Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Happy Feast of St. Francis!

Regular readers know Francis and Clare are popular around here. Happy Feast of St. Francis, who so earnestly strove to be like Christ in all things, and in so doing set a noble example for all of us. Saint Francis, pray for us!

You are holy, Lord, the only God, and Your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High.
You are Almighty.
You, Holy Father are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God, all Good.
You are Good, all Good, supreme Good, Lord God, living and true.
You are love.
You are wisdom.
You are humility.
You are endurance.
You are rest.
You are peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and You suffice for us.
You are beauty.
You are gentleness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are our courage.
You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith, our great consolation.
You are our eternal life, Great and Wonderful Lord, God Almighty, Merciful Savior.

- A prayer in praise of God, as given by St. Francis to Brother Leo

Friday, September 29, 2017

Happy Michaelmas!

Everlasting God,
You wonderfully ordered
the ministries of angels and mortals,
and sent the archangel Michael,
bearer of the banner of heaven,
to defend us against
the malice of Satan’s pride.
Do not forsake us in the last struggle with evil,
but by the aid of Your holy angels
bring us to eternal life,
through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

How is your family planning to celebrate? There are a wealth of traditional foods for the celebration of the Archangel Michael. As this post explains, carrots, goose, special bread (St. Michael's Bannock) and blackberries are all on the traditional menu, for various reasons. Or waffles are, apparently, traditional in France; this website has a recipe and additional info. Other edible ideas I've seen include angel-shaped sugar cookies or really anything autumnal, since Michaelmas - almost exactly midway between Midsummer (St. John's Day) and Christmas - is the traditional approximation of the equinox and thus the beginning of autumn. If you're looking for decoration, aster flowers are also known as Michaelmas Daisies, because in many places they bloom around the feast.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Teaching Medieval History: How Should We Do It Today?

In an age when controversies and commentary happen at the speed of Twitter, I do not profess to have kept up with all the twists and turns in the saga of Rachel Fulton Brown, a medievalist at the University of Chicago. But, so far as I can tell, the story went something like this: A couple years ago Prof. Brown wrote a blog post noting that medieval white men had done some good. In light of recent white supremacist shenanigans, another medievalist left a comment on this old blog post, essentially asking Prof. Brown what she was doing to set the record straight and fight racism. Prof. Brown took issue with this perceived politicization and the whole thing descended from there.

There are three questions (possibly more) at issue here: How do we teach medieval history? How do we interact as professional historians? And how should history be employed to political ends?

I am currently teaching medieval history to high school students (specifically, a British history survey; the first semester is medieval, the second modern). My basic approach is to point out some of the good things going on - we discuss literary achievements, religious life, and the role of women such as Etheldreda and Leoba - while also acknowledging the shortcomings in justice, knowledge, and material standards of living. So far as I can tell, Prof. Brown has taken a similar approach. She has not claimed that medieval Europe was a paradise, but neither is she willing to suggest - as some in academia do - that the thousand years of medieval history are one long record of unbroken oppression. Likewise, she has not claimed that European or Western civilization is, in every respect, superior to all other cultures of the world; but neither has she characterized Western civilization as inherently bad. One may quibble with some details, but her overall approach is very sound history; to deviate from it would be a shame.

In lashing out at her critics, Prof. Brown has not always used kind or professional language. For that, she deserves a stern talking to from her department head. But calling for her job is a bit much. Her opponents should know that you cannot publicly criticize someone without expecting them to respond, possibly disproportionately, possibly in an unprofessional manner. This is unfortunate but not the end of the world.

But the crux of the controversy seems to be the role of history in contemporary debates. Some people argue that there is an imperative duty for all academics to wield their professional tools in a partisan manner; their central task, the argument goes, is to fight injustice. The error here is not in presuming that academics can weigh in on current debates. Rather, the error is two-fold: presuming that academics must engage in such debates and failing to appreciate the deep long-term contributions of academia to the cause of justice, without mentioning contemporary issues. Teaching students how to reason; how to think deeply about culture, politics, and religion; teaching them to express themselves clearly in speech and in writing - these are profound contributions to the common life of our country. Indeed, I would argue that over emphasis on the latest subject of protest risks undermining the very important work of fostering these necessary habits of thought.

So far as I can tell, Prof. Brown shares the my understanding of the role of history. She has not, to my knowledge, insisted that academics avoid all discussion of current controversies or politics; rather, she simply asks that her non-participation in such crusades not be held against her while she is busy carrying out these other essential tasks of history. I hope, for everyone's sake, this tempest ends soon so that we can stop the comment wars and get back to more important work.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Praying for Mercy

Inspired by recent events here in Charlottesville and by this article by Marc Barnes, I've been convinced ever more of humanity's need for God's mercy and, consequently, of the need to pray for it. As a result, three prayers have been on my lips more often of late.

The first is an ancient prayer popular among Orthodox Christians. It comes in a few minor variations and is often referred to as the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The second is a prayer revealed to St. Faustina, typically prayed as part of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and again quite simple:
For the sake of the sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.
The final prayer for mercy comes from Fatima, and against reflects the them of praying for ourselves and others:
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.
These are prayers you can easily insert into your day.  Please pray them, often.  Look around - we need them.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Happy Feast of St. Clare - In Word and Imagination

"Brother Leo, what do you think I saw reflected on the water down in that well?"
"My Father Francis," said Brother Leo, "You would have seen the moon that was shining in the sky."
"No, Brother Leo, I saw there the face of our Sister Clare."

The Little Flowers of St. Clare

Francis and Clare, depicted by Giotto

The short passage above, from the Italian writer (and one time mayor of Florence) Piero Bargellini, captures my affection for Clare of Assisi. 

In honor of today's feast day I actually typed out all of Murray Bodo's "The Rooms of St. Clare" before I realized that I had already posted it nearly seven years ago.  Instead, let me offer this bit of verse from Clare's fourth letter to Bl. Agnes of Prague:

Happy indeed is she
                to whom it is given to share in this sacred banquet
                so that she might cling with all her heart
                to Him
                                Whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly admire,
                                Whose affection excites,
                                Whose contemplation refreshes,
                                Whose kindness fulfills,
                                Whose delight refreshes,
                                Whose remembrance delightfully shines,
                                By Whose fragrance the dead are revived,
                                Whose glorious vision will bless
                                                all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem:
                                                                which, since it is the splendor of the eternal glory, is
                                                                the brilliance of eternal light
                                                and the mirror without blemish.

And, finally, the collect prayer for today's feast:

O God, who in your mercy led Saint Clare to a love of poverty,
grant, through her intercession,
that, following Christ in poverty of spirit,
we may merit to contemplate you
one day in the heavenly Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Lost Cause: Old, New, and What To Do About It

I am not a Southerner, but I am something of a guest of the South. Although an Arizona native, I went to school in Texas (twice), married a gal from Mississippi, and settled in Virginia. Like many Americans, recent controversies surrounding Confederate monuments have spurred along my ongoing efforts to understand Southern heritage.

I appreciated Gregory S. Bucher's "Romanticism of the 'Lost Cause,'" published in First Things, for one particular insight it brought me: just because one racist raises a monument to another racist, that does not necessarily mean that racism was the motive for raising the monument. Without disputing that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery - the declarations of secession were pretty explicit about that - one can recognize that the 19th century worldview was considerably different from most contemporary worldviews. Lost causes - not just The Lost Cause, but all of them - had a particular appeal to many, both within and outside the South, quite irrespective of the content of the cause. Seemingly fruitless suffering, most in need of justification, was conveniently - in the Romantic worldview - most noble.

History sometimes grants us insights into the motivations of actors, but those insights are rare gems. More often we know what was done, but not why. Doubtless, some erectors of Confederate monuments raised them with the explicit intention to further white supremacy and do so by casting a cloak of courage and liberty - and thus respectability - over the Southern rebellion. But I suspect that many monument erectors, whether they were racists or not, firmly believed themselves to be honoring courage, sacrifice, and freedom, even if their actions had the effect of entrenching white supremacy in the South and whitewashing the historical narrative.

History informs how we behave in the present, but it does not dictate our behavior. Discussions of history and present policy, though interrelated, are distinct issues. We may be cautious about passing historical judgements, while still being clear about what contemporary society should do. But even if, with the value of hindsight, we recognize certain monuments as racist and conclude that they must go, we can still be charitable, perhaps even generous, toward many who erected them and still value them today.

* * *

While listening to Gillian Welch - whose music, though beautiful, is consistently depressing - it occurred to me that swaths of contemporary America have embraced a new permutation of the Lost Cause myth, depicted in a variety of musical and other cultural representations. The patchwork of folk and country references which follow many strike some readers as eclectic; perhaps other selections could have been made, but I think these demonstrate the breadth of this general pattern.

The story goes something like this: America, or this corner of it, this was once an agrarian place. It was not prosperous, but homey and traditional: "We all picked the cotton but we never got rich," as Alabama sings. Or, in the words of the Carolina Chocolate Drops:
Runnin' with your cousins from yard to yard
Livin' was easy but the playin' was hard
Didn't have much, nothing comes for free
All you needed was your family.
In time, this agrarian world gave way to aspects of modern industrialization, things like coal mines and railroads. But many of its promises were unfulfilled and, after having broken the health of so many workers, this industrialization seems to have left them behind. Dan Zanes laments the railroad that never came:
Then up stepped a politician
He stopped her in her tracks
From what I understand
He turned her sent her back
The people down in Guysborough
Still waiting for a train
The dream they had for many years
Proved to be in vain.
Tom Russell describes the closing of a steel mill: "My wife stares out the window with a long and lonely stare / She says 'you kill yourself for 30 years but no one seems to care.'" 

The evils of industrialization are found in the traditional Lost Cause myth as well. Eric Foner explains, “The antebellum South was recalled as a benevolent, orderly society that pitted its noble values against the aggressive greed of northern industrial society.” In both narratives, industrialization is identified with outside forces; it is, at best, fickle, more likely deceptive and exploitative.

Yet for better or worse, industrialization came, and then largely went. So where does that leave us now? There's a strange mix of sorrow in the new Lost Cause at all that is lost and almost a celebration of the ills left behind. Gillian Welch sings:
A river of whiskey flows down in Dixie
Down along the Dixie Line
They pulled up the tracks now
I can't go back now
Can't hardly keep from cryin'.
Indeed, alcohol is a recurring theme, both in sorrow and in celebration. Charlie Daniels boasts:
People say I'm no good and crazy as a loon
'Cause I get stoned in the morning
And get drunk in the afternoon
Kinda like my old blue tick hound
I like to lay around in the shade
And I ain't got no money but I damn sure got it made.
Or, in a more elegiac form, Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss relate a tragic tale:
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night...
He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away her memory
Life is short but this time it was bigger
Than the strength he had to get up off his knees.
Like the traditional Lost Cause, this new narrative admits to failure, but also accepts, even embraces it..

The musical threads of the new Lost Cause tapestry are certainly found in the old Confederate states, the traditional definition of the South. But they are also found across a wider geography, including much of the Rust Belt and Middle America. The areas where this new Lost Cause is found probably align well with parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump. And this should come as little surprise: according to this new mythology, much has indeed been lost, hence the need to make America great again. But amidst this narrative’s drunken post-industrial suffering, there is also a sense that greatness cannot be regained, at least not along the old lines. Thus America did not elect a senator or a general or even a Boy Scout, but, rather, a loud-mouthed, twice-divorced zillionaire with no record of public service. In the ruins of American society, you could say, this is the best we can hope for.

* * *

Southern writers reflect something of the new narrative as well. The characters described by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, or Walker Percy are hardly winners. They are frequently insane and often vicious. If they have not had a stiff drink lately, they could probably use one. Suffering, these writers admit, is the way of our world.

Their writings share a certain quality of anti-modernism with both Lost Causes, the old and the new. Modern society, they implicitly argue, has not reached the deepest corners of the South or, if it has, it has failed to solve its ills. More likely, modernity has made those ills worse.

One might conclude from this sorry state of affairs that some kind of Southern revivalism is needed: if we reject the modern social, economic, and political arrangements imported from the North, if we go back to the old ways, all will be well. But I do not think this the approach that the likes of Percy and O'Connor would endorse.

Though these Catholic writers had a deep respect for tradition, they recognized that the flaws of the modern era run deep. Our common suffering is ultimately rooted not in modernity, however problematic it may be, but in man's fallen nature. We ought not celebrate our brokenness, but we must at least admit to it. Erecting monuments will not solve our problems. Hiding amidst the babble of modern psychology will ultimately leave us deeply unsatisfied, as Percy repeatedly underscores in Lost in the Cosmos. Rather, we must offer our pathetic situation, the husk of our individual selves and our broken society, to the one who has the power to save, Almighty God. Conversion has the power to accomplish what no amount of nostalgia or memorialization ever could. Lord, have mercy.