Today I am happy to introduce Robert Ainsworth, my first ever guest blogger.  I began corresponding with Mr. Ainsworth as a result of a fascinating comment he contributed to my post C.S. Lewis on Animal Immortality. Mr. Ainsworth is a semi-retired stock and futures broker and business owner who resides in Mississippi. He enjoys studying Patristic theology and also rescues older, homeless canines that almost no one seems to want. He current serves as treasurer of his parish in the Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church in America.

Originally from a Protestant background, Mr. Ainsworth converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1999, along with his wife. He says, “That came about as a result of realizing that, while I knew a great deal about the Bible, I know nothing about the Historical Church. After almost eight years of studying ecclesiastical history (as a part-time hobby) I concluded that the Orthodox Church was the historical Christian Church.”

It is difficult to find anything serious written about the possibility that animals may have a spiritual life that may continue after death; the notion usually treated lightly as a sentimental notion to comfort us when we lose a beloved pet. When it comes to the death of a loved one, animal or human, I for one am not comforted by empty sentiments. I want some substantial hope that the something that used to give life to the body is really somewhere. So I was pleased to find out that one tradition with a rich history and a sound well-considered doctrine has so much to say on the matter. Please enjoy Robert Ainsworth’s excellent summary of the Eastern Orthodox perspective on animal immortality…..

* * * * * * * *

The Holy Orthodox Church has never, to my knowledge, dogmatized the ultimate fate of corporeal non-human creatures since they are guiltless before their Creator. She has rightly so been preoccupied with the salvation of human beings who will give account before God for every idle word they have spoken.

And since animals have no guilt even though they commit acts that were never intended by God, they either pass out of existence OR they are restored and refashioned with a *new* body as befits their nature for existence in the New Creation. ONLY GOD is immortal and eternal; every created being, man included, exists only by the energies and grace of the Most Holy Trinity (Acts: 17:28).

“Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.

The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.” (St. Athanasius the Great: On the Incarnation: Chapter I, S.4, vv. 6 – 10.)

None of us possess an intrinsically “immortal” soul.

And while the Church has rightly discerned the will of God that human souls will continue to exist after physical death, She has never, to my knowledge, stated dogmatically concerning the continuing existence of the souls of corporeal non-human creatures after their physical death. (Angels are incorporeal non-human creatures.)

St. Irenaeus of Lyon hinted at the resurrection of animals in his work Against Heresies, a text of the very earliest times (late 2nd Century):

“… nevertheless in the resurrection of the just [the words shall also apply] to those animals mentioned. For God is rich in all things. And it is right that when the creation is restored, all the animals should obey and be in subjection to man, and revert to the food originally given by God (for they had been originally subjected in obedience to Adam), that is, the productions of the earth.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyon: Against Heresies: Book V, chapter 33, v. 4)

If a sinner such as I can weep at the death of a faithful and loving dog, then surely from what we know of the character of Christ – He must love them even more. And since He never intended death for ANY part of His creation, and His Father notices even the death of each and every tiny bird, and both Scripture and Tradition clearly imply that there will be animals in the New Creation, why then would He not restore those guiltless creatures who never rebelled against Him, but suffer due to the self-willed rebellion of man?

I’m well aware that St. Gregory Palamas referred to animals passing out of existence and humans not so passing as part of his defense of Hesychasm when describing the energies and essence of God, but I’m not aware that an Ecumenical Council ever approved a canon declaring upon the ultimate fate of the animal creation.

So while we are left with theologoumenons (private opinions) in this matter, I choose to agree with St. Maximos the Confessor and St. Symeon the New Theologian that ALL of creation will be renewed and restored to Edenic perfection.

There are more than a few Orthodox priests and theologians who believe that many if not each and every one of the animals that have lived through the corruption and death they received due to the Fall of man will be restored in that great Day when Christ delivers up the Kingdom to His Father and God becomes “all in all”.

http://oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/poker-r.i.p

http://www.ukrainian-orthodoxy.org/questions/2005/animals.htm

http://www.ukrainian-orthodoxy.org/questions/2010/pets.html

Another Orthodox priest, Father Theodore Stylianopoulos, Th.D., puts it this way:

A great saint by the name of St. Isaac the Syrian said that heaven is the presence and love of God. Heaven is not a place high above the earth, like a planet or a star. God is everywhere and heaven is the enjoyment of the sunshine of his love.

Do animals survive beyond death and go to heaven? That’s a hard question. In the lives of saints, we are told that many had animals as good friends. In Orthodox icons, St. Gerasimos is shown with a lion. The saint has just pulled a thorn from the lion’s paw, which he holds tenderly. Both the man and the lion gaze happily toward Christ, who is in heaven. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who lived in a forest for many years, is shown peacefully feeding a huge grizzly bear. I have no doubt that these saints would rejoice in seeing their animal friends in heaven.

What does the Bible say about this? Not much explicitly. The Bible’s focus is on people, the salvation of their souls, their resurrection at the end of time, and the fullness of life in God’s eternal light.

However, the first and last books of the Bible tell us something hopeful about all creatures of the earth. The book of Genesis says that “God made the wild animals…and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25)! In the book of Psalms we read: “Every wild animal of the forest is mine…. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine” (Psalm 50:10). Would not a loving God want all things that He has made to live with Him forever?

A hint of this is in the book of Revelation, which teaches that evil and the power of death, which are a corruption of all that is good, will be completely defeated and a new world more glorious than ours will arise. God’s promise is: “See, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Why should death finally win out and swallow up any of God’s good creatures? Would not God then be defeated, and death proves stronger than God? Because God is the ruler of all creation, and loves everything in it with a love that never fails, I have hope that we will see our pets again somehow, just as St. Gerasimos will see his lion, and St. Seraphim his bear.”

Father Theodore Stylianopoulos, Th.D.

(Fr. Ted was part of the theological staff for New Testament that produced the Orthodox Study Bible.)

 And He Who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation: 21:5)

(You’ll notice He didn’t say that He would “make all new things.”)

Yes indeed. “Come Lord Jesus.”

* * * * * * * *

Mr. Ainsworth has also shared with me that the Orthodox tradition has abundant stories of its saints with animal friends and associates. One is that of St. Gerasimos of Jordan, a fifth century monk, who had encounters with a certain lion. Much closer to our own time is the story of St. Seraphim of Sarov who lived from 1754 to 1833, and seems to have has a bear named Misha as a close friend.

Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan with lion

Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan with Lion

Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Misha

Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Misha

periwinkle dressEaster. The day brings a mixture of memories – year and year of  pretty pastel dresses too thin for an April morning that always seemed to look warmer than it was. I and my siblings always had to search for our baskets but when we found them they were always abundantly stocked complete with a hollow chocolate bunny, peeps, jelly beans and lots of chocolate eggs.

Easter Bunny always tucked into the basket a simple toy. The Easter I was five mine was a small pink stuffed bunny who remained a star in my stuffed menagerie for years to come, going by the name of “Pinky.” My sister, aged 3, observing that her bunny was yellow, named hers “Yellowy” and the name stuck. My brother, aged 2, dutifully named his bunny “Bluey.” Somewhere I have a picture of the three of us with those bunnies. Within a year of that Easter there would be four of us.

My children also had many Easter baskets through the years but now we are at that stage in which everyone is satisfied with one big family basket, and I am glad to have time to contemplate Easter on a deeper level. I know it as the day something momentous happened that rewired the human spirit and began a new era, the day Christ physically and spiritually overcame the crushing power of death over life on this planet. I have many amazed thoughts about that event and all the branches that grew from the seed of that day, but the main point is the miracle of resurrection, the possibility of beginning again after the end.

In honor of Easter and new beginnings I have decided to share some of my son’s pictures. AJ himself is graduating from high school in a couple of months and will be turning 18 about the same time: the official end of childhood. We can already see the sprouts of the man he is becoming. One of the new things emerging is a relatively new but intense interest in photography with all the fascinations of its combination of technology and artistry. He saved his money and negotiated with a local pawn shop to acquire some good beginner camera equipment, he watched many YouTube videos on photography and photo editing techniques, looked at websites and read some books, and went to work. So far he is the official photographer for a local band but is experimenting with all kinds of things and plans to major in Photography at Tidewater Community College in the Fall.

AJ took all of these pictures walking around our neighborhood in Suffolk Virginia between April 11 and April 16, 2014……

 

Azaleas by the Lake, April 11

Azaleas by the Lake, April 11

Apple Blossoms, April 11

Strawberry Blossom, April 11

Strawberry Blossom, April 11

Azaleas with honey bee, April 16

Azaleas with honey bee, April 16

Pink Tulips, April 14

Pink Tulips, April 14

Orange Tulips, April 14

Blue flowers, April 16

Blue flowers, April 16

Dragonfly, April 15

Fluffy pink tree flower, April 14

I have to post one more poem for Lent, a bonus 41st poem in my 40 Days of Poetry series. I offer this well-known sonnet, especially appropriate for Good Friday.

Death, Be Not Proud

by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Good Friday Reflection

I may have finally realized the root of what has been bothering me all my life, that hard pebble that has always been there, the one I’ve learned to ignore but that, on some level I am always aware is there, irritating the inner lining. It is just this: that in this world we are given to suppose that we have to be either predator or prey. There seems to be this underlying assumption lurking under every surface that in order to sustain our existence we are required to destroy other living things, and if that weren’t bad enough, we build whole civilizations on the notion that for some people to have good life, however a given culture defines a good life, they must exploit the labor and lives of the bulk of the population.

The problem in a nutshell is that I do not find either of these alternatives tolerable, although as a corrupt human, I confess I do find the predator choice marginally more appealing. This is the reason I am interested in the philosophy of animals, in particular their purpose and relationship to humanity.  It seems reasonable that a creature with the ability to choose could have chosen himself into an impossible existential corner, but it is more mysterious why all of nature should have fallen into the same corner with him. Next week I will be featuring a a couple of posts that focus on these questions of animal purpose, including a fascinating article from by guest blogger that discusses our relationship with animals from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.

Perhaps the reason I find the message of Christianity appealing is because it tells us there is a way out of the impossible dilemma and offers a vision of a world free from the evil choice. We take as prophecy the words from Isaiah:

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
                                                                                      Isaiah 11:6-9

The garden of Eden with the fall of man. Figures by Peter paul Rubens, landscape and animals by Jan Brueghel the Elder, c. 1615.

The garden of Eden with the fall of man.
Figures by Peter Paul Rubens, landscape and animals by Jan Brueghel the Elder, c. 1615.

Death is the ultimate predator and Life the ultimate prey. I feel instinctively that this situation is just fundamentally not right – life is good and true and should not be prey to something that is ugly and bad. But everything in our world derives from this rule and we are trapped in the predator/prey dilemma in all of its thousands of levels and derivations. How to overcome this dilemma? What if the embodiment and source of Life voluntarily offered to let Death do its absolute worst and then did what life is supposed to do: live. This would stop the current and turn the river around, showing Death that in the end it does not have the final word. Letting Death do its worst is what Good Friday is about; it is the first part of the two part solution. Here is another prophecy still in future as we are still by God’s grace in the transitional period:

 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” Revelations 5:13

 The lamb has triumphed and the predator has lost its power.

Fox news claimed yesterday the “blood moon” lunar eclipse we likely to be a bust  for much of the Eastern United States due to cloudy weather, but here in Suffolk Virginia,  that did not prove entirely true. Of course my son AJ, a newly minted photographer equipped, had to watch for the perfect moment for hours, well into the wee hours and almost to sunrise, but it was no bust. The best thing about the event to me was to see his tired but thrilled look of triumph I saw on my son’s face at 5 am this morning. I of course slept through the historic celestial event, so I also am especially thrilled to have these precious pictures.

This eclipse was the first in what astronomers called a lunar eclipse “tetrad” series. There will be three more “blood moons” between now and September 2015, the next expected to occur October 8, 2014. Mark your calendars now!

"Blood moon" lunar eclipse, 15 April 2014. Seen from Suffolk Virginia. Photo by Aaron Apple.

“Blood moon” lunar eclipse, 15 April 2014. Seen from Suffolk Virginia. Photo by Aaron Apple.

April 15 2014 lunar eclipse. Photo by Aaron Apple. Suffolk Virginia.

April 15 2014 lunar eclipse. Photo by Aaron Apple. Suffolk Virginia.

Lunar eclipse April 15 2015. Photo by Aaron Apple, Suffolk, Virginia

April 15, 2014 - "Blood Moon". Photo by Aaron Apple Suffolk Virginia

April 15, 2014 – “Blood Moon”. Photo by Aaron Apple Suffolk Virginia

Total lunar eclipse or "blood moon", April 14-15, 2014. Photo taken in Suffolk Virginia by Aaron Apple.

A Better Resurrection

By Christina Rossetti

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
 
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
 
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
 It is Day 40 of 40 Days of Poetry! I have posted something about a poem for 40 consecutive days today, quite an achievement for me, so please indulge me as I reflect on what I have gained by this endeavor.  Forty days are well beyond the number of days you need to do something to form a habit, and sure enough it seems I have developed the habit of poetry, and will not be able to shake it off. I may continue with poetry reflections here as a weekly feature or I may begin a new blog just for poetry. I’m not sure yet what to do with this interesting gift, but it is not something I want to pack up in put into the storage closet.
 
Doing this project has involved reading hundreds of poems in a short time and reading up on the lives of the poets, and it seems to have caused me to write more poems of my own. Every now and then when the mood struck I would write a poem, not lately I have been thinking poetically and therefore writing many of them. Several are ready for submission to contests or magazines. Also once I edit all these 40 mini essays and do some illustrations I will be ready to publish it as an eBook which might work as a Lenten devotional. Don’t worry – I do not expect to get rich.
 
Portrait of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As to today’s selected poem: to me it powerfully expresses the sense of what it must be to die, to be really dead, and therefore the magnitude of the miracle it must be to be resurrected to new life. I find many of Christina Rossetti’s poems disturbing and some of them downright depressing. Being disturbed by a poem is not a bad thing. One might argue that is a poem doesn’t ruffle your complacency at least a little it cannot be a very good poem. But if a poem genuinely depresses you this is a negative thing; as in any world the world of poetry has its dangers and its particular dangers can be deadly. In my research I was surprised to learn how many poets, as well as other kinds of writers, ended up committing suicide. If you are going to go exploring in the depths of truth and emotion, proceed with caution. That’s why you might want to, as Emily Dickinson, says “tell it slant.”

 Christina Rossetti does not tend to tell things slant – she dives right in and though her lines may sing in a gentle rhythm and the words may rhyme, the sentiment they carry does not tiptoe around the heart of the matter. The three stanzas of this poem offer three different conceptions of death. In the first stanza seems to express emotional death which the poet hopes may be revived by “quickening”, a word associated with the entry of the Holy Spirit into the soul, and often with powerful emotion. In the second stanza death appears in its natural guise: a seed is a dried husk which to all outward appearance has not the slightest hope of life; but there is something in it, perhaps a microscopic something that can be revived provided there is some catalyst. In the case of the human husk, that catalyst would be life provided by Jesus and modelled upon his personal example.
 
The third stanza is the most definitive picture of the irreparable death – the person or soul is simply broken. Its ruins can only be melted down and re-created into a new form. Since God is the only power who can do something like this, it is appropriate that the newly formed vessel be consecrated to his service. The final line of the poem is an inversion of the Jesus’ message to his disciples at the Passover supper before his death, suggesting that the life of the Creator and the creature is a two-way interaction. he gives himself to us, we give ourselves back to him, and somehow through the energy of this interaction life continues to thrive.

A Rusty Nail
by William Service

I ran a nail into my hand,
The wound was hard to heal;
So bitter was the pain to stand
I thought how it would feel,
To have spikes thrust through hands and feet,
Impaled by hammer beat.

Then hoisted on a cross of oak
Against the sullen sky,
With all about the jeering folk
Who joyed to see me die;
Die hardly in insensate heat,
With bleeding hands and feet.

Yet was it not that day of Fate,
Of cruelty insane,
Climaxing centuries of hate
That woke our souls to pain!
And are we not the living seed
Of those who did the deed!

Of course, with thankful heart I know
We are not fiends as then;
And in a thousand years or so
We may be gentle men.
But it has cost a poisoned hand,
And pain beyond a cry,
To make me strangely understand
A Cross against the sky.

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, so it is time to get down to the point of the matter. The straight-forward poem I selected for Day 39 of 40 Days of Poetry is more appropriate for Good Friday, but it is also appropriate for every day, particularly every day of the season of Lent. I confess I dislike thinking about the crucifixion and all the torture that led up to it. It’s shocking to think that in ancient Rome this was a common method of executing criminals and other enemies of the state, but not more shocking than some of the kinds of torture going on in the world right now.

For me this poem brings to mind the Stations of the Cross, a tradition I used to participate in my Catholic School years. There are 14 stations, each marked by a picture on the church wall that  represents an event in the sequence leading up to Christ’s death on the cross. You walk around to each picture and contemplate the event. Usually you have a little guide-book that includes a meditation and a prayer at each stop. The actual crucifixion is the 11th station followed by Christ’s death, burial, and being laid in the tomb. It is a somber ritual meant to encourage the conscious acknowledgement  of the horror and sadness and especially the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, which then by contrast makes Easter Sunday all the more joyful. I suppose some people might think such a ritual is macabre, especially when it is a requirement for elementary school kids, but remember, an eight year old Catholic kid has been staring a crucifixes for eight years, and as I recall, most of them are not disturbed by it in the slightest.

Death is a part the reality we all have to deal with, and if you are a Christian, whether Catholic or another denomination, you believe in the truth of the passion story. Even if you are not a Christian, the execution of the man Jesus is a historical fact. So rather than having the fear and horror lodge somewhere in the subconscious mind or manifest itself in nightmares or repression or denial, ritual takes it out of the closet and lays it out naked and factual. The ritual is a way of containing the anxiety of it in our minds without allowing it to do psychological damage, putting up limits to the vastness of the unknown and inexpressible, even giving you words to say if you need them.

three crossesIn a way the narrator in this poem is having a Stations of the Cross experience, brought on by a horrible accident that causes him to relate personally to the experience of Christ. I like how he goes further in the third paragraph to extend his personal experience to the universal  idea that when things go badly for a given period of time, there comes a point of reckoning, and it is only then that things can turn around. But unless they do turn around, of course, the result is destruction.

Although this is the crudest of metaphors, I think it might work something like this: We are all floating on the downward current of a very pleasant river. Sometimes the current is wild and fast, a thrill ride, and sometimes lazy and slow, but direction is always downward. At the end of the river is destruction – perhaps the water just ends in a desert or perhaps it is swallowed up in a vast ocean full of sharks. The only way to escape the fate that awaits at the end is to get out of the river. Some are strong enough to swim against the current for a while, but eventually their strength will run out; that is what Christians mean when they say we cannot be saved by our own strength.

How do we get out of the river? First we have to come to terms with the truth that the river we love so much leads to destruction. Then we have to look for the someone or something with the ability to get us out, someone or something that has demonstrated both concern for the well being of the human race and the power to defeat death. When we recognize that something, we have to indicate that it is our free will choice and sincere desire to be lifted out of the river and set on a course in the other direction.  The mechanics of how we are set on this course I do not know; this is where the character traits humility and faith come in. But I believe the indication in scripture is that we must be made into something new, perhaps something with wings to fly above the water in the other direction, the direction that leads to life instead of death. We must not cross our arms and insist that we will not leave the river until God explains to us exactly how he intends to rescue our soul and submits for our review the specifications for the new form in which he intends to rehabilitate our soul.

On The Gift Of A Book To A Child
by Hilaire Belloc

Child! do not throw this book about!
Refrain from the unholy pleasure
Of cutting all the pictures out!
Preserve it as your chiefest treasure.

Child, have you never heard it said
That you are heir to all the ages?
Why, then, your hands were never made
To tear these beautiful thick pages!

Your little hands were made to take
The better things and leave the worse ones:
They also may be used to shake
The Massive Paws of Elder Persons.

And when your prayers complete the day,
Darling, your little tiny hands
Were also made, I think, to pray
For men that lose their fairylands.

*********

Cover of the first edition of Cautionary Tales for Children, 1907

Cover of the first edition of Cautionary Tales for Children, 1907

For Day 38 of 40 Days of Poetry I offer this clever rhyme by Hilaire Belloc, a writer I have only discovered in the course of this project, even though it turns out he was a close friend and collaborator with one of my favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton. Just goes to show that sometimes even important information takes many years and lots of reading to sink in. I want to find out more about Mr. Belloc because, for one thing, he wrote poems both for children and adults and for another, he made extensive use of animals as metaphors, one of my personal interests.

Mr. Belloc’s poetry may not be as “literary” as some – that is, he does not inject evasive meaning into his poems through cryptic word artistry in the way of say, Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson, but I think there is plenty of room for all kinds of poetry in the annals of literature, and it does us good to avoid any kind of snobbery. Anyway Mr. Belloc’s poems certainly are not horrible: they seem consistent with what I can discern of his character and life’s work, which I believe was devoted to envisioning a better life for the bulk of the people. He wrote poems that are accessible to all minds with special attention to the minds of children.

I chose this poem today because it contains a few thoughts I find it pleasant to reflect upon: first, it confirms the value of books, as in those marks on sheet of paper bound into objects of pleasing texture, weight, and aroma. No matter that I found this poem on the internet; no matter that my Kindle library is up to a couple hundred downloaded book: I still believe that physical ink-on-paper books have timeless value. When you give a book to a child you are, in a way both material and symbolic, welcoming him or her into nothing less than full membership into the human tradition.

Electronic books, historically speaking, are about a minute old and are dependent for their existence on a fragile system of technological infrastructure given to frequent outages. Although we are optimistic, we really don’t know what the future holds for the permanence of this technology or the infrastructure necessary to support it. I think it would be as unwise to “retire” the production of bound-paper books as to say, end the practice of backing paper money with gold or silver.

There was of course a period in human history in which there was no written language and therefore no written literature. That part of human history is entirely lost to us, save the crude outlines that archaeology can provide – and a few hours of watching Discovery channel will show us the extent of pure conjecture contained in these outlines. Back nearly to that dark period of history, the ancient Hebrews and their God, who is also mine, deemed writing essential to the preservation of history and conveyance of information. We call the library of books collected into the Bible the Word of God. God apparently chose to convey his story, message, laws, and warnings through writing rather than oral tradition or direct repeated oration from himself.

While every child is a vehicle of hope for the human race, how much more can I put my hope in a child who is given books and taught the value of true literacy than a child who is deprived of these treasures. I was collecting books for my sons, who entered the world in the 1990s before the era of e-books, long before they were born. If I had a child now (this is an entirely hypothetical child mind you) I would stick to real books while she (because if I’m going to have a hypothetical child it might as well be a girl), to give her a sense of connection with the past before she became part of the future.

The scripture passage comes to mind in thinking about these things is this one:

“Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.  But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.’” Matthew 18: 2-6

Mr. Toad

by Kenneth Grahame

The world has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!

The animals sat in the Ark and cried,
Their tears in torrents flowed.
Who was it said, ‘There’s land ahead’?
Encouraging Mr Toad!

The army all saluted
As they marched along the road.
Was it the King? Or Kitchener?
No. It was Mr Toad.

The Queen and her Ladies-in-waiting
Sat at the window and sewed.
She cried, ‘Look! Who’s that HANDSOME man?’
They answered, ‘Mr Toad.’

* * * * * *

Coloured version of E.H. Shepard's illustration of Mr. Toad in his driving togs

Coloured version of E.H. Shepard’s illustration of Mr. Toad in his driving togs

For Day 37 of 40 Days of Poetry I decided to lighten up a bit and reflect on this charming poem by Kenneth Grahame, if only as a reminder not to take myself too seriously. Mr. Toad as some of you may remember is a major character in Mr. Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows. This is the sort of poem that is a great help in maintaining one’s sanity by putting things into perspective; for example it somehow helps me to watch the news, especially news about politics and politicians, with greater equanimity. Do you ever have to deal with someone who has an overblown sense of self-importance? Just surreptitiously pull this poem up on your mobile device give it a quick read. Things will go better with the meeting if only because you will be smiling.

I could go on about the value of the rewards of this world, but I think the point is too plain to belabor. Instead I will share another poem by Emily Dickinson because I can’t read “Mr. Toad” without thinking of this one:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

I realize frogs and toads are two different species of amphibians but both have earned themselves the role symbolic show-off in literary parlance. I have a theory that one of the roles of animals in the world is to serve as metaphors for our stories, art, and imaginations – certainly not their only purpose of course – but as they serve our physical needs for food and clothing, perhaps they also nourish our spiritual need for metaphor, humor, a sense of perspective. Animals share certain social and biological characteristics with us, but they are not us; so poets and story writers such as Aesop and Kenneth Grahame, can freely use them to make points about and laugh at human nature and society; and this useful technique is not only used for children’s literature and not always for humorous purposes: think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Gubbinal

by Wallace Stevens

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

For Day 36 of 40 Days of Poetry I had to share this strange little poem if only so I can try to figure out why I keep coming back to it. Some commentators say it is about things like owning the validity of our personal perceptions. To me the poem says a little more than that. No matter how bright and colorful are the visions in our heads, there is always the heavy flattening wet blanket known as the “real” world, where you can’t drive down a city street or turn on the T.V. news without being forced to acknowledge the truth of that “the world is ugly, and the people are sad.”

 Lithograph by Leo Haas (1901-1983), Holocaust artist, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz

Lithograph by Leo Haas (1901-1983), Holocaust artist, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz

But this fact does not negate by value of imagination: in fact it is when things are at their most wretched that imagination becomes the most essential. I’ve read claims and observations in various sources, one of which is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, that people who can maintain inner vision of things not currently apparent are the ones most likely to survive horrible conditions such as concentration camps and serious illness.

The strange thing about this poem is that on first reading it seemed nearly opaque but then became more intriguing every time I looked at it, like a Polaroid picture developing from blankness to a vague image to something definite and complex. It begins with a sun metaphor, tying the source of plant life to its results – the flower, making them one – and then returns with a jarring clunk to the sad real world. Then as if to shake off the unpleasant restriction, the poet evokes an image of uncontrollable wildness: the jungle, the animal, and then the poem is back to fire which the reader might associate either with a primitive jungle dweller or with the sun, and then we are back to the seed, the symbol of rebirth and new possibility. The poem ends with the ugly and sad reality but the implication is that there is no way we are going to accept that as the last word on the matter. The next flight of imagination is left to the reader’s mind.

The poem defies being pinned down to a definite “meaning” but is left open to invite the reader to experience it individually. For example I see the sun/flower as flourescent orange – a logical assumption based on experience – but others might see it as lemon yellow or even sunset pink. Then I see the jungle feathers as bright turquoise, a purely subjective interpretation that is not present in the text. Even the title is left open to interpretation. At least I have not been able to find any official definition of the word “gubbinal” although I’ve read some tentative suggestions that it might refer to something like a “dullard”, “country peasant”, or “simpleton.” It may be that Mr. Stevens made the word up. 

Anyway, my purely subjective Lenten reflection is that although I am always acutely aware that the world is ugly – that is, morally corrupt – and that people are indeed sad, I am incapable of leaving things at that. To be alive is to imagine better things and search for every sign of hope and rejoice when you find one, even if it is only an image in your own mind. In a way we resurrect ourselves every day that we do not accept lying down and resigning ourselves to despair.  We make something happen, even if some days it only making a sandwich and feeding our bodies.

Blue Squills

by Sara Teasdale

How many million Aprils came
Before I ever knew
How white a cherry bough could be,
A bed of squills, how blue.

And many a dancing April
When life is done with me,
Will lift the blue flame of the flower
And the white flame of the tree.

Oh, burn me with your beauty, then,
Oh, hurt me, tree and flower,
Lest in the end death try to take
Even this glistening hour.

O shaken flowers, O shimmering trees,
O sunlit white and blue,
Wound me, that I through endless sleep
May bear the scar of you.

The days of Lent are winding down now to the last few, and yesterday I realized that 4o days brings me nearly a week short of Easter. It seems the church calendar is determines by a weird and complicated formula. I may have to add a peomm or two beyond the 40th. For Day 35 of 40 Days of Poetry I decided to reflect on this lyrical poem by Sara Teasdale which captures something about the continuing renewal of nature  expresses the poet’s appreciation of beauty in a profound way. It’s a humbling and healthy thing to contemplate that nature with its abundance, beauty and color, though it welcomes and even invites me to appreciate and enjoy its beauty, is not really there for me but has purposes of its own.

Siberian squill flowers

Siberian squill flowers

There is the idea going around that God made humans as the focus of his creation and created nature to serve us. I tend to feel it is not entirely the case. It’s true that many things seem perfectly scaled to human needs: the plants and animals contain the very things we need to nourish our bodies, the ground is hard enough to stand on but soft enough for our strength and tools to move, the mountains are just high enough to challenge the more adventurous among us, and the moon is just far enough away to present a brightness and size to fill our imaginations with stories and serve as a handy keeper of time. But nature was here before we were and will continue after we are gone, and will go on bursting forth whether we accept its invitations or not. I suspect every form of life has an inherent purpose that remains invisible to us, despite the admirable efforts of science to penetrate the mysteries of nature.  The Book of Job Chapter 38 has much to say about this subject.

I think the essence of the poem is the painful beauty of nature, as when some scenic vision grabs our souls and imaginations so that we want to enter into it or in some sense possess it, and yet it does not need us. Nature has this “take it or leave it” attitude that can seem callous to we who need a relationship to be give and take. It’s hard for me to look at a mountain or a stunning sunset and not feel a little sad and perhaps a little covetous. I suppose we all know that there are some kinds of pain that are also pleasurable. 

C.S. Lewis describes this feeling in several of his books and essays and in Surprised by Joy, his memoir about his conversion to Christianity, he explains that this experience is the definition of the “joy” of the title. The narrator of this poem seems to believe that her best hope is to merge with nature in a way that wounds her so that she may keep it with her during the endless sleep which she supposes awaits. Although endless sleep would not be the worst destiny for a human soul, I have reason to hope for and expect something much better.