Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Christian Option: Dreher’s Opaque Vision for America and Beyond

I would like to welcome my husband, Chris, who is guest blogging today.  I hope you enjoy his writing and insights as much as I do!

“The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring--and Christians must live in both realities….You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously.”

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s best-selling, much-debated work, is a book of paradoxes. In fact, it says much without really saying anything at all. Dreher is a journalist, not an academic, and makes his points by weaving together anecdotes and quotations from people he has interviewed and writers he admires. The author thus sketches for the reader an outline of what he means by The Benedict Option without ever really coming out and saying it directly. By the end of the book, one cannot really be sure what The Benedict Option even is or how it might differ from just living a faithful, Christian life.

However, as in any great paradox, there is present much light as well as shadow. Dreher has presented the reader with much wisdom in an age which often lacks it. Employing the motif of the Benedictine monk, the author exhorts the reader to recover traditional Christian practices and ways of thinking. In fact, one blogger lists 43 propositions from The Benedict Option, most of which should not be controversial for the faithful Christian. “Recover fasting,” “Immerse students in Scripture,” and “Maintain the importance of a Christian sexual ethic” are some of the tenets of according to this summary of the BenOp (as Dreher abbreviates it on his blog).

What then is the chief aspect of the Benedict Option that draws such controversy and attention? It’s not a reminder about fasting or even sexual ethics. It’s the “head for the hills” thinking that some readers of The Benedict Option take away for the work. In other words, most people who hear about the BenOp or read the book themselves seem to come away with the impression that the Benedict Option’s main message is that the Church should turn inward, undertake a “strategic retreat” in order to preserve Christianity for future generations, much like the first Benedictines did during the fall of the Roman Empire and Western Civilization during the fifth century.

Of course the secular audience who read or reviewed the book loved this. After all, if you’re convinced that Christianity is dangerous to the project of a flourishing civil society—or at least irrelevant to it—the idea of a prominent work of Christian thinking recommending that Christians retreat from all levels of society is very attractive. In his chapter on work, for example, Dreher states that some professions (like medicine and law) may one day soon become too hostile for a Christian in good conscience to participate in them. He even goes so far to say that it might be best for some white-collar Christians to abandon their intellectual labor and instead work in factories in rural parts of the U.S. in order to avoid the society we live in which is becoming precipitously hostile to Christianity. Were people of faith and good character to flee from medicine and law (and the other professions), how impoverished would our society become and how much worse would be the culture and practice of these lines of work?

The idea seems to be that we are experiencing “The Great Flood” again (as the first chapter is entitled) and, like Noah and his family, we as orthodox Christians are being called by God to build a figurative ark by banding together, retreating from mainstream society, and surviving the Flood together so that a new, Christian society can rise up upon the earth once the flood waters recede.

However, is that really what the Benedict Option is all about? Or at least mostly about? I would argue that it is not. However, it is difficult to present a case for what the Benedict Option really means when Dreher himself seems not to present an coordinated definition of and argument for it. In fact, what sort of thing is the Benedict Option? Is it a movement? A way of life? Dreher calls it a “strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation.”

So it seems that the Benedict Option is meant exclusively for Christians, not all peoples. It splits the world into Christians and non-Christians and focuses on those who are already, as he often calls them, “orthodox with a small ‘o’.” The Benedict Option is thus for the true believers, for the “insiders,” for those who belong in the ark and not for the mass of men seemingly destined for perdition. However, is this really what Christianity is about? Is the faith a country club that you either belong to or you don’t, and whose members should seek their own salvation to the exclusion of concern for the salvation of others?

Again, the seemingly slippery Benedict Option seems to say this and not say it at the same time. Two prominent examples of Benedict Option communities are the Catholic families in Hyattsville, Maryland, centered around St. Jerome’s Church, whose ordinary parish school is now a nationally-recognized classical academy, and the Tipi Loschi (Italian for the “Usual Suspects”) a loosely organized group of Catholic families living in Italy who are inspired by Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati’s small network of friends who attempted to live “in the world, but not of it.”

What is ironic is that both of these groups are growing rapidly, adding to their numbers by being open to the world around them and attracting others to join their project of what Dreher calls “intentional living.” These communities are both the “Ark and the Wellspring” the images with which the author closes his work, harkening back to the vessel of Noah’s safety in the storm and also the holy waters which overflow from the Temple to reach the very ends of the earth according to Ezekiel's vision. For Dreher, the Church must be both an Ark and a Wellspring, a refuge in the storm and a saving message meant to reach all peoples.

Perhaps the Benedict Option is really just plain Christianity, a new name for living a Christian life. If that is the case, then all men should have the option to choose to live it and no other option is greater. The Benedict Option is really the “Christian Option,” one that God, in his great goodness, grants to all of us if only we, in our freedom, accept it.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Lessons from Dracula

"The blood is the life."

Before reading Bram Stoker's Dracula, my associations with the book included bats, sharp fangs, blood, and garlic.  Never did I connect Dracula with my faith.  However, upon finishing the novel, I can definitively say that it is an extremely Catholic book.

First, a look at the antagonist.  Dracula is vile, repulsive, corrupt, sinister, and cunning.  He literally sucks life from his victim, condemning him or her to his same state of "un-dead"--eternally roaming about the world seeking the ruin of other souls.  In a grotesque reversal of Christ shedding his blood on the cross to give eternal life, Dracula sucks blood to condemn his victims to share in his punishment.  Dracula is powerful and possesses a strength and abilities beyond mere man.  

Never did I imagine such wrath and fury, even to the

demons of the pit.  His eyes were positively blazing.  The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell fire blazed behind them.  His face was deathly pale, and the lines in it were hard like drawn wires; the thick eyebrows that met over the nose now seemed liked a heaving bar of white-hot metal. 

As Edward Mordrake writes in Crises Magazine, Dracula is the Anti-Christ: he is often in the shadows, working in the periphery tempting and seducing; Dracula cannot enter where he is not first invited; he seeks worship and fears Christ.  His name itself means "dragon," a title used for the devil.  Dracula also pointedly assumes the name De Ville while in London (a clear play on the word "devil").

The heroes who battle against this demonic foe are led by Dr. Van Helsing--a Catholic who makes their mission clearly evangelistic.  Simply put: they are laboring to free souls for Christ.

Thus are we ministers of God's own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him.  He have allowed us to redeem one soul already, and we go out as the old knights of the Cross to redeem more.  Like them we shall travel towards the sunrise; and like them, if we fall, we fall in good cause.  

It is a supernatural battle they wage and their weapons are likewise spiritual.  The vampires recoil in terror when confronted with the cross of Christ.  Rosary beads are clutched in one hand, as effective as the gun held in the other hand.  When Van Helsing leads his group of men to a vampire's lair at night, he begins to seal the tomb, to prevent the vampire from being able to enter.

"I am closing the tomb, so that the Un-Dead may not enter."

"What is that which you are using?"  This time the question was by Arthur.

Van Helsing reverently lifted his hat as he answered:--

"The Host."

A fragment of the Eucharist cleanses the earth, inhibiting Dracula from seeking refuge in his coffin.  

Not all of the heroes are Catholic; most are Protestant.  Jonathan Harker, who opens the novel by traveling to Dracula's castle in Translyvania, is Protestant and initially is rebuffed by the idea of sacramentals.  However, by later in the novel, he carries a crucifix in full faith of its power.  

D. Bruno Starrs, in his article Keeping the Faith: Catholicism in "Dracula" and Its Adaptations, notes that Harker first confronts Dracula alone in his castle and is subsequently defeated.  This solitariness is reflective, perhaps, of the individual testimony that frequently characterizes the Protestant faith.  But in the end, Harker joins a community of believers and it is only through their communal effort--symbolizing the body of the Church--that they destroy the evil that is Dracula.

There is a Marian influence, too, through the character of Mina.  She is the virtuous woman who inspires and guides the group of men battling Dracula.  Van Helsing lauds her the group's "star and our hope," which may be a reference to the Blessed Mother's titles "Star of the Sea" and "Our Lady of Hope."

While many contemporary scholars interpret Bram's novel through a Freudian lens, reading Dracula as a description of the Victorian woman's repressed sexuality may be an assertion of today's obsession with sexual matters upon the work.  Take, for example, one scene: Lucy (who is one of Dracula's victims and has become a vampire herself) is freed from her "un-dead" state by her fiance Arthur, who drives a wooden stake through her heart.  

The Freudian interpretation states this excerpt is a symbol of sexual intercourse.  Lucy, a sexually-driven young woman, sought to freely express and pursue her sexual drives by becoming involved with Dracula.  This action threatened the Victorian social norms for women, so Lucy's fiance ended her wantonness by subduing her through the sexual act (symbolized by his driving the wooden stake deeply through her).  Lucy was restored to a monogamous, marital relationship with a man and was, therefore, saved.  

Or so says one interpretation.

The sheer volume of Catholic imagery and themes in Bram's work seem to place greater weight and plausibility to another way of reading Dracula.  Lucy is not a woman with driving sexual desires; she is an innocent, chaste girl who is a victim of Dracula's evil.  She deserves the reader's sympathy.  In this scene, her fiance performs a courageous act of sacrificial love in freeing her soul from its captivity in her un-dead body.  Lucy is liberated through the wooden stake, symbolic of the wood of the cross that frees us from sin.  After the deed, Van Helsing urges Arthur:

And now, my child, you may kiss her.  Kiss her dead lips, if you will, as she would have you to, if for her to choose.  For she is not a grinning devil now--not any more a foul Thing for all eternity.  No longer is she the devil's Un-Dead.  She is God's true dead, whose soul is with Him!

Dracula is a novel about blood: the blood of the demon who gives death as well as the Blood of Christ who gives life.

Considering that Stoker's novel was the trailblazer, laying the foundation and precedent for developing vampire mythology, it is fascinating (and troubling) to reflect on modern-day adaptations of his work.

Stephenie Meyer wrote her widely-popular Twilight novels, a series centered on the romance between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.  She develops Edward, through Bella's eyes, as seemingly perfect.  Readers have fallen in love with the character.  He is strikingly handsome, irresistibly attractive, strong, intelligent, wealthy.  Oh--and he is a vampire.

However, this latter point is no deterrent for Bella.  She insists Edward is not the "bad guy."  She is willing to risk her life to be with him.  She is even willing to risk her soul. 

Twilight's opening page begins with a quote from Genesis: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (2:17).  Similarly, the cover art of the book displays two pale hands, offering a red apple.

The forbidden fruit in Genesis represents evil and sin.  The correct reaction to a vampire--who is evil--should be repulsion, fear, and disgust.  

Meyer took what Stoker created and completely reversed it.  The vampire is the hero: he is no demon, but a demi-god.  Heaven is not the goal of this life; eternal life here, as a vampire, is Bella's singular pursuit.  

In Twilight, what was intrinsically evil--a symbol of the devil--becomes a god, the source and origin of all Bella's happiness.  

Dr. Daniel McInerny states in his lecture "Sucking the Life from Our Children: Hollywood and the Romance of the Living Dead" that Edward and Bella, by being together, break a series of prohibitions.  It is in this disobedience that they find a version of innocence and salvation.  In the book, Edward makes a comment about the lion lying down with the lamb--a Biblical image that refers to a time of peace and harmony.  Christ has not brought about this era; Bella and Edward have by their disobedience.

Ultimately in the series, Bella does die and becomes a vampire.  But here's the catch: like the Genesis quote, she takes the forbidden fruit and dies.  Yet, this is her happy ending!  Condemnation here on earth, her mortal soul bound as an Un-Dead, is her blissful, happy-ever-after with Edward.  

This book was a New York Time's bestseller.  Millions of children, teenagers, and young adults eagerly read the novels.  I understand it: at the time, I was one of them.  Now, in retrospect, I cringe.  I cringe at the writing and plot, but even more so at the distortion of good and evil. 

Many faithful Christians condemn the Harry Potter books (a controversy I will not enter--at least in this post).  It seems that Twilight should at least be equally avoided and criticized.  Its protagonists find eternal joy in each other's eternal punishment.  

In light of Dracula, the darkness of Twilight is profound.    

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lessons from Great Expectations

"Now, I return to this young fellow.  And the communication I have to to make is, that he has Great Expectations...I am instructed to communicate to him...that he will come into a handsome property.  Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman--in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations."

Charles Dickens' novel, Great Expectations, is the coming-of-age story of protagonist Philip Pirrip, or "Pip."  It is Dickens' penultimate novel, published serially from 1860-1861.  The narration is first person point of view--Dickens' only second book to be written so.

Pip is an orphan who is begrudgingly raised by his belligerent  older sister (Mrs. Joe) and her quiet, humble husband Joe, who is a blacksmith.  Pip's future seems quite obvious: he will work in the forge with Joe, initially as an apprentice and perhaps in time, as a partner.

Then, as ofttimes happens in life, everything changes with one pivotal event.

That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me.  But it is the same with any life.  Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been.  Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Pip's memorable day is when he is invited to visit Satis House, the affluent home of eccentric, heartbroken Miss Havisham.  The word "satis" comes from Latin and means "enough."  Pip is introduced to a social status he has never encountered before.  He also meets Havisham's adopted daughter, the stunningly beautiful Estella.  Pip is instantly captivated by her and simultaneously crestfallen by the realization that he is not "enough" for her.  He is just a coarse boy whom she mocks.

As his visits to Miss Havisham become regular, Pip hopes that she will employ her wealth to make him a gentleman, that he will be destined for Estella.  As these longings take root in his heart, his former path of labor in the forge becomes despicable.  When Joe--kind-hearted Joe who has taken care of Pip and loves him as a son--meets Miss Havisham, Pip is overcome with embarrassment on account of Joe's unpolished social skills and irregular dress.  

Pip's ambitions for his life have changed and the temptation for something better darkens what was once perceived to be a happy future.  For Pip, there is no contentment as he perceives the rungs of the social ladder and contemplates his lowly status.  

...I would decide conclusively that my disaffection to dear old Joe and the forge, was gone, and that I was growing up in a fair way to be partners with Joe and to keep company with Biddy--when all in a moment some confounding remembrance of the Havisham days would fall upon me, like a destructive missile, and scatter my wits again.  Scattered wits take a long time picking up; and often, before I had got them well together, they would be dispersed in all directions by one stray thought, that perhaps after all Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune when my time was out.

Then, abruptly and unexpectedly, Pip's fortune changes--literally and figuratively.  He is informed by a lawyer that a benefactor (who wishes to remain nameless for the time being) has elected to endow Pip with a substantial sum of money, with the intent of making him a gentleman.  Pip has received his "great expectations." 

He prepares to move for London.  Already, in his mind, Pip is now delineated from Joe and his kind-hearted friend Biddy.  With his wealth, Pip has reached a new social strata.  And, while Pip is anxious to begin the life he has longed for--the life of a gentleman--he is surprised to find that the first night of his great expectations is also the loneliest.  

Pip relocates to the city, but again, it isn't exactly what he anticipated.  

We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their mind to give us.  We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition.  There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did.  To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one.

Often, in spite of his superior social ranking and affluence, Pip longs for the kitchen fire at home.

Pip operates under the understanding that Miss Havisham is his anonymous donor.  But in a stunning revelation, Pip learns that his great benefactor is no lofty social figure, member of an admired family, or respected leader.  Instead, it is a convict named Magwitch whom young Pip had (reluctantly) helped escape many years ago.  The convict was grateful for the kindness extended to him.  He remembered Pip and, though an outlaw removed from society, Magwitch sought to prove his worth by fashioning his own gentleman.  

"Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman on you!  It's me wot has done it!  I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you.  I swore arterwards, sure as ever I spec'lated and got rich, you should get rich.  I lived rough, that you should live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work.  What odds, dear boy?  Do I tell it fur you to feel a obligation?  Not a bit.  I tell it, fur you to know as that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in, got his head so high that he could make a gentleman--and, Pip, you're him!" 

Pip believed himself above his humble beginnings.  Yet, it was someone even less refined and more an outcast who made him a gentleman.  Nothing was as he expected at all: the experience of being rich, the identity of his benefactor, the source of happiness and contentment.  

Magwitch, in endowing Pip with so much money, enabled the young man to leave a course already chartered for him.  That seems like something positive, but...what if the life already planned for him was a good one?  Maybe, even, a better one?

Magwitch, in many ways, used Pip to achieve dreams that were out of Magwitch's reach.  The convict himself could never become a true gentleman; the next best thing was to make one of someone else.  Magwitch, in other words, was striving to live vicariously through Pip.  

A parallel dynamic occurs between Miss Havisham and Estella.

Miss Havisham, with quite different motivations, was doing the same with her adopted daughter, Estella.  Left heartbroken at the altar, Miss Havisham lives with constant anguish and regret: she still wears her withered wedding gown and her untouched wedding cake rots on the table in her room.  Driven by this bitterness, Miss Havisham rears Estella as the vehicle for enacting revenge on the male race.  Estella, therefore, is not taught affection or love.  She is taught to entice, captivate, and coldly break hearts.

"It seems," said Estella, very calmly, "that there are sentiments, fancies--I don't know how to call them--which I am not able to comprehend.  When you say you love me, I know what you mean, as a form of words; but nothing more.  You address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there.  I don't care for what you say at all.  I have tried to warn you of this; now, have I not?" 

Magwitch and Miss Havisham take the experiences and pains of their lives and project them onto their adopted children.  Rejected by society, Magwitch wants to elevate Pip to the upper social class.  Heartbroken by a man, Miss Havisham guides Estella to emotionally ravage men.  

But what these two forget is that Pip and Estella are their own people, with their own personalities, futures, dreams, and vocations.

When Pip is removed from the home he has known, with the good people who have reared him and taught him, Pip is thrust into another world--a world that is not exactly beneficial for him.  Pip often reflects that he has not actually accomplished anything as a gentleman.  He also incurs debt, thus ultimately possessing less money than before his expectations.  

Had Pip been left alone at the forge, while he would have yearned for Estella and high society for awhile, in time he would have accepted his place and been happy for it.  But instead, someone else's expectations disturbed and disrupted the path set before Pip.

Pip and Estella follow different, yet parallel, paths of internalizing their own personal desires.  Through the suffering that accompanies living another's desires and ambitions, both begin to see their true way in life.  

In time, Pip comes to see that his humble home at the forge is not a place to disparage, but a treasure to cherish.  And the gentleman he hopes to aspire to is not to be found in London, but in the unassuming Joe whose kindness is unwavering.  Here indeed is a gentle man.

I had not been mistaken in my fancy that there was a simple dignity in him.  The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words, than it could come in its way in Heaven.

Pip's transformation and change through the novel is beautiful.  His self-realization as he perceives his faults is profound, while his efforts to correct his shortcomings impressive.  Narrated in first-person, the reader comes to know Pip and his feelings so intimately. Dickens has crafted an outstanding book.

As a parent, it is a reminder that my children are not me.  They have their own unique interests and talents.  The struggles I had had may not be theirs.  The dreams I have dreamt may not be theirs.  And for me to project my life's experiences onto them and their wide, open futures may hamper and destroy what will ultimately bring them the greatest joy: living God's will for their lives, not mine.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Lessons from A Little Princess

"It had been hard to be a princess today, Melchisedec," she said.  "It has been harder than usual.  It gets harder as the weather grows colder and the streets get more sloppy.  When Lavinia laughed at my muddy skirt as I passed her in the hall, I thought of something to say all in a flash--and I only just stopped myself in time.  You can't sneer back at people like that--if you are a princess.  But you have to bite your tongue to hold yourself in."

Sara Crewe, protagonist of Frances Hodson Burnett's A Little Princess, seemed to be living a royal life.  Though her mother had died when Sara was quite young, she was raised by an adoring father who lavished her with attention, affection, and gifts.  Money was not lacking, so Sara wore the finest of clothing and played with the most exquisite dolls--dolls who had their own luxurious wardrobe. 

Captain Crewe, who is stationed in India, decides to enroll Sara in a private boarding school in London, run by Miss Minchin.  Sara enjoys special privileges there, such as her own room and maid, as well as a carriage and pony.

Yet, despite this finery, Sara remains a humble, generous, and kind girl.  She seeks out the chubby, slow-witted Ermengarde as a friend and becomes an adoptive "mother" to Lottie, the little girl who throws tantrums.  Sara also finds ways to comfort and help the serving maid, Becky.

Sara speculates about her position in life, realizing that she has been blessed.  It is easy to be kind when life is easy; how do we act when our comforts are removed?  It is not as though we are entitled to a hot shower, a car with no dead battery, or short lines in the grocery store.  

"Things happen to people by accident," she used to say.  "A lot of nice accidents have happened to me.  It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them.  It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked.  Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered?"

Then, abruptly, Sara's comforts are completely gone.  Her father dies.  Her fortune disappears.  She is penniless and alone, without any family at all.  From princess to pauper, Sara moves to the attic with Becky and toils long hours for Miss Minchin, cleaning, tutoring, and running errands through the sludge and cold of the London streets.

Sara is stripped of everything she had, but there is one gift left that even poverty and the abuse she receives from Miss Minchin cannot take away: her imagination.

Sara is gifted with an incredible ability to create stories that become as real and vivid as reality.  Before her father's death, she would captivate the other students with her tales.  

When she sat or stood in the midst of a circle and began to invent wonderful things, her green eyes grew big and shining, her cheeks flushed, and, without knowing that she was doing it, she began to act and made what she told lovely or alarming by the raising or dropping of her voice, the bend and sway of her slim body, and the dramatic movement of her hands.

Thus her bare attic room with the broken fireplace, threadbare blanket, and single window becomes her cell in the Bastille and she communicates with the other "prisoner" (Becky) through secret knocks.  Sara imagines herself a solider, who must march on through battle, despite thirstiness, wounds, or hunger.

She stares at the large family who lives nearby, brothers and sisters who have a loving father and mother.  Sara gives them pretend names and feels affection for them, though she has never met them.  

Most importantly, it is her imagination that allows her to maintain her spirit of kindliness and generosity.  For though she is penniless, Sara can still remain a princess  in her actions.  

"Whatever comes," she said, " cannot alter one thing.  If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.  It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold , but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it." 

And that is how she conducts herself through her suffering: as a princess in disguise.  When she faces Miss Minchin's irrational wrath or scolding from the staff, Sara remains silent, fighting back her words to maintain a composure fitting royalty.  For, as she explains, the only thing stronger than rage is being able to hold it in.

Imagination allows Sara to find joys in the small things, just as much as she had in her wealth before.  It helps her give, even when the cost is great.  On one occasion, Sara, completely famished, finds a sixpence in the muddy streets and buys six fresh buns from the bakery.  She spies another young girl, more destitute and starving than herself, huddled in the street.  

"If I'm a princess," she was saying, "if I'm a princess--when they were poor and driven from their thrones--they always shared--with the populace--if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves.  They always shared ... "

Sara gives her widow's mite.  She shares in her poverty because she is a princess. 

Imagination is a curious thing.  It is unique to humans.  With it we can perceive something beyond the concrete here and now.  Sara saw beyond her rags and the injustice of her condition.  Her imagination allowed her to infuse a supernatural purpose to everything she did.  It gave her strength and courage to be generous when giving truly hurt.  

Sara was a princess, a reality that became more brazenly obvious when it was disguised behind her beggar's apparel. 

But we are all royalty by our baptismal birthright.  God is King of Kings and we?  We are His sons and daughters--princes and princesses.  If we can imagine that ... if we can make that mental picture as vivid and powerful as Sara was able ... then how differently would we live our lives?  

Beyond my social class, profession, or possessions, would my actions, words, and disposition show me to be a daughter of the King?  


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Lessons from The Hobbit

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

Mr. Bilbo Baggins, protagonist of Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, is involuntarily recruited to participate in an adventure.  He is not the adventuresome type (or, rather, he doesn't believe himself to be) and would much prefer the comfort of a second breakfast and his feather-bed.  Yet, to Bilbo's astonishment, he finds himself on a most unexpected and dangerous journey.

His companions are a company of twelve dwarves, the leader of which is Thorin Oakenshield.  Their destination is the Lonely Mountain, Thorin's homeland where the dwarves had long ago mined an underground home and crafted precious treasures of gold, silver, and gems.  Yet, all had been stolen from them: a fierce and terrifying dragon named Smaug took control of the mountain, killing and pillaging all in his path. 

The dwarves are now determined to reclaim their long lost treasure, even if it means risking their lives.

Past trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and wolves the dwarves and Bilbo persevere.  They journey through the dark and dreaded Mirkwood Forest.  And yet, as fearsome as these dangers are, they are nothing to be compared with what awaits them on the Lonely Mountain.

Indeed, Tolkien builds the suspense as the dwarves and Bilbo finally reach the desolation of Smaug, the ravaged territory claimed by him in which no one dares venture.  

It was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one.  There was no laughter or song or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of the old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom.  They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end.  The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair.  There was little grass, and before long there was neither brush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.  They were coming to the Desolation of the Dragon ...

Bilbo, aided by the ring that makes him invisible, ventures alone down the dark tunnels of the mountain until he finds Smaug, fast asleep on a bed of gold and riches.  Enlisted as Burglar of the group, Bilbo fulfills his job responsibilities and seizes a goblet.  Returning to the dwarves, they are overjoyed at seeing a small portion of their treasure restored ... until Smaug awakens and immediately realizes that one of his prized possessions is absent.  

It seems the battle of all battles is begun.  The dwarves and Bilbo barely escape with their lives as they hide in an interior tunnel as Smaug smashes and obliterates the side of the mountain they had first entered.  Smaug then seeks vengeance on Lake-town, whose human residents had aided the dwarves.  And it is there that the loathsome dragon is actually shot and killed.

The plot had taken a most unexpected turn.  Tolkien had been very methodical in the unfolding of events.  Bilbo and the dwarves would alternate between danger and a period of safety and regrouping as they traversed the land.  It had been clear that Smaug was the biggest threat ... or was he?  I was a little let-down that Smaug had been destroyed so quickly.  Where was the battle?  Where was the all-consuming fire of the heinous beast?

What I had not foreseen was that the ultimate battle was a much greater one--more deadly than warfare with a scaled, winged reptile.  And the battlefield is interior.

Once Smaug absented himself, Bilbo and the dwarves explored the treasure.  Thorin in particular was searching for the Arkenstone, the most magnificent gem of all that was fashioned in the very heart of the mountain.  (Unbeknownst to him, Bilbo--in true burglar fashion--had earlier secretly pocketed the gem, considering it his promised portion of the wealth.)  

The dwarves were overjoyed to once again hold in their hands the precious objects that had been theirs long ago.  But something about touching the gold and having it in their grasp awakened certain desires and feelings ...

But also he did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.  Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him.  Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.

Once Smaug is destroyed by the Lake-men, they come to the Lonely Mountain.  They want a portion of the treasure to help rebuild their homes, which had been destroyed by Smaug's wrath.  Their leader, the slayer of Smaug, also explains that a portion of the gold had long ago been promised to the city and rightfully belonged to them.

It was all very reasonable and just.  Distributing some of the wealth in such a way would still leave an outstanding amount in the hands of the dwarves.

Yet, Thorin rejects the requests and promises war upon any who seek his treasure.  He is King Under the Mountain and the gold belongs to him.

Tension mount and weapons are sharpened.  The battle is not with the dragon, but with those who should be allies and friends.  And it is all wildly spinning out of control because the interior battle inside Thorin's heart has been lost.

Greed and lust reign in the heart of him who could bring peace to a region that had long been plagued by Smaug.  

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil ... " (1 Timothy 6:10).

How often have we seen the destructive nature of money and the lure of wealth?  It divides families: money is the leading cause of disagreement in relationships.  How many celebrities, with a personal wealth in the millions, begin a downward spiral of destructive behavior?

The foil to Thorin is, of course, Bilbo.  When the party sets out from Bilbo's house as the narrative opens, it is Thorin who appears the leader.  He and the other dwarves complain about the burden Bilbo is to their group.  But as The Hobbit proceeds, Bilbo comes forward as the unexpected head of operations.  His cleverness and courage come to the dwarves' rescue multiple times.

And when Thorin is defeated by the love of money, Bilbo's simplicity is his defense.  The treasures in Bilbo's heart are not lofty, but they are precious.  His treasure is home with its green fields and hot tea kettle.  

Thus, when they are at the brink of war, Bilbo gives the prized Arkenstone to the Lake-men, in hopes it would be sufficient leverage to make peace with Thorin.  The hobbit forfeits his share in the treasure--his reward for the perilous quest--for a greater good.

Is it not a great wealth to be happy and content with little?

Tolkien's Middle Earth is, without a doubt, very different from our Earth.  However, the central battle of his novel is one being waged today.  How much do I value money?  Do I let it control and direct my life and actions?  Am I able to detach from what I possess and keep my heart centered on the much greater treasures in heaven?

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lessons from The Three Muskateers

Many might take for their device the epithet of strong, which formed the second part of his [Treville's] motto, but very few nobles could lay claim to the faithful, which constituted the first.  Treville was one of the latter.  His was one of those rare organizations, endowed with an obedient intelligence like that of the dog, with a blind valour, a quick eye, and a prompt hand.

Alexandre Dumas' classic The Three Muskateers follows the adventures of four--not three--men.  The protagonist is the bold, crafty, and ambitious D'Artagnan who aspires to the rank of muskateer.  Then there is the triad of men who comprise the three muskateers reflected in the book's title: Athos, the fatherly figure whose calm, collected wisdom guides the others; Aramis, who yearns to pursue once again his original calling--the priesthood; and Porthos, who is elegantly attired, physically dominating, and a bit slow on the uptake. 

These four, along with the other characters, each take a side in the political drama between the King of France (Louis XIII) and Cardinal Richelieu.  

Perhaps the best-known and most frequently quoted line from The Three Muskateers is D'Artagnan's statement, "All for one, one for all."  Indeed, it seems that loyalty and faithfulness are the virtues most highly treasured in the world of Dumas' historical romance.  

D'Artagnan and the three muskateers pledge their loyalty to the King and his Queen (even when the King himself will not protect her).  And this is how the first major conflict of the book unfolds.  

Queen Anne had given her diamond earrings as a loving token to her admirer, the English Duke of Buckingham.  The Cardinal, aware of this and seeking to embarrass the Queen, sets her up by prodding the King to request that she wear the exact earrings at a ball to be held in her honor.  The Queen desperately needs the earrings back in time or her romantic involvement with the Duke will be exposed.

D'Artagnan springs into action, along with the three muskateers who, without so much as hearing the purpose of the adventure, willingly risk their lives (and take the lives of others) to enable D'Artagnan to obtain the earrings back from the Duke.

This was precisely the point at which I seriously reconsidered my dedication to completing the novel.  

Loyalty is an outstanding virtue, but where should our loyalty ultimately lie?

"Yes," said he [the Duke of Buckingham], "yes, Anne of Austria is my true Queen; upon a word from her, I would betray my country, I would betray my King--I would betray my God."

It was difficult for me to rally behind D'Artagnan and the muskateers when their quest was based on loyalty to a Queen who was not loyal herself.  They were defending her honor, but how was she honorable?  She was defiling her marital vows by entanglement with another man--not to mention a man from enemy country.  

This carte blanche of faithfulness, when bestowed upon another (fallible) human, is not always virtue, but instead the opposite: a means of vice.  

Thankfully, the second half of the book was much more gripping and offered more gravitas than exploits involving a set of earrings.  Dumas introduces the principal villain: a stunningly beautiful woman and Cardinalist spy who goes by the alias of Milady.  She is a fascinating character: eerily malicious, vengeful, and master of deceit.

"You are not a woman," said Athos, coldly and sternly; "you do not belong to the human species: you are a demon escaped from hell..."

D'Artagnan becomes involved with her when, his romantic advances rejected, he poses as Milady's true lover and sleeps with her, under of pretense of being someone else.  The episode leads to D'Artagnan learning a condemning secret about Milady and her subsequent efforts to seek revenge.

Milady dreamed that she at length had d'Artagnan in her power, that she was present at his execution, and it was the sight of his odious blood, flowing beneath the axe of the executioner, which spread that charming smile upon her lips. 

What role does honor serve here?  D'Artagnan risks his life to protect the Queen's honor, yet he does not pause when he defaces Milady's honor by taking advantage of her in the worst way possible?  

It is one of many examples of the ambiguity and inconstancy of honor in The Three Muskateers.  But when you are not living by an overarching, unchanging timeless Truth...everything becomes ambiguous.  

In this romantic world Dumas has created, what is the end result of the faithfulness promised by the muskateers to each other?  What is the result when people pledge the ultimate loyalty to each other?

Dissolution.  It was a very somber ending.  The unity was broken, each muskateer going his own way.  

Faithfulness is best when grounded in the unchanging Faith.  

D'Artagnan lauded, "All for one, one for all!"  But perhaps the better refrain is simply: "All for One."  We owe our loyalty and faithfulness to God and through His light we can best see how to honor others.