Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

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Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.

Fact-checking, and another “Who Said That?”

One of my previous job titles is “fact-checker.” Yes, I checked facts. Instead of doing my own writing, I read what other people had written, checked their sources, consulted other sources, corrected wrong information, and made sure the company would publish something that was accurate and reliable. The writers were paid five cents a word. I was paid an hourly rate. I probably earned more checking facts than the writers earned for their work.

When I was in college, one of the assigned texts that every student read was a small book, How To Lie With Statistics. I checked amazon this morning and saw that the book is still available. Its only fault is that the examples all date from the 1950s. Aside from that, the book is wonderfully readable and extremely helpful. The title is, of course, a joke. The book does not teach the reader how to lie with statistics; it shows how other people lie with statistics and teaches the reader how to evaluate the data that others use to prove their points.

For example: on another blog last week a commenter asserted that 91 percent of scientists are atheists and 97 of biologists are atheists. I refrained from commenting (not wanting to enter the conversation), but I had many significant questions to ask. Who conducted the survey? How did they choose their respondents? How did they define atheism? The numbers quoted are so incredible (meaning unbelievable) that the survey is almost certainly skewed.

Perhaps they surveyed science professors in secular European colleges and universities. Perhaps the survey was conducted through a periodical whose readers are mostly secular scientists. Perhaps the survey was mailed in a package that Christians and Jews and Muslims would be likely to disregard. For that matter, perhaps the survey was designed to lump agnostics and deists into the category of atheists. If they intended from the start to demonstrate that most scientists do not believe in God, they had several ways to achieve that goal, and more than likely they used all of them.

A fact-checker like me easily becomes a curmudgeon (and when I place a post in the category “curmudgeon,” you can be sure I am not taking myself very seriously). Inaccurate information rankles me. A few years ago I was part of a trivia contest conducted as a fundraiser for a Christian camp. One of the first questions was, “Who wrote the poem that begins, ‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree’?” The correct answer is Joyce Kilmer, but the judges of the contest insisted that the author was James Joyce. I shrugged off the mistake and continued in the competition that evening, but I have not returned to the annual event since that year. (This paragraph actually belongs in Saturday’s post, but it slipped my mind then as I was writing.)

Some of my crabbiness probably stems from being done with winter and ready for spring. Some comes from stress helping my daughter deal with a broken phone, a broken car, difficulty at her workplace, and the last semester of college. Some stems from hope and uncertainty about my own future. I appreciate the patience and support of all of you. J.

 

Who said that?

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

At least I think Lincoln said it… I saw it on the Internet.

In a world of fake news and other misinformation, historical facts and quotes are as unreliable as any other information. Type the name of any famous person into Google, and among the results will be a page of quotes. But on most of those pages, the quotes will be listed without any source, and in some cases the creator of the site was misinformed. As a result, if you type a famous line into Google, you may see it attributed to any number of people. Google does not know everything—it links your search to other people’s assertions, and some of those assertions are wrong.

Often a profound or clever line from an obscure person is credited to a more famous person. In his book Funny People, Steve Allen provides a list of quips that he suggests were said by Groucho Marx. He then reveals that he, Steve Allen, was responsible for every one of them. He admits, though, that they sound funnier coming from Groucho. Many statements about liberty and the danger of government oppression have been attributed to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers of the United States. In more than a few cases, the lines were written and attributed to them long after they had died.

Ancient figures, including Socrates and Cicero, are sometimes quoted as deploring the state of their times, with young people failing to respect their elders, social morals on the decline, and a general lack of trustworthiness among the population. The point of the citation is to show that these problems have always been around, but, alas, the quote is a recent invention and was never said by Socrates, Cicero, or any other ancient sage.

I’ve approached people quoting Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious people of note, asking them in which document they found their quote. They admitted that they didn’t know where it was written, but they thought so-and-so had written it. In the case of Kierkegaard, the speaker told an audience that Kierkegaard had described Christian worship as a performance in which we are the actors and God is the spectator. When I spoke privately with the speaker, he admitted that he didn’t know where Kierkegaard had written that line, and I suggested that the speaker was probably misinformed. Years later I came across something similar in one of Kierkegaard’s works, with an important difference: Kierkegaard was discussing, not Christian worship, but Christian good deeds, which is an entirely different matter altogether.

(“Which is an entirely different matter.”)

Quoting out of context is as bad as inventing or misattributing a quote. Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often refer to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” They speak to the last three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in the woods and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Such speeches suggest that Frost encourages us to be unique individuals, to dare to be different, to refuse to follow the crowd, and so on. Frost recommends no such thing in this poem. Given the title, the poem could easily be read as an expression of regret and not a suggestion that we all should take the road less traveled.

Read carefully the following paragraph taken from a book written a little more than one hundred years ago. The book is called The Life of Reason, and the paragraph is found on pages 82 and 83; the entire book is nearly 500 pages long. The paragraph is part of a chapter called “Flux and Constancy in Human Nature,” the last of ten chapters in the section of the book entitled, “Reason in Common Sense.” Here is the paragraph:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”

I cite this paragraph, not to agree with it—I particularly dislike the disparaging remarks about savages and barbarians—but to see if the third sentence jumped out at you as something familiar. Poor George Santayana, who is remembered for only one sentence (which yesterday I saw attributed to Edmund Burke—that started me down this road). Some years ago I heard the same sentence quoted by three different speakers at the dedication of a library building, and I doubt any of those speakers could have said who Santayana was, when and where he lived, and what he meant by that sentence. It fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker; hardly anyone would care to advertise the sentiment that most people are either too young or too old to learn.

Or, as Julius Caesar once said, “There’s hardly any point in speaking, when people are going to remember it wrong as soon as tomorrow dawns.” J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

(Reposted from February 2, 2016)

Book report

I recently finished reading a science fiction novel; portions of it contained black comedy of a sort. In the plot, the United States has just emerged from a horrible and destructive war. The survivors of the war decide to find a new use for the technology that was developed to fight the war. After brief consideration, they decide to use this new technology to explore outer space.

Of course, if this novel had been written any time after 1960, the plot would be a retelling of current events. Rocket technology was developed by the Germans during World War II to bombard the United Kingdom. At the end of the war, Soviet forces and American forces both sought to capture the German scientists who had developed those rockets. At first the technology was improved only to prepare for another war, as the Cold War was intensifying. By the 1960s, though, both sides were seeing nonmilitary advantages to their respective space programs. In particular, the United States chose the challenge of bringing a man to the moon and returning him to the earth, aiming to achieve that goal before the 1960s ended. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins made that historic journey, lifting off in their rocket from the Florida coast and traveling all the way to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin both walked on the moon, conducted scientific experiments, and commemorated their achievement. They even spoke with President Nixon, who joked about the longest long-distance phone call in history.

The novel I read, From the Earth to the Moon, was written and published by Jules Verne in 1865. The war in question was the Civil War, and the technology he described was an enormous and powerful cannon. The Baltimore Gun Club resolves to fire a giant cannon ball at the moon. As plans are made for the cannon and cannonball, a French poet volunteers to be a passenger inside the missile. In the end, three men encase themselves in the cannonball, which is gently lowered into a specially built cannon, located on the Florida coast, and the three of them are shot to the moon.

Jules Verse was one of science fiction’s earliest authors. He liked to write travel novels. (His best is Around the World in Eighty Days.) When considering voyages that had never been attempted, such as one to the moon, he carefully considered just how it could be done, down to the smallest details. He had no conception of liquid-fueled rockets like those that would be used by Soviet and American explorers. Verne’s giant cannon and cannonball would not have worked. In many other aspects of his story, though, Verne captured a historic event and described it well… one hundred years before it took place. J.

Close My Eyes

I wrote yesterday that I’ve only addressed one Cathy by name in a song. I chose my words carefully. A person bearing one of the names in the first sentence of yesterday’s post has been the subject of a song I wrote, but the song does not include her name.

We were co-workers for a while—more than four years—but more days have passed since I last saw her than took place while we worked together. Both of us moved from desk to desk in the company for various reasons, but there was a long stretch of time when our desks were close enough for us to talk with each other (and for me to overhear her conversations with other people). Suffice it to say that she was (probably still is) a nice person, a thoroughly competent and efficient worker, a ray of sunlight in the workday. I was stunned when she announced to the company that she had taken a job with another employer. After she left, I missed her even more than I had expected. From that experience, though, I did come to write a song. It has a bouncy tune, reminiscent of Boyce and Hart. Without any further ado, here it is:

 

Late at night I’m lyin’ in bed/                                      And I close my eyes

Pictures of you crash through my head/                 And my heart cries; my heart cries

I can’t believe you left me here/                                Each day or night I dream of you, dear

And since you’ve gone, I only bring you near/      When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m sitting outside on the ground/                            And I close my eyes

And thoughts of you crash all around/                     And my heart cries; my heart cries

The birds can flutter, chirp, and sing/                      And joyfully announce the spring

But thoughts of you block everything/                    When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

You didn’t have to leave, you know/                        My love for you would only grow

And ever since you went away/                                 I fight to make it through the day

And night or day I always seem/                                 To picture you as in a dream

I reach for you and my soul tries/                              To draw you near when I close my                                                                                                       eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m driving down the road, you see/                        And I close my eyes

I crash my car into a tree/                                          And sirens cry; I hear sirens cry

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Please close my eyes

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Close my eyes

 

J.

 

Cathy: the musical

I’ve known many Cathys over the years—Catherine, Katherine, Kathryn, and Kathleen, among others—but I’ve only addressed one of them by name in a song. Oddly, she’s probably the Cathy I’ve known the least well.

I was a graduate student, and I had taken an evening job as a security guard at a local business. My assigned duty was to sit in a guard shack at the entrance to a parking lot, checking vehicles in and out. How I spent my time in that shack when no vehicle needed my attention was up to me. I did most of my schoolwork in that shack: reading and research, writing rough drafts of papers I would then type back on campus, even some writing of fiction. The day I accepted the job, I signed a paper saying that anything I produced on company time belonged to the company. Fortunately, they never asked for copies of my school papers or my short stories. They remain in my private collection to this day.

Even though the job was not stressful, the company was required to give me a break every evening. I spent my break in the main building, often buying a snack at the company canteen. I spent time visiting other workers also taking a break at the canteen. One of them was a young petite blonde named Cathy. I only met her three or four times. I don’t know her last name, her position with the company, or anything else about her. All I learned from her was that she had an abusive boyfriend who didn’t deserve her love or her attention. She’d given him one last chance more than once, and she knew he shouldn’t get any more chances. Yet, for some reason she couldn’t identify, she was still with him.

Back on campus, I wrote a song about her situation. I wrote it from her boyfriend’s point of view. From what she had said, I believed that he was a jerk and a loser, yet somehow I was able to put myself in his shoes. Somehow, that song has become a signature song in my repertoire. When I entertain myself in the evenings by strumming my guitar and caterwauling, “Cathy” is usually my closing number. It requires a bit more energy than my other songs, and the melody challenges my range. For years, though, the song about a man I never met based on the little his girlfriend said about him has become one of my favorite songs. At one time, I even changed the words of the chorus to make it a Pepsi commercial.

Here are the lyrics: the chorus first, and then both of the verses. The chorus repeats between the verses and at the end of the song, and there is also a long instrumental interlude.

CATHY

Cathy, don’t be afraid;

Don’t give up quite so soon.

Cathy, stay one more day

Before you leave on your own.

We still have a chance;

Please don’t throw it away.

Cathy, stay one more day

Before we go it alone.

 

I know that I’ve been a fool.

I’ve made it hard on us both.

When you needed me, I was cruel.

Why that was, I still don’t know.

All I know is I’m sorry now

If you’ll give me a chance to prove it;

And if you want to know how,

Just give me a chance, and I’ll do it.

 

 

The first time you went away

I thought it was a joke.

I barely lived ‘til the day

You came back to renew my hope.

I swore it wouldn’t happen again;

Time has made me a liar.

Give me one more chance and then

I’ll set your heart on fire.

 

J.

 

Three unrelated thoughts

Much of my spare time this week has been spent proof-reading (or “copy-editing,” as they say in The Biz) my book about the parables Jesus told. I am hoping for a March 1 publication deadline. Because I have updated to Word 2016 since my last big project, I am receiving more editing suggestions from Word. Some of them meet with my approval; in other cases I disagree with Word.

Word does not like the phrase “whether or not.” After further review, I agree with Word that “whether” is sufficient in most cases.

Word suggests a comma after introductory words or phrases such as “therefore,” “of course,” and “so.” Those pauses seem unnatural to me, so I am largely ignoring those suggestions. I find it helpful, though, that Word is underlining them for me; it helps me to see where I have used such phrases too frequently and should remove them or rephrase sentences to make them unnecessary.

As in previous editions, Word 2016 dislikes the passive voice and suggests shifting to an active voice. While this shift might be appropriate in most literature, it can be very inappropriate in theology. A redeemed sinner is entirely passive when it comes to salvation; a sinner’s actions contribute nothing to salvation before being saved, or while being saved, or after being saved. God does all the work to rescue sinners. Until Word produces an edition that is free from heretical tendencies, I plan to continue ignoring its suggestions about eliminating the passive voice.

I only recently became aware of the grammatical suggestion that strings of prepositional phrases be avoided. (The amusing wording of this rule is to ignore them except when one is being led “through the valley of the shadow of death.”) Word 2016 underlines cases where it thinks prepositions are too close together. Unfortunately, this tendency singles out entirely appropriate phrases including “in spite of.”

 

I used some Christmas gift money to buy a DVD of the movie 500 Days of Summer. I did so for two reasons: I enjoy Zooey Deschanel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought I would like to see her star in a romantic comedy; and IMDB recommended 500 Days of Summer to people who liked Ruby Sparks. The movie is enjoyable as it covers a relationship between a young man and a young woman in a nonlinear fashion, more the way he might remember the episodes from a distance rather than experiencing them in order. As a narrator intones at the very beginning of the movie, it is “not a love story.” In fact, it is far more realistic than most love stories. Unfortunately, both 500 Days of Summer and Ruby Sparks seem incapable of depicting a romance without suggesting physical intimacy beginning very early in the relationship. I’d like to see a romantic comedy in which the main characters do not go beyond holding hands and an occasional brief kiss. Maybe Hollywood writers believe that such romances no longer happen in the twenty-first century. (If so, they’re wrong.) Maybe Hollywood writers are engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to undermine marriage and family. (It seems that way sometimes, but I suspect their motivations are more financial than centered on social engineering.) I hesitate to recommend any movie that I would be reluctant to show to my parents or my children, but I confess to enjoying 500 Days of Summer and expect to watch it again soon, to catch the details I missed at the first viewing.

 

This morning while I was driving to work, I saw a delivery truck (painted with the 7-UP logo) in the left lane of the street, signaling an attempt to merge into the right lane. Traffic was tight and other drivers were ignoring the truck driver’s signal, but I held back and made a space for the truck to change lanes. As a result, I missed out on a green light and had to wait through the entire cycle of lights at a busy intersection. Later, I left room for a car to enter the street from a side street. It seems as though such courtesies toward other drivers ought to be rewarded with an extra green light or two, but I guess things like that happen only in the karmic pages.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.