Mary Magdalene

Georges_de_La_Tour_009 The Penitent Magdalene

 The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de La Tour ca. 1640


I was once a foolish girl with curled hair, a dusting of freckles across my nose and cheeks.  It was curiosity- isn’t it always- that first led me away.  The world awaited me to savor its beauty, to uncover its mystery through enchantment.  It did not take long.  How quickly it changed.  The world soured and curdled in my mouth.  My flesh, devoured to the bone by the look of insatiable eyes, my body a den for unseen savages.  Then, one day, he passed by.  He saw me.  He came and spoke a word to me. At that moment, he gave me back to myself.  And coming back, my only desire was to give myself wholly to him.  With him, I could be noble and grow strong as the cedars of Lebanon that Papa once spoke of.  That day, I followed him.  How many evenings I sat at his feet, listening to him speak of many things.  In his presence I would lose all sense of time and often forgot my chores.  My sister complained about that once.  I miss my sister.  I miss my brother, too.

I am now old woman, so many years piled as stones upon my bent shoulders.  From this cave, on this Gallic mount, I spend my day, as I have spent them for thirty years, in prayer to him.  Sometimes, the villagers visit me.  They ask what it was like seeing him, that morning in the garden.  For years I tried to describe it.  I have long since given up.  I usually say he was a radiant as the sun or his eyes shone as the morning star or something like that. What Life and Beauty really look like!  To try to speak of it is to mire them in the pitch of our words. What he is and what we shall be, through him, is beyond all telling.  In the end there is no speaking.  Only the seeing, at last.

My life in this place, so far from the land I once knew, is a penance.  Some days I watch the clouds float in their courses from the sea.  It reminds me of the cloud that shrouded him as he returned to the Father.  I sometimes see an expansive and large one rolling toward me and find myself hoping the day, at last, has come.  It will come, though not in a way that I or anyone expects.

Until then, I will wait for him, my prayers deepening as violet at dusk.


 Mary Magdalene in Mediation by Antoine Le Nain ca. 17th















Clouds: An Appreciative Essay

Cloud from the corner


I love clouds.  I could look at them all day, couldn’t you?  As a child, would often look upwards and just watch them.  I remember laying in the back of my parents car (this was before we constricted with seatbelts by state law) and looking out the rear window at a light blue sky peppered with altocumulus clouds.  My mother was having me play the game of seeing shapes in the clouds.  One cloud had the unmistakable profile of Goofy.  I could see the floppy hat and the long snout slightly curved with a nose that looked like an over-sized olive balancing at the end.  For a five year old it was something to see Goofy there in the clouds.  It was something more, before my very eyes, to see Goofy change and dissipate.  Yes, the movement of the clouds themselves became a source of delight.  I would watch them, the cumulus clouds pulling apart like a cotton balls and becoming thin and delicate before dissolving from sight.  I would watch the colossal cumulonimbus clouds that would continue to billow upward filling the sky with its snowy immensity. It was from watching the roiling, the passing, and dissipating clouds that I may have gotten an inchoate appreciation of the passing nature of things.  Just watching something changing before your eyes might make you think of the million-and-one other things changing and passing right under our noses.  Their passing beauty might lead to a consideration of Beauty itself…and that is not a bad thing, I think.

After Rain

“After Rain” Arkhip Kuindzhi


Nimbostratus clouds are the ones that bring rain or snow.  Basically, storm clouds.  Sometimes you can see them drifting close to the earth, their ragged bottoms looking could brush the ground below.  Other times, on rainy days, they appear as an indistinguishable monochromatic gray dome, screwed down overhead. These days are the dreary days.  But I learned that these clouds can sometimes can become darker, much darker.  As a child, I was riding through the Mississippi Delta with Mama, Grandma and Grandpa.  We were headed to my grandparent’s house in Greenville.  We had made it past Leland and were not far from the outskirts of town.  It was probably late spring, either the last of May or the first of June.  The fields that we passed were full of healthy cotton; you could make out a few white bolls peeping out here and there.  I loved looking at the passing cotton fields.  To my mind, if the cotton was planted properly, the seed rows would run perpendicular to the highway.  This created the most interesting visual effect.  From the window of our speeding car, the rows appeared to be whirling by, like the blades of some great telluric fan.  Sometimes, my face turned toward the window, I would make a noise, silently, loud enough for only me to hear, mimicking the sight from my window: “Shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo”.

The day promised rain for it had been overcast for most of the drive.  I was prepared for that, resigning myself to an afternoon of television at Grandma’s house.  We drove further, I lost in the rambling thoughts of a child, when I became aware of it.  The sky had darkened and darkened considerably; I mean really dark like a cast iron skillet.  The landscape, as far as the eye could see was shrouded in blackness- ominous and impenetrable.  It was an awful sight.  Unnerved, a feeling a dread washed over me.  The blackness pressing in on us seemed to be carrying more than rain.  It carried a Presence.   It felt apocalyptic, in the true sense of the word.  This storm was an unveiling and its revelation would suffer no dissembling.  There was nowhere to hide. The bubble-safe-world of my childhood was on the verge being plunged into depths I was scarcely ready to fathom.  I felt utterly defenseless before it.

Here is the strange thing.  Neither denying nor contradicting the feeling of defenselessness before the Presence within the storm, there arose a strangely harmonious sentiment.  Fascination.  As dark as it was, no sun it sight, everything that passed our window became radiant from the Presence.  The Presence was shrouded in darkness yet it was illumined and illuminating.  The Presence was a radiant darkness. How a darkness can be radiant I cannot even begin to explain. When the sun shone bright above any other time, the cotton seemed to spread out as a uniform, dull green carpet, stretching from the highway and vanishing into the horizon. But from this darkness, from this Presence everything became preternaturally vivid. The green of the cotton seemed at last to achieve the hue of green, for which it was meant.  It shone. It shined.  Each leaf seemed to articulate itself, each plant appearing to abide in its particular uniqueness. From the Presence each and everything seemed charged and crackling with new vitality.  The unveiling of the Presence unveiled the presences of all things allowing them to stand out and become more fully themselves.


At some point I took a break from my fascination of the clouds.  When did this happen?  Oh, I don’t know exactly.  I might be right in guessing that it occurred when I began to discover that other wonder of nature…girls.  They, too, seemed to float lightly about, filling the world with their enchantment.  To my poor-adolescent-boy-of-a-mind they were as elusive and unpredictable as the clouds themselves.  So naturally, they became singular sources of fascination.

When did it return, this love of the clouds?  Well, it sounds so hackneyed but it was probably when my wife and I began to have children.  Having children, you see, is a nice way of becoming reacquainted with the world.

Morning CloudsIV

For many years I taught at a high school near my home.  My room was on the second floor and situated across a hallway lined with floor-to-ceiling picture windows.  This was a real perk.  The perk came in being able to see the most stunning sun rises.  Now, I live in a suburb of Houston, Texas.  If you know anything about the place where I live, the coupling of “stunning sunrise” and “Houston, Texas” might qualify as a non sequitur.  But the given beauty of things cannot be altogether buried, try as we might with our tangled mass of power-lines and ubiquitous strip malls.  As I said the sunrises were spectacular.  Sometimes I would be treated to the cirrus clouds feathering the sky in soft lavenders and peaches.  Sometimes they’d come in like waves, lapping up from the horizon in indigo’s and oranges.  Other times, the expanse hung as a shimmering platinum sheet only few clouds resting upon it.  What they lacked in number they repaid lavishly in appearance, for they burned the firmament in fiery brilliance like droplets of molten gold fallen from the forge of Vulcan.

I remember one early morning before the start of school, I was leaving my room to go downstairs for a cup of coffee.  I stepped out and I saw a young man, probably a sophomore, sitting against the wall, caddy cornered from my door.  I say he was sitting but it was more like a slouch on its way to prostration.  He was like paint having been slopped against a wall and oozing downward, coalescing in a puddle. I offered a salutary nod in his direction that was not reciprocated. He had that sort of sleepy, blank, far away stare most high schoolers have at time of early morning.  Bathed in the sterile fluorescence of the lights above and dressed in clothing, the only contrast of which, was a few hues of black, he was lost in whatever sound that loudly blossomed from his ear buds.  It was a sort of dispiriting sight.

I continued on way to the lounge, checked my mailbox, got my coffee and then headed back upstairs.  As I turned down the long hallway leading to my room, from the large window at the opposite end, I was arrested by the most magnificent sight.  The cloud formation was of stratocumulus clouds that filled the entire breadth of the October sky.  Never, in nature, had I seen in such a mesmerizing interplay of color and texture.  The clouds canopied the heights in plush quilted cotton, lit underneath by the rising sun, rippling forth in peaches, purples, and violets that glowed like fire lit embers. To say it was spectacular is in no sense adequate to relay otherworldly the beauty of it.  I remember thinking, dazzled by the sight, “Now that just can’t be ignored; that is enough to stop a person cold in their tracks”.  And it happened; almost on cue the young fellow sitting down the hall and outside my room, rolled his head lazily in the direction of the window.  Like one overcome by the siren’s song, he picked himself off the floor, dusted off his pants, and walked toward the window.  He stood there for a brief moment and then did something that could fuel hours of contemplation.  While looking upon that sunrise with both hands he reached up and removed the ear buds. Stop and think of what that means.  Do not be too quick here.  He removed the sound from his ears so as to see with his eyes.

There are sacramental moments in life and that was one if there ever was one.    As I said, the scene is one worthy of hours of contemplation.  I come back to it often.


VChildren Contemplating Clouds

One of the earliest non canonical writings in Christianity is called the Didache.  It is believed to have been written somewhere between 60-120 AD.  It is an early catechism, if will.  It begins with these memorable lines “There are Two Ways, the one of Life and the one of Death, and great is the distance between them.” What does this have to do with clouds, you may ask?  Well seeing shapes in the clouds is a real skill mind you.  If you do not keep a certain sort of innocence, by which I mean you have become too practical, and therefore obtuse, this skill can be lost.  If you do not believe me go outside with, preferably, a small child, and, even more preferably, with a small child you know and see how many things you can see in the clouds. You’ll find the child seeing in a flash, castles, dragons, bears, squirrels, cars, and mountains; however, you’ll be standing there flatfooted only looking at amorphous blobs of moisture.  I tried doing it recently and what had once been done with the ease of water running downstream now had all the tortured work of deciphering a Rorschach.  What does this have to do with life and death, by which I mean Real Life and Real Death, you know the eschatological kind?  It has to do with the necessity of wonder, a wonder that takes delight that there is a world and the recognition of the privilege of being therein.  Wonder, you see, is the raison d’etre of a child. This is the essential difference between the child and the rest of us.  The child’s vision is clean.  Its vision is such that it can see the irreducible beauty of ordinary things and simply take delight in its loveliness.  That’s right, the ordinary things of the world.  You remember don’t you?  Ordinary things like fire flies, like Dandelions, like clouds. The child finds delight in these things where, now, you and I find only boredom.  And as one writer once noted, it is not only strange that we should find boredom before these things, it is also tragic, for “boredom is not neutral…it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.”  To my mind, living in a state of unloveliness is a fairly apt description of death.  The real kind.

(Update: I just went outside and looked at the altocumulus clouds above my home, in which, I am happy to report, I saw the unmistakable profiles of the Road Runner and Piglet.  This is undeniable proof that there is some hope for my immortal soul).


Every summer my family and I take a vacation.  We usually head to west of Houston either to San Antonio or toward the Hill Country.  Traveling Hwy 290 away from Houston you leave the placidly flat region of the Coastal Plains and crossing into Washington County the landscape begins to rise like a swell upon the ocean.  It is a most remarkable sight, this geographic demarcation of plain and hill.  The further you go the rollers keep coming, rising and falling; you rising and falling with it.  The drive to our destination has become something I look forward to.  My wife will often make the drive going, so I will sit in the passenger seat and look out the window.  The big Texas sky is blue as a sapphire and is dolloped in white, the clouds above floating in wandering archipelagos.  I have learned that the sky and clouds of summer have a magnanimous friendship.  Each is fully content to let their own particular presence reveal the splendor of the other, so that the blueness of the sky makes the clouds whiter and the whiteness of the clouds makes the sky bluer.  If only we could do the same.


Texas GroveSometimes, in the distance, I will see a grove of trees, a dense patch of deep and dappled greens resting in the midst of the wide and open grassland.  Strange to say but I get the urge to ask my wife to stop the car and for all of us to get out and begin walking toward it.  I imagine the car pulling onto the shoulder, rattling and vibrating like a plane striking a runway.  The car slows and then comes to a stop.  We open the doors of the car and our ears are met with the violent rush of the speeding traffic, our bodies concussed by the trailing gusts of large semi-trucks as they smash the atmosphere before them.  We quickly step off the shoulder unto a sort earthly estuary where the gravel and trash of the highway and the grass commingle.  We begin making our way toward that grove of trees.  I imagine that walk.  I can feel us crossing in the tall grass, the spikelets caressing our hands as we move forward, dragonfly’s hovering and darting about around us.  At first our ears are still filled with the roar of the traffic behind but it gradually dissipates as we move further from the road.  The sun is hot overhead but there is a breeze, the breezes brushes the tall grass like a hand stroking velvet.  I can imagine a sort of decompression coming upon us the further we move from the rushing highway.  The chest seems to take deeper breaths and the stretched tension in the shoulders relaxes like rubber band going slack. We finally reach the grove, a mix of Texas Red Oak and Anaquas.  We enter the shaded grove and sit upon the ground.  The dense tree cover offers shade and consequently there is not as much grass.  Sitting here we become aware of little things that usually lay hidden like the smell of the moist soil that we sit upon.  In the trees above Carolina Wrens flit and hop about.  We no longer hear the highway but the sound of rustling leaves and the chirping grasshoppers.  We sit there silently and listen, resting in blessed presence of the unhurried world and one another.  Maybe we sit there all day, taking no thought plans, we sit there until the sun takes its leave and slowly sinks below the horizon, its fading light calling forth the fireflies, who become soft pulsating beacons, quietly ascending and descending in the tall grass stretching beyond us.

It has be such a long time since I have seen the fireflies.  Anyway, that is what I imagine.

One time, on our drive, I saw a buzzard circling in a lazy gyre above the clouds.  In my mind I found myself as a boy sitting in First Methodist Church in Maben, Mississippi.  It was a Sunday night in the summer and my Grandpa was delivering the evening message.  He stood before the small group of people spaced out in the pews, a small music stand before him to hold his notes.   I do not remember the subject of the sermon only a small vignette he shared of his own childhood growing up on his family’s place in Winterville, where they raised cotton.  He spoke of it being a summer day, said that he had found himself sitting underneath a tree to find some relief from the heat.  Leaning against the tree and looking out, Grandpa said that he remembered seeing two buzzards circling in the clouds above.  He said the watched them for a long while, the buzzards slowly spiraling higher and higher upon the updrafts until they could be seen no more.  “To this day, I have idea where those buzzards went”, he mused before us, with a slight chuckle and continued with on with his message.

His boyhood and my boyhood, at that time, was separated by fifty years.  He shared a memory that has become a part of my memory, a memory I am now sharing with you as a forty four year old man.  My memory of its telling is thirty years old but the actually occurrence is over eighty.  Why do I, why do we remember such seemingly random things?  I have no idea. Maybe time, among other things, is as an immensely wide flowing river that courses through our lives.  Upon the river floats all manner of people, places, and events that transpire before and within us.  Sometimes some piece of these, floating by, snags upon the banks of our memory.  We gather these washed up bits and pieces- a recollection of a face, a nursery rhyme we sang ourselves to sleep with, the damp smell of pine straw in November, – we gather these up and cobble together a humble shanty from which to dwell and watch the river.

All of this comes from just watching a buzzard among the clouds.

Once on another trip to San Antonio, in the distance, I caught sight of a cloud’s shadow.  I had the experienced, any number of times, being covered in the shade of the passing clouds above.  But this, this was different.  This was seeing the actual movement of a cloud’s shadow.  It was a bright, hot, windy day, intermittent gusts pushing suddenly against the car.  I could see the tall grass being blown about, swaying like kelp in tidal currents.  Only a few cumulus clouds dotted the sky.  One of the smaller ones decided to make a break for it and its shadow hurried along after.  It started from a high hill diagonally and to the front, moving quickly but gently toward us.  Fluidly as water, the shadow became as the very earth it raced across, wholly filling and forming itself to the ground’s contours. Few things are as graceful, as gentle, and as free as a cloud’s shadow.  As the roving shade moved closer I could see the tops of the tall grass swirling and waving from within it.  The nearer it came, the harder it became to see.  Finally, it passed over the highway and continued onward behind us.  It was over all too quickly.  But I am grateful to have seen it.  I often think back to that day and the seeing of the cloud’s passing shadow.  One ephemeral thing making another ephemeral thing. What sound does the passing cloud’s shadow make?  Nothing you can hear but everything you can feel.  It seems to be the very essence of silence.  It is the very sound of God.


If only you could find the place where the sky and earth meet.



We sit at the red light that leads to our neighborhood. She plays with a necklace and I look up to watch the cumulus clouds, as is my custom in the summer.  Like heavenly armada they mass together, floating above, unhurried, unburdened.  Looking at one of the larger one’s overhead, I muse aloud to her, “I wonder what it would be like to be in a cloud?  I mean to be in it, not flying through it.”

“Heaven is in the clouds”, she replies unhurried, unburdened.

“Oh, that is true.”

“We’ll know what it’s like then”, she says, almost to herself.

Such a simple exchange, so unexpected, wholly unique and unrepeatable, like catching sight of a falling star.  The gold of life is spun from such moments.  Gather them up when you can.

Taking it up to hallow it, I look to the rear view mirror, and say, “I love you, Claire.”

“I love you, too.”

The light turns and we proceed homeward.



They are composed of very miniscule water droplets or ice crystals, so tiny that they are light enough to float high above the terrestrial body.  They are formed when water vapor, in the air, is heated by the sun. The heated air begins to rise.  As it rises it cools and expands, some of the vapor condenses upon extremely fine dust particles floating in the, air becoming a tiny droplet of water.  When phenomenon is replicated billions of times over, a cloud appears. The water crystals are large enough to refract the wavelengths of light, coming from the sun; from this they have their white appearance.

Now this is how it happens.  Light passes through the clear gelatinous dome of the cornea.  Because the cornea is curved the light coming through the eye is bent.  The colored part of the eye, the iris, adjusts the size of the pupil, dilating or contracting depending on the amount of light trying to enter in.  The light continues on and meets the lens, laying behind the pupil, it focuses the light further, and unto the retina, an image.  The retina is delicate and sensitive photo tissue.  It contains photoreceptor cells that translates the illumined image into electrical impulses.  From the retina, these impulses travel along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe of the brain.  It takes only 13 milliseconds.  The eye is the conduit.  We actually see with our brains; that organ weighing three pounds, consisting of seventy five percent water and sixty percent fat.

What has been described above are the facts.  This is how clouds form.  This is how sight happens.  For us, this is a necessary condition for reality.



“Cloud Study” John Constable

During the summers of 1821 and 1822 in Hampstead, England, a landscape painter began painting what he called, “cloud studies”.  In the beginning the studies include some terrestrial referent, a line of trees rooves of cottages, or the spire of a church.  However, on September 13, 1821, terra firma is left behind and he only paints the clouds themselves.  They are the most remarkable paintings.  Huge cumulonimbus clouds fill the canvas.  They are ethereal but they equally energetic; you can almost see the clouds billowing and flowing.  “I am a man of the clouds” he wrote to a friend of his.  For John Constable’s work, the sky and the clouds became, as he described, “…the keynote…the chief organ of sentiment.” Constable painted clouds with such detail, that meteorologists who have studied these paintings say that one can tell the time of year, even the hour of day from them.

In the early morning hours of December 15, 1899, French composer Claude Debussy,


Claude Debussy

completed his Nocturnes.  They were inspired after wick of his imagination was sparked by a series of paintings he’d seen on exhibition in London, by the American painter, James McNeill Whistler.  Whistler’s series was entitled Nocturnes.  In the introductory notes, Debussy said of his own Nocturnes, “[t]he title Nocturnes is to be interpreted…in a decorative sense…it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests.”

There are three movements to Debussy’s composition, the first of which is entitled “Nuages” or “Clouds”.  He said of this movement, “’Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.”

When the first few notes greet the ear they enter the imagination and speak of banks of clouds making their pensive procession across the gloaming.


“Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket”- James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket

Concerning Constable and Debussy, these are the facts, the facts of reflective and creative imagination.  And these facts depend on material facts, such as those governing the formation of clouds and the possibility of sight. The physical fact, the relationship between visible object and eyesight, is not something we can control.  To have eyes open is to look at what is there.  But there is a great difference between and looking and seeing.  Some people gaze upwards and look only at floating vaporous aerosols and then move on with their day.  They do not see dragons or kittens, much less entrusting that image to paint and canvas or committing it to music.  But some do.  And the fact that they do cannot be reduced to only material facts, as necessary as they are.  Even the fact that there are things to be seen- clouds, cotton fields, hawks, shadows- and thing that sees- you and I- are literally unanswerable from the material facts themselves. Likewise for there to be paintings, orchestral arrangements, or even reflective memory on clouds, the material facts themselves are not enough.  The material facts alone could neither explain the cloud studies of Constable nor Debussy’s “Nuages”.  For that explanation you need something further. Something like wonder.  Something otherworldly. Something like love.

But that is for another essay.

Until then, go out and enjoy the clouds.

Clouds Above Almond Spring Drive

Upon Reflection


Shadowed Leaves

The following poem was occasioned by the thought that life has a sacramental dimension. By this, I mean that from any number of ordinary things and mundane occurrences, the Divine Mystery may pour forth into our awareness.

Mine is not a new idea, the novelty of which would rightfully render it suspect.  It was once observed by Hopkins when he proclaimed ecstatically, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  More recently, in our time, Anthony Doerr’s enchanting novel, All the Light We Cannot See, has a character responding to the cascade of mystery that spills upon the world by musing that, “[t]he universe is full of fuel.”

Upon Reflection

Upon reflection one might be justified
in charging God with a sort of mischievousness,
of playing the trickster.

For he has given,
to we mortals,
a perforated world,
where all attempts to
seal it off are
utterly futile.

For from any point-
be it the hopping robin on a branch;
a breeze skipping upon the tops of bluebonnets;
the play of a shadow on a wall;
the suddenness of a forgotten memory;
a flat tire or face in a crowd-
at any point
His presence may enter
and saturate our unguarded moments.

Old Mission Trail

The Mission Trail- San Antonio, TX



Thoughts During a Mass on Father’s Day

clouds-widescreen-wallpaper-13 Sometimes during Mass, my eyes move upwards and from the small windows above is see the passing clouds.  The sky is blue, you know, that rich blue sky of summer that thirstily drinks the sunlight, becoming a radiant cerulean dome above us.  And I see them pass, the clouds, from one widow to the next.  I see them pass, becoming something other than what they were, these tufts, cotton-ball-white, stretched and pulled, edges becoming wispy.  Before long, all I can see framed from those windows is that pristine cerulean sky wiped clean of the clouds’ ephemeral presence.  Where do they go, the clouds, when we see them no longer?

My gaze descends from the windows to the faces of those around me.  I am struck by the thought of how we are as transient as the clouds.  I think of what absurd little creatures we are: three quarters water, a hand full of elements and minerals all animated and set alight by electrical impulses. We little creatures all a buzz with our little plans, all a buzz with our little intrigues and blithe inconsistencies.  I see the faces of those around me.  I think about the man before me kneeling in prayer, his son, his daughter draped over him, looking about.  I think about that man, that absurd little creature, much like I, think about what I see of him, seeing only a minuscule portion of a self that lies hidden beneath the surface.  To break that surface would be to find an inscrutable depth swirling in currents and cross currents of desire, denial, and longing.  And of myself, from those same depths, a memory emerges.  Sometimes, at night, I become afraid.  I do not know why.  I lie in bed in the dark and feel myself and all committed to me being flung into a void.  Sometimes, I become afraid, feeling my life being unbound from the sun and I feel we are all rotating, careening haplessly toward some indefinite destination.  Sometimes I reach for her, to feel the reassuring weight and warmth of her.  Would the good Spirit of God, I pray, hover over this depth and call forth some definite thing from this formlessness?

We absurd little creatures take our cue, stand and the priest begins the Eucharistic Rite.  My son wraps his arms around my waist and looks up and whispers something.  I cannot hear what he says so I bend my ear to him.  “I love you”, he says and looks away toward the altar.  I look upward toward those windows, his words, dropping like flare into an abyss. Light moves upon the darkness.

Christ the Redemmer

Sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer Church

Andrew Wyeth’s “Wind from the Sea”- A Reflection


“Repose” by John Singer Sargent

Say you walk through an art gallery immersed in opulence, all sides surrounded by a panoply colors, shapes and forms.  Say your eyes feast on Tintoretto’s tasteful nude of Susanna, or the graceful elongated figures of El Greco’s Assumed Madonna or on the sumptuousness of the John Singer Sargent’s.  Say further you are making your way to the French Impressionists and passing through a doorway on a diagonal line, from the corner of your eye, you a happen to catch it.  Catch what, one may ask?  Oh, by most accounts, nothing much.  What is it, one may ask further?  Well, what may be described as a view from a drab window unto the most unremarkable and drab of landscapes.  It does sound pretty plain, one may agree, time to get along; so many works and so little time.  Yes, but you come closer to see for yourself.  You are now, not as hurried to keep that appointment with the Van Gogh’s, with the Degas.  Intrigued by its incongruity, you let this plain painting, this apparently incorrigibly ordinary painting, have a moment with you. This is the way it looks:  Framed obliquely, you look at a window that seems to be in a house of some disrepair.  You gather this from a crack in the dingy slate colored wall, from a blind, over exposed to the sun, the blind now splotched, cracked and brittle, tiny fissures letting in the light from without, from lace curtains, stained and frayed by dry rot, floating like tattered cobwebs on the breeze coming through the opened window, the curtain’s ends so fine and threadbare they seem to be passing into another world.  Your eye now moves to consider the world beyond the window: immediately you see the two tire tracks, well worn, starting from the right corner of the window, curving and cutting across a yard of dried tannish, greenish grass, extending from the house and receding from view.  In the other corner of the window you make out a sliver of some body of water that is so colorlessly homochromatic to the sky above, only the stretch of dark trees running the painting’s length gives any sign of their demarcation. The flatness of the scene is all that can be gleaned by looking at it.  But you, for some unknown reason, do not look at it but see it.  Between the looking and the seeing, therein lies the essential difference.  Because granting all that can be looked at you can see the truth behind the fact.  The work before you has obliterated all expectation; you find yourself transfixed, no longer held hostage to self-imposed itineraries and to-do lists, freed of the compulsion to collect and catalogue every experience on social media. Maybe you are asked what has transfixed you so.  You attempt to formulate answer but like treasure laden galleons headed to Spain, creaking and groaning under the load of riches they bear, your words seem to strain beneath the weight of meaning you wish to express.  Admittedly, it seems absurd that a scene of irremediable ordinariness becomes as a celestial vision, like the ascending and descending angels upon Jacob’s Ladder.  Yet, for you, this is what has happened. You are astounded that a scene of humble impoverishment could speak such simple beauty as to be otherworldly.  You see the loveliness and are grateful, grateful for the cracked wall, the brittle blind, dried grass, for the monochromatic sky and sea, and for those curtains, those curtains stirred to beauty by the Holy Ghost, blown and borne aloft by the blessed breath of the God Man.

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“Wind from the Sea” by Andrew Wyeth

To Think and Read: Philosophy and the Encounter With Literature

Rembrandt Philosopher in Meditation

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

There is much that could be said here and when I started to put my thoughts together I quickly found that this could grow to such a length that it would strain my abilities and your patience.  My only claim will be philosophy is the work of reason and literature is the work of the imagination.  Yet, these are not as far apart as one might think.  They, in many ways, must proceed together or at the very least complete each other’s thoughts, as old married couples are wont to do. There is no irony in the fact that philosophers have used images to put flesh and bone to their abstract meditations.  Socrates expressed greed for images, Plato had his Cave, Descartes his Evil Demon, and Nietzsche his prophesying Madman.  Likewise, the imagination is strengthened by reason.  For even for the starving artist faithful to Keeping Austin Weird could derive some benefit from Goya’s observation “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”  So much for Dan Brown.  So much for Descartes.

Furthermore, in discussing philosophy and literature, it would be of no little interest to understand the reality that brings these two to birth- language. For it is the mark of language that it is both intelligible, syntactical, and inherently image laden. Language is that strange symbolic phenomena expressed in varying vocalizations and written signs that tether us to the world like an anchor.  The strangeness of language lies, particularly, it its paradoxical quality; that peculiar quality of being powerful to enough to open a window on the very beginnings of the cosmos yet seemingly impoverished and inadequate to fully express one’s love or sorrow.

I suppose the best way or maybe the only way that I can address this topic is to speak of my own encounter with these.  I should say, that unless you have had your own experience with these, what will be said here today will be of little use to you.  Furthermore, I should say at the outset that my comments will not proceed in the manner of argumentation but of reflection.  You see I love philosophy and literature and whatever is loved should be given a dignified treatment.  That which is loved must not be discussed speech of experts, much less philosophy or literature professors. Furthermore, literature leads to philosophizing but philosophy may be expressed imaginatively or poetically. Either way, though they are, properly, different pursuits each leads, albeit in different ways, toward the contemplation of existence sparked by wonder. You may have your doubts and fair enough.  But these are my reflections and you will have to trust me or at least bear with me.

As a child, I and a friend of mine, while jumping on a trampoline, stumbled upon, quite naturally for children, on what Heidegger called the basic metaphysical question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”  As the sun set and the day began to cool into dusk we continued our jumping and giggling with astonishment that things actually exist and wondering where they come from.  But indulging this new found discovery was not something typically discussed in school and given my lack of discipline for anything that I thought more pedestrian I sort of floated through the whole experience.  As a fairly lazy student my antennae would never register any interest unless the class discussion wandered into one of those tangential discussions that had larger implications beyond the fairly prosaic facts and figures.  At that time I did not have a formal name for this interest.  I was unable to articulate what it was about these questions that interested me. Nevertheless, at some point a possibility occurred to me.  Maybe around twelve, I was sitting in a mimosa tree with my friend Chris Britt and the discussion turned to what we wanted to do when we grew up.  I don’t remember his response but mine is clear as a day.   “I want to be a philosopher,” I said matter of factually.  “What do they do?” Chris asked.  “I’m not sure. I think they talk about life and stuff.  You know, like Plato.”  Well, he didn’t know and we looked at each other for a moment and moved on.  To this day, I have no idea of where that thought came from.  It would another twenty years before I began a formal education in philosophy.

As far as reading goes, for many years, Where the Side Walk Ends by Shel Silverstein was ever present friend and never far out of reach.  However, I had an aversion to anything that looked like a novel, as having to sit still that long to read seemed insufferably boring.  However, in middle school it took something of an even greater boredom, in the form of Mrs. Gifford’s study hall, which drove me to look for some respite.  And so it was that I came across the fantasy series, the Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander.  Those books opened up a world that I scarcely knew existed, the world of imaginative fiction.  I was hooked and I have been more or less hooked ever since.

My junior year of high school was the first time that I became consciously aware that philosophy, that thing that talked about life and interested me so, could be found in that other new found love, the reading of imaginative fiction.  I had one particular teacher (isn’t it always one particular teacher?)  Mrs. Crane, short and petite, having the most charming of Southern drawls, who introduced us to short stories that actually touched upon life in the way that interested me.  Through their imaginative power, these stories had me consider deeper philosophical questions.  From “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut, came the question of what is the ultimate value of equality. From Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder”, the ethics of technology and what are the consequences of the smallest actions upon history.  From Flannery O’Connor’s, “Good Country” the nature of evil and the religious dimension in life.  In conjunction to these great works of fiction she would encourage us to think deep thoughts.  In particular, there was one thing she’d come back to and remind us of again and again.  She would look at us with large clear eyes and say, “In all that happens to you try to search for the deeper meaning.”  Such advice, I am sure, seemed to her at times, as being seed cast upon stony earth, but those stories and her encouragement awakened something within me.

“To search for the deeper meaning.”  This, in time, became and is my aim in life.  And in small but no less important addition to religious faith, philosophy and literature have helped me to understand my own life.    Actually, I think Mrs. Crane’s advice is sage wisdom for anyone, even you sitting here enduring the sound of my voice.  Walker Percy, in the novel, “The Moviegoer” has one of his characters ruminate on what he calls the search.  “What is the search?  It is really quite simple…the search is what anyone would attempt if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Philosophy and literature allow a person to take a hand to the veil of everydayness and pull it back to see what depths of meaning the world actually reveals. Because I believe unless you do this whatever you do manage to do will ultimately come up to nothing.  That sounds pretty harsh but life is pretty harsh.  If you don’t believe me wait.  Let life, at times, come in as an unwelcomed guest take from you without asking or without apology, maybe even knock you around a bit.  And maybe you might get around to asking yourself some philosophical questions, “What in the hell is going on?”  “What is the point of all this.”  “Is this all there is?”  Maybe you might have all this going on, even if unconsciously, and come across a passage in a novel or poem, whereby you might see an image of what you are going through now.  Then you might have hit upon the cathartic element in imaginative fiction that lets you see, vicariously, your life and its possibilities.  Maybe through that work you will have your predicament named for you whereby you could exclaim “That is it!” and yours be the shock of a man having found what he scarcely thought was lost.

The late novelist, Eudora Wetly said something that I think is important to our present discussion.  She said:

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time but their significance to ourselves find their own order…The time we know subjectively is often a chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

girl in book store

Girl in Bookshop

The events in our lives, when considered in the light of philosophy and literature prepare one for this revelation, the revelation of that deeper meaning, for which we should all be searching.   For me one particular revelation is the meaning of the human face.  The philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, wrote much about the meaning of the human face and the implications the face of the other has on ethics.  I have often reflected on his thoughts on this subject and he argues quite powerfully for his position that the face reveals an infinity.  That has always struck me as powerful but it was not until I had a particular experience about a year ago that crystallized what he was saying.  The experience was quite profound for me and revealed something for me that I wanted to commit to writing.  Now let me say that I’m an amateur writer, which is to say I am a terrible writer with illusions of grandeur, who is more than willing to visit his inane ramblings on anyone who is too polite to decline or too unfortunate to escape.  So here you are:

“With an arm propped on the driver’s side door, my head rests wearily in an opened palm as I make my way home. I’m increasingly impatient to arrive as the long day seems to lengthen from the haltingly slow traffic moving like an irregular pulse along an asphalt artery. Occasionally, I cast a bored glance toward my fellow commuters, noting expressions, either exasperated or vacant. Some are lost in a digital oblivion that knows no interruption, save by the honking of a horn or the alarming reality of the bumper ahead. For a time, I too, am lost in miasma of thought, a sort of low and foggy cognizance that is there but never forming toward something definite. And then, from the corner of my eye, I happen to catch the gaze of someone passing by. She is a small child of no more than six years, with eyes large and dark, deeply and richly dark, like freshly tilled earth into which the wide and variegated world might be sown. As she passes by, I manage to offer her a slight smile. She returns with a smile of her own before moving ahead. It lasts but a moment though just long enough for the everydayness to be lifted. The manner of her smile, delicate and unburdened as a dew laden web at dawn, discloses our shared re-cognition of that Goodness, whereby the wandering of the old burnt and wearied world might at last find a home. She is soon out of sight. But I am left with a definite thought: what is it in a smile or even more, in the face of an-other person, which may uncover an entire horizon? Drawn deeply into that unveiled mystery, I make my way home.”

To try to give you the experience of which Mrs. Crane spoke is impossible.  You have to see it for yourself.  In cannot be had vicariously.  For you, it would have all the impossibility of vicariously experiencing the taste of some particular dish from the mouth of another man.

If this world has not seized you by the collar and given you a good shake before all its strangeness and wonder, you have not lived. You may become old and gray but your years will stretch and fade behind you as so many thoughtless miles on a forgotten highway.

With that, I would encourage you, if you have not done so, to think and read or at the very least, to think of reading.

Once, Rachmaninov, Composed A Song


Once, Rachmaninov, composed a song lauding
spring’s arrival in all its variegated colors.
You, too, have seen these everyday
colors, worn smooth as coins in your eyes.
You, too, have seen these everyday colors-
blue of sky, green of grass and leaf
bursting as stars upon your eyes,
in such shimmering newness
they appear Platonic.

Rachmaninov experienced these colors. 
You, too, experience these colors now. 
And to be taken by these thoughts:
that a cosmos of such staggering immensity,
harmony exists between the Sun’s explosive enormity
and the primrose’s wind quivered fragility.
That a song may mediate
awe between those who share no
common time, tongue, or place.
That there exists this singularly unique animal
who takes leave of the narrow necessities
toward the overflowing extravagances
of song, praise, and wonder.

Yes, these thoughts now come upon you
like a child’s euphoria
before an unexpected celebration,
a celebration of the prodigality of existence. 

Caesar Augustus: Roman Ubermensch

The earthly city is ruled by its own lust for ruling.  So noted St. Augustine in De Civitate Dei, written after the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D. by the Visigoths, the first by a foreign invader since the Gauls in 390 B.C.  If there was any earthly city more apt for ruling unruly, lawless barbarian hordes it was imperial Rome.  From the late first century B.C. to the second century A.D., law and order, culture, commerce, travel, and knowledge all experienced great increase under the rule of the Caesars.  The so-called Pax Romana spread across three continents: from Spain and France to Turkey, down to Judea and Egypt, and back over the whole of North Africa, returning again to Europe across the Pillars of Hercules.  The Latin word for the world is orbis terrarum, the circle of lands — a fitting image.  At no time in the history of man had so many peoples and lands experienced such peace.  But how was that peace founded and at what price was it purchased?  The answer lies at a singular moment in the life of a Roman boy who accepted the greatest bequest ever offered to one so young and inexperienced.  Caius Octavius, from now on known as Julius Caesar, the son of Caesar, at the mere age of nineteen, with scant military and administrative experience becomes a serious contestant in the struggle for supreme power over not just Rome, but the entire Western world.  History now knows him as Imperator Caesar Augustus, Son of God.  And none but Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had shared in such intense lust for ruling, the libido dominandi, like Octavius.

This reflection, however, is not meant to retell the tale of Caius Octavius in great detail.  The inspiration for this reflection comes form Adrian Goldsworthy’s work on Augustus, the title of which being the same as the name of the man, a sweeping narrative history which should be read widely, assuming of course that ignorance of history really dooms one to repeat it.  What struck me the most about Augustus’ tale was not his genius for branding himself a traditional Roman, or the vast difference in his temper as a young triumvir in which he is known for his brutality in the pursuit and punishment of his enemies, versus his principate which is characterized by clemency toward foes who admit defeat, but the Roman people’s willingness to believe Octavius’ proganda and embrace him as their Imperator.  Goldsworthy rightly points out numerous times that the people longed for an end to roughly fifty years of internecine, brutal civil war.  For peace to prevail, one man had to impose himself upon the broken Republican regime and compel the senators to agree that the war was over.  And the people loved him for it.  It was hard for the senators to disagree with a man who by 27 B.C. controlled nearly twenty-six legions, roughly 100,000 men.

Rome embraced soft-despotism and no better a soft-despot was there than Caesar Augustus.  However, Augustus would pacify mankind not by virtue or persuasion to the truth, but by the sword.  The libido dominandi must be sated.  Such it seems is the burden of empire.  Adding legitimacy to the new regime, Augustus’ Rome would be patinated with tales of Rome’s founding, piety to the gods and state, and monuments in honor of her Princeps. Augustus had transcended his forebears: his reign was not by chance, but fate.  Any hope for a return to the age of men like Cincinnatus and Cato the Censor, where men ruled themselves in virtue and observance of the ancient Roman moral code, the mos maiorum, the customs of the ancestors, an age still alive in the Republic’s darkest days in the great souls of Cato the Younger and Marcus Tullius Cicero, was completely lost when the Roman people hailed one man, assented to granting him singular authority to order the state, and chose security at the expense of freedom.  Though the regime took it’s final form in 27 B.C. when the senate granted Octavius the name Augustus, a name with deep religious meaning, in truth, the Roman people’s inordinate love of security at the expense of freedom was made much earlier.  But that is a topic for a later reflection.

A final note: I cannot complete this reflection without juxtaposing George Washington to Caesar Augustus.  Washington had his moment to choose absolute power, and we enjoy the result.  Let’s pray and work that we may keep our Republic.

Manners, Barbarism, and the Presidency


Upon reading an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal by Neal Freeman reflecting on the birth of the William F. Buckley’s television show, The Firing Line.  He ponders the uniqueness of what Mr. Buckley was able to accomplish for more than 33 years and 1500 episodes, something that has not happened since nor is comparable on our vast cable news channels and even amongst the presidential candidates who all but one claim to truly know the intricacies of policy making.  I snickered and then even laughed aloud while I read Mr. Freeman’s reflection truly bringing Buckley back to life with a few large…over large and long words. Honestly, they were both short words but I had not a clue what they meant and had to use the dictionary. I enjoy using a dictionary, which usually moves me to ponder on other words that my eyes go over while searching for Mr. Buckley’s common vocabulary.  Mr. Freeman honors the time 50 years ago when Buckley made history running for mayor of New York City as he ponders the presidential primaries going on today.

Mr. Freeman’s reflections led to a few of my own: Stumbling into wonder and the seeds of an intellectual life…I remember vividly discovering In the midst of a dimly lit, musty smelling, Ye Olde Books, The local used bookstore I haunted with my mom in downtown Humble.  Where she and I would visit at least weekly to trade paperbacks for more paperbacks…and I was left to wander. I discovered three authors during my many visits that still influence me in some way: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Barry Goldwater. I still read Doyle and Tolkien but have moved on from Goldwater to William F. Buckley (the transformation took about five years from ages 12 to 17).


I still wear my navy blue NR t-shirts that I purchased upon seeing them advertised in very small print in the back of my first NR issue received via my subscription. I am currently reading Buckley’s fiction and find my myself renewed and reinvigorated as a conservative…I learned early on through Russell Kirk and Bill Buckley that the duty as an American is to vote.  I vote today. When asked if I am a Democrat or Republican, I easily say neither.  Philosophically, I am a conservative as we all are by nature but I also made a reasoned choice early on in adulthood and have not wavered, even if my faculties of reason are more experienced and possibly less romantic.

Bill Buckley is someone who I still want to be when I grow up.  A moment of contrast, I would say happened to me just a few days ago.  I state clearly and believe that this moment of recognition is not of growth, maturity, or progress but possibly of barbarism, demise and self-destruction. I am currently teaching Middle Ages history to fourth grade boys.  One of the elements of the course is to exam the virtue and vices of leaders and the people as a whole of the society in which we study; examples of the our subjects include, the Romans, the Franks, the Vikings, the Gupta Empire of India, the beginning and growth of Islam and such leaders as Justinian, Mohammed, Eric the Red, William the Conqueror, Charles the Hammer, and Charlemagne. We ponder whom should we emulate and why.  We ponder and discuss who is not worthy for us to follow or learn from and why…and most of the time we see the good and bad in leaders. My hope is that the boys recognize the good and noble actions of men and how they were human, thus not perfect.

Since it is February, I take time out of our normal curriculum to study our greatest President, George Washington. We are in the midst of his early life, which we spend the most time reading and discussing who George Washington up to the early days of the American Revolution.  We will wrap up the war itself and his presidency in a briefer manner as I hope to leave the interest and desire to know him for their own studies and the years to come in middle school.


My fourth graders are taking an in depth reading and study of Washington’s Rules of Civility, which he studied when is he was about 13 years old. They were a resource for young men to learn etiquette and manners in the company of others. The history of these “rules” is that they come from a French Jesuit curriculum of the 17th century.  We do not know how they came to be part of an English curriculum much less in the colonies of America in 1700’s.  Perhaps Washington’s tutor had a French educational background.  Washington would not only study the “Rules” for their own sake but used them as a tool to translate them from Latin to English and back Latin.  Insignificant as this line of study may appear, this is probably the highest form of formal education that Washington received, due to the early death of father.   He also read Roman plays and Plutarch but not much more beyond the bible itself.  Yet, his self-restraint, service toward others and his country has not been surpassed.  This is a man all should admire and study, but particularly those who are receiving an education in America.

I asked a few colleagues after the recent Republican presidential debate held in Houston, TX, if they assigned to their seventh and eighth grade students to watch it.  Before they could answer, I continued and said the assignment should be that the day after such a debate the students should then seek to treat all their parents, teachers and friends as the candidates did each other.   The decorum of the faculty lunchroom was almost turned into one of chaos and a riot.

Has America moved beyond the principles in which we were we founded? Have we progressed and the 18th century is now quaint? Perhaps, we are mistaking barbarism, licentiousness and just a lack of manners what we are supposed to become?

Neal Freeman’s Op-Ed can be found at