(Let’s mix it up, OK?) Happy and Holy Lent

In my 8th Grade history and Lit class, we recently read selections from the Ramayana. (1) In it, the rishi get that way by performing tapas, which are not, in this case, tasty Spanish nosh-fodder, but rather, are disciplines and austerities one performs in order to rid one’s self from bad karma, and gain spiritual enlightenment and power. A maharishi – a highest rishi, or greatest sage – has performed so many (much? not clear on the usage convention here) tapas that he has reached the highest plain of enlightenment and power this side of godhood.

It is clear from the stories, however, that such enlightenment and power do not include surrender of one’s will or even of one’s vices. Sages perform tapas to get power, to satisfy their ambitions, to get revenge, in response to jealousy or envy. In one early story, a sage’s excessive tapas make him a threat to the gods themselves, who throw temptations in his way to slow him down.

Viswamitra was a king who attained sainthood through terrible austerities. He had long ago exhibited his spiritual powers by starting to create another Brahma and a rival universe. He had gone as far as the creation of new constellations, but was prevailed upon to stop by the entreaties of the alarmed gods.

Only at the very end, after thousands of years of tapas and many setbacks due to his temper and falling to temptations sent by the gods, does the sage attain to brahma-rishi-hood, which entails some control over his own desires.

I’ve heard that Hindu rituals are all about cutting deals with the gods. Certainly, in the Ramayana, that’s all tapas are about: you do the discipline, and the gods appear to recognize your achievements and grant you power. Want more power? Do more tapas. In addition to tapas, the Ramayana also describes elaborate rituals similarly designed to get something. These rituals call down the power of the gods to the ends of the person offering the ritual. Doing it right is critical – sages and other experts are recruited to guide the preparation and ritual. If the gods don’t do as you want, you must have failed somehow.

Gods are clearly compelled: when the sage performs tapas, they, it seems, must grant him powers. When the ritual is performed correctly, they must grant what the boon sought. Nowhere, it seems, is anything like a personal relationship with a personal god a goal. Hinduism does seem to have a strong sense of duty built into it, including duties to one’s fellow man.

But for us, no deals can be cut with God. We can only beg that He remembers His promise of mercy, and does not judge us as out sins deserve. This Lent, perhaps the most important Lent of our lifetimes, we say, with the king of Nineveh, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” There are no deals to be cut, no amount of tapas or rituals can earn us a reprieve from justice. If Nineveh deserved to be overthrown, if Sodom and Gomorrah deserved to be consumed with fire, how much more do we, who have sinned greatly in the greatest land of plenty and peace the world has ever know, deserve anything we get?

Old Scratch will have his day – but just a day. Americans have, sometimes, been very brave and generous, very neighborly and compassionate. Not always, not maybe even often, but – still. God is like the mom who cries when her kid gives he her a dandelion. He is looking for any opening, any sign, any flaw in our defenses through which He can sneak in and lavish His grace and love on us.

  1. This is supposedly a popular retelling. The poem is very long and meandering; when wrestled into English poetry, I found it long and difficult. Hate to water things down for kids, but, just this once…

Teaching History

So I, an enthusiastic amateur, have now taught one semester of history to 6 8th graders and 4 9th graders. These are homeschooled Catholic kids, so it’s a lot better than teaching Prussian-schooled kids. What I’m teaching them:

An important guy.
  1. Always ask: How would anybody know that? I put questions about this on every test. I don’t want them to be radically skeptical – that is the road to madness – but don’t want them to just swallow whatever the texts (or, indeed, I) tell them.
  2. Conversely, don’t reflexively dismiss myth. As often as not, myths are historically true at least in general outline. They found Troy right where it was supposed to be; they found mead halls right where the Poet of Beowulf said they should be. And the Scythians buried their kings exactly as it was described to Herodotus. Some myths are wacky, or contain wacky stuff, but all tell you something important about the cultures that passed them on.
  3. Great Men and Long Term Factors. An Alexander the Great, a Charlemagne, or even a Savonarola really can change things, currents of History be damned. Macedonia is and was a relatively poor backwater – that produced a conqueror who spread Greek culture everywhere he went. Anybody who says they saw that coming is a liar. Apart from his immediate ancestors, Pepin and Charles Martel, Charlemagne was preceded and followed by comparative mediocrities – yet he made something great out of Franks, who were way toward the ‘barbaric’ end of the pool. Chaos before, chaos after, and a century of Carolingian Renaissance in the middle. Yet Egypt is the gift of the Nile, and various little ice ages crushed any number of civilizations despite how good or bad their leaders were. It’s both/and.
  4. Until very recently, 80-90% of everybody in any civilization farmed or otherwise worked to produce food. I’ve introduced them to the idea that populations are usually ‘harvest sensitive’ (as one English historian put it).
  5. The guys that imagined and built Viking longboats were as important to history as any king. For example. In general, we overrate the kings and generals and underrate the craftsmen and traders. We remember Columbus and Henry the VIII, appropriately enough, but don’t know much about the endless streams of brave (and greedy) souls who opened and traveled all the trade routes that brought, for example, silk to England and Roman coins to Japan; or, more important still, spread Mesopotamian grasses such as barely and wheat to every corner of the temperate northern hemisphere. And a million other things through a million hands. Those were important people, much more important than a run of the mill king.

And some names and dates. I tell them you need enough names and dates to organize your thoughts about history, but that’s about it. There will always be more history than can be learned in any number of lifetimes, and they keep making more. Better to establish an apporach and get an outline than to memorize a bunch of names and dates that don’t mean anything to you.

Viking Longships: Trades and Raids - BaviPower Blog
This is a truly beautiful piece of technology, involving advanced ironwork, fancy lapstrake construction, and a ton of empirical engineering, With these, brave men can go anywhere the world’s oceans and seas can take them.

In Further Praise of Gilgamesh

Read this ancient epic with a bunch of 8th graders, in a slightly scrubbed version as discussed here. We read the first half 2 weeks ago, and the second half last week.

Gilgamesh, Enkidu, lions, and some cuneiform text.. Or so I’m told by Wikipedia.

I had to share with these very bright kids the wisdom of one Robert Bart, a tutor (professor) at St. John’s College: Great books are not children’s books. He was saying this to a bunch of 18 year olds (I being one at the time. Printing had been invented, just barely). I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to reread much of the Great Books in the intervening years, and can confirm: while you have to start somewhere, there’s a reason Aristotle recommended (but, of course, did not follow) that one delays the study of philosophy until age 50. Same goes for epics and classics of all sorts. Get a lifetime under your belt, and the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, the Book of Job, Dante, and all the others are a LOT different experience.

The kids were universally disappointed with the way Gilgamesh ended. I tried to tell them that, at +/- 13 years old, grasping how life looks to an old man is going to be – difficult. I, on the other hand, was almost brought to tears.

Both the solemnity and wackiness of the adventures are taken up several notches after Enkidu dies on Tablet 5. The mythic pair of wild man (Enkidu) and over-civilized man (Gilgamesh) took on classic forces of nature and heaven, defeating the monster guarding the forest with the help of the gods, then killing the Bull of Heaven sent as vengeance. The pair shook, as it were, a manly and even kingly fist at the eternal forces – and so had to pay the price. The wild man loves civilization, but must die for city living to continue. The civilized man has lost what he most loved, that aspect of manhood that provided the test and vigor to his life. After inordinate morning – the body of Enkidu is allowed to corrupt well past its bury-by date so that Gilgamesh can mourn over it -he is willing to abandon the city so as not to suffer the same fate as his friend. He seeks the secret of immortality from the one man – Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim – to whom the gods have granted it. He lives now forever on the other side of the Waters of Death.

On his journey, he confronts nature at its wildest and most beautiful – a pride of lions – and slays them all, and wears a skin as a cloak. The skin of the king of beasts merely hides a civilized man trying to escape, without passing on to him any of Nature’s native power or glory.

He must pass through darkness, after getting past the scorpion men, a bizarre human/creature blend who bar his way at first, then let him pass. Twelve leagues of the deepest darkness later, he passes through the Garden of the Gods.

When he reaches the coast, the theme of women/bread/wine as the gateway to civilization first encountered with the literal seduction of Enkidu by Shamhat followed by the wild man’s introduction to the signature victuals of civilization – fruit of the earth and vine, the work of human hands. Gilgamesh, however, does not encounter the beautiful and brave temple prostitute, but rather a giant barmaid – Siduri, who flees from the wasted wreck that mourning and hardship have made of Gilgamesh. She eventually warms to him, serves him some very civilized food – and tells him to give up on seeking immortality, and instead seize the day. He should return home, get married, and raise some kids.

Unlike Enkidu, Gilgamesh doesn’t need the comfort of women to civilize him, but rather their wisdom. Which he promptly rejects. He wants to know how to get across the Waters of Death. He’s passing out through the gateway of civilization – wine, women, and song, as it were – and into the afterlife, or at least trying to.

Siduri directs him to the Sumerian Charon, Urshanabi the Ferryman. Gilgamesh finds him painting his boat on the shore, and attacks the ferry, as if it needed to be defeated.

The boat is death, it is what happens to souls at the end of life. By attacking and damaging the boat, he makes his quest to cross over the Waters of Death much more difficult. Gilgamesh has destroyed the magic that guides and propels the soul from this life to eternity.

After crossing the Waters of Death to Paradise Shore, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim and his wife, who are languid: what’s the hurry when one gets to live forever? He tells our hero he gained immortality after saving creation from the great flood. The creator god Enlil found people too noisy, and decided to drown them and all creatures right out. Through the machinations of a lesser god, Utnapishtim is instructed to turn his house into a huge square ark and thus saves creation. Eternal life is his (and his wife’s) reward. He repeats the advise Gilgamesh has repeatedly received on his journey: accept your mortal lot, go get married and father some children.

There’s an adventure where Gilgamesh retrieves and then loses a seaweed that grants youth to 100 o0ld men, but that’s a lost consolation prize. The message to him from beings natural, unnatural, and supernatural remains: it is your lot to die. Do great and memorable things, marry and father children – that’s the best you can do.

Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a different man. He finds the people have done just fine without him, and realizes their dread of his wars and building projects. He softens some. He does marry, and his first child completes his transformation into a truly civilized man.

A great story. A perfect example of what I was trying to get across to the kids: myths are how a people explain the world and themselves to themselves. The Sumerians had carved out a handful of towns and cities in a land that could be both generous and harsh. Nature could and routinely did wipe out what they had so painstakingly built, flooding and washing away their farms and villages. Further, they were surrounded by wilder peoples who wanted what they had. Finally, death was always there, ready to take you without warning.

Gilgamesh must deal with all these issues, and answer what it is that makes a man civilized.

(Aside: as long as I can remember, I’ve pronounced – in my head, because who says such words aloud? – ‘cuneiform’ “CUE-neh-form.” Now I hear, on some of the videos I’ve watched prepping for this class, ‘coo-NAY-eh-form’. To MAY to, to MAH to. I think I like my way better, but, while I sometimes argue (tongue in cheek, mostly) for multiple orthodox orthographies, using Chaucer as my hero, not sure I want to do the same for pronunciation. Communication being the goal and all.)

In Praise of Gilgamesh

Sure I read this epic way back, but only vaguely remembered it. Today, with my 8th graders, we read the first half of it in conjunction with our studying of Sumer and the succeeding cultures. At the suggestion of the two moms who make up the curriculum committee, we used a version slightly cleaned up for younger readers – Gilgamesh the Hero – where Shamhat merely kisses and caresses Enkidu, and untangles the knots in his (body covering) hair – not the 6 days and 7 nights of lovemaking described in the original(s). Also skates around the whole issue of Gilgamesh’s use of the young women of Uruk, which figures in the sources as a complaint of the people against him.

But not too far off the sources. Since we’re reading translations from languages and cultures distant from us in more than just time, anything is going to be somewhat of an interpretation. It was sufficient.

What struck me this time, after we had just begun studying Sumer, is how perfectly the epic illustrates what I’ve been telling the kids about the fundamental role of mythology: myths are the stories we tell to explain the world and ourselves to ourselves. Consider:

Gilgamesh the historical figure traces back to the original 7 cities of Sumer, around 3200 BC. They were surrounded by Nature in its less cuddly forms.

Enkidu might as well have been an Akkadian: one of the wild men who lived on the borders of Sumer, who built cities of their own in imitation, and conquered it – and were in turn conquered by its culture. It was one of those very common cases in history where less civilized peoples conquer a higher civilization, but then, in turn, absorb and are conquers by it. When the Akkadian empire reverted to the control of Sumerians, did anybody much notice?

Shamhat is the bravest character in the story, sitting naked and beckoning to Enkidu, then ‘civilizing’ him through lots of sex and sympathy (our version emphasized the sympathy, of course -and the two things – sex and sympathy – might not have been all that different in the minds of Sumerians).

Then Nature and barbarism – the two things Sumer knew from experience to fear – embodied by Enkidu, fight the cruelty of of Gilgamesh, who is the corrupted civilized man. Gilgamesh is without any sympathy -he takes the young men of Uruk and spends them like arrows from his quiver, and uses the young women without remorse. But the newly civilized and sympathetic Enkidu – raised to that state by the concubine/temple prostitute Shamhat – fights him to a standoff, and becomes his first and best friend. Their epic tussle destroys much of Uruk, which seems to get reconstructed off screen – at least, it is there to be largely destroyed again by the Bull of Heaven a few tablets later.

So the civilized man by birth, becoming friends with the recently civilized wild man, tempers his excesses, even if unconsciously. The people rejoice because, enraptured by his new friendship, Gilgamesh lays off the wars and rape that have so drained his subjects.

Sumer was built of three materials: mud bricks – very common; fired bricks – less common; and stone – imported at great expense. The locally available timber was meagre, and hardly suited to major projects. So the epic takes our hero and his new friend over to what later becomes known as Lebanon, where suitably epic cedars grow.

With the help of the sun god, they defeat the monstrous spirit who guards the forest. They then chop down the largest tree in the forest, to be used to make city gates for Uruk, and a temple for the sun god. Again, what is more important to or symbolic of an ancient Sumerian city than its walls and gates? Nature is not conquered so much as civilized in an almost comically literal sense.

And so on. We only covered the first half of the story this week, saving the second half for next. All this is very much in keeping with the actual history of Sumer and its surrounding peoples. I imagine it as a Sumerian bedtime story, the sort of tale every kid would learn from infancy. The fatalistic, if not tragic, ending is the only one possible to a people like the Sumerians.

But we’ll get to that next week.

History: Here in the Shallow End…

I just assigned a 16 page (Ariel, 12-point, standard margins) reading from Belloc’s Europe and the Faith to a bunch of 9th graders.

If you were a 9th grader, and some teacher assigned this:

A generic term has been invented by these modern and false historians whose version I am here giving; the vigorous, young, uncorrupt, and virtuous tribes which are imagined to have broken through the boundaries of the effete Empire and to have rejuvenated it, are grouped together as “Teutonic:” a German strain very strong numerically, superior also to what was left of Roman civilization in virile power, is said to have come in and to have taken over the handling of affairs. One great body of these Germans, the Franks, are said to have taken over Gaul; another (the Goths in their various branches) Italy and Spain. But most complete, most fruitful, and most satisfactory of all (they tell us) was the eruption of these vigorous and healthy pagans into the outlying province of Britain, which they wholly conquered, exterminating its original inhabitants and colonizing it with their superior stock.

There went with this strange way of rewriting history a flood of wild hypotheses presented as fact. Thus Parliaments (till lately admired) were imagined — and therefore stated — to be Teutonic, non-Roman, therefore non-Catholic in origin. The gradual decline of slavery was attributed to the same miraculous power in the northern pagans; and in general whatever thing was good in itself or was consonant with modern ideas, was referred back to this original source of good in the business of Europe : the German tribes. 

Meanwhile the religious hatred these false historians had of civilization, that is, of Roman tradition and the Church, showed itself in a hundred other ways: the conquest of Spain by the Mohammedans was represented by them as the victory of a superior people over a degraded and contemptible one: the Reconquest of Spain by our race over the Asiatics as a disaster: its final triumphant instrument, the Inquisition, which saved Spain from a Moorish ravage was made out a monstrosity. Every revolt, however obscure, against the unity of European civilization in the Middle Ages (notably the worst revolt of all, the Albigensian), was presented as a worthy uplifting of the human mind against conditions of bondage. Most remarkable of all, the actual daily life of Catholic Europe, the habit, way of thought and manner of men, during the period of unity — from, say, the eighth century to the fifteenth — was simply omitted!

Europe and the Faith, Hillaire Belloc, CH 3

… would you be overwhelmed by it? Hate it? Love it? I’d forgotten how sophisticated Belloc’s prose is. Given the dumbed-down texts these kids are likely to have read up till now, even though homeschooling does give them a leg up on the horrifying depths to which public school has sunk, is it going to be too hard? Guess I’ll find out. (As a 9th grader, I could have handled it, but I’m a weirdo from way back.)

Also assigned were a couple pages from the beginning of Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, but, by comparison to Belloc, that’s easy stuff.

Finally, I’m in the process of picking out some Lafferty, from his Fall of Rome, as yet another perspective. He is a scream:

“The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous.”

Lafferty, the Fall of Rome

Don’t think I’d have gotten that joke when I was 15. I want to find his descriptions of Alaric and Stilicho, and his narrative of the events that lead up to the sacking of Rome. In outline of the raw events, he of course agrees with Belloc; yet he assigns much greater, as in a dominant part, to the continued loyalties and emotions of many of the players, specifically, to Alaric and his men.

This book – how much is it worth to you?

Lafferty is of course not strictly writing history, in the sense that he’s relying on a contemporary poem as his main source for what makes his account different. We know what the Greeks thought about poets. 1

Aside: that book lists for over $800 on Amazon, with used copies running over $50. I’ve bought a couple copies over the years at nothing like those prices, but now…? Somebody somewhere need to reprint all of Lafferty – he’s too good to languish behind impossibly expensive out of print books.

  1. Plato: “Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” OTOH, Aristotle: “Homer has taught all other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.”

Monday Update

A: Lots of important things to discuss, so lets skip that (and the *140* draft posts now in my folder here) and talk about something else!

B: Teaching 8th-grade and 9th grade level history classes is pretty much a full-time job. To prep for 6-8 hours of class a week takes me around 20 – 25 hours. Partly this is due to the amount of research I need to do into areas of which I’m ignorant (that would be most areas); partly because I’m reviewing, selecting, and producing handouts from source materials – the kids have been subjected to excerpts from Herodotus, Thucydides, St. Jerome, Chesterton, Belloc, Tacitus – with plenty more to come. Tack on the organizational and planning aspects and – there’s my week.

It’s fun, and the kids are great.

C. You’re dying to hear about progress on the Endless Front Yard Brick Project and Backache Jamboree, aren’t you? I know you are!

Short answer: nothing. Back in the summer, when the evenings were still light, I just couldn’t make myself do it. Started a couple times, but the next step – putting in frames and pouring concrete footings for the final 30′ stretch of wall and planter – just no. Started several times, have a nice pile of 2X4s slowly warping into uselessness out front, but – nope. So now I need a long weekend of nice weather and inspiration, or wait till Spring.

My money is on Spring.

D. This is not to say nothing has happened. Consider:

The sacred shrine to the Oracle of the Water Meter

Back in May, I think, when I finished this oddity up, you can see I transplanted some moss – that’s the little tufts of green. It seemed to have died, and weeds started taking over, so I pulled the weeds except for a few I decided to call ‘dichondra’, which they might actually be, who knows.

Threw some water on them when watering the trees and plants. Now:

Please ignore the former flowers in the planting boxes. It’s October. They died.
The moss came back! And is now in a struggle for its very life with the dichondra.

Kind of cute, huh? Give it a rainy winter, and it’ll take over the world.

E. Speaking of Nature in all its glory and horror: my beloved wife suggested, and I enthusiastically agreed, to plant some morning glories.

Well. I stuck some seeds in the ground in a small patch between the fig and citrus trees, behind the brick bench I put in during phase 3.2(b) of the above mentioned Endless Project. Poor things! Took a long time to come up, only 5 did, and the bugs got right after them. So I started a few inside, just in case. Transplanted them outside in June. We had 7 little plants that made it.

But they didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I stuck a light redwood trellis in the ground for them, by way of encouragements.

It evidently worked:

What may not be apparent from this picture: the sheer massiveness of the plants – the only reason I think the trellis hasn’t snapped is because the vines are now strong enough to hold themselves up. The whole mass is leaning dangerously forward. I have a pole propping it up on the far side, as it looked like it was going to fall that way originally. Word is they die with the first frosts, which here in NoCal tend to happen in December. So it’s going to get bigger.

For the last month, I’ve been waging daily war, snipping morning glory vines trying to strangle the fig and citrus. The next day, there are more vines. I think with a little patience, I could watch them grow. I’ve stopped watering it, which seems to have kicked it into flower-making mode.

So I did a little belated research on morning glories. One consistent warning: once you’ve gotten a batch established, it’s all but impossible to get ride of them – they shed millions of seeds that can last for several years, meaning that, even if you pull up a thousand plants one year, you will probably see more the next anyway.

The seeds, which are about the size, shape and color of rat droppings, are already everywhere.

At least morning glories are very pretty.

F. Speaking of unspeakable horrors, my beloved also planted a bunch of sweet potatoes in three planter in the back and side yards that I wasn’t using this year. The plants have done very well, although in my attempts to locate any sweet potatoes I have found only smallish, skinny ones.

But the leaves are edible! Kind of like spinach, but even milder. Since we have tons of leaves, I googled some recipes.

If you are interested, check out some sweet potato leaf recipes from Africa, specifically, Sierra Leone. YouTube has any number of cheerful Africans whipping up dishes that look, if you skip ahead and only see the end products, delicious.

It’s the steps in between that might cause a little squeamishness. I’m absolutely an omnivorous, and would gird up my culinary loins, as it were, and try this stuff if I came face to face with it. And it would probably be good! But –

A recipe that includes chicken feet, fish heads, leftover chicken parts, stray meat, and other probably best left unidentified ingredients, immersed in *cups* of red palm oil and then boiled until not quite unrecognizable – best just eat and not ask questions.

The funny part: they all refer to this as a potato leaf recipe, when the chopped leaves are added at the end and cook down to a mere background. Meanwhile, that catfish head in there is doing the backstroke….

They cook sweet potato leaves all around the world. Wilted in butter and garlic is quite good, although now I feel like a coward going that route.

G. Yesterday, we drove for hours to do some visiting, and so attended mass far from home – at a parish that’s decided enough’s enough. I will be as vague as possible, since the world is infested with Karens and narcs (but I repeat myself).

What I saw: a few nods in the direction of social distancing – people sat every other pew, sort of, which reduced the number that fit into the church proper down to the technically allowable 100. But the choir loft was also full-ish…

The overflow went into the adjoining hall. There, the folding chairs were maybe a little farther apart than usual.

The priest, citing the teaching of the USCCB, stated that it was simply morally impossible for a Catholic to vote for Biden due to his support for abortion. Whoa.

The most telling part: we got there a half hour early; the people from the proceeding mass were still milling around in the courtyard, chatting and visiting. I saw a total of 4 masks. After our mass, people likewise were visiting.

People are starved for basic human contact. Finally given a chance, they embrace it desperately, like drowning men finding a lifeboat. When we were walking in from the parking lot, never having been there before and knowing no one, a man struck up a conversation with us – just because. While waiting for mass, I was standing in the courtyard while a priest was talking with a small crowd nearby. When finished, he approached me to see if I was waiting to speak to him. I think he gets it.

They have evidently been doing this for a while now, so of course we had to step over the dead bodies in the parking lot and stop out ears to the death rattles of the dying.

Not.

Seriously, if anything, this congregation has acquired the herd immunity we all would have long ago acquired if the lock down had not been implemented to extend the outbreak. They have refused to trade social sanity for the illusion of safety.

H. Oldest daughter just passed 4 months of married life. She and her husband still seem to get along fine. 😉 She just turned 27, got a new job, and broke her finger. Sigh. Poor kid. She and hubby are looking to buy a house.

Kids these days. I’m itching to build them furniture and maybe a pizza oven for their new house! That’s the ticket!!!

Middle son got himself a serious squeeze, the kind he’s flying across the country so that she can meet the family over Thanksgiving. So far, via Face Time, she seems very sweet.

Younger daughter spends her days not dating her coworkers at Costco, who regularly ask her out, and not letting her bosses put her on a career track. A cheerful, hardworking, responsible smart kid – gee, they want to keep her? She’s planning to study languages at some grad school in the Holy Land, where Greek and Hebrew are taught conversationally, and the base language of instruction is French. Because why not? She’s barely conversational in French, so might go back to France for more polishing. She wants to study Scripture in the original languages, and will end up with 5 languages: English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Hebrew is the only one she hasn’t at least got a start on.

Kids these days.

Youngest son was just confirmed in a weird (and holy and wonderful, don’t get me wrong!) outdoor ceremony with the bishop.

Wife is co-running the local 40 Days for Life, the last round of which was ended by the lockup. Now? Masked up and ‘distancing’, we pray.

Weekend Update: New Classes, Rain, Deacons, etc

A. Agreed to teach some 8th and 9th graders history this upcoming school year. It will be weird: some outdoor, socially distanced in person classes, some zoom, all mixed: since nobody will be required to be there in the flesh, we’ll almost certainly need to set every class up as a zoom meeting. Sigh.

A couple of very energetic Catholic homeschooling moms are behind setting up a new ‘hybrid’ school, where homeschoolers, once they reach the point where the topics to be studied do, in fact, require more expertise and time than they have to give, they have more formal classes the kids can take.

This point has been determined to be about 8th grade, which seems about right, for many kids, at least. Around that age, a lot of kids get a switch thrown, where their minds now function as adults minds, minus adult level experience. So I will be introducing them to what would have been a typical college-level approach to learning 100 years ago. and, indeed, what a college prep high school age kid would have experienced in the not so distant past: formal – we will call each other Mr. or Miss Lastname; an hour or more a week will be ‘seminar’ style; more time spent preparing for class than in class; very little slack for tardiness or inattention; regular short essays; selected reading from the classics.

The other part of this, consistent with my unschooling attitude: I’m not forcing anybody to do anything. I will do zero threats or cajoling. You want to be there and learn? Then here’s what is required. You show up prepared and on time, and hand in the assignments on time. Or you do something else. No hard feelings.

8th grade runs from prehistory through the Roman Republic; 9th grade from the Empire to the Black Death. With forays into the rest of world history – China, India, Africa, etc. As I have long said, understanding other cultures requires you understand your own, we’ll start with and emphasize our own.

We start in September. As it stands: Four 8th graders, 7 9th graders. Two 90 minute classes a week for each group, meeting Tuesdays and Thursdays, about 90 minutes each. One is more lecture/talk with the students. I’ll assign very short essays every few weeks, and teach them by example how to write figure out what they mean to say, and say it (yea, like I know how to do that).

I have a ton of work to do. Prayers would be appreciated.

B. Highs have been over 100F here for the last 4 days, and is predicted to remain above 100F for 4 more. This morning, was awakened around 6:00 a.m. by long, rumbling thunder, went outside to take a look. Beautiful orange skies, thunder in the distance, rainbow, light rain – very beautiful. For the last 3 hours, thunderstorms have rolled through the Bay Area. Tiny amount of rain – .03″ near hear, a quarter inch at higher elevations. But any rain at all is a surprise.

Hot, sweaty weather with thunderstorms? We seemed to have moved to Texas without leaving California. Average rainfall in August here is some tiny fraction of an inch. In a typical year it doesn’t rain at all from June through August.

Very unusual weather. In a week, we went from an unusually cool and windy summer with the threat of an early fall, to an unusually hot and nasty stretch. My peaches had just begun to ripen in mid-August – very late, should have been over in July. With this weather, will be picking everything over the next few days. We only have 2 small peach trees, and one is evidently taking this season off. But still.

C. Speaking of the front yard orchard:

Figs amidst rain-soaked leaves.

Citrus and morning glories.
Wider shot of the damp front yard orchard & vegetable garden.
Peaches.

D. An old friend, our late son Andrew’s godfather, was ordained a permanent deacon yesterday. Archbishop Cordeleone celebrated the ordination mass down the peninsula at St. Pius X parish in Redwood City, because of the on-going persecution of the Church in San Francisco. In San Mateo County, where St. Pius X is located, you can do an outdoor mass of up to something like 100 people, if masks and social distancing are enforced, and names and addresses are collected for possible contract tracing. So we had a much smaller crowd than would otherwise have been there. Each candidate for the deaconate could only have 9 ‘guests’ including his family.

The Cathedral in San Francisco, where this should have happened, seats thousands – you could put a few hundred people in there with everybody spaced 20′ apart, let alone 6′. Instead, we had to submit to humiliation rituals, and have a mass in 90F+ temperatures, with the sun beating down on the soon-to-be-ordained men – the way the various canopies and umbrellas were arranged, those poor men had to sit in the sun for about an hour. (Once ordained, they got to join the clergy in the shade.)

It was beautiful. I love and am so grateful for Archbishop Cordeleone. Good man, suffering mightily for his flock.

This COVID nonsense needs to stop.

D. I’m going to be very busy. Posts will probably be sporadic. More than usual, I mean.

E. A moment ago, huge very near thunder bolt shook the ground and set off car alarms. Rumbled for what seemed like forever. Got a couple minutes of decent rain.

Writing, Updates, a Link

A. Finished one story that’s been rattling about unfinished for years, about a musician who doesn’t know he’s an artist, and an artist who knows he is. In space. With cool tech. And bureaucratic intrigue. And with some literal cliff hanging

I still like it, 3 days later. This is an achievement of sorts, whether of growing confidence or self-delusion, I don’t know. Now need to find some place to submit it, but I think I’ll let it sit a few more days first.

The coolest, most encouraging part of all for me is that this is the first story I’ve *finished* finished in the grand SciFi world that has been rattling around in my head for a decade or two. Have draft-like objects of a couple more stories, some outlines of couple more, and an incomplete outline and many pages of notes to what is looking to be a multi-novel series. (I can’t write one novel, but I can *plan* a series. Pathetic.)

In my head I call this world ‘the Systems’, a lame but functional title. It centers around a trip made by a generational ship to a three star system, where two of the stars are stable little suns, each having nice inhabitable planets and moons. These two orbit each other, and together orbit a third, more distant star, which is not so stable, but somewhere along the path to being a red giant.

Cool made up tech

The underlying future tech stuff is nothing screamingly original, although I of course try to make it cool; the interest for me is in how one would maintain a sustainable, liveable culture under the mentally and emotionally harsh conditions of the original trip, how people would deal with decades-to-centuries long terraforming exercises after the trip, and how successfully people can transition from epic explorers/conquerors of new worlds to – what? So, you won! Hurrah! Now what? You farm, or just hang out while the bots take care of it for you?

I’m attempting to deal with the central problem Star Trek solves by its most egregious handwavium: in a super cool high tech socialist paradise, what do people *do*? Some tiny percent explore strange new worlds, etc., but most, it is implied, become Trobriand Islanders, only with better toys and manners. They have no hope to better themselves or the world in any objective sense, so they raise yams, figuratively, and screw, trade ‘art’ to reinforce social standing and improve self-esteem , and scheme for enhanced social position.

Talk about Hell. I want to look at this in more detail.

The main challenge for very amatuer and inexperienced me is setting up the overall arc of the stories. It’s fun to fill in once you know where you’re going, but, for me at least, I have to know the destination. I’ve started writing out character arcs for major characters, which can run thousands of words each, but does help me get clear. The plot itself has 4 major incidents, where character is revealed and Rubicons are crossed; I must know how each of about 8 characters deal with them….

One very cool thing: I had a major plot point for which a sympathetic mom had to do something pretty terrible. I’d gotten hung up on that for a long time – why did she do that? Then, months later, I figured out why. Weirdly gratifying.

Another thing: so far, all the most interesting characters are women. Plenty of men, and plenty of derring-do to go around, but so far, it’s the women (and girls – children figure prominently in this) who are most interesting. To me, at least. This will likely change as time goes on.

Anyway, fun and frustrating. At this rate, I’ll be almost done by 2035 or so…

Then made the mistake, maybe, of rereading the last story I finished, a couple months back, which story, in a fit of reckless enthusiasm, I even submitted for an anthology.

Well. I sure can write some trite, awkward stuff, I can. Sheesh. I’m embarrassed by it. Making it better would not have been too difficult, but I seem to have needed some space to see it.

We are assured that humility is a good thing – I’m going with that. And I’m working on cleaning up and finishing some other half-finished stories. See how it goes.

B. As obsessively dedicated readers with long memories here may recall, I lead a religious ed group down at the local parish called Feasts & Faith. Each week, I give a talk/slide show about the week’s feasts, including the saints days. We try to have appropriate snacks, such as foods and drinks from the countries the saints are from. Many big or locally important feast have foods and activities associated with them already, which makes it easy.

The point of all this is that the Church gives us the saints as models and leaders, and the liturgical year lays them out for us in convenient and persistent small doses. There’s really is nothing happening to us today on a personal, political or ecclesiastical level that some, usually large, number of saints have not already gone through. Temptations? Betrayal? Political oppression? Church corruption? Reading the lives of the saints tells us these things are nothing new, they happen in every age, and will be with us until the Second Coming. And, most important, that people did get through them faithfully. I also, you’ll be shocked to hear, digress into long discussions of history, in order to provide some context. Doing the research for these meetings has been very enlightening.

So I was pleased to read this post from David Warren. A sample:

Among the uses of the Catholic (and Orthodox) cult of saints, is the groundwork they provide for the student’s sense of historical time. The saints arrive in succession, some earlier than others. Yet each is a figure who comes from outside time, and leads us, as it were, back where he came from. There is no “progress” from one saint, or generation of saints, to another. Each is sui generis — one of a kind — and each is “perfect,” by which we don’t mean entirely free of sin but complete to a purpose.

In their immense numbers they provide a constellation of light to our dark world, invisible to most but visible to many. The liturgy brings one after another into view, to serve as searchlights of us: thousands or millions of “little Christ lanterns” spread as the stars from horizon to horizon.

The custom of assigning saints to functions, of naming “patron saints” for trades and activities, sufferings and conditions of life, should be self-explanatory. To the faithful, of course, it is more than just custom. The Christian faith was from its origin extremely practical. (“Do this, in memory of me.”) To say, as they teach in our schools today, if they teach anything besides juvenile delinquency and despair, that the cults within our religion are “pagan survivals,” or “old superstitions,” is all very well; so long as we realize that this misses the point entirely, as all acts of malice tend to do.

C. The Endless Front Yard Brick Project is slowly progressing. Did have one of those moments that is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time: Leading down from the front porch, which is already complete as far as brick paving goes, will be a gate and two steps down into the front yard orchard. For some reason, I have been wildly overthinking this. Curved footers on weird radii, lots of holes, steel and concrete, hard-to-stake out forms – every time I thought about it, it got more complicated. Been putting it off for like 2 years now.

The encouraging part: once I stopped making it into the Great Wall in my head, a good and very simple solution presented itself. Just not that complicated. So, on the encouraging side, I think I can knock it off in a couple days with a minimum of digging and concrete pouring; on the discouraging side – why do I work myself up into knots trying to make things hard? If only this were a rare event…

Further updates and pictures as events warrant.

Reading Scripture

In the RCIA class I’m helping out with, we’ve been discussing Scripture and Tradition. One thing I didn’t get to mention, but I imagine might come up: what to do with those passages that contradict beliefs you hold near and dear, beliefs you hold to be *obviously* true? Examples that leap to mind include Old Testament passages where God orders the complete slaughter – men, women, children, livestock and, I imagine, pets – of Israel’s enemies, and Paul’s commands that women remain silent in Church and be subject to their husbands.

My advice, for what little it’s worth: fight off the temptation to explain these passages away. Instead, ask: how could this be true? What could it mean? What does it tell us about God and man? Is there a non-dismissive way it can true?

Image result for adam and eve
Cranach, Adam and Eve, 1526. Adam, in a pose familiar to husbands, scratches his head when Eve offers him the apple. 

How could a loving God order His Chosen People to kill innocent children and non-combatant women? Clearly, I believe my notion of what constitutes a loving God precludes Him ordering his followers to kill innocent people. I personally would not obey such a command. I would assume such a command, if given to me in, what? a vision? a dream? could not be from God.

Still don’t exactly know what to make of this. The best explanations I’ve ever heard include the notion that this evil – the slaughter of whole villages and cities – was a result of Israel’s disobedience when they failed to promptly invade the Holy Land. Had they proceeded as ordered, the story goes, the inhabitants, faced with a huge army invading out of the desert, lead by God Himself, would have fled – and lived. But once Israel futzed about and was unfaithful, the 40 years passed, after which the inhabitants had ceased to be terrified. So God now needed to purge the Promised Land of the abominations of the worshipers of  the Baals – child sacrifice and sexual perversions being central features – to give His people any chance of remaining true. The slaughter becomes like the Mosaic permission of divorce: given because the people were weak, but not intended from the foundation of the world.

Intellectually, those are kind of OK. Not sure my heart agrees. Yet.

The wives are subject to their husbands and should remain silent in church stuff used to bother me much more than it does now. If husbands are to be as Christ toward their wives, laying down their lives for them, then the whole ‘who’s in charge’ thing seems to pale to insignificance. Further, unsolicited and coming as a complete shock, many years ago my wife said that of course she was subject to me. One of the chief reasons I wanted to marry her in the first place was because, while she was sweet and accommodating in general, I’d also seen that she had real spine when people tried to push her around. My immediate thought: I’m not the boss of you!

The effect of having my wife tell me that she is subject to me – and I’m sure she means it – is that I’m aware that she is looking to me to lead, and that what a terrible and wonderful duty that is. The last thing I’d want to do is push her around (not that I haven’t failed, but I don’t want to). Talk about throwing down the gauntlet: now I have to be as Christ to her! I think obedience, even to a clown like me, might be the easier task!

Once I did my best to accept that part, the whole ‘women silent in Church stuff seemed at least less offensive. If men must be in charge, but only in the sacrificial sense in which Christ is ‘in charge’, then reserving public leadership roles to men is defensible, and in fact could be beautiful is done well. The hard part: we will, and have, screwed this up. Our mothers, wives and daughters should be the most honored and respected people among us, as Christ shows repeatedly in His life, both in how he treats – and honors – the women he encounters, and in His command to love one another as He has loved us.

This cuts both ways, of course: men will error in both being bullies and in being cowards, women in being harpies and in being shrews. We’re one big screwed up family! Adam must now work and earn his bread by the sweat of his brow; Eve’s desire shall be for her man, and he will lord it over her. These two curses are perfect poetic justice for the sins. Doesn’t make it any easier on us.

And this disfunction all gets reflected in the Church. It’s almost like Democracy, in that we tend to get the leaders we deserve.

It is tempting and easy to come up- with ways to dismiss these troubling passages, or to let them destroy what little faith we have. I don’t know which is worse. It is better to embrace them, let them trouble us, and try to discover how they can be true.

This about plumbs the depths of my Scripture knowledge, so grain of salt and all that.

Theology: Developed versus Evolved

Image result for famous fossilsI’m part of a team at our local parish doing RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – the 6-9 month process an adult who wants to become Catholic goes through prior to 1st Communion, Confession, Confirmation and, if needed, Baptism).  I’m sort of the philosophy/history person, although the director and a couple of the other people on the team are perfectly capable of covering it. I talk too much.

We use a variety of materials from a couple of sources, of varying depth and quality. One, addressing what exact topic I’m not recalling the moment, used the word ‘evolve’ regarding Catholic dogma.

I probably don’t need to point out to many of the readers of this blog that ‘evolve’ is exactly the wrong term to use when discussing Catholic theology and dogma. ‘Develop’ is the right word to use.

First, evolve is used in (at least) 2 senses: the technical, biological sense, meaning changes to characteristics of a population over generations; and, more commonly, to mean ‘changing in a direction I like’.

The second sense is fundamentally dishonest, although I hasten to add that most people who use the word this way are most likely completely unaware of the dishonesty. They just picked it up from the way college-educated (“smart”) people talk, and would no doubt be baffled to discover educated people who object to that usage. What is dishonest is the replacing of ‘what I like’ with ‘what is obviously true’. Changes I don’t like are never said to be examples of evolution, but are instead given a pejorative label like ‘regressive’. This substitution takes place below the level of conscious thought almost all the time, I will generously believe for as long as I can.

Starting in the mid 19th century, Hegelians and their idiot children the Marxists met up with Darwin and his less clear-thinking offspring, the Darwinists, and discovered a happy (to them) marriage: the inevitable forward march of the Spirit/History was exactly like, nay, was perfectly embodied in, Darwinian evolution. Just look at how modern, more recent creatures are superior to ancient, outdated creatures! Why, it’s *just like* how modern, progressive ideas replace old, counter-revolutionary ideas by weight of their sheer luminous awesome superiority! It’s not a matter for argument, it’s a simple observation: just as dogs and elephants and canaries are obviously superior to velociraptors, diplodocuses and pterodactyls, democratic, scientific economics is superior to the primitive, competitive ‘free’ market.(1)

One remarkable thing in the history of ideas is how much effort, sometimes, the father or champion of a particular idea puts in to saying exactly what he does and does not mean, while later champions steamroll any subtilty in their hurry to use what they see as the gist of the idea for their pet projects. Thus, Hegel is careful to say that the forward march of the Spirit as revealed in History does not by its very nature admit of its use as a crystal ball – that the whole point of this gradual revelation is that we *don’t* know the future. We require Revelation, which doesn’t depend on and is not subject to human reason. Marx, finding Hegel’s disposal of logic useful but having no use for the divine revelation in History that take its place, immediately claims to know the future by virtue of his understanding of the Dialectic. It’s turtles all the way down, sure, but Marx has thrown out the top few layers of turtles and stands in midair. Charles Sanders Peirce, the father of Pragmatism, goes to great lengths to say Pragmatism is not merely the idea that the ends justify the means, only to have his great pragmatic successor, John Dewey, say exactly that.

Darwin himself does not use the word ‘evolution’ once in the 1st edition of the Origin of Species, and uses ‘evolve’ exactly once, as the last word in the last sentence of the work. (2) In the 12 years after publication of the Origin of Species before publication of the Descent of Man, followers of Darwin got labeled ‘Evolutionists’, so evolution does show 30 times in the later volume. Darwin claims that the ideas he presents in Descent will no doubt result in establishment of a scientific footing for psychology, since it’s clear (!) that consciousness and all other human mental characteristics and capabilities evolved from more primitive precursors in the lower animals from which man evolved.  Somewhere in there, evolution, which is at its roots akin to a simple observation, just one small inferential step removed from looking at related living species and the bones of what might be their ancestors, became the fundamental characteristic of EVERYTHING.(3)

And Darwin was more restrained than his followers. We end up with the second meaning of evolution as describing ‘change I like’ as little more than a Hegel-light or Marxist/materialist clarification of what Descent is talking about.

Image result for valley oakDevelopment is something much more organic and even ancient, having philosophical roots in Aristotle’s idea of Nature. A natural thing has within its nature principles of motion distinct from the accidental causes that might move it or, more generally, change it. An oak tree grows from an acorn. The principles of growth from acorn to oak tree are contained in – are the nature of – the acorn. The acorn might grow to be a majestic valley oak or a stunted oak among rocks or, indeed, get eaten by a squirrel. Those outcomes are at least partly the result of accidents. Growth from acorn to oak are by nature.

That gigantic digression out of the way, we now get back to theology. To understand that theology and church teaching in general might develop from what is already there should cause no one any heartburn. Any new understanding must point back to and be consistent with older understandings. An eternal God is impossible for us limited humans to fully understand, but as He is unchanging and internally consistent, so too must be our theology. People who want to contradict previous teachings must hope theology can evolve, meaning, as explained above, change in a direction they like, never mind logic or consistency. They hope, however unclear they are about it, for Hegelian revelations in history that are not subject to human reason and have no need to be consistent with what came before.

God is a God of Being – “I AM” – not a god of becoming.

  1. Unless we’re social Darwinists, in which case the same argument is made to support the opposite outcome of Übermenschen perhaps wiping a tear of passing weakness from their superior eyes as they witness the inevitable suffering and death of the less fit, before returning to their world-conquering ways. Beware theories that can be easily used to explain contradictory outcomes.
  2. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
  3. In writing this, it occured to me that my love of The Origin of Species has blinded me to the mess that is much of Descent: the overly-cautious Darwin of Origin, fresh, no doubt, from lying in a field watching bees pollinate clover, is always willing to acknowledge criticisms and admit of lacuna. The more mature Darwin of Descent will talk about consciousness as being of the same species, as it were, as a bird’s colorful feathers. Both exist in the natural world (he assumes) and thus are subject to the same set of evolutionary explanations. It’s like I turn to the baby pictures of a beloved child who is now doing hard time, and pretend my baby is still innocent.