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Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Beannachtai ne Feile Aindreas".......

is a dual-saints post for St. Andrew's Day, featuring the stories of both St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland, as well as a few Scottish tales from days of yore. Check it out:

St. Andrew's Cross

Thursday, November 28, 2013


for most people here in the USA, is something of a precursor of Christmas, a day when family and friends often get together across a table laden with various delicacies once claimed to be eaten by Pilgrims and Indians, yell at a TV screen showing colossal characters ramming into each other over an oval shaped ball, and, hopefully, take time to be thankful for their blessings and help those in need of assistance, as we all do from time to time in life. For me personally, it is usually a quiet day spent cooking with my parents, and we’ve cooked up a storm in the past – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, salt n’ pepper mashed potatoes, candied yams, cooked carrots, corn, string beans, pumpkin pie with cool whip, eggnog. You get the picture. Lots of leftovers. After finishing cooking, we usually watch classic films and spend time in prayer, thanking God for the bounty.

    The concept of having an official holiday set aside to giving thanks to God for things may sound quaint at best and superstitious at worst to some readers leaning more towards atheism or agnosticism. Obviously, we don’t all see the overt actions of a Supreme Being moving things around in our lives, nor can we even detect an overt action directing the gradual ebb and flow of nature. But therein lies the paradox of it all. It is not in the loud crash of thunder, per se, but in the whispering wind that God’s voice is heard. In other words, as Christians, we accept that the workings of God can be either subtle or astounding, but that all things are under His control and the end results are part of His plan. God is the “Prime Mover”, setting the chain reaction of natural and human history into motion, giving each of us the ability to choose right and wrong, and, in the end, working all things to good for those who love and serve Him.

    The adjoining concepts of hope and providence are brought to the fore in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epics. He himself called them “fundamentally religious works”, and beneath to surface, it is not difficult to see why. In these stories of Middle Earth, a force is constantly playing a part in the lives of the characters, working through their virtues and vices to bring about the unexpected conclusion of each plot. Darkness seems impenetrable at times, but the characters cling to hope – not futility, but the theological virtue of hope – with a keen awareness that this world is only a testing ground to prepare for a higher plain. Tolkien rebuked hopeless cynicism in a world of haughty cynics, and that is what has made his writings so timeless. He believed that human beings were more than electric meat or a conglomeration of scientific microcosms.

    Enter the Pilgrims, the ultimate religious and cultural “bridge” between Old England and Young America. Many times, historians have brought up the query just why the arrival of the Scrooby Separatists at the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts should elicit such a general hub-bub. After all, the Jamestown colonists were the first ones to plant the Union Jack on American soil, the Spanish and the French certainly beat them to the punch by many centuries, and the Pilgrims were only one among many groups seeking religious toleration for themselves in America. Admittedly, I am rather put out that the Catholic English refugees who fled to Lord Baltimore’s fair and pleasant colony don’t get better promo!

    But the reason the Jamestown adventurers failed to capture our imagination was because their primary goal for being there was to “get rich quick”, plain and simple. The French and Spanish were just a little too different from our own Anglicized culture to feel completely “part of us.” And the fact still remains that the Pilgrims we all know and love were the first major group of ordinary Englishmen and Englishwomen to make the miserable Atlantic crossing to the New World for religious reasons. And in the end, in spite of all the technicalities and nay-saying, they really deserve to be remembered, both in their native land and their adopted home. I have vowed to myself that should the winding road of life ever lead me to settle in Britain, marry a Brit, and have a bunch of little British children, I will insist upon them all celebrating Thanksgiving. Or no cooking from me. Ever.

     The Pilgrims were a fascinating bunch. While they certainly were very prayerful and not much into having shin-digs on holy days, when they set their mind to partying, records reveal they really “set the house on fire” – sometimes literally! Also, they didn’t perpetually tromp around clad in black funeral garb. More interesting records reveal that some of them were quite “decked out” in seriously crazy colors and fashions that conjure up images of the ‘60’s as opposed to the 1600s! Unlike the Quakers, they weren’t shy about fighting and sometimes teamed up with one Indian tribe against another for their own benefit. There actions were not always as clean as the driven snow, but their obvious dedication to their beliefs in spite of persecution and courage in the face of the unknown cannot help but be a testimony to the endurance of the human spirit.

    Not only did they establish a successful colony on the edge of nowhere, but they also brought “The Mayflower Compact” into being, serving as a landmark of democratic development, which acknowledged the power of God, the power of the king, and the power of the people. Their emphasis on the written word, entrenched in them not least because of their devotion to the Bible, made this possible. The Pilgrims journey to the New World truly lent life to the allegory Pilgrim’s Progress by the Puritan author, John Bunyan, who was imprisoned in England for his nonconformity. I think the following hymn by Bunyan sums up his spirit, along with that of Tolkien, the Pilgrims, and Thanksgiving itself, best:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

print of Mike Haywood's painting of the Pilgrim Fathers' first landing 13 Nov 1620
"To be a Pilgrim......"

Friday, November 22, 2013

The 50th Anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis......

author of countless works including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity, was remembered yesterday, November 22. This struck a special chord with me now, since I have been developing a deeper connection with and appreciation for his works, as well as the works of his fellow British authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and Brian Jacques. As I’ve mentioned in the past, when I was in grade school, I was forced to read two of the Narnia books in order to participate in a book review class, and I balked all the way. I never have been much of a fantasy person, and I found the story just plain silly. Hence, after I was finished with the cursory reading (and enduring the sock-puppet-special BBC production of the Chronicles!), I promptly dumped and refused to watched the newly released film epic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

    At the time, many of my friends and acquaintances were aghast that I refused to watch the new phenomenon, much less their old favorite The Lord of the Rings, and some even threatened, with all the best intentions, to tie me to a chair if I wouldn’t comply! But I held my in my refusal to submit to their promptings. It was not until two years ago that I finally decided to watch the first Narnia film, for my own sense of well-roundedness. And believe it or not, it was that film, and its terrific music score, that helped me come to realize the heart and soul of Lewis, the man who found Christ and sought to lead others to him through the means of good old-fashioned story telling.

    It seems that many Ringers tend to enjoy extolling Middle Earth at Narnia’s expense. “Well, it’s not Lord of the Rings”, is a common enough refrain whenever someone brings up something about Lewis’s brain-child. Not just Lewis, mind you, but also Jacques and his colorful and courageous world of Redwall and Mossflower Wood. But after a while, this sort of attitude comes off as nothing less than snobbish and annoying. The simple fact is that Narnia and Redwall were never meant to be adult fantasies, and cannot be expected to display the same characteristics. Thank heavens they don’t! Personally, I feel that one high-flying, big-budget adult fantasy is enough for a lifetime. I want to relax and have some fun occasionally.

    Let’s face it, Tolkien was a one-of-a-kind character who virtually dedicated his entire life to creating another world, with all the complexity of our own. But few can be honestly expected to try and repeat that. He turned out a masterpiece, certainly, but there are many masterpieces with different styles, dimensions, and intents. They compliment one other, and form the tapestry that makes up a worthwhile anthology of stories that matter. Some would say that LotR has more “depth” than Narnia. I’m not so sure about that. After all, since Narnia is a direct allegory for the Story of Salvation, it is armed to the teeth with powerful meaning. Of course, like Redwall, it is meant for a younger audience. But the truths taught are ageless. Furthermore, sometimes being more direct “hits home” with keener precision than trying to bury the meaning so deeply it takes an archaeologist to unearth it!

    What I have come to appreciate in all three authors, Lewis, Tolkien, and Jacques, is their penetrating understanding of the eternal battle of good and evil. The three of them had experiences in the World Wars of the 20th century, and the scars they had received never to have been far from mind. Their stories are hinged on the dual elements of paradox and grace. Refugee children, country hobbits, and peaceful monks, must rise above their simple backgrounds and battle against the powers of hell. They, it is emphasized, are the only ones who are capable of doing so. Providence is with them to raise them up; it has been foretold that special grace will be given to them. It all comes back to the baby laid in a manger, and the carpenter nailed to a cross. Even in the blackest moments, there is the hope and belief that all things will yet be worked to good.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is the music paired with film adaptations that has especially brought figures like Lewis and Tolkien to life for me. In the track “Evacuating London” from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I feel so strongly the workings of Lewis’s mind. There is pathos as the war separates a British family, just the sort of thing he probably encountered many times in the war years. Yet the music holds an undercurrent of a deeper meaning to suffering, the battle, the adventure that we must all embark on. There is Aslan just behind the door of an old wardrobe, if only we seek Him out. Also, in the score The Battle, when Peter Pevensie prepares to lead the armies of the Lion against the White Witch, the curtain of allegory seems to tear away, and the story of Easter comes blasting to the fore. There are times when the choral voices, although mostly inarticulate, seem to say “Jesu Christos”, and my mind’s eye sees Lewis gazing at me from across the years, saying “And that, my dear, is what it’s all about.” I don’t know anything with more depth than that.

 God Speed, Mr. Lewis

Monday, November 18, 2013

What is Unionism?

    When I first became interested in the topic of Unionism back in 2011, I found it hard to pin down the exact dimensions of the movement. Were they all Protestants in bowler hats based in the troubled north of Ireland? Was there some central headquarters for them, or did they muster in underground tunnels? Did they have direct contact information, or did they and communicated with each other using invisible ink? It took a while to answer these questions, but when I finally did get in touch with Unionist blogger, Paul Watterson, the picture became just a little clearer and my journey of exploration into this fundamentally British movement took off, full speed ahead.          
    Broadly speaking, Unionism is a belief in the unification of any variety of individuals, entities, or ideas. With regards to British politics, it is a belief that the nations of the British Isles would be better off unified under a single government and embracing a common national identity. Unionists believe that the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) should remain interdependent as a single working unit. Currently, the greatest threat to this unity is the Scottish Independence Movement, which will culminate in a deciding referendum in the autumn of 2014. Naturally, that is the main battlefront and key focus of those on both the pro- and anti-union sides of the debate.

    Even my relatively short time working with the adherents of Unionism has proven to me that they make up a colorful bag, full of diversity and sometimes pure and simple disagreement. Some are committed liberals, while others are strong conservatives. Some believe strongly in the benefits devolution, while others think it is unnecessary at best and harmful at worst. Some, like the members of the Orange Order, are stridently Protestant, while others are devoutly Catholic. Some are outspoken activists for the Union, while others remain unassuming observers who utilize their clout at the ballot box. They come from every section of the UK and from every background.

    The thing that makes Unionism difficult to grasp easily is the fact that it is something of a volunteer movement which, like the British monarchy, stands apart from party politics. Unlike the monarchy, it is still highly involved in the often grubby political ground game, facing obstacles from the rantings of fanatical nationalist opponents to the reluctance of sideline sympathizers to join forces and enter the arena. While national unity is espoused as a matter of course by the monarchy and the mainstream political parties, the fight to uphold it is, in the end, a very organic operation. It is also loosely organized, bringing into play both pros and cons for the Unionist cause, especially for online activists.

    The purpose of the site "Union Jack Chat" is to serve as biographical guide to Unionism, using interviews to create a full-blooded portrayal of the movement for the benefit of the public at large. My hope is that, through this condensed survey, more people will become interested in an extremely fascinating and admirable facet of British political and cultural history and perhaps even get involved with it themselves. Whatever the outcome of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum or any political battle to come, the British people who are willing to devote so much  time and effort to preserve the unity of their country deserve to be remembered, and with honour. As an American supporter, I will always be proud to have had the opportunity to take part in their cause.

(An variation of this introduction to "Union Jack  Chat" appeared as an advertisement on "Open Unionism":

London Union Jack

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Saints and Sinners......

are far from occupying opposite ends of the moral spectrum. As a matter of fact, the greatest saints saw themselves as the greatest sinners, and that paradoxically made them the greatest saints. It seems as if the closer they got to God, the more they could see their own multitudinous imperfections, just as we are able to see floating particles of dust within the light of a sunbeam.

    And the saints did have had many flaws, sometimes based on the time periods in which they lived, and sometimes more specifically on personality traits. St. Francis could be unrealistic in his idealism of running an order without the proper funds. St. Thomas More sometimes used his biting wit to wound and could be harsh towards those with whom he disagreed. St. Kateri inflicted extreme penances on herself, to the point of destroying her health. St. John Vianney came out against almost any form of dancing and denounced the apparitions of Our Lady of La Salette which were later approved by the Church. St. Padre Pio and St. Maximilian were known for being cranky and generally difficult to deal with.

    Some of these failings they resolved in their lifetimes, while some others they probably took with them to their graves. But their belief in God’s mercy and grace enabled them to pick themselves up after falling and continue to trek the Pilgrim’s Path, doing great good for those they crossed paths with along the way. St. Francis founded one of the most beloved religious orders in Christendom, grounded in simplicity and doing good deeds that continues strong to this day.

     St. Thomas More had the strength to stand up against tyranny at the cost of his life. St. Kateri braved innumerable hardships in her Mohawk village because of her conversion to Christianity and stands as the patroness of Native America. St. John Vianney was tireless in his pastoral duties, and touched all those he met with his spiritual insight and humility. St. Padre Pio had a deep mystical relationship with God, suffering the wounds of Christ in His body, and becoming the spiritual father of thousands. St. Maximilian Kolbe founded the Immaculata and gave his life in exchange for another prisoner at the Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. 

    In essence, they were both human and extraordinary, making them perfect heavenly friends to refer back to and draw inspiration from in our daily lives. They realized that even if they conquered all their vices and became flawless before God and man, they would still be subject to falling prey to the greatest sin of all: Pride. St. Thomas More said that the one sin worse than lust is pride, because the former is obvious and animalistic, while the other is subtle and all too human.

    Eve, brought into being free from the stain of Original Sin, took the apple after being assured by the snake that she would be like a goddess. The Blessed Virgin Mary, also conceived free from the stain of original, undid this fateful pattern by submitting herself with total humility as “the handmaid of the Lord”. That is why we see her as “Queen of Saints”; she was conceived free from sin, honored with bearing Christ in her womb, and yet did not succumb to thinking of herself as anything more than a servant of God.

    Speaking of pride and humility, there is one other saint that comes to mind in particular. St. Edmund Campion was a brilliant man, seasoned in rhetoric and eager for debate. After living a life daring for danger for his conversion to Catholicism and missionary ventures into England as a Catholic priest, he wanted nothing more than to meet his opponents on their own terms and hash out the truth once and for all. He challenged the Queen’s Councilors to this mental duel in his pamphlet now famously known as “Campion’s Brag”, insisting that a well-informed Catholic would be able to counter any and all heresies if given the fair opportunity to do so. If anyone was fit to do so, it was Campion, whose wit was legendary in secular as well as religious circles. He had even won the favor of Queen Elizabeth I and her favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in his college days.

    But Campion never got his fair chance. Instead of being allowed an honest debate with the Protestant hierarchy of the land, he received a mock trial before a kangaroo court after he had been tortured mercilessly in the Tower of London. Half-paralyzed and blurry-eyed for him imprisoned, he was offered his “chance” to lay out his case for Catholicism. For sympathetic people, the scene would have been painful to watch. But he listeners merely jeered when Campion made a slip of the tongue in Greek and struggled to remember rhetoric when given no time for preparation. Considering the circumstances, he did a fair job holding his own, but his efforts cost him his life. There would be no justice; he was framed for treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered.

    I wonder if perhaps it was meant to be that he should never get his chance to prove his brag. He had a scintillating brain, and it is always hard for highly intelligent people to keep their pride in check. Perhaps the fair debate he craved would have pushed him over the edge. Instead, he received a heavy dose of humiliation and perhaps that, more than almost anything, is the thing that secured him his sainthood. Being in the position of Christ before the Sanhedrin must have been like an interior martyrdom for him before he ever mounted the scaffold.

    Saints are those who have gone before us. They are the veterans who have charged the field, taking the enemy batteries, and cheer us on to follow. We can aspire to live out their virtues and avoid their vices, and work hard to live up to our Christian identity. It is a hard, uphill battle. As St. Therese of Liseux said, “I want to be a saint, but I feel so helpless.” It is a matter of giving all we have to purge of our inner selves, working out our salvation day by day with fear and trembling, and trusting in God’s mercy to get us through to the end.

    This is the true meaning of the great liturgical feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1, and also the reason why some of us will enjoy the fun of dressing up as saints the night before on October 31, All Hallow’s Eve. The day after celebrating those who made it to heaven, we remember to pray for the souls being cleansed of their imperfections in Purgatory on All Souls’ Day, November 2. And so this month, let us remember the interlocking aspects of the Church Militant (here on earth), the Church Suffering (in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (in Heaven).

All Ye Holy Angels and Saints, Pray for Us!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"The Scarborough Man"......

is my take on the two folk songs, "Scarborough Fair" and "I'm 18 Years Old Today". The first is the well-known list of impossible tasks a man lays out for his lover to complete. The second is about a young woman whining about her single state, even though her reasons for wanting to get married are pretty base, focused primarily on the physical! I've decided to the give the whole concept of love and marriage a boost into the higher sphere, with my efforts at a poem below.

The Scarborough Man

Find me a man, oh mother, my dear,
To be my heart’s delight
Find him today at Scarborough Fair
And I’d marry him tonight

He must have warmth enough to smile
Yet bear himself with grace
He must be kind without false guile
And wear an honest face

He must take pains to tend the rose
Though never pluck it out,
Find beauty in the words of prose
But hesitate to shout

Find me a man who can compliment
But never stoop low and lie
Find me a man who can implement
The gifts in his supply

He must have red blood in his veins
To answer the call to arms
He must have strength to hold the reins
And rally the troops in alarm

From prince to pauper, he must speak
Without affected airs,
And yet with words so swift and sleek,
Their might is brought to bear

He must not sink in haughtiness,
Nor feigned humility,
But view himself with keen balance
And strictest honesty

For gentlemen are gentlemen
With known or unknown names;
Their actions earn them men’s esteem
And put the world to shame

Whether lying in a feather bed
Or sleeping on the floor,
A gentleman holds high his head
And none can change the score

If he cannot be all these things,
Let effort be his aim
To coast the storm on tattered wings
To fail, but try again

Then let our hands be intertwined
To grow as vines together
Blind leading lame, lame leading blind
Held fast through any weather

Find me a man, oh mother, my dear,
To be my heart’s delight
Find him today at Scarborough Fair
And I’d marry him tonight

Scarborough Castle