Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


On Meekness and Humility

"Learn of me," he says, "becasue I am meek and humble of heart." Meekness keeps the temper steady, and humility frees the mind from conceit and vainglory.

St. Maximus Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love


Pope Benedict on Reason

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

Pope Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections

{This of course is the speech that has raised so much unreasonable furor- ironic considering the speech's actual content- in the Islamic world. It is in fact a nice speech, though it has precious little to do with Islam. Besides that, his Holiness says nothing innacurate in regards to Islam, and certainly not in regards to Manuel II's perceptions of it.}


Julius Yarezky, Originally of Poland But Later of Shuqualak, Mississippi: Postwar

A Dialogue in Two Parts


Julius Yarezky: Once we climbed the white stone
All slick, slipping by the Noxubee
And above the trees sleeping at the riverside
We rested, held our vigil on the
Lilting lightly brown brimming water.
Do you remember that day?
(I did not forget.)

His Son: There are many things I’ve forgotten.
That was many years past, I guess.
So much distance, time, in the

Julius: Well.
Much, so much, I would forget
Other things (not that time though, there and then)
But the worst too deeply ingrain
I would speak them up but for
All the things broken loose when they’re released.
When the way is ash
It filters through your clothes
Clogs up your nose and
Fills in the spaces left void.
No matter how hard you shake your shoes
And clap your hands around again.
All the distances: oceans crossed, of water and blood
Come clinging hard and deep.


(Interlude. Julius remains in Shuqualak; his son is away at school again; his son writes to him.)

Son: Father:
The text alone
Unfleshed and unsouled
(In the space beyond the reckoning)
Only carries through so far
And though we lift aloft the word
It is only more than page when it becomes spoken
When it finds its locus in the known
In some inner, selfsame connection.
That leads me to this:
What can you tell
Me of the War lately passed?

Julius: If I could embrace you
And breathe in the memory
Call to you the terror and the flame
The faces of the dead and the final stillness-
All things these words fall flat on-
Certainly you would recoil
And fear for your own father,
For the things I’ve done, seen, hated.
It was
An awful thing, my son, that war: all wars-
And I charge you this, short of my
Skill to speak these things:
I charge you:
(Write this also upon your brow)
Do not be beguiled by the flash of sword
Clash of spurs and guns rimrods clinging-
Dead men speaking’s heroics
Flee fast those things and say:
My father has felt that way forward
And stumbled through its night.
No, nothing really ever passes.
The ash is still clinging.

{Julius Yarezky was a Polish Jewish immigrant to America who settled in Shuqualak, MS, sometime before the Civil Warand gradually rose in society from his initial occupation as a scrap-collector and peddlar. During the war he served with distinction in the Confederate army, and after it he was a fairly well-off and prominent citizen of Shuqualak (which is also my hometown of sorts), even being elected mayor. His son went to boarding school after the death of Mrs Yarezky (whom Julius had met outside of Meridian while Sherman was razing that town in 1864); at some point he wrote to his father asking about the war. I don't have the full text of Mr Yarezky's response but I incorporated the sentiments somewhat here.}


Following Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was a fourteenth century Moroccan who, at the age of twenty-one, went on the hajj to Mecca, then found that wandering was in his blood, and thus proceeded to tramp all over the known world. He traveled to India and China, sailed about Southeast Asia, went all over Central Asia, met with a former Byzantine Emperor, and wandered around sub-Saharan Africa, including a jaunt over the Sahara with a trading caravan. Those would be considerable accomplishments in today's world- in his time they were truly remarkable, for scope and duration. However, it should be noted he had far less trouble crossing borders and such compared to a modern-day traveler.

Someone apparently is retracing Ibn Battuta's steps, and she's blogging about it at Girl Solo in Arabia. She's made it so far from Morocco across North Africa into Egypt at present. But where Ibn Battuta simply crossed North Africa without hindrance (other than the occasional threat of Arab raiders), she was forced to turn around at the Morocco-Algeria border and instead fly to Algeria.


Maternal Grandfather

Ch’oi Hong-kwan, our maternal grandfather,
was so tall his high hat would reach the eaves,
scraping the sparrows’ nests under the roof.
He was always laughing.
If our grandmother offered a beggar a bite to eat,
he was always the first to be glad.
If our grandmother ever spoke sharply to him,
he’d laugh, paying no attention to what she said.
Once, when I was small, he told me:
‘Look, if you sweep the yard well
the yard will laugh.
If the yard laughs,
the fence will laugh.
Even the morning-glories
blossoming on the fence will laugh.’

Ko Un, from Ten Thousand Lives (Maninbo)


On War

If the existence of war always implies injustice in one at least of the parties concerned, it is also the frightful parent of crimes. It reverses, with respect to its objects, all rules of morality. It is nothing less than a temporary repeal of the principles of virtue. It is a system out of which almost all the virtues are excluded, and in which nearly all the vices are incorporated. Whatever renders human nature amiable or respectable, whatever engages love or confidence, is sacrificed at its shrine. In instructing us to consider a portion of our fellow-creatures as the proper objects of enmity, it removes, as far as they are concerned, the basis of all society, of all civilization and virtue; for the basis of these is the good-will due to every individual of the species, being a part of ourselves…

The sword, and that alone, cuts asunder the bond of consanguinity which unites man to man. As it immediately aims at the extinction of life, it is next to impossible, upon the principle that every thing may be done to him whom we have a right to kill, to set limits on military license; for, when men pass from the dominion of reason to that of force, whatever restraints are attempted to be laid on the passions will be feeble and fluctuating…. The rules of morality will not suffer us to promote the dearest interest by falsehood; the maxims of war applaud it when employed in the destruction of others. That a familiarity with such maxims must tend to harden the heart, as well as to pervert the moral sentiments, is too obvious to need illustration....

Detesting war, considered as a trade or profession, and conceiving conquerors to be the enemies of the species, it appears to me that nothing is more suitable to the office of a Christian minister, than an attempt, however feeble, to take off the colours from false greatness, and to show the deformity which its delusive splendour too often conceals. This is perhaps one of the best services religion can do to society. Nor is there any more necessary. For, dominion affording a plain and palpable distinction, and every man feeling the effects of power, however incompetent he may be to judge of wisdom and goodness, the character of a hero, there is reason to fear, will always be too dazzling. The sense of his injustice will be too often lost in the admiration of his success.

Rev. Robert Hall, Sermon On War, 1802

(Robert Hall was a British Baptist minister with whom I am not particularly familiar; I came across this passage while doing book conversation work in the archive of the museum in which I am presently employed on work-study. I thought the excerpts from his sermon on war- which has quite a few outspoken and powerful such passages- presents an interesting, if historical, Evangelical voice on the nature and morality of war, in contradistinction to many contemporary Evangelical voices.)


Ibn Khaldun On History

History is a discipline widely cultivated among nations and races. It is eagerly sought after. The men in the street, the ordinary people, aspire to know it. Kings and leaders vie for it.

Both the learned and the ignorant are able to understand it. For on the surface histroy is no more than information about political events, dynasties, and occurences of the remote past, elegantly presented and spied with proverbs. It serves to entertain large, crowded gatherings and brings us an understanding of human affairs. It shows how changing conditions affected human affairs, how certain dynasties came to occupy an ever wider space in the world, and how they settled the earth until they heard the call and their time was up

The inner meaning of history, on the other hand, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events. History, therefore, is firmly rooted in philosophy. It deserves to be accounted a branch of philosophy.

Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah


Give & Take

In Return of the Tribes in the Weekly Standard Ralph Peters(tip to Eunomia) writes an insightful article, though it is rather over-indulgent in his own thesis, which concerns the staying power of globalism in its contemporary manifestation. Globalism, of course, is nowhere near being a new or modern phenomenom: we have only lately seen the demise (largely) of the last great neo-colonialist system, namely in Soviet and Maoist Communism. Before that was European colonialism, and before that were numerous systems, empirialist and otherwise, that sought some form of globalism. Some have been more successful than others.

Mr Peters focuses upon the experience of Islam and Christianity and its advance from the Near East to the rest of the world, and finds in that expereince parallels with contemporary globalism. He points out that both religions have found difficulty in transposing their systems to insular peoples, particularly those of the forests, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a great deal of truth in his claims. However, he seems to set up to strong of a contrast between local manifestations of the given faith and the percieved 'global' orthodox manifestation of that faith. Several problems arise with such a contradistinction. First, particularly with Islam, both faiths begin as 'local' faiths, albiet with a universal vision. Yet each is initially very firmly connected with the localized manifestation of faith, praxis, and culture in which it began, both on a conscious level and the unconcious. In Islam there is a continuous undertone of regional conflicts, regional ideas, and regional people, that is manifested in the Quran and thus becomes part of the deposit of orthodoxy. The importance of the Ka'aba and its haram, the sacred precint, which is crucial to one of the Five Pillars, is for example a uniquiely local religious phenomenom, though of course it has reflections in all religious systems. Likewise in Christianity Jewish ideas and local practices coexist with more uniquiely Christian ones.

This process of give-and-take, in which local elements are either adapted, combatted, or somehow subsumed, into 'orthodoxy,' has always existed within the context of the global/local interaction. Another example one might raise in regards to both Islam and Christianity is the cultus of the saints. In neither one is it explicit in core Scripture and initial doctrine- yet it arises very soon. In Islam of course there is more initial disagreement- the Quran has a couple of verses that would seem to rather explicitly disbar the Christian cultus of the saints- yet it rather quickly becomes an important aspect in much of the Islamic world.

In both the cultus of the saints becomes one of the arguably most important means of give-and-take and hence integration of local concerns and identity within an orthodox context: and it does so without sacrificing orthodoxy, or even catholicity. For a Turkic (Sunni) Muslim of Central Asia or China, or an Anglo-Saxon Christian of Northumbria, the cultus of the saints very early on provides a way to centre the new faith in the local community. First, it provides a definite, incarnate locus of the new faith, both concretely- the saint while alive teaches and preaches and works miracles- but also in a more metaphysical/self-identity way, particularly after the saint's death. St. Such-and-Such becomes our saint, his shrine is here in our town or region: yet he continues to exist within the broader religious community, whether of the umma or the Church Catholic. Thus the saint becomes both a means of local identity and local integration into the 'global' religious community.

The give-and-take continues under the cultus of the saints. Mr Peters notes- rightly- a tendency in developing world Christianity and Islam to emphasize 'temporal' things, such as healings, aid in prosperity, and such. The desire for concrete, here-and-now manifestations of spiritual realities is certainly very strong in 'non-Western' societies-and, actually, Western ones, as it is silly for various reasons to call Latino Christians 'non-Western.' But that is another topic. Anyway, these temporal blessings are a strong drive in much of the world- in my limited travels and interaction with non-Western Christians it has been quite noticeable. And yes, usually when I am around Christians who talk quite candidly about healings and such, I begin to feel a little nervous. Yet arguably it is I who am out of touch with the broader Christian experience. For again we find, actually from the very beginning, a bold and central affirmation of miracles.

And this affirmation again undergoes a give-and-take interaction with local cultures, in both Christianity and Islam, under the cultus of the saints. Now, the supposed collapsing of local gods and spirits into saints is overblown and usually inaccurate (Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints is an excellent examination of this topic), but it is not inaccurate to say that the cultus meets local needs and ideas. Indeed, one may recall Pope Gregory's instruction to handle pagan culture lightly- not to engage in syncrynism, but to seek to mold the give-and-take, inherent in such interactions, so as to at once remain orthodox yet meet local needs within a local context. One of these was and is the need for physical things. Healings and other miracles are strongly associated with the saints, and their shrines become centres of healing, which further reinforce their status as locii of local identity and catholic integration. I might also note that just because people believe in miracles and such strongly it does not necessarily follow that they are uninterested in the more transendental aspects. People are quite capable of maintaing both. But that is really a whole different topic.

All of that is to emphasize that to characterize the interaction of 'global' orthodoxy and the local is artificial if it over-collapses the interaction into a simple dichotomy. Mr Peters actually does not do this, though there are plenty who do- and certainly, some approaches to the give-and-take become little more than power struggles and a great deal of 'taking,' usually by one side. Yet even in those- such as the great European colonial projects- there is still a lot of local semi-autonomy and even voluntary integration.

What does this mean for current globalization? Mr Peters suggests that if projects such as democratic governance are going to function in many places, we must be aware of local needs and identity: this is very true. And I would suggest that the ancient process of give-and-take, resistance and integration, will continue. I doubt that this will always, or even often, lead to a massive rectification of local identity against the outside world, against the 'other.' It will certainly happen sometimes, but it is not guaranteed in any situation- and differnt localities have different approaches and traditions regarding their interaction with the other.

But then, history and the interpretation of it is never simple. Which is what makes it often tragic, often surprising (even in a good way), and always fascinating.


Thoughts on Irony and Sincerity

I am an ironic person. I've been resorting to sarcasm and dry humour ever since I can remember. I suspect it has something to do with my having always been the shortest and least athletic boy in elementary school- one learns certain methods of equalizing one's circumstances. That includes making insults. I suppose I discovered at some point that I could insult some people with sarcastic remarks and they wouldn't pick them up. Which precluded them from retaliating, as one must be aware of the strike to retaliate.

In being ironic and sarcastic, I am quite in conjunction with contemporary culture. One needn't look far to find the sense that for many, there is nothing left to do in the postmodern world but make fun of things and go around being ironic and self-referential. This comes perhaps as a defensive reflex in the face of a world that ceases to possess meaning or value. If the world is without actual meaning or value then the natural reaction is one of loss and emptiness. As a defense we make fun of the meaningless world in all its manifestations- many of which are admittedly very easy to make fun of. But in order to shield ourselves from the entirety of the world we must launch sarcastic assaults on everthing, from birth to death to everything and everyone in between. Hence the proliferation of endlessly sarcastic and ironic culture and art.

And so we go on using irony and sarcasm as a sort of defensive measure, a 'coping' device, whether in the face of personal setbacks and struggles or a breakdown of worldview (or all of the above together). Which is perfectly understandable. The problematic bit comes in when we are reduced to nothing buy making fun of things, when sincerity is completely stripped and the world becomes a house of mirrors of ironic discourse on one item after another, with no base of meaning or value in sight. I don't go quite that far, but I find myself indulging in sarcasm when it's not appropriate- and again, often as way of getting in insults.

So what is the place of sarcasm and irony? Well, one of the first things to be noted is the place of irony and dry humour in the Bible. It's all over the place, from St. Paul telling some of his oppononents to go castrate themselves to the abundance of dryly humoured puns in the Old Testament. We may extract the virtue of irony, sarcasm, satire and such here: they are best used on the offensive, not the defensive. Evil should be mocked- laugh at the devil, said Martin Luther. But in order for irony and such to be virtuous and truly effective, they must have something behind them. They must have a solidly placed sincerity, grounded in meaning and value.

There are signs of hope, of return to sincerity, in contemporary culture and art. The recently-released indie film Little Miss Sunshine, for example, while quite funny and laced with plenty of irony and satire, is remarkably sincere at heart. The film deals with a dysfunctional family, which is a classic send-up for sarcasm and satire. Yet in the end the family is affirmed and retains a sincere core, even managing to ask- and refrain from subsequently lampooning- serious questions about life and meaning.

The- sort of- resurgence in interest in folk music, bluegrass, and that sort of thing, is, I think, another manifestation of a desire to return to sincerity. The increased popularity of indie folk-pop musician Sufjan Stevens, among many, is evidence of a desire for art that has meaning and refuses to simply deliver endless sendups of life and being. Sufjan's ongoing project to record albums for all fifty states is a good example. There is something ironic in talking about recording that many albums, and there is irony and self-referential material in Sufjan, but the core is sincerity, particular in the material concerning the states he's covered so far. Instead of mocking rural places or decaying cities or suburbs his music seeks to draw out the meaning and beauty in those things- not tear them apart for entertainment value.

I could relate other examples in various aspects of art and culture: not necesarily 'mainstream' culture, as defined by what gets played on cable and (most) radio, but what is out there and being listened to, read, and viewed, by at least some people in contemporary culture. Those of us who look upon the (seemingly) prevailing currents of culture should not lose hope; nor should we ourselves retreat behind the same sorts of barriers- which is something I struggle with. St. Augustine said many centuries ago, 'You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.' This remains true: people sense behind their claims of emptiness and endless mirrors the existence of something or maybe even Someone. It is the job of those who know that Someone to provide sincere and authentic expressions of Him to culture. And in so doing there is nothing wrong with the careful, offensive use of irony and satire, so long as it has grounding in sincerity and meaning.