Friday, 26 September 2014

Shoring Fragments, Offshore

First, the present. My final year at seminary has started off quietly. Our community has been reduced to a fifth of its former size: most of the people are continuing their studies at the new seminary in Utrecht, a few others have completed their studies, and then there are the stragglers who have gone abroad, one on a long detour to Rome, the other to England to embark on a new path of life as a Jesuit.

The three of us who remain are currently enjoying a leisurely sort of life, with long afternoons and (so far) a rather irregular class schedule. I have gratefully seized the opportunity to work on my thesis about Isaiah 7.

Yes, the thesis. I knew it would require some brain-stretching, and so far I have not been disappointed. Modern exegesis is very different from traditional; the wide christological vistas, ingenious historical harmonizations and safeguardings of the moral purity of the Biblical heroes have succumbed to the spirit of T.S. Eliot’s wasteland: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’

Did you know there’s a wasteland in Isaiah 7? Yeah, I didn’t. It’s there, a few verses after the Emmanuel prophecy (the what?). Sweeney says the wasteland came in with the first major redaction under King Josiah – M.A. Sweeney, a master of the schools, not Eliot’s Sweeney who ‘shifts from ham to ham / Stirring the water in his bath.’

It’s a dangerous business, approaching Scripture with wedges for the cracks and pincers for the protrusions. But it’s been done for centuries now; our exegetical libraries are stuffed with lots of tiny bits of Bible, meticulously designated by mathematical codes (Isa 7:1 = 2 Kgs 16:5). And the new criticism does identify heaps and heaps of minor oddities that don’t quite square with the older view of Scripture as written by a rather selective selection of individuals united by the messianic faith of Abraham (the what?), and containing accurate predictions of things to come (including the names of monarchs who will not appear on the world stage for some 150 years: cf. Isaiah 45:1).

Of course the older view has its defenders, and its arguments too. The same applies to the evolution controversy: just yesterday I received an invitation from a new traditional Catholic movement in the Netherlands to a conference where knowledgeable speakers will take turns not only to poke holes in the evolution theory, but also to explain why it is important for Catholics to do so. Apparently there is enough material (though not very recent, I’d guess) from the Magisterium to mount a case against evolutionism from religious authority as well as scientific findings. The same would apply to Biblical criticism, which has been severely limited by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the first half of the 20th century.

The attraction of being on the conservative side is that you can claim to fight for the integrity of the faith; you defend bastions of thought at key strategic locations in the battle for souls. (It might seem a rearguard action to most people, but a few decades ago defending the Creed seemed like a rearguard action.) Whereas you could not explain at a birthday party why you would spend time finding out if the first part of Isaiah ends after chapter 39 or 33.

Existential thesis crisis? No, not really. I merely find that I am not at home in bastions, and am content to be an agnostic about many things, though not about all. I want to weigh thoughts, conscious of their multitude and the smallness of my scales, as well as my inability to oversee the entire ecology of ideas. But even small-scaled creatures can thrive in beautiful environments, such as the sea, or the zodiac.

Yours sincerely,
Turgonian, Tracker of Ithilien

Monday, 4 August 2014

Gratitude

Before this blog, there was another one at the same address, Epigone’s Eloquence. My first post after the introductory one was titled Gratitude. Envy was one of my better-defined character traits already, but I did see how gratitude made myself and other people (like Chesterton) happier.

Gratitude can work wonders and this is one of them. Back in the day, I spent much time on the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza, a good deal of it in the poetry section. There was someone there, an old Hobbit of mild temper and tremendous erudition, who would write constructive comments on my poems. He inspired me to pay more attention, to hone my writing skills, and to learn as much as I could about culture. In the Poetic Ponderings threads, the two of us and a few others discussed excitedly about Eliot, Marvell, Hopkins, and other bright stars in the firmament of euphony.

When I wrote my conversion story in my first year of college, I mentioned the old Hobbit as one who helped show me that ‘everything cohered with everything else: who could not grasp relations and complement knowledge of one thing with knowledge of another, lacked full knowledge of that one thing.’ And (what went unsaid) that it was possible to share that knowledge without scorn or condescension.

By then he had probably already disappeared, and I could not get in touch with him. I wanted to let him know that I owed him something, but he had gone missing. When the Plaza celebrated its tenth anniversary and we were asked to write about our memories, I reminisced about the old Hobbit who had left us.

More recently, I posted a poem on the Plaza and received some good comments about it. Speaking about the poetic form which the reviewer had named, I said that the old Hobbit had probably introduced me to it. At which, in a beautiful moment of anagnorisis, the unknown reviewer sent me a message to say that he was the old Hobbit!

Since then we have been chatting again and have caught up on each other’s lives. This is what gratitude and remembrance can do.

What happened to the old blog, you say? Oh, when I announced its upcoming deletion nine days in advance, my old ‘Plaza mother’ Teleria sent me a Facebook message to say that she had won the National Novel Writing Month contest and was allowed to have one copy of a book printed. As her novel was not finished yet, would I like to have my blog sent to me in book form?

Thank you, Teleria.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Holiday

I am halfway into the Summer holidays and it seems that our family is not going anywhere this year. Which is fine by me: no setting up tents, no lazy days with breakfast at 10am, but lots of opportunities to visit friends.

At the beginning of the month we went to visit our diocesan brother, who studies in Eichstätt (close to Munich). If I recall correctly, Eichstätt is the oldest seminary still extant, the second established after the Council of Trent. They celebrated the feast of their patron saint Willibald and went in festive procession to the cathedral for Mass and later for Vespers. (I was late for the second procession and pursued my bishop’s vanishing scarlet appearance like a lost penguin in cassock and surplice.)

Later on in July we had a children’s camp at our seminary. With a group of ten leaders plus a young priest, we entertained a group of 28 children aged eight to twelve. Fun was had by all: we ran around in the seminary backyard (a little forest) and introduced the children to Adoration, the Rosary and daily Mass, insofar as they weren’t familiar with it already. The weather was excellent; it started raining only when the parents came to pick up the children.

And then there are the books. I have been delving into The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (which was scheduled for last year already) and Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh, a book about the displacement of religion by politics in the era after World War I. (An earlier book, Earthly Powers, deals with the same phenomenon from the French Revolution to World War I.)

Yesterday I went to visit the Prinsenhof in Delft with a friend and her husband, and learnt some new things about the Dutch independence war against Spain, William of Orange and his family. And now I must be off to Leuven, as I am already running late. But I would not forgo the July post, which you have surely all been expecting for days now!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The End of History

Today I finished reading Weisheit in Israel (Wisdom in Israel) by the renowned Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971), a German Lutheran. The book is about Jewish wisdom literature. I shall not summarize it, but for an interesting thought in the chapter on the ‘determination of times’.

Von Rad says that Israel always believed that our lives were in the hands of the Lord. His ordering activity determines our destiny. This does not exclude the freedom of the will; God’s foresight and shaping of ends is not as deterministic as that. He merely arranges things so that they end up according to his will: for instance, with Joseph as vice-regent in Egypt. When necessary, He intervenes, by sending plagues to Egypt, lengthening the day, calling Isaiah, or something of that sort. When apposite, He changes his mind, e.g. after Jonah’s mission to Nineveh.

The apocalyptic vision in late Judaism represents a significant shift. For the apocalyptic authors, everything is already set in stone – or worse, in the ‘tablets of heaven’. This means that those who have had a vision of God have received knowledge of history, rather than God’s will for the moment. According to the (apocryphal) Book of Jubilees, God has shown Moses the events that had been and that were to come; it is this history that Moses recorded, from the creation to the day of the new creation. Jacob, too, would have read the entire history of his descendants on a tablet shown to him by an angel. In other apocalyptic literature, Henoch is said to have gained knowledge of the future through looking in the heavenly books.

As Von Rad says: ‘The image of the divine determination … has forced the old image of history as a place of tension between occurring promises and unfolding fulfillments into the background.’

This drastically changes the view of history. There are no ‘innergeschichtliche Heilsgründungen’ (foundations of salvation within history). Certainly salvation takes place within history, but it is, in a sense, salvation from history – from what St. Paul calls the ‘aeon’, the spirit of the time, the prince of the world. Salvation occurs ‘at the margins of history’ from a world that has been permeated by evil. It is not prepared in time; it intrudes upon it.

Von Rad again: ‘The end breaks abruptly into an ever-increasingly darkening world of history, and the benefits of salvation, which had long been pre-existently available in the heavenly world – ‘until the times are at an end’ – (Son of Man, the new Jerusalem), come into appearance.’ The recipient of salvation is not Israel, but a holy remnant, or a congregation of individuals.

The story of God’s blessings in history (like the election of Abraham ‘to be a blessing’, the gift of the Law to Moses, the establishment of David), is replaced by knowledge of the periods or ages of history, in which God’s sovereignty can be seen. (Despite the appearance of the present age, there really is a plan!) But the events of the past do not provide any legitimacy to present affairs; the anticipated future is the measure of things.

In the Apocalypse of Ezra, Ezra complains that God has not given Israel a way to attain to salvation, despite his great plans. The promise of eternity has become useless in view of the evil works that Israel has done. Ezra’s angelic interlocutor confirms that little good has come to Israel in history, but there is a possibility for Israelites to attain to life and salvation in the age to come. Abraham was elected to understand the mysteries of this age.

In conclusion: ‘A view on history has arisen without praise for the historical sources of God’s salvation. Praise only springs forth in view of the apocalyptic end. The sense of the present meaning of God’s past deeds has disappeared. History has become matter of fact, to be adduced for instruction, but above all to turn the hour in which one lives to the right purpose.’

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

To Cambridge

There was a Plaza acquaintance of mine, Scea, beloved of Silendra and Gerontian, whose blog I have the rewarding habit of reading. A few months ago I heard she was coming to England to study in Cambridge for a while. Since her time on the island was already nearing its end, I asked if I could visit. It was time for another Eurolines adventure.

I had booked the 20.30 coach from Amsterdam to London and arrived an hour in advance; as there were still some seats left on the 19.30 coach, I could leave before I even finished my coffee.

There were a lot of empty seats – in the beginning; but we picked up more passengers in The Hague, Rotterdam, Roosendaal and Breda, and ultimately I ended up wedged between a big man of colour and the window. I was reading A Dance with Dragons on my e-reader; as I had started reading the first part on my first Eurolines experience, I hoped I might finish the latest book on the second. This turned out to be too ambitious, however; reading 200 pages took more time than estimated, and I needed to sleep as well.

We went south to France because there is a fast ferry line between Calais and Dover. Before we could board, our passports were checked at two consecutive points (we walked from the EU to the UK checkpoint). When the coach was parked in the enormous hold of the ferry, we had to go upstairs so I could drink my 3.30am coffee in the floating restaurant.

The famous cliffs of Dover seemed small and glum behind the garish harbour buildings. We moored, looked for our coach, found it, climbed aboard, and disembarked.

After a pleasant journey, we arrived at Victoria Coach Station at 5.30. The underground was still closed until 6, so we waited patiently. In the end, I arrived at Cambridge station an hour in advance, around 8.

Scea / Christy came to meet me; we sat down for a small continental breakfast at her favourite coffee place and chatted about philosophy, the upcoming exams, Socrates, ecumenism, Tolkien, and the willow-meads of Tasarinan in the Spring.

We walked to Pembroke College, her residence, between great expanses of green grass and medieval-looking buildings. It started to rain, so Christy got out her umbrella and I donned rain gear; I had been warned beforehand of impending meteorological doom.

We visited the chapel of the College, a beautiful medieval church with a fan vault, built in the time of Henry VI and a few other kings in that period. Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn were commemorated on a large ornamental wooden screen that separated the two halves of the church. Christy pointed out the greyhound, the Welsh dragon, the Tudor rose. Apparently she knew a lot about British history. There was a historical exposition in a part of the church (separated by walls from the space of worship), where information was given about the construction of the church, the making of stained glass, the politics of the time, and so on.

Duly impressed, I accompanied Christy to the dining hall of her college, a well-occupied hall with a high ceiling and large windows. We had lunch (my chance to have white beans in tomato sauce with my sausage) and talked about our future plans, Arthurian romances, and the shift from brotherly to chivalric love described by C.S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love.

Having briefly visited the library and the garden, we went on a long walk through more natural surroundings. The sun had come out. At one point we saw goslings trying and failing to climb out of the water. After a healthy ramble, we found ourselves with tea and scones in a pavilion where E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Keynes once used to sit and discuss the arts.

We walked back, visited the oldest church in the city (St. Bene’t’s, short for Benedict’s) and went down to King’s College Chapel for Evensong. Though rather sleepy initially, I did enjoy the service; the psalms and canticles were beautifully sung. Nothing beats English choirs for euphony.

And then we had dinner with stereotypical drinks (there was a rowdy crowd from town about) and walked along the river Cam, which has given the city its name, and through lively parks, while Christy explained what The Phantom Tollbooth was all about. We came across a man who seemed quite upset and quite drunk, kicking boxes and cursing Cameron and tourists, for some reason. Christy remarked he sounded rather like Gollum.

As the evening grew dark we watched the blackbirds, a new occupation for me. Christy talked about Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and his literary and philosophical erudition. She remarked, ‘He makes learning seem beautiful.’

Ultimately the time came to go to the station, to leave elegant Cambridge and Christy after a beautiful day. We said goodbye; Christy went home, I on to London Stansted, where I would fly out in the morning.

The airport was closed except for the entrance hall. To my surprise, dozens of people were already sleeping everywhere; some had brought mats, many simply lay on the floor or dozed sitting up. I tried to sleep, but woke after a while. Sleepy, but not inclined to sleep, I blinked wearily at my e-reader and managed to finish A Dance with Dragons above coffee. Until I flew off to celebrate Pentecost by attending Mass with the Bishop of Breda in his cathedral, and then home, to surprise my parents with the story of my travels.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Daenerys

This post is the second half of a diptych and contains Game of Thrones spoilers.

I’ve been reading A Dance with Dragons (Part 5), and experienced a sinking feeling when reading about Daenerys. The young dragon queen started out so well; she conquered three cities in a row (Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen) to liberate all the slaves. The end of human trafficking in Slaver’s Bay, one would think. But old habits are hard to break.

In Part 5, Daenerys is bogged down in Meereen. Astapor is destroyed and Meereen is besieged by Yunkai, where the slave trade has resumed.

Dangers are inside and outside. Innocents are killed every day within the city walls. Plague-ridden refugees from Astapor camp in the fields, while the mercenary armies of Yunkai march on the city. Food is growing scarce. Daenerys has grown afraid of her own dragons, since one of them killed a child; two are chained, while the third roams wild.

Surrounded by death and the prospect of death, Daenerys wants peace. To accomplish that, she must marry a nobleman from Meereen, Hizdahr, who can stop the killing inside the walls, appease the nobility, and make peace with Yunkai. But peace means compromise. The slave trade in Yunkai is no longer to be opposed, and the fighting pits in Meereen are to be reopened for gladiator shows.

After the glorious conquests of pure idealism with dragons, this is rather depressing.

Daenerys accepts. She marries. Her new husband takes her to preside with him at a show in the fighting pits. On the way they come across a man who has collapsed while carrying someone in a seat:

“Those bearers were slaves before I came. I made them free. Yet that palanquin is no lighter.” “True,” said Hizdahr, “but those men are paid to bear its weight now. Before you came, that man who fell would have an overseer standing over him, stripping the skin off his back with a whip. Instead he is being given aid.”
It was true. A Brazen Beast in a boar mask had offered the litter bearer a skin of water. “I suppose I must be thankful for small victories,” the queen said.

In Daznak’s Pit, a young man dies:

“A boy,” said Dany. “He was only a boy.”
“Six-and-ten,” Hizdahr insisted. “A man grown, who freely chose to risk his life for gold and glory. No children die today in Daznak’s, as my gentle queen in her wisdom has decreed.” Another small victory. Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad.

How can you be a proper queen-liberator in the face of all the obstacles and resistances the world presents? How do you keep the momentum of your charge and care for all your charges at the same time? How do you avoid the poison of the choice for the lesser evil?

At this point nothing serves except the draco ex machina. The wild dragon returns and lands in the Pit. Daenerys fights him, tames him, rides him into the sky. And I heave a sigh of relief. The problems are far from over, but at least the queen has found her element again.


Well, dear readers, that was it for today. I hope you are savouring the time between Ascension and Pentecost.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Pilgrim's Progress (?)

When life has no more glitter, is that a good or a bad thing?

I used to have ‘convictions and predilections stout’ – to pick just a few, that Tolkien was the greatest author in the history of literature, that assenting to the Christian creed was guaranteed to bring lifelong happiness and prosperity (and denying it only darkness and error), that insensitivity to heroic ideals and images was the worst curse anyone could be afflicted with.

Now I’m not so sure.

Even seminary life has lost its magic. The image of the devout souls who have given every second of their lives to the Messiah, dwelling somewhere in the outer precincts of Heaven in anticipation of their mission, has given way to the image of a group of guys who have somehow blundered into the same building and learnt to live with each other – no mean feat either. And there’s always work to be done in the Church, though what work and why and to what effect – let’s say that’s part of the mystery of the Church.

I hope that the loss of glitter is a way towards seeing things more profoundly, not more shallowly.