Saturday, December 29, 2012

See the sacred that surrounds us

A snow-covered beach, the Sakonnet surf gently lapping the shore
In my work as a religion writer, I recently had the good fortune to interview author Devin Brown and write a review about his new book “The Christian World of The Hobbit” – all in anticipation of the December release of the “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

Speaking from his Lexington, Ky., home, the J.R.R. Tolkien expert and Asbury University English professor introduced me to what he calls the “sacramental ordinary.”

He writes that Bilbo has found something of greater value than gold in “The Hobbit,” something that might be labeled the "sacramental ordinary."

“The elves sing that the stars are brighter than gems, that the moon is whiter than silver, and that the fire on the hearth shines more than gold,” said Brown. “They declare that after swords, thrones, crowns, strength in arms, and wealth are all rusted, withered, or gone, the growing grass, the fluttering leaves, the flowing water, and even the elves’ singing itself will still remain.”

Brown added that growing grass, fluttering leaves, flowing water, singing, green meadows, favorite trees, familiar hills – these ordinary things Tolkien suggests, have something extraordinary about them.

As spring returns to the Shire in the final chapter of “The Return of the King,” Brown points out one of Tolkien’s most definitive portraits of the sacramental ordinary and one of his most moving.

Tolkien wrote: “Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth.”

“The reading helps us look at our world with a new perspective, new wonder, and new appreciation – and see the sacramental ordinary that surrounds us,” Brown said.

In a letter written in 1958, Tolkien wrote his now famous statement: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size).”

(He) “then goes on to list the many simple enjoyments that both he and hobbits love, among them gardens, trees, unmechanized farmlands, good plain food, ornamental waistcoats, mushrooms, and a simple sense of humor,” said Brown. “Through his fiction, Tolkien helps us learn to love these things as well, and in these ordinary things to see something we may not be seeing, something ordinary.”

As we begin a New Year, may we be aware that the ordinary is in fact the extraordinary. The sacred is all around us.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Good King

Looking out at Fogland's winter fields of green, instead of white, on this December morning.
Yesterday I received a package in the mail, a Christmas gift from some dear friends out West. Inside was tucked a beautifully illustrated book entitled “Good King Wenceslas.”

Frankly, I have always loved the melody of this English Christmas carol; but beyond the first few lines, I never learned the rest. Reading the words, which relate a lovely medieval tale, I now understand why. The cadence and old English dialect sound confusing, making the story difficult to grasp.

So here is my retelling of the allegorical tale.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out / On the feast of Stephen, / When the snow lay round about. / Deep and crisp and even;”

The king peers out from the parapet of his castle on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, which overlooks his snow-covered kingdom. The feast day of the saint is known as Boxing Day in Britain, and historically, provisions are provided as gifts to the poor.

“Brightly shone the moon that night, / Though the frost was cruel, / When a poor man came in sight, / Gathering winter fuel.”

The king notices a man in the distance weathering the elements to gather firewood.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, / If thou know’st it, telling, / Yonder peasant, who is he? / Where and what his dwelling?”

He asks his young servant about the man and where he lives.

“Bring me flesh and fruit so fine, / Bring me pine logs hither, / Thou and I will see him dine, / When we bear them thither.”

The king orders the page to collect foodstuffs and firewood that they will deliver to the poor man and his family.

“Page and monarch forth they went, / Forth they went together, / Through the rude wind’s wild lament / And the bitter weather.”

As monarch, he can command an envoy to carry out his wishes; yet he and the boy set out alone in the storm.

“Sire, the night is darker now / And the wind grows stronger; / Fails my heart I know not how; / I can go no longer.”

The young servant falters, unable to complete his task.

“Mark my footsteps good, my page; / Tread thou in them boldly; / Thou shalt find the winter’s rage / Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

The king orders him to follow in his footsteps.

“In his master’s steps he trod / Where the snow lay dinted; / Heat was in the very sod / Which the saint had printed.”

His feet miraculously warm with each step.

Therefore Christians, all be sure, / Wealth or rank possessing, / Ye who now will bless the poor, / Shall yourselves find blessing.”

God (the king) is always with us, accompanying us on life’s journey. He rewards our kindness to others by showering us with His blessings.

Happy Christmas to all!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

God save the children

I had a rare Friday afternoon off yesterday, and I had a long list of things I planned to do. The Christmas tree was still waiting patiently on the deck.

All the way home from work, I sang along with the Christmas carols playing on the radio and looked forward to the fun I would have decorating the house. Christmas brings out the child in everyone.

My husband was waiting at home for me, and I heard the TV as I climbed the front stairs. He pointed to the screen, and I watched with horror the news on CNN.

Just like everyone else, I began to cry as I learned that 20 young children had been gunned down at a school in Connecticut and questioned how something like this could happen.

Every Tuesday I bring my three-year-old grandson to preschool at an elementary school in a nearby town. It’s hard to contain his excitement as we drive to school. I hold his tiny hand tightly as he skips and jumps all the way through the parking lot.

I push the buzzer, identify ourselves and wait for clearance. Then we climb the stairs and wait outside the classroom, joining all the other mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles and other caretakers holding hands with their little ones.

When the teacher walks down the corridor, the children scream with delight: “Miss Amy! Miss Amy!” And this very special teacher smiles and welcomes each one of them with open arms.

But now in the aftermath of this senseless tragedy, will teachers, parents and children ever feel safe again?  

I abandoned my well laid-out plans, and my husband and I drove to Fogland Beach.

The tide was at its lowest point exposing rocks that rarely surface during the course of the year. More exposed beaches like this one tend to have steeper slopes and coarser sediments because the waves come in at an angle and are not parallel to the shore when they break. Consequently, the water and its sediment follow a zigzag path down the beach, which is called the littoral drift.

Looking at the indiscriminant piles of sand dotting the beach and deep gullies, I felt exposed like those rocks, drifting in a sea of confusion.

Oh, God, I prayed. Deliver us from evil.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Enlightened women

The ivy-covered walls of Wellesley College
“You can’t go home again,” warned Thomas Wolfe.

I spent four years at Wellesley College, my home away from home; and I’ve always wanted to go back.

Alums can audit any course for free, but there was never space enough in my life to squeeze one in.

But at summer’s end, the opportunity presented itself. I checked the course catalog, and there was a philosophy class being offered at a time that I could fit into my flexible work schedule.

So after a long absence, I became a college student again.

Arriving on campus for the first class, I drove into the new parking garage and headed to the Campus Police Department to purchase a parking permit. It cost a whopping $50. This course isn’t free at all, I thought to myself.

The garage abutted the new Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center, which I explored before walking to the Margaret Clapp Library. Climbing to the fourth floor, I found the carrel, where I spent most of my time writing my thesis, “Fogland: A Collection of Nonfiction Essays.”

Unused to walking miles around campus, I was winded as I trudged up the three flights of stairs to the Philosophy Library, where the class was held.

The last student to arrive, I slipped in quietly and took in my surroundings. The young male professor sat at the head of the long table, and there were five young women taking the class.

The course entitled “Women of the Enlightenment” intrigued me. An English and Medieval-Renaissance Studies double major, my education stopped at the seventeenth century – a gap that I was attempting to fill.

A few minutes into the lecture, and it was as comfortable as college has always been for me. I took lots of notes and listened intently as auditors are apt to do.

During the break, however, the professor invited me to participate vocally in class and to do the homework, if I so desired.

On my way home I stopped at Barnes & Noble and picked up the book “A History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz.” The book covered the canon: the philosophy of Descartes, Pascal, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz – but there was not a woman among them.

Throughout the next 13 weeks, I studied the philosophies of the little known women of this period who had contributed to modern thought: Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Damaris Cudworth, Mary Astell, Mary Shepherd, Gabrielle Suchon, Emilie du Chatelet and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Last Wednesday the course ended, and six smarter women exited the Philosophy Library.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The buzz about winter

During the wintertime our summer house hibernates.

This year the warm fall weather had delayed the inevitable end-of-season task of draining pipes, but finally, last weekend my husband and his plumber/friend headed to Tiverton.

Winterizing the house entails climbing into the hatch of the well house, disconnecting the water line that feeds the house from the well pump, and connecting it to an electric pump that pushes an antifreeze solution throughout the system.

Upon arrival at the summer place late Friday afternoon, my husband went into the house and started opening faucets. Simultaneously, his friend lifted the hatch of the well house, lowered in the electric pump and dropped in his tools.

And that’s when my husband heard the screams. Rushing outside, he saw his friend running away from a cloud of angry bees.

Sometime this fall, the squatters had discovered a crack in the foundation of the well house and moved right in. The hive, which was now the size of a basketball, rested comfortably in the corner of the structure. Solar-heated, the rubber roof of the well house absorbed the sun’s rays.

Protecting the hive, hundreds of yellow jackets surrounded the building. They chased my husband too, and he felt the searing sting from one of the sentinels at the back of his head.

When it was safe, they replaced the hatch and drove away.

Stopping at Home Depot on Saturday morning, my husband bought three self-dispersing canisters of insecticide. His friend activated them and carefully lowered them into the well house.

Following directions, they returned after four hours; but when they opened the hatch, the bees emerged.

The spectacle attracted our neighbors who were amazed at the size of the hive and its occupants. They advised them to stay out of the well house.

Very early Sunday morning, my husband and his friend headed to summer house for the third time in as many days. Just as the meteorologist had predicted, it was frigid with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees.

Now there was the possibility that it was already too late. The pipes might be frozen.

Opening the hatch, they noticed no activity near the hive. His friend climbed in the well house and with a shovel carefully removed the hive intact and handed it to my husband, who gingerly carried it into the woods behind the summer house.

Less than an hour later, the summer house was winterized.

“No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees / No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds – November!” wrote British poet and playwright Thomas Hood.

No bees?