Found Poem

Posted by: Richenda at Tuesday June 12, 2007 in

There are times when doing all this historical stuff that you come across something really simple and beautiful. A good friend of mine, M. L. Dehm did that the other day. A tale of romance and coming of age. And bittersweet.

She came across a photograph with a picture of a young man. On the back was a message, hand written in blocky code symbols. A straight substitution code, though to crack it we tried a number of ciphers before figuring it out and getting it right!

This story is such a heart felt and personal one. A true ‘found poem.’ It was never supposed to be public, so I’m not posting the photograph. But here is the back. The back of the photograph—with writing in code—looks like this:

It says:


Once, I loved him with all my heart and placed in him my love’s blindest trust. Then I loved him and loved him well. But now that I love him, there can be no doubt. Yet say I have perfect trust in him, I cannot. I must still say I love him, yet why I cannot tell. For though he knew I loved him all too well, he dealt that love a blow, which caused its depth to fall so low, that I could then have hated him with ease if he would, but have had it so. Yet he would not, and now he has taught me to love him so well that it has become a weakness that I can never kill. I kissed him first with love, he was first to offer me an insult yet this I forgave him through the strength of the old, sweet love. Oh my love! No one can ever love you so well as I, whom you give not a thought anymore.

The note is signed: The one who holds in keeping that which cannot ever be returned .

Though we cannot be sure what happened and why, and we do not really know who is the writer or the boy in the photograph. But I’m guessing this is an old tale. The story of a boy who falls in love with his best friend. And unfortunately for him, that friend does not return his romantic affection. It’s so heartrending! First love wrapped up in all the bitter-sweet struggle of adolescence. Here, a lifelong friendship suddenly becomes very, very complicated.

Whoever the letter writer was, I hope he found his way.

Why Literalism Bites

Posted by: Richenda at Thursday June 7, 2007 in

Well, tonight’s blog is a break from all things religious which seem to be swirling around my head lately. I wonder about God. I wonder some more. I get elated. I get frustrated. I shake my head. Then I wonder about Life. And then I wonder about God again, and….well, you get the picture. When I get it all sorted out I’ll let you know.

(BTW. If you have it sorted out already, hold your tongue! Not to be rude (and I’m sure you’re plenty clever) but frankly, I don’t want your answers. I’ll get my own answers when I’m dead, thank you all the same. And as for now, I’m trying to enjoy the questions.)

In the meantime ( before I’m dead) I wasted (are books ever wasteful?) the afternoon surfing through the ebook offerings at Gutenberg.org. God Bless them! (Back to God again.) Hurrah for them!

[Note to Gutenberg.org and all your proofreaders: God Bless You! Hurrah for You!!]

I especially had fun with this ebook: The Chronicle of Dalmailing during the ministry of the Rev. Micah Balwhidder. Written by himself and arranged and edited by John Galt.

The Chronicle begins in 1760 and continues until 1810. And it’s marvelous. The Rev. Bal whidder makes careful notes about who does what in his parish, for how long, and at whose expense. Among the joys to be found on his pages is this peevish description of a Mr. Macskipnish and his dancing school. Year 1761:

But a thing happened in this year, which deserves to be recorded, as manifesting what effect the smuggling was beginning to take in the morals of the country side. One Mr Macskipnish, of Highland parentage, who had been a valet-de-chambre with a major in the campaigns, and taken a prisoner with him by the French, he having come home in a cartel, took up a dancing-school at Irville, the which art he had learnt in the genteelest fashion, in the mode of Paris, at the French court. Such a thing as a dancing-school had never, in the memory of man, been known in our country side; and there was such a sound about the steps and cottillions of Mr Macskipnish, that every lad and lass, that could spare time and siller, went to him, to the great neglect of their work. The very bairns on the loan, instead of their wonted play, gaed linking and louping in the steps of Mr Macskipnish, who was, to be sure, a great curiosity, with long spindle legs, his breast shot out like a duck’s, and his head powdered and frizzled up like a tappit-hen. He was, indeed, the proudest peacock that could be seen, and he had a ring on his finger, and when he came to drink his tea at the Breadland, he brought no hat on his head, but a droll cockit thing under his arm, which, he said, was after the manner of the courtiers at the petty suppers of one Madam Pompadour, who was at that time the concubine of the French king.

It’s all fictional, but what fun! Who says there is no truth in fiction? This book captures a kind of meta-veritas. Um. Can I glue meta and veritas together with a hyphen? And…can I then precede them with a ‘kind of’? Hm… Let’s try it and see who hates us for it. I feel airy tonight, and ready for a bit of mischief!

But the book is lovely. It all reads like it unfolded along a cotter’s lane in the village at the center of the universe. In this village you get the unapologetic truth—not just the ‘actuals’ and/or ‘particulars.’

This book, my friends, is a good example of why literalism bites. When you squeeze your fist to make a ‘truth,’ not only will little bits get squeezed out and float away, but the shape into which you squeeze the rest can only be your own. So ironically (tragically) in pursuing truth, you’re hopeless to actually find any of it.

Said another way, truth isn’t the residue, the squeezed up bit you managed to name and control. That bit is hopelessly mutilated and out of shape. Truth is…well, truth is much more fluid, and far grander than that. As far as literalism goes, ‘truth’ is the bit that got away.

Enough of that.

If you have an afternoon to waste on The Chronicle of Dalmailing during the ministry of the Rev. Micah Balwhidder, I suggest you do! You can download it from Project Gutenberg Search for John Galt.

Joyful Rain

Posted by: Richenda at Friday May 25, 2007 in

In 2007, faith and scholarship seem a hard thing to mix. It’s as if there are lines on the social pavement. On the one extreme is atheistic science, zealous ‘superstitionists’ whose life work is the pursuit of (dis)proof. On the other extreme are the minions who live their lives in a kind of double-blind religious zealotry. Somewhere in the middle are the rest of us. —Thank goodness for Stephen Prothero. (Still need to get a copy of his book.)

The split, between the zealous and the zealous, has come to taint the process of learning. Too much learning, it is thought, can only result in a sort of profane nihilism. Yet too little learning, and pretty soon we’ll all be drinking the Koolaid.

In remedy, the Koolaid drinkers seek to carefully control all, the less you know the better. In contrast, science probes all, demanding all ‘disorders’ be disgorged from the body while the mind is forced to accept ‘reason.’ In the middle of this mess we have cheez whiz and twinkies, televangelism, and the evolution vs creationist debate.

There is a fear that serious study of the miraculous will ruin the mystical and metaphysical experience of spiritual worship. Or perhaps the fear is that study will reveal it. Yet there is a long tradition of men and women who have managed to mix extraordinary devotion and fastidious scholarship. People of all faiths. This is before it was about replacing faith with fact and turning church goers into factory workers. And as for me, I am sorry to see us trade the exploration of truth through metaphor, and songs of praise in the morning, for time cards and time clocks, ‘three minute workouts’ and prozac.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am grateful for the gifts of the age of reason, the age of industry, the scientific age. I’m glad not to be fearful of demons under the bed. I’m glad to have a flashlight so I can see the empty darkness for myself. But what now fills that space? Who gifted us with those particles and waves of light? Not science. Science only studied them.

Light is a gift from God. So when I shine that flashlight, when I am reassured that a demon cannot lurk there, I am also glad for the assurance that God is good, and that He has created a intricate and beautiful world. A world revealed both by knowledge and by light.

Recently, I purchased Thomas Cranmer’s The Book of Common Prayer, the one from Everyman’s Library with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s introduction.

[Note to Diarmaid MacCulloch: Your name rocks.]

This is my first brush with the book itself, though I’ve read plenty about it and Cranmer, its author. I was determined to dislike Cranmer’s work, because…well for a lot of reasons. Mostly he seemed to me to be an opportunistic man, and not necessarily a man driven by faith. He seemed more interested in gaining and cultivating power as an end, rather than restoring or nurturing faith as an end. Can such a man produce a ‘holy’ book?

Still, as I read through the book, I have to admit I find worth there. Does the worth spring up because this collection of words, at least in part, has been identified through the ages as being ‘of God’? Or because, like so many texts before it, it attempts to understand man’s relationship with God? With himself? His world? With other men?

Or maybe I just like the prayers?
Like this one, For Rain:

O God our heavenly Father, who by thy gracious providence dost cause the former and the latter rain to descend upon the earth, that it may bring forth fruit for the use of man: We give thee humble thanks that it hath pleased thee, in our great necessity, to send us at the last a joyful rain upon thine inheritance, and to refresh it when it was dry, to the great comfort of us they unworthy servants, and to the glory of thy holy Name; though thy mercies in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I love this little prayer. I love the idea of the “former and the latter rain,” though I am troubled by the concept of ‘providence’ when politicized. I love the image of “joyful rain,” though I worry about phrases like “unworthy servant” and “for use of man.” And I would dearly love to move biblical phraseology and metaphor out of the patristic and feudal ages!

Is it okay to see the prayer in its entirety, as a thing of beauty? Is it also okay to address the bits that trouble us? Because I believe that the study of something does not diminish it, not prayers, not religion, and not our world.

[Note to my sister Justyne: Thank you for your reminder that Jesus was a Teacher.]

For me, it is joyous to discover that living cells are not less miraculous because they are on a slide under the microscope. In fact, life blooms more miraculous when studied, because its elements and properties are even more deeply revealed to us. Study allows us to accumulate knowledge, yet life remains both unanswerable and unquestionable.

Unquestionable. Not in that questions cannot be asked, for they must be! But Unquestionable in that the questions themselves are unknowable, and so unutterable. We nibble at the edges. We are awed—but not ignorant or unthinking. We recognize ‘glory’ at its most basic and humble, and it so amazes our hearts and minds that with all our senses we expand to meet its mystery.

This, then, is why I like this prayer. It is far from perfect, yet it is touched by perfection. It acknowledges both human weakness and human strength. It is rooted in human concerns throughout history. It bends in gratitude for the gift of life through rain, and understands that this essential thing is ultimately a gift unknowable.

And I am grateful for it.

[Note to readers: You can download a PDF copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer free from the internet here The PDF file is a copy of the work done by Lynda M. Howell, and she has an HTML version on her website.]

[Note to Ms. Howell: Thank you for making this work available!!]

Bone Eating Zombie Worms

Posted by: Richenda at Monday April 23, 2007 in

How many bone-eating zombie worms can you fit into a Volkswagen? I guess that would depend on how many whales you could fit in there, as bone-eating zombie worms afflict whales.

Another name for the worm is ‘bone-eating snot flower.’ (Who thinks these names up!) And creepy as the worm/flowers sound, they are actually quite amazing
looking, with colored fronds waving around as if they were some sort of gooey fern.

Here’s another term for you, ‘whale fall.’ I guess whales are sort of the ancient redwoods of the forest. When they die, their carcasses become ‘whale fall’ and are like the rotting tree trunks of the ocean floor.

I have to admit I find the idea of “whale fall” almost as entertaining as the name “zombie worm.” Can you imagine being on the ocean floor minding your own briney business only to suddenly look up to see a dead gigantor-whale-o-saurus headed right for you? Look out!

Still, it shows a good imagination. I get tired of names like “brown striped shore fish.” Hm…do you think it has brown stripes and lives near the shore? Yawn.
But ‘snot flower?’ Good one! I mean, who knows what that thing is or what it gets up to.

And to think, they pay people to think this stuff up. That must be a pretty good job.

Of course it isn’t all champagne and congratulations for the marine researcher set. There was that embarrassing little thing a few weeks ago where a group of researchers decided they really, really, really needed to know where walruses go for the summer.

To track the massive, mollusk-crunching beasts scientists risked their lives in teeny boats to get close enough to shoot radio transmitters into a few walrus rear ends. Bummer, though. All but one of the transmitters fell off or quit working all together. Score: Walruses 9, Researchers 0. Silly researchers! The walruses are on to you and Walrus Paradise Island is a secret.

*(Note to mollusk researchers: Speaking of mollusks, is it true that slugs have four
noses? I know they are hermaphroditic, and have more teeth than sharks….but noses? I don’t know.)*

Strange little day.

Facing Down Dragons

Posted by: Richenda at Monday March 12, 2007 in

I got a new book. (I love that.) This one is by from Alfred J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt originally published in 1884.

(Note to Kessinger Publishing: Thank you for getting this back in print!)

I’m not sure why…perhaps my fascination with monasticism…but the Coptic Christian movement intrigues me. The Copts embraced monasticism by building monasteries, converting their homes to monastic dwellings, building underground churches, and also simply scraping caves out of the cliffs and surrounds—hundreds of them. Filling these churches or convents or caves were monks or hermits or anchorites, each a little different but all sharing a general devotion to the “new faith.”

The idea for these seekers was that in those dusty “cells,” they could be separate from the living world in order to live a life in readiness for God: one of devotion through unceasing prayer (and, amusingly enough, basketweaving). Interestingly, though the idea was work and prayer and solitude, many of these anchorites were part of an extensive social network of spiritual seekers. The most admired anchorites had disciples, followers, and visitors who came to ask their advice.

(Note: Am I the only one that thinks this is very, very cool?!)

Interesting, too, is the role of women in this movement. Okay, that last sentence
unpacks into (at least) a hundred volume journal and I’ve just got this bitty blog. lol. But yes, interesting!

Take dragons, for instance.

Once the middle ages moved into full roar, the Christian movement tried to,
and succeeded in, quieting down the stories of female religious fervor that did not include the exemplar devoting herself (enthusiastically but quietly) to marriage or a convent. By the time of The Golden Legend, the Lives of the female saints all pretty much read the same. Saint (A) doesn’t want to get married to an unsuitable man (or any man) and so makes some sort of dramatic gesture to that effect in order to be released from her marriage and so become the bridegroom of Christ.
So she pretends to be a male, or grows a beard, or disfigures herself, or runs away, or performs a miracle.

These are wonderful narratives, but what bothers me is that pretty much ALL the stories become a variation of this basic theme. In actuality, women were not quiet and safely married off at all. Many were engaging with the forefront of the Christian vision. Others participated in some pretty gritty and courageous stuff. Just poke around a little earlier and you get a different picture.

Early Christianity was not only led and inspired by women, but it NEEDED those women. Women provided financial support, opened their homes to early Christians, inspired conversion, facilitated conversion, and taught the new faith. As such, women were persecuted, tortured, martyred and killed just as men were.

These earlier stories were recorded, too. These stories do not exhort women to obey their husbands, bear little oblates, and meekly cover their heads in church! lol. These stories tell of the need of women’s physical heroism and emotional strength in order to launch an new and enthralling movement into this world. Often, like the later stories, the women had to evade a marriage that would render them religiously (and politically) powerless, or spiritually impure (through “union” with a heathen, for instance). But unlike the later stories, these earlier sainted women became teachers, leaders, and martyrs.

Take Saint Marina, for example. Here’s a clip from Butler’s book:

[Marina], desiring to become a martyr, she asked God for power and help… the heathen prince saw her beauty and his heart departed out of him. He commanded…that he might take her unto him to wife. [But] she was ready to be tormented and to rest with the wise virgins.
So [the heathen king] became angry, and commanded to beat her with rods, and her blood ran upon the ground. Then they combed her flesh with sharp knives, and threw her into a dungeon. The Lord always cured her from all this suffering. While she was in the dungeon praying, a great dragon came out upon her, opened wide his jaws, and swallowed her. Her soul was ready to depart from her; but she stretched out her hands, and made the sign of the cross in the dragon’s belly. Forthwith the mouth of the dragon gaped open, and she was delivered, and came out in great safety.
Then she turned and saw [a devil or demon] putting his hands on his knees, and saying unto her ‘Cease to pray, and obey the king’s commandment..’ When she heard that, she caught him by the hair of the head, and took a cudgel [a club] which she found in the corner of the dungeon, and smote therewith the devil’s head. Thus was the devil tormented by her, and besought her to lighten his suffering. She answered him ‘shut thy mouth’: then she made the sign of the cross upon him, and the earth opened and swallowed him up.
[She endures yet other tortures before she is eventually beheaded, earning the “crown of martyrdom.”]

Okay! Now there’s a variation on “Kick Butt” that does not include disappearing women into convents. Likewise it is not the ‘crusader ideologue’ with its accompanying longbows, AK-47s, fuses and bags of fertilizer, or hopes for global financial domination. This narrative of female faith tells of inner strength, a strength that leads to resurrected spiritual glory.

Yes, it is a story of a woman who resists the embraces of a heathen king. But it is so much more, as well.

Marina shows us something most of us know already know, that those inner demons are the hardest ones to vanquish. It is some of the hardest work we humans are ever, ever called to do. And in vanquishing those demons, Marina gains “crowns” of holy, not worldly, power—though there is no doubt her worldly power was spectacularly impacted as well. Her worldly legacy is ‘martyrdom’ without bullets. She has left us an example of personal courage and faith.

We get all this with a few words. Yet words are sticky things. They can be interpreted so many ways. And the big BIG question is, how do we peel such narratives down to resonant ‘truth.’ How can we resist falsely (though perhaps with good intentions) literalizing this narrative, or dismissing it as “folklore,” or wrongly re-appropriating it to fit some modern ideal or political agenda?

I can’t say. But perhaps what I enjoy most is the challenge these stories present to our contemporary understanding. This is an alternate manifestation of faith, one that springs from the earliest Christian times. No matter what it might mean to me, or to you, you have to admit, it’s pretty heady stuff.

(Note to the reader: Long blog today! If you stuck it through, you get a gold star, lol. But hopefully not a headache….)

Marina and the Demon:

Image links to Helenistic Ministry of Culture
Image from Simonopetra Monastery

« Older Newer »