I have seen over the years a title of St. John Paul II’s poetry but never really looked for a copy. Over Spring Break, I came across a copy of his poetry and few other books at a Half-Price Books store in Houston. I cannot say enough about visiting and spending time in a brick and mortar book store. I do 99% of my searches and research about authors and books beginning at Amazon.com, and end up doing about 90% of my book purchases there as well, but it is that 10% that I relish in spending time in a bookstore, particularly stores that focus in used books. I always have my handy list available my God given noodle, but just in case I am stumped, I pull out my more immediate list I keep on Evernote or if I have gone through it and still have time to search further, I pull up my lists on Amazon.com.
Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), in 2003 had a formal presentation at the Vatican of then Pope John Paul II’s poetry in which relating how inspiration of verse came to the poet pope from his preaching the Lenten retreat for Pope Paul VI and the Curia in 1976:
In this connection several sentences came to mind that were written by Karol Wojtyla in 1976 when he preached the retreat for Paul VI and the Curia.
“He related the case of a physicist with whom he had carried on a long discussion, and at the end of it, had said to him: ‘from the point of view of my science and its method I’m an atheist …’ However, in a letter, the same man wrote: ‘Every time I find myself before the majesty of nature, of the mountains, I feel that HE exists'”.
Perusing the poetry collection over Spring Break as well as preparing for Holy Week, the poem “The Place Within” captivated my attention as to the Holy Father’s interior sight and his ability to draw a reader into the poet’s sight as well as be able to reflect on where that reader’s interior sight is pointing without the guide of these poetic words.
The Place WithinSt. John Paul IIMy place is in You, your place is in me. Yet it is the place of allmen. And I am not diminished by them in this place. I am morealone—more than if there were no one else—I am alone withmyself. At the same time I am multiplied by them in the Crosswhich stood on this place. This multiplying with now diminishmentremains a mystery: the Cross goes against the current. In itnumbers retreat before Man.In you—how did the Cross come to be?Now let us walk down the narrow steps as if down a tunnelthrough a wall. Those who once walked down the slope stoppedat the place where now there is a slab. They anointed your bodyand then laid it in a tomb. Through your body you had a placeon earth, the outward place of the body you exchanged for aplace within, saying: “Take, all of you, and eat of this.”The tradition of that place within relates to all the outwardplaces on Earth to which I came on pilgrimage. You chose thisplace centuries ago—the place in which You gave yourself and accept me.
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 http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-bill-buckley-lesson-for-conservatism-today-1456530358?mod=djemMER&mg=id-wsj
“The most unsettling thing about our existence is not that we suffer, not that we fail to accomplish what we might, not even that we sin. Rather it is that, in spite of all this darker side of reality which we do not deny, we exist for joy and happiness.”
-James Schall, The Sum of Total Human Happiness, XII
“…Plato’s initial understanding that the beginning of all social disorder and reform is first found in the souls of the citizens, in about what they hold to be true, about how they act to achieve it.”
-James Schall, The Modern Age, 149
“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body…I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart…I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created.”
-Percy Shelley, Frankenstein, 35
“In answer to the question ‘How often do you go to a library, and what do you do there?’ one panelist replied: ‘My dad is still into the whole book thing. He has not realized that the Internet kind of took the place of that. So we go to the library almost every Sunday. I actually have a library card, but I have not rented a book for a long time, but I go to our school’s library a lot because they have the most of the course books.’”
-Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation, 41
by James Stephens
I Pause beside the stream, and hear
The waters talking all the way;
If I had a proper ear
I could tell you what they say.
The lovely tree against the sky,
Which the first sun rests upon,
Has a message for my eye;
If I had a proper one.
On the golden heath I met a wind,
It whispered to me as I stood;
If I had a proper mind
I could answer, so I could.
I am deaf and dumb and blind,
No reply can I invent
When a stream, a tree, a wind,
Asks am I intelligent.
Like writing your first interpretative essay as an undergraduate, I spent too much time on the title of this blog rather than why. Hopefully this post and ones from others will present to you why a new blog like this should be read.
What are “The Finer Things in Life” or not?
I have been watching a television series via Amazon Prime, Veronica Mars…perhaps not step toward the finer things, but what struck me were the issues and friction between characters were “first world problems”, not those you might consider vital to living or even surviving, but really dealing with the luxuries of the affluent and those below affluence…the middle class. Poverty was hinted at and even the homeless were mentioned once or twice in an episode, but the “class” issues were between those who had two cars versus those who had any number and whatever cars they wanted. Life of affluence does not define that one is living or seeking the finer things. I hold that one can become more distracted with “things,” that those, which we should turn toward, are left by the wayside.
I have surrounded my children with books. I do not take them to the library as I should, for my personal monetary easement, but also that they could see that such buildings do exist. The books are in the house, throughout the living room, dining room, hallways and bedrooms. Most of the books are not for their childhood reading, but they are surrounded. My wife has asked an assortment of questions about the books: are you going to read all these books? What are you going to do with all these books before you die?
Both are easily answered, “Yes, I am going to read them, and more important than a one time perusal, I am using them. The second question does not catch me by surprise, but rather reminds of me of my mortality and do I have enough books to read and use before I meet my Maker? So pull up a chair, and pick out a book and read.
My fourth grade son is memorizing and studying Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for Literature; fourth graders studying duty, obedience, and death through poetry, all with a sense of wonder. Similarly, I had a recent excursion with the fifth grade to Bayou Bend visiting the house and furniture collection Ima Hogg (only in Texas!), studying history from colonial time through the early republic, all through furniture! 25 fifth grade boys were respectful and interested, asking more questions than there was time, their imaginations were vibrantly alive. Preparing boys for standardized testing is not the education, which my sons and schoolmates partake. They are cadre of young boys venturing into poetry, and history—living the Finer Things in Life.
My eighth grade son’s field trip today is to visit a part of the largest private Civil War collection, not in a museum, but at the headquarters of the Silver Eagle Distributor. Mr. John Nau, president and C.E.O. of Silver Eagle Distributors, a man I have not had the pleasure of meeting, is successful professionally, and spends his leisure time studying history. He is also the current president of the Texas State Historical Association. I mention Mr. Nau not for his strength or weaknesses of character, but rather his balance or view of life is not just one of professional success, but of the Finer Things in Life. My son and I have discussed over the last couple of days a letter that I hope he is able to view on the field trip. A letter from Robert E. Lee to his brother, Captain Sydney Smith Lee about why he had to choose to resign on April 20 and not wait:
“Arlington, Virginia, April 20, 1861.
“My Dear Brother Smith: The question which was the subject of my earnest consultation with you on the 18th inst. has in my own mind been decided. After the most anxious inquiry as to the correct course for me to pursue, I concluded to resign, and sent in my resignation this morning. I wished to wait till the Ordinance of secession should be acted on by the people of Virginia; but war seems to have commenced, and I am liable at any time to be ordered on duty which I could not conscientiously perform. To save me from such a position, and to prevent the necessity of resigning under orders, I had to act at once, and before I could see you again on the subject, as I had wished. I am now a private citizen, and have no other ambition than to remain at home. Save in defense of my native State, I have no desire ever again to draw my sword. I send you my warmest love. R.E.Lee.”
“Arlington, Virginia, April 20, 1861.
“My Dear Sister: I am grieved at my inability to see you…. I have been waiting for a ‘more convenient season,’ which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield
to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State.
“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right.
“To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send you a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more. May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of your devoted brother, R. E. Lee.”
There is much to contemplate in both letters…I reflect that my son and his classmates will enjoy and admire the private collection of John Nau, but in the background to touch a moment in America’s history that the Finer Things in Life were put on hold as America truly came to grips with who and what it is to be. Over 150 years have passed and the culture of South may be just a remnant, but it was strong and true enough that a few eighth graders today are not heading to an institution that preserves history, but someone who has taken it upon himself and the use of his means to preserve and share history…the Finer Things live on in Houston and in a few schools.
Welcome to our blog and I hope you visit often, contemplate, and enjoy.
Man is the only amateur animal; all others are professionals. They have no leisure and they do not desire it…The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them all day talk nothing but shop.”
But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.
I remember looking at them with a strange fascination. No longer than twenty four inches, bleached white as bone in the hot sun, the museum’s placard said that they were to be dated 10,000 to 15,000 BC. Surrounded by various skeletal remains of behemoths, fossils of long extinct flora, and the skulls of a long line of primates and human ancestors, none of these awakened that sense of wonder that held me at that moment. Not even how such a small tool could have generated the velocity to propel a short spear to take down a Wooly Mammoth. Not even the great age of the implements themselves. What left me mystified were the decorative carvings that adorned these hunting tools. Think about that for a moment. Here were a people who led a life of bare survival and yet, they made time to make not only a “better mouse trap” but make it beautiful. And that penchant to make beautiful, to spend one’s waking hours in seeming prodigality is what makes man, animal though he is, only an amateur animal.
What Mr. Lewis points out above and my brief recollection of the atlatls at the museum, to my mind, is a fitting place to begin reflecting on what is meant by “the finer things in life”. Man is the one animal who is capable from forgetting his need for “three hot’s and a cot” when given the opportunity to do so. The lion and the bee are always on as animals. Man can take leave of his needs and sing of god’s and heroes. Yes, man needs to eat but desires to eat well. Though a man’s stomach will be full whether taking his meal alone or among many, if alone long enough his heart will be so much the emptier. Water quenches his thirst but wine gladdens his heart. The finer things in life point to this, paradoxically, need for man not only to have life but to have it abundantly.
One could object saying this preoccupation with finer things is all well and good but at present with all the injustice, the hunger, the poverty, our focus and effort should lie elsewhere. One must acknowledge there are times when we must focus our attention, for a time, on more pressing matters. But this must be kept in mind too; there will always be needs to meet and if we let them we will perpetually be at their beck and call. In fact, if anything, our whole life, at least in the U.S., is predicated on meeting needs. Thus, the face of many today is marked by anxiety. Even when given the opportunity to celebrate a feast (do we even know what that means anymore?) it is attended with worry and anxiety- case in point Christmas.
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Lately, I have come to think that maybe Mary was not sitting at his feet to hear a sermon or a teaching. Maybe she just sat at his feet just to talk and spend time with him. Maybe he was not worried with the need of having to eat just then but rather desired for Martha to sit with him and talk of many things. Maybe we, when faced with our pressing needs, might well decide in favor of the good portion, the finer things in life and thereby be made whole.
Finally some closing thoughts on the “finer things in life”. Firstly and importantly, the finer things are just that, things. What sorts of things fall into that category? A great cocktail, a fine wine, a well written novel, great conversations, a robust cigar, daydreaming under summer sky and others fit into this category. Are they synonymous with luxury goods? Well, luxury goods are not necessarily bad things but the “finer things in life” are not reducible to these goods. “It is better to be invited to herbs with love, than to a fatted calf with hatred.” (Prov. 15:17). The finer things in life are those things that might be enjoyed by free men; enjoyed in such a way that they might refine a person and point them toward that which is enduring. And though these things are material and perishable, when loved rightly these:
Point beyond themselves,
Inviting us love to them so truly,
We can hold them lightly enough,
That the greatest mystery of all,
May find us well and carry us home”
If this sounds a bit vague, I invite you to come back for future posts and see what we are talking about. I hope you will read us often and with us enjoy the finer things in life!