All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

C. S. Lewis and the Total Plan

Thirty years ago premiered on television in Britain and the United States Shadowlands, a drama about C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham.  It starred Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, and it surpasses the 1993 theatrical film version, in which Anthony Hopkins as Lewis essentially reprised his role of Stevens, the butler in 1993’s The Remains of the Day.  Ackland went on to expand his Lewis repertoire by recording for Harper Audio Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and Ackland’s vast, rumbling bass added layers to the letters’ seductively sinister tone.

Lewis (1898-1963) has also been the subject of a sterling radio drama, C. S. Lewis at War, produced in 2013 by Focus of the Family’s Radio Theatre.  In it Jeremy Northam portrayed Lewis, his domestic and academic routine at Oxford disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.  Also challenged by the war were the executives in charge of religious programming at the BBC, who needed to find new inspirational radio broadcasts.  One result was recruiting Lewis to give a series of talks between 1941 and 1944, the scripts eventually becoming the book Mere Christianity (1952).

When C. S. Lewis at War became commercially available on compact disc, packaged with it were six CDs of actor Philip Bird reading the entire text of Mere Christianity.  Thus, people who otherwise might not read the book or buy another audio version of it (such as that recorded by Michael York) had incentive to encounter one of Lewis’s most famous works.

Frequently comment on Mere Christianity turns to Lewis’s presentation of natural law, while another common theme when commenting about the book is to remind people that there is no Mere Christianity Church:  one must find a specific place to worship.  An aspect that sometimes gets overlooked is Lewis’s description of an ideal Christian society.

In Book Three, Chapter Three, of Mere Christianity, Lewis addressed Christian society under the heading Social Morality.  He spoke of Christianity as “the total plan for the human machine,” and as such it contains elements of varying appeal.  Those elements range from everyone doing practical, manual work to everyone being obedient to legitimate authority.  All the while, a Christian society would be cheerful, marked by singing and courtesy.

A visit to a hypothetical perfect Christian society, Lewis said, would leave us with a mixed impression.  “We should feel,” he explained, “that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced’.”  (Here one must recall that state socialism was once regarded as wonderfully scientific and modern; it took a few decades for the fact to sink in that the compulsory fairness and planned equality of socialism reached their logical, Orwellian conclusion with German and Russian regimes of the 1930s and ’40s.)  On the other hand, “its family life and its code of manners” would strike us as “rather old-fashioned—perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic.”

Practical work, obedience, courtly ritual:  It sounds like a description of a model monastery.  Lewis rarely wrote about monasticism, although a Narnia story, The Horse and His Boy (1954), features a hermit.  Nevertheless, from before his conversion to Christianity one finds an amusing observation about the cloistered nature of a theological college.  In a letter dated 10 May, 1921, to his brother, Lewis described meeting an Anglican seminarian and concluded, “Ye gods; a lot of young men shut up together, all thinking about their souls!  Isn’t it awful?”

In 1932 one of Lewis’s students, Alan Griffiths (1906-1993), converted to Catholicism and soon thereafter became a Benedictine monk at Prinknash Abbey.  At Prinknash (the k is silent) he received the name Bede, and in 1954 he wrote an autobiography, The Golden String.  As a monk Griffiths was attracted to what used to be called Oriental mysticism, and in 1955 he moved to southern India, founded an ashram for Christian and Hindu dialogue, grew a beard, wore saffron robes, and became a yogi with the name Swami Dayananda.

Even before Griffiths’ long sojourn in India, he and Lewis had kept in touch by letter.  When Lewis was working on the radio talks that became Mere Christianity, he consulted with Griffiths, who in 1940 was ordained a priest, for a Catholic perspective.  As happens when Anglicans and Catholics talk together about the Christian faith, they agreed on certain points but often found it best avoid areas where they could never agree.  To commemorate their spiritual conversation, Lewis dedicated his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), to Griffiths.

According to Shirley du Boulay’s biography of Griffiths, Beyond the Darkness (1998), Lewis visited Prinknash during Griffith’s novitiate.  If Lewis saw in the liturgy, handicrafts, and hierarchical structure of the monastery an attempt at an ideal Christian society, he left no record of it.  Lewis’s letters fleetingly refer to this visit, and his biographers omit it, as does Griffiths himself.  However, in Chapter Eight of The Golden String Griffiths associated monasticism with the ideal Christian society.

All the same, Lewis had known about the Christian ideal for community life from his theological and historical reading.  For instance, in September, 1945, Lewis published an essay, “The Sermon and the Lunch,” in which he observed that despite their flaws, both family life and monastic life can be romantically portrayed and thus distorted.  “It should be noticed,” he wrote, “that the serious defenders of both are well aware of the dangers and free of the sentimental illusion.”

As one example, Lewis noted that in the early fifteenth century Thomas à Kempis, when writing The Imitation of Christ, knew full well “how easily monastic life goes wrong.”  Some medieval people, Lewis explained, “thought that if only they entered a religious order, they would find themselves automatically becoming holy and happy.”  However, as a student of medieval culture, Lewis understood that “the whole native literature of the period echoes with the exposure of that fatal error.”

As the human machine’s total plan, Christianity is concerned with every human’s growth in holiness.  Happiness can come as a bonus, an unexpected oasis in a relentless desert.  Whether for monks, married couples, or some other state of life, the path to Christian holiness has tough stretches, sometimes lasting decades, that try to the extreme one’s love of God and neighbor.  For C. S. Lewis, consolation came from his belief that here we meet only with shadows, for real life has not yet begun.


When Wildebeests are Green

A sub-genre of the short story is the club tale, a story told by a man in a gentleman’s club, usually in London.  For example, a collection of short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Views the Body (1928), begins with one in which Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, take a corpse to “a dear old Catholic priest, . . . a very sensible and feeling old bird,” for burial.  Probably Wimsey means Father Whittington, “a well-known slum padre” in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), but given Sayers’s admiration for G. K. Chesterton, he could easily mean Father Brown.

In any case, the club tale often deals with the macabre.  An older contemporary of Lord Peter and Father Brown is the equally fictional Major-General Sir Richard Hannay.  Hannay is the most famous character created by John Buchan (1875-1940), and Hannay is best known from his debut in The Thirty-nine Steps (1915).  That brisk adventure begins in May, 1914, when the fate of Europe hangs on the outcome of a tense situation in Greece.  As a greater author assures us, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

Buchan’s only short story featuring Hannay is a club tale:  “The Green Wildebeest,” first published in 1927.  Hannay had referred to it in passing in Mr. Standfast (1919), the context then being ghost stories, but here he relates it in full one evening at the mythical Runagates Club.

Before drawing some salient points from Hannay’s tale, a word about him and Buchan is in order.  Buchan was a son of a Presbyterian minister in eastern Scotland and studied the ancient classics at Oxford and then studied law in London.  His legal career waned as his literary career waxed.

A prolific writer, Buchan was also well-connected within the British establishment.  From 1901 to 1903 he served as private secretary to Lord Milner, colonial administrator of South Africa, and in 1907 Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster.  Officiating at the wedding was Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Bishop of Stepney, later Archbishop of Canterbury.  In 1911 Buchan was elected to Parliament, where he allied with a kindred spirit, Stanley Baldwin, long an admirer of Buchan’s novels.  Buchan’s political life culminated in 1935 when he became Governor General of Canada and was made the first Baron Tweedsmuir.  Buchan died in office in Canada.

As a fictional hero, Hannay stands between Allan Quatermain and James Bond.  Like Quatermain, Hannay has adventures in southern Africa; like Bond, he engages in daring espionage against foreign megalomaniacs.  Hannay comes on the scene in The Thirty-nine Steps as a mining engineer bored with London, and he sets the prototype of the innocent man on the run both from the bad guys and from the authorities.  It was a theme that long haunted the creative genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and in 1935 he made a movie of The Thirty-nine Steps, some film critics arguing that he re-made it in 1942 as Saboteur and then in 1959 as North by Northwest.

What today would be called a prequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, Hannay’s story of the green wildebeest takes place in the early 1900s in south-eastern Africa, the Boer War having ended and post-war reconstruction being underway.  A veteran of the war, Hannay seeks to resume his civilian life by looking for copper in the sheer hills along the Limpopo.  Accompanying him is a young Afrikaner, Andrew Du Preez, at odds with his family’s rigorist faith of Dutch Calvinism.  Hannay describes him as “a hard young sceptic,” a proud product of modern education.

On their long dry trek to the craggy hills they find a source of fresh water under the control of a local native priest.  The priest is old and blind but graciously gives ample amounts of water to Hannay’s party.  Andrew objects to one man doling out water, and he declares he is going to do something about it.

Hannay sees the danger in Andrew’s self-righteous impetuosity.  “If you’re not civil to him,” he warns, “we’ll have to quit this country.”  Hannay adds, “I make a point of respecting the gods of the heathen.”  Andrew rejects this voice of experience:  “All you English do,” and to Andrew’s way of thinking that respect is why the British Empire is in such a mess.  To him the matter is unarguable:  “This fellow is a businessman with a pretty notion of cornering public utilities.”

Later back at their camp Hannay finds Andrew smoking his pipe and trying to make sense of his disastrous confrontation with the old priest.  Andrew, though unscathed, claims he was attacked by a green wildebeest.  Hannay laughs it off, saying to his audience in the club, “A wildebeest is not ornamental at the best, but a green one must be a good recipe for the horrors.”

What stands out in Hannay’s tale is the contrast between a modern sceptic and an ancient faith.  Hannay represents an older imperialist approach, to let the natives keep their own religion, provided it does not require the ritual murder of men like Hannay, while Andrew impatiently insists that the old cults must give way to the new scientific rationalism.  Yet, as time wears on, Andrew feels compelled to exorcise the green wildebeest spiritually pursuing him, and the end is not a happy one.

Despite seeming to be a Christopher Dawson parable about mankind’s innate religiosity, Hannay tells the story to illustrate a proposition untenable today, namely “the persistence of race qualities,” so that for all Andrew’s formal secular schooling, his hereditary Dutch superstitions emerge.  At the club, objection to this half-baked theory comes from “Peckwether, the historian,” who maintains that over time the ancestral stock transforms into something different, so that “the end [would] be as remote from the beginnings as . . . a ripe Gorgonzola from a bucket of new milk.”

For the sad fact remains that Buchan’s otherwise excellent and entertaining narratives at times make one wince, conveying here and there the racial prejudices of their era.  One encounters those unpleasant attitudes in nearly all the English-language fiction of Buchan’s day, including the writings of Sayers and Chesterton.  A healthy result, however, is the opportunity it gives for considering what current bigotries and inanities are passing unquestioned in even the best novels and short stories of our own day.


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.



Heraldry of Humility and Pride

Heraldry of Humility and Pride

A characteristic form of Christian art is heraldry.  As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man (1925), ancient Egyptians “had a sort of heraldry; that is, decorative art used for symbolic and social purposes.”  Nevertheless, their kind of heraldry is no longer with us.  No one writing to a genealogical service hopes to get a copy of the ancestral hieroglyphics.

Rather, depending on one’s form of snobbery, some people covet and others condemn the colorful coats of arms that evoke the height of medieval chivalry.  Such heraldic achievements, as they are called, recognize distinguished service, and it bears recalling that coats of arms are granted to individuals (not families) and to corporations.

In Ian Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), James Bond prepares to go undercover as a Scottish knight.  Bond explains to M that his alias comes from an ancient family and has “a coat of arms that looks like a mixture between a jigsaw puzzle and Piccadilly Circus at night.”

Of course, elaborate coats of arms such as Bond caricatured imply a long and illustrious lineage.  A fine example is the arms granted to Winston Churchill, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough.  Churchill’s coat of arms elegantly brings together heraldic devices used within his two great families, the Spencers and the Churchills.  In 1953 Queen Elizabeth II made him a Knight of the Garter, thus encircling his coat of arms with the belt and motto of the Order of the Garter.

To social levelers, it all seems pretentious and preposterous, but medieval heraldry reflects a Christian worldview that sought to distinguish a right relationship between the individual and the institution.  As Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “The art of heraldry means independence; an image chosen by the imagination to express the individuality.”  On the other hand, he wrote, “The science of heraldry means interdependence; an agreement between different bodies to recognise different images; a science of imagery.”

Heraldry as art and science long occupied Chesterton.  He had trained as an artist, and the symbolic use of animals and colors fascinated him.  He wrote about heraldry in essays and short stories, such as “The Heraldic Lion” (1905) and “The Perishing of the Pendragons” (1914).  As already mentioned, he mused upon it in The Everlasting Man, and he addressed it in Chaucer (1932).

In his book on Chaucer, Chesterton explained the magnitude of heraldry for medieval people.  In their world, he wrote, “heraldry was not a mummery or even a mystery,” but was rather “a meaning part of a passion for significance which made all colours, stones, planets, beasts, and flowers emblematic.”  To a medieval way of thinking, God’s creation could never be meaningless.

Relevant to Chesterton’s subject and indicative of how seriously medieval Christians took these matters was a case brought before the Court of Chivalry.  That there were such courts says a lot about the importance given to heraldry.  Along those lines, coats of arms cannot simply be made up by anyone who wants to impress or annoy the neighbors.  As James Bond discovered, and as his creator enjoyed describing, in London there functions the College of Arms, scholars responsible for maintaining records of existing coats of arms and for devising new ones.

The case Chesterton cited dragged on from 1385 to 1390 and now receives attention because one of the many witnesses called was Geoffrey Chaucer, Esquire, today best known as the author of The Canterbury Tales but then perhaps better known as a soldier and public servant.  A case from a late fourteenth-century heraldic court may seem a bit dusty, but in its day it was as important as any modern lawsuit over infringement of copyright or trademark.

The dispute arose from two unrelated knights using the same coat of arms.  The case is known as Scrope (pronounced Scroop) v. Grosvenor, and both Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor claimed the right to wear on their shields a yellow (representing gold) diagonal stripe on a blue background, or, in the technical terminology of heraldry, “Azure, a bend or.”  Scrope won the case, but the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster, still object, one form of protest having been to name one of their racehorses Bend Or.

Although these examples have been British, from the twelfth century to our own day heraldry has marked the length and breadth of Europe and beyond.  Once one gets the knack, one can recognize the Borgia bull from Spain to Rome, and one can spot the azure and argent bendy fusils (or lozenges) of the kings of Bavaria from Munich to western Pennsylvania.  Elements of Bavarian heraldry occur in America because in 1846 monks from Bavaria, with backing from King Ludwig I, founded the first Benedictine monastery here, Saint Vincent, and the new monastery’s coat of arms took features from the arms of William Penn (his father had been a knight) and those of royal Bavaria.

Mention of the Borgias, a family that has produced several scoundrels and one canonized saint, brings us to papal coats of arms.  Popes are monarchs, albeit elected not hereditary, and so they are entitled to heraldic identification.  Papal heraldry dates to the thirteenth century and has occasionally indulged in canting, heraldic punning.  One such instance was Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) having on his arms a dove of peace.

All prelates and priests, as well as monasteries and schools, may have coats of arms.  The great medieval universities still bear coats of arms, and abbots of monasteries impale (another technical term) their priestly arms alongside the abbey’s arms.  Sometimes, when the Church finds herself in lands without formal heraldic authorities, creation of coats of arms can become freelance and fanciful, if not gauche.

Whether ecclesiastical or secular, silly examples are best left unnamed.  All the same, along with offering a chance for punning, heraldry’s dignity also corrals a whimsical menagerie.  Heraldic beasts include unicorns, double-headed eagles, and the four beavers on the arms of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  As Chesterton wrote in St. Francis of Assisi (1923), in a sense Francis, surrounded by heraldry and chivalric ideals, “did see a bird sable on a field azure or a sheep argent on a field vert,” and because “the heraldry of humility was richer than the heraldry of pride,” Francis could lay claim to kinship with the sun and the moon.

image: Fr Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr

What to do with Suffering

In a letter dated 14 June, 1958, Flannery O’Connor wrote about a man who had committed suicide, “His tragedy was I suppose that he didn’t know what to do with his suffering.”  For many, O’Connor (1925-1964) is the Mozart of American fiction; acclaimed in her brief life, her writings have merited a volume in the handsome Library of America series.  Her native Catholicism informed her stories, and for some they hold profound philosophical allure, while for others they are simply sweaty and grotesque.

After college, she studied at the prestigious Writers’ Workshop in Iowa, where one of her instructors was Paul Horgan.  Years later she recalled, “Once he found forty things wrong with a story of mine and I thought him a fine teacher.”  Both distinguished regional writers, Horgan is the Haydn to O’Connor’s Mozart:  the older Catholic artist, spare and elegant; the younger, vivid and vivacious.

The Catholicism of Horgan and O’Connor gave them insights into human nature, and in O’Connor’s case, her faith also gave her a way to understand her own long struggle with illness, primarily lupus.  She wrote in a letter of 9 August, 1957, that she disagreed with Evelyn Waugh’s definition that a Catholic novel deals with “the problem of the faith.”  To her it was “a Catholic mind looking at anything, making the category generous enough to include myself.”  Two years later (6 October, 1959) she wrote that, depending on who was asking her, she might identify herself as a Catholic writer.  “Actually,” she explained, “the question seems so remote from what I am doing when I am doing it, that it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Here one finds a clue to her appeal:  She did not set about self-consciously to write a Catholic story.  She had an aversion to piety on parade, one example being her preference for a breviary instead of popular books of prayers.  “I am a long-standing avoider of May processions and such-like nun-inspired doings,” she wrote on 1 June, 1958, adding, “I am always thankful the Church doesn’t teach those things are necessary.”

Rather, while privately praying her breviary and often going to daily Mass, her approach to her faith was deeply intellectual.  In addition to poring over the fiction of Catholic authors from Graham Greene to Georges Bernanos, Walker Percy to Evelyn Waugh, she delved into works by theologians ranging from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Friedrich von Hügel, Romano Guardini to Teilhard de Chardin.  She also read Church history, saying of Monsignor Philip Hughes’s The Reformation in England, “I feel like I was at it.”

Her vast Catholic reading percolated into her fiction.  One of her short stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” first appearing in the May, 1954, Harper’s Bazaar and published the next year in her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, depicts a rural Southern person with a rare affliction.  The affliction is being what in the 1950s was still called a hermaphrodite, and, wearing a blue dress, this person makes a living by being on display at fairs and carnivals.

As he (O’Connor consistently uses “it”) undrapes, his statement to the spectators is even more revealing:  “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.  This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.  I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it.  I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen.  I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it.  I don’t dispute hit.”

On 13 September, 1954, O’Connor replied to a lady who had written to complain about this story.  O’Connor told her that the hermaphrodite was based on one at the previous summer’s local fair, and the assertion that God had made him that way was nearly a verbatim quote from the fair.  “Any freak so inspired,” O’Connor wrote, “could say the same and I could have used any freak but there is certainly a more poignant element of suffering in this than in anything else one could find at a fair.”  O’Connor went on:  “The point is of course in the resignation to suffering, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Ghost; not to any element of sex or sexlessness.”

Resignation can mean to some people mere passivity, collapsing internally in the face of a grave permanent obstacle.  Another kind of resignation to fate was the hallmark of old Roman Stoics, expecting little from life and getting it.  Either way, suffering is only pain and has no redemptive value.

For O’Connor, though, resignation to suffering meant recognizing a fact of life and moving on, or in the words of the carnival freak, making the best of it.  She had in mind Saint Paul saying that a fruit of the Holy Spirit is, in the words of the Douay-Rheims translation, “patience”; in the King James Version, “longsuffering” (Gal 5:22).

Suffering may become prolonged, even life-long, as with the hermaphrodite (or intersex) not fitting into any standard category.  For O’Connor, the tragedy was not in the suffering but in being stymied by it.  She wrote that her mother said to the wife of that man who had committed suicide that “she didn’t see how anybody with any faith in God could do such a thing.”  According to O’Connor, the widow replied that “she was sure he had faith in God, but he didn’t have any faith in people.”  O’Connor, instead of apologizing for her mother’s tactlessness or praising the widow’s presence of mind, wrote that the widow’s assurance was the same as “to accuse him of the great asininity.”

Whatever “the great asininity” may be, something will always occur to restore one’s lack of faith in human nature.  In Paul Horgan’s novel Things as They Are (1964), the narrator’s twenty-something uncle commits suicide.  The uncle had been a Catholic seminarian but left seminary for reasons no one ever discussed; his imperious father, certain his son was destined to become a bishop, was enraged and never spoke to his son again.  Alas, a hermaphrodite’s gentlemanly behavior was lacking.  The father refused to attend the funeral but went to his own church to pray for the repose of his son’s soul.  No word on whether anyone prayed for the father.


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.

Dawn in a Pennsylvania Coal Town

An exhibit at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art of seventeen etchings and paintings by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) evokes a lost world, yet people recognize in Hopper’s work a timeless quality. Hopper’s quiet, lonely scenes, usually described as melancholy, make one feel one has been there: one has been in that now empty room where the afternoon sun perpetually slants across a drab wall; one has walked along that forever deserted city street one Sunday morning.

Since the Carnegie exhibit displays works by Hopper only from the museum’s permanent collection, absent from it are Hopper’s most famous oil paintings, such as “Nighthawks” (1942), a glimpse inside a city diner at its three late-night customers. Also missing from the show are two paintings featuring Pennsylvania: “Dawn in Pennsylvania” (1942); “Pennsylvania Coal Town” (1947). The former depicts a lone Pennsylvania Railroad passenger car in a bleak urban station; the latter, a bald, clean-shaven man in a long-sleeve white shirt raking the lawn between two faded clapboard houses. In those two paintings Hopper conveys a bygone and introverted quality that one can still find in parts of Pennsylvania.

Just as Hopper used brush and canvas to conjure with memories and delve into vistas of isolation and shadows, his younger contemporary, Conrad Richter (1890-1968), explored these themes in his fiction. Much of Richter’s fiction considers the relationship between sophisticated and simple people on frontiers, and Hopper’s paintings characteristically portray one or two ordinary people poised about to do something, usually at the edge of dusk or dawn. Silent intimacy pervades both men’s art.

In two thought-provoking tales, a novel and a short story, Richter sketches in his clear, laconic way the same mid-twentieth century dignified desolation, introspective life on the verge, immortalized by Hopper. The novel is The Waters of Kronos (1960), and the short story is “Doctor Hanray’s Second Chance,” first published in The Saturday Evening Post (10 June, 1950). The novel is still in print, and the short story has been reprinted in anthologies and appeared again in the April, 1979, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Both works of fiction deal with a man returning to his boyhood home in central Pennsylvania.

It was an area Richter knew well. Richter was born in and grew up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a son and grandson of Lutheran ministers. His lean, vivid fiction, awarded the Pulitzer and other prizes, often focuses on Pennsylvania. For example, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) takes place in eighteenth-century central and western Pennsylvania, and The Awakening Land trilogy (1940-1950), follows pioneer families from post-colonial Pennsylvania into backwoods Ohio.

Admittedly, the short story about Hanray’s second chance is not explicitly set in Pennsylvania, but its theme is so clearly developed in The Waters of Kronos, set in the mythical Unionville, Pennsylvania, that both tales likely occur in the same neck of the woods. Moreover, the location of the short story is implied: the main character has driven a thousand miles from his house in the Midwest to a rural valley where residents with German and Scots-Irish surnames can trace their farms and families back to the time of the American Revolution.

So, in what may well be central Pennsylvania, Dr. Peter Hanray goes by himself to Stone Church, also called Deckertown. The town of his youth, in the days before the automobile, it has become an Army installation. For some obscure but compelling reason, he longs to see once again his ancestral valley, “this triangle of river and long blue mountains that shut in the rich brown farming land.”

Now it is called the Rose Valley Military Reservation, strictly off-limits to civilians. He is aware of the change, but not of its ramifications. He arrives in late afternoon, and as he drives towards it, “to the right and left he could see the high steel fence topped with strands of barbed wire.” Stopped by a guard, he explains that he wants to see the graves of his parents, but the guard is reluctant, even when Hanray produces the proper identifying documents.

Eventually allowed inside, Hanray confronts a landscape “with half the houses gone and the rest reduced to windowless boxes,” his boyhood home among the latter, and from there he can see “the raw industrial strip of buildings of the XYT explosive line, and beyond, the reach of ugly stacks and tanks against the autumn-sunset sky.” These are images worthy of Hopper.

Haunting Peter Hanray, a famous nuclear physicist, are memories of his youthful arrogance and the disdain he had for his father, a medical doctor. The elder Dr. Hanray had been a general practitioner and a pillar of the local Protestant church. Young Peter was embarrassed by his father’s lack of ambition and by his faith, seemingly incompatible with a man of science. Peter’s father “attended church like some simple, unlearned countryman,” and he was in charge of the Sunday school, there “greeting perfect strangers with the brotherly and overfriendly way of a preacher.”

The son had gone on to international fame and had been honored by the President of the United States. Yet, returning to this small town, really little more than a village, had become important enough for a solitary drive half-way across the country. Likewise, in The Waters of Kronos, John Donner, an aging author, drives for seven days from his house “by the Western Sea” to Pennsylvania to see his family’s graves. Before long he encounters a horse-drawn wagon full of anthracite, something he had not seen in ages.

Hanray also experiences elements from days long gone. Once back home, most alluring for Hanray are rustic sensations from decades past: “Tramping down the village road he could smell the old-time aroma of wood smoke, raw-fried potatoes and valley cured ham.” And again: “He could smell the savor of baked beans from the oven, shot through with the scent of the stove.”

With these memories stirred, he continues his sojourn into the twilight of Hopperland. The afternoon sky glimmers through the belfry of the old church, and so much seems familiar and yet also foreign. He is unsure what to say in such a nostalgic place. Full of heartache, he finds that no one recognizes him except an old dog. By nightfall, however, Hanray has had a life-changing end to his quest, one I will not spoil for the reader.


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.

The Historical Albert Schweitzer

Fifty years ago one of the world’s most revered men died.  Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) once held the same moral role as did Mother Teresa in our day, and both Schweitzer and Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, she in 1979, he in 1953.  Just as everyone today still recognizes the image of the seemingly frail old nun in the blue and white habit, so everyone once recognized the wiry old man in the pith helmet and walrus mustache.  Schweitzer and his medical mission in sub-Saharan Africa used to be synonymous with Christian self-abnegation.

Some Catholics wondered why Schweitzer should get so much attention when journalists seemed to overlook Catholic missionaries throughout Africa.  Nevertheless, Schweitzer had Catholic admirers, and in the March, 1946, issue of The Reader’s Digest, Father John A. O’Brien, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, published a tribute to Schweitzer.  O’Brien described Schweitzer’s many accomplishments, any one of them enough for one lifetime.  By age thirty-five, Schweitzer had made a name for himself both as a biblical scholar and as an organist; he then studied medicine and became a foreign missionary.

Schweitzer had grown up in Günsbach, Alsace, then part of the German Empire, and, being bilingual in German and French, he studied philosophy and theology at Strasbourg, Berlin, and Paris.  By age twenty-four Schweitzer was a Lutheran pastor in Strasbourg, and a few years later he joined the theological faculty at the university there.  In 1906 Schweitzer published The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a work still in print and still controversial.

In that book, Schweitzer examined earlier scholars’ research into the historical Jesus, and he developed a thesis that Jesus shared the view of His Jewish contemporaries that the end of the world was imminent.  Schweitzer believed that Jesus never intended to found a Church and that Jesus’ great insight was that because the world’s end was not far off, He must suffer and die for His people in order to save them from the severe trials of the last days, which that generation would see (Mk 13:30).

Long before Schweitzer, this theory that Jesus gradually figured out His real purpose in life but was mistaken about the future appealed to people who wanted to see Jesus as a great moral teacher but not as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity become incarnate in a first-century Jewish man.  In 1907 Pope Pius X condemned this interpretation as one of the many errors contributing to what he called a “synthesis of heresies,” Modernism.  Orthodox Catholic theologians and evangelical Protestants have thus kept Schweitzer’s biblical scholarship at least at arm’s length.

Still, Schweitzer’s ingenious but erroneous writings about Jesus are only part of his story.  His love for classical music led him to become an organist and establish himself as an authority on the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In addition to performing Bach’s works, in 1908 Schweitzer published a two-volume biography of Bach.  After Schweitzer became a medical missionary, he would raise money for his hospital by touring Europe and the United States giving organ concerts of Bach.

Schweitzer often said that the catalyst for his career as a physician was an article he read about Christian missionaries in tropical Africa having no means of helping the natives in their medical crises.  Haunted by the thought of people suffering physically even though they were being instructed spiritually, Schweitzer resolved to become a doctor and go to Africa.  In the meantime, he continued his Scripture scholarship and also fell in love.  The lady to whom he proposed marriage shared his desire to become a medical missionary and trained to become a nurse.

In 1913 Schweitzer and his wife, Hélène, went to Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa, now Gabon, where they worked for four years.  The mission station and hospital they had been promised did not exist, so they began literally from the ground up.  In 1917 restrictions imposed by French authorities because of the First World War changed to outright arrest, and the Schweitzers, German nationals, were sent to a detention camp in France.  After the war ended in 1918, it took six years for Schweitzer to save enough money to return to his post in Lambaréné, by then in ruins.

For the next forty years he worked there, his chapel and clinic built in the native style.  For the various tribes around Lambaréné, the low wooden structures with corrugated metal roofs provided a familiar setting for the doctor’s otherwise alien hymns, treatments, and operations.  Schweitzer always rejected plans from well-meaning outsiders to build him sleek state-of-the-art facilities, since he saw his role as meeting the local people on their terms.

Although Schweitzer’s mission hospital was criticized for being backward and his theories about Jesus for being heterodox, he made a lasting contribution that all Christians can embrace, an ethical concept he called Reverence for Life.  According to Schweitzer’s memoir, Out of My Life and Thought (1933), one day in September, 1915, while going upriver towards Lambaréné, the phrase “reverence for life” occurred to him as, amidst the water and trees and birds and hippopotamus, he suddenly saw with intense clarity the sacred value of all God’s creation.

To sum up Schweitzer’s philosophy, Father O’Brien quoted two passages from Schweitzer’s writings.  One:  “There is an essential sanctity of the human personality, regardless of race or color or conditions of life.  If that ideal is abandoned, the intellectual man goes to pieces and that means the end of culture and even of humanity.”  Two:  “Only through love can we attain to communion with God.”

As O’Brien foresaw, Schweitzer’s enduring legacy remains his tenacious Christian witness of simplicity and charity.  Other missionaries gave the same example, but none matched his varied gifts.  Schweitzer’s widely publicized self-sacrificial love contradicted the current manifestations of human selfishness, and his commitment to transcendent musical beauty reflected the best of German culture.

Schweitzer grew up on the often disputed border between France and Germany, and shaped by that frontier, he made his missionary work a meeting point between civilizations.  While serving others, his belief in having reverence for all life, and his insistence upon respecting each person as a special creation of God, stood in contrast to secular regimes, some still having admirers, whose red flags heralded streamlined modern utopias of fairness and equality and death camps.


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.

Some Questions

Recent events bring to mind some questions, and maybe our readers can offer some answers.  For example, regarding protests about income inequality:  What would income equality look like?  We know what a society with unequal incomes looks like; it has existed in every land for millennia.  Would a society of income equality resemble the Distributist dream of G. K. Chesterton, wherein he envisioned everybody having three acres and a cow?  Or would it resemble George Orwell’s fable, Animal Farm (1945), where all the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others?

Moreover, who determines what income people need, what level is fair and just for all, and who guarantees that equality?  Do the guarantors make more money and live in bigger houses as rewards for their daunting task of preserving material equality?

Perhaps more interesting is why the ideal of income equality aims for everyone having the same smallness.  For moral outrage over income inequality seems never to mean that everyone must have the same level of wealth as did Jacqueline Kennedy or as does Oprah Winfrey.  Once a janitor or a waitress is guaranteed to make the same (say, $50,000 a year:  surely in an ideal world no one needs more than that) as a Hollywood film star or a Silicon Valley mogul, once Mr. Fixit and Bill Gates are allotted the same modest income and both are living in two-bedroom walk-up apartments, will everyone be happy?

When angry crowds are chanting “No justice, no peace,” one recalls Pope Paul VI saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.”  Both slogans imply that unjust societies result in unrest.  For instance, the injustice might relate to the income inequality noted above.  After all, one theory has it that envy of unequal levels of income will lead to spontaneous proletarian uprisings.  History shows, though, that struggling, wage-earning people don’t want a revolution; they just want a nicer television for watching Dallas or Downton Abbey.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, by Muslim terrorists, some prelates and pundits advised that rather than promising military retaliation, the United States should send foreign aid of food, clothing, and medicine to various Muslim countries.  Those opponents of armed reaction recalled that it is written somewhere that if one’s enemy is hungry, feed him, and so on.

Yet, what if peace is not contingent upon material concerns?  What if a lack of peace comes not from injustice but from ideology?  What if people who kill others, even thousands of others in one sunny morning, do not covet their property but simply desire their death?

As for ideological disagreements, how did we come to a point in the United States, at least, where one person saying, “I disagree with you,” is heard by another person to mean “I hate you”?  Even humorous criticism has become equated with hatred.  Some comedians will no longer perform at American colleges and universities because the students, ever so serious and sensitive, will take the jokes as attacks on them, and protests against the comedians will not be far behind.

Of course, there are ideologies driven by hate, but they seem not to turn to social satire and stand-up comedy.  Instead, they often become violent, making it difficult for victims of that violence to follow Saint Paul’s teaching to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).  In June of 2015 the people of Charleston, South Carolina, gave shining Christian witness of forgiveness and love.  It made homebody Northerners want to move to Charleston in order to absorb such virtue.

Then came cries to remove displays of the Confederate flag, symbol of rebellion and racism, and then to remove from street signs, public parks, and schools the names of Confederate generals and politicians.  Then came questions of whether to abolish commemorations of slave-owning Southern Democrats such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.  Next came suggestions that the vast sculpted relief on the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia, heroically depicting three Confederate leaders on horseback and serving as a monument to where in 1915 Southern Democrats re-founded the Ku Klux Klan, should be removed.

However grim are certain chapters of our history, when a society starts talking about chiseling off the names of famous men, as does the Pharaoh in the film The Ten Commandments (1956), it is time to stop and think.  Do we really want to obliterate the names and memories of everyone from the past who fails to measure up to our brilliant examples of enlightened tolerance?  If their images enrage us and their names offend us and must be hidden and unspoken, if not forbidden and destroyed, is it not long before we begin burning their books?


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.

Monastic Muggeridge

It is twenty-five years since the death of Malcolm Muggeridge, and twenty since Gregory Wolfe’s excellent biography of him.  Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a famous journalist, and like all such, he has faded like last year’s newspapers.  (Pop quiz:  Who were Walter Lippmann and H. V. Kaltenborn?)  Part of Muggeridge’s fame came from converting to Christianity in general and then to Catholicism in particular.  A glib and fluent journalist in print and on television, he became a glib and fluent advocate for his new faith.  In his day, admirers bracketed Muggeridge with G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, and in 1999 Joseph Pearce gave Muggeridge two chapters in his Literary Converts.

Several of Muggeridge’s books are still in print, notably Something Beautiful for God (1971), one of the first profiles of Mother Teresa.  One of Muggeridge’s most popular books was a collection of religious essays, Jesus Rediscovered (1969).  It includes “A Hard Bed to Lie On,” about his visit in 1967 to a Cistercian monastery in southeastern Scotland.

According to Wolfe, by the mid-1960s, Muggeridge had achieved a lifelong goal, to live a simple life.  It had been a rugged struggle, Muggeridge on his many exotic travels having been compulsively fond of smoking, drinking, and philandering.  He had grown up in London in a middle-class family proud of its progressive ideals, confident that the liberating powers of science and socialism were the wave of the future, under which the repressive forces of conservatism and religion would submerge and disappear.

As Muggeridge entered his sixties, he had come to see that decades of dissipation had not made him, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, happy, healthy, and wise.  He was a famous wit, but he knew that writing for satiric magazines and appearing on television talk shows is not the same as having wisdom.  Flickering fame and fleeting pleasures nevertheless left him with physical ailments and an inner sense that somehow his life was empty.  As have so many others, he found that the bleak emptiness could be filled only by God.

It was a sober, smoke-free, vegetarian Muggeridge, by now also faithful to his wife, who at the request of the BBC ventured north to Nunraw Abbey in Scotland.  His assignment was to film a television documentary about the monks.  “Nothing, I suppose, could be more alien to the spirit of this age than monasticism,” began Muggeridge, adding, “Just for that reason, it has always had a particular fascination for me.”  He further explained:  “The quiet, the order, the essential simplicity of a monk’s way of life, all seemed alluring in a world increasingly given over to noise, violence, and the avid pursuit of what passes for happiness.”

It all sounds very nice, but here one must pause.  Nearly all Muggeridge’s writings bristle with the personal pronoun, and the reader is advised that Muggeridge on monasticism may reveal more about Muggeridge than about monasticism.  Another defining feature of Muggeridge’s writing is indulging in gloomy delight that the present time (Muggeridge’s own) is the worst ever, probably the end of civilized life for long ages to come.  Historical perspective helps one appreciate that, to take but one example, back in the fourteenth century, when Petrarch’s brother became a Carthusian monk, people were lamenting (or, like Chaucer, lampooning) that the world was sliding down a dark path of noise, violence, and carnal pleasures.

To resume:  Muggeridge recounted his first meeting with the monks, where he briefed them on his commission from the BBC.  Muggeridge wrote that he found the monks to be “a curious combination of realism and other-worldliness,” and he decided that “it is only the other-worldly who know how to cope with this world.”  It was the sort of paradox he liked.

Muggeridge wrote about the relative youth of the monastic community, the abbey at Nunraw having been founded in 1946 by monks from Ireland.  Yet, the situation was precarious.  “Vocations are scarce today,” Muggeridge wrote, “especially in the enclosed orders, and present indications are that they will get scarcer.”

Meanwhile, the spirit of Judas was alive.  “Some of the monks,” remarked Muggeridge, “take the view that the abbey is too lavishly designed, and consider that the money spent on it might have been better devoted to feeding the hungry.”  Their altruism left Muggeridge unimpressed:  “I was glad, I told them, that such a view had not prevailed when Chartres cathedral was being built.”

Although he had expected the monks to be serried ranks of monotonous uniformity, he eventually discovered otherwise.  “Each of them, young and old,” he reported, “had his own distinctive persona within a corporate existence, dedicated, equally, to study and meditation, manual labour and worship.”  One wonders whether the monks found those words to be patronizing.  Imagine a visitor to some other institution noted for outward conformity, say a military base or a bank or a law firm or a faculty club, coming away and saying much the same thing:  Gosh, those funny little people are really people!

Muggeridge mused on the purpose and future of the monks.  “What good are they doing?” he asked.  “Prayers don’t show in the Gross National Product,” he observed, and so “in an increasingly materialist world they are non-productive citizens.”  It was a utilitarian judgment he would have endorsed in his younger days, when he believed that the Soviet Union was the Golden Age reborn, a belief shattered when in the 1930s he saw first-hand Joseph Stalin’s imposed famine on the Ukrainians.

“By all the laws of Freud and the psycho-prophets,” Muggeridge said, “the monks are depriving themselves of the sensual satisfactions which alone make a whole life possible; they ought to be up the wall and screaming.”  He was implicitly contrasting silent, celibate monks in their twenties with his own excesses during the Roaring Twenties.  “Actually, I found at Nunraw,” he concluded, “a quite exceptional peace; it is the children of affluence, not deprived monks, who howl and fret in psychiatric wards.”

Again, it sounds nice, but monks, alas, can be prey to the same demons as other people.  Still, if one reads him at all, one reads Muggeridge for Muggeridge, for clever turns of phrase offering challenges to smug suburban assumptions.  These days his star has dimmed, as have those of Westbrook Pegler and Orestes Brownson, once famous Catholic journalists now championed only by specialists.  It is a fate to keep any writer humble.


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.

Henry Adams and Catholic Conversion

“What the Church thought or thinks is its own affair,” wrote Henry Adams, “and what it chooses to call orthodox is orthodox.”  Adams (1838-1918) was the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, and he was one of many people who have been fascinated by Catholic culture but have not been inclined to convert to Catholicism.  His shrugging recognition of the Church’s right to decide what is orthodox occurs in Chapter 15 of his quirky and eloquent book, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904).

Adams delighted in paradox, and he would have appreciated this situation, a Protestant from an old New England family acknowledging the Church’s task of defining orthodoxy, while countless Catholics act like Protestants, choosing for themselves what is right teaching.  Since the days of Martin Luther, it has been a Protestant hallmark that each believer can become an authority on Scriptural theology, hence the proliferation of Protestant denominations.  Individual Christians studying biblical religion is admirable, but as with any intricate subject, theology requires expert guidance.

Doctrine has developed over two millennia, yet Christian theology asks basic questions:  What is this thing?  What is its purpose?  Asking the wrong questions can waste time and lead to wrong answers.  Church history records the results of a lot of wrong answers, as well as the effects of the seemingly fewer right ones.

Adams could be content to let the Church think her own thoughts, but Catholics engage in family arguments about the Church’s thinking.  The 1960s provide an amusing example.  In 1961, liberal Catholics scolded conservatives at National Review for objecting to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Mater et Magistra; in 1968, the tables turned as liberals objected to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae vitae.

In his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (2010), Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Church is not here to place burdens on the shoulders of mankind, and she does not offer some sort of moral system.”  He added, “The really crucial thing is that the Church offers Him.”  It is puzzling that journalists did not find that statement more startling than his comments earlier in the book about condoms.

For many people, the Catholic Church is all about rules, regulations, and burdens, and those people wonder what any church is for if not offering a moral system.  When they are told “The Church proposes, not imposes,” they think of all the paperwork they had to fill out and meetings they had to sit through for a wedding or a baptism, they think of Holy Days of Obligation (emphasis on the obligation), and they scratch their heads, guessing that the Church must have a different dictionary when it comes words like “propose” and “impose.”

The Catholic Church offers Him, Christ, to everyone, but not everyone is willing to embrace the whole complicated formality of the Church, from hierarchy to canon law to liturgy, and abide by all the answers the Church has come up with to so many of life’s questions.  For them, it all seems unnecessary, appearing to be Pharisaical tedium standing between them and Christ.  If someone is not open to accepting the Church’s procedures and teachings, one is free to find somewhere else to pray, and it would seem that for some people, it is indeed too high a price to pay for receiving the Eucharist.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the universality of the Catholic Church is that it is for everyone.  Although anyone is welcome to attend Mass, not everyone is welcome to receive Communion.  That fact might seem unfair, but it is the same as being welcome in someone’s house, provided one is respectful and polite and follows the rules of the house.  Not everyone welcomed into the house is thereby a member of the family, and at some point in the evening, the guests have to leave.

Meanwhile, the Church is realistic enough to recognize that not all options are open, not all potentials can be fulfilled.  Thus the Church sees that one of the worst lies peddled to recent generations is that we can be and do whatever we want, and therefore everyone else must approve.  Truth then becomes a matter of personal taste, and right and wrong become determined by the calendar.  From such arbitrariness emerges the absurdity of the dogmatic assertion that there are no absolutes.  The Catholic Church disagrees, insisting that there are fixed points of morality and reality, so that, for example, a man who is short, stocky, and bald, cannot “self-identify” as tall, blond, and chiseled.

Back to Henry Adams, short and balding lover of medieval cathedrals and reader of Catholic poetry and theology.  Adams meditated long on the intriguing fact that some of the Church’s greatest intellects have also been among her greatest mystics.  “Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas of Aquino,” Adams mused, “were both artists, . . . and one need not decide which was greater; but between them is a region of pure emotion, . . . which is more interesting than either.”  That emotional region between Bernard and Aquinas was the realm of poetic insight and mystical intuition.

“The true saint is a profound sceptic,” Adams concluded, “a total disbeliever in human reason, . . . Bernard was a total disbeliever in Scholasticism; so was Voltaire.”  Although Bernard would have been appalled by proximity even in print with Voltaire, he would have agreed that the gift of faith helps to reveal where human reason has its limits.  Bernard’s many writings are not unreasonable, but their one theme derives from his monastic vow of conversatio morum, openness to the grace for an ongoing conversion of one’s life.

Being Catholic is not a birthright, an automatic and inalienable title because one’s roots go back to a country that used to have a Catholic monarch.  Being Catholic is about becoming Catholic.  It is an individual’s daily response to Christ’s call to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Him, and following Him involves adhering to, if not always understanding, His Body, the Church.  A relationship contingent upon one party fully understanding the other will not get very far.  What matters is turning around, converting, and going back to the Father.  The Prodigal Son realized that he had to come home only after he had admitted to himself that the life he had chosen to live was wrong.

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

Beginning the Beguine with Socrates

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says that in his search for wisdom he consulted poets.  If today someone were on a Socratic quest for wisdom, seeking out poets might not be on that person’s list.  For the average person these days, poetry tends to mean something syrupy inside a greeting card, hardly to be taken seriously when asking how to live a good life.  As for abstruse modern poems, the kind with complex ambiguity that clamors for attention and acclaim, they fall short as well.

A poet works within a long literary tradition, but the poet’s allusions and metaphors must be instantly, even instinctively, understood by the reader.  A poem needing scholarly footnotes has lost its immediacy, as well as its intelligibility.  That an ancient poem could need such critical apparatus is easily accepted; that a new poem would be made deliberately obscure and in need of academic commentary is easily annoying.

For Socrates and his Greek-speaking contemporaries in the fourth century B. C., poetry meant a disciplined, metrical use of language in order to convey deep truths about what it means to be human.  While conveying those truths, the poems were expected to entertain and engage an audience.  So, what Socrates had in mind were the epic poems of Homer and the plays and lyrics of other ancient Greeks, works then known to everyone.

As part of popular culture, those poems were meant to be read or recited aloud, sometimes at drinking parties, and most of them were meant to be sung or chanted.  In any culture, song is easier to recall than prose, and ancient peoples had vast stores of music and poetry beating through their memories.  The same fact holds true for humans today, as our imagined latter-day Socrates would find out.

In our day, although there are recordings on compact disc of talented actors reading poems by, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, the equivalent popular poetic literature is known more for who performed those poems than who wrote them.  Thus the equivalent would be the ballads sung by the likes of Jo Stafford and Vera Lynn, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.  It is a living tradition, kept alive by singers such as Harry Connick, Jr., and Tony DeSare, and groups like the Manhattan Transfer and OC Times.

In his pursuit of wisdom, a modern Socrates would listen to the lyric poems composed (if not recorded) a few generations ago.  He may well lend an ear also to more recent fare, but distinguishing every word of such lyrics is not always easy or edifying.  Here it is worth recalling Charlton Heston standing up in 1992 at a shareholders meeting of Time Warner and reading out the words of a particularly controversial rap song.  When the chairman of the meeting cut him off and told him that such vulgar and violent language was inappropriate, Heston asked, “Then why are we selling it?”

In any case, it will not be surprising if in a few decades a history of the twentieth century’s English-language poetry will spend more time on the lyric verse of Cole Porter than on the dream songs of John Berryman.  Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin will likely get more notice than Allen Ginsberg.  If this speculation turns out to be correct, consider some lines of what such a literary historian would chronicle and what our hypothetical new Socrates would hear:

“I’m with you once more/Under the stars,/And down by the shore/An orchestra’s playing,/And even the palms/Seem to be swaying,/When they begin the beguine.”  In those lines anyone can see at once the scene of two lovers and the waves and the music.  Mentally entering into that image will open up a lot of truth about romance, if not love.

“Somewhere, beyond the sea,/She’s there watching for me./If I could fly like birds on high,/Then straight to her arms/I’d go sailing.”  Separation and longing, flying birds and sailing ships:  here are themes and images accessible to all.  Even the most land-locked of us can appreciate such maritime evocations.  Socratic interrogation of these word pictures would echo the question found in the lyrics of one Dame Vera Lynn’s big hits:  “Was that a dream or was it true?”

“Fly the ocean in a silver plane,/See the jungle when it’s wet with rain./Just remember, till you’re home again,/You belong to me.”  Here again we find the theme of lovers who are apart and wish they were re-united.  Also, we encounter anew the images of travel and the tropics, all suffused with amorous desire for fidelity and being together.

In Chapter 5 of The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton wrote that a poet “worships the peak of a particular mountain, not the abstract idea of altitude.”  As Socrates understood, poets must evoke elemental desires of the human heart.  From the first time man gaped at what Homer called “rosy-fingered dawn,” poets have evoked those desires and conjured images from within the audience, appealing to basic realities we all can know, from beneath the palms and under the moon to beyond the sea.

True, most of us might not know what a beguine is or how to begin one, but everyone can grasp what it means for it to bring back the sound of music so tender, a tune making lovers remember.  Whereas a rapper might repeat vivid phrases about violating girls or killing cops, an old-style crooner assures his beloved, “I’d sacrifice anything, come what might,/For the sake of having you near.”  Given those two diverging outlooks, the implications for the development of society could not be more stark, something worth reflecting upon during this centennial year of Frank Sinatra’s birth.

The men who wrote the lines of what has been called the Great American Songbook are the abiding poets of our culture, and the men and women who have recorded them are our troubadours.  Snobbery may lead some people to deplore those songs as cheap and the singers as merely popular, but that same attitude forgets that Socrates sought truth in popular poems.  While Sammy Cahn was not Sophocles, long after Ezra Pound’s cantos have been forgotten, people will still turn to these lyrics and these interpretations to articulate the hope that their waiting lover stands on golden sands, and still beg for the love that was once a fire to remain an ember.


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.