Priceless Letters

May 26, 2015 — 15 Comments

letterHow precious is a single letter?

If it is eagerly anticipated correspondence from a close friend or loved one, it may be invaluable.

Telephones and email have diminished the impact offered by the contents of an individual message, yet even now we value the touch of the written word shared by our soul mates across the miles.

Prior to the invention of the internet, and before the cost of international calls grew reasonable, I spent a year in the Republic of Korea, far from my wife and three young children. Naturally, like all military members serving far from home—even during times of peace—I missed them terribly.

While many wonderful things happened during the course of that year, and lifelong friendships were born, the highlight of each day was a visit to the installation post office. And, due to the faithfulness of my mother, sister and wife, I was greeted nearly every day by one or more handwritten messages of love and encouragement.

So important were these bonds that, prior to my departure, Delores and I covenanted to write one another every single day. A promise we both kept. In addition, I promised to write each of my three children their own letter each week. One evidence of the impact of those letters was the seamless reunion our family experienced when I returned after a year away.

In the even more distant past, this means of communication was even more vital. As little as a century ago, when individuals and families emigrated from their homelands they recognized the sad truth that they would probably never see their loved ones again.

Think about that for a moment. Saying “goodbye” usually meant “I will never see you again in this life.” How precious those missives must have been when they found their way between intimate companions!

Eighty-five years ago, C.S. Lewis was carrying on an active correspondence with the dearest friend from his youth, Arthur Greeves.

In the 1930s, the two men were corresponding on a weekly basis. Lewis opened one of his letters with the following paragraph to gently reprimand Greeves for allowing other responsibilities to delay his writing.

July 8th 1930

My dear Arthur,

Your letters get later and later every week. If you write on Monday the first week, on Tuesday the second week, and so on, then in seven weeks you will be writing on Monday again: but you will have written one letter less than you should.

In a year you will have written eight letters less, that is thirty six pages. Assuming that we both live thirty years more you will in that time have cheated me out of one thousand and eighty pages. Why, oh why, do you do these things?

As I said, the “reprimand” is gentle, even humorous, but it is sincere. It reveals just how meaningful each piece of his friend’s correspondence was to Lewis.

Many of us can relate to Lewis’ experience. We know firsthand how a smile comes to our lips and our pulse quickens when we find a message from a close companion.

I wanted to share this thought with each of you today for two reasons. First, I thought it might remind you of those whose words have encouraged and supported you in the past.

My second motivation is more important. I would like to suggest that you pause to consider just how important your letters are to others.

There are thousands of reasons for not scheduling (and guarding) time to write letters. Life is busy. The distractions vying for our attention are certainly more numerous, and loud, than they were in decades past.

Still, reminded of the value of the gift we offer when we write, perhaps it is time to shuffle our priorities.

Crying for Attention

May 19, 2015 — 10 Comments

abcxyzAre you driven by the unquenchable thirst to be the center of everyone’s attention. Or, would you be more content to live out your life appreciated by a small cadre of friends?

A woman in South America recently displayed an extreme case of the former impulse. She had grown tired of her name because it was too mundane. Apparently she garnered insufficient attention as Ladyzunga Cyborg.

So now her name, legally changed, is ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

My first thought when reading this was not that I didn’t believe it. In our foolish world, where people use symbols that aren’t even words for their names, I just shook my head. And . . . I thought “how fortunate for her that she’s not Chinese,” with its 46,964 characters as recorded in the Kangxi Dictionary.

This is not the sort of publicity Columbia needs. She’s acting bizarrely enough to be a mistaken for a Californian.

Of course, people at the opposite extreme—those who cannot bear the presence of other human beings—are also troubled. As with so many aspects of the human personality, people at either of the extreme poles are frequently deemed mentally ill.

This fetish for exhibitionism is alien to me. I would much prefer downing a pint with friends at the Eagle and Child to standing on some stage in front of “adoring crowds.”

My “introvert” quotient appears to be eclipsing my “extravert” qualities.

C.S. Lewis never sought the limelight either. He did not find his experience with notoriety pleasant. And yet, he accepted its burden graciously.

It is commonly known that some days he would spends hours (literally) corresponding with some of the thousands of readers who wrote to him as the creator of Narnia.

It was exhausting.

I assume people like Ms. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz seek attention because they feel insignificant or unnoticed.

I find that tragic. Tragic because their name, their true name, is known by the most important and amazing person in the universe. The God who created them.

Each and every person, including you, is unique, precious and loved.

Knowing this provides profound peace. It also delivers us from the constant compulsion to seek attention.

Jesus described the profound value of each person by contrasting God’s love for us with the attention he devotes even to a single sparrow . . . “Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

And you, that’s you, are far more precious than these.

csl glassWhen C.S. Lewis was contacted for permission to publish a recent sermon in a distinguished collection, he confessed an “impious” hope.

Lewis, of course, was not a pastor. He was instead a highly regarded professor. Nevertheless, due to his mastery of public speaking, and his unapologetic faith, he was invited to preach on a number of occasions.

This particular sermon had been delivered at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, on 22 October 1939. The Student Christian Movement had already published it in pamphlet format with the title The Christian in Danger.*

Lewis ends a lengthy 1940 letter to his brother Warnie by mentioning the request, almost as an afterthought.

Did I tell you that someone wants to include that St Mary’s sermon of mine in a collection of (save the mark**) Famous Sermons?

Famous English Sermons would be published by Thomas Nelson in London later that year. The anthology was edited by Ashley Sampson, who had asked Lewis to write his volume The Problem of Pain.

Lewis’ modest “impiety” was revealed in the rest of his announcement to his brother. He confesses to that common human fear of being upstaged by the other works in the collection.

I am divided between gratification and a fear that I shall be merely made a fool of by appearing in the same book as Bede, Latimer, Donne, Taylor etc. However, let’s hope that I shall be divided from them by some good 19th century duds!—but I grow impious.

How easy it is to relate to Lewis’ concern. As I moved from assignment to assignment during my military career, I subconsciously hoped I was relieving someone who had left room for me to excel . . . and, simultaneously, that as I left my recent assignment my performance would not be outshined by my successor.

Better, in my mind, to be proceeded and followed by 20th century duds. (Forgive me, Lord.)

I doubt C.S. Lewis and I are the only people to have shared that impious thought.

Still, recognizing the impiety is the beginning of purging it. I tried to make it a practice to pray for those who followed in my ministry wake. That they would be successful, and that the men and women entrusted to our spiritual care would be blessed by their ministries.

I must confess, though, that when my literary work has been placed in direct juxtaposition to that of others, I have not been so eager for theirs to be better received than my own contributions. Not that I wish upon anyone that they would be a dud, but merely that their eloquence not put my own humble efforts to shame.

_____

* The sermon is found in The Weight of Glory with the title “Learning in War-Time.”

** “Save the mark” is an exclamation that connotes a sense something is unbelievable. It can even be dismissive, but that would not be the sense in which Lewis uses it here, since it is obvious he regards the request as a humbling honor.

Vodka the Opiate

May 5, 2015 — 7 Comments

ApolloIn our troubled world, some disappointed souls seek solace in a bottle. There are also corrupt governments that steer their people toward such destructive distractions to draw their attention from their rulers’ crimes.

Such, sadly, is the current state of Russia.

I have long felt a compassion and affinity for Russia. Even when it was the Soviet Union, I knew that the Russian people did not want the world to end in a nuclear conflagration.

For many years I displayed the dual Soviet and American stamps issued to commemorate the docking of the Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft. I saw that event as a promise of the peace and cooperation that might someday exist between our nations. A peaceful, even warm, relationship that would be a blessing to the entire world.

I thought that day might have arrived with the end of the Soviet Union and the restoration of a Russian nation.

Unfortunately, democracy was not to prevail—at least at this moment—in that historic land. Russia ended up with the worst elements of capitalism. They got the West’s privileged (i.e. rich) classes who hoarded the nation’s wealth. And, the Russian version was even harsher. The masses have been left with dreams unfulfilled, and an oligarchy living in luxury.

As the people begin to awaken to the injustice, their leaders turn to a proven means of dulling human thought—alcohol. And, since we are talking about Russia, that means vodka. I found this analysis by David Satter quite interesting.

The Putin regime needs an end to sanctions—not because they are crippling in themselves but because, in combination with the growing crisis of the economy and the unpredictable trajectory of the war [in eastern Ukraine], they could help lead to the destabilization of Russia. . . . It is a measure of the government’s concern that it has cut the price of vodka. . . . This is a transparent attempt to use vodka to tranquilize the population.

SoyuzWhile I will continue to pray for the people of Russia, this description of Putin’s strategy reminded me of the oft-quoted Communist adage that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

Marx or Lewis?

Karl Marx was right, in that manmade “religion” can be used to blind people to their surroundings.

Marx, however, did not understand Christianity. Because Jesus of Nazareth dispels all illusion and enables us to truly comprehend reality.

C.S. Lewis referred to Marx’s slander in his book, The Problem of Pain.

Those who reject Christianity will not be moved by Christ’s statement that poverty is blessed. But here a rather remarkable fact comes to my aid. Those who would most scornfully repudiate Christianity as a mere ‘opiate of the people’ have a contempt for the rich, that is, for all mankind except the poor.

They regard the poor as the only people worth preserving from ‘liquidation,’ and place in them the only hope for the human race. But this is not compatible with a belief that the effects of poverty on those who suffer it are wholly evil; it even implies that they are good.

The Marxist thus finds himself in real agreement with the Christian in those two beliefs which Christianity paradoxically demands–that poverty is blessed and yet ought to be removed.

Lewis aptly describes the hypocrisy of the elite who live with the comforts they supposedly disdain. In contrast, he affirms Christ’s own words about how the least are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Far from serving as a debilitating opiate, Christianity moves people to overcome the trials of this world. It motivates them to care for the less fortunate. It is active, not passive and resigned.

Unlike a mind-dulling spirit, Christianity calls us to forgive even our enemies and extend to them a hand of peace.

Who knows if lowering the price of vodka will distract the Russian people from the disastrous direction of their ruling regime. I hope not.

I pray that Russia will seize instead the promise bequeathed them in their Christian heritage. So that, following in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace, they might become an example of national righteousness for the rest of us, whose homelands have their own deep imperfections.

_____

Satter’s editorial, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, is available here.

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 11 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

_____

You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

Obscenic Words

April 21, 2015 — 8 Comments

paskalevThere is something obscene about the title of some recent recordings of a Norwegian/Bulgarian musician. He labeled the collection “Obscenic Sessions.”

Now, I realize that English may be his third or fourth language, but surely someone involved in the project knew that obscenic is not really a word. And, if a person is attempting to coin a new word, there are more creative ways than simply changing the ending of an adjective to alter it into another adjective. (I suppose there is a slim chance it’s either a Norwegian or Bulgarian word, but I suspect not.)

There’s something else about the collection that also strikes me as potentially obscene. Apparently the music was recorded during a live performance at an actual Anglican church. The full title reads: “Obscenic Sessions Live From St. Margaret’s Of Antioch (Liverpool, UK).”

Why, I wonder, would a priest allow his sanctuary to be used for obscenic sessions? Certainly no Christian congregation could be that desperate for income. They could, however, be proving their open-mindedness by hosting just such an event . . . but that’s another matter.

Now, I am aware that the use of the neologisms may simply be provocative. There might not be anything at all that’s edgy about the music or performance. I wasn’t there, and I haven’t taken the time to read the lyrics to all of the music.

Returning to the subject of coining new words, it’s a rather tricky venture. You have to be just creative or witty enough to do it well. Falling short of that is either completely confusing, or simply lame.

Some people have a knack for this. Lewis Carroll, for example, created a handful of words in a single literary piece that have remained vibrant for many years. In his 1871 Through the Looking Glass, he included the nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” Some of the words Carroll created as nonce words—intended for a single use—have lived on beyond their appearance in the poem.

Not long ago, as a matter of fact, I read about someone “chortling.” That would not have been possible before Carroll minted this means of communication. “Mimsy” and others have found their way into dictionaries, as well.

We have written in the past about the Bandersnatch on these very pages. C.S. Lewis described J.R.R. Tolkien’s stubborn resistance to editorial suggestions by saying “you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch.”

Returning to the music of Mr. Paskalev, if his music is more uplifting than the adjective implies, I wish him the best of luck in his career. However, if it is truly obscenic (in the sense the root of that word implies) I wish him an epiphany that will transform his work. And, finally, in light of the picture above (from his official website), I suggest that he try to get a little more rest.

vik
The initial Viking incursions into England were violent, but they left a colorful linguistic legacy in their wake.

Victims of the onslaught, like the unfortunate monks of Lindisfarne, paid a steep price, but the Norse eventually became farmers and craftsmen like the people they initially displaced.

Their contribution to the British gene pool was small, as was their donation to the English language, but it was not insignificant.

Some of the words fit the Viking mystique. Klubba becomes club (as in the weapon, not the association). Rannsaka may have initially meant searching the house for something like your missing keys, but the English experienced it as ransack. And slatra transfers into slaughter. The original word means “to butcher,” and one wonders if it originally applied to meal preparation. It so, the decades of Norse raids modified that focus.

Other adopted words arose from the more peaceful pursuits of the Scandinavians. Bylög meant the laws of the village and became bylaw. Law itself comes from the Norse lag. Husband, skill, thrift, litmus and loan have Viking roots. Those who enjoy a great slice of beef can thank them for their “steak” as well, since steik was their term for frying meat.

The Inkling Affection for the Sagas

J.R.R. Tolkien was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He founded a society devoted to the study of Icelandic and Norse sagas called Kolbitar (Coalbiters).* C.S. Lewis joined him in the group, which preceded the development of the Inklings fellowship.

As a young student, Lewis was attracted to Norse myth and experimented with writing his contribution to the tales. He penned over 800 lines of a massive epic he entitled “Loki Bound.” Only fragments have survived, but the following passage is especially intriguing. In it, Loki criticizes Odin for the manner in which he created humanity.

Odin! And who art thou to make a soul

And force it into being? Who art thou

To bring forth men to suffer in the world

Without their own desire? Remember this,

In all the universe the harshest law,

No soul must ever die: it can but change

Its form and thro’ the myriad years

Must still drag on for aye its weary course,

Enduring dreadful things for thy caprice.

The echoes of teenaged angst are clear in this tirade. The words describe (well, I believe) the fatalistic despair of many people. Fortunately, this young man eventually encountered the One who rescues us from “harshest law” and “dreadful things” that are the lot of fallen mortals.

A Few More Norse>English Words

Here are some more of the seven score words that are identified as having a Scandinavian origin.

An interesting collection of verbs include: bark, blunder, choose, crawl, glitter, race, scare, stagger, stammer and whirl.

The following words associated with people: Guest, kid, lad, oaf, foot, leg, skin, freckles, ill, and weak.

The gamut of emotions: anger, awe, and happy.

And, without their Norse contribution, who knows what we would call these articles today.

axle   ~   window   ~   cake   ~   bag

glove   ~   mug   ~   plow   ~   link

they   ~   trust   ~   same   ~   gift

and even Hell

One final example, as quoted in the source of the comprehensive list of Norse words.

Even though the gun wasn’t invented until centuries after the Viking era, the word comes from Old Norse. The most common usage was in the female name Gunnhildr: gunn and hildr both can translate as “war” or “battle.” Only truly [ferocious] Vikings named their infant daughters “Warbattle.”

_____

*You can read a bit more about Kolbitar here. I have also mentioned Kolbitar in this column.