Archives For WWI

bennett

Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.


The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

editors wants

The goal of most writers is to become published writers. In his diary, C.S. Lewis describes a rather peculiar route to publication followed by one of his acquaintances at Oxford.

During his prolific career, Lewis dealt with many different editors. Some experiences were positive, while others were less so.

In the diary entry which follows, Lewis expresses his befuddlement at the criteria some editors use to make their decisions.

“Stead” was William Stead, an American poet who came to England as a diplomat, became an Anglican priest, baptized T.S. Eliot, and returned to the States prior to WWII. Stead also introduced Lewis to W.B. Yeats, a curious encounter I will be writing about quite soon.

Wednesday 5 April: Started revising Greek History today. At first I found my notes etc. in great confusion, but when that was straightened out I worked with more interest and pleasure than I had expected. . . .

I also got the two poems (typed v. accurately for I/-)* and saw Stead in order to get the address of the London Mercury.

He told me with a solemn face and admirable naivety how he had got his accepted. Two or three were sent back by return post, whereupon he went up to London and called on the Editor, saying, “Look here Mr Squire, you haven’t taken these poems of mine and I want to know what’s wrong with them!!”

If the story ended there, it would be merely a side light on Stead, but the joke is that Squire said, “I’m glad you’ve come to talk it over: that’s just what I want people to do” and actually accepted what he’d formerly refused. Truly the ways of editors are past finding out! (All My Road Before Me)

Anyone who has submitted their work for publication consideration can relate to Lewis’ incredulity. Long ago I resigned myself to their arbitrariness and irrationality. They are, after all, simply human beings, and as such, inescapably subjective.

While we could all agree on circular filing** submissions filled with typos or misspellings, they sometimes reject what is excellent and embrace what is maudlin. The stories of best sellers that were repeatedly rejected are common.

It’s true that some publications have pretty exhaustive stylebooks, but when it comes to the content of what they publish, it frequently appears to be based on momentary whim.

After many years of writing, and a handful of years as an editor myself, I have come to believe the decisions are purely subjective. Subjective and arbitrary, depending on the mood, time of day, weather, status of family relations and digestion of the editor.

A Postscript on C.S. Lewis and Stead

After the diary excerpt cited above, Lewis continues with a bit more about the brash American.

Stead gave me the proof of his new book, The Sweet Miracle, wh. I took away. So far it seems rather dull. Worked for the rest of the day, except for a nightcap of Repington.

If you would like to assess for yourself the “dullness” of Stead’s poetry, you can download a copy of The Sweet Miracle and Other Poems via Hathitrust.

The book Lewis refers to as his “nightcap” was a history of the First World War, in which he had personally served. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington, a war correspondent. Both volumes are available for your bedtime reading (volume one, volume two).


* “Typed very accurately for one pound.”

** Also referred to as the “round file.”

 

 

 

 

comfort bunny

Some people flee from those who are depressed. Others feel compelled to do their best to lift their spirits. Did you react the same way as C.S. Lewis to the suffering of others?

Recently I’ve had the privilege of sharing the anguish of several people who see no solution to their personal challenges. In truth, even though I sincerely believe “with God, all things are possible,” it is likely that these particular dilemmas will trouble these people the remainder of their lives.

Some people are “fixers,” or problem-solvers. They want to step in, quickly resolve the difficulty, and return to their normal routine as soon as possible. When faced with an intransigent challenge, they typically get called away by other matters, or they fade into the background.

There is a sort of spectrum when it comes to offering comfort to people. At one end, we have the people who offer insincere clichés like “I’m so sorry.” These remarks are often an automatic response and the only thing the speaker is “sorry” about is having their time “wasted” by the litany of another’s suffering.

Better than these liars, are the pretenders. They actually do feel sorry for the person when they say so. Only, they’re not sorry enough to actually devote another moment’s thought to their pain. They are hypocrites, because if they really understood what the word sorrow means, they would understand that it doesn’t evaporate into the mists six mere heartbeats after it is experienced.

Most people fall further along the spectrum, where we might place sympathy and empathy. Although the words are frequently used interchangeably, this site offers a concise definition of their differences.

In essence, when we are empathetic, we identify more intimately with the sufferer. It seems to me that empathy, often viewed as a sort of super-sympathy, is not necessarily the mark of a better sympathizer. Sometimes it corresponds to our own life experiences. For example, while my mother was still living I could readily sympathize with those who had lost their own. After my mom’s untimely death, I found myself naturally, and sometimes intensely, empathizing with their grief.

Genuine sympathy is a precious commodity. But it must grant higher honor to that form of consolation that puts our emotional concern into actual action. The specific actions are less important than the fact that we have physically placed the needs of the other ahead of our own. They might consist of attending to someone’s responsibilities while they are incapacitated, or simply holding a hand for long hours in a silent bedside vigil. The form matters little; the essence of the gift is everything. It is nothing less than love in action.

Lewis’ Compassionate Heart

Lewis constantly offered consolation to those with whom he corresponded. Our last post included an excellent example of this. What made his brief expressions of concern so powerful was not their eloquence. It was their sincerity. As we read the words we have no doubt that Lewis meant them. What’s more, when he said that he was praying for someone, he truly was.

Lewis also incorporated moving scenes of compassionate empathy in his fiction. Read how Steven Garber described the comfort he has received from the Chronicles of Narnia.

“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last,” Lewis once wrote. Over the years, in the moments when life seems bleakest, when I can only sigh or groan, I have come back again and again to The Magician’s Nephew. . . .

Lewis gives us an image that is profoundly rich and wonderfully tender. We need both. The tears of God are complex. They must be tears of sympathy, even empathy, as Aslan weeps for Digory’s mother and as Jesus weeps with his friends at the death of their brother.

But sometimes they are also tears of anger at the unnaturalness of death, at the distortion of death, at the skewing of human hopes, as Jesus “groaned severely in his spirit” at the death of Lazarus. (Visions of Vocation)

One of the clearest examples of consolation offered by Lewis is found in his provision for Mrs. Moore, the mother of a WWI friend. The story is complex, but it is based upon Lewis keeping a promise—that if one of them died in the trenches, the other would care for that soldier’s parent.

Lesser men would have conveniently forgotten their vow, but Lewis provided for her from 1917 until her death in 1951. Their relation during the early years is uncertain, but there is no doubt that after his conversion to Christianity, it was chaste. Lewis was dutiful, like a true son, in caring for a woman more than twenty-five years his senior, whose own daughter acknowledged was emotionally abusive towards Lewis.

Professor Alice von Hildebrand offers a candid essay on this sensitive subject here. She includes the following quotation from the diary of Lewis’ brother, Warnie, who was a member of the same household.

One of Jack’s friends is supposed to have said, “Cursed be the day that thou fell into the hands of the Moore.” Warren gave vent to his frustration and constant irritation by confiding in his diary. He writes:

“It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s [Jack, the name by which Lewis’ friends addressed him] life is subordinated to hers—financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens . . .”

True Compassion

An essay on this subject could easily grow into a book. To avoid that, I will restrain myself to one final point.

Only a master of language, and an astute student of humanity, recognizes the immense power, and the fragile limitation, of words. Ironically, it is when they are most important—such as in the offering of comfort to someone bereaved—that their shortcomings are most clear.

In the wake of the unbearable loss of his wife, Joy, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed. In this enlightening text, he points out the hollowness of mere words.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

This is something few people recognize before they are the recipients of word-oriented attempts at comfort. That’s why we stumble about saying things that frequently provide precious little true consolation.

Lewis had learned that abstract theological declarations—even those based on certain promises of God—do little to remove the deep sting of death. Far more effective, is sharing the crippling pain of the loss. To offer, as Jesus did to the sisters of Lazarus, one’s own tears.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts on the nature of genuine consolation.

_____

The illustration above comes from a thirteenth century manuscript. I have included it here, because the effort of the rabbit seeking to console the forlorn bird seems quite Narnianesque. It echoes the essence of Lewis’ childhood world of Boxen as well, and I imagine that C.S. Lewis would have enjoyed this marginalia on its own merit.

home guard stamp

If you were going to enlist in the military, which branch of the armed forces would you choose? And why?

The choice would have great consequences. The simple fact is that despite their similar charters, not all branches are created equal. Your choice will influence countless aspects of your life, including your post-military employment options and even the likelihood of whether or not you’ll survive your enlistment.

Gallup recently completed research into which branch of the armed forces most Americans would encourage someone to join. The Air Force came out on top.

Americans hold all branches of the U.S. military in high regard, but that does not necessarily translate into a desire to see their loved ones enlist. Fewer than half would be likely to recommend joining the Coast Guard (48%), Marines (43%) or Army (41%) to their children or grandchildren, while a majority would be likely to recommend the Navy (53%) or Air Force (64%).

As a chaplain, I heard some amazing reasons for people’s choice of service. One Army NCO told me, “I was leaning toward the Air Force until the Army recruiter pulled out this huge poster covered with every imaginable weapon, and said, ‘we’ll teach you how to use all of these.’” Not a bad technique for persuading testosterone-fueled eighteen-year-olds to sign on the dotted line.

One young woman who had served a tour in the Marines told me she didn’t even consider another option. “It was the Corps or nothing,” she said, before shouting “Semper Fi!” The USMC has the advantage of requiring fewer recruits and has brilliantly fostered a reputation as “the most prestigious of the military branches.”

A common motivator for Navy recruits seems to be the exotic locations of many of their installations. Can’t argue with that. Most of them are located on or near coasts, while the Air Force strategically places its bases where a falling aircraft would have the smallest chance of injuring someone on the ground. Places like Lubbock, Texas, where I served my first active duty tour at Reese AFB. [The people in Lubbock are amazing patriots.]

The Coast Guard, a sometimes-military organization, attracts people interested in their search and rescue ethos. This despite the fact that most of their mission involves enforcing laws and protecting the nation’s borders.

The Air Force draws lots of recruits who are interested in pursuing technical fields. The other services have similar career paths, of course, but the clear perception is that the Air Force offers the most. Still, it’s a bit embarrassing to share here the reason one friend of mine chose the USAF. Actually, it was his reason for choosing the chaplain assistant career field in particular. “I told them at basic training that I would take any job where I worked in a climate-controlled environment.” He was serious, but the last laugh was on him. When we deploy to the field, chaplain assistants are not only responsible their own safety, they have to protect their noncombatant chaplains as well (in any weather).

The different branches of the military go to war against their nation’s enemies—but they also maintain intense rivalries with their sister services. This competition is usually fun to observe . . . as long as alcohol is not in the vicinity.

C.S. Lewis’ Military Service

In the United Kingdom, the Navy is the senior service. Seems fitting for an island nation. That doesn’t mean that the Army traditions, which date back to historic militias, lack prestige.

During the First World War, C.S. Lewis was exempt from the draft. This, because he was from Northern Ireland. Despite this, he followed his brother Warren into the Royal Army.

Warnie was a career officer, graduating in 1914 from an expedited course at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Jack, in contrast, was one of many young college students who were subjected to a far more rapid training regimen, commissioned, and shipped off to the front.

In 1918 C.S. Lewis was severely wounded. One writer summarizes this event quite effectively.

The Lewis who crawled away from the carnage was not yet the C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Then, he was like so many others who fought in World War I—just another wounded soldier desperate not to bleed to death.

Eventually Lewis would wear another “military” uniform during the Second World War—that of the Home Guard (originally called the “Local Defence Volunteers”). But that is a curious story for another day. Lewis patrolled Oxford in a uniform similar to those portrayed in the photos on this page.

Lewis did not have formal personal ties to the Navy, although his maternal grandfather, a Church of Ireland priest, had served as chaplain in the Royal Navy.

During WWII Lewis developed a warm relationship with members of the Royal Air Force. He offered lectures at a number of installations and taught at the RAF Chaplain School. Although his first lecture began rather inauspiciously, his work with the airmen proved extremely fruitful.

Lewis is a fine example of the man of gentle demeanor who “does his duty” when called upon by his country. Had his lifetime not overarched two global conflicts, he would have been utterly content to remain a civilian and wear the “uniform” of an Oxbridge professor.

home guard

 

Desiring Silence

July 19, 2016 — 12 Comments

coptic quietDo you enjoy noise, or do your mind and soul long for moments of silence? If you appreciate escaping the cacophony of sounds that weigh against you, you’re in good company. The Inklings were men who respected the value of silence.

I attended a funeral for a former parishioner today. The fact that I did not conduct the service allowed me to sit beside my wife who shared my sincere fondness for the saint we were bidding farewell.

The service was comforting, being resurrection-focused as such matters ought to be. Despite our singing three hymns during its course, it was also quiet. Quiet in the sense of calm and peaceful like a deep brook that rushes along in relative silence, compared to its chattering companions that dance across the rocks in a shallow creek.

Joe was a humble man, though he was one of the rare breed who truly deserve the accolade of being part of the “greatest generation.” Though he never bragged about it, he served throughout the Second World War, and survived D-Day while landing in just the second wave at Omaha Beach.

It was a service that befitted a humble ninety-two-year-old man who faithfully ushered at his church up until his death. A man who had spent most of his life in activities serving others, and who kept his marital vows to his now widowed bride for seventy years.

Reflecting on that quality this afternoon, I recalled how silence was appreciated by the Inklings. C.S. Lewis expressed this thought on many occasions. One of the best known comes from The Weight of Glory.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

Lewis’ opinion of noise went beyond disdain. He even included a description in The Screwtape Letters of how noise itself could serve malevolent purposes.

My dear Wormwood: Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father [Lucifer] entered Hell . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.

We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The world has only gotten noisier since Lewis wrote those words. And silence is in ever-shorter supply. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I appreciate living in the forest, where even the tentacles of cable television do not reach. Their absence contributes to an involuntary amplification of the silence that resides around our home.

Tolkien Shared Lewis’ Opinion

Since I’ve been reading some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s correspondence recently, the following excerpt came to my mind.

Like many thinkers, and nearly all writers, Tolkien found noise distracting. In a 1964 letter, he wrote the following description of the sounds that assaulted him in his neighborhood. (The last sentence is particularly delightful.)

Headington is no paradise of peace. Sandfield Road was a cul-de-sac when I came here, but was soon opened at the bottom end, and became for a time an unofficial lorry by-pass, before Headley Way was completed. Now it is a car-park for the field of ‘Oxford United’ at the top end. While the actual inhabitants do all that radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest, can do to produce noise from early morn to about 2 a.m.

In addition in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group.

What a vivid description. But one would expect nothing less from the creator of Middle Earth.

The same year as the Allied attack on Normandy, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was in South Africa earning his wings with the Royal Air Force. A veteran of the First World War, the concerned father knew all too well what might lie ahead. In 1944 he wrote the following:

I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination, other than a series of quiet inns. One of the too long delayed delights we must promise ourselves, when it pleases God to release us and reunite us, is just such a perambulation, together, preferably in mountainous country, not too far from the sea, where the scars of war, felled woods and bulldozed fields, are not too plain to see.

Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis was also a veteran of the “war to end all wars.” The Inklings, like all Europeans of their generation, were acutely acquainted with warfare and its costs. Still, because of their wisdom and faith, Tolkien and Lewis were confident the Allies would prevail. They trusted that the blessed silence of peace would ultimately triumph over war’s cries.

In that light, we continue reading from Tolkien’s letter to Christopher. Immediately after his suggestion to Christopher that the two of them take a walking tour, Tolkien describes the plans the Inklings had already established to celebrate the eventual end of the war.

The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it entirely in beer and talk, without reference to any clock!

I don’t recall reading about their intentions before, but it has made me curious as to whether or not these dreams were ever realized. If they were, I am certain that the absence of other guests, and the removal of all clocks, would have made for a calm, quiet and renewing week indeed.

_____

The image above comes from an eighth century Coptic fresco.

A more modern image of silence, although originating all the way back in 1965, would be the “cone of silence,” which will be familiar to fans of the series Get Smart. For reflections on that theme, you might want to check out the this article.

If you aren’t familiar with the aforementioned cone, take two minutes to rectify that shortcoming by watching this video.

night patrolThe poetry of a dead veteran spoke to me today. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in a sense his life lives on in the descriptions of Middle Earth.

In a recent column my Canadian friend Brenton Dickieson, introduced me to one of the many poets whose lives tragically ended on the battlefields of WWI.

Professor Dickieson describes the context of a new film about the impact of the war on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is called Tolkien’s Great War. It is based on the book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

You will find a link to the half hour documentary below, and I strongly—yes, strongly—encourage you to watch it. It is quite moving.

Like most members of their generation, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were deeply moved by the horrors of the First World War. Both served on the front lines, in the grim trenches, during the bloody conflict. And they lost friends. I’ve written in the past about their military service, including posts herehere, and here.

The Deceased Poet

The documentary describes the untimely deaths of two of Tolkien’s closest friends during the war. One of them, Geoffrey Bache Smith, was a poet.

Following his death, Tolkien gathered together his writings and published them as a tribute to his friend. It was one of the earliest contributions to a wealth of soldier’s poetry that would deluge grieving Europeans by the close of the conflict.

Due to the brevity of his life, the collection, published as A Spring Harvest, is short. Tolkien also penned an introduction to the work which is equally Spartan. The literary austerity is fitting, given the sad reason for the volume’s brevity. The introduction, in full, reads:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J.R.R.T., 1918.

The poems themselves run the gamut of emotions. This is unsurprising, given that some were born during the idyll dreams of youth, while others were forged by the anvil of war.

The limited press run of the book has made it difficult to find. Fortunately, it is now available for free via Project Gutenberg.

While the poems include the familiar references to the “old gods” so common to the period, there are also some moving references to a more Christian ethos.

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

Tolkien and Smith formed half of the T.C.B.S., a communion knit together during the school years. The war would cut that number in half, as poignantly described in Tolkien and the Great War. The first of the companions had already died, and five months later Smith was spending the final moments of his own life encouraging his friend to press on, whatever might befall him.

Before reading Smith’s “So We Lay Down the Pen,” consider his final letter to Tolkien. He wrote it as he prepared to lead a night scout through dead man’s land at the front. It was dangerous duty which did indeed, that very evening, cost him his life.

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered [ambushed and killed] tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S.

Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

Tolkien compiled Smith’s poems as a tribute. And, when he wrote his masterpieces, there is a profound sense in which he truly did say things his friends had tried to say, long after they were not there to say them.

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.

 

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 9 Comments

saharaYes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!

In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.

I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.

It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.

I am not proposing idolatry.

I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.

Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.

The authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.

It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,

their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.

Crimson combat splashed red their vision,

and colored portraits one day painted with their words.

The frontlines were barren,

scarred earth stripped of all life.

Fallen trees mimicked casualties,

not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.

It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.

So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.

If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.

_____

Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.