
It has its beauty, only I don't write it.

I don't mean to be unduly negative. There are good things here. "Osso Buco" made me ready to abandon Lent after one reading. "Man Listening to Disc" is a fine evocation of the joys and ironies of technologically assisted modern life. Read Collins. After all, he is our Poet Laureate, even if he is no Robert Frost.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

The cold front that brought yesterday's snow left clear skies last night on it's way passing through. My older son, James, and I took the telescope out for some star-gazing. While neighbors with floodlights are creeping closer, we still have skies with as many stars as I remember from street-light free days as a child. Standing there in the cold looking up, I was reminded of the protagonist in a poem by Robert Frost who

. . . mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities (The Star-Splitter)

Our own telescope came as a gift, saving me from any similar temptation. Though with the year's farm records off to the tax preparer, I know a little of how Frost's character felt. So much work; some done well, some done badly and certainly not done for the money. It makes a man wonder about the larger picture. Despite having a good telescope and a clear night, I cannot say I satisfied my curiosity about our place among the infinities. For that I look to faith, and sometimes, art. What the telescope does show, is that we do live among infinities, and that they can be beautiful. Even for a lawyer and "hugger-mugger" farmer.

Saturday, April 06, 2002

While Western churches have Easter behind them, Orthodox Christians are still in the midst of Lent. Here is a fine collection of Resources for Orthodox Great Lent.
I have been pondering the nature of morality lately. Underpinning the question of the nature of morality is the issue of the existence of order and beauty in the universe. An editorial essay in Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion--Issue #33, touches on this in the context of praise and artistic expression.
This is the second month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The following by the Japanese poet Kodojin (1864-1944) seems particularly appropriate this morning:

Things Seen

Second month, and still spring chill:
only the plum blossoms open their faces.
This morning, I'll just try opening the door--
light snow falling over green mountains.

(translation by Jonathan Chaves)
Snow this morning! Only a dusting, and that disapearing quickly, but more on the mountain. Susan's car is covered, and the front porch is frosted over, snow between the boards.

Here is a haiku by the Japanese poet Issa (translation by Stephen Addiss):

Stickily stickily
clinging to everything---
spring snow

Thursday, April 04, 2002

I was sent the following excerpt from the work of Carl Sandburg in response to my comments about the lack of verse about sheep.

Thousands of sheep, soft-footed, black-nosed sheep--
one by one going up the hill and over the fence--one by
one four-footed pattering up and over--one by one wiggling
their stub tails as they take the short jump and go
over--one by one silently unless for the multitudinous
drumming of their hoofs as they move on and go over--
thousands and thousands of them in the grey haze of
evening just after sundown--one by one slanting in a
long line to pass over the hill--

I am the slow, long-legged Sleepyman and I love you
sheep in Persia, California, Argentine, Australia, or
Spain--you are the thoughts that help me when I, the
Sleepyman, lay my hands on the eyelids of the children
of the world at eight o'clock every night--you thousands
and thousands of sheep in a procession of dusk making
an endless multitudinous drumming on the hills with
your hoofs.

I showed this to Susan, and she shared my first reaction: nice poetry, but the thought of sheep "going up the hill and over the fence" is a recipe for instant insomnia. For a shepherd, good sleep comes when there is no reason to think of sheep at all!

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

I don't watch "The Jerry Springer Show." There is nothing he could put on stage that would top the human comedy of General District Court. This morning we had a woman who was protesting a speeding ticket, because, after the ticket was issued, the trooper failed to notice and provide assistance when her window wouldn't roll up. Somehow this was all complicated by the fact that she was transporting a terminally ill cat. In the afternoon we had a prisoner who was brought over for tearing his blanket. He tore the blanket because the jailors wouldn't let him write on the walls with crayons. The interesting thing is that these people seemed otherwise sane.
When I crossed the second cattleguard this evening I saw small sheep everywhere. Susan, the boys and her father had moved the ewes with lambs from the large pen behind the house to the front field. The ewes seemed both delighted by the new grass and annoyed at the break in routine. The lambs, as usual, had scattered like little drops of mercury. At least a dozen had discovered that they could limbo under the fence around the yard and were happily munching rose bushes in the back garden.

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

A lingering, varicolored sunset this evening. There is still a scattering of light and it is almost 7:00 p.m. The longer days of spring are just as welcome as the new grass or warm weather. It is hard to express the pleasure of having chores finished before dark. The curse of the part-time farmer is that every job gets crammed into time around paying employment. By late December that means feeding by lantern or flashlight while the temperature drops around you. It means cracking ice on water troughs in the morning while the sun is still trying to haul itself up over Skyline Drive. With the non-negotiable demands of court dockets on my time, the bulk of the daily work falls on my wife, who has her own off-farm responsibilities as a part-time teacher. She embraces the return of warm weather and longer days with a passion that starving men reserve for food or castaways for rescue. Our life is "pastoral" in the most literal sense, but that does not mean that it is easy or gentle. If I had to pick fitting soundtrack music, it would be one of those pieces by Charles Ives where bands are playing in different keys in each corner of the hall. The academic year, the calender of the criminal courts, the needs of two growing children and the biological cycles of livestock all make seemingly irreconcilable demands. Nonetheless it is a life with beauty and its own sometimes inexplicable satisfactions.
As a prosecutor I struggle daily with the question of how a Christian should respond to the evil actions of his fellow man. The "just war" tradition works out this issue on a larger scale. Lutheran theologian David Yeago has an excellent examination of just war thinking in our current context in this article from the journal "Pro Ecclesia".

Monday, April 01, 2002

The March issue of First Things magazine contains a reaction by Father Neuhaus to a talk by Prof. John Erickson of St. Vladimirs' Seminary on the Orthodox retreat from ecumenism. I may have some comments later, but in the meantime, here is a link to the full text of Erickson's remarks.
The set of people interested in both Orthodoxy and sheep farming is vanishingly small. Here, however, is a page from an Orthodox sheep, resident at the Holy Myrrhbearers convent in New York state; Maude's Page!