Tag Archives: writing

Taking the Right Book: Walking with Mary

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve been trying to make more time for reading actual books lately, as opposed to having nearly all of my reading material come from an electronic screen.  When I started reading “Walking with Mary” by Edward Sri the other day however, I got a few pages in and immediately stopped, because I realized I wanted to read it somewhere other than on the couch.  I saved it to read on a mini-retreat I had last Saturday at the Priory of the Dominican House of Studies here in D.C.; as you will see at the end of this post, it was providential that I did.

In his book, Dr. Sri examines the life of the Virgin Mary from a Biblical perspective, focusing on the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John, and thereby taking us on a spiritual journey along with her, in order to try to understand both her Son and the working of God’s Will in her and indeed in our own lives a bit better.   From the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the young girl in Nazareth, to the sorrowful mother at the foot of the Cross on Calvary, we are reminded that what we know now, Mary did not know then.  Dr. Sri shows us what a truly great woman of faith Mary was, because she did not know how everything was going to play out, only that God had made a promise: her faith that He would keep His promises kept her going, and can help us to keep going as well.

Dr. Sri takes the time to pause and examine words which, when translated into English, we may not stop to think much about, but which in the original text have a more profound significance.  For example, he explains how at the Annunciation, when Mary gives her “Yes” that God’s Will be done and that she bear the Messiah, the word she uses is not one implying meek resignation, but rather a joyful embrace of what is being asked.  In accepting what God wants her to do, Mary does not simply shrug her shoulders and say, “Sure, okay,” but more like, “Yes! Let’s do this!”

In looking at the life of Christ, Dr. Sri also takes the time to point out some of the thought-provoking parallels that we can pick up by more closely reading and paying attention to the Gospel accounts.  Thus, when Jesus enters the world at the Nativity, he does so in humility, poverty, and suffering, brought about at the hands of the Romans who have not only occupied Israel, but are forcing the heavily pregnant Virgin Mary to travel with St. Joseph to Bethlehem for a census.  Similarly, as Jesus heads to Golgotha, he does so in humility, poverty, and suffering, having been tortured and condemned to death by that same Roman Empire.

Dr. Sri finds many such Biblical bookends for us to consider throughout this very thoroughly-researched, yet highly readable book.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, just as the Infant Jesus is wrapped in linen and laid in a borrowed manger, so Jesus the Man is wrapped in linen and laid in a borrowed tomb.  In St. John’s Gospel, we see that the Virgin Mary is there at the very beginning of Christ’s public ministry, when he performs His first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, and addresses her for the first time as “Woman”.  She is also there at the very end of that ministry on Calvary, when He addresses her as “Woman” for the last time as He sheds his blood.  The way in which the wheels which she set in motion at Cana by asking Him to step into the public eye for the first time, and at last come to their fulfillment on Calvary, is something I had not deeply considered before.  And Dr. Sri’s thoughts on Mary as the new Eve, alongside the significance of wine in the Bible, which he covers toward the end of the book, were extremely impressive.

I spent Saturday afternoon reading this book in the chapel of the Priory, and after finishing it I made my way to the front door to leave.  As I did so I happened to stop to glance at a table across from the porter’s desk, where there are always brochures and handouts for the taking.  There, I just so happened to find a stack of postcards, announcing that Dr. Sri is going to be leading a Washington Archdiocesan mens’ retreat this coming Sunday, March 22nd.  Clearly in taking this particular book along to Dominican House, if I might paraphrase the old knight in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, I had chosen wisely.  While I myself am not going to be able to attend this conference with Dr. Sri, those gentlemen reading this post here in the D.C. area certainly can.

Yet regardless of whether you can go along to meet the man or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Sri’s “Walking with Mary”.  If you are seeking some good spiritual reading this Lent, you will not be disappointed. And throughout the year, in the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, Dr. Sri’s book would be a wonderful companion as we go through the liturgical seasons, as indeed is the woman who is its subject.

Detail of "The Visitation" by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (c. 1480) Aachen Cathedral, Germany

Detail of “The Visitation” by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (c. 1480)
Aachen Cathedral, Germany

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Feeling Pretty Super: WordPress Freshly Pressed

I’m very pleased to report, as some of my readers may already know, that WordPress selected my recent piece “Playing the Online Hero, Offline” for their Freshly Pressed section.  This is now the 4th time the editors at WordPress have done me the honor, and it feels just as good and just as much of a surprise now as it has previously.  For those unfamiliar with what being “Freshly Pressed” means in this context, the editors at WordPress select an individual post from among the thousands upon thousands of blogs on WordPress.com which they find particularly interesting.  They then highlight that post on the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress.com and via Twitter, as a recommendation to others to read it.

With regard to this particular piece, in the email I was sent notifying me that it had been selected the editor commented that it was “an interesting, succinct discussion that allows your readers to think about the ways humans have this need for heroism, and your examples of online gaming to watching the Olympics are timely. I’m thrilled to share it with our wider audience.”  So far, the comments that readers have been leaving on the piece show that it has led people to think about some of the issues I raised in the post, and getting that kind of feedback is a joy for any writer.  Unlike singing in public, for example, where one can gauge by the applause whether you have belted out that particular karaoke cover well, there is often no immediate way for a writer to tell whether or not he has communicated effectively.

At the same time, one could easily point out many other writers who write just as well or better, of course, for I am far from a paragon of perfection in my writing.  And there is always the need for ongoing improvement.  That aside, in all honesty I do love the opportunity that these occasions provide for me to share ideas with a broader audience, as they lead to new connections and some different ideas to consider, not just for those reading the post but for me as a writer.

In any case, thank you again to the editors over at WordPress for selecting my post, and to my readers for sticking with me as I continue to scribble on these virtual pages.

Screenshot

Clearly WordPress editors read all kinds of blog posts…

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Blurred Underlines

There is a certain logic in the movement to eliminate the printed word in favor of the electronic one.  People spend good money to buy a printed, bound, and glued collection of pulp which, in the vast majority of cases, loses its value as soon as one starts to use it.  And we are all very much aware of the fact that previously read books are one of those categories of household effects which people tend to get rid of when they move.

Not me.

When I moved back to the U.S. from London over a decade ago, I was confronted with the fact that I had bought so many books during the couple of years I lived in the UK, and that there was no conceivable way in which I could possibly take all of these volumes with me on the plane.  I ended up leaving quite a number of them behind temporarily, and it took some dear friends with a spacious attic in Swiss Cottage, and two subsequent trips back with an empty suitcase, to bring them all home.  I know, in retrospect I probably should have shipped them, but then again I would have been more anxious about their safety crossing the Atlantic, but whenever I visit any city I find myself coming home heavily laden with more books to read, so this is not something new.

Last evening I was going through “No Man Is An Island”, a book by Thomas Merton which I had bought many years ago at the Notre Dame bookstore, and which had gone with me to London and back.  As with many of the books I purchased during that time in my life, it has quite a bit of underlining.  For those of you who have not been to law school, you cannot appreciate how much you must underline and make notes in the margins of your books as a first-year law student just to keep up with your nightly reading assignments of 200-300 pages, any of which you might be called upon to explain in class the next day.  You overcome the sense of wanton destruction rather quickly under such circumstances, even if you are, like I was, the sort of person who was always loath to write in a clean, printed book.

What I found particularly interesting, not having cracked open this particular volume of Merton in quite a number of years, was seeing what I had underlined when I was younger. The lined sections were either key elements of Merton’s arguments, or passages which spoke to me in a particularly personal way at the time I originally read them.  Looking back and seeing myself in what I had chosen to underline taught me just as much as re-visiting the content of the book itself did.  In fact, had I not underlined it in blurry, smudgy ballpoint many years ago, reopening that volume would probably have made less of an impact.  I was able to see who I was as a younger man, pushing my way through graduate school, rather overly-educated, naive, and not having much of a clue, and compared him to the older man, now long-since finished with formal education and considerably less naive, but oftentimes still not having much of a clue.

While there are a number of books which one ought not to write in – first editions, folios, exhibition catalogues, and so on – it does fall to me then to endorse the  habit of making handwritten notations on books at least in some cases, particularly where you do in fact stand a decent chance of going back to revisit a particular volume later in life.  That does not mean every work of fiction or non-fiction which comes through your hands needs to have your own personal gloss put on the margins.  Moreover if you are still in Catholic school when you read this, do not show Sister Mary Library my blog post and tell her that I told you it was okay to write in your textbooks – you have to return those books at the end of the school year, remember, and the last thing I need right now are angry phone calls from vicars of diocesan education .

Yet I would ask you to consider that even with the technology to make notes on your Kindle or other reader device, typing is still is not the same as drawing those lines yourself around words that strike you as meaningful, in much the same way that receiving an email, however heartening the details, is never quite the same as receiving a handwritten card or letter, however brief.  Even in our supposedly technologically enlightened age, that piece of paper is still just a tiny bit more special than something which arrives electronically.  Indeed, perhaps its comparative rarity nowadays makes it even more special, just like finding some old lines in an old book.

Parm

“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Parmigianino (c. 1530)
York Art Gallery, England

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Thanks for Reading!

As regular readers know my piece on the Rule of St. Benedict and its influence on the roots of Western democracy was selected for Freshly Pressed by WordPress, who have hosted this blog for the past two years.  This is the third time I have been honored by the editors of WordPress with this recognition, as an appreciation of my writing, and it never ceases to amaze me that people like what I am trying to do over here at the Blog of the Courtier.  I thank them very much indeed for their encouragement as I continue to share news and concepts with all of you.

And this gives me the opportunity to say thank you to both my new and regular readers in a very particular way, for the 5th anniversary of this particular blog is coming up in a couple of weeks.  In tomorrow morning’s blog post, I will have details on this year’s Blog of the Courtier birthday contest, and how you can participate.  I am grateful that so many of you stick around to think about and discuss Western culture with me, and explore some of the ideas and ideals which built our civilization.

So stay tuned, and check back tomorrow morning around 10:00 am Eastern, to see how you might win yourself a thank-you prize from yours truly!

Franciabigio

“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Franciabigio (1514)
National Gallery, London

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On Serving Your Audience

Last evening I made what I considered to be a rather witty, pithy comment on social media, which I will not repeat here, and which caused some distress on the left and misinterpretation on the right.  Unfortunately trying to explain the subtleties of language to an audience which did not grasp it was ultimately futile, yet in the end the fault was mine.  For when you have an audience in the first place, it is paradoxically not a position of leadership, but rather one of servitude which you occupy.

While I cannot claim to be any great wordsmith, I will admit that I do have a general facility for language, which has not only served me well professionally and personally, but which also draws me to others who have a similar affection for the joy of language.  That being said, it is important to realize that words are meant to be tools, not means of tawdry manipulation.  Even if you are the one doing the writing or the speaking, as a pundit, or politician, or academic, your audience deserves better than platitudes and pandering, and has the right to your respect.

Unfortunately we are all too well-aware at present of how easy it is to be anointed a lord of public opinion, whether one deserves the title or not.  And here we have yet another opportunity to look into some of the ideas of Castiglione, the patron of this blog, rather than the self-centered and grasping Machiavelli, who seems to have the upper hand these days, with regard to how the public is treated.  Machiavelli may have argued in his “Discourses” that public discussion was a better way of achieving results than relying on the wisdom of princes, but in “The Prince”, he was always more than happy to look down on an audience as being little more than ignorant sheep, to be used for his own personal gain.

In advising how a leader ought to address the public, Machiavelli counseled that he ought to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”  If he does this, Machiavelli argued, “he will be praised by everybody, because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.”  No doubt we can all think of contemporary social, political, and opinion leaders to whom this description might be very readily applied.

In complete contrast, Castiglione recognizes that it is in one’s own genuine good behavior toward himself and toward others that the leader gains esteem.  He despises the kind of unctuous, all-things-to-all-people behavior advocated by Machiavelli, and rather neatly points to how such behavior ultimately leads to things like moral relativism.  “And they cite a certain authority out of their own head, which says ‘si non caste, tamen caute’ [if not chastely, then at least cautiously], and with this they think to cure every great evil, and with good arguments to persuade anyone who is not wary that all sin, however grave it might be, is easily pardoned of God, provided it remain secret and does not give rise to bad example.”

Castiglione criticizes professional sophists (such as Machiavelli) who “from over-loquacity sometimes go beyond bounds and become silly and pointless, because they do not consider the kind of person with whom they are speaking, the place where they are, the occasion, or the soberness and modesty which they ought above all things to maintain.”  Rather than follow their example, Castiglione counsels that a leader not only concern himself with big issues that tend to attract the most attention, but to have the personal humility and sense of service to realize that he ought to be more concerned with helping others than himself:

I would have him take care to heed not only the matters already mentioned, but those which are much smaller, and as far as possible to understand all details affecting his people, nor ever so believe or trust any one of his ministers as to confide to that one alone the bridle and control of his government.  For there is no man who is very apt for all things, and much greater harm arises from the credulity of lords than from their incredulity…

Of course, probably very few of us are going to end up serving in high positions of public office, heading major corporations, or as weekly columnists/commentators in major media outlets.  Yet all of us will find ourselves in situations where others are looking to us for our opinions and guidance.  We need to respect those who are seeking our views, enough to realize what a privilege and a responsibility it is to be sought out in this way.

As Castiglione clearly understood, it is not through the cheap manipulation of human emotions that we build a better society or prove our worth as individuals.  Rather it is in the way which we use such opportunities to encourage others to be and to do better, for the sake of what is good and right, rather than encouraging our audiences to act purely out of selfishness.  Would that more of us would take this advice to heart, on a regular basis, in the choices that we make, in what we write and say, and in how we interact with those who need our assistance.

Titian

Detail of “The Speech of Alfonso d’Avalos” by Titian (c. 1540)
The Prado, Madrid

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