All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Giving Up for Lent

At nearly every Christian monastery and convent is a bulletin board on which monks and nuns post prayer requests.  Those requests come to the religious community every day, often through friends or relatives of the religious or in the mail from complete strangers.  The latter are often anonymous, and the envelopes are addressed simply to the monastery in general.

Some monastic bulletin boards might be arranged in parallel columns according to what spiritual writers classify as the four kinds of prayer:  adoration, petition, praise, thanksgiving.  All four types of prayer occur during liturgies, but they can occur also during private prayer.

Adoration occurs best in silence, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, and praise occurs often incognito, whenever in the Psalms or elsewhere one finds the Latin word Alleluia, or its Hebrew original, Hallelujah.  Both words mean “praise the Lord,” and prayers of praise can become verbal, if not verbose.  In contrast, adoration, like losing oneself while gazing into the eyes of one’s beloved, tends to be inarticulate.

Prayers of petition can be subdivided into prayers of contrition, asking to be forgiven, and prayers of intercession, often directed to a particular saint.  Best known, of course, is the Lord’s Prayer, containing petitions for our forgiveness, and for a spirit of forgiveness, and for our daily needs.

With petitions and intercessions, a danger arises when someone confuses prayer with magic.  At one time or another, we have all slipped into that dangerous confusion.  Sometimes one hears a kind of spiritual prescription, what sounds like a pious statement, but is really the opposite:  Say this prayer three times to, for example, Saint Paphnutius, because he never fails to give you what you want.  Say the magic word, get a special prize.

This form of piety reduces not only the saints but also prayers of petition and intercession to the level of a child asking Santa Claus for a new toy.  On the surface, such prayers seem like folk piety, admirable in itself, provided it conveys the truth.  However well-intended, when such piety veers into the land of lucky charms, it leads away from the truth.

As a result, this approach to prayer leads to disillusionment.  Despite thrice-daily repetition of the same never-fail prayer to Saint Paphnutius, nothing has happened.  It then becomes easy to conclude that prayer doesn’t work.  It is the same disappointment and frustration resulting from a certain kind of failed commercial transaction:  When you keep putting in coins, and nothing comes out of the vending machine, eventually you decide to give up.

Either you then reconcile yourself to not having the goody from the vending machine, or you turn to a different vending machine that seems to work.  Likewise, a Christian can become fatalistic, resigned to life being broken, or can look far and wide for just the right spiritual fix.  Alternatively, the disillusioned Christian decides that vending machines, like slot machines, are for gullible, and probably obsessive, fools who don’t realize that they are wasting their time and money.  Disillusionment leads to deciding that there is no Saint Paphnutius, no Santa Claus, and having outgrown such childish beliefs, the newly enlightened Christian finally decides that there is no God.

After many years in a monastic community, one pattern emerges from all these prayer requests:  All are prayers of petition.  They include prayers for a healthy pregnancy, for a successful operation, for healing a damaged relationship, for finding a job, for the repose of someone’s soul.  All are worthy concerns, and the monks are ready to pray for them.

However, never has there been a request for the monks to offer up prayers of thanksgiving.  No one has ever asked for prayers to be offered in thanks for a healthy baby, for a successful operation, for a healed relationship, for a new job, for the good example of the faithful departed.  Now and then the monks receive a note of thanks for having offered prayers of petition, but thanking the people doing the praying is not the same as asking them to give thanks in prayer.

As the Church prepares for Lent, here is an austere, some might say severe, penance to consider:  Outside the Our Father, where we have been instructed to ask also for what we need right now, give up asking in prayer for anything except that God’s will be done.  Even in the Lord’s Prayer, petitioning for God’s will to be done runs parallel to asking for God’s reign to govern events here on Earth, just as it does in Heaven.  Asking for God to be in control of everything in His creation is far removed from His creatures asking Him to give them the things and situations that they, that we, want.

After all, as has been often said, prayer does not change God, it changes us.  Praying for our daily bread does not provide God with new information; it makes us focus on what is important for us in this present moment.  Praying for God’s will to be done does not supply Him with a new idea for how to regard all things, visible and invisible.  If it happens that the atheists are right when they claim “Prayer is just talking to yourself,” what would be the harm in having spent a life daily desiring that the cosmos not be ordered around one’s own will?

So, for Lent, give up an approach to prayer that treats it like a machine that responds to the right code; give up a spirituality that confuses prayer with rubbing a magic lamp and asking a genie to grant three wishes.  Instead, after forty days of wandering in the Lenten desert and saying Thy will be done, forget about making up for lost time by unfurling a pent up list of petitions rooted in one’s own will being done.  Rather, go into the dawning joy of Easter quietly praying “Thank you.”

Becoming More Pagan

Whenever people lament, “Society is becoming more pagan,” they are in fact worried about current hedonists, folks whose biggest regret is having missed out on Woodstock.  People fretting about pseudo-pagans forget that ancient pagans believed in duty, in natural law, in the family, in gods that inspire prayer and require sacrifice, and in a society that depends upon citizens working to lead lives of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage.

What should be kept in mind is the image Vergil (or Virgil if one prefers) presented in Book 2 of the Aeneid:  Aeneas escaping from the fallen city of Troy with his son, Ascanius, and his father, Anchises.  Three generations, representing the past, the present, and the future, and the grandfather carries with him the family’s little statues of their household gods.  In an older epic, Homer showed Odysseus striving for ten years through various adventures to get back home to his wife and son.

None of those ancient people would have called themselves “pagan.”  That term comes from paganus, a Latin word roughly equivalent to “hillbilly,” and from the fourth century onwards it was used by Christians, living mostly in cities and towns, to describe the worshipers of the old gods, who tended to be farmers out in the boondocks.

It remains a common form of snobbery:  urban sophisticates comfortably unaware that a farmer is often one drought or flood, hail storm or blight away from ruin.  It is understandable that an ancient farmer was not willing to risk feeding his family and paying his bills by not starting the planting season just as his grandfather had done, taking a knife to a goat or an ox as an offering to the age-old gods.

If the emerging situation in the North Atlantic hegemony is indeed “post-Christian” and people want to reject Christianity and become pagan, although without placating forgotten gods by slitting the jugulars of goats or oxen, they could do far worse than spend some time each day with a little book written by an erudite pagan soldier in the second century of our era.

An older generation of English-speaking readers knew the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius from the translation by George Long (1862), but more recent readers know it from the translation by Maxwell Staniforth (1964).  Long’s version is in the public domain and so gets reprinted easily, and Staniforth’s edition (quoted below) was published by Penguin.

Like anyone, Marcus Aurelius (121-180) had his flaws, and for Christians throughout his reign, his most grievous fault was being closed to their message.  To a busy chief senator and supreme military commander, the case was simple:  Members of that apparent cult were unpatriotic malcontents refusing to obey the law and make public sacrifice to the established gods of Rome.  Statutes were clear about what to do with such flagrant criminals:  Either they complied or faced execution.

Still, in recent centuries Christians have been generous enough to overlook Marcus Aurelius as persecutor (he would have said prosecutor) of Christians and appreciate the insights he wrote in his book.  The title in Greek is “To Himself,” or, as we would say, “Notes to Self,” and the book consists of twelve Books or sections.  Probably during his last dozen years Marcus Aurelius wrote these reflections on keeping life’s ups and downs in perspective; writing them was a way to deal with yet another day leading his soldiers against several Germanic tribes threatening Rome’s frontier along the Danube.

It was the situation depicted in the film The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), in which Alec Guinness portrayed Marcus Aurelius, and also in Gladiator (2000), where Richard Harris played him.  Guinness captured Marcus Aurelius’ serenity, and Harris conveyed his weariness.

By the late 170s, Marcus Aurelius was in his late fifties, and at home he had a dignified wife and a demented son.  Gossips whispered that the sociopathic son was the result of his mother sleeping with a gladiator.  As if a commander in chief didn’t have enough to worry about.

Marcus Aurelius’ adopted father had held the political and military position we now call emperor, and the future writer of the Meditations had an excellent education from distinguished tutors in what even then were the ancient classics.  In particular, he studied Stoic philosophy, all the while being taught to admire the Platonic ideal of a philosopher king.  He began his Meditations by paying tribute to his teachers and above all to his family, since he had learned a lot from his father and grandfather about developing good character.

In Book 8 we find what a modern editor would insist the author move to the beginning:  “The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; . . . the second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Humor is scarce in the Meditations, but Book 5 begins with an amusing argument with himself about why it is better to face the day and do one’s duty, rather than stay snug under the blanket.  Human nature never changes, and although few of us have had private tutors or have led troops along a hostile border, we recognize the daily inner struggle of a man who needed to kick himself out of bed and tell himself to suck it up.

In Book 10 he had to tell himself to shut up:  “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be.  Be one.”

As clear as those passages are, other parts of the Meditations are ruminations on time and reality and not stepping in the same river twice, the sort of tedium one would expect from someone who reads philosophy for fun.  Nevertheless, the Meditations give practical food for thought.  “If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self-control and courage,” we read in Book 3, “turn to it with you whole soul, and rejoice in the prize you have found.”  However, “if you find all else to be mean and worthless in comparison, then leave yourself no room for any rival pursuits.”

Educated Christian gentlemen used to have well-thumbed copies of the Meditations.  Christianity and gentlemanly behavior are at a low ebb, but a life spent serving others, of wearing out rather than rusting out, seeking “justice and truth, self-control and courage;” when aspiring to those time-honored standards, society today could do with more pagans.

Men in “The Silmarillion”

Two chapters, 12 and 17, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s posthumously published creation epic about Middle Earth, The Silmarillion (1977), focus on humans.  “The first Sun arose in the West,” said Tolkien in Chapter 12, “and the opening eyes of Men were turned towards it, and their feet as they wandered the Earth for the most part strayed that way.”  While Tolkien’s hobbits are contented homebodies, his Men are rugged pioneers.  “West, North, and South,” continued Tolkien, “the children of Men spread and wandered, and their joy was the joy of the morning before the dew is dry, when every leaf is green.”  Soon they become aware of malevolence overshadowing their joy.

In The Silmarillion Tolkien also described Valar, spiritual powers perhaps analogous to angels; one of their number, named variously Melkor and Morgoth, rebelled against Ilúvatar, also called Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator, and brought evil into Middle Earth.  All the while, Men and the Valar loyal to Ilúvatar have an awkward relationship.  “Men have feared the Valar, rather than loved them,” Tolkien said, “and have not understood the purposes of the Powers, being at variance with them, and at strife with the world.”  In Middle Earth, merriment is always menaced.

In The Silmarillion’s Chapter 17, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” Tolkien presented humans appearing in Middle Earth.  Although they possess a pioneering spirit, they are not loners on the frontier.  They migrate in families from the east, where their Fall has already taken place.  These Men are depicted as “hewers of trees and hunters of beasts,” and with the exception of the Lady Haleth, their leaders are male.

Once they cross the Blue Mountains and reach the valleys of their destination, these intrepid wanderers build campfires and sing, accompanied by the harp.  “They sang because they were glad,” Tolkien explained, “and believed that they had escaped from all perils and had come at last to a land without fear.”  One of the leaders of the migrating Men summed up their trek:  “We took long roads, desiring to escape the perils of Middle Earth and the dark things that dwell there; for we heard that there was Light in the West.”  In Tolkien’s world, all but the creatures that have chosen evil seek the Light, associated with the pure bliss of Creation’s first day.

Men in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion seek an eternal and elusive Light, without worshipping it.  Tolkien’s Men are patriarchal, violent, and poetic.  When not fighting and loving and dying, Tolkien’s Men are hunters who have acquired some of the characteristics of more settled and sophisticated entities; in Middle Earth, these beings are the various kinds of Elves.

Less advanced than Elves, Tolkien’s Men must rely on roads built by others, but they have learned how to build wooden structures and kindle campfires.  Around those fires they sing, but in time they learn the songs and legends of others.  Also, they worship a power outside themselves, whether the evil, fallen spirit, Morgoth, or the beneficent Creator spirit, Ilúvatar.

In their physical characteristics, the Men in Tolkien’s story resemble northern Europeans.  “Yellow-haired they were for the most part,” he wrote, “and blue-eyed,” although some “were dark or brown of hair, with grey eyes.”  These Men are “eager of mind, cunning-handed, swift in understanding, long in memory, and . . . moved sooner to pity than to laughter.”

Haleth’s folk are “of lesser stature, and less eager for lore;” they tend to delight “in solitude, wandering free in the greenwoods while the wonder of the lands of the Eldar was new upon them.”  Once again, Tolkien’s tales portray the fallen tempered with paradise, fear with a sense of joy, an age of innocence amidst a wandering warrior culture of hunting and shared open hearths.

At one point in Chapter 18 of The Silmarillion Tolkien referred to another variety, the Swarthy Men, also called here and in other of Tolkien’s posthumous works the Easterlings.  They, too, came into the West from eastern lands, for “the wandering feet of Men were ever set westward in those days.”  Unlike the other group of Men, the Swarthy Men are “short and broad, long and strong in the arm,” and “their skins were swart or sallow, and their hair was dark as was their eyes.”

These Swarthy Men built houses, and while the other Men gravitated towards the Elves, these Swarthy Men were inclined to be on friendly terms with “the Dwarves of the mountains.”  Setting aside the fanciful visions of elves and dwarfs, this vignette shows that from the first era of the world, there were divisions among humans, even along racial or tribal lines.

In a perfect world, the arrival of new Men would be for the established Men both welcome and joyful.  As it happens, Middle Earth is not the best of all possible worlds, and it is clear that the Swarthy Men are not in harmony with the other Men.  Throughout The Silmarillion Tolkien wove strains of elegy, longing for a noble past yet knowing that even in those days of the first Men of Middle Earth, peace remained elusive.

So it is in the world of actual human history.  Some men go one way, others another, and discord is not far off.  Within the panorama of the saga of Middle Earth, these scenes sketched by Tolkien hold vivid images to inform the imagination and the understanding of the student of history.  Although Tolkien does not fit the standard definition of an historian, he could be described as chronicling events, however imaginary, to convey ideas.

Those ideas include, first and foremost, recognition of the existence of good and evil, objective and universal, between which there can be no compromise.  To attempt such a compromise is to ask for tragedy.  Also included are virtues such as prudence, loyalty, and duty, as well as a sense of family, mission, sacrifice, and selflessness.

The Men of Tolkien’s imagined world predating recorded human history recall the worldwide anthropological nostalgia for a better time and place, long ago before people spoiled things.  Tolkien’s Men quest westward for the Light, for reunion with their Creator; they are fallen, fighting people, yet delight in beauty and song.  They are us.  Long after historical facts have faded or been re-interpreted, myth abides.  The truth of myth is its universal quality; it rings true in every human heart.

Home to Tea and Toast

One of the most accessible Christian poets in English would have been 110 this year.  John Betjeman (1906-1984), whose journalism and poetry conveyed the sooty red brick atmosphere of mid-twentieth century Britain, was late in his life honored with a knighthood and the title of Poet Laureate.  Born into a prosperous manufacturing family in the north of London, he went to Oxford, where his frivolous approach to his studies exasperated his tutor, C. S. Lewis, and as has happened once or twice between Christians, for the rest of their lives they cordially disdained one another.

Among Betjeman’s enthusiasms were Victorian architecture and steam locomotives, but while several of Betjeman’s poems depict those aesthetic feats of engineering, others explore Christian themes.  In 2006, in the preface to a representative collection of Betjeman’s poems, Hugo Williams, telling us more about himself than about Betjeman, complained that a number of Betjeman’s poems “are spoilt by piety,” so that “after the halfway point you search increasingly for things without bells on them.”  More perceptive is Kevin J. Gardner, in his Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman (2005), observing that Betjeman’s religious poems “describe the perils of faith and the struggle to believe,” while also celebrating the cultural heritage of Christianity in England and yet demonstrating the foibles and failings of priest and people, himself not least among the latter.

Portly and occasionally lewd, Betjeman was a devout if sometimes morally lapsing Anglican.  In 1948, his wife, Penelope, converted to Catholicism, and his poem “The Empty Pew,” published posthumously, poignantly muses upon spouses who worship Christ in different churches.  His opening words in “Late-Flowering Lust,” “My head is bald, my breath is bad/Unshaven is my chin,” could be an uncomfortable glance over his shoulder into the morning mirror.

A shrewd noticer of passing scenes, he leaves details for us to supply.  In a poem of six lines, “In a Bath Teashop,” he sketches two people, perhaps man and wife, perhaps married to two others, perhaps widow and widower finding new love after bereavement, holding hands and gazing at one another:  “She, such a very ordinary little woman;/He, such a thumping crook;/But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels/In the teashop’s ingle-nook.”

One of Betjeman’s best-loved poems, “Christmas,” portrays harried people bustling around to decorate churches and town halls, and other people hurrying home from work as “marbled clouds go scudding by/The many-steepled London sky.”  Yet, the frantic commercialism, with its layers of greed and guilt, has a deeper motive, and Betjeman asks “And is it true? . . . The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me?”  If it is true, he concludes, then, nothing “Can with this single Truth compare—/That God was man in Palestine/And lives today in Bread and Wine.”

A warden of his parish church, Betjeman would visit the sick and elderly in nursing homes, and “House of Rest” derives from a visit to the widow of an Anglican clergyman.  She has tea ready for her visitor and an array of old family photographs; nearby sits her late husband’s pipe tobacco jar, in which she now keeps dried lavender.  Her sons and daughters are deceased as well, but spiritually they and her husband remain close to her:

Now when the bells for Eucharist

Sound in the Market Square,

With sunshine struggling through the mist

And Sunday in the air,

The veil between her and her dead

Dissolves and shows them clear,

The Consecration Prayer is said

And all of them are near.

As these passages indicate, Betjeman has a keen eye for the way domestic life and spiritual life interweave.  With a wry twinkle, he sees our and his mixed motives, like the lady praying in the poem “In Westminster Abbey,” “So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,/And do not let my shares go down.”  Especially for those of us who get mired into exhaustion with Saint John of the Cross explaining the myriad and mystical facets of his otherwise brief poems, and who wonder more than once on each page what T. S. Eliot’s allusive excursions might be saying, Betjeman’s often ironic insights about the Christian life come home as blessedly clear.

Rare for someone outside a cloister, Betjeman reveals a deep understanding of religious life.  In a poem written in the mid-1950s, “Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order,” he imagines an Anglican nun in her seventies or eighties, the sole survivor of a religious community founded in 1894.  “We built our orphanage,” she recalls, “We ran our school./Now only I am left to keep the rule.”  Felixstowe is an old port city northeast of London, lying along the widening River Orwell as it empties into the North Sea.

She is in the world but not of the world.  She scrapes by on a pittance, and she lives by herself in a drafty attic apartment off a side street.  “I put my final shilling in the meter,” she says, “And only make my loneliness completer.”  All the same, the last thing she needs is well-meaning people feeling sorry for her.  She goes her way, and at a seaside pavilion people enjoy a band playing.  Still, even pleasant afternoons in pavilions must end:

Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer

And louder clang the waves along the coast.

The band packs up.  The evening breeze is stronger

And all the world goes home to tea and toast.

She, however, has a different destination.  “I hurry past a cakeshop’s tempting scones,” she says, “Bound for the red brick twilight of St. John’s.”  There she opens her Prayer Book for Evening Prayer, one of the texts being Psalm 139.  “Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising,” she prays in an old translation.  Scones and poplars, band music and cozy kitchens with tea and toast, all fade into a less vital plane.  They are all good things, their comforts appealing to her, but she has disciplined herself to seek something better:

Here where the white light burns with steady glow

Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathizing,

Safe with the Love that I was born to know,

Safe from the surging of the lonely sea,

My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.

English teachers tell us not to end essays with a quotation, yet saying more would be saying too much.

 

God and Man and Philip Marlowe

The weather had been scorching, so when the rain came, it frothed across the streets and sidewalks like someone had tipped over a giant beer truck.  My shoes echoed wetly down the fake marble tiles of the sixth floor of the bank building on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga, and I heard my heart beating as I knocked on the door to his office.

Inside, he sat behind a shop-worn wooden desk.  Even sitting down he looked tall, and broad-shouldered as well, and under one of them was probably a gun.  He was filling his pipe and glanced over his horn-rim glasses and asked me what he could do for me.  He pointed with his chin towards a chair opposite him, and I sat down.  He lit his pipe and puffed vast clouds of Pearce’s black Cavendish.

As I explained what I was looking for, he relit his pipe and pulled open a desk drawer and took out a bottle of Kentucky bourbon.  He splashed a couple fingers into two glasses and handed me one.  As I put down my glass, I noticed that the beads of rain on the windows glistened like old pearls.  Then I noticed that all that was left of him was the lingering aroma of pipe smoke and the tang of bourbon.

On the blotter on his desk was a little hardback book, the dust jacket reproducing a painting of Sunset Boulevard around 1940.  It was called Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life, and as I opened it and saw the copyright date of 2005, I was back in my own room.

Compiled by Martin Asher, Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life collects quotations from the novels by Raymond Chandler.  Chandler (1888-1959) published seven novels about Philip Marlowe, a fictional private investigator in Los Angeles, California.  The first, The Big Sleep, appeared in 1939; an eighth, Poodle Springs, was unfinished at the time of Chandler’s death.  In 1988 Chandler’s estate commissioned Robert B. Parker to complete it.

Asher arranged Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life alphabetically, and under M we find “Marlowe, Philip,” and Marlowe’s description of himself as “a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. . . . I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. . . . I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley, . . . nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.”

Under B, we note his eye for blondes:  “It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

Under C we learn of Marlowe’s love of coffee, “yards of coffee.  Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved.  The life-blood of tired men.”

Such a collection, at seventy-five pages, cannot comprise all one’s favorite lines.  In The Little Sister (1949), Marlowe needs to question a powerful Hollywood agent, Sheridan Ballou.  Marlowe has a low tolerance for pretentious nonsense, and when he is ushered into the great man’s presence, where in his posh inner sanctum lackeys hover at his beck and call, Marlowe is unimpressed:  “I forgot to bring my prayer book.  This is the first time I knew God worked on commission.”

In Playback (1958), Marlowe meets a wise old man, Henry Clarendon IV, in a hotel lobby in mythical Esmeralda, California.  When Clarendon asks him if he believes in God, Marlowe, not believing in a divine puppet-master, replies, “If you mean an omniscient and omnipotent God who intended everything exactly the way it is, no.”  Clarendon then muses on the afterlife, admitting that he finds talk of Heaven “rather dull,” but equally, he has trouble imagining Hell, where “a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo.”

Critics debate how much of Chandler emerges in his characters.  Chandler, in a letter dated 7 January, 1945, wrote that Marlowe, “a simple alcoholic vulgarian, . . . has as much social conscience as a horse.  He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter.”  Furthermore, “Marlowe doesn’t give a damn who is president; neither do I, because I know he will be a politician.”

Marlowe’s political views occur in his Guide to Life under “Cops”:  “In one way cops are all the same.  They all blame the wrong things.  If a guy loses his pay check at a crap table, stop gambling.  If he gets drunk, stop liquor.  If he kills somebody in a car crash, stop making automobiles. . . .”  As for crime, Marlowe says, “Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom.”

Marlowe is aware of his own deficiencies.  In Farewell, My Lovely (1940), he takes stock.  He says he needed “a drink . . . a lot of life insurance . . . a vacation . . . a home in the country.”  Instead, “What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun.”  He left out his personal code of chivalry, a candid sense of decency driving his role as a kind of knight rescuing damsels in distress, even though the damsels are often the ones causing the distress.

In Playback, the distressed and distressing damsel Marlowe has been hired to find marvels at him, “How can such a hard man be so gentle?”  Marlowe tells her, “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”

Regarding life, aficionados of the Sherlock Holmes stories insist that Holmes has never died.  For proof, they point to the fact that his obituary has never appeared in The Times of London.  By that reasoning, Philip Marlowe is equally immortal, no notice of his death having been in The Los Angeles Times.

As I flipped through Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life, the smell of eucalyptus on a warm evening came back to me.  Once again I watched Marlowe as he unlocked the door to his second-floor apartment, and for a moment he waited there, not turning on the light, just sniffing the smell of the rooms he called home:  “A homely smell, a smell of dust and tobacco smoke, the smell of a world where men live, and keep on living.”

 

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

 

Aldo Leopold and Mark Trail

In one of his finer novels, Sackett (1961), Louis L’Amour has the narrator, William Tell Sackett, observe, “A mountain man tries to live with the country instead of against it.”  The context was Sackett having seen a grizzly bear “scooping honey out of a hollow tree.”  Sackett, Tell to family and friends, saw no threat from the bear and so moved on.  “That bear was minding his business,” Sackett explains, “so I minded mine.”

That sense of limits to human interaction with the natural world found eloquent expression in the writings of Aldo Leopold and has been represented by a cartoon character, Mark Trail.  With origins in the first half of the twentieth century, Leopold’s most famous work, A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays, appeared posthumously, in 1949, and in 1946 Mark Trail made his debut in American newspapers.  Both Leopold and Trail have been honored with thousands of acres of parkland, Leopold’s in southwestern New Mexico, Trail’s in northern Georgia, and the Mark Trail Wilderness is so far the only such reserve commemorating a cartoon character.

After serving along the Arizona and New Mexico border in the United States Forest Service, Leopold (1887-1948) moved to rural Sauk County, Wisconsin.  There he refined his ideas about “land as a community to which we belong,” rather than it being “a commodity belonging to us.”  Conserving land and its many inhabitants, from ants to oaks, believed Leopold, would “reap . . . an esthetic harvest . . . under science, [capable] of contributing to culture.”

For him, the hours before dawn were most congenial.  “Getting up early,” he wrote in his Almanac for October, “is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains.”  Birds and stars and trains and Leopold shared a bond of reticence.  “Early risers feel at ease with each other,” he suggested, “perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements.”  For example, that horned owl, “in his trisyllabic commentary, plays down the story of the night’s murders.”  Likewise, the railroad, though loud, “has a kind of modesty:  his eye is single to his own noisy business, and he never comes roaring into somebody else’s camp.”  As have so many others, Leopold found comfort within earshot of the rails.  “I feel a deep security,” he admitted, “in this single-mindedness of freight trains.”

An avid hunter and fisherman, Leopold spent long hours smoking his pipe and mulling over the role of humans in the natural world.  He once thought of wolves as vermin, threats to the deer he liked to hunt, but after shooting a she-wolf and seeing “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he rethought his prejudice against those creatures.  He also reconsidered the value of plants usually destroyed as weeds.  Over time, he developed a coherent ethical approach to land and all it sustains, whereby a living thing’s worth is not contingent upon its usefulness.

While Leopold was writing and lecturing on the ethical use of land, water, animals, and plants, in the May, 1936, issue of The Forum, Father John K. Ryan published “Are the Comics Moral?”  Ryan, later known for his translations of Saint Augustine and Saint Francis de Sales, objected to newspaper comics and their “lurid melodrama, told by pictures of brutal men doing brutal deeds.”  His argument recurred in Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), with its claim that overt violence and subliminal homoeroticism in comics like Batman lead to juvenile delinquency.

According to The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977), in the mid-1930s some comic strip artists began drawing in a realistic style and with ongoing narration, and “the aim of the new narrative strips was at the audience for boys’ adventure stories.”  After the Second World War, several new comic strips followed suit, Mark Trail among them.  Mark Trail was the creation of Ed Dodd (1902-1991), and Dodd’s work has been continued by Jack Elrod (1924-2016) and James Allen (born 1967).

Mark Trail is a perpetually fit and trim thirty-two, and he resembles a young Gregory Peck.  In seventy years the one change in his appearance came in 1983, when he quit smoking his formerly ever-present black billiard pipe.  He lives in mythical Lost Forest and spends much of his time outdoors, his occupation being a writer and photographer for a fictional magazine, Woods and Wildlife.  Often accompanying him are his faithful Saint Bernard, Andy, and his long-time girlfriend and later wife, Cherry, and their adopted son, Rusty.

The weekly comic strip features slow-paced adventure, tending to culminate in Trail confronting the bad guys and giving them a right to the jaw.  The Sunday version of the strip has always been a free-standing educational piece, wherein Trail presents facts about various flora and fauna, as well about the status of endangered species.  While the measured pace of the daily strip might not appeal to kids, the Sunday installment can keep their interest by conveying information without coming across as classroom tedium.

From 1956 to 1987 that educational role also occurred in Mark Trail’s Outdoor Tips, a daily single panel strip, usually in sports sections.  In addition, since 1997 Mark Trail has been the official spokes-character of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Special cartoons show Trail giving safety instructions for dealing with severe weather, and they also depict him urging people to buy NOAA radios.

Although Mark Trail has steered clear of partisan politics, in 2006 the strip addressed a recent political situation.  The catalyst was a United States Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the Court’s leftist majority ruling that eminent domain allowed the state to transfer private property to another private owner for the purpose of economic development.  Enter Mark Trail defending property rights and challenging a casino owner’s scheme to use eminent domain to cut a road through Lost Forest to his casino.

Like a bear scooping up honey, forests can respectfully be left alone and appreciated.  As Tell Sackett recalled, “Pa, he always advised us boys to take time to contemplate.”  In another of L’Amour’s novels, The Proving Trail (1978), Kearney McRaven mused, “To ride fast, to travel far, these were empty things unless a man took the time to savor, to taste, to love, to simply be.”  Life lessons with which Aldo Leopold and Mark Trail would concur.

 

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

 

Life Lessons from Father Logan

Like the film A Man for All Seasons (1966), Alfred Hitchcock’s film I Confess (1953) shows a good man thrust into a situation where there can be no compromise.  Hitchcock (1899-1980) was brought up Catholic, educated at a Jesuit school in London, and he was intrigued by the cinematic potential of I Confess, originally a stage play in 1902 by Paul Anthelme.  To make sure he got the film true to Catholic teaching, Hitchcock sought technical advice from Father Paul LaCouline, a moral theologian at Laval University.  From Hitchcock’s I Confess one can glean five life lessons, and the dialogue quoted below comes from the film’s screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald.

I Confess presents Father Michael William Logan, a fictional young priest of the Archdiocese of Quebec, played by Montgomery Clift.  Logan has served his country and is now serving God.  At the start of the Second World War he volunteered for the Canadian army and saw combat as a sergeant in the Regina Rifle Regiment.  In historical reality, that regiment served in the Third Canadian Division storming Juno Beach during the Normandy invasion.

Back from the war, where his bravery earned him a Military Cross, Logan entered seminary.  Ordained two years, he becomes ensnared in a murder investigation after hearing the confession of a murderer, Otto Keller, a refugee who is also the rectory’s handyman.  Police investigators, led by Inspector Larrue, played by Karl Malden, piece together a puzzle that seems to identify Logan as the murderer.

Throughout the film Logan is haunted by the fact that honoring the seal of the confessional could lead him to be convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  It is a standard theme in Hitchcock’s films, an innocent man pursued as though he were guilty, a nightmarish world where the constitutional apparatus of justice, smugly convinced the right man is in custody, stands poised to condemn the wrong man.

Two darkly comic scenes underscore the unsettling truth that things are not what they seem:  whether to trust an advertisement for odorless paint; a bicycle tire that only appears to be flat.  True to form, Hitchcock keeps the suspense taut until the last seconds of the film.  That last scene, not to be spoiled here, shows Logan’s inner wrestling to the end.

 

  1. Know how to love. Before the war, Logan had a girlfriend, his childhood sweetheart, Ruth, played by Anne Baxter.  Their romance is told only from her point of view, thus underscoring Logan’s reticence.  Significantly, Ruth describes Logan as a serious man, serious about love and war.  Human relationships, Logan knows, are not to be taken lightly.  In his romantic friendship with Ruth, Logan strives to balance his desire for her with an inherited sense of chivalry.  Although the movie does not state it explicitly, this well-grounded approach to love and relationship, as well as responsibility, prepares him for committing himself to Christ.
  2. Be honest. As the police investigation closes in on Logan, he meets with Ruth, now married to Pierre Grandfort, a Member of Parliament.  Although she has been married seven years, she still loves Logan.  Logan seeks to discourage such emotional attachments and is open and candid with her:  “I don’t want you to lie to me, but I don’t want you to lie to yourself.”  She repeats that she still loves him and declares that even after all these years, neither of them has changed.  “I’ve changed,” Logan insists, adding, “you’ve changed, too.”  Her infatuation blinds her to the fact of life represented by his cassock and clerical collar.  “I want you to see things as they are,” he patiently explains, “and not go on hurting yourself.”  Logan’s human formation has taught him that honesty and humility intersect.
  3. Be rational. Logan teaches us that discerning one’s calling in life requires not simply our heart, but also our mind.  Our feelings may drive us to impetuous acts, while our reason reminds us of our promises and vows.  Living out one’s vocation well involves, when possible, careful pacing, sticking to a steady, daily pattern.  A priest in Logan’s day would have known from his intellectual formation the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius, the First Vatican Council’s definitive teaching about the harmony of faith and reason.  To Inspector Larrue he explains:  “I have a methodical mind.  I do have to take things one by one.”  Later in the same conversation Logan, surely trained in Thomistic logic, points out to the inspector, “A man of intelligence would not be led to believe anything on so little evidence.”
  4. Be faithful. Logan’s pastor tells a police detective, “Most of his time is given to his parishioners.”  In other words, his ordination sets him apart, but not above, to serve others.  Logan’s own sense of pastoral vocation is clear.  “I chose to be what I am,” Logan tells Ruth, “I believe in what I am.”  In the courtroom scene, Logan says from the witness box, “I never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place.”  He knows that his vocation as a parish priest makes him a public figure, and he knows the responsibilities of his calling, even when his fidelity is strongly tested.  “It’s easy for you to be good,” Otto Keller sneers at Logan, and Keller, using psychological projection, repeatedly calls Logan a coward.  The film makes clear that being good is a constant interior struggle, and it confirms that cowards cannot live a life of integrity.  While Keller schemes to save himself, Logan’s faithfulness to his vocation threatens to cost him his life.
  5. Know how to sacrifice. Logan modestly describes his wartime service by saying, “Well, I survived.”  Logan’s understatement, in Clift’s portrayal, conveys authentic humility.  Humility means being honest with oneself, knowing one’s abilities as well as one’s limits.  Logan knows that he survived the war with distinction, and he knows how he survived it, courage emerging through fear.  Nevertheless, he understands that he has no obligation to elaborate upon his role in D-Day or beyond.  During that time of physical and spiritual trial, though, he discerned a priestly vocation.  As Ruth observes, his letters home to her, always serious in tone, became fewer and fewer.  In weighing how best to dedicate his life, he thus left behind the prospect of a natural good, marriage, for an objectively higher good, seeking and serving God in celibate chastity.

 

A longer version of this essay appeared in Seminary Journal 15 (Fall, 2009), pp. 74-76.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church history at Saint Vincent Seminary.

 

Somewheres East of Suez

In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, we learn that Tolkien was fond of the novels of John Buchan.  Like Tolkien, Buchan had formative experiences in South Africa.  Tolkien was born there, and Buchan briefly served there as private secretary to Lord Milner, High Commissioner for overseeing reconstruction after the Boer War.  Buchan’s most famous character, Richard Hannay, was a mining engineer in South Africa before settling back in England and getting entangled in such adventures as recounted in The Thirty-nine Steps.  One of Buchan’s novels, Prester John, deals almost exclusively with South Africa, and it bears re-reading alongside The Hobbit.

First published in 1910, Prester John is a fast-paced boy’s adventure story.  As such, it shares elements with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1886) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883):  After a frightening encounter with a mysterious stranger, a boy must leave his widowed mother and their home in the British Isles, and he ends up in South Africa on a trek into dangerous mountains in search of fabulous ancient jewels.  The intrepid youth finds himself caught up in a savage battle over a rightful inheritance, and against all odds, he lives to return to the familiar routine of tea and scones, his thoughts often going back to his harrowing escapes.

In Buchan’s novel, the similarities are clear with stories about Allan Quatermain and Jim Hawkins, but equally clear are parallels found in Tolkien’s “there and back again” tale of Bilbo Baggins.  A major difference is Buchan’s hero, David Crawfurd, being in his late teens when he has to leave Scotland for South Africa, whereas Tolkien’s most famous hobbit is fifty when he leaves the Shire for Wilderland.

Also, just as critics of Tolkien’s The Hobbit see it in the context of ancient myth, they see Buchan’s Prester John in the context of British imperialism.  Mythic heroes leave home on a quest to recover invaluable treasure and return home victorious and transformed.  For a Christian, the ultimate fulfillment of this primeval epic is Christ, journeying from His heavenly home with God the Father to Earth and into Hell, conquering death and ascending into Heaven and His seat at the right hand of God.  In His divinity, Christ cannot change; in His fully human incarnation, He grew and matured.  His victorious quest for lost sheep, for sinful humans, has transformed multitudes.  Archetypes aside, modern critics read Buchan’s swashbuckling narrative as another overly masculine example of the sun never setting on a chance for British exploitation of native peoples.

Although Buchan set Prester John in the early twentieth century, he drew upon a medieval legend.  According to that story, believed by medieval Christians in the very marrow of their bones, somewhere beyond the eastern limits of Christian civilization lived a valiant Christian king, some said also a priest, hence his name of Prester John.  Since that legend’s origins in the twelfth century, Christians in Europe believed that they were obligated to go find and defend Prester John, harried as he was by Muslims.  Buchan’s version makes Prester John a charismatic African warlord named Laputa posing as a Protestant minister, waiting his chance to rally his people and lead them back to their historical greatness.  Into that geopolitical drama David Crawfurd stumbles.

How wide of the author’s mark a book can be read finds a supreme example in an ardent admirer of Buchan and his books, Wilfred Thesiger.  Thesiger (1910-2003) was born to wealthy, well-connected British parents stationed in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), and as a boy he loved its dusty and rugged terrain and thrilled to its claim to having the Ark of the Covenant.  When Thesiger was sent to Eton and Oxford, he regarded England, with its greenery and pavements, as an alien world.  Prester John in particular he re-read as a reminder of the wild Africa he longed with aching homesickness to explore.

In his autobiography, The Life of My Choice (1987), Thesiger recalled his boyhood love of Prester John.  Yet, for him it was not a portal for identifying with and joining vicariously in the cliff-hanging adventures of young David Crawfurd.  “This story of Laputa,” Thesiger wrote, “the Zulu leader who died tragically and dramatically while attempting to free his people, made an indelible impression on me.”

At Oxford, where he studied history and distinguished himself in boxing, Thesiger mulled over a plan to return to Abyssinia.  He joined the Oxford Exploration Club, whose president was John Buchan.  Thesiger wrote to Buchan, who lived outside Oxford at an estate called Elsfield Manor, and Buchan had Thesiger to his house several times for tea and talk about Thesiger’s developing proposal for exploring hitherto uncharted regions of eastern Africa.

More than fifty years later, Thesiger vividly recollected Buchan, “his sensitive, ascetic face etched with lines of pain but lit by his innate kindness, his lean body in comfortable country tweeds.”  Buchan ensconced in his Oxfordshire manor house with his books and his pipes evoked Tolkien’s own cozy home life in suburban Oxford, as well as that of Bilbo Baggins in his hobbit hole.  Yet tea and tobacco, not to mention potatoes and port, were British staples because Britain held, in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase in his poem “Recessional” (1897), “Dominion over palm and pine.”

It was a pervasive British tension.  While some people were content never to stray too far from the safety of hearth and home, others believed that Britain had a duty to peoples beyond the blighted cliffs.  The former attitude was dubbed being a Little Englander, and the latter was seen as championing Greater Britain.  In Empire (2003), Niall Ferguson noted, “The idea of Greater Britain is nowhere more appealingly expressed than in [John Buchan’s] novels.”

A recurring British yearning for exotic shores finds voice in Kipling’s poem, “Mandalay” (1892).  There a young British soldier has come back to London from the Far East, and he laments the drab constraints of his new civilian life:  “Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst/Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst.”  Both David Crawfurd and Bilbo Baggins were eager to get home, but in time word from the faraway lands where they had risked their lives broke their peace and quiet.  Like Kipling’s young soldier, they heard again the call of distant bells and remembered distant dawns.

 

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

 

Casey Jones and the Promised Land

An advertisement for a new line of pipe tobacco named for Casey Jones calls to mind that controversial American folk-hero.  “When most people think of old-time railroading,” wrote Oliver Jensen in 1975, “they think of Casey Jones roaring into eternity with his hand on the whistle cord.”  John Luther “Casey” Jones (born 1863) was the only person killed when on the foggy and rainy night of 30 April, 1900, in Vaughan, Mississippi, his Illinois Central passenger and mail train rounded a curve and collided with the caboose of a stalled freight train sticking out from a siding.

As Christian Wolmar wrote in The Iron Road (2014), Jones “died while travelling too fast [and] went on to become a cult figure in American folklore and folksong.”  That song, composed right after the wreck by a railroader friend of Jones, has gone through some forty-five variations, including one slandering Mrs. Jones as unfaithful and another used from 1957 to 1958 as the theme song for a half-hour television series, Casey Jones.  Like the song, that wholesome show held scant resemblance to historical reality.  For example, the round-faced and burly Alan Hale, six years before becoming the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island, portrayed the lean and oval-faced Jones.

Jones grew up in Cayce, in the southwestern tip of Kentucky, and his nickname came from the sound of that place name.  In contrast to pioneer heroes like Daniel Boone or rural heroes like Johnny Appleseed, Jones was, as Milton Bagby wrote in the December, 1999, issue of American History, “a modern hero, a man of the industrial age who lost his life at the helm of a machine.”

Critics dismiss his heroic standing and thus overlook in Jones’s story not only heroism, but also interracial and religious aspects.  His detractors see Jones as reckless and headstrong, and they point out that his testing of limits got him nine suspensions in ten years.  Even family friend and biographer, Fred J. Lee, writing in 1939, called him “irrepressible but reliable.”  Nevertheless, railroad owners and customers preferred punctuality, and Jones earned a reputation for getting to his destination on the time advertised in newspapers and printed in railroad timetables.

Here we see a man eager to keep his word and that of his company, a man who took pride in doing well a job that bore his name.  He had worked his way up from brakeman to engineer; as an engineer he moved from freight trains to passenger trains.  Quietly confident and a church-going, tee-totaling family man, he had the respect of his peers, his crew, and railroad executives.  He became well-known not only for being on time, but also for installing on his engine a six-tone whistle that resembled the call of a whippoorwill.

The night of his death he began his southbound run from Memphis 75 minutes behind schedule; at the time of the collision, he had made up all but two minutes of that time, largely by going over 100 miles an hour.  In the days of horse and buggy, such speeds were nearly unimaginable.  A young man commanding fantastic speeds by controlling a massive machine that raced along steel rails was the envy of every boy along the line.  For Jones, the thrill of such risk and velocity may also have stirred in him a sensual element.  Almost his last words to his fireman before realizing danger loomed ahead and thus taking desperate braking action were, “The old girl’s got her high-heeled slippers on tonight!”

According to his loyal family and friends, as well as admirers who never met him, Jones sacrificed his life to save those of the passengers and crew in the twelve cars behind him.  He became a Christ-like figure, and one permutation of the ballad about him said he “Climbed into the cab with the orders in his hand/Says, ‘This is my trip to the Promised Land’.”

The wording signifies a religious tradition outside the one practiced by Jones.  He came from Welsh Protestant stock, and while working for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, he fell in love with Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady, a daughter of the owner of the boarding house where Jones lived in Jackson, Tennessee.  The Bradys were Irish Catholic, and Jones agreed to take instruction and was baptized in Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church in Whistler, Alabama.  On 25 November, 1886, Janie and Casey were married at Saint Mary’s Church, Jackson, Tennessee.  In due course they had two sons and a daughter.

A Southerner open to Catholicism, Jones grew up when Southern Democrats were founding the Ku Klux Klan and before the United States Supreme Court ruled seven to one in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) for the constitutionality of states legislating “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks, facilities that included railway cars.  Honesty requires acknowledging that joining the Court’s majority was Edward Douglass White, the second Catholic to serve on the Court; the first had been Roger Brooke Taney, best known today for the Dred Scott decision (1857).

Whether working on railroads or playing neighborhood or company baseball, the 6’4″ Jones spent his life around other men whose work and play also put calluses on their hands and dirt under their fingernails.  Those men included sons of former slaves.  The man who came up with the words for the first version of “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” Wallace Saunders, was what today would be called an African-American; Jones’s fireman, Simeon “Sim” Webb, also was a black man.

As Jones strained every muscle to keep his engine, Number 382, dubbed the Cannonball Express, from ramming into that stopped freight train, he ordered Sim Webb to jump to safety.  Webb obeyed, suffering cuts and bruises; he lived to be eighty-three, dying in 1957.  Jones brought his train from around 75 miles per hour down to close to 35 before it smashed into the freight’s caboose.  Jones’s locomotive flipped backwards and on its side, and his body, mangled and scalded, was found under the cab.

Casey Jones’s funeral Mass was offered at Saint Mary’s church in Jackson, and he was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery.  As Oliver Jensen wrote in The American Heritage History of Railroads in America (1975), Jones was “steadfast,” seen across the nation as personifying “the brave engineer.”  Over the years, with heartfelt clarity, Sim Webb would say, “Mr. Casey was a fine man.”

 

Paul VI, Duns Scotus, and Dramatic License

Fifty years ago, on 14 July, 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Letter, Alma parens, marking the 700th anniversary of the birth of John Duns Scotus.  Although Scotus’ argument in favor of belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary influenced Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution of 1854 defining that dogma, Alma parens was the first papal document on Scotus.

On 20 March, 1993, Pope John Paul II beatified Scotus, and on 7 July, 2010, at a Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Scotus.  In these and other writings and speeches about Scotus, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI quoted from Paul VI’s Alma parens.  Thus, papal teaching about Scotus has developed, by Church standards, rapidly, and Scotus has been proposed to the faithful as a model of holiness and as a reliable intercessor.

Scotus (1266-1308) was contemporary with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Marco Polo (1254-1324), but he remains less well-known.  A Franciscan priest, he was born in southeastern Scotland and taught at universities in Paris, Oxford, and Cologne, where he died and is entombed.  Even for students of philosophy, his philosophical writings are difficult, and he worked within the Augustinian intellectual tradition while drawing upon empirical Aristotelianism.  Some later medieval thinkers used Scotus’ ideas to develop a form of voluntarism, a philosophical approach placing the will above the intellect.  For an extreme voluntarist, emotion becomes superior to reason.

Since the will is related to the capacity to love, Scotus himself took a more careful line, one of several refinements that led to him being dubbed “the Subtle Doctor.”  According to James Hitchcock’s indispensable History of the Catholic Church (2012), Scotus gave the will “primacy over the intellect:  the mind informed the will, but the will first determined the perceptions of the mind.”  Reason can inform our choices, but our choices influence our reasoning.

Pope Paul VI’s letter anticipated scholarly conferences to be held in mid-September, 1966, at Oxford and Edinburgh to commemorate Scotus’ 700th birthday.  Since most of the scholars attending those conferences would be Christians from various churches and confessions, Paul VI suggested that they use Scotus’ writings as a basis for future ecumenical discussion.  He noted that Scotus was part of the Augustinian heritage shared by Christians on both sides of the Reformation.

As with other authoritative writings by that saintly Pope, Alma parens seems to have fallen on deaf ears.  Catholic scholars of the Thomist school shy away from Scotus, despite his personal orthodoxy, as a first step towards Protestantism and Modernism, and Protestant scholars and also some Catholics wonder why Scotus, now obscure in all senses, would be a better source for ecumenical dialogue than Augustine of Hippo himself or even C. S. Lewis.

An unexpected cultural development since Alma parens has been an award-winning film about Scotus.  The sketchiness of Scotus’ biography allows for dramatic license, and so in 2010 an Italian television network, TVCO, produced Duns Scoto.  Under the title Blessed Duns Scotus:  Defender of the Immaculate Conception, it is commercially available on DVD from Ignatius Press.  Italian mime and actor Adriano Braidotti portrayed Scotus.  In 2011 this movie won Best Film and Best Actor at the Vatican’s second annual Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival.

Beautifully filmed and well-acted, Blessed Duns Scotus depicts Scotus’ prayer life, his teaching, and his courage.  The film begins with Scotus going into exile from Paris to Oxford because he refused to sign a document issued by France’s King Philip IV condemning Pope Boniface VIII.  The film culminates with Scotus engaging Dominican theologians in a public disputation about Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  A lesser creative team would have made such a film tedious at best.  Instead, they raise it above the earnest and sugary fare of a few other religious movies one could name.

An unusual aspect of this film is the screen credits at the end of the movie explaining that a scene in which Scotus speaks about the Eucharist derives from a meditation by Chiara Lubich (1920-2008).  Although Scotus had comments about the Eucharist, they are dense and philosophical, not the best text for a television movie.

In the days of Aquinas and Scotus, reference to “the council” meant Lateran IV, held in Rome in 1215.  That council used a new term, transubstantiation, to sum up Church teaching on the Eucharist.  The council thus definitively rejected the teaching of Berengar of Tours (c. 1010-1088), that, using Aristotelian terminology, accidents and substance cannot be separated, and so for Berengar the Eucharist was merely a memorial meal, spiritually symbolic but not the Body and Blood of Christ.

Like Aquinas, Scotus argued for transubstantiation.  Nevertheless, Scotus put emphasis on God’s freedom, while acknowledging that God cannot attempt a logical impossibility, such as trying to create a round square.  A student of the works of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Scotus was wary of Anselm positing that God was required to do something.

So, for Scotus the big question became:  Could God have chosen to commune with believers by some means other than transubstantiation?  Scotus argued that God could have chosen to leave the accidents and substance of the bread and wine yet include Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity (consubstantiation), but He chose to remove the substance of the bread and wine and replace it with Christ’s own substance (transubstantiation).  Since the council of 1215, to believe otherwise is not to be Catholic.

In the film, Scotus speaks of the Eucharist as the source of unity amongst Catholics.  He explains to a young friar that by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood, we become part of His mystical body and thus become united with each other in Him.  Scotus then describes how through the Eucharist the Holy Spirit makes possible the spousal relationship between Christ the bridegroom and His bride, the Church.  It is excellent theology, but it comes from the twentieth century.

In the spirit of Alma parens, the film Blessed Duns Scotus presents Scotus as a sympathetic character, worthy of further attention.  While it conveys his brilliance as an academic theologian, it also presents a real man with real struggles who preferred virtue to vice and is on the path to sainthood.  The film shows Scotus as a holy man, as a teacher, and as a champion of unpopular beliefs.  All the better that it can do so while letting piety infuse fine style.