Boethius: Philosopher of the Imagination

Acolyte (noun): A. A person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. B. An assistant, follower, or disciple. [Pronounced ake-lite]

Boethian (adjective): Pertaining to the philosophical thought of Boethius. [Pronounced Bo-eth-ius]

Who the heck is Boethius, and why do I cheekily claim to be his acolyte? Hopefully this post will shed some light on these mysteries that have doubtlessly plagued you for so long.

“Boethius” isn’t a name that has recognition among most people today who aren’t medievalists, but you can’t hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his name. Even if you’ve never read Dante (author of the Divine Comedy), Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales), C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia), or J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings), all of these writers held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The Old English King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth the First both translated him from Latin into the English of their periods, and in fact, in the medieval period, Boethius was used exactly how I use him in my classroom: as a framework for interpreting literature.

The life of Boethius occurred during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by Visigoths, and this precipitated Rome extracting their military occupation from England. When Boethius was born in the year 480, his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer, so Roman political power had already significantly diminished. In 493, when Boethius was a young teenager and being educated to be a senator by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Even though Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. In another post I discuss the basics of the liberal arts philosophy; Boethius was a primary figure in establishing what the liberal arts education would actually look like in the classroom. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. Grammar taught correct use of language; logic taught how to order language for sound reasoning, and rhetoric taught how to make good grammatical and logical language persuasive to specific audiences. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Arithmetic was more than the basic subject we think of it now – it was the philosophy of number, and music was the philosophy of number expressed through time. Geometry was the art of studying number expressed through space, and astronomy was the art of studying number expressed through both space and time. So although it certainly involved studying the movements of the heavens, astronomy was a precursor of what we would call physics today. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of the knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, including a commentary on Aristotle’s On interpretation that concerned the interpretation of language signs, Aristotle’s and other Greek writers’ works on logic, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Boethius also wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, the second called On the Fundamentals of Music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in The Consolation of Philosophy and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. In the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter – they believed that the arts needed to be distinguished so that they could be studied clearly, but studying first the trivium, the arts of thought and communication, and then the quadrivium, the arts of conceiving order in the world around you, were necessary stages to learn before entering into larger fields of inquiry such as theology or practical efforts such as politics. The academic life of the mind was designed to prepare you for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who had been preparing Boethius for the public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom Boethius would have two sons.

In addition to his liberal arts textbooks and scholarship, Boethius had written five theological tracts, two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on the relationship of God’s goodness to the goodness of the world, and a final that was a basic statement of Christian faith. We can see here Boethius working to understand the relationship of philosophy and theology, and his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand complicated aspects of theological doctrine. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the revelations of Scripture, a view he had learned from reading the Church Father Augustine. But his theological beliefs was a source of political discomfort, because his king, Theodoric, was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, which means they rejected the Trinitiarian theology of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tension in Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try and build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeited coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Emperor in the East, and even called on his skill as a clock maker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, when he named Boethius the Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could have given him, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consul of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity – but as we know all too well today, that isn’t necessarily such a good thing.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate – the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. Immediately his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been as consul to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason – ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, which Theodoric had assigned him to, as a sign of his treason. They threw every charge at him they possibly could – they even resorted to accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In spite of his own feelings about it, though, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, as popular as he was, proved enough incentive to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without so much as a trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast aside political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition – all of it was taken away in what seemed like a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? He certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, Boethius drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience to write The Consolation of Philosophy, unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524 or 525, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a Trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only exploded – because after all, he had just had killed Rome’s favorite son right before Rome’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, probably the person for whom Boethius had written his theological writings for. This shocked writers of the day in the East like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantian empire. A year or two after Boethius died, Theodoric himself died during a massive bout of diarrhea. Perhaps he was being given the same divine affliction that killed Arius, the founder of his Arian beliefs, or more likely Theodoric’s political enemies had finally caught up with him, poisoning him to avenge people like Boethius who had died in the wake of his unhinged paranoia.

The Consolation of Philosophy thus became a favorite text for people subjected to religious or political persecution, and it also became popular with monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good – sort of like hey, we read Boethius, so we’re good kings – not like that Theodoric fellow! It’s a challenging text to read, all the more impressive when we consider the physically uncomfortable and mentally distressing circumstances under which Boethius wrote the Consolation, because he didn’t know at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed. Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum, which is a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. If you read The Hobbit, for example, that book is also a prosimetrum because when its characters recite poetry, the story shifts from regular prose into poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: there are 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. This structure is important to pay attention to because it is significant for Boethius’s understanding of literature, which is one of the things we are trying to understand this. Notice that most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, and then Lady Philosophy stops him from writing and has her speak with him – although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative – Lady Philosophy is a personification, which is a product of imagination, since of course philosophy is not a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and talk about how beautiful nature is. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relationship to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination, or another way to put it: her poetry is an example of the type of imagination which Boethius the author thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner. Boethius is a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and is a cornerstone figure to contemplate how literature and philosophy can speak to each other, and so speak all the more powerfully to us. That’s why I think he deserves at least one acolyte, performing the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into his life and thought.

This is a partial transcript, with some alterations, of a lecture I gave on Boethius’s life and his final work, The Consolation of Philosophy. The recorded version of the lecture is here:

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Ethics of Thunder and Snow

Written on the occasion of seeing a predatory bird

Perched upon a leafless tree in a winter storm

The ethics of thunder and snow

Raged through the barren trees;

As the sharp edges of the wind did blow,

An avian philosopher debated the breeze.

Perched upon the leafless tree it gazed out

Still and quiet with thoughts of flight,

Unfazed by the dispute in thunderous shout,

ghostly and grey to give fear itself fright.

For the material state of hail and rain

Could not defeat the winged sage’s mind

Which knew blue skies as its true fane

Where all storms are left behind.

Steady, silent watcher with your unsettling gaze,

Your stance against the storm, feathers jeweled by ice,

Remind me of the immovable ancient of days,

Whose eternal center is one and blessed thrice

Where I should turn when the storms holler lies

And into His truth on grace’s wings arise.

———————————————-

Charmed by these thoughts given by this bird without song,

I turned to look out the window as if to give thanks,

But he was gone.

Paradiso

Written ~2007

“…it has come as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we calle happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated—And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth…” –John Keats

You already know the story I am going to tell you. You have heard this a million times before. In fact, this whole thing may have nothing new or useful for you at all. But it is all I know, all I have to say, and I do not demand that you listen to me. I am simply going to tell you what the truth is. You may not want to hear it, which is fine. But stay with me, if you are brave. Try to stop hiding from the pain of what you know, or nothing here will mean anything to you.

            Our planet is called Paradiso, as it has for some years. After the mantra of Nietzsche grew popular, the star-ward gaze was abandoned and we got to calling earth heaven. Holy Science has salvaged our world, welded it like a casket impregnable to grave robbers. Huge bridges, like the cables of a spider’s web, have joined the continents, and Pangea is an apt name of the world-wide nation.

            There is no hunger on Paradiso, as Pangea’s official records prove. The machines have pumped the life from the soil, and every human mouth is fed. There is no labor but luxury, for pursuits of the mind are the commandment of Pangea. Everyone is stylized a scholar, and violence is strictly and rigorously forbidden. There are no wars between factions, because Pangea says that every person is equally unique, and all individuality is carefully apportioned by the officials. The differences of the old world, we are taught, only cause pain, so we are relieved of dangerous heritage.

            Disease is a fairytale on Paradiso, a story, told by the historians we call physicians. Medicine is kept in museums once known as hospitals. Life is longer now, and they say immortality will be on the market some day soon. The harder we work, the longer we are allowed to live, and Pangea is praised as a perfect government for how well we run its stipulations.

            They call the old world Inferno in the texts. A place of horror where people found themselves unable to agree on the simplest beliefs and blood was spilt over things they thought mattered. Now we can be happy, free of their fanaticism. We no longer have to worry about the dangers posed by notions of immaterial truth. We have happiness meticulously manufactured, and the assurances that it is more than enough.

            And happy we truly are. No one dies an untimely death, and everyone pursues what they should want. They – we – are blissful, as only ignorance can allow.

            I was given the name Faustus, as part of my duty of recalling the infernal days of old. But of course this is not a story about me – it is a story about us, and the Pangean Paradise. For we are a people of peace. The citizens of the disunified Inferno would have been jealous at our widespread, global, organized machine of perfect utility. Pleasure is for nearly every human on Paradiso all that is known; there are no smiles tinted by sadness. Except for those proud few, who bear the sadness which comes with the joy of sacrifice.

            Ah, you hoped that I would pass over in silence the secret to Paradiso’s success. I knew you knew what it was. But you almost forget it, absorbed as you are in your delights. This is understandable, and it couldn’t be helped anyway. But I will remind you.

            At birth, I was assigned the task of Deliverer. There is a class on Paradiso known as the Champions. The highest of Champions, most honored, are the Heroes. They are the heartbeat, the source, of Pangea’s culture machine. Then there are the Attendants. Finally, there is my class. The Deliverers, we live between. We see and live in two worlds. We see the peace of Paradiso, and we see the small microcosm, the world entirely created by Pangea: Purgatorio. That is the realm of the Heroes.

            I will familiarize you again with what merely slipped from your mind, occupied as it is with the meaningful demands of your business. As the Deliverer, I watch every child born into my assigned district. I mark them silently, and according to the criteria, carefully discern who are to be Heroes. I write this down in my personal files, and meet the parents clandestinely. I inform them, and console them with an understanding of the high honor Pangea proscribes.

            At the proper age, I take the child from their parents. The Her is taken at its first lie. Usually in Paradiso this is not until very old, for humans are raised to strict codes of behavior. But Heroes are different. Lying is in their genes.

            I remember my first Hero. Her lie was reported on a cool Monday morning—not too cool, for weather is carefully supervised—and I arrived to apprehend her at seven thirty a.m. Her lie was that she enjoyed waking early. Her personal diary, recorded orally, testified that early mornings made her unhappy. I took her from her parents at eight fifteen a.m. She was three and a half years old.

            I took her to the Attendants. She held her storybook close, scared but brave. Her parents had told her they were proud of her. Their ashen faces told her that they were scared. I felt proud for her fortitude. I know why she is a Hero.

            For six months she was prepared in Purgatorio. I am not an Attendant, so I had nothing more to do with her. Pangean code suggests Deliverers watch little or nothing of the process after one or two viewings, although the code is not enforced. After that first time, I seldom ever watched.

            The child is put on a healthy but strict diet and put through extensive exercise during those six months. Heroes are expected to be in excellent physical condition. She was no different. At the end of the sixth month she was taken from the outer hall of the Purgatorio, to where the final steps are taken inside.

            The child is stripped of outer garments, though left with decency and dignity. All hair is removed, down to each eyelash. Then a careful process removes the thinnest layer of skin across the body. This heightens the sensitivity. The instruments are brought out, and the attendant sets to work. The child is given something to bite on.

            Usually the damage to the internal organs and the shock of pain kills the Hero within an hour. The process is necessary. It is the only way to generate enough innocent pain. The sciencists tap into the karma program, and for many years enough pain is generated, and enough energy, to produce relief across Pangea. Paradiso is a land of utter pleasure, thanks to the efforts of our noble Heroes. The machine runs on blood, but thankfully just a little is enough, every once in a while.

            You seem upset. The emotion in your eyes seems defensive, as if you wish to remind me of all the lives this makes better. You want to point out that this process causes planet-wide healing. You want to ask, isn’t it reasonable to make the entire world better by means of this occasional, routine sacrifice?

            Good, that reaction is as expected. You will make an excellent Attendant, just as the culture machine predicted.


In 2020 this story was used as promotional material for Of Gods and Globes 2, edited by Lancelot Schaubert.

The Trivium and Literary Interpretation

The subjectification of literary interpretation, the idea that the text only means what I feel it means rather than the rigorous standards of interpretation produced by careful grammatical, logical, and rhetorical investigation of the text’s meaning(s), undermines the value of human utterance for sharing and creation of community through narrative. Granted, texts are marvelously variable and capable of yielding legitimate polyvocal readings – and reader response surely comes into play when one finalizes such things.

But the assumed authority to merely rewrite a text when interpreting it, asserting counterfactuals to what is actually written as permissible, and such like interpretive antics constitute an infringement on the basic good will required for any viable hermeneutic. I think that grade school pedagogy, well intentioned as it surely is, has privileged the idea of reader response to highlight the joy of interpretive interactivity at the expense of the sense of responsibility to the words arranged as the author wrote them.

This invokes the problematic and much-vexed issue of authorial intent, which has been rightly considered a limiting frame of reference, because texts can do more than authors mean them to. In fact if the author has any skill the text will convincingly do much more than what the author intended. To invoke the classic categories of rhetorical persuasion, using authorial intent as the primary means of interpretation is to make the author the Logos of the text – but that is technically wrong because only the words of the text are the Logos of it.

However, what makes a text worthwhile is the awareness that it was fixed, at one time, by a human being. I couldn’t care less if a computer could write a better poem or story than a human – even if it can, what I care about is the human reaction to his or her lifeworld, and so the author-function must have a steady, timeless place – “authorization” in the non-literary sense of the word. This authorization acts as not as pathos, logos, or ethos, but rather as mythos – the author is to the text, albeit in a reduced sense because of human infallibility as opposed to scriptural inerrancy, what Genesis 1-3 is to the rest of the book. That is, the author is the meaningful context that establishes the text as both from some One, time-based as the historicists would have it, and extracted from the time-stream as structuralists would have it.

Respect for the author-function is what makes regard for the crafted speech comprehensible and compelling. (Note I don’t mean mythos as made up but as story which provides a fixed reference point for contemplation of meaning.) Authorial intent thus doesn’t fix the text’s meaning but its meaningfulness, and of course assertions from the author about the text’s meaning aid the reader. But (imperfectly) like the Church who keeps Scripture, those who interpret literature must see texts as more than the result of the intentions of the human author. Historical elements, philosophical results of contemplation of the ideas the text invokes, aspects of psychological realities which manifest from the presence of archetypal patterns within the narrative, and theological considerations all make it impossible for authorial assertion to be the final interpretive word.

The humanity of the author, channeled into the text by intention, is what makes the text meaningful, but likewise what makes the author’s perspective necessary but insufficient to final articulation of meaning.The skill of the author at interpretation of his or her own work should also be considered. Someone like Dante, for example, who had much learning as regards literary interpretation will have perhaps greater utility at interpreting his own work than most writers. Even then, however, he is only an indispensible resource, and not the final author of the text’s meaning, only the author of the text and the necessary founder of the text’s meaningfulness via his mythic place as author.

But theological, historical, psychological, social, and philosophical interpretations likewise must neither displace the meaningful role of the author and his or her mythic author-function, nor the meaningfulness generated by the authorized language of the literary text. Those domains of analysis are interesting, but if they are given too much pride of place in the study of the text, we have left the realm of true literary study.

So, the ultimate authorized interpretation of any text must begin and end with that which makes it a text: the grammatical structure that gives it being, the logical structure which provides cognitive apparatus for what thoughts the text explicitly engages, and the rhetorical arrangement of story-arc which gives life to that grammatical structure and manifestations of logical elements. Other disciplines come in to perfect those arts, but the Trivium must always be the three-fold master of any effort of literary interpretation for the discipline of literary studies to retain its true dignity.

Call Your Doctor First: A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34

Call Your Doctor First:

A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34 (Trinity 15 – September 12th, 2021)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.

I thought I was having a heart attack. I had been dozing on the couch when I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest. I could feel every beat, like a hand slamming inside of my rib cage. My hands and feet started to shake and a sense of doom came over me. I got up unsteadily and told my mother, who was now in the kitchen, “I think I am having a heart attack.” She was strangely calm and asked me why, and I told her my symptoms. Then she said, “I think we should call your doctor first.” That seemed odd, but she’s mom, so she knows best. So we called my doctor, and he asked what my symptoms were, and with a fearful voice I explained what was happening. Then he started asking me about my personal life. This frustrated me – I’m having a medical emergency and he wants to hear about what I’ve been up to? But then, out of my mouth came tumbling a fountain of frustrations – things that had gone wrong recently, disappointments about my future and in my personal life that had been piling up. And as I divulged these things and the flood of distress came pouring out, I started to feel better – my heart beat returned to normal and my body calmed down. “You were having a panic attack,” my doctor explained. I was shocked. Me? I’m a calm, confident, steady, hard worker and careful planner. I don’t get panicked. But, you see, that was the problem. I wasn’t facing my emotions, not really. Without intending to, I was just pushing down disappointment after disappointment, and not facing the fact that the negative emotion was building up. It was bound to burst forth eventually, and the panic attack was how it finally manifested when my body realized my mind wouldn’t notice or deal with the stress.

Now imagine if my mother had harshly rebuked me with Matthew 6:25 when I thought I was having a heart attack – “Don’t worry! Jesus said not to worry!” Would that have been helpful in my panic? Now I would not just be filled with anxiety – now I would be anxious that I was anxious, and I would panic over my guilt that I was panicking! This experience raises the question: how are we to take Christ’s teaching when stressful things happen, particularly as regards our finances but about our worries in general? Should we be racked with guilt that we are feeling anxious because our checkbook isn’t looking ideal and we have fears about having enough? Should we think we are disobeying Jesus when we plan financially, for our future and our retirement? No. No. Proverbs 21:5 tells us, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” In 1 Timothy 5:8, the apostle Paul tells us, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Scripture clearly teaches us to be judicious stewards of those obligations and responsibilities that come into our hands, as a part of gratitude towards God and service to our neighbors.

I know someone who says that when she struggled with worry, Christians around her told her that “worry is practical atheism” (thanks a lot!), instead of offering comfort. We may be tempted to hear simply a condemnatory tone in what Christ is saying, and we shouldn’t soften the fact that this is a command. But, you know, the fact that Christ is teaching this shows that he already knows we’re anxious. We need this teaching precisely because life throws us curve balls that catch us off guard, and we’re going to need to be prepared so we aren’t just bowled over by those unforeseen things. The teaching of this passage is not separate from its tone. Scripture makes clear the tone we should hear when we read, “Do not be anxious.” In Matthew 9:36 we read of Christ, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He doesn’t berate them for being anxious, but actively sets them at ease by demonstrating the care he has for them. It is from a place of compassion that Christ tells us not to worry, because he sees our rapidly beating hearts in the midst of trouble and wants to calm us down. So likewise when we see someone else having anxiety, the right response is not to condemn the fellow Christian for lacking faith, but to compassionately remind them of Christ’s teaching, in keeping with Ephesians 4:23, which tells us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…”

When I thought my heart was sick, my mom didn’t dismiss my feelings or tell me to just trust without reason. She told me to call my doctor first, with the belief that in talking to him I would find the help I need. She probably could see what I couldn’t, that it was unspoken and unacknowledged anxiety, but she knew that I needed to hear it from the right person and in the right way for the advice to help and not hurt. Although primarily about finances, I think today’s Gospel can speak to our anxieties in general, which always in some sense come down to fears about whether we’ll be provided for, whether we’ll be okay. So what advice does the true Doctor give in this passage, to help us to obey his command not to worry? I see six pieces of advice here which we can benefit from directly, adjusting our perspectives in practical ways. I won’t go into great detail, but note them quickly.

  1. First, we are told, “NO man can serve two masters… Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” We have to take a spiritual audit of our budgets. As it says in the offertory sentences, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have I given thee.” There’s our financial budget, the main point of the passage – can we see that God, not mammon, is master there? But mammon is not our only idol. What about our time? Does our time budget reflect that Christ, not the clock, is in charge? And what about our emotional budget as regards our relationships? Do we see that our main goal in life is to please Jesus rather than to appease people we think might not like us if we were authentic about our faith? A false master in any domain of life will not give us the comfort we can get only from Christ, and if we are trying to serve two (or more), we’ll have more stress than we need to.
  2. Second, we are told, “Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment?… And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?” In saying that life is worth more than the food that sustains us, I think that Christ is reminding us to more objectively take stock of what we actually need. Often we internalize messages, from our friends, neighbors, family, and the world in general about what we need – what kind of food, or clothes, or other things that, without them, we won’t be satisfied. If we have a clearer picture of what we really need, then we can reduce our stress when our budgets tighten and close out things we think we need but really only want. Demanding more than what we need is compared here to somehow making our lives unnaturally longer, over which we have no power. Realistic awareness of both our needs and limitations will relieve much more stress than we think.
  3. Third, we see Jesus teaches, “Behold the birds of the heaven… your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they?…. Consider the lilies of the field… I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” Something interesting that sticks out to me here is that Christ commands us to observe nature. We are blessed in the Branson area to have beautiful opportunity to do this. If you are not taking the time to let God speak to you through nature, you’re missing out on a wonderful dimension of His providential care. The great Anglican philosopher William Paley was so impressed with the design he saw in creation, that he believed simply studying the natural order was an antidote to atheism, so clear was the hand of Providence. The ducks on the landing have no shopping centers, no restaurants, no social institutions to help them accrue resources, and yet, even with a life-span of only five to ten years they are able to continue their species and even have time to have fun splashing in the water. God designed the ducks to take care of themselves without retirement funds, stocks, or bonds – God loves them, and made them with love. But that same God loves us more.
  4. Fourth, Christ says, “After all these things do the Gentiles seek.” Notice here that Christ points out that anxiety over what we think we need is common to all mankind. We can investigate our own thinking about what we really need by asking, “How does my thinking about what I need to be satisfied differ from someone who isn’t a Christian? Does my sense of what I need to have reflect Christ’s standards or the world’s?” This can help us to dispense with attachments that may look like blessings but are actually burdens.
  5. Fifth, Christ tells us, “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” This command is an extension of our first point, that we can’t serve two masters, but with a switch in emphasis – the first is about who should hold our attention in Heaven, and this one concerns what he is directing our attention towards on Earth. The issue isn’t that pursuing money, or friendship, or love, or a meaningful job, or a promotion, or even our hobbies are wrong. The question is if we can provide an account of how all that we do upholds our kingdom work. If it can’t, if we can’t honestly show that what we’re doing adds to our role in God’s kingdom, then we might consider that it’s actually slowing us down, blunting our consciences, hurting our testimony, and, in a word, making us less effective ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. A confused mission will always increase anxiety. If it edifies, keep it. If it clouds your vision of the master’s kingdom quest, let it go.
  6. Sixth and finally, Christ says, “Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Oddly enough I find this statement deeply comforting. It acknowledges that times will be hard. Being a Christian doesn’t offer exemption from the problems of the fallen world, the ensnaring devil, or the sinful flesh. We’ll still feel anxious over the evil of the day. I have already explained that I don’t think this passage precludes judicious planning, but I think it offers instead a very useful piece of advice: when a problem presents itself, break it down into increments. See what you can meaningfully do today. Don’t let the whole problem swallow you up, but rather use your calendar to schedule your stress. Meet it on the terms you’ve set, based on scriptural advice, instead of letting whatever makes you worried eat up your hours and days and weeks and months and years until the worry has dulled all sense of time. Don’t shoulder the burden of all of your responsibility at once – shoulder the day’s portion, and through prayer and by grace you will see it through. It’s no accident that this is the same chapter where Christ gives us the Lord’s prayer – ask for our daily, not our weekly, bread, because you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.

So maybe even now you are thinking, “But I am still anxious. I don’t know if I’ll have enough, or if my efforts will be enough, or if I’ll be able to get through this situation.” You’re feeling little in your faith. You feel like you’re having a spiritual heart attack. Then you should call your doctor first, and you kneel before him and say, Lord, I am of little faith – I’m anxious for tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll feed and clothe myself or my family, or if my loved one will return to Christ, or if my boss really appreciates the work I do, or if my neighbor will see me differently if I share the Gospel, or if this person who I love so much will ever get better from this sickness. I’m anxious, and my faith is only little. And with compassion, he will say, I know. Tell me everything, and I will unburden your heart, I will give you the peace that passes understanding. Let your anxiety be crucified on the cross with Christ, who himself there asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Our high priest knows our condition – he has felt it, he is tender hearted towards it, and all the anxiety we feel is an opportunity to share it with Him in prayer. He didn’t carry his cross the whole way alone, and we shouldn’t try to bear ours alone either – we should ask for help when we need it. And then we can be ready to help our fellow Christians, when they feel anxious too, to let them know they are not alone, because we’ve been there, and so with sympathy and empathy we can say, “It’s hard to avoid the temptation to serve two masters, to truly seek the kingdom first, to really consider the lilies of the field. But here’s how listening to my doctor helped me not to worry, and how I believe it can help you too.” And in doing so your master’s peace shall be added unto you. Amen.

They grow up so fast

Her hand gripped mine
As the doctor looked up
He said
It’s a nice little piece of writing
And I said, Well? Is it literature?
A great novel about a hero who slays
The dragon and carries the burden
Into the dark places where
Others will not follow?
He said
Slow down son, it’s a nice little poem
A lot of growing to do but
That’s how they come.
So I held the bloody little screaming thing
In my arms and my heart didn’t
Sink the way I thought it might
But my spirit didn’t exactly soar.
But I looked into its contorted little face,
Eyes squinting like a basset hound
Confronted with a glaring sunset
And flexing those golden pipes,
Or maybe they were bronze,
But loud is not a color.
So we took it home and
She said that night it needed a change
And I said it sounds like
A dirty job
And she smiled and said
Get used to it buddy.
It’s only when they’re real small like that
That you have this delight, as they first
Come into the world,
That cleaning the crap is actually
Delightful in some weird way.
You know what I mean,
Don’t give me that look.
And you know everyone thinks
That theirs is the prodigy
And the other parents seem
Somehow to be doing it right
And it makes you jealous but proud
That they’re your friends and you aren’t above
Getting a tip from them when
The little guy isn’t so little anymore
And he’s coming home at three in the morning and
Leaving the milk out
And bringing home strange sonnets that
Don’t exactly rhyme.
And you look at the smug little bastard
With that glint in his eye standing there like he knows
What he’s all about and it makes it really hard
To work with
And get him to say what you want him to.
And the filthy things he says when you wanted him to
Be clean are embarrassing, and you think about the time he fell
Off the swingset and came running and blubbering
And folded into your arms and wanted a kiss to make it better
And now I’m lucky if I can get him to do a little homework
And make an allusion or two,
Not even to something hard like Beowulf or Chaucer or Dante or Virgil, just something small,
Like maybe Milton or Shakespeare
But he won’t turn off the Eminem or the Lady Gaga to at least hear me out
And it wasn’t a big deal to ask him to pick up that mess but
The next thing you know you’re shouting
And he’s sitting there and I’m standing here and looking
And wondering if he’ll ever grow up
And he said you’re the one who wrote me to begin with
And I said you’re the one who’s so hard to write
And he said all I wanted was for you to be proud of me
And I said I don’t need you to do anything special
To make me proud just try to have some patience.
You think you know everything but you don’t
That’s all you ever say, he said
I say it because it’s true
Maybe you should focus on what I know instead of what I don’t
And it’s not my fault that you can’t stop writing me in a way
That doesn’t make you love me.
. . . . .
I shook my head and felt myself getting mad and said
Listen, it’s not that I don’t love you,
It’s that I just don’t understand you.
Makes two of us, he said quietly.
Mom said you wanted me to be a novel.
Oh stop being so literal kid, I said,
That’s just a metaphor.
You don’t really have a mother, you’re just
Some words on a page.
He thought about that for a while, and I felt bad.
I knew it hurt his feelings.
Then he looked at me with tears and he said
Well maybe that’s your problem. Not mine.

~2012

The Pizza Manifesto:

Principles for Interpreting Shakespeare and Other Old Literature

When putting together my ideas about the most recent Wonder Woman movie, I was struck by a metaphor for defending superheroes that I realized had a more compelling application: the interpretation of literature which sits outside the comfort of our discourse communities. I am especially thinking about Shakespeare because it is in that context where these issues came to my attention most urgently, but the truth is I realize that these issues have been at work in many of the classes I teach, and I have not been able to adequately address them. What I am concerned to promote in the classroom is a dialogic imagination that allows students to enter into the inner lifeworld of literature from earlier periods, and there are many obstacles to this effort. 

We can easily attribute many of these obstacles to values – to changing beliefs about social norms, such as gender, race, politics, religion, and so forth. And often this is the case. But it is really much more complicated than that, because there is a structural effect of available resources in a given time and place that radically shapes what beliefs are possible. We like to see ourselves as Romantic self-authoring masters of our subjective responses, but it only takes a computer to misbehave slightly to break that illusion. We depend radically upon our environments and our social relations to maintain our apparent self-sovereignty, and a lack of gratitude for that is a dangerous ingredient in the blindness of presentism. A person who never lived before the smart phone age, for example, may think he is very good at texting, but as anyone who has operated a flip phone knows, it is really the smart phone that is good at being texted on. Throughout the various flip phone to smart phone type upgrades our society has undergone, both in physical technology (whether in communication technologies as in the phone) or in more complex systematic social institutions (as in healthcare, or updates to our legal system), or in generation and introduction of major paradigm-shifting ideas (like feminism or individualism that have greatly shifted the landscape of discourse), it is easy to develop a blindness to the degree to which our ready-to-hand perceptions are actually the product of a large-scale social effort of reflection rather than our own personal virtue.

I do not say this to undermine the value of personal virtue, in which I believe quite deeply. But I say it to mean that when assessing virtue across gaps in discourse communities, the magic, invisible hand of updates can create illusions about how easy it is to think how we think now. It takes serious, sober discipline to enter into the past, or for that matter into another culture that exists now, and understand what separates us from those modes of cognition. We are biased to think that those who think differently from us are, more likely than not, misbehaving within our framework – the idea they put forward which departs from our own understanding is a willful departure from the true, default interpretation of the world – which naturally is our interpretation. This sense is even more difficult to escape when we have experienced some fairly large scale adjustments to our own perceptions – if we have personally gone through seismic changes in perceptions and beliefs, we expect that others should be able to do the same. But the truth, of course, is that we couldn’t have anticipated the change in ourselves, and I think it is a kind of veiled attempt to escape resentment and guilt towards ourselves for not having come to enlightenment sooner that we respond to the apparent ugliness we used to manifest showing up in someone else with vicious vindictiveness. But this is a mistake because we ought to notice that if we have undergone a seismic shift in values personally, not only does this mean that others might have to do the same – it also means the same thing might happen to us again – a frightening prospect. If a seismic shift in values tends to make you feel haughty rather than humble, you very well might question whether that shift was thoroughly positive. And if it was positive, you still ought fight the vice of haughtiness, to thereby better promote those values.

In any case, however, it is hard to keep this in mind when we are in the thick of reading a text which advances a profoundly different view from the one which we hold. It’s easy enough to try and hold in abeyance our natural judgments for a moment, but that sheer effort of will eventually atrophies, and you can only mentally arm wrestle yourself for so long before your earnest perceptions break through. I don’t mean to say that earnest perceptions have no place, but that to encounter any piece of literature responsibly, once you have processed the initial perception, to really encounter the text fully you will have to distance yourself from those perceptions, decenter rather than destroy them, for long enough to make sure the text is really doing what you think it is doing. This is why I promote the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric not merely as tools of communication, but tools of interpretation, prevents the reader from too hastily projecting and running the risk of doing little more than reading books like they’re merely overly complicated Rorschach tests.

So, this brings me, naturally, to pizza, because pizza is, I think, a heuristic device underutilized in the quest for better literary interpretation.

Imagine that you have a family recipe for pizza, one that you hold dear. You make this pizza for special occasions and care about how it is enjoyed. When you share the recipe you give specific instructions not only about the making of the pizza but the care of it when put into storage. I’ve stopped by your house to pick up my copy of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy that I leant you, and it happens to be lunch time. “Have you had lunch?” you ask me. Whether or not I have had lunch, I ask, “Why, are you offering me food?” And you say, “I have pizza in the refrigerator.” I reply, “In that case no, I have not had lunch.” So you invite me in and say, “The pizza is in the refrigerator – I have to let the dog out, but I’ll heat it up for you so you can really enjoy it.” I say, “Oh, nevermind, I don’t mind cold pizza – I’ll just eat it that way.” As you lead the dog to the sliding glass door, you say, “Oh no trust me – you want it heated. It’ll be much better that way – it’s a family recipe.”

When you return from stepping outside to let out the dog, however, you see that I have taken out a slice of your traditional pizza and started eating it cold anyway. Somewhat frustrated, you figure it’s too late, so you let me continue to eat it as I have taken it. “Well,” you ask after I finish, “What did you think?”

I shrug and say, “It’s pretty good, though I’m more used to what I get from Rocco’s.”

Now, this is rude only in part because it’s a time-honored family recipe, and since it is, I should probably exercise discretion just for that reason. Even if it’s not good, I might at least consider your feelings – take them into account – before I insult your family’s taste. But to simply reiterate that this pizza is time-honored and traditional doesn’t actually defend it – and it might merely sound exactly like defensiveness as a result. The real problem here, of course, is that I didn’t follow your instructions, and so I had a suboptimal experience. I leave thinking that you and your family have somewhat strange taste in pizza, when really the strange taste I had was my doing. I didn’t listen to your instructions, and then didn’t fully enjoy what I hadn’t enjoyed on the terms of the person who knew better precisely how to enjoy it.

The case, of course, is much the same with literary enjoyment. We notice with confusion that the recent Netflix show seems immediately better than the bizarre medieval or Renaissance poem we had to read for class. We wonder if our professors just aren’t that smart – or maybe they’re too smart. They have this time honored tradition of serving the intellectual family’s recipe of cold pizza, and we consume it with puzzled expressions as we wonder why the people who are professionally engaged with narrative seem to, at least sometimes, vociferously recommend that which seems subpar to us. But the odds are very good that the professor has put instructions on the outside of the box about how to consume that literary pizza, and because we had a lot of other things to do, somewhat understandably we just didn’t follow the instructions. We took the pizza out of the refrigerator and chowed down, and even paid attention carefully to what we experienced when we did so since we were told it was important. And it was even interesting – flavors we hadn’t quite picked up on in pizza we were more used to. But it just didn’t hit the spot, you know?

But of course the situation with literature as old as Shakespeare is that it isn’t in the refrigerator. It’s in the freezer, and it takes even more heat to bring it to life, because the culture that kept it hot and fresh is much further removed from us than the dishes served to us by the streaming services. The heat that makes the meal come to life is like the real, attentive, sympathetic engagement with the work of literature that takes you beyond merely carefully noting the words on the page and what they mean, the story and the character and such. Like chewing the pizza cold, you think, well, I have encountered the text, so I have a real interaction with it – I get it, don’t I? A reasonable supposition, but one that suffers from the fact that the encounter isn’t ideal for really meeting the experience as the chef designed it to be. This is more than simply a return to authorial intent – it’s a return to belief that the author was a real person in a real moment and not simply a mouthpiece of the past, and it was that life, that heat, that the author put into the text that made it alive.

You could say that Leontes from the Winter’s Tale is something like the reader of Shakespeare who doesn’t do this work of interpreting the text with the heat of life. (Leontes becomes unreasonably and dangerously jealous of his wife for supposedly cheating with Polixenes simply for acting out her husband’s request to get the man to extend his stay in the kingdom.) The text is his wife Hermonie’s speech to Polixenes, and he even says of her words “too hot, too hot,” but in the terms of my metaphor the issue is that he is interpreting them cold – divorced from the inner life world of the woman he supposedly loves. And, it seems, not only does it kill the life of her utterance – it also kills her, or at least puts her in such a state that she seems dead. How do we approach the painted statue of an old piece of literature and ask it to step down and live again? Well, like Leontes we have to work at not believing too much our own suspicions. We have to warm up the text, put the heat of life back into it, or we will merely stare at a corpse – and as in real life, it won’t be very pleasant.

So we need to heat our pizza before we read it and we need to vitalize our literature before we eat it. Now one easy way to throw some heat into pizza is with those heat lamps they have at gas stations. But you know how unsatisfying that is. Glossy, dull warmth that reminds you of what a fresh slice of pizza is like just enough to disappoint you. It just won’t do. And that’s what happens when we dig up someone who lived a thousand or five hundred years ago and respond with utter shock that they don’t have 21st century values. Look at how controversial values from the 1950s are, or for that matter from the 1990s. Goodness, things are controversial today that weren’t noticed to be just a few years ago. So what are we doing to keep the tradition alive when we march the literary specters before our students eyes and start with critiquing them for not living up to our standards? I’m not saying there isn’t value to this exercise, but that it’s in the wrong place. The value question needs to happen, but we have to know what it is before we say what’s wrong with it. You don’t know if you’re critiquing the frozen pizza for its ingredients or for the frostbite if you don’t heat it before taking a bite. If you take a refrigerated pizza and put it under one of those lights it’ll just be gross, and that’s rightfully how you’ll feel if you wake Shakespeare from his slumber and grill him on his take on the Me Too movement and women’s right to independence. It’s not just that he’s a product of his time – it’s that we are too, and we’re one product from the postmodern factory sizing up a product from the Renaissance factory, and none of us is even the best or most standard model of our own factories anyway. Or to stick with the analogy, we’re someone who much prefers high quality steaks eating bad gas station pizza, thinking that’s what people like when they like pizza, and assuming our dissatisfaction is someone else’s preference. We’re a culinary Leontes asking literature to meet our tastes without even acknowledging something our own tastes need to be met – that is, to be met on our own terms. We have to clarify what it is we’re trying to taste before we make a judgement about taste.

So the minimal self control is to put the pizza in the microwave for 45 seconds to get the heat of life into it. And that basic heat of life is in genre. Genre is, when properly understood, the structure of the pizza that the microwave of willing suspense of anticipation provides. What I mean to say here is that the most foundational heat of life you can bring to a text is to simultaneously understand that genre matters for how to receive the meaning of a text without assuming the meaning of the text is explained away by that genre. See, it was a problem of genre when you thought the pizza could be eaten cold. You figured you could skip to the end – you know what pizza is, and ultimately it’s something you eat. Why bother with the buzz of the microwave? It’ll just make the cheese stick to the plate anyway. Faster to just go ahead and eat it. Leontes very well knew that his wife was named after the daughter of Helen, the same woman who created the most famous war over infidelity in history. And he heard Polixenes mention Edenic language, and everyone knows that where there’s Paradise there’s a snake and a fall. And so he simply needed to put those very entrenched generic markers together to look at this situation and see, really see, adulterous intent unfolding before his eyes. The excess of anticipation was too strong – he couldn’t wait to let his cold gaze warm up with the real heat of life in his own courtiers who came to Hermione’s defense. So when it comes to interpreting a complicated passage, we have to make sure we don’t assume what it means because we know the type of ending, and infer the meaning in light of that. The real effort is the opposite: we have to ask, in what sense is the meaning of the end the product of understanding the puzzling matrix of content Shakespeare has put together? Why does this oddity lead to that ending? You could say the failure to do this is exactly the problem of Antipholus of Syracuse in A Comedy of Errors, who can’t escape his anticipation of a tragic ending to see that the people he is looking for are right in front of him. The Coleridgean despondency of the eye has been conjured, and so the play ceaselessly talks about magic – it’s the bewitchment of the language spoken of by Wittgenstein. Never, ever explain why something happens in a Shakespeare play with “Because this is a comedy/tragedy,” but rather seek to understand why Shakespeare thinks that is the formula for comedy or tragedy in that play’s situation.

So willing suspense of the excess of anticipation is a necessary element of the heat needed to make the text come to life. But it isn’t the last step. As anyone who has microwaved pizza, or anything else, knows, the experience leaves much to be desired. The cheese becomes nigh to soup, and the crust becomes a droopy mess – not to mention the cold spots that remain. The structural integrity of the pizza isn’t respected by the microwave. What’s needed is something more – and here again comes the question of value. Yes, we let the pizza surprise us when we suspend excessive anticipation, but we also lose out on assimilating that structural soundness that made it so pleasant when we first met it. This is why any civilized person has a toaster oven. When you heat a slice of pizza in a toaster oven, the pizza regains not only the heat but also the posture of its former glory. In the same way, you have to understand the values that inform a text on its own terms to actually imagine the world somewhat like how they did. This effort is phenomenally demonstrated in a book like CS Lewis’s Discarded Image, where he helps the reader of medieval poetry recover the vision of the world around them in order to get the sense of the feeling conveyed when Chaucer, for example, mentions the location of Venus – an objective influence on the aesthetics of a text. Failure to do this occurs in Measure for Measure most explicitly, where the Duke fails to care for the law’s values consistently enough and Angelo cares for them too rigidly. It’s like the Duke microwaved the law and Angelo responded by toasting it until the crust turned black. So to prevent our values from scorching the text to an inedible lump of coal, we have to measure the heat we put into it. The toaster oven rule is – don’t assume that the writer necessarily can or even should operate with the same values we have. If they should, the cultural circumstances may have only provided a microwave level of heat sophistication, and it’s not fair to expect a microwave to work as well as a toaster oven, even if the person operating it is just as smart and seeking the good, the true, and the beautiful as toaster oven owners are. Don’t make the mistake of the Duke and have no moral disapprobation whatsoever or you won’t connect with the drama, and don’t go as far as Angelo and take a scorched Earth policy to the text either. Measure your rage to the measure of the moral resources of that day, before bringing them into conversation with the values you hold now. You can still critique, but now it is a humane critique that won’t make the cheese burn like fire and leave the pepperoni like blocks of ice. And there’s always the off chance you might have something to learn from the wisdom of the author too, even if they’re imperfect. Social justice is important, and there will be no social justice if there isn’t also social mercy. After all, if you can’t forgive a text for being imperfect you will have a much harder time doing so with a real person. How can you hope to humanize disagreement with someone who’s alive and causing you trouble now, if you can’t humanize someone who’s dead and is at your interpretive mercy? So that is why we need the toaster oven rule – it applies the heat of the moral structure of the text without leaving it a puddled mess of generic meaning and no defenses against disagreement.

Toaster ovens are the civilized means of reheating pizza, but the professional means is of course the conventional oven. This takes actual discipline – you have to preheat the oven, find a baking sheet, and set the timer. But the superior experience of an oven heated slice of pizza is undeniable. Where microwaves leave pizzas too hot in some places and too cold in others, ovens distribute the heat evenly – if you take the time to turn the sheet halfway through reheating. And even a perfectly timed toaster oven session inevitably leaves some edges of the pizza just a little too crispy. Time it just right, and you’ll have to be a true pizza conneisure to distinguish that reheated pizza from when it was freshly baked. The heat has moved through the whole slice, revived it, because the whole matrix of bread, cheese, sauce, and toppings has received the even treatment that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. So this is the oven rule: when you interpret a piece of literature, you have to assume that the plot as the bread, the setting as the cheese, the sauce of allusions and assertions, and the toppings as the characters are all treated as a symbolic whole that combine to generate the whole meaning. You don’t treat the bread of a good pizza as just a means to convey other stuff into your mouth – no. The crust is an integral part of making that pizza taste good. So you can’t assume the plot is just convenient, a ploy to generate interest, or lazy writing. You have to assume that the plot crust is thick enough in its own symbolism to act as a platform for bringing the other elements together. You don’t assume that a detail in the pizza is explained by the history – the topping of chicken isn’t explained by the history of chickens in culinary, or the psychological attachment to chickens the pizza maker had because it represented resentment towards his mother who never let him eat chicken wing pizza. What explains the presence of the chicken is how admirably it combines in taste with the cheese and sauce to make that pizza jam with flavor. So you have to assume that the character isn’t just a reflection of some guy the author knew but selected because that guy went with that plot and setting just as importantly as that mozzarella went with that green olive. To assume anything less is to leave the harsh crisp of toaster oven interpretation where you haven’t fully considered just how much the parts contribute something more than themselves to making the whole what it is.

So now that we have discussed the overall comparison of reheating pizza to challenges in appropriately reading old literature, there is one more subject I think relevant here, and that is the question of originality. Pizza is in this matter instructive.

The pizza rule of originality is: if something you say about literature, positively or negatively, has the opposite value in other contexts, then you should consider the value it would have on pizza for the story you’re reading.

So if you say a narrative is cheesy, consider that that is a good thing on pizza. Why might a cheesy story element be a good thing?

If a story element is standard and expected, we call it cliche. But pepperoni on pizza is commonly expected because it’s good. How might that cliche be a pepperoni topping?

If you’re enjoying the narrative because what happens is so horrific, imagine something truly horrific – you just dropped your fresh pizza on the ground. So muster at least that much horror when a character dies a horrific death instead of seeing it as merely a predictable narrative gimmick for tragedy or you’re tempted to see it as a bold authorial move in a comedy.

The Pizza Rule of originality doesn’t prescribe rigid application of pizza reactions to literary phenomenon, but serves as an intepretive check on our tendency to have reactions to literary experience that may seem out of keeping with our normal reactions.

Once you have observed these considerations, then I think you can comfortably assess if you really, truly dislike the piece of literature. Sometimes the pizza rules don’t save the pizza. But some toppings just don’t go on pizza. Cyanide is original but not healthy. Spiders and locusts might be healthy but aren’t tolerable. Pineapple is fine as long as you know it’s an exception and not the rule. So let originality be something that reminds you just how wonderful the tradition of pizza is without making it tiresome, revolting, or mandatory. Sometimes you just want something other than pizza and too much carbs aren’t good for you, and those considerations are important. But they’re not the same as the question of whether the pizza before you is good, and I hope this discussion has helped you see how to focus on that question when it comes to Literature – to look at it with steady eyes that break the spells of false certainty, presentism, and reductionism, to refine taste for its own sake, so that you can see the literature as a partner in dialogue even if one with whom you differ in many ways. The chef may have prepared a meal that isn’t to your preferences, but at least work to enjoy it with the most suitable preparation for the palette intended. Only then can you know if it’s bad pizza rather than hasty consumption.

Ode to Being Better Educated in Poetry than My Talent Would Suggest

There’s more poetry in me than I will ever write
And often I write nothing rather than fail to make it right,
Like a painter throwing his brush and palette into the sea
Because he knows he cannot paint every perfect tree,
Like the fool who will not dance because he knows no moves
And hears no music to perfectly match his particular grooves.
There’s more stories in my mind than I will ever tell
Like the wedding guests who weren’t stopped by the mariner’s spell
Or the stories of dwarves too stubborn to fall prey to rings
Or the unknown elven children of Dracula rising on batlike wings,
Or the endless shifting wonder of that enchanted Faerie Land
Where holiday magic and holy songs oft go hand in hand.
Poems and stories swirl in me like nostalgic, flashing storms
That hope to live and have much matter but cannot find their forms.
I wish I could be as good as Coleridge when he had writer’s block,
But grading is a poor substitute for opium on the English professor’s clock.
So I won’t write most of the poems I wish that I could write
And I won’t tell most of the stories that wrack my brain at night.
As you can tell anyway, I don’t have that much skill
But only have a stubborn heart and little time to kill.
So you’ll read some poems and stories, and they won’t be very good
But if writing them stops me from going insane, then I think I should.

Zelda Theory: The Origins of Ocarina of Time’s Gold Skulltula

Kakariko Village is an unsettling place. At the bottom of the well, ostensibly the town’s main supply of drinking water, a path leads to an underground labyrinth of monsters and images of bloody torture. Dampé the gravedigger takes you on a gravedigging tour in the dead of night – in a graveyard where ghosts awaken if you disturb the graves, and where zombies lurk in hidden corridors beneath the burial grounds. Worst of all is the Shadow Temple, which enshrines the memory of Hyrule’s bloody past, filled with nightmarish creatures, guillotines, false floors and invisible fiends. If you enter the village at night, beneath a tree the cynical master craftsman’s son avers, “People are disgusting. My own father and mother are disgusting. You must be disgusting too.” Perhaps aware not only of his family drama but also the dark past hidden by Kakariko’s otherwise cheerful veneer (easily seen past with a little exploration), the emaciated, depressed young man can’t help but see the world through the lens of the ugly truths buried all around him.

Spiders of the Curse

In the tree that young man sits against lurks one of the Gold Skulltula, an arachnid  monster that, although not one of the larger enemies in the game, would dwarf most real-life tarantulas. It sports wickedly sharp spines that hurt Link if he touches them directly, and a gold-plated carapace that gleams dully in contrast with its eight jointed, black and white legs. Upon destroying the creature, Link can retrieve the remaining Gold Skulltula Tokens, a shining gold, jawless skull with black eyes that emits a blue aura. One hundred of these so-called Spiders of the Curse lurk throughout Hyrule, in every dungeon, in every region, and hidden in everything from trees to boxes to dirt, sometimes even right out in the open (though generally only at night).

Nearby the somber young man’s tree sits a derelict, decrepit house filled with horror: six Skulltula with humanoid faces that cry out in anguish at their own terrifying forms. The younger monstrosities simply lament their curse, but the one in the middle, the father, explains that they were once humans, and that destroying the Spiders of the Curse will revert them to their human form if Link returns with the Gold Skulltula Tokens. Ten of the gold skulltulas must be destroyed to restore each of the sons, but the father is cursed by a staggering fifty gilded spiders. Shikashi, an old wise man who shares information with Link, explains, “Folks around here tell of a fabulously rich family that once lived in one of the houses in this village… But they say that the entire family was cursed due to their greed! Who knows what might happen to those who are consumed by greed…” This cautionary tale has become the talk of the town, though no one has apparently taken up the effort of helping the cursed family in their plight.

Shikashi’s rumor makes the cursed family out to be a moral lesson about not getting too greedy. Perhaps this is why their gifts often involve money or money related objects: having undergone a Gregor Samsa-like punishment, they decide to give up their adult and giant wallets, and the father opens up his purse strings to provide Link with ample wealth should he break the curse in its entirety. Having learned their lesson, they’re eager to give away the cause of their punishment – maybe.

Curses Have a Curser

But who cursed the family? It’s no slouch of a curse – the one hundred Gold Skulltula have spread all across the Kingdom of Hyrule, are very difficult to find, and though easy to kill for Link would be terrifying for most people. I know I’d run the other way if I saw something like it. So whoever created this curse had magic power in spades.

One possibility is Granny of Granny’s potion shop. She is obviously a witch with some power – she can create the blue potion that restores health and magic power, a feat possible only for red fairies and Great Fairies elsewhere in the game. She also has larger regional connections – the scientist in the Lakeside Laboratory claims to be her teacher, and he experiments with water-dwelling creatures of every kind. Perhaps she extended her magical and scientific inquiries into land-dwelling creatures like the Skulltula (and interestingly, Gold Skulltula seem able to survive under water). Granny uses her power to help the master craftsman’s son, and though Link arrives too late, her concoction seems to be a poultice that would stop one from transforming into a monster (unable to help, however, if one has already so changed). Possibly, if she can stop such transformations, she might also be able to cause them, and if the curse is a legitimate punishment, Granny may have cursed the rich family for their misdeeds.

There is little else to connect Granny to the transmogrified spider family, however. Her magic seems to be strictly benevolent, in spite of her shop’s spooky veneer, and she doesn’t appear to have the reach to create a curse like that enacted by the Gold Skulltula. Although she can’t be totally ruled out, I think the kindly if creepy Granny is an unlikely suspect, because of the sheer cruelty of the curse which seems to punish far more than reform the supposedly greedy family.

Because of the traditional association of Kakariko Village with the Shiekah, it’s always possible that some other magician from the village put the curse on the arachno-family. Impa’s massive library, now open to the public, shows she has great learning, and her disappearance after speaking with Link in Hyrule Field suggests she has classic Shiekah powers. But she may have simply tossed a Deku Nut, stunning Link and allowing her to get away quickly. We don’t really know enough about Impa’s magical powers to connect her strongly to something like the Spiders of the Curse, and she seems too good willed to leave six men trapped in mutated spider-form with their faces endlessly contorted in the agony of their unnatural transformation. With no other likely candidate in Kakariko Village, then, my thoughts turn to the larger world – and you can probably guess who comes to mind immediately.

All roads, or almost all roads, of villainy in Zelda lead to Ganondorf. Even games which seem to have set him aside, like Twilight Princess, turn out to have him at the center of the drama. We know from Link’s encounter with Ganondorf after completing his first three trials to retrieve the Spiritual Stones that the Gerudo king already has magic powers, even before entering the Sacred Realm. My evidence that Ganondorf cursed the Rich Family in Kakariko Village amounts to three main bodies of information: we know Ganondorf has been to Kakariko Village and caused trouble there, we know he has a penchant for cursing people, and we also know that he has a history of employing arachnid form in his magic. He also shares a combat oddity with the Gold Skulltula I’ll mention later.

Ganondorf’s History with Kakariko Village

Of course, in order to get to Death Mountain to wreak havoc with the Gorons’ dieting plans, Ganondorf would have had to pass through Kakariko Village, at least as per the geography as found in Ocarina of Time. But we have clearer information that Ganondorf was a concern for Kakariko Village in the form of the Composer Brothers, Flat and Sharp, who explain to Link that they had to sacrifice themselves in order to keep the power of the Sun’s Song out of Ganondorf’s hands. Even if they had been killed elsewhere by Ganondorf or his minions, when they designed the hidden passageway under the royal family’s tomb to where the Sun’s Song was recorded, they set up two rooms full of monsters and obstacles to prevent anyone from entering. Granted, if Link was able to do it, Ganondorf probably would have too, but nonetheless they had taken precautions for the scenario where Ganondorf discerned that the Sun’s Song might be hidden beneath Kakariko’s burial grounds. So we know that Ganondorf had been to Kakariko Village, at least once and maybe twice or more, the likelihood of his presence at the village troubling enough that the Composer Brothers had the gloomy obstacles beneath the tomb installed.

Ganondorf’s Curse-happy Trigger Finger

The Gerudo king’s default retaliation for failure to comply seems to be curses well before he gets the Triforce of Power. He cursed the Deku Tree with Queen Gohma, Lord Jabu Jabu with the parasitic Barinade, and the Gorons with the Dodongos when they refused to turn over their respective Spiritual Stones. Such reprisal can be seen again with the Gorons when Ganondorf resurrects Volvagia in order to terrorize the Gorons and intimidate other peoples into compliance. Ganondorf was also brought up by the witches Koume and Kotake who transform Nabooru into an Iron Knuckle, suggesting he might have access to magic that can change the shape of other beings – and we know he becomes a shapeshifter after gaining access to the Triforce of Power, which might be a new power or an enhancement of magic he already had. Sorcerers like Vaati and Zant, who secretly operate under the influence of Ganondorf, also have the power to use magic to curse people with inhuman forms, the idea of which may have been inspired by Ganondorf’s dark counsel. Indeed, the last words of Ganondorf before being banished to the spirit realm is to pronounce a curse (prefigured, we learn, by Demise’s curse).

Ganondorf’s Affinity for Arachnids

The name Gohma appears to apply to a sort of pan-arachnid-crustacean set of creatures, some more like scorpions (as in the creature in Wind Waker) and some more like outright spiders (as in armogohma in Twlight Princess), with the Parasitic Armored Arachnid: Gohma, also known as Queen Gohma, somewhere in between. Nonetheless, the cobwebbed domain of the subterranean Deku Tree and the skittering movements of Gohma and her offspring are clearly evocative of spiders, so we know from this curse that Ganondorf is capable of summoning a giant arachnid creature even without aid of the Triforce in Ocarina of Time. Because this is the first enemy we face associated directly with Ganondorf, there is an implicit association of him with spiders that looms over the imagination – an association only enhanced by the fact that Ganon’s roars at the end of the final fight reuse the audio of Gohma’s shrieks.

Other associations with Ganondorf and spiders can be found in other games too. In Wind Waker, Ganondorf’s creation Puppet Ganon takes the form of a spider in the second stage of the battle, and Veran, the sorceress trying to resurrect Ganon, likewise can assume a spider form (among others). And Ganon in Breath of the Wild has an unsettling arachnid form as well, albeit more akin to the scorpion than the spider.

Finally, and this last is a bit tenuous I admit, the entrance to Ganon’s Tower is lined with the décor detail of skulls. This could just be part of the common skull motif in many of the dungeons (the Shadow Temple would easily win on that count), but the resonance with the Gold Skulltula Tokens should at least be noted. The skulls seem to have spidery legs (six rather than eight), but also are bracketed by two sets of 5 diamond shapes reminiscent of 5-sided dice. Added up, then, each skull-detailed panel depixts the number ten – the number of gold skulltulas necessary to break one of the brothers from the curse. It’s also worth considering that in Majora’s Mask, the Gold Skulltula Tokens are called Gold Skulltula Spirits, and we know from the Poe Sisters and Phantom Ganon that Ganondorf uses spirits to do his bidding as well.

Where art thou, Z-Targeting?

In a strange decision during production, the Ocarina of Time developers cut the ability to Z-target Gold Skultulla. Only two other enemies cannot be Z-targeted: the Club Moblin, and Ganondorf when he first battles Link. The Club Moblin seems to me more of a pragmatic aspect: he is too far away for Z-targeting, and once you’re behind him in that narrow passage leading to the Forest Temple, you don’t really need Z-targeting to deal with him anyway. But with Ganondorf, we know why Z-targeting wasn’t possible: the concentration of evil magic was too powerful. That’s remarkable given that Navi can target Redeads, Gibdos, Wallmasters, Floormasters, and evil skeletons. It seems clear that Ganondorf’s ability to project so much power is linked to the Triforce, but what if, again, that was the Triforce not giving Ganondorf a new power but enhancing, and applying to him, a power he already had? Given the effect of the Gold Skulltula curse and their nature (dark spirits of some kind), perhaps they were made out of the same kind of dark magic that made Navi unable to target Ganondorf.

But Why?

Having laid out the plausibility that Ganondorf cursed the rich family, the question is why. What would motivate him to place such a powerful spell on them – and apparently without retrieving their rupees? Once Link breaks the curse on the father, he rewards Link happily with a Giant Rupee every time he visits. Why didn’t Ganondorf (or for that matter whoever cursed them, even if this theory doesn’t hold up) take the rupees after the supposedly greedy man was cursed and so relatively helpless?

Well, let’s focus first on the question of why Ganondorf would want those rupees. We know of course that he wants to improve the station of his people, who have a hard time of it living out in the desert. But taking the rupees by force would have been sufficient if he simply wanted to use them for money.

Another component worth considering is that, in Zelda lore, it seems clear that rupees are more than just precious jewels usable as currency – they seem to have clear magical power. They power enchanted armor in both Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker, and allow Link to fire  his bow in the original game. Likewise, fairies seem to value rupees, as in some games rupees are required to summon them – specifically in A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild. In Skyward Sword, we learn that rupees come from Rupee Ore, and it is well known in Zelda lore that precious gems can have magical properties – as with gems in Breath of the Wild for example, or even the Spiritual Stones themselves in Ocarina of Time. Perhaps Ganondorf, hearing tell of the fabulously wealthy family from Kakariko Village, went there to find a way to cajole them out of their rupees, and when they refused, he began a trend that we would see in the first third of Ocarina of Time: Ganondorf cursing people who wouldn’t fork over their magical belongings. Ganondorf was always after power, and rupees were simply a humbler alternative (or stepping stone) to more powerful items like the Spiritual Stones and the Triforce.

By the way, have you noticed the shape of the force field that trapped Zelda near the end  of Ocarina of Time?

Having established that rupees contain magical power, we have Ganondorf’s motive. So that last question lingers: why would he curse them and then leave their rupees untouched? Well, the answer lies in the above evidence that rupees have magic. In each case where the rupees are used, the magic is voluntary: the bow is fired, the magic armor is donned, the rupees are gifted to the fairies. I don’t know if that means the rupees would have no magical power if stolen (we do know they can be stolen, as Link has that happen to him throughout the games), but at least it would remove enough of their magic that they would no longer be worth it. Such magical talismans exist in other fantasy stories – the Elfstones of Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, for example, have to be given voluntarily for their magic to work.

In fact, it seems that a dynamic like this exists in some fashion with the Spiritual Stones: Why exactly can’t Ganondorf just take the Kokiri’s Emerald from the Deku Tree? He is immobile, after all, as Queen Gohma points out to him in the manga (which of course isn’t canon). The mechanics of that may be different – the Deku Tree’s magic stores the Emerald away in a fashion that one cannot take by main force, which isn’t the same as with rupees. But the fact remains: it seems that some magic requires that items be given willfully, and the magic of the rupees appears to fall into this category. Unable to convince the rich household to give up their enchanted gems, Ganondorf decided to administer a gruesome retribution.

An aside: before we leave the topic of magic stones too far behind, among the rewards Link receives, one that might interest Ganondorf too would be the Shard/Stone of Agony. This talisman, able to detect secrets in a manner similar to dowsing, might have been useful to a young Ganondorf eager to find magic wherever he could find it. Perhaps it has the same catch of requiring a free will offering.

So we have enough circumstantial evidence to link Ganondorf to the curse, a rationale for why he did it, and why he didn’t take the Rich Family’s money or magic stone after cursing them. But one question lingers.

Why didn’t the Villagers know that Ganondorf cursed the family?

My interpretation would contradict Shikashi’s rumor, which painted the rich family as a cautionary tale about greed. Likely as it sounds at first, the reality is that rumors by nature are untrustworthy. Possibly Ganondorf, whether personally or with someone else’s help, spread a rumor to cover his tracks. If he did curse them, he wouldn’t want that information to get out because it would spoil his reputation, which would hurt his attempts to cozy up to the king (and the gossip would get to Impa eventually, who had the king’s ear to some extent at least). He didn’t want people to know that he was seeking out the rupees, and he didn’t want them to know that he cursed the family out of spite, so he spread a false rumor to slander the father and his five sons. Possibly when he tried to bully the father into giving him his wealth, Ganondorf wasn’t yet well known enough for his involvement to be marked.

Perhaps in the shadows there’s more nobility hidden than the masterworker’s son, or we, can see at first. Maybe the cursed father and his sons are unsung heroes who stood up to an early  Ganondorf, discerning his real intentions when he came calling. The father, after all, demurs that Link doesn’t have to save him but implores him at least to save his son, showing a selfless side that isn’t reflected in the rumor about him. Like young Link unsheathing his sword in the face of a menacing Ganondorf, maybe the rich family was cursed not for their greed but for their courage.

Check out the anthology of essays I edited on The Legend of Zelda, which argue for the value of the series for academic study:

https://www.routledge.com/Mythopoeic-Narrative-in-The-Legend-of-Zelda/Cirilla-Rone/p/book/9780367437985

Embers of Faith: A Review

It is dangerous business reviewing the work of one’s spouse. I am clearly biased, and not at all disinterested in the success of the volume. But I wish to venture nonetheless to celebrate Camarie’s achievement in Embers of Faith: An Allegorical Fairy-Tale for Christians Struggling with Loneliness and Anxiety.

In general, I would say that Camarie’s fairy-tale style is something like a blending of John Bunyan with George MacDonald. Her characters (Mr. Pigeonhole, Mrs. Callitout, Mr. Wiseman, and of course Faith herself) are allegorically named, and their roles in the story suit that application – and yet they are not mere intellectual ciphers. They are, while personifications, also people, and exhibit personality as such. This is especially true of my favorite character in the story, the collywobble – a species of fairy attracted to a person’s anxiety. The blending of the allegorical name (Camarie took the name from “the collywobbles,” a phrase for butterflies in the stomach) with her fairy personality is to my mind a total success at both communicating its allegorical meaning while creating an engaging fairy creature who behaves in accordance with the historical caprice of real fairies rather than the harmless beauties we tend to imagine. The allegory keeps the fairy-tale aspects from becoming indulgent, while the fairy-tale genre keeps the allegory from becoming too didactic. It is true, the middle section called “Faith’s Mentors” has outright sermons – but that’s what the character wants and needs. We have a tendency to use the word “sermonizing” negatively, but to my mind the sermon is an artform, and if one appreciates a good sermon, the one offered by Mr. Wiseman is an admirable performance of the trade.

But it is a story with adventure, romance, and beauty, too. There are moments that, even as editor of the story and as someone who acted as a sounding board for Camarie’s ideas as she developed the tale, nonetheless move me with the enchanting yet simple prose. There is nothing I appreciate more than a story told simply to elegant impact and emotional effect – like Beagle’s Last Unicorn or George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Embers of Faith appears to effortlessly achieve that elegant simplicity married to stirring thoughtfulness. And the combination of prose and poetry, and invocation of literary influence from Peter Pan to Boethius to Scripture itself, combine to create a literary experience of the sort I often long to find. She’s a better poet than George MacDonald and a more succinct teacher than John Bunyan, and has a gentle rebuke for the Christian community’s failure at times to incorporate science into our reaction to mental health issues. When Christ is accused of associating with sinners, he rejoins that it is the sick, not the healthy, who need a doctor, implying indeed the appropriateness of Christian recourse to good medical wisdom. Matthew 9:12, in that sense, is the theme verse of the story – both spiritual and medical treatments (whether through therapy or medicine) are necessary for certain mental health issues.

Yet if you are not someone who suffers from anxiety or loneliness (which would seem incredible to me as they are endemic to the human condition), Embers of Faith nonetheless offers good story and good sentiment for any Christian. And indeed if you are curious about the Gopsel message in general, that is set out clearly here (though the journey of Faith is not about becoming a Christian but rather applying Christian belief to struggles in life). If I did not know Camarie and had read Embers of Faith on my own, I would still recommend the story to anyone.

Embers of Faith is available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback form.

Not by Shield or Helmet: Spiritual Warfare and the Pursuit of Peace in the life of St. Martin of Tours

Composed for the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours in 2015.

In light of the tragic loss of life in the wake of brutal terrorism in Paris that transpired recently, it is fitting to consider the testimony left to us of St. Martin of Tours, who is held as a patron saint of France. He was bishop in Tours for some thirty years, and his brave military service and commitment to compassion and peace inspires us to place our final hope in the irresistible grace of Jesus Christ, not in the promises of politicians or weapons of war.

The Life of St. Martin was composed by Sulpicius Severus, who not only lived in St. Martin’s time, but also spoke with those who witnessed his Christ-centered life and even interviewed him personally in the process of writing Martin’s hagiography. This brief summary is therefore based primarily in Severus’s depiction of the saint. It is a remarkable life – by the grace of God, St. Martin served in the Roman army, then entered clerical orders, debated with the Devil and spoke with angels, performed numerous miracles, showed compassion to those in poverty, and even converted a robber to Christianity after that robber had kidnapped him and held him hostage.

St. Martin’s close relationship with the Lord began at the age of 10, but at 18 he was required by law to enter military service. While on duty in the dead of winter, he saw a poor man on the side of the road dying from the extreme cold. Despite the fact that his service would keep him in the cold as well, Martin took pity on the man, and used his sword to cut his own coat in two. He gave half of the coat to the man, saving his life, and then endured the mockery of his fellow men at arms for how foolish his half-coat looked.

That night, Christ appeared to St. Martin in a dream wearing the half of a cloak Martin had given to the poor man. Christ, commander of the heavenly host, announces to the multitude of angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” This vision prompted Martin to leave military service so that he could pursue a new vocation, as a priest and leader of spiritual warfare. Caesar Julian wished to block Martin’s exit from the military force, but Martin told him: “I have served you as a solider; allow me now to become a soldier to God.” Furious, the emperor accused him of cowardice, to which St. Martin replied: “If this conduct of mine is ascribe to cowardice, and not to faith, I will take my stand unarmed before the line of battle tomorrow, and in the name of the Lord Jesus, protected by the sign of the cross, and not by shield or helmet, I will safely penetrate the ranks of the enemy.”

This fearless commitment to God’s calling marked St. Martin’s incredible ministry. By Severus’s account, the Holy Spirit granted Martin the ability to see the Devil in whatever form he was present. When the Devil threatened him that he would resist Martin at every turn, he replied, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what any can do unto me.” And the Devil fled from him.

During his ministry as Bishop of Tours, St. Martin confronted pagans who were worshiping an ancient pine tree, exhorting them to cut their idol down. They agreed on one condition: that Martin would show faith in his God by standing in the path of the falling tree. With his terrified followers watching, St. Martin stood as the pagans felled the ancient pine. As it rushed towards him with deadly speed, St. Martin made the sign of the cross, and suddenly the tree spun and fell harmlessly to the side. Many of the unbelievers there, amazed, committed themselves to Christ that very day.

Like St. Martin wearing his half-cloak, we may be mocked by wearing the outward sign of our Christianity. We should not shy from the conflicts of spiritual warfare, but we should, like St. Martin, starkly separate the practical necessity of military service from the peaceful sharing of Christ’s Gospel. When we put our steadfast faith first in the help of the Lord, not in mortal shields and helmets, then we can share in the compassion and confidence with which St. Martin, by the grace of God, encountered the perils of the world. As we pray for Paris and Beirut and any others who endure the dangers of terrorism, we must remember with gratitude the sacrifice of those in the military who strive to keep their fellow citizens, whether Christians or non-Christians, safe. In both times of peace and of war, Christians must always share the Gospel peacefully and with confidence, remembering that true peace comes not from government, but from God.

By Anthony G. Cirilla