Ron Moffat: February 2007 Archives

Stability

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Several months ago, I came to a startling realization and I have been trying to work it out ever since. It came about as a result of working on a writing exercise, “Describe your idea writing spot.” I began thinking about that and realized I would first have to start by describing a region, the southwestern United States, specifically, northern New Mexico. I think most great writers are defined by the region of the country they called their own. Think of Dickens and you think of 19th century London, Faulkner and you picture the south, Flannery O’Conner, the same. John Steinbeck is inseparable from Salinas and Monterrey, California, even though he lived his last years in New York. Nathaniel Hawthorne brings up vivid pictures of Salem, Massachusetts. You get the idea. Location, setting, plays a prominent role in most great literature going right back to Scripture. Think about many important events in the Bible – often we are given detailed descriptions of the place where the scene occurs while the people involved go unnamed. Think of the story of the road to Emmaus; we know the name of one of the travelers, but not both. Yet, we know exactly where the road to Emmaus is.

My region would be northern New Mexico; the land haunts me, it is beautiful and stark at the same time. There is no reason that man should survive there, yet there have been American Indian tribes there for ages unknown. The architecture of the place is unlike that anywhere else, the adobe buildings seem to grow up from the ground, as if planted from seeds. It is also full of spirits that seem almost tangible, from those of the Native Americans to those of the first friars to explore the land from Spain; their presence seems to permeate the land, especially their old mission churches near Santa Fe and Taos. When I go into the mission at Taos, I can still see those friars who braved all kinds of danger to bring Christ to the New World, doing so out of great love, both for Christ and the native people they encountered, despite the bum wrap they get today. Their love shows in the Churches they built and the art that fills them.

Location is inescapable for any writer; a story without a setting is no story at all.

While I thought about all this, I came to recall my own conversion to the Church. The recollection was sparked when I stumbled across a book in my library that I had long forgotten about. It is by Fr. Michael Casey titled Sacred Reading¸ about the ancient monastic art of lectio divina, prayer while reading and meditating on Scripture. Lectio, a key element of monastic spirituality, played a critical role in my own conversion because it provided a bridge between the supposed sola scriptura foundation of my Presbyterian youth and the Church. Through the Scriptural foundation of lectio, I saw that faith in the Church, no less than in Protestantism, truly is founded on Scripture. It made straight my path to Rome. Then I remembered that one of the monastic vows made by monks is stability, the promise to remain tied to a certain monastery, a certain location, for life. Then I realized this is the exact opposite of the Franciscan spirituality of the mendicant, the roamer, the friar tied to no specific location.

This all hit me like a lightening bolt. For some time, I have felt that there was something amiss in my trying to follow the spirituality of the Franciscan Third Order, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Suddenly, here was the answer. Location has always played an important part in my own life; I chose to live in west Texas because I loved the land and wanted to be a part of it. I can’t say I feel quite as strongly about Colorado, but I do love the mountains, the exact opposite of the desert. The mountains are an inescapable feature of life here in the Springs.

I realized I had to explore this further, to see if it was real. I have made contact with the Camaldolese in Big Sur about their Oblate program and hope to spend regular time each day this Lent returning to the practice of lectio and reading and meditating on the Camaldolese Oblate Rule. I feel I must come to fully understand monastic spirituality and what it could mean for me.

I don’t know where all of this leads, but I feel it is highly important to follow the trail wherever it goes, even if it leads (figuratively) to a hermit’s cell in the desert. I just wish the desert could be in northern New Mexico.


In Honor of the Birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
The Cross of Snow

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face -- the face of one long dead --
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.


Poetry

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In the last year or so, I have posted a number of poems by great poets without comment. I have done so intentionally, and I thought I should offer a short explanation for these posts.

The most important reason is, simply, that the poems speak for themselves. Most are among those considered great, or classic, and were written more than 100 years ago. Great art, in any form, speaks to what is deepest and best within us; it conveys many layers of meaning. It is both subtle and beautiful. Most of what passes for modern poetry is meaningless tripe, without meaning or beauty. It will be forgotten in less than 50 years. The works of Longfellow, or Robert Southwell, or Auden will be read and enjoyed and pondered for generations to come. The poems I have posted have spoken to me, and I hope they speak to you, too.

In Honor of the Birthday of Edna St. Vincent Milay

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God's World


O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!


Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, -- Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, -- let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

-- Edna St. Vincent Milay

A Permanent Way

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In honor of the birthday of W.H. Auden

A Permanent Way
W.H. Auden

Self-drivers may curse their luck,
Stuck on new-fangled trails,
But the good old train will jog
To the dogma of its rails,

And steam so straight ahead
That I cannot be led astray
By tempting scenes which occur
Along my permanent way.

Intriguing dales escape
Into hills of the shape I like,
Though, were I actually put
Where a foot-path leaves the pike

For some romantic spot,
I should ask what chance there is
Of a least a ten-dollar cheque
Or a family peck of a kiss:

But, forcibly held to my tracks,
I can safely relax and dream
Of a love and a livelihood
To fit that wood or stream;

And what could be greater fun,
Once one has chosen and paid,
Than the inexpensive delight
Of a choice one might have made?

What Does It All Mean?

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The story of Ash Wednesday from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead -- or in case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure -- of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. "We read", he says,


in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.
And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266). It is possible that the notion of penance which was suggested by the rite of Ash Wednesday was was reinforced by the figurative exclusion from the sacred mysteries symbolized by the hanging of the Lenten veil before the sanctuary. But on this and the practice of beginning the fast on Ash Wednesday see LENT.

I wish all a blessed Lenten season.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Ron Moffat in February 2007.

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