Saturday, February 28, 2009

Respect for the Body: Lessons from the Deaths of Mad-Eye Moody and Boromir

I've been working my way very slowly through Travis Prinzi's delightful book Harry Potter & Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds. There are books I gulp, and then there are books that I want to gulp but realize early on that I would be better served by enjoying slowly and steadily, reading them with pen in hand. Travis' book falls into the latter category for me. After I'd raced through the first two chapters, I decided to start over (with that pencil handy) and read it at a more sane pace. I'm glad I did, for it stands up to that kind of rigorous reading.

I keep meaning to jot some of my thoughts about the book here, but haven't had the opportunity. This morning, however, I was reading along in Chapter 4, Travis' treatment of how Rowling defines and deals with evil in the HP series, and came upon his comment that...

"...Rowling is no Gnostic dualist when it comes to the human being. While there is no unambiguous discussion about a future bodily resurrection in the Christian sense of the idea, Rowling shows tremendous respect for the body. When Mad-Eye is killed, there is no question in the minds of Bill and Lupin about what must be done:

"Mad-Eye's body," said Lupin. "We need to recover it."

"Can't it --?" began Mrs. Weasley with an appealing look at Bill.

"Wait?" said Bill. "Not unless you'd rather the Death Eaters took it?"

Nobody spoke. Lupin and Bill said good-bye and left."

Travis goes on to say how significant it is that they all accepted the importance of recovering Mad-Eye's body before the Death Eaters got to it. "There is nothing of the kind of dismissal of the body that we often hear at funerals..."

I was struck by this (and his following reflections) on various levels. But I also paused because a lightbulb went off over my head. "Ah!" I said. "Boromir!"

Remember Boromir in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings? He was the member of the Fellowship who tried to take the ring from ring-bearer Frodo, then died in a valiant attempt to save Merry and Pippin from a foul band of Orcs.

Back in 2002, my friend David Mills wrote a terrific article for Touchstone magazine entitled The Writer of Our Story: Divine Providence in the Lord of the Rings. I commend the whole article, which is archived here. But the section that stood out to me when I first read it and the one I've not forgotten in all these years is what David writes about the death of Boromir and his friends' care for the body of their fallen comrade (fallen, one might almost say, in more than one sense):

"To obey the laws of their world, they must bury their fallen comrades, but if they do, they will lose several hours before they can chase the Orcs. “First we must tend the fallen. We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul Orcs,” says Legolas, and Gimli agrees. But Aragorn says, “But we do not know whether the Ring-bearer is with them [the Orcs] or not. Are we to abandon him? Must we not seek him first?”

It is, as Aragorn says, “an evil choice,” and as far as they know, one that will decide the fate of the whole world. The Orcs, they assume, are servants of Sauron and are taking the Hobbits to him. If the Orcs have captured Frodo, Sauron will get the Ring and the world they love will die. If the Orcs have only captured the other Hobbits, Sauron will torture them in unimaginable ways and learn from them Frodo’s plan and his last known location. Then it will not take Sauron long to find Frodo, and when he finds him, the world they love will die.

It is obvious, to most of us, that they ought to leave the body. Boromir had betrayed them, after all. Burying him could do him no good and would lead, almost certainly, to the final success of evil. And yet they bury him, because that is the right thing to do.

When I first read the book, as a typically secular-minded American twelve-year-old, this scene astonished me. It made no sense. It seemed to me a flaw in the story that these three heroes should do something so pointless and irrational and self-defeating. This is the reaction of those who do not believe in Providence."

David's further comments, in the context of his article, show that if we're looking aright, we can actually see the hand of Providence clearly at work in their seemingly senseless but respectful action. "Because the three spend several hours burying Boromir, they never catch the Orcs who had kidnapped their friends..." he writes, and goes on to explain the whole "domino" chain of events that arises from the fact that Merry and Pippin escape on their own, meet the Ents, etc.

The issue of Providence is one that I think has been under-explored thus far in Harry Potter studies. Is there something comparable going on, either in this decision of Mad-Eye's friends or in other moments where we see Rowling's characters choose "what is right over what is easy"? (to quote Dumbledore). Worth pondering.

But for today I'm simply enjoying the parallels of the two scenes, and what they tell us about proper respect for the body in stories shaped by Christian vision. Bodies, of course, as Travis points out, "matter" (and what a lovely play on words). In a week where we've been reminded by the church that "we are dust and to dust we shall return" we also remember that the sign marked on our foreheads is the sign of a cross, and that our bodies, along with the rest of us, have been fully redeemed by the God who first made human bodies and called them good and then took on flesh in order to redeem fallen and broken humanity.

In a culture often uncomfortable with bodies (that too often chooses to worship, indulge, denigrate or neglect bodies, all skewered responses to the flesh) it's refreshing to come across stories that put bodies in proper perspective. They are not the end-all, but they matter. To God and therefore to us.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"The Fast That I Require..."

My husband preached at our church's Ash Wednesday service last night. His main text was Isaiah 58: 1-12. You can read the thoughtful text of his sermon here. He posted it at his recently launched blog called Characters in Development, which of course I also commend for your reading pleasure!

The sermon provides good food for heart and mind. And it starts with a very funny joke about a man who walked into a pub...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, the day when the church calls us to observe a Holy Lent, feels like a serious day. But I have to admit that I've had a few chuckles as we've approached this Lenten season. One came when the Girl Scouts who attend our church chose this past Sunday, a mere four days before the start of the Lenten season, to deliver the Girl Scout cookies they cajoled us all into buying weeks ago. Clearly the Girl Scout manual does not come with a Christian liturgical calendar!

The other came when I dreamed about a giant candy bar last night.

God getting through to me about sugar addiction? Perhaps!

I find myself having to answer the sweet girls' questions about Lent for the first time. Well, she may have had questions last year, but I don't remember them being so curious. She's eager to know why we do what we do. Why do people eat pancakes the night before Lent starts? (We had our annual pancake supper at the church last night, which always coincides with the start of the spring semester of our kids' was wonderful last night, with over 20 kids in attendance and a terrific Bible story told by a gifted lady in our congregation who used "Godly Play" to relate the story of the exile...we're teaching Daniel this term.)

But the sweet girl is curious, not just about pancakes. Why do we give things up? What things? Why only things we really like? What's the point? I've told her that sometimes it's not just about giving things up; sometimes it's about doing new things or finding new ways to give. But whatever we do, Lent is about preparing our hearts and finding more room in our lives to focus on God.

I certainly mean those words. But how am I going to do that in the next few weeks?

It's always a good question. One thing I've found helpful in recent years is taking on the reading of a new book, usually a work of devotion or theology or Biblical scholarship, something that I try to read at very slowly, sipping it in ways that help feed my soul and sharpen my vision. This year I'm not sure yet what I'm reading. I'm considering a little book called The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (meditations on some of the prayers we pray "collectively" in the Book of Common Prayer throughout the year). I'm considering some Eugene Peterson, either a re-reading or first-time reading.

I'm also considering reading more from Julian of Norwich.

I assigned some chapters of Dame Julian's Revelations of Divine Love to my church history class this past week, as their primary source reading. I read most of Julian's book years ago when taking a Spiritual Direction course in seminary, and remember being moved on profound levels by various parts of it. I also recall bogging down and not finishing other parts.

Reading from the first chapters the other evening though, I was struck by how rich it felt, how easy to take a sip from just a few paragraphs or one short chapter and come away enriched with so much to think about and pray through.

I had forgotten that she had asked for three "wounds" in one of her petitions. Interesting that she calls them wounds...they sound like gifts, these requests, and yet one senses that Julian realizes the potential cost of having them really worked by God into her life.

This is what she asks for: "the wound of true contrition, the wound of genuine compassion, and the wound of sincere longing for God." (Another translation reads "kindness" for compassion and "steadfast love" for sincere longing.)

There's enough there to chew on for many Lents, and perhaps many lifetimes. What a simple prayer, what simple-seeming requests, and yet those are qualities in most of us (certainly in me) that can take a lifetime to grow. I'm hoping I have the courage to pray so simply for God to shape and grow such things in me this Lent. True contrition, genuine compassion, steadfast/sincere longing for God.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

For the Love of Libraries

Do you ever wish you could peek at someone else's library list? I do. That's one reason I love websites like Shelfari and Library Thing (both of which I use to some degree) since it gives you an idea of what people are reading, or at least what they say they're reading.

We've become famous (or do I mean notorious?) at our local public library. When the children's librarians see us coming, they know we'll have such a big stack that they sometimes try to foist us off on the other worker, as in "it's your turn to check them out this week." Fortunately, they also like us, and they like our smiling daughter who slides the gold colored library card exuberantly across the desk, as though she's playing table hockey.

The main librarian downstairs, the one who coordinates the hold-shelf, knows us so well we usually don't have to present our card. When she sees me coming, especially if I'm empty-handed, she knows that means I had too many hold-shelf books for them to be placed on the shelf that week, so she checks behind the desk for our stack. I'm starting to feel like the public library is our own personal Cheers, minus Norm and Cliff. The place where everybody knows your name!

We love renewals too. Here's a fun look at the items I just renewed on our library account this morning:

Oscar & Steve, sound recording by Mandy Patinkin (this is a great recording of songs by Hammerstein and one else in the family appreciates it much, so I have to listen to it on earphones!)

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Scholastic Video) (although she's getting a bit old for the Chicka Chicka books, the sweet girl still likes the rambunctious video versions from time to time)

Lord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories by Dorothy Sayers (still savoring and reading some of the additional essays)

by A.A. Milne (audio CD, read by Jim Broadbent)

The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller (one of the most clever and funny geography picture books ever...I'm working on a review)

One of these days, I am thinking of writing a love poem for libraries. Until then, occasional blog-posts will have to do!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Welcome to Struggleville"

February has presented some struggles, of the ordinary garden-variety type of struggle. I've struggled to pay our bills, to meet work deadlines, to not feel overwhelmed by too much to do, to prioritize wisely, and to get enough rest. Given our lives and our budget, it's always a struggle for me and D. to get a babysitter and actually go on a date, but that's finally what we did last night (our first evening out in almost three months)!

Given all the ordinary struggles lately, it was perhaps appropriate that our date was to a concert by the amazing musician/songwriter Bill Mallonee. And yes, he performed "Welcome to Struggleville" in the course of the evening.

D. and I were reminiscing and realizing this is the third time we've seen Bill Mallonee in concert. The first time was back around 1992 (we think) not long after we got married. Mallonee was the front-man for a then relatively new group called "Vigilantes of Love." They actually played in the lower lounge area of one of our college's buildings and they completely rocked the place out.

We saw him again around the year 2000 (at least we're pretty sure) when he performed solo as the opening act for "Over the Rhine" at a college near here.

And then last night, where he performed for a small audience of about 40 people at a local church, his wife occasionally accompanying him on keyboard and vocals. But still mostly just Mallonee with his guitar and harmonica and those amazing, gut-wrenching lyrics that truly capture what it means to struggle and yearn and grow as a human being.

I liked last night best. I don't think it was just the place I happened to find myself in (inwardly) though that might have had something to do with it. Seeing someone perform three times, those performances several years apart, is eye-opening. When we first saw him, he was kind of a young grunge rocker with a cool band. We were relatively young ourselves, and it was just a loud, boisterous, fun, communal kind of evening filled with lots of energy. When we saw him the second time, in a hot-box of a gym crammed with people, the solo performance was both energizing and exhausting. I remember remarking to D. that his energy felt almost manic, and it was mesmerizing but a bit disconcerting, to watch.

The energy is still there. But he's is in his fifties now, and age is showing. It's showing in craggy lines on his face, and in slower, less jerky (though still intense) body movements. It's also showing in slightly slower renditions of his songs from time to time ("Struggleville" was a lot slower than we'd ever heard it) but I loved that, because it was easier to fall into the rhythms of his highly narrative lyrics. He's tapping more and more into his folk rock and Americana roots, a la Dylan and Woody Guthrie (my husband even thinks he's starting to look like Woody Guthrie, and he may be right!).

It hit me last night that Mallonee is really, first and foremost, a chronicler, a storyteller. He tends to tell stories with his songs, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first person, and the lives he chronicles are always ragged, broken, right on the edge, people striving to survive. He performed one of my favorites last night: "Skin" (a song about Vincent Van Gogh, sung from the perspective of his brother Theo) but he also performed songs that told the stories of a Vietnam veteran recovering from post-traumatic stress, an explorer who became lost while attempting to find the summit of Everest. And of course, he described the citizens of Struggleville...a place, it turns out, where we've all lived, or at least visited for extended periods of time.

But for the first time last night, I sensed more of a serenity as he sang. That may sound strange, given the subjects he sings about and his still intense level of energy, but it was how I felt. I don't know much about the man's life, but that's just the sense I got. As though he's accepted the struggle, but has also accepted moments of peace that come dropping slow even in the midst of struggle. As though he himself is not singing from a place of struggle so much as trying, with all his might, to call our compassionate attention and our listening ears to hear the struggle going on in ordinary (and extraordinary) lives all around us.

It was good.

There are some very homemade videos on YouTube which are fun to check out (Bill playing at a backyard barbecue, also a library...the man will apparently play anywhere and everywhere, and such humility feels rare, especially for someone who has been named one of the 100 best living songwriters by Paste Magazine!). Here's a link for "Nothing Like a Train" and another one for "Solar System," two terrific songs we heard for the first time last night.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Be Still, My Heart

Most of our ice has melted.
It rained much of the day.
We're awash in mud.
The rhododendrons down the street are in bud.

I know winter is not over and done, and won't be for a long time, but my heart fluttered a bit (just a tiny bit! like a baby bird first trying its wings!) in anticipation of spring.

And I always like to report those first spring stirrings...

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"Contemptus mundi...Amor mundi..."

I'm up way too late, but my heart and mind both feel full this evening.

We had a long day of running to and fro, doing Saturday errands. The sweet girl had a hard time settling in for bed, and kept fretting about her very loose top tooth (she's lost three on the bottom but none on the top yet). It's loose, but not loose enough to pull yet.

D. and I stayed up for a bit together, tired as we were (are). We read an article on spiritual formation by Richard Foster from the January issue of Christianity Today. It's thoughtful stuff, but the final page really spoke to me this tired evening.

Foster is writing about the training/formation of the heart "in two opposite directions"...

"...contemptus mundi, our being torn loose from all earthly attachments and ambitions, and amor mundi, our being quickened to a divine but painful compassion for the world."

As he explains it: "In the beginning God plucks the world out of our hearts -- contemptus mundi. Here we experience a loosening of the chains of attachment to positions of prominence and power. All our longings for social recognition, to have our name in lights, begin to appear puny and trifling. We learn to let go of all control, all managing, all manipulation. We freely and joyfully live without guile. We experience a glorious detachment from this world and all it offers."

But he goes on: "And then, just when we have become free from it all, God hurls the world back into our heart -- amor mundi -- where we and God together carry the world in infinitely tender love. We deepen in our compassion for the bruised, the broken, the dispossessed. We ache and pray and labor for others in a new way, a selfless way, a joy-filled way. Our heart is enlarged toward those on the margins. Indeed, our heart is enlarged toward all people, all of Creation."

He goes on to give examples of saints who have gone before who have been propelled by this deep sense of amor mundi. Having just finished up our week on Celtic beginnings in my English church history class, the phrase that particularly grabbed me was this: "It was amor mundi that hurled Patrick back to Ireland to be the answer to its spiritual poverty."

Yes. Yes about Patrick, and yes about all of it. God plucks the world from our hearts, and then once we're free (as Patrick, having followed God's voice and escaped his captors was free) God hurls the world back into our hearts. Yes. How could he not? He wants our hearts to look like his.

Friday, February 06, 2009

No Mid-Life Crisis for the Hungry Caterpillar

Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar is celebrating its 40th birthday this spring! Publisher's Weekly has published an article, Still Hungry After All These Years, that I commend to all fans of Carle and his caterpillar.

Having read The Art of Eric Carle a couple of years ago, I already knew a good bit of the story behind his early career, but I still learned (or re-learned) some new things. I particularly got a chuckle out of hearing that he got the idea for the Hungry Caterpillar one day while hole punching some papers. Just goes to never know when even a mundane activity can spark something wonderful and creative.

Philomel Books is readying the first ever pop-up version of the book for a March release, so if you know any toddlers/preschoolers having birthdays this spring, you might want to put that on your gift list. A slew of other anniversary activities are being planned by the Penguin Young Readers Group. It's nice to know the Caterpillar is turning 40 in style.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Reading: When, What, How?

The older I get, and the more responsibilities I seem to take on, the more I am realizing how precious time is. I don't just want to "spend" time, but live in it fully and wisely, which includes careful choosing of how I use it.

And my reading pile just seems to grow larger. Has anyone else discovered that as they get older, their desire to learn new things and let old things sink in more deeply just grows and grows? Something tells me I'm not alone in that!

So I'm genuinely curious, not just asking idle questions, when I ask: when you do find time to read? what do you find yourself reading? and how do you read the various types of things you read?

I'm discovering my reading life, like everything else, needs more of a sense of purpose and direction. Not that I don't still read just for sheer pleasure and pure enjoyment, or that I don't ever just pick up a book on a pure whim and begin reading for the joy of reading something new (I love having the freedom to do that, which is yet another reason why I want to conserve and use my time wisely in other areas).

But I'm discovering more and more that I read different things for different purposes and in different ways. It helps me to think through the when, what, how.

Most of my reading falls into a handful of categories right now. I'd put them this way:

Devotional reading (or reading for spiritual formation...not usually quickly paced, more a kind of "soaking up" of words)

Scholarly reading (particuarly preparation and background reading for the classes I teach; sometimes I have to discipline myself to give this certain amounts of minutes per day or hours per week)

Family reading (which includes any and all reading I do with the sweet girl, for "school" or just for pleasure)

Educational reading (reading I partake of because I want to learn new things, often centered around history, biography or literary scholarship, and sometimes connected to...

Pleasure reading
(reading I read for the sheer joy of reading, or because I need "escape" in the Tolkien sense of the word)

Educational reading can be moderately paced or downright slow, depending on whether or not I decide to note-take or journal. Pleasure reading is usually much speedier, especially if I'm reading fiction.

The categories seem neat, but they're not. Most of the time they feel like organic blends. I may think I am reading poetry for pleasure, but find it forming habits of listening and attentiveness in me that are so good for my soul that I know it's really reading for spiritual formation. I think I am reading a Dorothy Sayers detective novel for pure pleasure and escape, only to discover myself turning to volumes of biography and literary criticism to better analyze the novel, thus blurring the lines between pleasure and education (and isn't that a lovely thought?). I may think I am surfing homeschool blogs for the purpose of coming up with new ideas and ways to teach my daughter, only to discover that the entries I'm reading feed my mind and heart in all kinds of ways or bring me terrific pleasure (to the point where I feel a bit guilty to be spending so much time "pleasure reading" instead of lesson planning). I think I am reading for my "own" spiritual formation, only to discover that I get to lead book discussions for others and hopefully help them in their own formation, which almost morphs into a whole other category I thought about putting on the list: communal reading.

And on and on, in similar vein.

Most of me is pleased that the lines blur so much; the more integrated I am and the more single-minded I am about pursuing a deeper life centered in God (no matter what subjects I'm supposedly tackling) the more I think I can see how all those lines can weave together into a beautiful tapestry.

But part of me feels challenged right now to know where precious time needs to be most spent when it comes to reading. I'm actually attempting some reading patterns/plans, and will likely blog more about them in coming days.

What about you? What do you find yourself reading, and when and how?