Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Battle of the Five Armies

Well, I went to see the last Hobbit with a group of twelve Dwarves people. The previous one left me feeling quite disappointed, so my expectations had been reset. I was going to tolerate Tauriel, deviations from the book story, and silly over-the-top action sequences. With that mindset, the movie was rather entertaining (though it does not show any promise of becoming a classic). Still, leaving out pointless gripes, there are a few fundamental criticisms I have about the movie qua Tolkien adaptation:

1) Galadriel. In the book, Galadriel is an Elf-lady of great power, but her power lies in the preservation of Lothlórien, the understanding of souls, and foretelling. In the movie, Galadriel is the White Council’s weapon of offence; she single-handedly drives Sauron away from Dol Guldur, while Saruman and Elrond are battling Ringwraiths (with swords – again, compare the nature of the battle between Finrod and Sauron). While expelling Sauron, she morphs into Galadriel the Green, becoming the horror that she refused to become in The Lord of the Rings. It seems odd that Galadriel should resist temptation in the original movie, but surrender to it in the prequel.

I was reminded of Tolkien’s words that upon the Virgin Mary ‘my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded’. Galadriel was a type of Mary in The Lord of the Rings; in The Hobbit, she is neither majestic nor simple, and hence not beautiful. She degrades herself because the males around her are not sufficiently equipped to handle Mystic Warfare.

2) At the end of the movie, Gandalf tells Bilbo that surely he doesn’t suppose all his escapes were due to pure luck. This could have been a wonderful oblique reference to Providence, like in the books. Unfortunately, Gandalf doesn’t stop there and tells Bilbo that he knows about the Ring. In this way, the hint at the mysterious harmony of history dissolves into a grudging tribute to cleverness plus gadgets (the sort of thing that produced The Hobbit – sorry, couldn’t resist).

3) Gandalf and Bilbo part ways in great friendship, without sentimentality. Unfortunately, Bilbo doesn’t stop there, but turns around and lies to Gandalf about the Ring. Again, -1 for the Hobbit innocence so beautifully described in the books. How is Bilbo supposed to survive sixty years of handling the Ring with his spiritual resilience intact?

Well, that was all. Not so bad now, was it? Here is a guardedly positive review of a professorial Tolkien devotee (and specialist in 10th-century English). If you want more complaints, get you to the Plaza and read the litany of Aigronding Mordagnir. The text is white and will become visible on being selected.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Night of the UN

This Sunday – All Souls’ Day – the weather was lovely, so I cycled to Amsterdam and back, 70 km or so (including my clueless circling northwest of Central Station). During the ride I thought about a new painting of Christ’s Descent into Hell, more adapted to modern tastes, because I can’t think of any extant example. Instead of the medieval hall in which Christ is a serene presence (as if He owned the place!) in the midst of affrighted devils and astonished souls, Hell is a maze through which Christ is running joyfully and effortlessly, Adam and Eve and many souls behind Him, towards a broken gate beyond which light gleams. I’d love to see someone try this.

Wednesday I was in Amsterdam again. I went by train, which was better capable of finding Central Station. In the train I stood outside of the compartments, next to three teenage boys who were compulsively drinking beer (there was a six-pack on the floor) and talking. One of them was talking about the night he spent with a girl, who had gone to work in the morning and entrusted the room to him. While she was dressing he had taken a picture with his phone, which he promised to send to his friend via Snapchat. (I recall that this app shows pictures only for a few seconds…unless the other user has additional retentive software, of course.)

Later on they started talking about study. One of them was thinking about becoming a physiotherapist. A middle-aged lady spoke up and warned him against it: no jobs there. One of the teens, I believe the picture-snapper himself, remembered that he had talked to her before, and in what circumstances, and what she had said. He acted quite politely towards the woman. I marvelled at my strange compatriots.

In Amsterdam I walked to ‘De Rode Hoed’ (The Red Hat), where the Night of the UN was being held. Politics is not really one of my interests, but elections were being held for Dutch youth representatives at the UN: one general, the other focusing on sustainable development. Two candidates were vying for each position. An RA friend of mine, Soscha, was one of the sustainables. Therefore I went, skipping dinner, because Facebook had told me to be in time.

I arrived around 15 minutes after the beginning to a large queue that wound around the corner of the block. 450 people were allowed inside; after that, people could only get in when others left. The queue was still moving. I moved with it, until it stopped. I was close to the doors. Behind me more people had arrived; I think there were still some around the corner, where I had started.

Retrieving a small sci-fi paperback from my backpack, I resigned myself to waiting. The minutes went by; Soscha held her speech at the beginning of the evening. My eyes were reading and my ears were listening to a young man with an open, honest face and a beard. He was talking about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the servant of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas, aka the real Santa Claus) who comes to bring presents and candy on 5 December. To the puzzlement of our Belgian philosophy professor, many of the Dutch are now arguing that Zwarte Piet is racist, and the case has been brought to international venues (I think the UN). In retaliation, aggrieved traditional orangenecks have been wishing death and exile on the anti-Piet brigade. I marvel at my strange compatriots.

The open-faced young man was exhibiting empathy for the orangenecks. He was saying that no matter how much they should be disagreed with, their convictions were founded on experience and deeply held. Behind them were stories of grief, disappointment and hurt. Listening to those was more interesting than judging and countering their faulty arguments.

I marvelled with reverence.

Sometime after eight, Soscha came outside to smoke. She started talking to a few friends, including (I should have known) the honest young man, she saw me, showed surprise, gave me a hug. She told us she did not expect to win and had felt thoroughly uncomfortable campaigning. Her rival had assembled a team and canvassed, whereas she had only addressed her own networks. She had felt uncomfortable because, in telling people to vote for her, she had given her network only her side of the story and not her rival’s. This did not seem democratic to her. ‘Isn’t that how it usually works in democracy?’ I said. ‘Yeah,’ said the young man, ‘I’m anti-democratic in that sense.’ (Marvel on marvel.)

Soscha said she was allowed to take two people inside. Some of her connections, including the young man, were still waiting for others. That left me, and an unknown young lady who had said, ‘Hey, if you take me inside I’ll vote for you.’ And so I was led through the doors, feeling VIP.

On the ballot I saw that Soscha’s rival was an 18-year-old boy. I heard both of them made a good chance. The other position was contested by two people my age, a Mr. Abdullah and a boy with an ‘eij’ in his name; I figured he did not stand a chance. I considered voting for Abdullah on grounds of political correctness, then voting against him for the same reason. Conquering these temptations, I asked Soscha what to do. She said ‘eij’ was really behind; if I wanted to give him a better chance… So I voted for ‘eij’ on grounds of fairness.

I slipped into a hall where a debate on the Ukrainian situation was being held. The main editor of a major newspaper was there and some other experts, like a professor who denied that there was much support for the Russian separatist movement. One of them said that Putin was a disagreeable man; he had visited the Netherlands once, his plane had circled above Schiphol for a while because of mist, and his microphone had not worked in the conference room. At which he had asked (marvelling, I bet, at my strange compatriots), ‘Does nothing work in this country?’

A lady talked about people living in the neutral zone, who had left the Russian part of the Ukraine but had not been accepted into the Ukrainian part and could not go back, or vice versa. It was a growing problem, facilities had been built for them.

There were questions. A retired military officer asked one. Two people with the same surname. A man of non-Dutch origin who asked why they were only talking about the Ukraine and not about other problematic areas like Kurdistan. Someone else asked if they were not giving a rather one-sided anti-Russian presentation, to which the newspaper editor replied that the Russians were worse; to their state television, we were first and foremost ‘gay Europe’, a decadent and godless territory.

After the break I had wanted to go to a panel on IS, to be enlightened even further, but I ran into another familiar RA person, Gideon. We updated each other on ourselves. He was about done with his Master thesis on normative decision-making. He said people’s decisions were not usually based on reason, but it was interesting to see what they were based on.

At some point we were joined by Soscha and Lorenzo, an Italian who was very interested in sustainable development, not to protect the earth (as if we were separate from it) but to return to a more original sense of unity with nature. Friendship, delight and contemplation should take the place of consumerism; but sustainable development was often more focused on preserving consumerist possibilities through time. He and Gideon talked about socialist Latin American countries like Uruguay, who were doing the right things, thinking of setting up a South American Federation on the EU model, showing ‘counter-hegemonic’ tendencies (Gideon’s word). I was out of my depth here, so I just listened, wondering how other people managed to accumulate such a broad knowledge of international politics.

Soscha talked about her active life campaigning against fossil fuels. I asked, from curious ignorance, what was wrong with those. Much in every way. There seemed to be a threat that Shell would start drilling in Antarctica next year and do irreparable damage. (Maybe Socrates was right in Republic II and we should all go back to salt, acorns and figs. Our desires outstrip our needs.) There was mention of climate change deniers. ‘I think we should crucify those people,’ Gideon said. ‘Publicly,’ he added. Soscha agreed. I marvelled.

First something else became public: the voting results. We filed into the hall. Soscha was sure she had lost, but she did not mind; she could join an NGO and earn more money for less work. She just thought it was a pity that her rival probably wouldn’t put in the effort required.

When we were all seated, there was a careful orchestration of suspense, as the retiring representatives (one on Skype, one present) were asked a few questions before they could name their successors. Then the new representative for sustainable development was announced. It was Soscha. And she was stunned.

Gideon and I clapped, laughed and grinned broadly. ‘Now she has to work hard for less money,’ I said, and he laughed even more. Mr. Abdullah gained the position of Dutch youth representative; its prior occupant wore a headscarf.

We made our way up to the stage. Soscha was holding flowers, being congratulated, in tears. Gideon and I were happy. Then we both drank wine (I forgot my change, but Gideon brought it) and talked about Dutch priests-in-formation, the (de)merits of Christian mission in the past, and the Catholic vision of sexuality. We parted ways, agreeing to meet again soon.

Though I had missed dinner, I was not hungry, being full of the wine of pride and joy. I took the train from Amsterdam to Haarlem, praying the Office of Readings. There I had to wait for 27 minutes. Faced with the prospect of spending half an hour in a chilly station on a November night, I went to Burger King and ordered an X-tra Long Chili Cheese, proving to my own (dis?)satisfaction that I also was unable to distinguish needs from desires. On the plus side, the yellow stuff on the hamburgers may have been cheese.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Zephonite Reunion

In January I mentioned that I had found my old Plaza sister again on Facebook. Having found her, I saw that she would come to England for the Fall semester. Which is, relatively speaking, close. So I booked Eurolines tickets: my third coach adventure to meet up with Americans in Europe.

On Saturday I was in The Hague with my father to have a car assessed. That done, I drove to a free parking space somewhere between The Hague and seminary, then went back and waited a while for my coach, finishing King John on my e-reader. My Plaza sister, Becca, is an actress with a fondness for Shakespearean drama, and had inspired me to start reading the historical plays.

At 20.15 the coach arrived. I had expected the ride to be like the other ones: quiet, filled with reading and sleeping. But this was not the case. For when I entered, I heard a voice saying, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen you in a long time.’

The statement was true. The speaker had not seen me since we both graduated from Roosevelt Academy in 2010. So Wouter and I took a few hours to catch up on each others’ lives and remaining RA contacts, as the bus moved down to Rotterdam, Breda, stopping at Hazeldonk for 45 minutes, then going down through Belgium and eventually to Calais in France. There we had to leave the coach for Customs, a double check, France and the UK. At the French post, two people were forced to discontinue their journey.

Before that, at Rotterdam, my youngest sister called. She had been told by my father about my outing and wanted a postcard from London. She knows how to get things done.

Wouter and I moved on. He lived and worked in London now, he told me; rather eventful work it was too. He was very kind, asking me about my studies and about what the priestly life would be like, and offering me coffee and/or food during breaks.

We took the Chunnel. The coach drove onto the train, and after a while, the train started moving. It was the most uneventful mode of transport imaginable: sitting in a container within a container while outside only lights flashed by. I fell asleep and did not wake up until we were driving in London. Wouter did not seem to need any sleep yet; he would sleep at home, he said.

But he was not hurry. We arrived at Victoria Coach Station around 4.30am local time, two hours earlier than my watch indicated, because of the time difference plus the ending of Daylight Savings Time (I’d missed my annual extra hour of sleep). Hearing that I had nothing specific to do until 8am, Wouter decided to keep me company. We walked into the train station and had coffee, sitting opposite the entrance to the toilets. A visit to the toilet cost 30p, but most people just climbed over the turnstiles, including a man with a crutch.

At some point Wouter asked a young man in a grey sweater if he was doing alright: his hand looked rather bloody. He said that he was OK, that the bloodstains on his sweater belonged to someone else. Apparently he had been fighting in a bar somewhere, but he was very civil to us.

Wouter suggested we look for a more pleasant place than the station. As Pret à Manger was not open yet, we ended up at McDonald’s, which opened at 5am. There was a big guard there who made sure people didn’t sleep on the tables.

After that we ended up on the second floor of the train station, where a tea and breakfast place was open (we stuck with tea). Wouter said that if I wanted to pray morning prayer, I could; this was surprisingly attentive. He talked about the series Breaking Bad and some things that had not gone well at RA. I was glad and surprised that he would keep me company so long.

At last we parted ways, and I walked to Westminster Cathedral to pray morning prayer and attend the earliest Mass at 8am. The priest read a letter from Archbishop Nichols about the synod in place of the homily. There was no singing and we finished in some 45 minutes, in time for the 9am Mass.

But I could not hear two or three Masses, as people did in the past, because I had an appointment with Becca at 9am. Finally I got to see the Plaza sister with whom I had been out of touch for so many years!

On the hour of our meeting we decided to walk through London, rather than take public transport. Becca turned out to be an avid walker who could cover at least 20 miles in one day without ill aftereffects. She was also a weightlifter who was now advanced enough to have as a serious long-term goal the ability to lift twice her body weight.

We went to a pancake place which, as we discovered, opened later on Sundays. Becca’s second choice was attended by a sizable queue of people patiently waiting to be seated. We ended up somewhere else, where she ordered something with lots of oats, and I had a scone.

She talked about Alaska, her state of origin, about European history, and how difficult it was to get a visa in the present. Apparently there is a place in Alaska where you can see Russia (an uninhabited island far off the coast), the state contains lots of Norwegians, it’s more than twice as big as Texas, and there are Americans who think it’s a rather small island off the coast of California, thanks to topographical conventions.

This was not her first European experience; she had been in Ireland for a year, at a Catholic school, and she had recently studied Celtic and Welsh at Oxford for a few months. But apparently, the only way for her to enter Britain more permanently is either to marry an Englishman or to become world-famous in America. I had no idea it was so difficult simply to move to another country (with the same language, even).

Around noon, we went to Market Borough, where ‘apple day’ was being celebrated. One of the products on offer was apple cheese with black pepper; I bought some out of sheer astonishment. (It was rather soft and had a rough journey home.) We looked at a church, which had stained-glass windows of Shakespearean characters, and went off to a nearby square to eat sausage baps (apparently ‘bap’ is a word for bun).

We walked down Bankside, where the rebuilt Globe Theater stood, with the only thatched roof in London. Becca explained that this used to be the less respectable part of town; a gentleman would not want to be seen ‘beyond the river’. Down on a small beach next to the river, musicians were playing, a practice not allowed on the walkway.

We then walked to the British Museum, which had an exposition on Anglo-Saxon materials. We crossed a big book stall with lots of classic works, and Becca said some harsh words about Christopher from Into the wild, who was not a romantic hero but an idiot who had made all the wrong choices. The Anglo-Saxon exposition (including the helmet of Sutton Hoo) was impressive, but I found myself growing very tired whenever I tried to focus.

I must be brief, since time is pressing. We went for coffee and took a picture of the two of us, to show our Plaza mother of days long gone, Teleria. Then Becca helped me to find Victoria Coach Station, which was no easy thing. We said goodbye rather rushedly, surrounded by many people in the coach terminal. It had been a good visit.

The bus back to The Hague was delayed by over an hour. It was also rather full when I came in, so I walked back and forth and a girl offered me the seat next to her. We had some pleasant conversations on the ride home (which included the ferry this time). She pretended to be outraged that I had only been once to the amusement park in her hometown.

I arrived in The Hague, bought a coffee (the man said, ‘Need something to wake up?’) and took the train to where I parked my car. I arrived back at seminary at 7.11, so in time for Monday morning prayer, which starts at 7.15. And there my life adventure resumed its customary course.

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


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


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


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.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Divine Mercy Sunday

Last Sunday, two Popes were canonized by Pope Francis. I was there. With another seminarian, I went to the Vatican around 00.15 and crossed the Angel’s Bridge at 00.49. Not too far along the Via della Conciliazione between the Angel’s Fortress and St. Peter’s Square, we found we could no longer advance, so we went back a short distance and sat down in front of a screen.

People were lying down on the ground on mats and in sleeping bags. Others had brought chairs. A statue of the Blessed Virgin that stood to our right had been decorated with a scarf that said ‘POLSKA’.

For some reason, either because the crowd had gone back or because a new stretch of road had opened, we found out that we could walk further, perhaps around 2am. At the next screen, we debated whether we should go on or sit down. We went on, and got stuck. That is how it started.

For about seven hours, the two of us stood in a road full of people, with more and more coming from behind. Groups around us sat down on chairs or on the ground, until there was another small wave of forward motion and we could advance a number of steps. We were carried along by the movement; the crowd was packed together densely, with people pushing and shoving at every new surge.

Twice I almost fell asleep standing and flailed, hitting the people around me, thankfully not their heads. A third time my friend snapped his fingers in front of my face a few times before I realized what was happening.

‘You can try to sit if you like,’ he said, and I lowered myself to the ground (which was difficult enough) for a short while. But he remained upright for a full twelve hours or more.

Eventually we were separated, but the periodic movement went on. In the early morning light, I found that I was close to the first screen before St. Peter’s Square. Closer was hardly possible. People kept coming in from and going away to the side of the road, where more movement was possible; every time someone passed, I had to shift my backpack; in the end I had to lift it above my head.

As this was very inconvenient, I decided to forgo the place I had waited so long to obtain; I went off to the side and walked back a short way, but still in sight of the first screen. The view was not ideal where I ended up, but it was a bit quieter and I could sit down for a while.

I suppose there was great excitement when the Pope arrived, but I don’t remember; in my fatigue, it all seemed rather muted.

Around ten o’clock the canonization Mass started with the Litany of the Saints. The sound was not properly synchronized; for every phrase there were two echoes, so that it was difficult to hear or to sing along.

At the first reading, a girl offered me a seat, for which I was very grateful. During the Liturgy of the Word, many people were dozing off or simply sleeping. It seemed ironic to me that those who had shown the greatest fervour in coming here were the least able to participate in the actual Mass.

During the homily, the kind girl next to me fell asleep, her body folded double. After a while the lady on my other side asked if she was breathing. I did not check, but said she was.

When everyone rose for the Creed, the girl remained where she was. During the offertory, the lady asked me again if she was breathing. Thinking that I had better make sure, I shook her until she opened her eyes. ‘Are you all right?’ I said. ‘We were worried for a second.’

She told me that she was from Poland. I said I was from the Netherlands, and introduced myself. She said her name was Dominika – which my mind translated as ‘the Sunday girl’. Beautiful and apt.

Communion was a holy chaos; sometimes people held up their hands to indicate they still wanted to receive Communion; we had to wrestle and be pushed towards the priest, and away from him after receiving. There was really no graceful way of doing it.

I am still glad to have been there for this once-in-a-lifetime event, though it feels like I missed it mentally. Well, it has been recorded; I can watch it again. It was worth the vigil, for the memory and the kindness exchanged.

And, as my friend later pointed out: though all sacred hosts are of equal value, it’s still special to have received one consecrated by two Popes.

Monday, 24 March 2014

A Reformed Wedding

A friend of mine got married on Thursday. I’ve known him from the time we both attended a Reformed secondary school, and as we belonged to the same group of friends, we’ve stayed in touch. His bride comes from another part of the country. Her family name is De Pater, but since women traditionally acquire a double surname on their wedding day, her last name is now Brand-de Pater – which translates as ‘Burn the Friar’.

I was unable to make it to the civil ceremony and the church service, but I did attend the wedding reception. While standing in line to congratulate the bride and groom, I had a conversation with someone I had not seen since secondary school, about seven years ago. Back in the day we had had only casual contact.

We exchanged news on what we were doing these days; he had gone into graphic design, I think. On hearing that I was in formation for the priesthood, he remarked that there was an ongoing rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants. ‘The main lines are the important thing,’ he thought.

‘Yes, those too,’ I said.

More confidentially he went on, ‘I don’t know how [the groom] stands in the faith; do you? I couldn’t make it out from the sermon either.’

‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘But what do you mean by ‘how he stands in the faith’?’

‘Well, whether he is converted,’ he answered, ‘whether Jesus Christ is his Redeemer. I don’t know how that is with you…’ (This was in the plural form and thus referred more generally to the Catholic perception on conversion. ‘Yes, certainly,’ I said.)

‘But I’m afraid to ask him now,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really talked to him since secondary school and it might be strange to ask the question now, when I haven’t brought it up all those years. You do feel that you’ve fallen short…’

I agreed today might not be the best day to ask, and excused myself on the ground that I still had to write my card.

The bride and groom were radiant and cordial, and I managed to extend my congratulations just past the point of awkwardness; for which I take full responsibility.

Once inside, I joined two old friends at a table and asked, ‘How was the church service?’

Before the answer was given, we were joined by a young couple. The husband also belonged to our group of friends; he had always maintained a near-complete silence at our gatherings, but had still managed to get married in January, whereas the two others did not even have girlfriends on the horizon. His young wife was with him, and being married seemed to agree with them both.

One friend told them I had just asked how the sermon had been.

‘Technically speaking I was asking about the church service,’ I said.

The couple said that the sermon had been mostly inaudible where they were sitting; the sound installation had not been properly synchronized with the minister’s speech.

The friend had been seated more towards the front and had not experienced these problems. He said: ‘It was good, it is always good when the Gospel of grace for sinners is preached honestly.’ Or words to that effect.

‘Hm-mm,’ I said.

Some time afterwards, we were joined by another person I hadn’t seen since secondary school, though I knew he had gone on to study theology. He was accompanied by a girlfriend. The last three years of school, we had had heated but friendly debates about all sorts of topics. When I converted to Catholicism during my first year of college, the first question he asked me on MSN was whether I had already returned to Protestantism. I was insulted because he seemed not to take me seriously, and stopped responding.

Today the six-year silence was broken. One of the first questions he asked was, ‘Are you Reformed yet?’

‘I am in a process of daily reformation,’ I said, ‘in the context of Cornelis semper reformandus.’ This made him laugh.

Studying God’s revelation as an academic subject has a way of generating rather than arresting conversations, and so my talk with him was longer and more spirited than the ones reported above. It turned out he was in his final year of his Masters in Theology. ‘And then?’ I queried. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What would you do if you were me?’ ‘I haven’t seen you in seven years,’ I said. ‘What would you do if you were you?’ ‘I really don’t know,’ he said.

Though he had been a math-and-science type at school, he had started specializing in Semitic languages, studying not only Biblical Hebrew, but also Ugaritic and Syrian on the side, and who knows what else. Also he had started reading The Lord of the Rings, after having seen the first movie. ‘Only now I begin to understand what kind of world you were living in back at school,’ he said, not unkindly. He praised the masterful writing of the book, its Christian themes and the way it conjured up an authentic medieval worldview, but still saw the danger of getting too involved in a fantasy world.

He asked: ‘What do you think about Luther? What do you think about the justification of the sinner?’ I struggled to give just answers. He said, ‘The answer is, Does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 64)

It was good to chat with him again. His girlfriend was nice too; she studied English at Leiden University, so I asked about her favourite author. It turned out she was less interested in literature than in grammar and phonetics. Knowing her boyfriend, perhaps I should have guessed.

Around 7.30pm the reception ended. I shook hands with the bride, walked out, realized I had overlooked the groom and walked back to shake hands with him. My theologian friend called out, ‘It’s nice to see you retrace your steps. You should do that more often.’