Category: Religion and Spirituality

Posts specifically concerned with religious and spiritual matters, as well as general musings about God and life.

The Canticle of the Sun

saint-francis-of-assisi-detail.jpg!BlogOne 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.

saint-francis-of-assisi1Praise 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.

Peace,

-Jared

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On Reading and Watching

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.

 

The difference


 

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.

 

Reclaiming imagination


 

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.

 

Peace!

~ Jared

The True Meaning of Christmas

This Christmas season has not been an easy one for me. Here I am, Christmas Day, and I’m unemployed, with no idea when or whether I’ll find another job and barely enough money to get me through another month–and that’s after spending several weeks, a month or two ago, looking for work. Financially speaking, this has probably been the most difficult time of my life, and it hasn’t been terribly easy in other regards either: I’ve felt distant from loved ones often, have suffered a lot of fear and uncertainty about my future, and struggled against the crushing feeling that I am sinking back into a routine of life that is going nowhere and profiting me nothing. It has certainly not been a time of carefree joy and happy togetherness.

And yet, as all this has been going on, I have also been more deeply aware of the true meaning of Christmas than ever in my life before. “The true meaning of Christmas.” That’s a phrase that gets bandied about a lot nowadays, especially in those sappy “family films” that we all know and love (or hate, as the case may be). And yet, with all this talk, it seems that the meaning of Christmas is still surprisingly elusive. The modern world, by and large, takes that meaning to be as follows: Christmas is a time for giving, for being together with loved ones and reconciling your differences, for being magnanimous towards others and for spreading good cheer wherever you might find yourself. Then of course, there is the commercial side of it, fueled by that very spirit of giving but still all too often erupting into something unhealthy, dry, withered, and ugly. Those things are not bad things (not even commerce, if kept under control–after all, buying and selling brings prosperity!). Yet it seems to me that the secular modern (and all too often, even the religious) world’s understand of Christmas is like a person who looks at an empty house and mistakes it for a home. The soul is missing from the modern notion of Christmas.

So, what is the true meaning of Christmas? The things I listed before are not that meaning, but only its effects: they are a celebration for which the cause has been forgotten or pushed to the background. And that cause is the most profound event in history: that God Himself, the eternal, changeless being, the cause of all that is or ever shall be, the Infinite, Who know human can ever understand or comprehend, chose to become incarnate in human flesh; and what is more, in the flesh of a helpless baby, born of a human woman lowly in all respects save for the extraordinary graces that she was given. Let that sink in. God is infinite, immanent and yet transcendent; He took on a face. God is too vast to be named; He took on a name, and one as common as Jack or Bob, at that. God is all-powerful; he became a helpless baby, utterly dependent on His mother, so fragile that to be left alone for a day could have spelled His death. And He came so that we humans, the oath-breakers, who by right should be cast aside, might become adopted into God’s family and made brothers and sisters of Christ, flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone.

That is the mystery that we celebrate, the great paradox, the incredibly wondrous event which is at the heart of all the joyful outer trappings of Christmas. Christmas as we know it, with all those things that have come to be misidentified as its “true meaning,” would not exist without the Incarnation. The festival has become so great only by the power of faith which has borne it up all through the years; and even though the soul has gone out of it in so many places, that ancient wonder is still there holding it up, and will surely continue to do so as long as it is remembered.

Back to the beginning: this Christmas season has been pretty tough for me. But even in the most difficult times, there is still beauty to be found, and I think it is very fitting that I have seen the beauty of Christmas more strongly than ever before in this, my most difficult Christmas season to date.

Merry Christmas!

~ Jared

Trinity and Duality

During my life and in my experiences of the world, I’ve come to notice something which I think is interesting. It may or may not be of any real significance, but the observation intrigues me. Doesn’t it seem, when looking at the world, that most everything comes in twos? Dark and light, good and evil, tall and short, fast and slow, scientific and mystical, logical and illogical, man and woman, human and beast. If there is one thing, then it tends to have something else which is its opposite or complement. There is always another side to the coin. I’ve long thought that everything exists in such a duality, that dual natures run through the heart of man as well as the fabric of the world. I think that the most healthy and successful people are those who can reach a balance between the two sides of their nature, who can take the sane middle path between science and mysticism, or between romance and practicality, for a couple of examples. And thus I strive for moderation and balance in all areas of my life.

 

Before I move on, I should clarify that I’m not saying I think that everything comes in extremes–the two sides of everything often seem to intermingle and create something that mixes both to varying degrees. But there are only two streams flowing into the central river.

 

At any rate, I recently had another realization–or maybe more of a remembrance–and that is that God is triune. He exists in three parts, and not in the two parts which seem to be typical of the reality that He created. God is a Trinity; He is three-dimensional, whereas those of us in the plane that He created are two-dimensional. Could this be one of the things that removes God from Man? One of the fundamental differences that makes Him so much bigger and greater than us?

 

I can’t say that I have any particular application for this idea. But I thought that the observation itself was intriguing, and maybe others will find it so, too.

 

Peace!

~ Jared

In Which I Return to Ramble about Life

Hello! Been forever since I last posted something. That’s partly because I’ve been busy with various things and partly because I just haven’t had much to post about. But there have been some fairly unconnected thoughts knocking about in my head and I figured I might as well write a post about them. So, here goes.

 

Thought number one: I don’t understand humans. I really don’t. The older I get and the more I see of life and what the world is like, the less I feel I understand about humanity. I cannot comprehend how people are able to commit the atrocities that they do. Tormenting others, taking lives, cruel words, raping and stealing and greed. I don’t understand what drives one person to say unspeakably cruel things about another who they have no emotional connection to. I don’t understand what drives some people to look at another and cast aspersions on his humanity because he has skin of a different color, or what gives anyone the gall to say that he is better than anyone else.

Lately, the weight of the exquisite preciousness of life has been pressing down on me. Life can be destroyed by cruel words as easily as it can by physical actions. It is so fragile, and yet it will always return to be beaten down again, fueled by a paradoxical strength. But I don’t understand why some people want to spread death and pain, or how most of the others can do so without realizing that they’re doing it. Life is so unspeakably precious. A human is an eternal being. Everyone you look at is a monster and a saint embattled for all time. Everyone you look at is as good as you, whether they have been born yet or no, whether they have your skin color or no, whether they speak your language, hold to your beliefs, follow your gods, whether or no they have the same level of riches as you. Why is that so hard to see?

The more I see of humans, the less I understand them. I feel like an alien. Of course, I suppose I am; a sojourner in the mortal realm, passing through my childhood of flesh before continuing on to my adulthood of spirit. But I always thought when I was younger that I would understand people more as I aged, not less. I don’t think I want to understand. I don’t think I need to understand every facet of the beast which drives people to commit atrocities; I don’t even know if I’m strong enough to understand it. It’s a good thing, then, that I don’t have to face it alone. God understands it and gives us the strength to fight it.

And that, I suppose, is all there is to it.

 

Thought number two: Everyday life is an unparalleled drama. This is connected with what I wrote a couple of paragraphs up, about the preciousness of life and the eternity of a human being. Humans are not just short-lived primates scuttling around on a world that will die in the incomprehensibly distant future. We are eternal souls, breathed to life and made in the image of the entity who created all things. Therefore, everything we do is important. The act of getting out of bed on that morning when you are crushed by the weight of lost love and do  not see how life could go on–that is an act worthy of song. The slow soldiering on through a world that seems meaningless, your only hope a distant and perhaps unattainable light, there is a story worth sagas. There is an awful solemnity to the love of a mother, who would give her life for her child; a terrible recklessness in the lovers who would give each other their fragile and eternally precious hearts. A divine joy suffuses the acts of imagination and sub-creation. There is no mistaking the gravity of life, but yet, as in all things, a paradox! Life is also full of joy! Glee and laughter can fill the darkest of times. A child’s silliness can bring a smile to the saddest of forlorn mothers–and isn’t that a heroic act in and of itself? Birds sing in the morning and drive you out of bed with their racket. Such outlandish creatures as sloths and okapis exist to wander the world’s jungles. Gold is there to glimmer; the rain is there to sing. There is an undercurrent of levity in the ocean’s resounding waves.

I suppose it is this consciousness I have lately been gaining of the massive importance of normal actions which has been making it harder for me to understand humans. I wish that everyone could see how glorious and wretched their lives are. How glorious to be an eternal soul–how wretched to have fallen–how precious to the one who made us. As a writer, I can say that even the silliest stories I wrote as a youngster are still held safe in my heart. How much more would an eternal God hold us, his words brought to life?

 

~ Jared

The Remorse of St. George

A few days ago, I came across a piece of artwork entitled “St. George’s Remorse.” Before I go into anything else, I’d just like to say this:

I have nothing against this artist and I really do think that painting is beautiful. I’m not sure what she was trying to say with it; whatever she meant to say, the implications which could be drawn from the painting illustrate my ideological point, and I am by no means attempting to bash her work or her worldview. And so, onward!

A beautiful artwork, isn’t it? There is a good deal that could be said about the technical merits of the work and the excellent composition and the raw emotion conveyed by the scene. However, I find this work disturbing for reasons that may or may not be immediately evident. Perhaps it will become more clear if I quote both the artist’s statement about the painting:

My latest oil painting depicting St.George’s remorse after having slain the Dragon.

and a description given by the person championing it:

[…] a very touching painting, depicting an intimate moment of St.George after having killed the Dragon and feeling remorse for his cruel action.

There are two ways this can be taken. The first, which I feel may be taken more by the artist than by the other person, is that slaying the dragon was an act which was necessary, but it still resulted in remorse over the death of something magnificent. Magnificent things do not, after all, have to be morally good, and their very magnificence will usually bring with it sadness if they’re destroyed. It’s a sort of bittersweetness on the part of the saint, a wish that he didn’t have to do the thing that he had to do. Nevertheless, he did it. If that is indeed the artist’s intent, then I can get behind it. There’s depth and emotion and a sense  of tragic beauty there. However, I fear that the intent of the painting may be closer to what is implied in the second of the above quotes, and that implication is this: that destroying evil was a cruel action. That is quite a terrible thing to say. Destroying evil may be hard. It may be terrible. Yet it is not wrong, and the whole implication that this piece may have is that there is an inherent cruelty and wrongness in the destruction of evil.

There’s another level to consider, as well. The Dragon in the tale of St. George and the Dragon represents evil, sin, Satan. St. George is a knight sworn to the service of God–a true Christian warrior. A Christian warrior must oppose evil wherever it raises its head. He must slay every dragon he meets, or die trying. The implication that he should feel remorse for fighting evil is insidious and even devilish. The idea that Good should cry and wish that it could have let Evil live is nothing but cowardice, sniveling compromise.  Rather, let Good lament that Evil ever entered the world. Let it lament the wrongs done by Evil. But never let it cry over Evil’s corpse and call itself cruel for banishing darkness.

~ Jared

Sub-Creation

I am having thoughts today. Isn’t it wonderfully beautiful, how humans can create things? Isn’t it wonderful how we can mimic God? I think that one of the highest things a human can do is to create something beautiful. To make art. To sub-create, pour out the wondrous creative energy of God that resonates through all time into our own, flawed, incredible creations. It’s one of the holiest of things. I’m in awe of the creative power I’ve been blessed with. I have to use it. I have to create. If I don’t then I’m denying my greatest gift. I want to live my life doing nothing but sub-creating, and shaping, and working magic.

 

But then I’m always faced with the harsh reality that this creative gift is not so highly prized by the world. That I can’t just sit in my basement creating beautiful things. That’s worship. It’s spiritual communion. But it doesn’t pay any bills. And that fact is so incredibly frustrating. The best thing I can do doesn’t give me anything to live off of in our terribly money-shackled society. But some people can live off their creating. I want–need–to be one of those people.

 

It’s just so hard to be noticed, and I’m deathly afraid that I never will be, and I’ll be stuck never being able to fulfill my purpose of creating. I think the fear is hindering me. Making it harder for me to step out. It’s like a wall. I’ll have to siege it. Can I have some Ents?

 

Anyway. I feel that sub-creating connects us to God. It’s an expression of our souls and an imitation of Him. It connects us into this divine continuum of power and growth and revival, building up and magic and birth. It is so. Brilliantly. Beautiful. And good.

 

Words fail me.

 

~ Jared