Summer Reading is for Everyone

AliceinWonderland

“Then shall we carelessly allow the children to hear any old stories…?”
Plato, Republic

Summer is a time for stories. There is a great tradition of taking stories seriously, even, and sometimes especially, ‘non-serious’ or leisure reading. Stories are food for the soul, for young and old alike. They should nourish.

Age-appropriate reading can be part of the summer plan for every member of the family. Yet there is something magical and irreplaceable about reading together as a whole family. How many of us have indelible memories of stories read-aloud as a family? It can, however, be challenging to find a story that will hold everyone’s attention. A piece published yesterday by my friend William Fahey reminds us of one such classic for the whole family, as well as a couple of good reads for mature readers.

As we, and especially our children, can find ourselves drawn in by the ease and glitz of video entertainment, we will need to exercise discipline and make an intentional effort here. I hereby resolve to read-aloud (again) this summer the book Fahey recommends, to anyone in the house who will listen.

Treasure Island

Images: George Dunlop Leslie’s Alice in Wonderland; and N.C. Wyeth’s illustration of Treasure Island.

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Fields Bereft of Tillers

Field with Oilwell

“For right and wrong change places; everywhere
So many wars, so many shapes of crime
Confront us; no honor attends the plow,
The fields, bereft of tillers, are all unkempt…” Virgil, The Georgics

So many wars; so many different shapes of evil. Right and wrong themselves have changed places. What was once seen as unacceptable, even perverse, has become acceptable, even praised, while what was sacred has been trampled, and what should be most protected has been defiled.

Virgil yokes great social and moral evils with how we care for the land. Fields that are empty—or in any case empty of ’tillers’—are a sign of devastation. The honor we give the plow—the noble even if sometimes misused instrument of one who cares for and cultivates the earth—is taken as a gauge of our moral compass.

These are challenging, even confusing, connections. We are not used to thinking in these terms. Yet last week a letter from a religious leader in Rome made connections notably akin to Virgil’s. Are we able, are we willing to consider anew a line of thinking that is as ancient as it is urgent?

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics. In the Divine Comedy Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.

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Knowing the Place We Call Home

LarrsonCottage

“He who intends to practice economy aright ought to be fully acquainted with the places in which his labor lies…” Aristotle, Economics

Aristotle often provides us with simple, practical insights. In words redolent of the works of Wendell Berry he directs our attention to place. Place matters. Too often we try to live our life in abstraction from the places—the homes, the neighborhoods, the fields, the bodies of water, the woods, the mountains—in which and from which we live.

Human life is always in some place. It takes its character and sustenance from that place, and leaves its mark, for better or for worse, on that place. Aristotle directs those who practice ‘economy,’ or household management, to be especially cognizant of the places in which they labor, in which they make a home and make a living.

Wherever we live and work is our place, our home. We belong to it, and it belongs to us. A fitting summer resolution, in the spirit of Aristotle, is to invest ourselves in the place we call home, beginning by getting to know it better: its plants, animals, history, topography, soil types…

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The work cited, ‘Economics,’ is attributed to him, but might have been authored by his students.

Image: Carl Larsson

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Do We Need a Vacation?

ChildrenonBeach
In our overly frenetic lives, a time orchestrated for an intense being-together with those we love can be a real gift, even a necessity. I am on vacation this week, and I am deeply grateful to those who have made this extended-family vacation possible. It is a reminder, even a foretaste, of something for which we all yearn.

During this time I have found myself wondering about our need for vacation. It seems to me that the better ordered our life, the less our need for vacation. By vacation I don’t mean just any down-time, but rather a length of time where we travel to some destination for the sake of ‘getting away’ and relaxing. The normal routine of our lives ideally should include wholesome work, quality leisure time, and significant opportunity to be-together with, or live in communion with family and friends.

But since a number of socio-economic conditions can make such things especially difficult, we will need to be intentional about making them happen. Much more important than any vacation is making quality time happen in our homes and communities. No amount of vacation—or entertainment and distraction at home—can ever make up for the absence of either of the twin brothers: good work and good leisure. With others, at home.

That said, I come back to consider how blessed I am to be together now in an extra-ordinary way with my family. It is very good to be here.

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My Commencement Address at Seton

GraduationCapsOn Monday June 1 I was privileged to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2015 of Seton School in Manassas, Virginia. Here is that address.

“Remembering the Past and the Future, Today”

There are certain times in life when we step back, and we take stock. We have an opportunity, if we are willing, to take a closer look. To look anew, and perhaps see what we have not seen before, which is always a good thing. At these times we do not look so much at the present; rather we tend to look back or look ahead.

This is fitting, for to have a right vision of the present, it is essential to have a right vision of both the past and the future. I would like to focus my comments this evening on remembering: first of all what we should remember from the past, and then also a few things we can ‘remember’ about the future.

Remembering is simultaneously one of the most important and most difficult things for us to do. Why do we struggle so much to remember important things? Remembering requires something of us, and indeed at times it can require much. This is perhaps most evident by seeing the contrary: forgetfulness comes easily to us; too often we actually spend time seeking forgetfulness. When we try to drown our sorrows, we are seeking forgetfulness; how many of our sins are actually things we do in order to forget? Given how prone we are to forget, we should give special attention to days for remembering. Like today.

Memory is actually the human way of approximating God’s mode of existence. In other words through memory, we can be more like God. It allows us to have many things present, in a sense, all at once. God is eternal; to be precise He does not need to ‘remember,’ for all things are fully present to Him at once.

Think about life without memory. What if as I look at old friends in this very gathering, we did not remember each other? How could we be friends? The very thought is horrifying. Memory is at the center of relationship; it is at the center of people living in communion with one another; of sharing a life—which is what friendship is.

One of my favorite stories that my children listen to on tapes is called Winter Cherries (told by Odds Bodkin). Tears come to my eyes every time I hear it. The old warrior Cledges goes to see the great high king Uther Pendragon. In their youth, once in the heat of battle Cledges had saved the king’s life. But they have had no contact for many years. Cledge’s greatest fear is that the old king will have forgotten him. At the key moment, the king asks the name of his visitor; the old warrior says, “Sire, I am Cledges.” A faraway look comes over the king’s eyes, and then slowly, with great feeling he says: “Ohhh. Cledges! Cledges.”

Today Ladies and Gentlemen, and I speak especially to you graduates, is a day to step back. To remember. And in remembering to be grateful.

Let’s consider A few things you might want to remember today:
First of all: the people around you: the ones who have brought you to this day. For brought you they have. They are part of your story. Here today we need to recognize this. Today is a day to feel gratitude and to express gratitude, for being proud.

We can begin with Mrs. Carroll, and all your teachers. Year after year they give of their very substance—materially and spiritually, to help each of you become a certain kind of person. Their lives are spent to give you something precious, even when you haven’t wanted it. In strict justice, you cannot repay them. But one thing you can do: you can remember what they have given. Beginning today, it is a memory. It is yours to hold on to.

And then there’s a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a coach—someone who always had more confidence in you than you had in yourself. Because he or she saw you better than you saw yourself. May I make a suggestion: if that person is not in this room, call or write him or her. That is a good way to express your memory, and your gratitude.

And then of course, graduates, for most of you, there are people in this room who remember the day you were born as though it were yesterday. Maybe there was some trauma at the birth. Most importantly, there was you. They wonder where the years have gone. Their world was never the same after you were born; and it never will be. You are part of the very fabric of their identity. And they wouldn’t trade that, for anything in the world. When you leave their home, there will be a place that can never be filled by another. They know that; and you need to know that. Especially on great days, like today.

But there’s more. Sometimes in Scripture I think you can feel a tremor in God’s voice: “Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.” Each one of us needs to know this. And there may be some among us whose own human parents have in some sense forgotten them. There are certainly such around us in the world. To them I say: In God’s mysterious and loving Providence your parents’ forgetting can serve as a special reminder to you, and to the rest of us, of the central truth of our existence: It is His ‘memory’ of us that makes us who we are, that makes our life precious and worth living. It is His stable, loving gaze that holds us, secure. And no matter what we do, He never turns away.

Each of us should be a witness to this truth, by remembering it. And then living it.

Who or what else should we remember? For many of us there are people who are not here, who would have been. Already many of your young lives have been touched by the death of a loved one. Maybe others in this church have no idea, or will never know that loved one. But you know; and you remember. These are part of who you are. And you wouldn’t have it be any other way. You carry them with you. What a gift you have, in your memory.

We turn now to the future. Again, we look to the future, just as to the past, for the sake of living in the present, which is the only real moment that we ever have in which to live. One might reasonably think: looking to the future is even harder than remembering the past, since the future hasn’t happened yet, how can I know what is coming next?
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The most important things there are to know about the future the wise man can already know. Indeed, if we are attentive to the natural wisdom of our tradition, we too can know what is in our own future. And it is in this sense that I speak of remembering the future: remembering what we can already know about it. Today.

Here are just a few examples, which we can try to remember. Many in the world will judge your success in life by the wrong standards: by your job and by your salary, by the prestige of the college you attend, by where you live, by what you look like: how you dress and the car you drive. While in reality your success will actually be much simpler, and more profound: have you put spiritual goods first—such as integrity, moral character, wisdom, friendship? Ladies and Gentlemen, your happiness will be fundamentally tied to the quality and the depth of your friendships. Good friendships never happen by accident. Their quality will reflect the attention and cultivation you have given them. That is your future. Have no doubt about it.

There are some things that we know about the future only when the great virtues of faith and hope come into play. You have perhaps heard the cheer: I don’t know but I’ve been told. The position of faith is: I know because I’ve been told. Period.

Perhaps the central truth we need to remember is this: all our labors in life, including our efforts to grow in virtue and righteousness, have their importance and their fulfillment in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and his Father, and the Holy Spirit. Our Lord assures us of this: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Jn 14:23

Dear graduates, you live in an age of forgetfulness. Be a person who remembers. Let us pray together to the Holy Spirit for help. Our Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26). To be one who remembers is not to live in a fantasy world. Rather, one who remembers well truly lives in reality itself. So on this special day let us try to remember well together, in anticipation of one great day when memory will give way to vision, and we will share a joy that no one can take away from us.

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One Faithful Bee

“Some have affirmed that bees possess a share Of the divine mind and drink ethereal draughts; For God, they say, pervades the whole of creation.”             Virgil, The Georgics

I took this photo today of a particular bee that caught my attention.

This time of year I love to walk past my bee hive. It is the very picture of contented busyness. With orderly ease and purpose, legions of bees criss-cross each other coming and going from the entrance to the hive. It is as though the same fifty bees are ceaselessly descending and taking off. The activity on the outside is a mere intimation of the activity on the inside. One can feel the energy of the countless motions in and around the brood and the honey cells.

Today I noticed this lone bee. Standing at an opening on the outside corner of my (unacceptably) weather-worn box, her wings were beating a consistent pattern. Her body was motionless other than that steady beating. Cooling the hive. Once the temperature within the hive gets above a certain temperature on a hot day, certain worker bees–bidden by who knows what call–take up the job of cooling the hive by providing ever so slight a breeze. By their own labor.

It is perhaps no wonder that, as Virgil notes, some have thought that bees have a unique share in the divine mind. They pass their days in almost uninterrupted labor, each doing its own part, with seeming unconcern whether anyone notices. Today I noticed this little, faithful bee. I will try to remember her, and to drink of the ethereal draughts of which she has drunk.

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics. In the Divine Comedy Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.

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Time to Say Goodbye, Again

SailorsGoodbyeAt this time last year I wrote a piece on why when it is time to say goodbye, it is important that it be done well.

This last weekend was graduation at the college where I teach. It was time to say goodbye after four years to over one hundred young men and women, having grown very close to a number of them, and shared much with all of them. And now I go to my office to commence a professor’s summer work, starting with grading the final exams of students who have gone their own ways. Their absence is palpable; indeed it is downright jarring.

But life goes on, right? We raise our children, and even they move on. Our parents raise us, and in time, they move on. I’ve had the pleasure of making remarkable friendships through the years. How many of them too—including myself, have moved on, in one way or another.

Dear God; one day I will have to say goodbye to my wife.

A soul seeks that which is solid, enduring. Memory is key. It is a kind of presence of what is no more. But even the presence effected by memory can only really have solidity if memory of the past is leavened by some hope for the future.

As years go by I feel that my soul is a kind of space to hold onto things—to events, to shared toils, and especially to faces. I love faces; I really don’t want to lose any. Perhaps sometimes I’ll wonder just why I’m clinging to them. I resolve to remind myself that it’s not because I don’t have hope, but rather because I do. And what I’ve held onto will be a basis for recognizing, and rejoicing; again. Some day.

Image: Philip Sadee (1837-1904)

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