"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: Comments and Observations, Part I

Back in October our Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads read the entire Gospel of Mark as a short read.  Short reads are defined as one to three week reads in between regular reads while we nominate, vote, and acquire our next book.  Kerstin, my co-moderator, picked the Gospel of Mark since we are heading into the “B” liturgical year where the Gospel of Mark is the primary source of the Gospel readings.  She thought it would be helpful to have read it in one stretch as a precursor.  I think her idea was brilliant.

One gets a different perspective reading the Gospel in one breath rather than the fragmentary excerpts one gets from Mass.  Both have their places, and this certainly wasn’t the first time I have read the Gospel comprehensively.  The fragmentary allows for deeper insight into a moment, sort of like in lectio divina.  Reading the entire Gospel at a stretch allows more for the reader to grasp the author’s intent.  For instance, we see in the curing of the paralytic at the beginning of Mark’s chapter 2.  We pay attention to the details of the scene, for instance the opening of the roof to lower the paralytic down, a very strange detail.  In the fragmentary reading we can focus on the detail, since the reading is only ten lines, and we can draw different conclusions from it.  Reading the Gospel through, one focuses on the bigger picture.  The bigger picture for all four Gospels is arriving at the conclusion of who was this man Jesus Christ, and that conclusion is that He was the Messiah prophesied, and the nature of that Messiah is that He is the divine son of God.  So there is a place for both fragmentary and comprehensive readings of the Gospels.

I’m providing my comments to the discussion, which will take up three posts, but in some cases I will include another person comments if my comment is in reply.  The total number of comments ran to 122, which was quite a conversation for a two week read.  We don’t always get that many for a six week read of a long work.  But the conversation got testy.  I brought up the notion that I no longer accepted the current scholarly notion that Mark is the first Gospel, and that proved controversial and drove a good part of the conversation.  But you can read the entire conversation here.  By the way, I hope this entices you to join our book club.  It costs nothing and members usually pick and choose which reads they participate in.

I’m dividing these posts in to three, organized with the first regarding the primacy of Matthew’s Gospel, the second regarding the dating of the Gospels, which resulted as part of which Gospel came first, and the third on all the other comments and observations I made.  So these are not necessarily in chronological order.  I also cleaned up some of the grammar in places and I put spacers between shifts in conversation.  So here is Part 1. 

The Catholic Church has historically believed that Matthew's Gospel was the first of the Gospels written - and so it's listed first - and the Gospel of Mark followed, but somewhere in 20th century I think scholars have been convinced that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke used Mark and some other now lost texts as a basis for their Gospels.

It’s a little surprising that the NAB right up front endorses the scholar’s position. I don’t think the Catholic Church has officially endorsed it, though I have heard Bishops and priests endorse it as well in offhand comments. It’s kind of become a universal position.

I have to admit I was convinced too. Many years ago in college I studied the nature of folklore and how folkloric texts evolve. Now the texts are not folkloric – they are not oral, they are written, but you can think each Gospel as a snapshot of the oral transmission. Folklore, by the way, doesn’t mean the stories aren’t true. They can be true or fiction. It deals with the transmission of orally derived stories.

Now I put I was convinced in past tense, but as I’m reading the Gospel of Mark now it strikes me differently. Part of the reason why scholars think Mark is first is because Mark consolidates the events where as Matthew and Luke seem to expand on them. For instance, there is no birth story in Mark. If Mark followed Matthew, then why wouldn’t he include a birth story? The thought here is that folklore tends to expands. But folklore doesn’t always expand. Many times folklore contracts and siphons off material. If Mark were solely focused on getting to the nature of Jesus, then I could see him not including the nativity. He starts the Gospel with the initiation of Jesus’ ministry at the Baptism. Look at that first chapter. Mark starts with John the Baptist preaching, then Jesus comes to John and gets baptized, then Jesus is goes into the desert for His temptations, then Jesus starts His ministry in Galilee after John is arrested, then Jesus attracts disciples, performs a number of cures, and then moves out to the neighboring towns. That’s a lot of scenes for one chapter. Each scene is only a handful of lines. Mark is a minimalist. Surely he could have elaborated on each of the scenes. My point is that Mark appears to me to pare down, and if so then the rationale that he must precede Matthew falls apart.

I'm beginning to think the Catholic Church was correct putting Matthew ahead.

My study of biblical exegesis, especially redaction criticism, has convinced me that the Gospel of Mark is most likely the first to be written down, sometime between 67 and 70 AD. That is what most contemporary Catholic and mainline Protestant biblical scholars think.

Yes, I know that's what most scholars think and I did too. I said that. But I'm getting a different intuition on it this reading. Like I said in my comment above, the ordering seems to depend on whether you see Matthew as an expansion of Mark or Mark as a condensation of Matthew, or if not Matthew some other text or oral history. Yes, that would be redaction criticism. Who is redacted who? For me right now in this reading it feels like Mark is summarizing and reducing. It feels like a Hemingway-esk intentional underwriting, and so Mark is quite possible reducing to mere essentials the larger story.

I am on the fence regarding the validity of Q (Q = Quelle, German word for source). Is there enough evidence for lost manuscripts or is it a cop-out? So far every time I've encountered it I haven't been fully persuaded.

Yes, if he were basing it on Matthew. He could be basing it elsewhere. There's no proof that Q ever existed. Personally I think what people consider the proto Gospels were randomly written texts - and note the plural there - the equivalent of scraps of paper today where parts were on one and not the other. My intuition tells me there wasn't one "Q" but something like a dozen parts of a "Q" and the different evangelists had different parts. There was no formal scribing system then. Each partial "Q" was taken from a different oral statement and passed around. I don't know if Q was ever a synthesized text. If it were it would have been treasured and preserved…. And Church history has Mark second. It's actually amazing how often the Church turns up right on historical disputes. They preserved the history quite well. They may be wrong on this one but there are reasons why they may be right.

"There is too much consistency between the "Q" material between Luke and Matthew for it to be coincidence in my humble opinion. The material Matthew and Luke have in common (which Mark does not have) is so similar that oral tradition alone does not seem to account for it. "

Oh I didn't say there wasn't proto material available. What i said was it was in numerous texts rather than a unified single text. That would explain why there is material in Matthew and not in Luke and vice versa. The scholars also claim there are "M' source for Matthew and an "L" source for Luke. What I'm saying is that there weren't such comprehensive texts but maybe a dozen fragments (scraps of texts) which Matthew had some, Luke had some and Mark had some, and that some overlapped and some didn't. That would explain why some texts are in one of the three, others in two of the three, and still others in all three. It would also explain why the Church believed Mark came after Matthew.

"But there are other reasons that I would find it easier to date Mark before Matthew, not just source criticism work. For example, Matthew has a far more developed ecclesiology than Mark. It implies greater time between Pentecost and its writing elapsed allowing for more church structure to develop. "

Unless Mark wasn't interested in it. He apparently wasn't interested in a nativity scene. Certainly if even he wrote his Gospel in 67 AD, the nativity of Christ was known by then. The scholars presuppose that Mark wrote everything he knew or found in the proto texts. As I'm reading I'm sensing he is very deliberate and curt. He's a minimalist.

I admit, my opinion is not the prevailing opinion of the day. I'm using my understanding writing and rhetoric to arrive at an intuitive position.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but now that I’ve read the seventh and eighth chapters in Mark, I want to present what I think is the strongest evidence for the primacy of Matthew’s Gospel over Mark. Both Gospels have the story of the Syrophoenician Woman who pleads with Jesus to save her daughter. A comparison of the two versions I think lends insight on who came first. Here’s Mark’s version:

24 From that place he went off to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. 25Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.* For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”28She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Now here’s Matthew’s version (Mat 15: 21-28):

21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”23But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 24 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”26He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”27She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Notice how much more Matthew’s version has than Mark’s. Matthew tells us the situation happened in “Tyre and Sidon” not just in Tyre as Mark. (I don’t think there’s any relevance to Mark caller her Syrophoenician and Matthew calling her Canaanite.) Matthew has her beg in actual words while Mark has what’s called a narrative summary. Matthew has the disciples tell Jesus to “send her away,” while Mark doesn’t even mention the disciples. Both versions have Jesus use that derogatory phrase about the non-Jews being dogs and both versions have Jesus cure the daughter after the woman’s persistence, but Matthew has Jesus spell out that the woman’s faith was great while in Mark it’s rather ambiguous on what Jesus finds so admirable. In Mark’s version it seems like it’s the woman’s humility and not her faith that Jesus finds admirable.

So which version relied on the other? If Matthew relied on Mark as the current scholars claim, then where did Matthew get all that extra detail? Tyre and Sidon are two separate places, though contiguous. If Mark came first, why did Matthew add Sidon? Did he make it up? As a believer in the honesty of the Gospel writers, that would be a non-starter. If Matthew relied on Mark, why did he add the disciples trying to shoo her away and have her say “Lord help me?” Now flip that around and ponder if Mark relied on Matthew as the Church historically has claimed. Isn’t it more likely that Mark would drop what he considered extraneous detail if he were looking to consolidate? The key for me is that Mark jumps into narrative summary, which is a method of simplifying narrative. If Mark didn’t consider Matthew’s details of the addition of Sidon to the itinerary or the disciples’ reaction to the woman and the extra words the woman spoke important, then it seems natural for him to drop the details.

And then in chapter 8, there is the event of the blind man of Bethsaida. Here Mark is quite elaborate in his use of detail because he evidently finds this event very important. The town brought the blind man to Jesus to be cured and Jesus takes the blind man by the hand and leads him out of town. Now that is quite dramatic. To take him by the hand and walk out of town must have been at least an hour’s walk, if not much more. My father was blind by the way and I know firsthand it’s not the smoothest walk leading a blind man, especially if they don’t know each other’s walk habits. And once out of town Jesus puts spittle on the blind man’s eyes and he half sees and then touches the blind man again and he has vision. What a dramatic little scene.

Now this scene is not found in either Matthew or Luke. If Mark came first, and the other two relied on Mark, why would they leave out this dramatic scene? It really does not follow. The Mark primacy has a lot of holes in it.

Susan, I am glad you mentioned all that. I didn't know how much I should mention it myself. One of the reasons I've seen why Mark is so curt on various scenes is that he is not interested in providing a biography of Jesus. He leaves out all that biographical detail (notice no birth narrative) so that he can focus on the one question and this is the overriding question of the Gospel, Who is Jesus? So even the resurrection is not all that important, but the Messiah who cleans away the sins of the world through His sacrifice is the answer. Therefore we see the roughly put together last chapter. It comes across as a fill in afterwards. Now that doesn't mean Mark didn't write it. My theory on that last chapter is he wrote it after he had finished it as an add on.

Mark supposedly has a reputation as a bad writer. Supposedly he has grammatical errors in his Greek and it's supposedly of an inexperienced writer. Now that may be, I can't read ancient Greek, and because of that he was not thought of as a skilled craftsman of writing. Scholars have come to appreciate his story telling abilities, such as the triple scenes laid out side by side in a chapter. Chapter five as I went through in some detail up above is a perfect example of how skilled he can craft narrative. Mark's narrative doesn't necessarily move in a chronological manner, but in a thematic manner. Now only does he lay things out in triple scenes but he also repeats in doublets: two feeding of the thousands scene, two curing of blind men, two demoniac possessed people cured. The triplets and doublets are a fascinating way to tell a story.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Short Story Analysis: “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

I have to say that probably my favorite writer of the modern era is WilliamFaulkner.  He is a masterful storyteller, possesses a deep understanding of human nature and psychology, is breathtakingly innovative in form and style, and captures the sounds and rhythms of American English, albeit in the southern style.  I need to make a point to read at least a story or two every year from his Collected Stories.  So I’m going to go through them like I do with Hemingway, starting now.  Quotes are taken from the Collected Stories edition.

First up may be his finest of his short stories, “Barn Burning.”  You can also read the story online if you wish too, at William Faulkner Books site, which happens to include “Barn Burning” in its entirety, here.  

Several of Faulkner’s works center on groups of families in recurring works set in a fictional county in northern Mississippi which is a stand in for his home county.  “Barn Burning” brings in the Snopes family, and as Wikipedia entry says, this short story is a prequel to the Snopes family trilogy of novels.    

“Barn Burning” is a story about a young boy, Sarty, trying to understand his Civil War veteran and arsonist father, Abner Snopes, through the final events of Abner’s life, the events that led him to be shot and killed.  Here is the great opening paragraph:

The store in which the Justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish-this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

"But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?"

It is absolutely amazing how Faulkner can go from third person point of view and shift to first on a dime.  There is so much packed in that little paragraph that I need to parse it almost sentence by sentence.  Mr. Harris is in court before a judge accusing Abner of burning down his barn.  We see the events through Sarty’s eyes.  The boy smells cheese and fish, a sensation that will be integrated into his memory and become associated with despair and grief.  That despair and grief is then called “the old fierce pull of blood,” and so through memory of family is memory of grief of which a blood bond enslaves the character.  The story starts with in court confrontational setting, Mr. Harris becomes the enemy, not for anything he did to Sarty, but for being enemy of his father, dramatically characterized through the boys parenthetical thoughts, “our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!”  

Let me provide the plot of the story briefly:
(1) In court over the Harris barn burning.  The judge can’t find the evidence against Snopes but tells him to leave town.

(2) Snopes packs his family up, moves to a new shack as a tenant farmer under a rich landlord.

(3) On his way to the landlord’s mansion, Snopes steps in horse dung and deliberately wipes his foot on the landlord’s carpet.

(4) The carpet is brought to the Snopes shack to be cleaned, and out of spite Snopes ruins the carpet and tosses it into the mansion parlor. 

(5) Snopes is back in court over the carpet and the judge rules he must pay for it.

(6) In retaliation, Snopes burns down the landlord’s barn.

(7) Snopes is killed at the scene of the barn burning.

What we get is a portrait of Abner Snopes in the course of three or four days events through the eyes of his son.  So what is it we learn of Abner Snopes? 

He was injured in the Civil War:

His father turned, and he followed the stiff black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost's man's musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago, (p.5)

He has a tenacious nature, perhaps even beyond tenacious to a relentlessness that bordered on psychologically distorted mania:

There was something about his wolflike independence and even courage, when the advantage was at least neutral, which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.  (p. 7)

And then there is Abner’s fascination with fire:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths-a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight?

Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.  (p. 7-8)

And when he’s fallen under a new landlord who owns an aristocratic looking mansion, we see Abner rebelling against the servitude.  He says, “I reckon I'll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months" (p. 9).  “Owning me body and soul” is the language of slaveholding, and he is clearly resisting what he sees as a violation to his dignity.  What we see is a nature who is in constantly combative due to the class consciousness of the southern culture.  Abner is repeatedly belligerent because he forever senses injustices to his honor.  It is no coincidence that two critical scenes in the story revolve around a justice’s decision.  He may be above a slave, but now that slavery has been abolished he is not even above that. 

Inside Abner is a combustible dysfunctionality.  He is pricked by his sense of lower class status to the point of outrage, and fire is a perfect symbol for his outrage and belligerence.  He retaliates through arson, as if that will reset the power struggle that has belittled him.  His being an arsonist is an outward expression of his inner combustible dysfunctionality.

But if arson is his outward expression, you would never sense it from his demeanor, which is always on the surface in control.  After the first court scene, after Sarty had been cross examined and everyone could sense that Sarty was going to contradict his father, Abner confronts his son at dinner besides the campfire:

He merely ate his supper beside it and was already half asleep over his iron plate when his father called him, and once more he followed the stiff back, the stiff and ruthless limp, up the slope and on to the starlit road where, turning, he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth-a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made lot him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin:

"You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him," He didn't answer. His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, his voice still without heat or anger: "You're getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don't you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?" Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, " If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again." But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there. "Answer me," his father said.

"Yes," he whispered. His father turned.

"Get on to bed. We'll be there tomorrow."  (p. 8)

“Without heat” is a descriptor in many of the scenes for Abner’s actions.  We can feel the intensity inside his breast, but he is outwardly in control, without showing the heat of anger.  That Abner repeatedly explodes “without heat” reveals a psychopathic nature to his actions.    

On the way to the new landlord’s mansion, the son observes his father’s stride and the apparently insignificant event that is at the root of his fate.

Watching him, the boy remarked the absolutely undeviating course which his father held and saw the stiff foot come squarely down in a pile of fresh droppings where a horse had stood in the drive and which his father could have avoided by a simple change of stride. But it ebbed only for a moment, though he could not have thought this into words either, walking on in the spell of the house, which he could ever want but without envy, without sorrow, certainly never with that ravening and jealous rage which unknown to him walked in the ironlike black coat before him; Maybe he will feel it too, Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe be couldn't help but be.  (p. 10)

Abner has stepped in horse feces and is stuck beneath his shoe.  Could he have avoided the dung?  It’s rather ambiguous if he noticed it.  I don’t think we know.  Also recall that Abner was shot in the foot during the Civil War and since has “walked a little stiffly” (p.5).  So his stride has been altered by the war, and, like many veterans of wars, his nature has been altered by the war.  So what was the genesis of his fate?  His altered nature?  His society that has placed him as equal to slaves?  The South’s loss in the Civil War that has lowered the dignity of southerners and pride in one’s culture?  Faulkner weaves all the elements together.

At the landlord’s mansion, we don’t see an event that can be attributed to powers beyond his control; we see a deliberate act of defiance.

His father had not spoken again. He did not speak again. He did not even look at her. He just stood stiff in the center of the rug, in his hat, the shaggy iron-gray brows twitching slightly above the pebble-colored eyes as he appeared to examine the house with brief deliberation. Then with the same deliberation he turned; the boy watched him pivot on the good leg and saw the stiff foot drag round the arc of the turning, leaving a final long and fading smear.  (p, 12)

It is that smear that leads to the court action forcing Abner to clean the carpet and Abner’s retaliation which leads to his death.  Finally because it is so well written I want to conclude with the moment Abner moves out to burn the landlord’s barn.  Father and two sons are in town where father decides they need to eat.

But not at home. Squatting beside his brother against the front wall, he watched his lather emerge from the store and produce from a paper sack a segment of cheese and divide it carefully and deliberately into three with his pocket knife and produce crackers from the same sack. They all three squatted on the gallery and ate, slowly, without talking; then in the store again, they drank from a tin dipper tepid water 'Melling of the cedar bucket an(.] of living beech trees. And still they did not go home. It was as a horse lot this time, a tall rail fence upon and along which men stood and sat and out of which one by one horses were led, to be walked and trotted and then cantered back and forth along the road while the slow swapping and buying went on and the sun began to slant westward, they-the three of them-watching and listening, the older brother with his Muddy eyes and his steady, inevitable tobacco, the father commenting now and then on certain of the animals, to no one in particular.

It was after sundown when they reached home. They ate supper by lamplight, then, sitting on the doorstep, the boy watched the night fully accomplish, listening to the whippoorwills and the frogs, when he heard his mother's voice: "Abner! No! No! 0h, God. 0h, God. Abner!" and he rose, whirled, and saw the altered light through the door where a candle stub now burned in a bottle neck on the table and his father, still in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence, emptying the reservoir of the lamp back into the five-gallon kerosene can from which it had been filled, while the mother tugged at his arm until he shifted the lamp to the other hand and flung her back, not savagely or viciously, just hard, into the wall, her hands flung out against the wall for balance, her mouth open and in her face the same quality of hopeless despair as had been in her voice. Then his father saw him standing in the door. "Go to the barn and get that can of oil we were oiling the wagon with," he said. The boy did not move. Then he could speak.

"What . . ." he cried. "What are you

"Go get that oil," his father said. "Go,"  (p.20-21)

Notice how various motivic elements come back and coordinate: the cheese, the despair, the family bonds, the combustible intensity while outwardly deliberate, and the fire.  This is truly one of the greatest short stories in the American short story cannon.  

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving with Augustine

Today is Thanksgiving Day, which is such a uniquely American holiday.  Today is a day to be thankful for all of God’s gifts to: your family, your friends, your home, the abundance of food, and perhaps all the material things we have available and at our fingertips.  The source of all is our Creator, and we should be grateful and thankful.

I was reading this passage last night in St. Augustine’s Confessions from Book Nine.  Augustine’s mother Monica, who prayed for his soul no matter what throughout Augustine’s pagan and dissolute years, has recently seen his conversion.  Shortly after this joy in her life, Monica (who will also be canonized a saint) catches a fever and within nine days dies.  Augustine offers this prayer of thanks and for her soul, which I found very touching and apt for today’s feast.

Book Nine, Chapter 13, Paragraph 35:

So it is, Praise and my Life, God of my heart, that I set aside for a little her good actions, for which I give thanks to you with rejoicing, and pray to you for my mother’s sins.  Hear my prayers, through the Healing of our wounds, who hung on a tree, who sitting at the right hand of the Father, intercedes for us.  I know that she dealt mercifully, and forgave her debtors from her heart; forgive her what debts she gave up in all those years after she was washed in the saving waters.  Forgive, Lord, forgive, I prayEnter not into judgement with her.  Let mercy triumph over judgement, for your sayings are true, and you have promised mercy to the merciful.  That they are merciful is your gift also; you who have mercy to those to whom you will have mercy, and are merciful to those to whom you will grant mercy.
                -Phillip Burton translation, Everyman Library.

Augustine is thankful for all his mother did for him, and goes on to pray for God to have mercy on her.  And in that last sentence we see that Augustine sees God having mercy as a gift too. 

So today, among your many blessings, be additionally thankful for your mother and for God’s mercy.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Music Tuesday: Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones

I guess readers here remember I’m a Rolling Stones fan when it comes to rock music.  I decided to play the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls album on my ipod, a truly great album, but one of the album songs is “Beast of Burden.”

Wikipedia has an interesting background to the song.

Jagger says, "Lyrically, this wasn't particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It's a soul begging song, an attitude song. It was one of those where you get one melodic lick, break it down and work it up; there are two parts here which are basically the same." The song can be seen as allegorical, with Richards saying in 2003, "When I returned to the fold after closing down the laboratory [referring to his drug problems throughout the 1970s], I came back into the studio with Mick... to say, 'Thanks, man, for shouldering the burden' - that's why I wrote "Beast of Burden" for him, I realise in retrospect."

Man, if this isn’t perfection when it comes to rock and roll, I don’t know what is.  The bluesy melody, the wonderful interweaving guitars, the lyrics of song of male insecurity, and Mick Jagger’s lamentation filled vocals.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about the composition.

"Beast of Burden" was recorded from October–December 1977. Although basic lyrics were written before the Stones entered the studio, many of the lyrics on the recording were improvised by Jagger to fit with the smooth running guitars of Richards and Ronnie Wood. Characteristically, Richards and Wood trade off rolling, fluid licks. Neither is really playing lead or rhythm guitar; they both slip in and out, one playing high while the other is low. The song is another famed Some Girls song that features each band member playing his respective instrument without any outside performers; both Richards and Wood play acoustic and electric guitars, with Wood performing the solo.

You just cannot beat this.

Here are the lyrics, with credit to Keno’s Rolling Stones Web Site. 

(M. Jagger/K. Richards)

I'll never be your beast of burden
My back is broad but it's a hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
I'll never be your beast of burden
I've walked for miles my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me

Am I hard enough
Am I rough enough
Am I rich enough
I'm not too blind to see

I'll never be your beast of burden
So let's go home and draw the curtains
Music on the radio
Come on baby make sweet love to me

Am I hard enough
Am I rough enough
Am I rich enough
I'm not too blind to see

Oh little sister
Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, girl
You're a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl
Pretty, pretty
Such a pretty, pretty, pretty girl
Come on baby please, please, please

I'll tell ya
You can put me out
On the street
Put me out
With no shoes on my feet
But, put me out, put me out
Put me out of misery

Yeah, all your sickness
I can suck it up
Throw it all at me
I can shrug it off
There's one thing baby
That I don't understand
You keep on telling me
I ain't your kind of man

Ain't I rough enough, ooh baby
Ain't I tough enough
Ain't I rich enough, in love enough
Ooh! Ooh! Please

I'll never be your beast of burden
I'll never be your beast of burden
Never, never, never, never, never, never, never be

I don't need no beast of burden
I need no fussing
I need no nursing

Never, never, never, never, never, never, never be

Monday, November 13, 2017

Notable Quote: God was there to Guide by St. Augustine

There are so many great quotes in the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo, but I did want to highlight this wonderful few sentences from Book VI.  To set the scene, Augustine is losing his faith in the heretical religion of Manicheanism, and is starting to believe in a Christian God.  In looking back, he sees God’s guiding hand as Augustine travails through various vicissitudes of intellectual exploration.

I sighed and you heard me; I was tossed on the waves, and you guided me; I was walking along the world’s broad path, and you did not desert me.
        -St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book VI, from paragraph 6.5.8, Phillip Burton translation, Everyman’s Library Edition.

St. Augustine’s Confessions is a great read.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Poetry: “On Passing the New Menin Gate” by Siegfried Sassoon

And so “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918” an armistice went into effect bringing the cessation of hostilities to what would become known as The Great War.  It is from that event that our Veterans Day is commemorated. Today is the 99th anniversary of that armistice.

I have now completed the collection of World War I poems titled Some Desperate Glory: The First World War The Poets Knew by Max Egremont, which I have been posting on for almost two years now.  Each post on my blog highlighted a poem from one of the war years.  You can access these posts here:

As I explained in that last post, I tried to highlight a different poet for each year, but Wilfred Owen’s poetry was so superior in the last two years of the war I just had to highlight him twice.  So why am I highlighting another poem from the book?  Well, the book doesn’t stop with the end of the war (1918) but continues with one more chapter on the post war, titled, “Aftermath.”  The poets who were not killed in the war went on to write poetry on the war for their remaining years.  So intense is the war experience that one can only say the soul is forever traumatized. 

Of the eleven poets whose work are collected in the book, five survived the war.  It only occurred to me recently that Egremont’s book is a book on British poets of the First World War.  All eleven are British, and frankly I can’t think of any poets from any of the other countries that fought, even the United States, though it is incredulous to think there weren’t any poets other than British.  I’m not even sure if the eleven poets constitute all the British poets who served.  I can’t recall if Egremont ever gives his criteria for the selection.  I should also provide the list of poets Egremont selects.  Each deserves that honor. 

The six who were killed in action:

The five who survived the war:

Of the poets who survived, Siegfried Sassoon arguably went on to have the most impact as an ex-war poet.  Graves may have had a more celebrated literary career, but even he acknowledge his work after the war focused on other themes.  I’m selecting Sassoon’s “On Passing the New Menin Gate” as the highlighted poem of the war’s aftermath.

Before getting to the poem, two issues concerning Sassoon’s post war years should be considered.  First is his personal life which culminated with his conversion to Roman Catholicism and second is his refrain from and renouncing of modernist poetic form.  Egremont describes the split in the aesthetic divergence as rooted between the war poets and the younger literary generation.

A gap opened between those who’d fought and those who didn’t.  Before 1914, Britain and the new art of continental Europe had been getting closer; now, for many, the Continent meant death, obliteration and, even in peace, rumours of chaos.  Some—mostly non-combatants like [T.S.] Eliot, James Joyce, and [Ezra] Pound—still looked to modernism, to abstract art, to writing without clear narrative, whereas Sassoon and Blunden, even the more adventurous Graves, stuck to tradition, often yearning for an imagined, calm past.  They had tried to tell the war’s reality, Wilfred Owen writing that ‘every word, every figure of speech must be a matter of experience’ and ‘I don’t want to write anything to which a soldier would say No compris’.  Owen had known nothing of Eliot and Pound.  (p. 241)

Sassoon felt a particular loss from Owen’s death.  He went on to opine that if Owen “had lived, they could together have made an alternative to modernism, to Eliot’s fragmented world” (p. 256).  This decision to split with the modernist forms isolated the war poets, especially Sassoon, characterizing them as outdated. 

The second issue of Sassoon post war years was his tumultuous life.  “Propelled by his fame…Sassoon began a decade of guilt-ridden socializing and sex, briefly at Oxford before becoming editor of the Daily Herald and, billed as a hero poet…on a lecture tour of the United States” (p. 240).  The sex was filled with a series of homosexual affairs, which filled the whole decade following the war.  In 1931 he married, had a child, who he loved deeply, while he kept his homosexuality indiscreet.  He wrote throughout his life, poetry, satires, novels with mixed results.  Toward the end of his life he had a conversion experience to Roman Catholicism, which affected him greatly. 

In 1927, Siegfried Sassoon went back to Flanders.  He drove across the battlefields with Glen Byam Shaw, the young actor whom he loved, weeping at the memories.  He wrote ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ about the pompous memorial designed by the imperial architect Sir Reginald Bloomfield for Ypres and inscribed with the names of the dead.

Sassoon had tried politics and lecture tours; he discovered sex, fooling himself that he could reform his decadent lovers, all the time feeling a bit lost.  Thomas Hardy became an idol and Edmund Blunden an essential friend; to see the two together at Max Gate, Hardy’s home at Dorset, allowed Sassoon to imagine a world that might respond to his increasingly traditionalist style.  When, in 1924, Blunden went to teach in Japan, Sassoon missed him badly; and nostalgia became more intense as he became less inspired by the present.  ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ evoked the bitterness and anger of the war.  (p. 250).

Later, through the turmoil of the Second World War, Egremont tells us Sassoon “longed for a more purposeful and ordered life, for spiritual rest.  In 1957, [he] converted to Roman Catholicism, welcoming its clear answers and its discipline” (p. 256).  He would live for another ten years and apparently his new found faith was the only thing that could put his war-torn, dislocated soul at rest.

As mentioned in the quote above, New Menin Gate was a war memorial at Ypres, Belgium dedicated to the British and Commonwealth dead who’s grave went unidentified.  Apparently Sassoon was not pleased with it.  Here is the poem he wrote. 

On Passing the New Menin Gate
By Siegfried Sassoon

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

    Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
    Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
    Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
    The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride
'Their name liveth for ever', the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

There’s not much to analyze, a rather straightforward poem.  In the first stanza, the speaker is passing this new memorial at Ypres, questioning whether this self-conscious monument actually addresses those who it’s supposed to memorialize.  The second stanza shifts the focus to those who are supposed to be memorialized, and the third ridicules the monument for not displaying the reality of war’s struggle and death.  “Here was the world's worst wound” is truly a great and memorable line.  You can hear the entire poem read here.

With the conclusion of these war poets, I want to announce that in 2018 I will be continuing with Sassoon by reading a play by Joseph Pierce on Owen and Sassoon, Pierce using the two poet’s own words to form the drama.  I will also be going through T. S. Eliot’s post WWI poem, “The Wasteland,” and so we can compare the modernist and the traditionalist’s styles.  Stay tuned for that.

Finally, for Veteran’s Day, say a prayer for those that fought in wars.  As you can see with Sassoon, the experience of war is not pleasant and life-long traumatizing.