Monday, March 26, 2007

two really good sentences

So I found my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first paragraph has two of my favorite sentences:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.


The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Quality and Quantity

Because I haven't figured out how to write Greek characters on my fancy PowerBook G4 yet, I cannot begin this post with the motto of the Apostolic Diaconate of Thessalonica, as quoted in Chapter 12 of Peter Hammond's fantastic book, The Waters of Marah [1], a chapter about the Orthodox religious movements which were revitalizing the Greek Church at the time. Unfortunately, my Modern Greek is limited only to the essentials (such as 'Excuse Me,' 'Good-bye,' 'Where is Victory Street?'), so I can't even translate it nicely into English. I will have to leave it to Mr. Hammond:
The motto ... provides a key to much of the most notable work that is being done in Greece to-day; 'the victory of the width'--to give a literal translation of a phrase that cannot easily be put into English--ultimately depends upon the faithfulness and energy with which 'the battle of the depth' is waged. There can, in other words, be no fruitful outward activity that does not spring from a deepened interior life. It is only as the missioner himself is truly converted, only as he himself learns to dwell in Christ and as Christ is formed in him, that he can be used as an effective instrument for the conversion of others. Apart from this all his activity is in vain. [2]

We can have no 'victory of the width' until we win 'the battle of the depth.' Christopher Dawson, I believe, was speaking about the same thing when he wrote:
Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity. [3]

I agree, but, we must understand what we mean by 'quality.' If, in the name 'quality,' we delude ourselves with a sort of self-righteous elitism, we will have lost the battle of the depth before it has started, to say nothing of the width.

[1] I will write more on this wonderful book soon, after I am finished reading it. It is a beautiful travel narrative about the Orthodox Church in Greece during the late 1940s. I was so inspired by this book, and wanting learn more about Greece, I immediately purchased a used copy of Kevin Andrew's The Flight of Ikaros which is apparently excellent (and anyway Bishop Kallistos recommends it, so it can't be all bad).

[2] The words of St. Seraphim of Sarov come to mind: “Acquire the spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will be saved."

[3] This is from Dawson's book The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, but I found it quoted in Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, who adds "Is it possible that if we become too obsessed with quantity we will end up with a 'Christian' mentality that is no longer even superficially Christian?" Sigh.

Incidentally, I've been meaning to read Dawson's classic study Religion and the Rise of Western Culture for years. Sigh.

Oh, and I will continue my writings on Asceticism and the Environment when I have a little more time. Good night.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Adoration of the Precious and Life-giving Cross

Today is the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. From Saturday's Great Vespers:

Hail! life-giving Cross, the fair Paradise of the Church, Tree of incorruption that brings us the enjoyment of eternal glory: through thee the hosts of demons have been driven back; and the hierarchies of angels rejoice with one accord, as the congregations of the faithful keep the feast. Thou art an invincible weapon, an unbroken stronghold; thou art the victory of kings and the glory of priests. Grant us now to draw near to the Passion of Christ and His Resurrection.

Hail! life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise, succour of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. Through thee the curse is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to heaven: invincible weapon, adversary of demons, glory of martyrs, true ornament of holy monks, haven of salvation bestowing on the world great mercy.[1]

We venerate Your Cross, O Christ, and Your holy Resurrection we glorify!

[1] The Lenten Triodion. tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon's Seminary Press. 2002.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

When freewill kicks in again

For some reason a couple amusing quotes jumped into my head this week, quotes which I hadn't thought of for a while. I suppose I thought of them because I was trying to remember what it was like being a senior in college again.

1. The first is from Kurt Vonnegut's triumph of popular fabulation [1], Timequake:

Trout again confronted him, saying, "Wake up! Wake up! You've got free will again, and there's work to do!" And so on.


Trout had an inspiration! Instead of trying to sell the concept of free will, which he himself didn't believe in, he said this: "You've been very sick! Now you're well again. You've been very sick! Now you're well again."

That mantra worked!

2. From the late nineteenth century Chinese and Japanese Art scholar Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea:

Charles Lamb, a professed devotee, sounded the true note of Teaism when he wrote that the greatest pleasure he knew was to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident. For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humour itself,--the smile of philosophy.

3. Here is another one that I just remembered from Denise Levertov ("I learned that her name was Proverb"). I wouldn't call it 'amusing' like the first two, but it is nice:

those we meet for only
one crucial moment, gaze to gaze
or for years know and don't recognize

but of whom later a word
sings back to us
as if from high among leaves
still near but beyond sight

drawing us from tree to tree
towards the time and the unknown place
where we shall know
what it is to arrive

[1] If anyone from Berkley Publishing Group is reading this, please feel free to put "'A triumph of popular fabulation' --Matt Reed" on the back of any future printings of the novel.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Asceticism and the Environment (Part I)

This year the Lent began with Al Gore receiving an Oscar for his film, An Inconvenient Truth.

When I was growing up, conservatives often took the position that global warming was a hoax concocted as a sort of desperate rear guard action by environmentalists, a rather silly set of extremists who for some bizarre reason found the Triumph of Capitalism unpalatable. Times have changed [1] and the globe seems to be warming, and the phenomenon has now been given the move neutral and inclusive moniker "Climate Change." One of the arguments from the Right, currently, seems to be that the climate may be changing, but the it couldn't possibility be caused by humans. The argument seems to be that the world is too vast, too intricate and complex, that humans are to small in comparison to make any serious dent in it.

I am not interested really in the politics of the situation or the validity (or lack thereof) of the conservative viewpoint. What I am interested in is the fact that the argument is at least superficially plausible. There seems to be something shocking in the notion that humans could actually destroy the world. It seems arrogant and audacious. What is interesting to me is that Christianity is even more audacious, even more radical than the most fervent environmentalist, because for the Christian human choices did not only cause the rivers and streams of the world to be polluted or the ice caps to melt, but also and further and more deeply, human choice caused the entry of all the pain and death into the world, human choices are the source of both the physical and spiritual pollution that exists in the world. Talk about audacity. We have really messed things up, and we can't fix what we've done to Creation by simply buying a hybrid car.

In his book, The Doors of the Sea, the theologian David Bentley Hart puts it this way:

Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces -- whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance -- that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. And we are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological ages and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends: and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness. That ours is a fallen world is not, of course, a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe: it is not a first principle of faith, but rather something revealed to us only by what we know of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time.

This is truly the Christian message, but it is a message that would be incomprehensible to someone who believes that human actions cannot affect the world. But the implication is that the universe (that is, Creation) is in a far worse situation that we might otherwise think, that even if we could, through rigorous public policy and sweeping sacrifice by all the billions of people in the world, even if we were to stop global warming and set right the environmental abuses which we have caused over the past centuries--and we should at least try to do that I think, even then we would still be not all that much better for it.

Christian Environmentalism[2] I believe should be more radical, more audacious than Political Environmentalism. So what does that mean, and where should we begin? I am going to suggest over the next couple blog posts that the answer is Asceticism. Wendell Berry once wrote that the best thing you can do for the environment is to start a garden. This is good advice. But I think the best thing you can do for the environment is to fast.

It seems counterintuitive. It seems that asceticism is the opposite of what we need because it seems to be somehow rejecting the physical world. It seems that the Christian idea of a 'fallen' world would suggest the the earth is not worth saving and might encourage the sort of abuses that we've seen in the industrial West, which has after all Christian roots. Well, it may seem that way, but this is only part 1. And it's getting rather late. So, to be continued...

[1] For the most part. There was a rather colorful Texan manager at a company I used to work for who, based on the air-tight logic that it happened to be a cold day, threatened to shoot anyone who anyone who said anything about global warming.

[2] I say 'Environmentalism' only because 'Creationism' is (Alas!) already taken by Protestant fundamentalists.

You should read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot

Quick: What's your all time top 5 favorite Dostoevsky novels? Here's mine:

1. The Brothers Karamazov
2. The Idiot
3. Crime and Punishment
4. Demons
5. The Gambler

But I don't really want to write about that. Instead, I want to write about a subject that is rather near to my heart: underlining. Now, as a study technique I am sure there are times when it can't be avoided. Still, there is a special kind of despair one feels after purchasing a perfectly good looking book (say, a hardback Modern Library edition of The Wind in the Willows or the second volume of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation) from a used bookshop only to discover upon further investigation that the innards have been marked up beyond recognition by highlightings, underlinings, and banal scribbled notes. It affects me more, perhaps, than the average reader because I am vain and neurotic, and I begin imagining that upon my death whoever inherits my library will suspect that I was the one who wrote those aforementioned banal scribblings and went about playing fast and loose with yellow highlighters.

I experienced this feeling with particular force several years back when I bought a 2 dollar paperback of The Idiot [1]. There is an interesting scene early on in the novel where some of the characters (trying, I believe, to impress their female host) play a game where they each tell a story of how they have behaved shamelessly. The first two, the more sophisticated gentleman, give accounts where they are ostensibly shameful but in fact the stories are meant to disguised self-praise. The third, a depraved young man, tells his story straightforwardly and artlessly and he certainly behaved shamefully. None of them come off very well. Anyway, the previous owner of my book had written in the margin:
Note: All of the 'shameful"[sic] stories are ones in which the teller went unpunished.

I mean, that's not even germane. So, if you happen to inherit my library, please know that I didn't write that.

Now, please go read The Idiot. It's a really a great novel no matter what is written in the margins.[2]

[1] The Signet Classic edition, translated by Henry and Olga Carlisle.

[2] But be warned: when I originally read it years ago, it had such a traumatic affect on me that it cause me to be depressed for a week after I finished. But don't worry, I'm ok now.

I have travelled a good deal in Oakland

The American poet William Carlos Williams wrote in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

I cannot say
that I have gone to hell
for your love

but often
found myself there
in your pursuit

I do not like it
and wanted to be
in heaven. Hear me out.

Do not turn away.[1]

My high-priced liberal education tells me he is alluding to the Homeric Epic and in particular Virgil's Aeneid. I think I kind of know what Aeneas and Dr. Williams were going through, because today I got separated from friends in the Carnegie Natural History Museum. One of the neat things about getting lost in a natural history museum is that in a single half hour, you feel as though you've traveled the world in search of your objective. So, when I finally found my friends (gazing peacefully and innocently at Japanese prints in an entirely different building), I had searched for them through the arid deserts and dark tombs of Egypt and Mesopotamia, through prehistoric forests of what would become modern Denmark, by the bones of all manner of extinct mammals, the cold igloos of the Inuit Arctic, through the gritty streets of London's lesser known neighborhoods, through cathedral portals of Gothic France, and past a multitude of depressingly plastic people.

But the entire day was worth it because in a hallway of glass cases filled with extinct avian taxidermy, examples of primitive stone tools, and suchlike I saw a poster with the following helpful advice:

Don't feel bad for neolithic woodcutters!


[1] (from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1938.) Forgive me: I can't get the formatting correct in Html and the lines look different in the original. Anyway, later on in the same poem, he gives us this gem:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack

of what is found there.