All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Rod Stewart and Sub-creation


Between December, 2007, and June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine has featured rock and roll legend Rod Stewart.  Since December, 2010, those features have been cover stories, the magazine falling open at the centerfold to reveal stunning photographs of his model railroad.  In his autobiography, Rod (2012), he subtitled his chapter on model railroading “In which our hero owns up to a habit most shocking and time-consuming.”

As habits go, it is time-consuming, but not all that shocking.  Consider it in the context of what in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.”  Tolkien referred to the Primary World, created by God, and a Secondary World, created by the author of a fairy story.  That sub-creator uses imagination to make a credible world of inner consistency, taking elements of the Primary World into the realm of fantasy.  “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World,” Tolkien said, “but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone, and wood which only the art of making can give.”

Here Tolkien purists could object, since Tolkien insisted that the imaginative work of sub-creation requires words; in painting, for example, said Tolkien, “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy.”  Tolkien’s essay, though, must be read with caution:  In it he muttered against automobiles and other developments of modern life, including “railway-engineers,” meaning designers of trains and their rails, bridges, and stations.  Still, all such literary Neo-Luddites ignore the fact that their verbal creations (or sub-creations) will be published and distributed by means of modern technology.

It might be amusing to pine for the days when one’s writings were copied by hand onto parchment, but those days are gone forever, as dead as the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States.  They are as dead as the era of horses and buggies and steam locomotives.  To dream for their return joins the delusion that for a man to be authentically Catholic, he must affect a taste for whiskey and cigars.

Like any good historian, a model railroader studies the past, he doesn’t live in it.  (Nearly all model railroaders are men.)  Most model railroaders strive to create miniature versions of trains and towns in the era of steam and coal.  Rod Stewart’s model railroad, called the Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad, aims for a time around 1945, when steam engines were phasing out and diesel engines were coming to the fore.

Stewart’s Grand Street and Three Rivers is in HO scale, meaning three millimeters equal one foot.  That scale is the most popular size for model railroads, and American companies such as Atlas and Bachmann produce model trains and buildings in HO scale.  Next in popularity is O scale, twice the size of HO scale; put another way, the H in HO scale refers to its being half the size of O.  The Lionel train set going in circles under a Christmas tree is in O scale.

For their sub-creating, however, avid model railroaders desire more complexity than a basic circle or oval.  Their layouts have multiple tracks, with bridges and tunnels, sidings and landscape, and even at a small scale like HO, model railroads necessarily occupy a lot of space.  For example, HO scale trains need a turning radius of eighteen inches.  According to the June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine, Stewart’s sub-creation is 23′ by 124′, covering much of the top floor of his house in Los Angeles.

While the name of his railroad is fictional, it runs through a setting meant to evoke a city in Pennsylvania.  To conjure such a scene, Stewart spends hours making model buildings suitable to the time and place.  Like many model railroaders, he improvises for realism, modifying or combining commercially available kits, a process known in the hobby as kitbashing.

Here again, the sub-creator’s sense of reality intervenes:  Heljan, Hornby, and Kibri are, respectively, Danish, British, and German companies making accurate scale models of trains and structures typical of railways and locations in their countries, but their products would be out of place in a model of an American city around 1945.  As Tolkien said of fairy stories, the sub-created, secondary world must be true within itself.  More appropriate for the self-contained little world Stewart works on would be model buildings made by American companies like Walthers and Woodland Scenics.

Needless to say, such a hobby calls for stability, and model railroaders tend to pride themselves on their carpentry skills and their ingenuity in constructing the framework to support their track, buildings, trees, and trains.  Making it all work takes electricity, in some cases snaking hundreds of feet of wire into elaborate configurations to operate the trains and to illuminate buildings and tiny street lights.  How to build and wire and otherwise outfit one’s model railroad is where monthly magazines like Model Railroader come in, and more recently, hobbyists have been helping one another through web sites and YouTube videos.

Prominent among the latter is jlwii2000, a channel by James Wright.  An officer in the United States Air Force, he reviews products relevant to model railroading and shows progress on his ongoing layout, his HO scale model railroad taking up a large part of his basement.  Since his job has frequent re-assignments, he has devised ways to make his sprawling sub-creation break down into sections and become relatively easily transportable.

As Wright, Stewart, and other married model railroaders will attest, this “habit most shocking and time-consuming” asks a lot of patience of spouses, although Stewart concedes that his wife welcomes some time to herself.  Mention of spouses alludes to another aspect of this hobby:  Its demographics are aging.  A point worthy of national news, on 11 February, 2016, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the greying population of model railroaders.

One way to attract youngsters into the hobby involves a range of HO scale models based on a children’s television show, Thomas the Tank Engine.  From the make-believe island of Sodor and its talking trains whose good intentions nevertheless often “cause confusion and delay,” kids may someday grow up to model real, albeit defunct, railroads, like the Southern Pacific or the Pennsylvania.

They will find it a satisfying contemplative activity.  As Stewart wrote in Rod, “It’s pretty addictive—and totally absorbing.  The world disappears when I’m doing it.”  Tolkien would understand.

Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Eighth

It is fitting that a day in late April, 2017, marked by alternating sunshine and thunderstorms should see Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in C Minor.  From the first shimmering notes to the final crescendo, it was a triumph.  The setting for this performance was the basilica of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Vincent Archabbey, outside Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  The superb acoustics of the archabbey’s church, completed in 1905, confirmed Honeck’s choice of this sacred venue for conducting the Symphony’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth.

More so than in his other symphonies, Bruckner’s deep Catholic faith emerges in his Eighth.  Like Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian and a devout Catholic.  In June, 2008, National Catholic Register and in February, 2010, The New York Times ran features on Honeck and his faith.  The New York Times filled nearly an entire page about Honeck, in large part marveling that he prays right before conducting a concert and that any of the orchestra’s musicians who want to pray may join him.  In May, 2010, Saint Vincent College, operated by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey, recognized Honeck’s commitment to faith and culture by conferring upon him an honorary doctorate.

According to notes that Honeck wrote for the Symphony’s April, 2017, program booklet, he has been familiar with Bruckner’s Eighth for more than thirty years.  As a young musician playing viola with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he performed it both in Vienna and at Carnegie Hall, each time under the baton of the legendary Herbert von Karajan.  Karajan (1908-1989) had first conducted Bruckner’s Eighth in 1941 in Berlin, and his final performance of it, in November, 1988, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is available on CD from Deutsche Grammophon.

In his program notes for the April, 2017, performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck recalled Karajan’s ability to summon forth from the orchestra a sound that was “imperial and pure.”  Honeck wrote that Karajan asked for “the softest pianissimos and the most powerful, loudest fortes.”  Honeck’s conducting follows that tradition, and the Pittsburgh Symphony responds, performing it, as he says, “in the right style, in the right way.”  Their fortes soared to fill every arch and vaulted ceiling of the Romanesque basilica at Saint Vincent, and their pianissimos were as gentle as a breath.

Honeck wrote that Bruckner’s Eighth is “a monumental piece” similar to “a natural phenomenon.”  Unlike Bruckner’s other symphonies, this one uses a harp, and despite its numerous fortes, cymbals occur only once.  For all the lush harmony of the strings and the glorious emphasis of the brass, it is the tympani, like an athletic heartbeat, bringing the Eighth most to life.  Afterwards the timpanist, Mike Kemp, appearing exhilarated and exhausted, told me that the Eighth “is a divine journey.”

Bruckner himself said “my Eighth is a mystery,” meaning that it has a mystical element.  Mystics can be caricatured as levitating oddities, but mystics are human, their spiritual lives, like anyone else’s, occurring alongside everyday life.  As Honeck observed, in Bruckner’s Eighth “we have every facet of human life and emotion.”  Some composers of the Romantic period show us within themselves; Bruckner, notably in his Eighth, shows us ourselves and beyond.

Bruckner, a bachelor of simple tastes and reticent disposition, seemed to many of his contemporaries just another rural man with a crew cut and a bow tie; sympathetic critics now see a musical genius of profound religious insight.  Bruckner’s musical vision saw the larger pattern connecting life’s daily details.  While a passerby might see the various carvings around a medieval cathedral, Bruckner saw that at base it forms a cross.

As with all Bruckner’s symphonies, except his Ninth, left unfinished at his death, the Eighth has four movements, ranging in length from sixteen to twenty-five minutes.  Despite spanning an hour and twenty minutes, the time by no means drags.  Bruckner, as Honeck wrote, “is the master of beating waves of sound over a long period.”  Honeck added, “And if you allow yourself into these waves and these sounds, you will never feel it to be long.”

At a few points in the first and third movements especially, Bruckner seems to transport us right to the edge of the Cloud of Unknowing, only to bring us crashing back to Earth.  That return to ground level gallops in most surprisingly with the beginning of the fourth movement.  Bruckner said it was to be “solemn, not fast,” and its martial quality refers to a ceremonial meeting in September, 1884, of the Austrian Emperor, the Russian Tsar, and the German Kaiser.  A major event at the time, its significance is now all but lost to history.  What Bruckner commemorated serves to remind the listener of the ideal, going back before the days of Charlemagne, that Christian kings ought to lead their people towards the heavenly court of the King of Kings.

Some critics and musicologists call Bruckner’s Eighth “the Apocalyptic,” although Bruckner never used that term to describe it.  Still, the symphony’s organ-like registration, its fugues and counterpoints evoke the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, where different images occur to convey the same message:  seven angels, seven trumpets, seven seals.  Then, amidst lightning and hail, in the heavenly Temple appears the Ark of the Covenant; then we are shown a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet:  different ways to reveal the Virgin Mary in Heaven.  With its moments of sunbeams dappling through expansive alpine thundering, the light and the dark necessarily going together, Bruckner’s Eighth gives us glimpses into Heaven.

Like another great Catholic artist, J. R. R. Tolkien, Bruckner revised and re-wrote his compositions.  He began his Eighth in 1884 and revised it in 1887 and again in 1890.  Standard works of reference encourage the interpretation that Bruckner’s almost compulsive revising derived from insecurity about his work.  More likely, those repeated re-workings show an active mind driven to get it just right.

In 1892 the Vienna Philharmonic gave Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony its premiere.  Bruckner lived another four years, dying at home in Vienna at age seventy-two.  In 1957, his Eighth, slowly entering the repertoire, was first performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony.  In 2017 at Saint Vincent, Manfred Honeck’s masterful and intimate command of the 1890 revision roused some nine hundred people to offer a standing ovation lasting close to ten minutes.

History, Myth, and Opera

More than thirty years ago in History Today, Paul Preston wrote, “Opera and history are inextricably intertwined,” adding that, “It is as impossible to understand Verdi without a sense of the Risorgimento as it is to understand the Risorgimento without listening to early Verdi.”  Studying the nineteenth-century campaign for Italian unification without understanding the role played in it by the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) would be like studying the Second World War without appreciating that Allied morale owed much to Big Band music.

Analogies limping as they do, it takes three minutes to listen to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” but it takes a couple of hours to listen to an opera.  Along with an investment of time comes willingly suspending disbelief.  For most Americans of a certain age, their first and most enduring encounter with opera was on a Saturday morning, watching Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd parody Richard Wagner’s Ring in a Warner Brothers cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? (1957).  Operatic emotional excess easily lends itself to mockery.

Even children, maybe especially children, see that musical hyperbole, not to mention women wearing helmets with horns, can come across as pretty silly.  After all, no one goes through life singing one’s inmost desires and despair, and needing to live in a chronic state of adolescent anxiety and self-centered drama seems to be the specialty of tiresome bores, such as lonely people who make an art of hypochondria.

In July, 2009, Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “opera can liberate the imagination,” explaining that in opera there is no “need to make a character individually convincing,” since “the situation is archetypal.”  Opera’s archetypes carry it into the realm of myth, and great historical personages and events are great because they sum up deeper, mythic importance.

Significant historical figures occur in opera, from Attila the Hun to Richard Nixon.  There is even an opera set in the time of the Desert Fathers, Thaïs (1893), about a fourth-century monk who seeks to convert the formerly wayward woman known to history as Saint Thaïs of Egypt.

Worth considering here is one of Verdi’s less famous works, Simon Boccanegra.  First performed in 1857, Verdi revised it in 1881, and it is the revised version that is most usually performed and recorded.  It had its American premiere in 1932 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  As Roger Parker wrote in Verdi and His Operas (2000), Simon Boccanegra “contains some of the mature Verdi’s greatest dramatic music,” making it “one of the composer’s most compelling creations.”

The historical basis for this opera is Simone Boccanegra, the first doge, or elected duke, of the Republic of Genoa.  He was elected in 1339, and after twenty-five stormy years, he died, most probably having been poisoned.  By profession he was a corsair, a kind of pirate, but the common people saw in him their best hope as threats loomed from European powers and Muslim forces.  Ordinary people turned to a dynamic tycoon prominent outside the stagnating political establishment.  From the moment of his election, however, he faced roaring opposition, some comfortably-situated people refusing to accept him as their doge.

Verdi’s adjustment of the fourteenth-century reality makes this now obscure populist into a man for all time.  The opera begins with a leader of the popular party persuading a local goldsmith that their only hope lies in backing the swashbuckling corsair.  Enter Boccanegra himself, soon to be confronted by Jacopo Fiesco, a nobleman deeply distraught.  His travail derives in part from Boccanegra being in love with Fiesco’s daughter, Maria.  Fiesco despises the low-born Boccanegra and can never forgive him for getting Maria with child.

Act One ends with Boccanegra’s election and Maria’s death.  Act Two begins twenty-five years later, with Boccanegra harried by opposition and intrigue.  A bright spot for him is discovering that his daughter, named Maria after her mother, survived infancy and has returned to Genoa.  Amidst political strife, father and daughter are reunited, and he sees ahead of them nothing but happiness, not least because she is going to marry Gabriele Adorno, a fine young gentleman of the city.

History and opera meet, alas, and the operatic Boccanegra is slipped a fatal dose of poison.  Tragedy dominates the genre of opera, but opera’s tragedy presents the fact we all face in real life:  If our highs get too high, our lows will be devastatingly low.  Moreover, all but the most optimistic or obtuse have an inner wariness when everything seems to be going along just fine.

Recent productions of Simon Boccanegra have been hit or miss.  In 2010 at the Royal Opera House in London, Plácido Domingo, then nearing seventy, fulfilled a lifelong ambition to portray Boccangera, but the role was written for a baritone, not a tenor.  Still, according to Andrew Clark’s review in Financial Times, “he brings more histrionic intensity to the part than any true baritone.”

In 1995 the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new production by Giancarlo del Monaco, a trendy rendition that fell far short of expectations.  As Joseph Volpe, former general manager of the Met, wrote in his memoirs, The Toughest Show on Earth (2006), “The Eurotrash impulse to make fun of traditional conventions reared its head in a confrontation between ax-wielding plebeians in black and sword-toting patricians in red.”

Opera can open itself to risk, such as an aging tenor taking on a role for a baritone.  However, opera cannot sustain tinkering with its inherent archetypal quality.  Maybe Shakespeare’s plays can best be done in modern dress, but opera needs no updating to reveal its timeless truths.  Set Simon Boccanegra in the 1300s, as Verdi intended, and audiences in each generation will see its contemporary relevance.

History, myth, and opera all have relevance for everyday life.  Opera in particular often seems to be the private reserve of an exclusive club, pompous men in white tie and tails and snooty matrons in tiaras.  Opera’s demotic appeal occurs in Jack Kerouac, actually and then fictionally, visiting Denver, Colorado, and attending a performance of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.  “I was so interested in the opera,” Kerouac wrote in On the Road, “that for a while I forgot the circumstances of my crazy life and got lost in the great mournful sounds of Beethoven and the rich Rembrandt tones of his story.”  It is a reaction any composer of operas would hope to inspire.

Lessons from Lazarus

Every three years the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the well-known story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44).  Center stage stand his sisters, Martha and Mary, and since the late sixth century and the writings of Saint Gregory the Great, Christians have seen them as representing the active and the contemplative lives.  Over the millennia, less attention has gone to Lazarus, who makes his appearance briefly at the end of the story.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear (Sections 115-117) that just as there are two natures in Christ, fully human and fully divine, Scripture contains two senses, the literal and the spiritual, or to use other terms, the historical and the allegorical.  Thus, we may take as literal, historical fact that Jesus did raise Lazarus from the dead.  In a work of fiction, Lazarus would have a long speech describing the marvels of the afterlife.

However, in Saint Luke’s Gospel (16:19-31), Jesus uses the name of his reticent, respectable friend for a story about a scruffy beggar who hovers outside the front door of a wealthy man.  It is the only one of Jesus’ parables where one of the characters has a name.  The ironic contrast between the historical Lazarus of Bethany and the parable’s street person made the tale more memorable, and although the historical, resurrected Lazarus recounts nothing about what it was like being dead, Jesus reveals in that parable two other last things after death and judgment:  Either our selfishness sends us to eternal isolation in hellfire, or our self-emptying leads us to eternal association with saints like Abraham.

In terms of Lenten penance, it is useful to look at what the story of Lazarus teaches us about becoming better Christians.  For Benedictine monks, meditating on Lazarus can be part of the monastic vow of ongoing conversion.  In particular, Lazarus teaches us about becoming better men, better father figures, and better friends of Jesus.  If reflecting on Lazarus along those lines proves helpful to people outside the cloister, so much the better.

Monsignor Romano Guardini, in The Lord (1937), saw Lazarus as parallel to Saint Joseph.  Guardini observed that in the Gospel, both men are silent.  “There is something powerful in him,” Guardini said about Joseph, “a touch of that all-directing, quiet watchfulness of the Father in heaven.”

Silence takes hard work:  We keep, cultivate, and maintain it, and when noise, the absence of silence, intrudes, we refer to silence as having been broken.  Sometimes silence is mandatory, as during a written exam or during a monastic meal, but oftentimes more penitential than compulsory silence is obligatory conversation.

Saint Benedict was aware of the delusion that discussion is accomplishment.  Chapter 6 of the Benedictine Rule is all about restraining one’s desire to speak, reining in what is deep down an infantile need for attention, but such self-restraint must never be abused, hiding behind silence as an excuse for not challenging error and injustice, or wielding silence as a weapon to snub others.  Rather, outward silence reflects inner peace and the self-awareness that often it is best simply to listen.

Silent saints from the early first century may seem to be remote role models, so a contemporary hero may be more accessible.  In his autobiography, When Do I Start? (1997), Karl Malden wrote about making the movie Patton (1970), in which he played General Omar Bradley.  General Bradley served as a consultant to the film, and Malden worked closely with him to make sure he portrayed the great man accurately.

At one point they were going over the script, and Bradley noted a scene where Patton gets a blistering tongue-lashing from Bradley.  “Is it really necessary?” he asked Malden.  Malden asked what Bradley would do instead.  Bradley replied, “I’d just look him in the eye and quietly, with all the intensity I could muster, tell him exactly what I wanted him to do.  And he would do it.”

Malden asked why Patton would do what Bradley so quietly told him.  Bradley smiled and said, “Because I’ve got one more star on my shoulder than he has.”  Being a man involves learning to become serene and secure, having the quiet strength to know that, despite its dramatic appeal, when one is holding all the cards, it is childish weakness to fly into a narcissistic rage and lose one’s inner peace and self-control.

Along with the interior peace reflected in silence, Lazarus stands as a father figure.  Like Saint Joseph, he was the head of a household.  Disconcerting for our emulation, Joseph and Lazarus had unique domestic situations, but another modern personage can give us insight here, since human nature never changes.

Country singer Josh Turner has had hits with songs such as “Left Hand Man” and “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” robust and lyrical celebrations of a man’s love for his wife.  He has also expressed himself in prose, and in his book of spiritual reflections, Man Stuff (2014), he wrote about teaching his young sons to pay attention, not only to what he is telling them, but also to the everyday wonders around them.  “When you learn to pay attention to the simple things in life,” he wrote, “you get one step closer to paying attention to God’s will for you.”  Being a good father relies on inner silence and on quiet, masculine strength that never confuses confidence with arrogance.

In addition to being an exemplar of virtue, of manly character and fatherhood, Lazarus was a friend of Jesus.  Later in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).  It sounds like not much of a friendship, one friend ordering the other one around.

Consider another scenario:  Someone of marginal acquaintance says to you something that is direct and crosses a boundary, a critical comment about getting your act together.  At once our reaction is, “You don’t know me well enough to talk to me like that!”  In contrast, a real friend can tell us, “You need to get squared away,” and we take it to heart.

Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the tomb.  Jesus commands him, and us, to come out of our charity-free zone of solitary confinement, our being all wrapped up in ourselves, our death in sin, since, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law” (CCC 1855).

A profound influence on Saint Benedict was John Cassian, who in his Conferences (2:11:12) said that by commanding us Jesus is calling us from a good thing, being His servant, to a better thing, being His friend.  Cassian noted that in our relationship with Christ, there are stages of development, a concept Saint Benedict summed up in the monastic vow of ongoing conversion.  Ordinarily, the grace for such steady conversion flows through the sacrament of penance, to which a religious must make frequent, at least weekly, recourse.

That penitential process of growing closer to the Lord can be measured in one’s maturing in virtue, in the good qualities of father figures like Joseph and Lazarus.  If we obey the command of Jesus, we come forth from self-absorbed and self-important entombment, sin that leads to everlasting death, and emerge into the light.  We come back to life, and true life is being with Christ.

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.