Thursday, September 5, 2019

Work, glory, leisure, worship, and love

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At the beginning of his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper quotes this passage from Plato ...

But the Gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses, and Apollo their leader, and Dionysus, as companions in their Feasts, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the Gods, they should again stand upright and erect.
[Laws, 2.653c-d]

... which reminds me of this poem:

~Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

Low on his fours the Lion
Treads with the surly Bear;
But Men straight upward from the dust
Walk with their heads in air;
The free sweet winds of heaven,
The sunlight from on high
Beat on their clear bright cheeks and brows
As they go striding by;
The doors of all their houses
They arch so they may go,
Uplifted o’er the four-foot beasts,
Unstooping, to and fro.

And of course the very word “leisure” reminds me of this poem:

~William Henry Davies (1871-1940)

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

We know from the creation account in Genesis and from the Ten Commandments that we’re supposed to rest and worship, and we learn in the Psalms that this leisure properly grows from a delight in God and his love for us.

Domine, Dominus noster
~Psalm 8

O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
who hast set thy glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings
hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies,
that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen,
yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,
and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

Worship, leisure, standing upright crowned with glory, having dominion... It all comes together in this Psalm.

This is such an essential part of what it means to be a human that even the pagan philosophers and poets wrote about it to the best of their understanding. They knew that all of creation, beauty, glory, and rest were the gifts of Divine Love.

“Address to Venus”
~Lucretius (ca. 99 B.C. - ca. 55 B.C.)

Delight of Human kind, and Gods above;
Parent of Rome; Propitious Queen of Love;
Whose vital pow’r, Air, Earth, and Sea supplies;
And breeds what e’r is born beneath the rowling Skies:
For every kind, by thy prolifique might,
Springs, and beholds the Regions of the light:
Thee, Goddess thee, the clouds and tempests fear,
And at thy pleasing presence disappear:
For thee the Land in fragrant Flow’rs is drest,
For thee the Ocean smiles, and smooths her wavy breast;
And Heav’n it self with more serene, and purer light is blest.
For when the rising Spring adorns the Mead,
And a new Scene of Nature stands display’d,
When teeming Budds, and chearful greens appear,
And Western gales unlock the lazy year,
The joyous Birds thy welcome first express,
Whose native Songs thy genial fire confess:
Then savage Beasts bound o’re their slighted food,
Strook with thy darts, and tempt the raging floud:
All Nature is thy Gift; Earth, Air, and Sea:
Of all that breathes, the various progeny,
Stung with delight, is goaded on by thee.
O’er barren Mountains, o’er the flow’ry Plain,
The leavy Forest, and the liquid Main
Extends thy uncontroul’d and boundless reign.
Through all the living Regions dost thou move,
And scattr’st, where thou goest, the kindly seeds of Love:
Since then the race of every living thing,
Obeys thy pow’r; since nothing new can spring
Without thy warmth, without thy influence bear,
Or beautiful, or lovesome can appear,
Be thou my ayd: My tuneful Song inspire,
And kindle with thy own productive fire;
While all thy Province Nature, I survey,
And sing to Memmius an immortal lay
Of Heav’n, and Earth, and every where thy wond’rous pow’r display.
To Memmius, under thy sweet influence born,
Whom thou with all thy gifts and graces dost adorn.
The rather, then assist my Muse and me,
Infusing Verses worthy him and thee.
Mean time on Land and Sea let barb’rous discord cease,
And lull the listening world in universal peace.
To thee, Mankind their soft repose must owe,
For thou alone that blessing canst bestow;
Because the brutal business of the War
Is manag’d by thy dreadful Servant’s care:
Who oft retires from fighting fields, to prove
The pleasing pains of thy eternal Love:
And panting on thy breast, supinely lies,
While with thy heavenly form he feeds his famish’d eyes:
Sucks in with open lips, thy balmy breath,
By turns restor’d to life, and plung’d in pleasing death.
There while thy curling limbs about him move,
Involv’d and fetter’d in the links of Love,
When wishing all, he nothing can deny,
Thy charms in that auspicious moment try;
With winning eloquence our peace implore,
And quiet to the weary World restore.

[This content was originally part of my Poetry Month 2011 series.]

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Tips for readers: Getting through hard books

Earlier this summer when Cindy Rollins and Angelina Stanford were interviewing me for their Literary Life podcast, I mentioned that I didn’t start reading books that were hard for me till I was in my thirties. They asked me how I pushed through when reading something like that, so I mentioned a fairly recent experience with Charles Williams’ poem Taliessin Through Logres. In that case, I just kept looking for things I was already familiar with, which helped me keep going till I’d become familiar with Williams’ style and the general flow of the story.

I’d like to share some other strategies I’ve used over the years.

About a decade ago I decided to get better acquainted with Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Up until then I’d only read her short story, “Revelation,” but I’d read it many times, first in high school and then again every few years to see if it turned out any better, by which I mean, to see whether I could get to the end of the story without the bad guy turning out to be ME. Our library had the huge Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor—short stories, novels, essays, letters—so I started reading the fiction, and when it got too dark and difficult, I’d take a break by reading the non-fiction. Her essays are so thoughtful and her letters are delightful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, and I found that getting to know the author as a person made reading her stories easier.

Another thing that has made it easier to persevere though hard books is reading and discussing them with friends, whether this happens in person or over the internet. I read Homer and Virgil and Ovid this way, and am currently working through Plato’s Republic with friends. Knowing we’re going to meet on a certain day, and that my friends will have read the next section, and that they will definitely have interesting things to share about it is very motivating for me!

This one may come as a surprise, but reading aloud to my children has gotten me through some hard things that I had tried and failed to read alone. William Langland’s Piers Plowman, and Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene fall into this category. I read Langland to my older set when they were in high school, but I started Spenser with my younger set much earlier, so I had to do some groundwork before reading the unabridged poem, but knowing that they loved the story and were waiting for the next canto, and sharing their delight in the story, helped me keep doing my part.

This next example is kind of hard to categorize, but maybe I should call it comparing the hard book to something else I already know and love. C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man was like this for me. I tried several times to read it and just could not comprehend what he was talking about, and always gave up before I’d gotten even half way through it. But one day when I picked up That Hideous Strength to read for the umpteenth time, I happened to notice the words “Abolition of Man” in the Preface. I don’t think I’d ever read the Preface before, and I was surprised to read, “This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.” This drove me back into that book and finally I could see what he was talking about in there, since I already knew what it looked like from That Hideous Strength.

How about you? How do you manage to read hard books?

Monday, August 19, 2019

In which Spenser talks back to Lull

Walter Crane - Britomart (1900)
Britomart, Walter Crane (1900)

In Book III of The Faerie Queene, Spenser tells the story of Britomart, the knight of Chastity. Britomart is the only child and heir of a king so she has been training in arms since girlhood. One day she looks into a magic mirror and sees the noblest knight in Faerieland and falls in love with him. She is so sick with love that her nurse takes her to Merlin for a cure, but Merlin tells her that this most noble knight is Artegall, who will be her husband. Together they will be the ancestors of generations of kings. He shows her the future and it’s glorious in many ways, but also tragic and heartbreaking.

Merlin tells her that Artegall will die young, but her comfort will be their son. He also tells her that Artegall needs her help and she must go find him. Britomart puts on armor, dresses her nurse as a squire, and sets out to find her future husband, having many adventures (including rescuing damsels in distress) along the way.

It’s a beautiful book and we meet many other characters who also embody the virtue of Chastity, though they are all very different. Spenser doesn’t ever have a one-size-fits-all idea of what the virtues look like, or how they should be embodied.

Are you surprised that Spenser gave us a lady knight? He’s following the classical tradition. There’s Camilla, the warrior maiden in The Aeneid, and Hippolyta, daughter of Ares and queen of the Amazons in The Iliad.

So, I had to laugh and wonder whether Spenser was refuting Ramon Lull at one point of his Book of Knighthood and Chivalry. Lull says that women “who have often the mirror in the hand,” aren’t fit to be knights, and that “only vile women or only villainy of heart” would want to be, or agree to accept a woman as, a knight.

Hah! I love Spenser so much.

And no, I don’t want to be a knight, myself. Not my calling at all.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Current reading and a plea for help


C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian*
Preface to Paradise Lost
The Discarded Image

Plato, Republic

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Ramon Lull, Book of Knighthood and Chivalry

Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus

Mary Jo Tate, Flourish

Sidelined (it’s been a few weeks, but they’re still sitting out):

Dorothy Sayers, all the Lord Peter novels and short stories in chronological order*

Ariosto, Orlando Furioso

Reference (cluttering up my desk area because I keep dipping into them):

Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Northrup Frye, The Secular Scripture

E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture

Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake

To Be Read (too numerous to list)

[*denotes re-read]

Clearly I need to come up with some sort of a reading plan. I have a loose plan, in that I do my Bible reading when I first wake up, and read Ovid during breakfast. After that though, it’s as my whimsey takes me.

Also I need a decent system for keeping track of teaching/writing notes and ideas. Normally, everything is just in my head, or I’ll write down sketchy ideas on random pieces of paper, but then I don’t have a system and things get lost. If you have any advice, please share!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Of hermits and knights

Don’t you love it when you read one book and it reminds you of another book you love?

Recently, knowing what a medieval nerd I am, Angelina Stanford told me about a book on chivalry written in the 1200s, and translated into English by William Caxton in 1484. One of my first thoughts was, “I’ll bet Edmund Spenser read this book,” so of course I bought myself a copy of it (in updated English).

I have not been disappointed.

Ramon Lull’s Book of Knighthood and Chivalry opens with an aging knight who decides it is time to put knighthood behind him and begin to contemplate his death and the answer he will make to God when he faces him at the last day. He becomes a hermit and lives in a forest, subsisting off the fruit he can find.

In one part of the same woods was a fair meadow in which was a tree well-laden and charged with fruit, upon which the knight of the forest lived. And under the same tree was a fountain fair and clear that quenched and moistened the entire meadow. In that same place was the knight accustomed to come every day to pray and to adore God Almighty . . . .

One day, while sitting beside the fountain saying his daily prayers, a squire on horseback wanders into the meadow.

And then to him came the knight who was very old and had a great beard, long hair and a feeble gown worn and broken from overlong wearing. And by the penance that he daily made was discolored and very lean. By the tears that he had wept were his eyes wasted and had the regard and countenance of a very holy life. Each marveled at the other, for the knight who had been so long in his hermitage had seen no man since he had left the world.

The two men observe one another quietly for some time before the hermit speaks, knowing that “the squire would not speak first out of his reverence.”

“Fair friend, what is your intent and why have you come hither to this place?”

The squire says that he was on his way to the king’s court to be knighted, “But my travel and journey have been long, and while I dozed my palfrey went out of her right way, and has brought me to this place.”

At the mention of knighthood, the hermit grows quiet and pensive, remembering the old days. When the squire asks him what he is thinking about and learns that this old hermit used to be knight, he asks the old knight to teach him what he needs to know in order live honorably as a knight “after the ordinances of God.” The rest of the book is the knight’s lessons on chivalry.

I’m thinking of a scene that closely parallels this one, only with notable differences.

In Book I, Canto I of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the Redcrosse knight also encounters a hermit in the woods.

At length they chaunst to meet upon the way
   An aged Sire, in long black weedes yclad,
   His feete all bare, his beard all hoarie gray,
   And by his belt his booke he hanging had;
   Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad,
   And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,
   Simple in shew, and voide of malice bad,
   And all the way he prayed as he went,
And often knockt his brest, as one that did repent.

The hermit greets Redcrosse with a low bow, and Redcrosse eagerly asks the old man whether he knows of any “straunge adventures, which abroad did pas.”

   “Ah, my dear Sonne” (quoth he) “how should, alas,
   Silly old man, that lives in hidden cell,
   Bidding his beades all day for his trespas,
   Tydings of warre and worldly trouble tell?
With holy father sits not with such thinges to mell.”

But in the very next line he contradicts himself by telling Redcrosse of some strange goings on nearby that the young knight will surely be interested in. This is still early in his career and Redcrosse has not yet learned to tell the difference between the seeming and the reality—he listens to the words spoken but doesn’t realize when the speakers behavior or previous words contradict what he’s hearing, so he’s taken in by this “hermit” who is really the evil magician Archimago.

Of course, the obvious difference is that Lull’s hermit is an honorable man, living honestly, who offers help to one who seeks it, while Spenser’s is an enemy to Redcrosse and is bent on destroying him. Archimago can put on the clothes of a hermit and mimic his speech to an extent, but he can’t disguise who he truly is for long.

Another difference is in the way the squire and Redcrosse interact with the hermits. The squire is humble, considerate of the hermit, and asks him for wisdom and guidance. Redcrosse is hasty, rushing straight from a perfunctory greeting to asking the hermit to tell him where to go for adventure, something he really should not have expected a true hermit to know about.

Monday, May 20, 2019

PLAY is the first stage of a mathematical education

Astronomy is the capstone of the Quadrivium because it is number in time and space, which is to say that the whole cosmos is a dance, which is a form of play.

In Laws VII (819) Plato tells us, when the Athenian is describing how children should be taught the fundamentals of mathematics, that it is best to imitate the Egyptians. “In that country,” he says, “arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as a pleasure and amusement.”

Most of our traditional childhood games are of this nature. There are the obvious games involving cards and dice where you have to count and keep score, and games like jacks, hopscotch, and jump-rope that require not only counting but physical movement.

Still less obvious are the nursery games that parents play with their children. Many of these involve rhythm and movement, such as “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake baker’s man.” Something mind-blowing that I learned recently is that there’s a part of the brain that specifically links your fingers to numbers. Think of the finger game that we sing with our babies “Where is Thumbkin?” When I sang that to my babies, if I thought of it as anything educational at all, I thought of Object Permanence. But when we have our little ones make their own hand motions to that song we’re giving them a physical skill that will translate to physically preparing their brains for a deep understanding of Number.

Here’s another one that lays the groundwork for mathematical thinking—Twenty Questions. When you ask the first question, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” you’re asking about categories, and then the second question, “Is it bigger than a breadbox [or microwave for most of us nowadays]?” asks a comparison question that is mathematical in nature.

The only curriculum I’ve ever seen that’s even remotely close to this understanding, is the out of print book by Horace Grant, Arithmetic for Young Children. In that book, he has the students use a collection of objects to play with Number, presented in an orderly fashion. Along with this, he asks questions that spark the imagination and help the child make the leap to mental math. Formal, written arithmetic is delayed until the book Second Stage of Arithmetic, and is introduced along with having the child think through numeration (why we name amounts the way we do) and notation (why we write numerals the way we do). It’s a brilliant presentation, which is begun around ten to twelve years of age, far later than most of are comfortable with, used as we are to rushing academics, but I think it’s developmentally appropriate.

Another resource I recommend highly is Denise Gaskins’ Let’s Play Math website and book series. They’ll give you lots of ideas of things you can do to prepare your child for the formal study of the Quadrivium.

I haven’t used this finger math curriculum with young children (I’m generally against formal lessons for children under six or seven years of age), but it seems to fit my qualification of playful. I suspect it might work for older students who may have missed all these games and may need remedial arithmetic.

Monday, April 15, 2019

First impressions of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act I, Scenes 1-5

That’s an awfully boring title, isn’t it? I couldn’t think of anything clever. :-p

The kids and I are reading Macbeth for our Medieval and Renaissance Literature class with Angelina Stanford, and I had some random things I wanted to write down before I forgot them, so here they are.

The Weird Sisters, Henry Fuseli, c. 1783

First Witch:
A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap
And munched and munched and munched. “Give me,” quoth I.
“Aroint thee, witch,” the rump-fed runnion cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

This sailor must be must be quite a man, given the trip he’s on, the ship he masters, and the fact that the Witch says she can’t sink his ship. She can, however, curse the husband of this foolish woman.

I’m saying she’s foolish because here she is with her lap full of blessings gobbling them so greedily that she won’t even share when an old woman asks for some.

If you know anything about fairy tales, you know that’s a huge mistake, a mistake of wicked stepmother proportions.

The chestnuts caught my attention though because so often the chestnut tree is used in literature as a symbol of happiness and prosperity. If you know anything about Macbeth, you know that this most definitely isn’t a story about happiness and prosperity.

Let me go back to the beginning.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens with the stage direction, “Thunder and lightening. Enter three Witches.” These three make a plan to meet with Macbeth before the day is over (to tell him he will be king, as we later learn), and saying, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” they exit, and Scene 1 ends.

Given that the story begins with upheaval in nature, I’m going to assume that whatever disorder that set off this tragedy has already happened.

They reappear in Scene 3: “Thunder. Enter the three Witches.” The First Witch tells of her encounter with the sailor’s wife, which Asimov says has nothing at all to do with the play—it’s just there to please King James I, who “considered himself a particular expert on the matter of witchcraft,” and had “written a book called Demonology, in which he advocated . . . the severest measures against witches.” [Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: The English Plays, page 151]

Asimov, you’re a genius and I love you dearly, but you completely missed the boat on this one. Shakespeare wasn’t just a suck-up. He was an artist and he knew exactly what he was doing here.

(Before going on, I want to point out that these three are elsewhere in the play called the weyward/weird/wyrd sisters, so I think we’re supposed to think of them as being similar to the Fates of classical mythology, or the Norns of Norse mythology, priestesses who told the future.)

Now back to the chestnuts. Chestnuts provide a lot of nutrition and calories in a tiny little package, so they’ve always symbolised things like prosperity and fertility. Because they fall in such abundance during the harvest season, they also symbolise foresight and long life. Here’s something new I learned: They also symbolise the ability to receive ancient wisdom.

So, we have a prosperous woman (that she’s “rump-fed” tells us this) enjoying the bounty of nature, who refuses an old woman’s request for food, resulting in her husband being cursed. In Scene 5, we meet Lady Macbeth, who is as unnatural a woman as it’s possible to be.

I don’t have any conclusions exactly, mostly questions and guesses. Was Macbeth already corrupted before he met the Weird Sisters? I tend to think so, since good people don’t jump head-first into evil. CS Lewis talks about this regarding Mark Studdock’s descent in That Hideous Strength. Macbeth does briefly seem to accept that if he’s meant to be king, it’ll happen without his taking action. But Lady Macbeth must have long since fallen since she’s so quick to push her husband into evil action in order to bring about the prophecy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Amoretti XXVI

~Edmund Spenser (1552/1553-1599)

Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a brere;
Sweet is the juniper, but sharp is the bough;
Sweet is the eglantine, but pricketh near;
Sweet is the fir-bloom, but his branch is rough;
Sweet is the cypress, but his rind is tough;
Sweet is the nut, but bitter is his pill;
Sweet is the broom-flower, but yet sour enough:
And sweet is moly, but his root is ill.
So every sweet with sour is temp’red still,
That maketh it be coveted the more:
For easy things, that may be got at will,
Most sorts of men do set but little store.
     Why then should I account of little pain
     That endless pleasure shall unto me gain!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Sunday is the Queen of the days

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Remembering the sabbath is not something we should do only on Sunday morning—we should be remembering it all week long.

What does this look like?

When my children were young, it looked like me sitting down with them every weekday at 10 a.m. to sing a hymn and read a story, because that was similar to what we’d be doing at that time on Sunday. I held my infant on my lap and let my older ones color while I read aloud. This was the origin of our Morning Time routine, though I didn’t call it that till years later, after reading Cindy Rollins’ blog.

It looked like me planning our daily mealtimes and naptimes around the Sunday service so that Sunday would be a natural part of our week, and not a shock to our systems. We almost never had dessert or sweets during the week, so I made sure to have something special for a Sunday treat after church, a practice we continue to this day—today it was a tin of baklawa that #1Son brought home from Iraq.

It also looked like me making sure I had all the laundry done by Saturday and knew where all the kids’ Sunday clothes and shoes were so things wouldn’t be rushed any more than they had to be on Sunday morning. Let’s face it, when you’re a stay-at-home mom, Sunday morning is the most hectic time of the week, because it’s the only day you have to have everyone fed and dressed and out the door by 9:30 in the morning.

Sunday should be a day of delight, even to our babies. My dear sisters, let’s remember the sabbath day as we plan the rest of the week, letting her rule over our times and activities. Yes, it will always be a hectic day, but let’s not make it unnecessarily hard on our children.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sorry about the unexpected hiatus

Violin Daughter had her senior recital last weekend, so my Minnesota daughter flew in at the beginning of last week, then my mom flew at the end of the week, then Minnesota daughter flew back home at the beginning of this week and my mom flies back tomorrow afternoon. So, no blog post this week, either.

As a consolation, here are a couple of recordings from the recital. This first one is the Meditation from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet, accompanied by her former music teacher.

This next one is the 4th movement from JS Bach's Partita in D minor. When we were discussing whether to hold her recital in the parish house where there is a grand piano (she also played two piano pieces, a Rachmaninoff and a Debussy) or the sanctuary of our 250 year old church building, she said she needed the acoustics of the sanctuary, "Because that Bach piece is LIT."