The Journey of the Magi

Advent is coming and is almost here. It is a season of ‘yet and not yet.’ Christ has come to us and Christ is not yet arrived; we have gone to him and we have not yet gone to him. It is a season of dual anticipation, for what is coming soon (the season of Christmas) and for what is at an unknown distance (the coming of Christ).

I have been strongly impacted the last few months by the Advent image of the journey of the Magi. The story is incredibly familiar to us, but also incredibly short. Much of what must have gone on is left unsaid. It is an element of this silence that has captured my imagination.

Totally not kings.

We three Kings

One of the few facts we know is that there were more than one Magi. Traditionally it is said that there were three, not only because of the three gifts but also because the world was divided into three parts. Thus one Magi was Asian, one African, one European. One can only assume that after such a journey (and probably before) they were friends. It is this friendship that inspires me. They traveled together through undoubted hardship, presented powerfully by T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” The goal of this journey was nothing short of God himself.

This is our task as Christians, to follow the star to Christ wherever he is. But contrary to contemporary opinion, this is a journey to be taken together, as a community and in particular as friends. Here friendship finds it’s highest form, aiding each other to pursue the greatest good. We are all coming from the east, through uncertainty, to know Christ. And we too shall be overjoyed by each guiding light leading us to him.

I leave you with Eliot’s poem. It does not emphasize the side of friendship but it captures the challenge and struggle of this journey we all undertake. I recommend listening to Eliot himself read it.

The Journey Of The Magi

Of orient are . . .

Of orient are . . .

 

‘A cold coming we had

of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

 

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

 

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Justin Burgard is getting prepared. Advent is coming.

The Problem With the Friend Zone

This is a continuation (after a fashion) of this post.

The Friend Zone is more or less universally a negative place. The individual pursuing romance is frustrated by the fact that the relationship is stuck at the level of friends. To be Friend-Zoned is to lose out.

Yet this is certainly strange on two levels. The first level has been pointed out often before me: being a friend is not a bad thing. The idea that somehow your relationship is ruined because you can’t have romance/sex with the other is highly demeaning to the majority of the relationships one is in. Our inability to value friendship is damaging.

Recently I was talking with a friend about why I thought dating is problematic today (not the concept but the practice): “we have forgotten how to be friends” as a culture. This is fairly obvious. It does not mean that nobody is a friend or there are no friends; rather people generally presume romantic entanglements on any couple of people. Two people can hardly have dinner together without there being a presumption of romance (a recent article presumed that since Jennifer Lawrence had something nice to say about someone they might well be “Hollywood’s next a-list couple”). Others have commented on this better than I.

The second level is the one I feel has been neglected, or at least poorly presented: being a friend is the only sure foundation for a marriage. We see this in the idea of “marrying your best friend” but when it comes to practice this rarely means anything more than “marrying the person you spend the most time with.” It tends toward an impoverished definition of friendship.

Our romance-saturated storytelling reminds us over and over again that the best foundation for a lasting marriage is head-over-heals in-love-ness. Once we find that incredible emotion that is indescribable we know we’ve found “the one” and our romance concerns are over.

Any survey of marriage survival rates will disprove you of this notion, at least until you next fall in love.

Friendship.

Friendship.

When I consider the attributes I am looking for in a future spouse the first one is friendship. I have no interest in hoping my random sentimentality (to use Pope St. John Paul II’s term) will result in a good (much less successful) match. Rather, friendship—in the serious, Aristotelian sense (likewise espoused by C.S. Lewis)—is a system for success which is a natural platform to grow sentimentality and romance.

The hardest part about this idea is that it is so simple it feels almost ‘wrong.’ It can be summed up as “friendship is better for marriage than romance” which tends to sound like I’m saying I don’t like romance (a charge I have been forced to answer on several occasions). It is not that I dislike romance/sentimentality, but rather that I find friendship so much more powerful. I want to marry my best friend because there is no one else I would rather spend the rest of my life with.

In the end, this is not an opposition to the romance in our culture. It is an opposition to how we go about finding that romance. It is much easier to turn your friendship into a romance than your romance into a friendship. And in the end, it is better to have one true friendship than a thousand romances.

Justin Burgard is finishing his MA in philosophy and eyeing one in theology.

August 3, 1964

A 22 year old Flannery O'Connor.

A 22 year old Flannery O’Connor.

Fifty years ago today, Flannery O’Connor died, after a 14 year battle with lupus. It is hard to say something about Ms. O’Connor that has not been said, so I will not say anything about her. Instead, I will speak about a friend of mine.

A few days ago this friend was diagnosed with lupus. She is slightly older than Flannery was when diagnosed; she also is a single mother. And, unless treatment is successful, she has 6 months to live.

The last year of her life resemble a Flannery O’Connor story: she was committed to a psychiatric hospital after staying awake for over a week. The first prognosis was sever bi-polar (with hallucinations). Multiple medicines were involved, her husband was addicted to prescription drugs, and she moved back in with her parents. She began to call friends to apologize for how she responded to what they may not have done in the past 10 years; many episodes were mild hallucinations. At first the drugs worked, then they stopped. There was a risk no cure would work. Then they determined the issue was with her myelin sheath and a whole new realm of solutions arose. Until the lupus prognosis. And we don’t know what will happen from here.

What can I say about all this? Not much. Prayer is the only answer and it is not the kind of answer we tend to like. Flannery O’Connor provided a glimpse into the mystery of life and death and the grotesque world it happens in. Her answer is the Catholic one, but it would take a lifetime (no matter how short) of experience to lay it out. So perhaps all I can say is pray and read some Flannery O’Connor.

Frozen Mentors

So, this post is a little late, but I work in a mall where a particular song plays six million times a day, and six year old girls, and high school students of both sexes sing along at the top of their lungs. You know what I’m talking about. I guess I’m slow. But I’m still thinking about it.

After a frenzy of giddy, hyperbolic approval from critics and viewers, articles digging a little deeper into Frozen started appearing in my news feed. They tended to be a bit reactionary in tone; hyperbole still reigned. Many of them had good points, under the exaggeration. The discussion went back and forth: BEST MOVIE EVER! vs. DECEPTIVELY PROGRESSIVE DRIVEL! It has been very interesting to watch our culture digest this latest offering from our family entertainment giant. I’d like to add my own little observation about what Frozen means to our culture, and especially to my generation.

I was born in the late eighties, and I remember going to see The Little Mermaid for the first time (and several times after that, and then getting my parents to buy a VCR just so I could have the VHS and watch it whenever I wanted). My early childhood was studded with Disney movies that make up something of a second golden age for the studio. They are classics; unparalleled until Pixar. Many of them are fairy tales.

Much has been written on what a fairy tale is and its purpose in the development of our imaginations and our moral sense. See Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and pretty much any of my other favorite authors. These tales are full of archetypes and metaphors that form the way we see the world.

Frozen breaks some of these conventions in very important ways. There is lots of talk about whether or not Frozen is a convention breaker, and whether or not that’s a good thing. But I want to point out one convention that was broken as representative of a pattern that is relevant to people who grew up with the more classic fairy tales of the early nineties.

Arial has Sebastian, the crab composer who is initially a loyal servant of her father, but eventually makes the choice to support and guide Arial, instead of serving her bigoted father.
The Beast has Belle to guide and help him become the person he was meant to be.
Simba has Rafiki. Even Aladdin has the Genie telling him to be himself.

A mentor is a very important archetype. They might walk with the protagonist every step of the way and have their own moral dilemmas and conflicts (like Sebastian). Their visible struggle is a good example to the protagonist and strengthens them for their own battles. Or they might say a few words at a crucial moment that change the course of the story (like Rafiki). They are often older and wiser and we are cued to trust their wisdom. When a character ignores them, we are anxious; when they follow a mentor’s advice, we are at peace.

Frozen has two sets of mentor characters: the parents of Elsa and Anna, and the trolls. It is clear that their parents love the two girls, and we are given all the right cues to trust the mystic wisdom of the trolls. They represent both the Sebastian and the Rafiki types. They both fail utterly. Elsa’s life is set on a path to destruction by the advice of the trolls, and she is psychologically damaged by her parents constant “help” in following the trolls advice.

I am personally ticked off at both of them because if they hadn’t messed Elsa’s life up, she wouldn’t have had to sing that vapid song.

The trolls advice was bad. The parents were completely motivated by fear, and their arrogance blinded them to their perfect incompetence to help their children. They didn’t deal with their own fears, but transferred them to their elder daughter. This video made me feel much better about it. That was the mentor Elsa needed.

A further word about the trolls. They are jerks. The song where they completely ignore the agency of Anna, and all conventional wisdom on which they were supposed to be experts, destroys all the mystery that built up their claim, and cued us in to their status as mystic mentor characters. Kristoff says they taught him that you shouldn’t get engaged to someone you just met. And then they try to marry him to someone he just met without consent from either Anna or Kristoff. Clearly they have issues with the practical vs the theoretical. They are hypocrites and borderline evil. Their one redeeming character is that they weren’t completely lying about the cure to the curse being an act of true love. They merely led Anna to believe that true loves kiss is the only qualified candidate for that act. Good thing she tries something else (which is, in my opinion, the redeeming moment for the whole movie. It would have been terrible if true loves kiss was what broke the spell).

I think us millennials feel a little betrayed by our mentors. A lot of the advice we were given was bad (see this post from last week) and then we were blamed for following it. Our mentors seemed wise and loving, but they ended up being hypocrites, unwilling to solve their own problems so that they could help us properly. Now we have to figure out what to do with our lives in the mess that is left around us and inside us.

It turns out that Elsa and Anna have to figure out their lives for themselves. They end up knowing better then their mentors. So do lots of young protagonists in stories lately. Harry Potter easily has better moral judgement than Sirius Black, or even Dumbledore sometimes. Percy Jackson has to teach the gods how to be decent parents. This is undeniably a travesty in the story. It echos the voices of lots of people my age asking “Why weren’t we prepared to live in this world? Why were so many of the things we were taught about life lies? Why do we have to figure out so many things for ourselves, and teach them to our parents?”

Luckily for Anna, Elsa, and my generation, there is one mentor in this story who is true to his role. He follows the old tradition notable in Shakespeare: He is the fool. I am referring, of course, to Olaf the snowman. He is the comic character. I thought that I would be annoyed by him. He is cute, and kind of dumb, and quite charming, in a silly sort of way. But he saves the story. He has the definition of love that sets Anna and Elsa free. He is no hypocrite like the trolls. He lives that definition of love by melting to keep Anna warm while he gives her this crucial piece of advice that sets her life back on a safe course. The wisdom of the fool saves the story.

My generation needs to find Olaf. And those of us who have found him need to point him out to our friends. He is walking beside us. He is a fool that the world laughs at and hates (they find him annoying at best). He is carrying a cross and wearing a crown of thorns.

Karen Mannino can’t think of facts about herself that are both true and interesting. She needs to let it go.

To My Companion in Mystery

We have yet to pledge in certainty –

made certain by pledge and not by time –

yet the state we wish to gain does wait for us

unclaimed but not unimagined.

The world presumes it has unpacked it,

dismantled its secrecy and made it simple,

rules and guides to live it with ease,

but how could the cross be easy?

Our eyes are painted with stars

of eros and venus and romance;

if we blink fast enough we imagine

there is nothing else coming from our union.

When it comes I hope I can say

“I do not marry you because I love you;”

love you I shall, more and more,

but I marry you that you may see Christ.

The Bread of Life, true Bridegroom,

what we consume together even now,

unsure to each other, as close as ever,

one in Christ before we become one in flesh.

Before the altar, in the churches heart

we form a new cell of the church;

and promise not unspoiled eros

but to have and hold the house undivided.

Together we aspire to a noble task,

to oversee the foundation of life,

bound together in a life not our own,

to live, die, in freedom’s heart.

We have been washed in greatness

and fed with Life itself; we shall ask only

to be bound in passing this on,

water and blood and the Spirit.

I cannot see when or where we come

and cease to be two but are one,

yet clear is the call of Christ and bright

his promise to fill and fulfill

and lead us into the mystery

now and ever and forever.

Annunciation

Discerning Life

I want to slay dragons!

I want to slay dragons!

‘You can do anything that you want!’ is a refrain often heard when we try to decide what to do when we grow up. Now that I’m older I have to ask ‘Why would we want too?’. I was given no hints on actual discernment. All I’ve learned so far is that I want to be an adult who doesn’t give kids crappy advice. ‘You can do anything you’ve set your mind too.’ is another one I heard, but how does one go about setting one’s mind? ‘Just follow your dream’ but nothing on how hard that may be or what they mean by dream (I’ve always wanted to be a wizard, that’s a dream right?). A bunch of spineless adults giving useless aphorisms (I don’t know how they managed that, unless they set their mind to it). You might think that growing up in a Christian community might be better, but ‘God has a plan for you’ only makes me cringe at the thought of messing the plan (that he didn’t deign to tell me) up.

This leads into my first piece of advice: God doesn’t give a shit (well He does, but not in the way you think). If God wanted everything to run perfectly like a well-oiled machine, He would have made us well-oiled machines. God wants us to get to heaven, so anything we choose to do has to glorify God. Remember the parable of the talents? Nothing in the parable says how they invested the talents the Master gave them, it was all about whether they used them in a way to increase the glory of their Lord, or not. If you are using your gifts to know, love, and serve God, that’s what God cares about.

Second piece of advice: know your gifts, desires, and passions. Perhaps you have a talent for figures, the only way to know that is to have done figures. The only way to know if you have a passion for cooking is by cooking. For example, I learned that I like to program because my brother gave me a how-to programming book and I worked through it. The joy I had (and still do) by building something through programming was something different than when I played with LEGO sets or Erector sets. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I had a passion for programming. Anything I end up doing for God, I want to show Him my love for Him through my love of programming. Once you know your gifts and passions,  you need to know your gifts and passions.

My third piece of advice: practice. Gifts and passions will fade if you do not use them. Use it, at least a little, every day. Cook a meal or snack to develop cooking, write an essay or poem to develop writing. Get your friends and family to help critique you so that you improve faster. A little bit a day, is better than none, even better than a lot. If you do too much you’ll burn out, then you’ll need a break. Do a big painting once a week or once a month, and small sketches every day in between. If you feel like you can do more, do so, but don’t overstuff yourself.

Once you have a goal, give yourself a deadline. If you don’t have a deadline, you’ll never get done. If you do have a deadline, a month, or five years, then you can break the project down into bits. A novel (50,000 words) in a month is about 1,700 words a day, in five years about 200 words a week, without a deadline: 1,000 words a day for a week then nothing.

Mommy!

Mommy!

My final piece of advice is prayer. Without God at the center of your discernment it will all be fruitless. If a toddler draws a crayon picture then puts it on the fridge himself, it means far less than if daddy put it on the fridge. Remember for whom you make refrigerator art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joshua Fahey is a Chestertonian who is still discerning

Revolution

Firework

Revolution to the infinity!

July 4th is approaching so I thought that rebellion and revolution would be an appropriate topic. Rebellion is the natural state for a Christian. Rebellion against one’s fallen nature, rebellion against fallen society, and rebellion against the devil. These rebellions often take form in a revolution, and the Christian is either preparing for one or participating in one. All revolutions have preparation, a spark, and an execution.

The primary revolution is that of the heart. If you do not set your own self in order then everything else you attempt will be tainted by your blindness and selfishness. To prepare for this revolution you must pray. Prayer must become the core of your action, for in order to change yourself you need divine assistance. God will also help to make sure that the revolution will be a turning toward Him and not a turning away. Supporting your prayer should be understanding and knowledge of God and His moral law. Reading scripture, the Church Fathers, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and other holy men and women (like Chesterton ^_^) will help in this discernment of God. Every revolution needs a slogan, and the revolution of the heart should have the slogan ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength’ though other slogans may lend a supporting role.

The spark of this revolution has to come from God it cannot come from yourself, He may use family or a sudden flash of light to knock you off your horse. St. Paul had lived his life in preparation for he loved God’s law and was filled with zeal in fulfilling it, and when Jesus knocked him to the ground, Paul had to undergo a revolution of the heart before he could undertake his mission.

Fight

Guy carrying a sword. Tangentially related.

The execution of the revolution can be difficult, but after the spark the path is always clear and always starts with accepting the harsh reality that our lives weren’t ordered to God. This acceptance is harsh because we have to give up things which are dear to us. After all it is a revolution, we remove the old to make room for the new. Paul gave up his zealotry for Pharisaical law in order to make room for a new zealotry for Christ. Peter gave up his livelihood of fishing to make room for the livelihood of fishing for men. Francis gave up his dreams of knighthood and his material possessions to make room for a love for the Church and her poor. The removal and renewal are both clear and, although difficult, rewarding.

 

Joshua Fahey is a Chestertonian and is preparing for something. He doesn’t know what yet. But ultimately death and judgement, and you know meeting God and all that. He should have been prepared to end this description at some point. Here’s good he supposes.