And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words . . . . On the other hand, poetry as certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.

– T. S. Eliot, from his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood

T. S. Eliot was a poet, but he was also a man, and I imagine and care about and defend the man, and do so without defending his religion or his politics or even his poetics, because of his poetry.

Eliot wouldn’t have liked that – I mean, the care I profess for him through his poetry. He could make no connection to himself through his published poems. If he could have in a given case, the poem in question would hardly have been worth publishing. That is (and to state the contraposition), Eliot’s successful poem entirely replaced the feeling that gave rise to it. The feeling was private, anyway, and is of no interest to anyone but the poet.

Particularly in Eliot’s case, however, the opposite was true. It seems as if everyone were interested in what Eliot was thinking and feeling when he wrote his poetry. Everyone, it seems, except Eliot. Although he thought highly of parts of The Waste Land, for instance, he said for him it was “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”1 He thought highly of his poem only in the context of the tradition it entered. There was nothing of him left in the poem to connect with as its creator.

Tradition alone is objective, Eliot thought, so poetry is tradition’s alone. To “surrender to the tradition,” as Frank Kermode explains it, Eliot was required to lose whatever emotional fillip first caused him to pick up his pen. Eliot approved of Gottfried Benn’s description of the poet’s process:

When the words are finally arranged in the right way – or in what he comes to accept as the best arrangement he can find – [the poet] may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable. And then he can say to the poem: “Go away! Find a place for yourself in a book – and don’t expect me to take any further interest in you.”2

Eliot’s poems left him to make their way in the world, or at least in the world of tradition, which for Eliot was the same thing.

T. S. Eliot

Tradition fed Eliot’s aesthetics and made room for his poems, but tradition also gave Eliot a sense of himself as both a public and private man. Try to ignore the public Eliot, and the private Eliot will meet you at his door with ironic, mirthless laughter. Eliot insisted on his masks, and not just because he was a playwright. Masks make men – public men, anyway, and public men take the pressure off and even defend the private men they correlate to. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” then, is not just part of Eliot’s rather uncomplicated poetics. Just as a poem’s impersonality comes “at the expense of its correlation with the suffering of its author” (Kermode’s explanation)3, so the health of a man’s public persona comes at the price one pays to protect his private self.

Eliot’s tradition wasn’t merely a literary tradition. The tradition that permits greater means of understanding and evaluating Eliot’s poetry involves arts, letters, education, religion, and politics. He was driven to Roman Catholicism in part because of its catholicity. He was driven to conservative and imperialist politics in part because of what his poems required of him. Kermode explains that there was in Eliot “an element of mysticism also, and a scholastic sense of the complexities of time and eternity” that informed his religion and politics.4 Tradition is not just literature but also tradition’s public sphere and the public men and women who walk around it. No tradition, no poetry, and worse: no public man.

° ° °

Though Eliot’s politics fail even as a guardian over an artistic tradition5, I’m drawn to his notion of poetry as “something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.” Eliot hated the idea of a society of sequestered religious, literary, and political specialists, a problem that has steadily grown worse since he wrote about it:

And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves, and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance.6

The sequestration of politics, religion, and art, he believed, is endangering the planet’s physical health:

For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. And without sentimentalizing the life of the savage, we might practice the humility to observe, in some of the societies upon which we look down as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-artistic complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane.7


I brood a lot, as I guess my occasional screeds suggest. I’m no politician, theologian, or literary scholar. But as a lawyer I worked with politicians, as a church worker I had an interest in theology, and as an English teacher I’ve kept my hand in literature. Over the past number of years I find that my blog has divided itself among political, religious, and literary posts. Nothing could have pleased me more than finally finding some common ground among my three interests, as I reported recently in an update to an old post, “Our Sardonic Lord.”

I viscerally feel the lack of Eliot’s so-called “social-religious-artistic complex” if only because I feel torn among something like these three callings while something inside tells me I should hear them as one.

I am afraid to move: there is little left of a public sphere. “When the wicked rise, men hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:28). I like to hide; besides, I’m certainly no more talented than the next man. But the calling itself, whether it ever involves anything like action, is primarily a call to brood – to pray.

My heroes, too, are often brooders. I frequently picture three of them, and all of their actions or inactions I trace to their brooding. I have a primary brooder in each field – literary, political, and religious. It’s a good thing for me Eliot isn’t my literary brooder since he believed that he left nothing of himself in his poems.

Instead, my mind finds comfort in Robert Lax, the promising poet who left America in the 1960’s to become a hermit in Patmos until just before his death in 2000. I see him writing one, maybe two words, thinking about them for an hour or so, and then going down to the shore. Thomas Merton on his friend Lax:

. . . a mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.8

My political brooder is Lincoln. I’ve read loads of Lincoln books, but the scene that sticks closest to me is the one Stephen B. Oates, in his Sandburg-like biography With Malice Toward None, engenders:

In 1853, Lincoln was riding circuit when reports came of new Congressional skirmishing over slavery in the territories. It appeared that Senator Stephen A. Douglas was trying to organize a Nebraska territory out in the American heartland, but free-soil and proslavery forces were wrangling bitterly over the status of slavery there. Lincoln followed the course of Douglas’s territorial bill as it was reported in the Congressional Globe, and he became melancholy again. Friends who saw him sitting alone in rural courthouses thought him more withdrawn than ever. Once when they went to bed in a rude hostelry, they left him sitting in front of the fireplace staring intently at the flames. The next morning he was still there, studying the ashes and charred logs . . . . [ellipse original]9

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill the following year pushed Lincoln to act. “In a single blow, the bill had obliterated the Missouri Compromise line and in Lincoln’s view had profoundly altered the entire course of the Republic so far as slavery was concerned.”10 But rightly or wrongly, I trace back every action Lincoln took after Kansas-Nebraska to that all-nighter in front of the fireplace.

My religious brooder is the Sprit itself:

. . . the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—11

Some translations have the Spirit in action – “moving” – and others have it brooding – “hovering.” But Fox captures for me the possibility of both, the “rushing-spirit . . . hovering.” Fox also captures best what for me is the next-most pivotal verse in scripture, the verse after which Israel, as slaves and without a public life, would slowly begin to emerge from Egypt:

God hearkened to their moaning,
God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov,
God saw the Children of Israel,
God knew.12


  1. Kermode, Frank. Introduction. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. Print. At 17.
  2. Id. at 17-18.
  3. Id. at 17
  4. Id. at 19
  5. He fears “an irresponsible democracy” as much as “a pagan theory of the State.” Holding Italy up as a positive example in 1939, he writes that the operation of such a pagan theory “does not necessarily mean a wholly pagan society.” He rejects democracy as potential home for a vibrant literature “unless democracy is to mean something very different from anything actual” (The Idea of a Christian Society).  Picking up the spirit of his book title – mine might be The Idea of a Liberal Democracy – I might respond that American democracy means something very different from anything actual.


    Eliot fears modern democracy because the community is solely a servant of the individual; he fears totalitarian states because the individual is solely a servant of the state (see his essay “Religion and Literature”). I fear both, too. The liberal notion of equality and its consequent majority rule held in check by reason and nature has been given a bad name by our tendency toward a Jacobin notion of unlimited majority rule that leads in time to one or the other extremes Eliot fears. Lockean liberalism requires God because it requires men and women with equal rights – none of them a god over his fellows. Locke’s equality leaves each man his property and, as a necessary consequence, makes room for his talents, artistic and otherwise. To showcase those talents it contemplates a vibrant public life; indeed, Madison’s overarching purpose for a separation of powers and a bicameral legislature was to model public discourse to the young nation.

    Like a number of Catholic writers, Eliot seems receptive to the notion of natural law. He writes about mankind’s relation to nature and God as if he were pining for a return of Locke’s philosophy. In Christian Society, he points out an imbalance in the hierarchy among God, humanity, and nature:

    . . . a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. . . . We have been accustomed to regard “progress” as always integral; and have yet to learn that it is only by an effort and a discipline, greater than society has yet seen the need of imposing upon itself, that material knowledge and power is gained without loss of spiritual knowledge and power. (We must) struggle to recover the sense of relation to nature and to God, (and) the recognition that even the most primitive feelings should be part of our heritage . . .

    Locke’s natural law, of course, is mostly part of a tradition stretching back to Aquinas’s natural law, and from there back to ancient Israel and Athens. It has far more tradition associated with it than does the more modern doctrine of the divine right of kings. I like to think Eliot would have liked Locke had he read him.

  6. Eliot, T. S. “The Idea of a Christian Society.” 1939. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 285-91. Print.
  7. Id.
  8. Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Print.
  9. Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print. At 107.
  10. Id. at 108.
  11. Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. New York: Schocken, 1995. Print. Genesis 1:2-3
  12. Id. Exodus 2:24 – 25.


Something you don’t see in a Christmas pageant: the slaughter of the innocents. But there it is, in the middle of Matthew’s account.


When Bethlehem’s young children were slain, Jesus was in Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream.

But Moses was already in Egypt. As an infant, he escaped by water, the means by which his pursuers were to perish.

Matthew’s baby Jesus is peripatetic, dodging bullets & fulfilling scripture. “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Luke: baby Jesus with the lambs. Matthew: baby Jesus on the lam.

Caravaggio's "Rest in the Flight into Egypt"

Across from the school, a cemetery. Twenty-six stockings hang there tonight.

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child; By, by, lully, lullay, thow littell tyne child. [from the N-Town Plays]

How many children were slaughtered? Byzantine liturgy: 14,000. Syrians: 64,000. Copts: 144,000. But modern scholars say around 20.

Peter Paul Rubens's "Massacre of the Innocents"

We’re always elsewhere. My father flunked a physical and missed the Battle of the Bulge. He and his seed. I am St. Elsewhere

All but two of his company died there. Each Christmas, we all give him books on World War II. He spends Christmas afternoons reading them.

Never met a soul who wasn’t, up to that point, elsewhere. Still elsewhere: my neighbor whose business took him to the WTC on September 10.

Giotto's "Massacre of the Innocents"

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” But he wasn’t quoting Matthew.

One Christmas pageant tracks Matthew. A 16th cent. mystery play. Only one of its carols survives: a mother’s lament for her murdered child.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh, For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay. – Coventry Carol

Wikipedia says some of the Coventry Carol’s words “are difficult to make sense of.” Well, we were elsewhere.

Carracci's "The Flight into Egypt"

The author is unknown. But she is survived by a carol, sort of as a wren is survived by its song.

Can one survive well? Can surviving make me “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” despite surviving?

Navez's "Massacre of the Innocents"

Here’s a good rendition of what’s become my favorite Christmas carol:

Happy Childermas (a.k.a. Holy Innocents’ Day and Children’s Mass), celebrated this Thursday (Syrian churches), Friday (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran), and Saturday (Eastern Orthodox).

The above images of paintings are all in the public domain. From top to bottom: Reni, “Slaughter of the Innocents”; Caravaggio, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”; Rubens, “Massacre of the Innocents”; Giotto, “The Holy Innocents”; Carracci, “The Flight into Egypt”; and Navez, “Das Massaker der Unschuldigen.” Click the painting’s image for more information.

“Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.

This is more than fame

[Photo of Dixon]During his three years in a poor but beautiful part of Wales where he would learn the Welsh language as perhaps the single thing he had time to enjoy outside of his theological studies he was assigned to undertake as part of his training to become a Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins began writing poetry again. He had burnt all of his poetry seven years earlier when he had joined the Jesuits.

Hopkins’s rector at St. Beuno’s in Wales, Father Jones, who had a better feel for Hopkins’s true gifting than any of his superiors to date – Jesuit superiors as well as his superiors at Oxford, where he had converted to Catholicism around age twenty – saw how moved Hopkins had become reading in The Times about the foundering of the North German steamer Deutschland off the English coast and suggested that someone at the theologate write an ode celebrating the lives of the five Catholic nuns who drowned in the disaster.  Hopkins volunteered.  The papers were still adding to the public’s knowledge of what happened when Hopkins began writing his ode.

Hopkins sent The Wreck of the Deutschland to The Month, a Jesuit magazine, which took a few months to reject it.  During The Month’s consideration, the pump primed by the Deutschland, Hopkins had written a few sonnets and a curtal sonnet, including three of his most famous poems: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” and “The Windhover,” the last of which Hopkins always considered his finest poem.  These sonnets contained his sprung rhythm, which was his new system of meter that counted only the stressed syllables in a given line, and the cyngnedd – consonantal chiming – that he had picked up from the Welsh.  He took no steps to publish any of these sonnets.

For the first couple of years after becoming a priest at the end of his stay in Wales, Hopkins was sent to various assignments for short periods, and he rarely had the time or the inclination to write poetry.  Before leaving Wales, though, he had sent some of his work, including the Deutschland, to his good friend Robert Bridges, a doctor who, in his old age, would become England’s poet laureate.

Bridges hated the Deutschland and offered Hopkins little encouragement about it or about another ode about another shipwreck, The Loss of the Eurydice, which Hopkins had written in ways that incorporated some of the criticism that Bridges had offered about the Deutschland.  Still, Bridges was a poetic lifeline for Hopkins: he was an old Oxford friend and a good poet, and the two of them enjoyed their correspondence particularly about English verse, past and present. And Hopkins, for his part, was never less than candid with Bridges about the merits and faults of the latter’s poetry.  Bridges, a more conventional poet, was busy getting published.

Discouraged about his poems’ receptions, Hopkins, then thirty-three years old, remembered an obscure Anglican priest, Richard Watson Dixon (photographed above), a master at the Highgate School while Hopkins was attending it before he matriculated to Oxford.  Dixon had left a book of his own poems with one of the other masters when he left Highgate, and the title caught Hopkins’s eye.  And then, in 1878, about thirteen years after the fact, Hopkins decided to write him.

After introducing himself to Dixon, Hopkins told him how he had taken the book with him to Oxford and became “so fond of it that I made it, so far as that could be, a part of my own mind.”  He also had found another book by Dixon, and treasured that, too.  When Hopkins became a Jesuit, “I knew I could have no books of my own and was unlikely to meet with your works in the libraries I should have access to, [so] I copied out St. Paul, St. John, Love’s Consolation, and others from both volumes and keep them by me.”

“How many beautiful works ‘have been almost unknown and then have gained fame at last,’ he surmises, though no doubt ‘many more must have been lost sight of altogether.’”  Paul Mariani quotes Hopkins in his 2008 biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (202), which I’m about halfway through reading. Mariani continues:

“You cannot but know that I must be deeply moved,” Dixon responded.  “Nay shaken to the very centre, by such a letter as that which you have sent me: for which I thank you from my inmost heart. . . . I can in truth hardly realize that what I have written, which has been generally, almost universally, neglected, should have been so much valued and treasured.  This is more than fame: and I may truly say that when I read your Letter, and whenever I take it out of my pocket to look at it, I feel that I prefer to have been so known & prized by one, than to have had the ordinary appreciation of many.”

A lively correspondence blossomed, benefiting both men.  Six letters into the correspondence, Hopkins forwarded Dixon his two odes at Dixon’s request. Mariani writes,“A week later, a stunned Dixon replies, having read Hopkins’s poems with more ‘delight, astonishment, & admiration’ than he can easily say. ‘They are among the most extraordinary I ever read & amazingly original,’ he gasps, and they must – must – be published” (220).

According to Wikipedia:

Canon Dixon’s first two volumes of verse, Christ’s Company and Historical Odes, were published in 1861 and 1863 respectively; but it was not until 1883 that he attracted conspicuous notice with Mano, an historical poem in terza rima, which was enthusiastically praised by Mr. [Algernon Charles] Swinburne.  This success he followed up by three privately printed volumes, Odes and Eclogues (1884), Lyrical Poems (1886), and The Story of Eudocia (1888).

Dixon’s poems were during the last fifteen years of his life recognized as scholarly and refined exercises, touched with both dignity and a certain severe beauty, but he never attained any general popularity as a poet, the appeal of his poetry being directly to the scholar.

To me, this is the enterprise we enjoy as bloggers and microbloggers.  Not fame, but a knowing: to be someone for another to write for, and in turn to have someone to write for.  I feel so much gratitude for you, my readers, and particularly (naturally) for the one whom, at any given point in my writing, “I have been so known & prized by.”

An update: This morning, while reading the novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s preface to The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon, which volume was published in 1905, I discovered a reference to Hopkins.  In her preface, Coleridge listed a number of well-known poets who had praised the unsung Dixon: Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris among them.  Then this:

There was one who gave more than praise.  A young Oxford student of brilliantly original power loved the poems of Richard Watson Dixon with such devotion that, when he entered the ranks of the Jesuits and was forbidden to take any books with him, he copied out almost all those in his possession.  Such minds as these do not labor in vain; others trust in them, follow their lead.

The world was still pregnant with Hopkins’s fame almost twenty years after his death, and Coleridge did not bother to name him in her preface.  She apparently had had access to Dixon’s papers, though, since she seems to have had access to the letter from Hopkins that had meant so much to Dixon.  I wonder if she read Hopkins’s odes that he had sent to Dixon or if her assessment of Hopkins as possessed of “brilliantly original power” was simply borrowed from Dixon.

But I love how her “more than praise” echoes Dixon’s “more than fame.”  Hopkins’s dedication to Dixon’s poetry was more than praise, and his letter thanking Dixon was more than fame.

The editor of The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon was Robert Bridges, who later started his late friend Hopkins down the road to fame by editing The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, published in 1918 by Oxford University Press.  It would take twelve years for that 750-copy, first edition of Hopkins’s poems to sell out.

I wonder how Bridges viewed Coleridge’s reference to his old friend in her preface.


Exclusive interview with Chester P. Michael

Chester P. Michael is the co-author of Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types.  The interview was conducted in April 2004.

What gave you and your prayer project the idea to link the Briggs-Myers research with prayer and meditation?

I was introduced to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] by Morton Kelsey in 1976. Immediately I saw the value of it for prayer and spirituality. I began to use it in all my retreats and individual spiritual direction. My associate, Marie Norrisey, said we should get some scientific proof of the connection between MBTI and prayer. Hence the prayer project of 1982. I canvassed the 800 persons on my mailing list for The Open Door. 500 of them responded.

The introduction to Prayer and Temperament describes the success of your group’s project. Generally, what results have you seen from your project since the book was published?

The good results of [applying MBTI to prayer and meditation] have been shown in the 340 women and men who have graduated from my two year course of training in the Spiritual Directions Institute. I have continued to use it in all my retreat work and spiritual direction work.

What has been the response to Prayer and Temperament?

We have sold more than 120,000 copies of the book worldwide.

What advice would you give someone wishing to explore meditation for the first time?

My advice for those wishing to explore meditation for the first time is to use all four methods of prayer based on the four temperaments. Then use the method that comes most easily for them most of the time. One should expose oneself at least occasionally to the other methods.

Have you enjoyed your retirement? And how have you come to define “retirement”?

For me, retirement means I am now a freelancer. I can can go in any direction in my journey of faith.

What has been the most satisfying part of your service over the years?

I think spiritual direction is the most satisfying part of my 62 years of priestly ministry.

Studdy to be quyet

Because some men study to have learning rather than to live well, they err many times, and bring forth little good fruit or none. — The Imitation of Christ

I like the feel of the purposeful study that Thomas à Kempis recommends to his fellow monks, at least as it comes across here in Harold Gardner’s version of Richard Whitford’s 1530 translation.

Study to live well. Does that mean study (apply myself to knowledge) in order to live well? Or does it mean, as the OED has it, “To endeavour, make it one’s aim, set oneself deliberately to do something” — in this case to live well?

I’m tempted to answer as the kids do today: “Yes.” But “study” here almost certainly means something like the OED definition I quote. Still, I like the ambiguity the word “study” affords. I want the word to mean both things at once. If I can’t have a denotation that is stronger than the sum of two of the word’s definitions, then I want at least one of these definitions to permit a strong connotation of the other.

That’s why I like older English Bibles. You’ve already got the problem of a translation, and now you have to consider the text in a language that it almost, but not quite, your own. You might even find something that was never there and live in it. There are more straws to grasp, and straw makes nice nests.

I know no Greek. I’ve looked up philotimeomai in two Bible dictionaries. The word more closely fits the above “endeavour” definition from the OED. The King James translates the word as “labour,” “strive,” and “study,” depending on the word’s context. The modern English Bibles I have looked at do not translate the word as “study,” probably because the “endeavour” definition is, of course, archaic.

I like “Study to be quiet” from First Thessalonians. It’s part of a string of verses tied among several epistles in which Paul tells his readers or his readers’ charges, in so many words, to follow his example and get a job. But none of the modern versions say anything like “Study to be quiet.” The Revised English Bible, for instance, says, “Let it be your ambition to live quietly. . .”

I lived in a similar verse for years, the more famous “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

[photo of William Faulkner]At the four-times-a-week Bible studies I attended in my youth, we assumed that study meant study. (We understood that Paul wrote in Elizabethan English, and we understood Elizabethan English as well as he.) This verse from Timothy was one of the ones we used to justify our group study. But here’s the New American Standard’s take: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” “Be diligent” is not “study” as we normally use the word today.

But part of diligence in such a context might be what we call study today, no? I’m all the richer for my linguistic ineptitude.

Perhaps you see why I like Tindale, Geneva, King James, and Webster?

I’ll never discover new planets. (I’m quite nearsighted, and my discoveries usually come from tripping over large objects most people see from a distance. This tendency alone takes me out of the running.) But finding evidence of another definition of “study” in college while reading The Sound and the Furymade me feel as if I had discovered another planet adorning my bright “study” star.

In the idiot’s presence, one of Luster’s companions denies Luster’s suggestion that perhaps he had secretly discovered Luster’s missing quarter. “I aint studying no quarter. I got my own business to tend to,” the companion says. (“And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business. . .”: more of that verse in First Thessalonians.) A page later, the same companion denies any interest in the show Luster apparently wants to gain admission to with the quarter: “I aint studying that show.” Later in the book, Luster himself uses the word to deny Dilsey’s charge that he broke a window: “I aint stud’in dat winder.”

These black characters — Faulkner’s angels sent to live among the disintegrating Compson family — helped me in my darkness, too. These dialogs introduced me to “study” as something like “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon. Obs.” (from the OED again). Never mind that this definition doesn’t generate a quotation in the OED from later than 1603.

Luster’s and his acquaintance’s use of “study” may have something more to do with “To think intently; to meditate (about, of, on, upon, in); to reflect, try to recollect something or to come to a decision. Now dial. and U.S. colloq.” (OED). Faulkner is even quoted in the OED using “study” in this sense, though the word’s context in that quote sure points to this last definition more than the context in which Luster and his companion use it.

So, not knowing a thing about linguistics or etymology, I go with the “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon.” I throw in some “endeavour” and some normal study, too. But of course I use the word in this amalgamated sense usually only when I talk to myself. I think I limit it to that.

I attach meaning to words from their contexts. Shoot first; open the dictionary later. This is a wonderful tool for learning vocabulary, I am told. Few of us learn new words by looking them up straightaway in a dictionary, anyway. And even when I do look up words that are new to me, I often forget their meanings. But maybe I’ll become influential, and my misuses will germinate into new definitions in a future edition of the OED. Why discover planets when you can grow them?

So I use words incorrectly, or at least imprecisely. When I peck through all of this straw, I usually get something wrong — the original or the translation or both. At the same time, something is gained in the translation. I slowly build a nest I can live in.

Posted October 2006.

Star of wonder


Bethany makes all of my icons. She doesn’t mean to. She just loves art.

And I never meant to have icons. I have iconoclastic, evangelical roots, and brothers would use words like “projection” to discourage one another from using visual aids in meditation and prayer. But now I’m more open to images, memories, sounds – anything that prompts my soul’s return to God at any time.

There’s something in the connection between Bethany and me that can make some of her art iconic for me. This Perler beads piece does it for me. I love the stars and the water, and the single person on the boat. It’s peaceful, maybe lonely.

This mood allows me into the central part of the piece. The person is face to face with a star. Some of the sky between the star and the person looks like a person’s arms, reaching out to the person on the boat. (Dale at Mole has sketches in which the background finds its way to the foreground at some level, or vice versa, and I always enjoy them.)

The sense of God’s immanence depends on so much: age and experience, temperament and circumstances. It depends on God himself. God is silent now in ways I heard him before, and he is present now in ways I must have always overlooked. The star is a comfort.


Posted December 2005



I went into the Bose Outlet at the mall last week and tried on two pairs of noise-canceling headphones.  One pair sat on my ears, and the other surrounded my ears like cups, like the fat headphones my uncle had with his hi-fidelity system and his reel-to-reel tape player when I was a child.

The headphones cancel noise by pressing silence against your ears like a mild headache, like a baby’s distant, persistent cry.  Silence betrays the ears like the puff of air betrays the eyes at the end of a glaucoma test.  In this way, silence violates the simple, noise-blocking understanding between headphones and ears that has existed at least since I listened to Train to the Farm on my parents’ Victrola as a child.

The Bose store walls seemed free of the instructions I have learned to depend on in recent years – instructions of the “do not pour this hot coffee directly onto your crotch” genre.  I pictured myself using the headphones to keep myself calm while waiting for an important call or to protect myself against the piercing screams of an injured child.

But noise-canceling technology is an infant yet.  The more expensive Bose pair (the on-my-ears ones) goes for $349 but masks mainly the low, hypnotic sounds that my mind filters out after a while anyway.  It is ideal for someone who works around loud blowers or who frequents airplanes, or perhaps for someone who feels like a corpse when friends carry on comfortably within earshot.  They laugh and snap ice cubes with soda water, and I staring at heaven with closed eyes in the next room?  It’s not how I imagined my mourners when I was a child.


More than fifty people of all walks stood in bathing suits in 95-degree heat yesterday among eight rows of lockers.  The $13-a-day large lockers modeled tolerance, mingling easily with the $10-a-day small lockers.  I was slightly on edge because my first hour at Water Country USA was all assimilation, but Anheuser-Busch had anticipated this as well as all of the potential thoughts and actions of the other 20,526 (or so) guests.  The park bathed us in ubiquitous music that reached my conscious mind only when I reached the teenage employee at the front of the locker line. The music seemed to assert itself there like my dentist’s novocaine asserts itself when I try to talk after leaving his office. The music was rock and blues and jazz and country stripped of lyrics and history and opinion and humanity and herded together into airless, stifling cattle cars. The music felt like a psychologist’s product after a lawyer’s vetting. It felt vaguely desperate, as if Anheuser-Busch knew that someone among us – someone it could not identify but would not close the park for – had a dangerous means of expressing a complaint or of ordering an Italian ice for his child.

But the music saved us guests from interaction and its attendant risks. I found that I could say, “excuse me” past a large, hairy, white stomach and it would remain part of the scenery, remain one line of a song on the everything-but-waterproof iPods we had rented our lockers for. I did not wonder if the stomach would respond to me, if it had rented a $13 locker or had paid for the prestige parking, if it visited its uncle’s farm as a child.


Modern devotional writers often make a distinction in the first chapter or two of their books between two kinds of silence.  One kind of silence is like the necessary, between-rounds respite of the boxer’s corner.   The other?  Something inside us with her back to us.  A child.

A praktikos

This is my first “sentence,” modeled after the aphorisms of the Desert Fathers, which their followers collected in manuals of instruction. It is a “praktikos” — that is, it is intended to assist someone in her preparation for a life of prayer. The best and most approachable book I have found on the subject is The Book of Mystical Chapters by John Anthony McGuckin.

If I really want to see,
God will answer my prayer first with torment
Every time I judge another of his servants.
Bothered by my sin that I first saw in others,
I will discover my own blindness
and I will begin to understand mercy.
In this way God will assign me to Humility and Charity,
The doctor and nurse who will remove my sin and restore my sight.

Here are some references, if you’re inclined that way:
Line 2 – Matthew 18:32-25 (torment from not forgiving)
Line 3 – Romans 14:4 (judging another man’s servant)
Line 5 – John 9:39-41 (sight through blindness)
Line 6 – Micah 6:8 (the command to love mercy)

Quiet on the set: Ignatius’s cinematic meditation

[The second of four occasional articles of variations on Lectio Divina meditation, based on the book Prayer and Temperament by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey.]

Ironically, one of the most entertaining forms of Christian meditation is most appealing to the most practical and rules-oriented kind of people, according to Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey in their book, Prayer and Temperament.

“Ignatian Meditation” is essentially the meditation style developed by Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. It has lots of steps, and so it appeals to someone who likes rules, Michael and Norrisey believe. In the middle of following the rules, however, one learns to let one’s imagination run wild.

Meditating Ignatian style is like producing and directing a movie. The producer assembles the set, the actors, and the overall aim of the production. The director gets the most out of each scene. And all of this goes on in the comfort of your own head! Perhaps the “i” in Apple’s new “iMovie” should stand for Ignatius.

The irony of mixing strict rules and vivid imagination is just as much in the temperament as in the meditation. Practical types seem to glum onto this style of meditation once they get over any iconoclastic misgivings they may have about it.

Prayer and Temperament uses the four temperaments popularized by David Kiersey in his book Please Understand Me: the artisan, the guardian, the idealist, and the rationalist. (For the purposes of Slow Reads articles on meditation, I have renamed the guardian temperament the “practical” temperament, and I have renamed the artisan temperament the “free-spirited” temperament.) These four temperaments are extractions from Katharine C. Briggs and Isabelle Briggs Myers’ personality theory, and they fit well with historical personality archetypes.

Michael and Norrisey give each temperament something like a patron saint whose spirituality seems to match the temperament’s spirituality. The hard-nosed Ignatius is matched with the practical temperament. Kiersey’s practical people like to follow the rules, and they like predictability and order. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercisesprovide plenty of steps and order that temperaments more taken with spontaneity may chafe at.

Yet Ignatius’ exercises rely heavily on a vivid imagination, which Kiersey’s practical temperament barely keeps suppressed, as Michael and Norrisey point out. A practitioner would use his sensible imagination to picture himself in a biblical setting. Perhaps he would witness or be a part of the exodus from Egypt or the road Jesus took to his crucifixion. Perhaps he would become one of the disciples on the Emmaus road whom Jesus surprised after his resurrection.

Here’s a summary of the steps in Ignatius’ meditation:

Use all five senses in an imaginary journey back to the events of Bible, particularly the life of Jesus. One way: imagine ourselves in place of someone in a biblical scene using imaginatively all five senses. Method emphasizes (A) structure and order, (B) sensible imagination, and (C) practical fruit, as seen in Ignatius’ points in meditation:

1. Choice of topic
2. Preparatory prayer
3. Composition of place
4. Petition for special grace needed
5. See and reflect
6. Listen and reflect
7. Consider and reflect
8. Draw some practical fruit
9. Colloquy with the Father and Jesus
10. Closing with the Lord’s Prayer

Here’s a sample Ignatian Meditation, which I’ve summarized from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises (second week). The steps in the meditation are linked to the numbered points above.

1. Choice of topic: the incarnation. 2. Preparatory prayer. 3. Composition of place: See the great extent of the world with its many different races; then see the particular house of Mary and its rooms in the town of Nazareth in the province of Galilee. 4. Petition for special grace needed: “I ask for what I want: here I ask for interior knowledge of the Lord who became human for me so that I may better love and follow Him.” 5. See and reflect: “This is to see the various kinds of persons: first, those on the face of the earth, in all their diversity of dress and appearance, some white and some black, some in peace and others at war, some weeping and others laughing, some healthy, others sick, some being born and others dying, etc.: second, I see and consider the three divine Persons, as though They are on the royal throne of their Divine Majesty, how they look down on the whole round world and on all its peoples living in such great blindness, and dying and going down into hell; third, I see Mary and the Angel who greets her.” 6. Listen and reflect: “This is to hear what the people on the face of the earth talk about, i.e. how they talk with each other, how they swear and blaspheme, etc. In the same way what the Divine Persons are saying, viz., ‘Let us bring about the redemption of the human race etc.’ Then what the Angel and Mary are talking about.” 7. Consider and reflect: “Now I look at what the people on the face of the earth are doing, e.g. wounding, killing, and going to hell, etc., and in the same way, what the divine Persons are doing, that is, accomplishing the sacred Incarnation, etc., and similarly, what the Angel and Mary are doing, the Angel fulfilling his role of legate and Mary humbling herself and giving thanks to the Divine Majesty.” 8.Draw some practical fruit. 9. Colloquy with the Father and Jesus: “I think about what I ought to be saying to the three Divine Persons, or to the eternal Word incarnate…. and I make a request, according to my inner feelings, so that I may better follow and imitate Our Lord, thus newly incarnate.” 10. Closing with the Lord’s Prayer.

Other Suggestions: 1. While taking a walk, use this method for Jesus’ walk to Calvary, for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, for Paul and company on the road to Damascus. 2. Don’t worry if you get the steps out of order. Ignatius didn’t mind – he was results-oriented and wanted to see hearts change more than form followed. 3. Sing a hymn or biblical song with many images, and think about the images.

Who was Ignatius?

(1491-1556) Founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). The youngest of eleven children, Ignatius left his
Basque home to become a page for a noblemen. His life of brawling, gambling, and womanizing was disrupted
when his boss lost his position. He joined the army and was hit in the leg by a cannonball. During a year’s
recuperation in France as a prisoner, he turned to God. His Spiritual Exercises for a 30-day retreat were
modeled after his own conversion experience and are considered a classic of Western spirituality. Ignatius spent
much time as an administrator over the Jesuits, and had the new order emphasize preaching, education and acts of

Further Reading:

Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1996)

Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types (Charlottesville, VA: The Open Door, Inc., 1991)