Today, I have found myself quite unexpectedly stranded in the little town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Last night, as I was driving on my way to the Benedictine Abbey … Continue reading Stranded
Here is a poem that I wrote for Christmas. It’s in the Terza Rima style, and in it, I tried to depict something of what the Birth of Christ means to me.
The agéd world is buried in the dust
The dust, the dust, blowing hither and yon
All of Man’s many works are draped in rust
Long have the dry winds blown, here and then gone
Scouring the high mountains, the plains, the sea
And the strong Men’s faces grow pale and wan
Many ages have wandered past, weary
Crumbling stones and temples to shards, to shards
The wonder in Man’s eyes begins to flee
Wars have come, all uncounted by the bards
Watering the Earth with blood, young men’s blood
Ah! So many dead gone past Hades’ guards
The Earth is grinding down, down to the mud
Where shadows dwell and shimm’ring mystery
Binds men in tired old ways, crushed ‘neath Time’s flood
In this aged world, at the edge of hist’ry
In a desert, the apex of all lands
Was a man and woman, going swiftly
Tall and strong was that man, with gentle hands
And veins filled with the blood of lords and kings
But small in station and small in his plans
He worked with wood and made such wondrous things
Clear-eyed, swift-loving, full of all virtue
He loved the woman as hawks love their wings
Helped by angels, blessed with wisdom most true
Ordained guardian from before Time flowed
Guarding the holy and most precious Two
Little he spoke, few words, as on they rode
Harrowed by doubts, but then by God ensured
That all would be well, that grace was bestowed
The woman held life in her womb secured
Placed there by the shadow of Divine Grace
For from all stain of sin she had been cured
She bore that light merrily in her face
In her face, the light of the Son come down
From the Heavens to her womb’s sweet embrace
How fine that brow, so soon to bear a crown!
Made the chariot of the Holy Son
Bearing Mercy, Woman of great renown
T’was her “yes” that brought the Heavenly One
She who had been foretold since ancient days
That dear Woman, clothed with the sun
Veins filled with king’s blood, walking in God’s ways
The old Serpent lay crushed beneath her heel
And divine love set her pure heart ablaze
Through the desert they go, the world to heal
By the Power in the woman’s sweet womb
That is stories come to life, myth made real
Angels sing above; Earth is in full bloom
All the seas rejoice, and all the winds dance
The age-old stars weave wonder on their looms
And now they reach the man’s ancestral manse
A little village, Bethlehem its name
Where kings have been born through hist’ry’s advance
And many others have come just the same
Summoned by an old emperor’s decree
To number their heads, to ensure his claim
So full the town, that not a room was free
And the man and woman went to a stable
An old stable, to birth the great baby
With beasts watching, as if t’were a fable
The Word stepped into the stream of the world
The Word made flesh, beneath a cave’s gable
Almighty, ageless God, His plan unfurled
The Eternal Spirit made incarnate
While overhead the angels joyous whirled
Now in a field, some shepherds lay in wait
Men lowborn but kindly, guarding their flocks
And Heaven broke open, to tell their fate
The angels sang, in the air with the hawks
“Glory, glory, glory! Peace on the Earth
The wolf will lay down with the ox
For now, unto you is the good God’s birth
The foretold Savior given to all men
The prophesied Child, the font of all mirth!”
So the shepherds hastened to the horse-pen
There to see the apex of the ages
The great light shone into the world’s dark den
Angels danced, despite the Serpent’s rages
Man and woman, shepherds and creatures all
Joined with the whole world, and sung His praises
The newborn world shimmers in the dust-fall
The dust-fall, the dust-fall, glimmering bright
And wondering Man must no longer crawl
Long the dry winds blow, capering and light
Dancing o’er the mountains, the plains, the sea
And poor Men smile, blessed in the good God’s sight
The ages are bounding past, happily
For many Men have become God’s children
Adopted in the Son’s Nativity
“The Nativity” © Jared Schmitz 2015
One of the works of literature which has had a more profound influence on me–my thinking, my spiritual life, my way of looking at the world–is G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi. In this book, he presents a sketch of the saint, somewhat light on biographical details, but full of insights on Francis’ character. It was in the pages of this biography that I was first exposed to St. Francis’ powerful, beautiful poem, The Canticle of the Sun–another work of literature that has had a profound influence on me. Here is an English translation of the text, which was originally written in 1224 in the Umbrian dialect of Italian (in fact, this poem is thought to be one of the very first poems written in the Italian vernacular).
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.
And here is a version of the poem set to music by Leo Sowerby in 1945: Canticle of the Sun
There are a lot of things that could be said about the Canticle of the Sun, but I’m going to focus on how it’s affected me, personally. When I first read the poem, I didn’t know what to think about it. I wasn’t sure if I even liked it. I found it strange, the imagery delightful yet not what I was used to. The concept was not something that I had thought of much before, or had been exposed to very often. The idea of viewing the natural world as a brother was relatively new to me, though I had already come to believe that God shows forth His majesty in Nature. I’ve always been something of a nature-lover, but I did not look at the natural world with the same kind of familial affection expressed in the Canticle.
But then the words off St. Francis began to work their way into my heart. They filled me with a mysterious longing and worked on my soul. As time went by, I went continuously back to The Canticle of the Sun, re-reading it because it seemed an expression of some deep truth. These words, from the mouth of one of the most astonishing of Medieval saints, have stayed with me even when I forget so much else that I read.
From St. Francis, as expressed in the Canticle, I have learned to see the hidden ways in which all of God’s creation cries out His praises. I have found hints of the way Man is meant to have dominion over Creation–as a kindly elder brother, a gentle steward, tilling and keeping and singing of the beauty of all his little siblings, fellow creatures made, like him, to offer unending praise to God. I have seen how death is not always to be feared, can even be a gift. I have seen how to praise God for pain and suffering. The Canticle has been, to me, a truly enlightening look at pain, a marker showing that all things can work together for the good of those who love Him–that trials, properly embraced, can bring about good.
This poem has also brought a new light and joy into the natural world for me. I can look at the sun now and laugh because he is my little brother. I can join my voice with the voice of the moon, of the wind, of water, of the animals, all of us praising God; I can give thanks that all those things should be given as gifts to Man. I think, for me, this is the biggest impact of The Canticle of the Sun; the joy that it has enabled me to see and take part in.
Praise the Lord for Brother Francis! For the written word, so useful and humble and good, a vessel for all manner of meaning! Praise the Lord for song and poetry, lenses of truth, of pure feeling and of connection with deep and inexpressible things.
There is something at the heart of every good story that makes it come alive. The flame in the lantern, the soul in the body, the crystal in an agate. A good story is like a child to its author–he made its existence possible, and to an extent he can predict what it will do, but it always goes to places he didn’t think it would go. It turns up in the kitchen, having drunk half a bottle of chocolate syrup, and then just grins at him. That’s the spark of life in a story; that taking off to an unexpected place is what makes a story come alive. Without the spark, it is only a collection of minerals arranged in a fine structure, with no faceted crystalline heart to make it lovely.
A good story is a beast. The author must approach it carefully, stalking with muffled feet and fistfuls of courage. It could leap up at any moment and bolt away, or do a jig, or spring for his throat. Some stories will consent to be tamed and go where the author leads. Others are bold and prefer to gallop this way and that as they please. Sometimes the author knows a story is too big for him, but he goes hunting it anyway. Other times he writes it because it seems easy, a tiny little thing–but the little things are always deceptively hard to catch.
Some stories don’t come into the world as beasts. They need to be coaxed to life by the author, who has just seen them as the faint and faded paintings that adorn the walls of ancient caves. At times life will come into the paintings of its own accord. They will begin to move and blink and step off the wall. The characters in the stories will look out at their authors and smile mysterious smiles. “We have hearts,” they’ll say, and the author, enchanted, must follow.
But at times the life doesn’t come. The author must find a way to put in the spark of life himself, not by singing into full bloom the seed that was already there, but by bringing it in from some outside source. This is very hard. There are many stories which are like a lantern, ornately carved by a fine craftsman, but which has no flame inside. A lantern, like a story, has a purpose, and without its flame that purpose will never come to fruition. How many stories have we all read which were like that lantern, with no life of their own and nothing to imprint themselves on our minds?
Still, there are certain things that the hunter after sparks may look for. These things bring the spark of life to a story: the enchanted air of the Perilous Realm, that breath of Faerie which comes out of the stories that touch on our deepest desires; the life and longings of another human being, unfolding before our eyes; the music of our deepest dreams, echoing from within the structure of the tale; the zest of relationships exuberantly lived on the page, as right and wrong unfold themselves in the lives of others. And there are many other things that bring life, but these are numerous and shadowy, defined only within the heart of each person who seeks solace in a story.
It is a powerful magic, to coax the life into a story. But if that is not done, if the author is weak or the story was never anything more than a bit of pigment smeared across a wall, then its only fate will be to fade off into the fog of unreality.
Recently, I have been thinking about the difference between reading stories and watching them, and how our own inborn creativity takes part in our experience of story. There are two basic kinds of storytelling, which I will call picture-storytelling and word-storytelling. Picture-storytelling includes movies, TV shows, comic books, and anything else that tells a story through a primarily visual medium. Word-storytelling, on the other hand, consists of stories told without the aid of pictures, whether they are written down or verbalized. Both of these types of storytelling seem to be more or less as old as humanity. All you have to do is look at Stone Age cave paintings and take a few moments to consider our languages to realize that. Both types have their own place and their own advantages. However, I think that word-storytelling is the better of the two, and that picture-storytelling especially has fallen into decay in modern times. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the value of movies and comics and the skill and creativity that goes into making them. I very much enjoy picture-storytelling and our world would be a poorer place without it. However, I don’t think it can be denied that stories which are told purely in words give our minds more work to do, especially when compared with the modern forms of picture-storytelling, which leave little or nothing to the imagination. Sight is our primary sense. Fill up that sense, and suddenly the brain has little left to create. Deny it, and the brain must manufacture an entire world.
Here is what I believe to be the fundamental difference between picture-stories and word-stories, and also between the Modern, and the Medieval or Ancient forms of picture-storytelling. Stories told in words (whether they be books or your grandfather’s tall tales) require audience participation–imagination–in order to work. Stories told in pictures do not. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. When a movie is playing, you really don’t have to pay much attention to it to absorb its story. Everything that you need to know is presented on-screen; the images to see are given you; the words to hear are all there and spoken by unique voices. The only thing lacking is smell and touch, and I’m sure that sometime in the relatively near future, virtual reality will have advanced enough to add those senses into picture-storytelling, as well. You do not have to participate in order to “take in” the story. It is all given to you.
Now consider a book. If you are to get anything out of a book, you must let yourself sink into it. You must actively use the words on the page to construct whatever they’re describing in your own mind. A book tells its story in collaboration with the reader. We don’t often think of this, because we’re so used to reading that we don’t stop to consider what we’re actually doing. But stop and consider it. You don’t have pictures of every character and setting. You don’t have different people speaking aloud all the dialog so that you can hear it. You must create all that in your mind–and a well-written book will also prompt you to create details of scent and touch (a thing which films very rarely do). Word-stories are like a game of telephone. The author must very carefully choose what to leave out and what to put in, in order to describe the scene which exists in his mind. Then he transfers it to the page or the empty air, and he must hope that he succeeded well enough, though most of the time he knows that he’s fallen short. Then you read or hear those words, and the scene is transferred once again, but this time into your own mind. Then you must must decode the author’s words and try to find his original vision of the scene. That is what we do when we read or listen to a story being told.
The importance of the difference
This decoding and re-creation of story is essential to its value. Storytellers need to embrace it. Of course, very often the reader will not be successful in properly decoding the author’s words. Some authors are afraid of their vision being distorted, and so they describe everything excessively in the hope that their readers will see exactly what they did. But that is a trap. It is precisely the uncertain aspect of word-storytelling, that it must be interpreted by the listener or reader, that is its beauty. That’s why reading is such a wonderful experience. Every story is different depending on who is reading it. Each reader brings his own background, his own understanding, his own context–his own way of seeing the world–and makes the story anew in his mind.
The human mind needs a creative outlet to be healthy. We are made in the image and likeness of God; as Tolkien would say, we are made to be sub-creators, modeling His great act of creation with our own smaller imitations. Not all of us have the skill to create great works of art, but anyone in full possession of his wits and senses can read or listen to a story and imagine it unfolding in his head. He can create it in his mind, using the words of another for a guide. Throughout our history we have told stories to each other, and through them we have been able to extend the ability to create to anyone willing to take it.
Recall how I said that the difference of participation exists also between Modern picture-storytelling, and Ancient or Medieval picture-storytelling. In the old days, the pictures were so greatly abstracted that they forced their viewers to use a good deal of imagination to understand their meaning. An iconographic painting is nearly as vague as a literary description, though the vagueness comes in a different way. When viewing this kind of story, the mind is turned not towards the pictures themselves, but towards what they represent. Now consider the Modern era. Picture storytelling has become incredibly widespread, and it has changed. No longer are the pictures abstract, stylized, and symbolic; now they are made to look real. More and more is shown, and less and less is left to the imagination. Another difference between now and the old days is that picture-storytelling has become most people’s primary exposure to story, whereas before, that exposure came predominantly from word-storytelling. There are people alive today who never read books! And it seems that we are mostly past the age when people would verbally tell each other myths and fairytales. Verbal storytelling today seems largely prosaic and lacking in the level of creativity which characterized it in the old days. Modern people still use stories as a lifeline when they have either no time to create art, or jobs which are oppressive and dehumanizing. But many of them only consume stories, in the form of movies and television, instead of participating in stories, in the form of novels and verbal tales. Modern picture-storytelling has largely lost the creative element that makes story an effective lifeline. For stories to truly be a lifeline, they must be of the sort that allows people to create through them, that allows people to exercise that vital creative part of their minds, instead of covering it with a blur of lights and noise.
We are at our most human when we are creating, when we are giving of ourselves, when we pour out our hearts and forget our personal pettiness. This is one reason why reading books and listening to tales can be so wholesome. Because word-storytelling is intrinsically creative when experienced by the reader or listener, it enables us to access that deeply creative part of ourselves. Consistent enjoyment of word-stories, therefor, can teach us how better to worship: for true, deep worship, where the heart and soul cry out to God and all else is forgotten, is a very creative thing. Word-storytelling trains up and strengthen our imaginations. Consider that God asks us to give our whole selves to Him–and that the whole self includes the imagination. An example of just one of the myriad ways in which worship can be creative is the Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer. This sort of prayer emphasizes (among other things) gazing into the eyes of Jesus, envisioning His Holy Face and basking in the love that radiates from it. How is that possible if we do not use our imaginations, as they are consecrated and strengthened when offered up to Our Lord? And how are we to make a good offering of our imaginations if they are atrophied from lack of use?
Thus, the fostering of imagination through word-storytelling is essential. It is fundamentally different from the fostering of imagination that happens even through good picture-storytelling that still gives us room for our own visions. It is of a higher order because it is so much more all-encompassing. It is harder to embrace, but better for the soul. Word-storytelling is good for the heart and good for the mind, in a way that picture-storytelling can never be, no matter how good the story is. And if we are to reclaim the power of our imaginations, and the potential for deep, creative worship contained therein, then we must never stop reading.
So, as I’m sure you will notice, my blog has a new look and name. I’ve decided to make it something a little more mature and laid back because, honestly, I didn’t feel that the old style really fit the tone of my posts anymore. Also, I would like to blog more seriously, and it’s harder to do that when your entire frame for a post is facetious. Now, when I say seriously, I don’t mean that I’ll be putting out multiple posts a week or anything like that (I wish!). I mean that I want to put more thought and effort into my posts, instead of just writing something off-the-cuff and putting it up whenever I feel like it. I’d like to say that my old erratic posting schedule is going to change, but I’m afraid that would end up being a lie. I won’t promise to make posts by any certain schedule, or apologize for not making them often. When I have something to say, I’ll say it, otherwise, this blog will lie fallow. Still, I do want to try to post more consistently. I have several thoughts that I’d like to develop further and this seems like a good platform to do it in. I’d also like to experiment more with serial storytelling, perhaps try to write some more narrative, epic-style poetry and record myself reading it, maybe even post a little artwork… we’ll see!
So with that in mind, let’s move forward. Peace!
So I have kind of a funny relationship with poetry. I never really understood it as I was growing up, and because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t like it. I thought it was silly and worthless and couldn’t imagine why anyone would care to read or write it. (I was a very silly child and held that opinion about a lot of things) I did eventually grow out of that narrow view, but for years poetry still wasn’t really “on my radar”. Even after I started writing stories, I hardly thought about it. It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I made my first attempt at writing poetry, but ever since I’ve been in love with it. It’s a wonderful thing! Good poetry can express what nothing else can, not prose or a painting or anything. Poetry is, I think, the closest we can come to truly speaking our hearts. But, more than that, writing poetry is an extremely valuable exercise for writers and non-writers alike. I think I’ve said on this blog before that I think everyone ought to write. I’m going to amend that statement: I think everyone ought, not just to write, but also to write poetry.
Now, a lot of people might protest. They might say that their poetry is awful, that they have no talent for it and no one would ever want to read it. But that isn’t the point. Even if your poetry is truly awful, I think there can still be benefit in it for at least one person–for you, the writer. Of course, ultimately, we must strive to write poetry that can be enjoyed by many people, but to start with, entertaining yourself isn’t bad.
One of the most obvious benefits of writing poetry, for anyone, is that it can be a great help for working through tricky emotions. Writing about any difficult, emotional subject can be a helpful way to order your thoughts and feelings, and writing about it in poetic language can be extremely cathartic, because poetry is such a good way to express those emotions. Poetry also helps you to look at the world differently, to see more of the pattern and rhythm in it–and the attention that you have to pay to finding precise descriptions of things in your poems can bring out the beauty of the world around you in a whole new way, because you start to notice more.
For people who also write prose (and especially fiction), writing poetry has even more benefits. It will help you learn to be concise. It will help you learn to pick just the right images and descriptions to convey an emotion or meaning. The rigors of writing with rhyme and meter will not only help to give your prose a nicer flow and a more rhythmic sound, they will help you to get a better grasp of the language. The very tight restrictions of many forms of poetry (especially the more traditional forms) are probably the most useful thing I’ve found to help me learn to make better use of English, in addition to being a lot of fun in their own right. Almost as useful is poetry that eschews traditional forms and uses your own, self-imposed guidelines, because that teaches you to do on a small scale what you must do over the course of an entire novel, if you want to keep everything properly in line with itself.
In short, poetry, besides being beautiful and excellent all on its own, is also very useful for all kinds of people, I think that everyone ought to cultivate a habit of writing it–even they aren’t very good and never show their poetry to anyone. There are many more benefits besides what I’ve written down here. Try it yourself, and see!