22 June 2012


I'm going to be leading a summer seminar on Thomistic virtue ethics, so I'll be doing a lot of posting at the blog I've created for that purpose.  Hence, less posting here for the next two months.  However, the content will be similar, although more thematically organized than my usual posts.  Please check it out and comment with questions/suggestions as seems fit.

20 June 2012

Wish for a Young Wife

This poem popped into my head earlier.  It's an old one from my high school days browsing through the Norton Anthology.  Not sure what it means, but it has a nice rhythm to it.

My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never wither,
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy's mean gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze,
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone,
When I am no one.

—Theodore Roethke

09 June 2012

Prologue (Section 2)

So, cleaving in distracted mind to prayer
though then attending more to what I thought
was fitting for a young man of my state
than to our Lord himself or my great need
I knelt in wait for him to stand and leave
And when he did at length arise to go
Right after him I went and chased him down
And caught him almost by his scapular
Along the passage as he took his stroll.
"Father, hello!" I called him as he went,
And turning he addressed my anxious face
with gaze serene, awash with holy calm
"Good day, my brother, whither do you run
and why?  If you were free I'd beg your help
in teasing out some subtleties of thought
your youthful mind might crack more easily
than my poor old one can."  I paused agape
"But truly, father, I was running here
to catch you at your walk so I might ask
If you instead would help a shamefaced son
maneuver the next bend in life's long path
and give my light by which to tend toward light
who constantly veer off into the brush
and find myself so awfully turned about
that road and forest merge within my mind
to cloud my steps with fear of further faults
which lie unseen like roots before my feet
and threaten injury and speedy death
in solitude and darkness 'midst the world."
"Tut tut, my son, a man is never lost
who has his savior buried in his heart
whose steps indeed are guarded by the saints
who's girded by the angels of the Lord.
And though he walk in forests still unseen
or find himself through fault worn down or tripped
half buried by a boulder's weight of vice
still he who shuts his eyes to fear and waits
with patient expectation soon will find
that better eyes are there to lead him on
and surerer feet will find for him a path
more perfect and indeed more quickly bound
to happiness than any human eyes
could see.  And if he humbly should allow
another to receive from him the weight
of vice, the downcast stance of sin
he'll find them gone, received by steady hands
so open to take up the wretch's load
that they are anchored thus by splint and steel.

08 June 2012

Prologue (Section 1)

An afternoon one winter's day in choir
I chanced to see across the chapel nave
My magister, the agéd, lettered man
Who had before I was a bachelor
Instructed me in all the fundaments
Of moral science.  I was still a boy
Despite the growing number of my years
Still mired in all the ignorance of vice
Bound both by inward blindness of the mind
— Although I gladly used my student's right
as bachelor approved, examined, lettered,
To preach and teach at any pair of ears
Unwise enough to stand a staring fool's
Long venal winding pompous perorations,
And in this fact I served to demonstrate
The miracle of the academy
that those who learn and seem to understand
may truly share but in a shadowed sight
of the high subtleties and holy forms
which they can truthfully proclaim and teach. —
Dragged down through folly's weighty anxious woe
at many proffered unattainéd goods,
I was in spirit still a son of sloth.
The title of my soul meanwhile had changed
between two owners' hands a decade since
but still in pride and foolishness and fear
I languished then a lettered neophyte
Convinced that more degrees of scholarship
Would earn nobility of heart, and slow
to rise at last (while prostrating myself)
by the sweet condescension of the Lord
to that unmerited reward of grace.
Despite my pride I knew myself a fool
and oft bemoaned the chains of selfish sin
whose chafing links I hatefully bore.
And so espying on that winter's day
In quiet choir about the fasters' feast
My old instructor clothed in honesty
The King made known to me by voice unheard
this was the day whereon I was to rise
and moved me in my heart to condescend
(or so it seemed in my self-certainty)
to seek the counsel of my aged friend
and thus at last to climb the tree of life
by the firm foothold of humility.

On Heroes

When I saw Snow White and the Huntsman last week, I was filled with a desire to write a story that manages without being cheesy to convey something of the problems of moral development to a modern audience.  In my opinion, Snow White comes close to being a Christian epic.  It has all the structures set in place, with a midsection expandable to no end, and a variety of interesting plot complications.  It establishes the value of virtue and purity in the main characters, who are nonetheless dynamic (as real virtue demands).  Snow White prays in prison, demonstrates filial piety, is compassionate, patient, moderate, etc.  Her one lapse from purity immediately brings about her near demise.  In fact, if we changed the coronation speech and had a bishop crown her, and rewrote her monologue before the battle, I think the film would be undeniably Christian all the way through.

The first time I saw the movie I jotted down a couple of notes on my hand: "I will invent a man composed of all the virtues."  "The pursuit of justice for the sake of something greater."  So, when I went to see it a second time, I brought a legal pad and took more notes, trying to see more precisely what elements would be needed by a story to represent a virtuous hero properly.  This was the crux: that virtuous heroes, i.e., real heroes, are more or less absent from mainstream cinema.  When we have a moral hero, he is generally just a well-meaning person who, despite certain acts of excellence (empathy or courage, usually) shares in most of the vices of the rest of us (impatience, ignorance, impurity, intemperance, pride, etc.), and the visibility of these vices protects us from seeing any of the heroes as a model for action.  The object of the will is the good understood, and so anything with manifest faults is going to be less compelling an object of admiration than one without those faults.  To put it briefly, the heroes we're provided with don't function as moral models, but as protagonists in struggle laden with faults.  The latter certainly make for good drama, but the former have some significant advantages.  They are more readily the objects of moral instruction, where their counterparts are seen as the stuff of entertainment alone.  They are necessarily in contest with their surroundings, where the latter need an antagonist appropriate to their virtues in order to create a struggle.  Spiderman fights Mysterio interestingly, but he would not fight alcoholism or avarice very interestingly.  The multidimensionality of a genuinely virtuous hero also makes him/her more human.  One has to wonder after a while whether certain characters are really even plausible, despite their entertainment value.  Action sequences and high emotions easily conceal the obvious psychological absurdities of film characters.

So the result is this: I have realized that there are not enough (or perhaps any) truly virtuous heroes displayed as such in mass culture, that such characters make for richer drama that is more useful for instruction and truer to the reality of human life.  So I would like to generate one.  My inspiration is this passage from the Apophthegmata Patrum:

John The Short said, “I will invent a man composed of all the virtues. He would rise at dawn every morning, take up the beginning of each virtue, and keep God’s commandments. He would live in great patience, in fear, in long-suffering, in the love of God; with firm purpose of soul and body; in deep humility, in patience, in trouble of heart and earnestness of practice. He would pray often, with sorrow of heart, keeping his speech pure, his eyes controlled. He would suffer injury without anger, remaining peaceful, and not rendering evil for evil, not looking out for the faults of others, not puffing himself up, meekly subject to every creature, renouncing material property and everything of the flesh. He would live as though crucified, in struggle, in lowliness of spirit, in good will and spiritual abstinence, in fasting, in penitence, in weeping. He would fight against evil, be wise and discreet in judgement and chaste in mind. He would receive good treatment with tranquility, working with his own hands, watching at night, enduring hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness and labour. He would live as though buried in a tomb and already dead, everyday feeling death to be near him.”