Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Masterpieces Upon this Transient Earth


Sometimes things that I see or read just speak to me. I cannot say why at the moment. As my cousin, a photographer and independent filmmaker, would say, they come together “behind my head.” Without fully understanding it on a logical level, somehow something in my heart seizes upon it and says, “This is important. This is good.” I usually ask why, but the part of my mind that recognizes has little interest in explaining. It knows that this is important, or beautiful, or good, and that is that

This blog post about an artist who makes beautiful designs by walking back and forth for hours on freshly fallen snow was one such focal point. When I read the story, and
saw the pictures, all I could think was, “This is a work of love.”

I did not know why I thought that. I could not have explained it, but somehow it only makes sense in my mind to do something like that for love. The man spends hours trudging back and forth, and back and forth to create something that will be gone with the first new snow, vanished without a trace, as if it had never been. The only trace will be in the minds and hearts of those who have seen it. Without my thinking it through, this intuitively seemed to me to exemplify the purest form of art, to create something of beauty and rigor and rightness, and then to let it go so completely that, not only do you not care if it gets destroyed, you have designed it specifically to be wiped out. Perhaps, in a way, these snow designs are like the sand mandala’s of the Dalai Lama. 

One of the books I am currently reading is “The Story of a Soul,” The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. A day or two ago I was reading Chapter 6 where she describes the pilgrimage she made to Rome with her father and sister. She speaks wonderingly about the beauty of Switzerland, “With its high mountains, their snowy peaks lost in the clouds, its rushing torrents, and its deep valleys filled with giant ferns and purple heather. Great good was wrought in my soul by these beauties of nature so abundantly scattered abroad. They lifted it to Him Who had been pleased to lavish such masterpieces upon this transient earth.”

It was the last half a sentence that caught my ear, “to lavish such masterpieces upon this transient earth.

One of the most ancient, most noble and most controversial of human undertakings has been the production of art. The question of what truly is and what is not art takes up a good deal of space in the writings of philosophers, along with subordinate questions such as its purpose, its use, its value to society, how or if it should be regulated or controlled, etc. (Another of my current reads is Plato’s “Republic” which is greatly concerned with such questions.) But it seemed to me, with a sudden clarity, and indeed a certainty, that both Simon Beck and the Dalai Lama had, perhaps intuitively or perhaps more cognitively, grasped the real purpose of art; that is, to imitate God in “lavishing masterpieces upon this transient earth.” Precisely by focusing their creativity into mediums of extreme impermanence, they see and escape one of the most dangerous snares of art, which is the illusion of permanence.

Every aspiring artist nobly and rightly wishes to create art that will outlast him. He or she looks to the immortality of Shakespeare, Dante, Michelangelo, Boticelli, and others whose creations of goodness, truth and beauty have kept their names alive long after their bones are dust. Even the painter of the cave paintings in Cro Magnon, France, though his name is lost, his paintings live on. We all aspire to that.

However, in the immortal words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap.” The permanence of Shakespeare and Dante are illusions. The marbles of Michelangelo will crumble to dust. Even the prehistoric caves will one day be a charred lump, along with the rest of this planet, in the cosmic sink that used to be our sun. When that happens, however, the soul of the human who created it will still exist. Perhaps this was why Therese of Lisieux was able to explain the precise place of art in such a brief sentence, in the middle of a book that meditates pretty exclusively upon the impermanence of all created things. She saw that only God is eternal, and she loved Him, and desired Him before all else, and so everything else fell into place, including created beauty. God does lavish masterpieces upon this transient earth, and calls us to do the same. We are called to pour out our attention, our effort, our blood and sweat and tears in imitation of Him, creating beautiful things with full knowledge that they are destined for oblivion.

This idea is especially relevant to the internet generation. On the internet you have millions of people, all trying to create something. Some are trying to create art, some are trying to create noise. Some still believe and are trying to create something meaningful, others have given up and are just hoping for five minutes of fame and a few thousand hits, by any means necessary. Some try to create beauty and meaning, others are content to expose themselves in any tomfoolery imaginable, if it gets them a little attention. My blogging is the same way. Each blog post lives for a few days at most, and even that is only if it is unusually popular, and then it disappears, snowed under the constantly shifting heap of relevance that is the Internet. It reaches a few people, maybe a dozen, and at best one or two will read the whole thing. The rest scan the first sentence of each paragraph, agree or disagree, and then move on to the next link.

In cosmic terms, i.e. in terms of eternity, the complete works of Shakespeare will fair no better, which is not to put myself even remotely in the same class as Shakespeare. It is only to point out that all things pass away, except God.

Once, in a discussion about art with my cousin (the same cousin mentioned above) I tried to describe art as “drawing my best picture with crayons and hoping God will hang it on His refrigerator.” Only in God’s eyes is the art that I create eternal. That is an amazing thing, if you think about it. God and I together create "memories" that exist in God's eyes for all eternity?
Whoah! Mind Blown!

I imitate God for the same reason that a two year old walks around with a plastic hammer hitting the furniture all day. That is what he sees Daddy doing. When I create a work of art, God sees it, He sees me creating it, He loves me. I give that work of art to Him with the same delight and trust with which a three year old gives his scribbles to his Mommy. Then I go on to the next one. The greatest masterpiece I will ever create is nothing more than another memory of my childhood for God to hang on His refrigerator. When I am fully grown, I will look back upon my worldly Magnum Opus and laugh at the squiggly lines and juice stains and dirty fingerprints. Only love makes anything permanent, because only love is of God. 

That is the only worthwhile reason to create art, as a work of love, knowing that while the work may pass away, the love will outlast the universe. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

God Must Love Weird People... He Makes So Many of them!


I walked up to Mass one day during Simbang Gabi. It was dark, of course, being 4:20 AM, or thereabouts. The church and plastic lawn chairs all being full as per usual, I sat down on the stonework of the flowerbed and began saying Lauds.

A Filipino man sat down next to me. He was an older gentleman, perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties. It is hard to tell with Asians. He had a long, scrawny neck, big ears and nose, and that not-entirely-aware, slightly dissipated look that I associate with chronic alcoholics. He wore a pair of jeans with holes in the knees, and a ratty t-shirt, and flip-flops, and no one else in the congregation paid him any attention whatsoever.

He sat down next to me and looked me over for a few minutes, and then smiled and began speaking to me in Tagalog. I looked up at him and smiled politely, and listened with no comprehension whatsoever. He went on and on, with gestures and significant looks and conspiratorial nods. Finally he said the word, “Tacloban,” with an interrogative upward inflection.

“Tacloban?” I asked, “Yes, I was at Tacloban.”

He nodded knowingly, and went off on another conversational paragraph of Tagalog. Eventually he finished it up with an English sentence, “What is your country of origin, Sir?”

“America,” I said.

“Ah!” He smiled. More Tagalog, more gestures and nods of comradarie. “Are you single?”

“No. I am engaged.”

He exclaimed, “Ah!” and slapped his thigh. More Tagalog, and a couple of winks. “So you are filing for divorce?”

I think maybe at this point my face showed something other than polite attentiveness. “No.” I answered quite emphatically. I didn’t know but that he might be trying to hook me up with a grand-daughter or niece or adult themed dance-club, and I wanted to make sure that my status was quite unequivocal.

He nodded with perfect comprehension. “One woman is enough for you?”

“Yes,” I said. “One woman is more than enough for me.”

He soliloquized in Tagalog for another few sentences, but with enough English scattered throughout that I managed to gather that one was not enough for him. He had had to have two. There was also something about his first wife, and a hope that she was like her. Who “she” and “her” were I have no more idea than you do.

Then he looked at me with the shrewd look of someone who has rapidly seen through an opponent's clever but misguided attempts to pull the wool over his eyes. “Do you understand the dialect of the Pilipino people?”

“No.” I answered. No good trying to trick this guy! May as well just out with it.

The Mass started at this point. He sat next to me for the sitting portions, but for the rest of it he was somewhat unpredictable. He would sidestep throughout the crowd of parishioners, periodically dropping to one knee on the cement pad for a few seconds, and then rising back to his feet. No one else even gave him so much as a glance, except for some of the teenagers who laughed at him a bit.

The Mass was mostly in English, but the homily was in Taglish, an approximately 90/10 mix of Tagalog and English. He came back over and sat down next to me and asked, “Do you understand what he is saying?”

I shook my head and said, “No, I do not.”

So he undertook to translate the homily for me. His method was somewhat unorthodox, but surprisingly effective. He would sit with his head bowed and his arms folded, a studious expression on his face, listening for the space of a sentence or two. Then he would say an English word or two, combined with a knowing wink and a hand gesture. Sometimes he would say a Tagalog word and then give me the English translation, and do this several times, as often as that word was repeated. Sometimes he would sigh and just gesture expressively with his hands. I would say I understood about 20% of the gist of that homily, and enjoyed the whole thing immensely.

He did not speak to me much more for the rest of the Mass, except to share a few choice lines from some of the hymns, but he wished me a very heartfelt “Merry Christmas!” at the end of it. He nodded and smiled and waved as he walked off, for all the world as if he possessed some incredibly enjoyable secret which he had just let me in on.

I have seen him there at Sunday Mass since, but have not spoken with him. He always arrives, sits, and leaves alone. I don't know his story, and although I am sure it has had its darker moments, yet there is some kind of faith there, I am certain of it. May God Bless Him and bring Him safely to his heavenly home!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Simbang Gabi


Being in the Philippines over advent has been an incredible opportunity for me to take part in the Simbang Gabi tradition that is celebrated by Catholic Filipinos all over the islands. Indeed it is practiced all over the world as well. My Filipino friends in Tacoma all have Simbang Gabi celebrations at some of the most heavily Filipino parishes throughout the city. Starting on the 16th of December they have a Mass every day, sometimes with processions and lanterns, which continue until the 23rd. The final Mass is the Christmas Vigil for a total of nine Masses forming a Novena leading up to Christmas.

One thing I did not know about Simbang Gabi, (which means “Night Mass,” also known by the Spanish “Misa de Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster” is that it is celebrated at 4:30 in the morning, at least in the churches I attended. In Tacoma the celebrations are in the evening. I guess it is hard to get Americans to do anything at 4:30 in the morning.

The first Simbang Gabi Mass I attended was on the 16th, and I was amazed. I arrived at just
about 4:10 AM, but even then the church was already full. The Filipino Churches I have seen are all alike in that they are not built with solid walls like churches in the west. Instead they are built with pillars supporting the ceiling and forming the walls, and between the pillars are built wrought iron grates. Some of these grates are solid panels, others are doors. In fact, the Carmelite Monastery in Davao has no walls at all, only a series of wrought iron doors, all wide open, and tied at full open position with wires.

At 4:10 AM, not only was the church full, but plastic chairs had been set up in crowds around three sides, and all of the chairs were full. People were sitting on the curbs, steps, and stonework surrounding the flower beds. This was not just true on the first day, but on every day of Simbang Gabi, including the Christmas Vigil.

When I told my little brother about that on Facebook chat he responded, “If only we had just a fraction of that faith here! Try getting Americans out of bed to do anything at 4:30 in the morning, let alone go to Mass.”

Now, I am not naïve enough to think that every one of those Filipino Catholics was automatically a saint just because they go to Mass at 4:30 in the morning for 8 days every December. There is a strong element of cultural Catholicism present in the Philippines, as there is in any country historically Catholic, meaning that a large part of the popular practice can no doubt be accounted for simply because that is just what everyone does. There does not need to be any real conversion of heart for people to follow a custom that all of their friends and family follow.

That being said, they show up. They show up really early in the morning. The custom, while not guaranteeing conversion any more than any other custom will, provides at least that much opportunity. Even though our actions should follow from conviction, it is also true that, being human, our convictions often follow from our actions. We do not have strong faith because we do not act upon our weak faith. 

Simbang Gabi was a chance for me to act, and having acted upon a faith barely equal to the task of dragging me out of bed at 4:00 AM, my faith has become stronger, my desire for the Eucharist has become deeper, my relationship with the God who kicked me out of bed has grown deeper. It is only by responding to grace that we grow in our ability to be open to it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Best Christmas Vigil Ever!

Last night (Filipino time) I attended the Christmas Vigil at the Carmelite Monastery in Davao City, Philippines. I had been attending the Simbang Gabi Masses for the previous nine days, minus a few, both there and in other locations around the country, but I was happy to be at this church for the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning Masses. Without a doubt, it was one of the coolest Christmas Vigils I have ever attended.

I arrived about 5 minutes after 8:00, (the Mass started at 8:30). The body of the church was pretty well full, but there were still stacks of chairs that had not been set out yet, so I grabbed one and set myself up at the back, in the portico on the right hand side, where I wouldn't be too much in the way for everyone coming in, but I could still see the altar by leaning a little to my right around the doorway.

Of course that only lasted until all the other seats were taken, all the rest of the space in the portico was filled, and there was a lady standing beside me without a seat. Of course I could not just sit there all comfy and let her stand. I feel certain my Mama would have sensed the disturbance in the force and contrived to find a way to give me The Look! from ten-thousand miles away. I have no idea how she would have done so, and I didn't wait to find out.

So of course I stood up and offered her my seat, and I stepped a few steps back behind the rows of plastic chairs. Unfortunately this also meant that I stepped out from under the arch of the portico ceiling. Wouldn't you know it, it was raining out there! I was able to take some refuge under the umbrella of the gentlemen whose view I blocked when I stood up (I can't help that I am roughly twice the average Filipino's size.) He was kind enough to hold his umbrella over my head the entire rest of the Mass. However, since there were two of us under there, my chest and shoulders somewhat encroached beyond the protective circle, and accordingly got rained on for the entire Mass. There also seemed to be a hole in the umbrella, somewhere in the vicinity of directly over the back of my head

The choir, however, was awesome, and the crowds of Filipinos standing in the rain to worship the newborn King was such an incredible experience, I not only did not care, I felt like spontaneously enacting a remix of Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" routine, combined Piano Guys' style with "Angels We Have Heard on High."

Sometimes when I am sitting in a chair at the kitchen table, working at school, or a blog, or some other VERY IMPORTANT PROJECT!!!!! my fiancee' will come up behind me and kiss the top of my head, and I know that she wants me to pause what I am doing and look up into her face and see her for a second. Good things happen then.

The rain on my head is something like that. God wants me to pause and look up and see Him for a second, so that good things can happen.

Perhaps that is why He is taking all the hair off the top of my head, so that I can feel His touch more readily.

Blessed Be He!
Merry Christmas All!

A Sparrow Finds A Home

I love the way the Filipinos design their churches. 
The walls are all gratings, usually left perpetually open, so that the church is continually open. Breezes come through, aided by oscillating fans, which is a low budget alternative to AC. 

The overall feeling is one of warmth and openness, inviting and free.
Other things come in as well, besides the parishioners.
And find a place to make a nest, near the altar of the Lord of Hosts.
And they make a joyful noise unto the Lord!

Monday, December 23, 2013

There are Problems, and then there are... well... Not Problems

This video has been circulating the internet for a while now. I saw it for the first time about a week ago. I, for one, find it one of those, "That is so true and I wish people would take this to heart (but between you and me those silly first worlders are kind of funny and pathetic.)"

Yes, I considered myself to be relatively independent of the "first world problem" syndrome. I have been through physical and mental hardships, been deployed to third world countries, and lived in survival situations before. Check that block. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, didn't need the t-shirt so donated it to good will. Next?

Then, last night I was chatting with my fiancee using FaceTime, which is free internationally iPhone to iPhone. We were both pretty stoked that I was in a hotel instead of out at the base. The internet is much better in hotels and you don't play the abstract pixel-interpretation game so much. During this conversation I made the comment, "I wish they would switch the day and night modes on the AC in this hotel room. It gets freezing cold during the day, but then it stays warm all night."

Even as I was saying it I heard this sound in my head.

Okay, so that is a pretty first world problem. So I don't like sleeping when it is warm in my room? Well waaaaaaaa, cry about it why don't you? I can look out my hotel room window and see entire families who live in tin shacks with no air conditioning or even fans, and they seem to get by just fine.

Just like that was born my New Years resolution. One of them anyway. I have a couple of ongoing projects, and I still need to finish up one of last year's (I resolved to become a saint, but since that hasn't happened yet, it goes back on the list for this year.)

The thing is that I forget my roots. I grew up in a lower middle class family, with work, chores, school, and not a lot of money. We were not poor, but we were not rich. We did not have video games, or TV's in our rooms, or computers, or very many other gadgets. We didn't even have our own rooms, except for my sister being the only girl. Food was not ready made, someone had to prepare it from scratch and we were expected to help with that. Fun was not ready made. We had to build our own games, design our own rules for them. A lot of the time we even built our own toys because the ones that came from the store were just not available. Even when we did get toys, the ones we made were manlier and therefore better. After all when you can make your own throwing knife by cutting and grinding the spring steel skid of an abandoned piece of farming equipment; and when you have had the bones in your hand broken in a quarterstaff battle with your brother, and walked around with that hand behind your back for weeks so Mom wouldn't find out, well, a silly plastic sword from Toys R Us seems like a step down in the world. (I had four brothers. Plastic toys did not survive in our house, except for legos, which are awesome!)

Since then, as I said at the beginning of this, I have been at times even lower materially and comfortwise, until I was literally happy to get one half bite out of bit of sausage that someone dropped in the mud (yes, that really happened in SERE school.) On the whole my life has been comfortable, but I have learned that I can deal with discomfort quite well. I even embrace discomfort a bit. I am at my most creative, most fulfilled, and even my happiest when I have some purpose that worthily calls me to be uncomfortable.

I have also learned that comfort is relative. It is conditioned by expectation. For example, if I expect to have spicy seared tuna belly, garlic asparagus, beef fried rice, and a mango banana shake, with rice candy for desert, then I will be disappointed and made uncomfortable by over-grilled tuna belly, garlic asparagus and steamed rice. However, if I am expecting nothing, that same over-grilled tuna belly will be a pleasant surprise. It will be delicious.

This is my New Year's resolution: to think of my first world problems as not problems at all; to come at life from a position of emptiness so that I may be grateful for every thing. If I can do this even just a little bit, I think it will be quite a happy and fulfilling year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nada te Turbe


Nada te Turbe.
Neither depths nor heights,
Neither length nor breadth,
Neither pleasure nor pain,
Nothing can separate
The ocean from its bed.
Nada

I shall not be perturbed,
I shall not be turbulent,
I shall not be disturbed,
Neither shall my soul be turbid anymore.
Nada te Turbe

Once I looked up to see the point
Of an iron spike in a sinister hand
Stabbing down upon me. I shook with fear
And thrashed and splashed away, but the spike passed
Through my heart and left not a single mark.
Nada.

And now I rest in limpid clarity
For well I know no evil in the world
Can harm me. No knife in the world
Can harm the sea.
Nada te Turbe.

I rest undisturbed, calm, at peace
Salt made sweet and ever filled
By water flowing from the Temple’s side
Opened by a Lance.
Transparent, the all but infinite sea He holds
In the hollow of His hand. And I drip
Through the hole left by the spike,
Mingled,
Lost in His Blood.
Nada te Turbe.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Totality

"I am the Lord's poor servant; to Him alone, the living God, I have offered all in sacrifice; I have
St. Lucy, after her eyes got gouged out during her martyrdom.
nothing else to give; I offer Him myself."
Antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah from the Divine Office for the feast of St. Lucy.

This morning during my Holy Hour the antiphon above really stuck in my mind. It is fitting for Saint Lucy, since she is both virgin and martyr. She truly did give everything to God, both during her life and at the end of her life. By including this antiphon in Morning Prayer, the Church obviously means me to pray it, but the truth is I cannot honestly apply it to myself. In truth, I doubt anyone ever could strictly apply it to themselves, except for Jesus and the Blessed Mother. No one else can claim truly to have given everything to God. Even the greatest saints have held something back at one time or another. All are conscious of their sinfulness.

If this is true even of the greatest saints, how much more so of myself? I cannot even give him a full hour totally. Even thinking about this during my Holy Hour I noted the trend I have to be extremely distracted for about the first 50 minutes. It is generally only the last ten minutes or so that I really feel like I engage in on any affective level. The first 45-50 minutes are just me trying not to be distracted as I work through the Liturgy of the Hours. I cannot even claim ever to have given Him an undivided hour. Can I really claim to have "offered all in sacrifice?"

In thinking about this another similar experience came to mind. I have been doing a lot of kickboxing lately, working the heavy bag a couple of hours every week. I am right handed but I box left handed because I got into that habit when I first started out. My left hand would not learn to jab very well, so I just jabbed with my right and used my left for power punches. I also liked having that surprise power shot with the right, and I liked messing with right handed sparring partners who aren't used to fighting a southpaw.

In my sessions on the heavy bag I have been having trouble getting my left cross up to scratch. It doesn't have the speed or power that I want at first, it is slow and stiff. It takes about four or five rounds on the bag to get it snapping the way I want it to, and only then does the real practice begin.

I sometimes wonder if my distracted prayer isn't a bit like that. I only really get into the last bit because it takes me the first 45 minutes just to get warmed up. With the boxing the cause is fairly straightforward. A punch flies properly when it is loose. It starts from the feet, legs and hips and translates out from there to the end of the fist, but in order to do that the power must be generated in the large muscles of the lower body and transferred smoothly through the muscles and joints of the lower body. It isn't hard to teach those muscles all to fire. That takes about five minutes to learn. What takes much longer, years and years in fact, is teaching the other muscles not to fire. When I throw that punch, my body wants to tense up and push harder, thinking that will make my strike more powerful; but that simply does not work. Instead, muscles end up fighting each other, competing instead of cooperating. Instead of transferring smoothly back and forth between different groups at different points in the movement, all groups want to be controlling all parts of the punch. I have the strength. I can deadlift 400Lbs quite easily and do multiple sets with it. That is more than enough power to hit as hard as I want, if only I would stop getting in my own way.

This, ironically, is why small, lean fighters often hit with more force than large, muscular ones. They have less muscle to get tangled up with itself, and it is easier to train them to work in cooperation. This is the secret behind Bruce Lee's incredible"one-inch" punch that was reported to be able to knock a sumo-wrestler off his feet (note the guy in the picture is not a sumo-wrestler.)

To apply this to my prayer life, what the antiphon is talking about is a similar kind of totality, where every single part of me, body, mind, emotions, will are all engaged in just one thing. As with boxing, I am beginning to think that perhaps it is less a matter of training myself to do and more a matter of learning not to interfere. The simple decision of the will is there. I get up in the morning. I go to the chapel. I kneel down. I make the decision to pray, which is a response to the call of God to pray. That call is the power. That generates all the power needed to crash through any barrier or overcome any enemy, if only I wouldn't get in the way. But my mind refuses to be still. It wants to think, because when you are a mind that is all you know how to do. My body wants to move, because that is what a body does. My emotions want to feel things, because that is their only experience of life. My will wants to choose things, without knowing that all that is required is not to un-choose.

The truth is that the prayer is not any of these things. All of these things may enter into the prayer at any point, for a specific purpose and then they must be prepared to give their all in that moment, but they are not the prayer. The prayer is that single, downward rushing desire of God to come to me and dwell in me and make His home with me.

The rest is just me learning not to get in the way.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Face That People Can Trust

Once, back in the Q course, I was standing in line at the drop zone. I had harnessed into my chute and was waiting for a jumpmaster to perform his prejump inspection. This is basically a head-to-toe examination of the harness and chute prior to getting on the aircraft, to ensure there are no deficiencies and everything is attached and kosher looking. When the jumpmaster noticed I was ready he came over and began his inspection.

If you take out the middle letters it doesn't count as a bad word.
Now, the JMPI (Jumpmaster Prejump Inspection) is a very quick and fluid process. The Jumpmaster's hands fly swiftly by rote over the same path every single time, and the only time they seem to be paying attention is when they find a deficiency. Especially on this particular jump, the jumpmaster was so unconcerned he was holding a conversation with me.

"Are you jumpmaster qualified?"

"No, Sergeant."

"Well you should be. You have one of those faces, you know? You just look like you know what you're doing. Turn around. That's the important thing. Bend, squat and hold. You don't actually have to know what you're doing, you just have to look like it. Have a good jump."

And he wandered off to the next jumper.

It is true though. By some trick of bone structure and muscle tension, my face when relaxed has always looked like I know what I am doing, which is totally ironic since in reality, at any given moment I am probably winging it. The odds of my actually knowing what I am doing are quite small.

Ryan Kraeger pre-mission photo, circa 2007
A case in point of that occurred in Afghanistan, toward the end of my rotation. I had been working at route clearance for the last six months of a fifteen month trip. (Route Clearance means we went searching for IED's and disarmed them when we found them. I was the guy with the mine detector.)

After six months I had found every one and not been blown up once, which is a good record to have, but I was getting burnt out. I was losing confidence in myself. You know the way you feel when you win five poker hands in a row, and you just don't want to bet anymore because you know the next one is going to be a flop? That's how I felt. Only by "poker hand" I meant "IED" and by "flop" I meant "red mist on the breeze."

I was also developing a deeper, stronger confidence in God. I was coming face to face with my own mortality and fallibility, and yet was still required to do my job, and so I was left with no recourse but to trust God. I did not particularly trust Him not to get me killed. His people have a way of meeting singularly inconvenient ends which sometimes involve explosions, and sometimes do not. How many practicing Catholics have been shot, bayoneted, burned, nuked or gassed in the last hundred years or so? Do you think their mothers weren't praying for them? Seriously, the founder of our Church was nailed to a stake and left to die. How should I expect special favors?

So I had no illusions that trusting God was some magic, IED-proof force field. Which didn't matter to me, because I was not afraid of dying. I knew that if I died, it would be because God thought I was done with whatever it was I was sent to do, and who am I to argue?

God must feel like this psychologist sometimes.
No, I did not fear death, I feared failure. I was afraid of making a bad call and letting the vehicles roll over a bomb and killing someone else. It was a call I made every day, and I was well aware how fallible I was. You never really know. It is one thing to trust God with your own life. It is another thing to trust him with someone else' life. It is another thing to trust Him with the things that really matter to us personally: projects we have invested in, plans we have made for the people we love, surefire ideas to save the world, etc. In a word, control.

It was this that I was called to surrender, the reputation for being right, the illusion of authority. I was learning to give up the illusion of control. There was a measure of irony in the fact that, while I barely trusted myself at all, but trusted God with everything, the other guys in the platoon barely trusted God at all, but trusted me with everything. I am sure God thought that was quite funny.

But in reality, isn't that part of the call of being Christian, to trust God on behalf of other people? It has become an increasingly important component of my prayer at any rate. I know that God is to be trusted. Other people do not, but for whatever reason they trust me. As long as there is a me in the equation this is an alarming concept, but if I can let go of the me and let God take over, then they are really trusting God. Praying for people has become something like an exercise in letting go of them. Simply trusting that God knows best, that He is in control, that even if He lets them die (which He certainly will eventually) He will not let them out of His sight. This is also how I pray for my atheist and agnostic friends. Even if they do not know or trust Him, I feel like it is helpful, perhaps even critical, for me to trust Him with them. Somehow I feel like it does them some good.

I don't know how, but if I am right thus far I don't really need to know how. It is enough to be going on with.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The One Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil

In keeping with my last post, here is some food for thought that my little brother shared on facebook.

Granted, there is no point in jumping half cocked into a situation where you might end up getting stabbed or shot, and not do anyone any good. On the other hand, the sort of bullying shown in this video could easily have been stopped by nearly any college age adult with a half an ounce of confidence. People choose not to step in, not because of any reasonable fear of personal harm, but because of a kind of psychological and moral paralysis, which may be the subject of my next blog.

The decision about when and how to step in in more dangerous situations is a thornier question. I think I might do a blog on that as well.

In the meantime, I hope this video has given you some cause to think.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Chivalry Still Matters


To balance out my last post, I have always been an advocate of a modern chivalry, going so far as to write a book and a surfeit of blogs about it. Despite the fact that it is no longer a primary focus of mine, I still think it is both good and necessary. Make no mistake, the need for chivalry, for protection of women by men, is still very real in this world. However, a fake chivalry that thinks its duty fully discharged by having held the door or paid for a meal is not going to cut it. The only solution for a crime against women like that pictured to the left, is a real chivalry, with brains and balls, muscle and a soul of steel, and the willingness to suffer (or perhaps inflict) violence if necessary to protect the innocent. 


That  picture is an extreme, although not at all uncommon, example. Perhaps acid throwing and nose cutting happen only in Afghanistan or India or Timbuktu or some such outlandish place but I can almost guarantee that on your street, right now, there lives at least one battered woman or abused child. If you are a public school student I can promise you, you walk past a half dozen scenes of bullying every week. If you work in an office you probably witness at least one or two incidents of verbal abuse, sexual harassment or oppression a day. This is the field of modern chivalry.


Most of your cardboard armor "knights," whining and complaining that no damsel wants him to be her savior, endlessly going on and on about how chivalry is dead and feminism killed it, they are just not up to that challenge. Unless they stop living in a fantasy world and open their eyes and train themselves long and hard, they never will be.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Chivalry and Charity

Recently my cousin posted a link on facebook to an article about chivalry which sparked a bit of a long comment thread on the subject. There were numerous pro and con arguments, but the only con argument against chivalry that seemed any good to me was the question my cousin had, that if chivalry is simply a matter of courtesy and serving other people, then how is it any different from Christian Charity? It is a just question, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit in the weeks since. Most of this post comes from that thread, but some is the result of those weeks of thought.

First of all, it is important to understand that they are not the same thing. Charity is supernatural, and the culmination of all virtues at their essence. Chivalry is a humanly defined collection of virtues. An analogy would be the difference between “Star” and “the big dipper.” “Star” is a concept which includes all possible aspects of the true essence of star, from the scientific to the poetic, discovered and undiscovered. “Big dipper” on the other hand, is our word for a specific group of stars which bear a certain relationship from our two dimensional view, but which would be meaningless viewed from nearly any other point in three dimensional space. This does not mean that the concept of “big dipper” is useless, especially for someone trying to find polar north without a compass, but if we ever go to another solar system and search the night sky for directions we may find ourselves hopelessly lost.

Chivalry is the same way. It is a human concept with a specific historical origin and evolution. It is also a word for a specific collection of virtues. These virtues differ from one time and place to another, but they historically have always included at least these three: some martial or at least athletic connotation; the idea of scholarly excellence in a general, non-specialized sense; and a certain mannerly and respectful way of treating others, with an emphasis on those in positions of vulnerability.

Chivalry is not about holiness; it is about self-improvement. It will not get you to heaven. (See John Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University.”) It may make earth more enjoyable but it will not save your soul. If diligently followed it will make you respectful, athletic, a respectable fighter, interesting, sophisticated, dignified and a great conversationalist (already we are far removed from the idea of chivalry as a portable doorman for highly manicured ladies). These are all good things, and well worth pursuing if you have the time and inclination. However, chivalry will not make you humble or compassionate. It is no guarantee that you will ever learn how to love.

Chivalry is particularly interested in the relation of men and women because of its origin in the middle ages. It originated (according to Brad Miner in “The Compleat Gentleman”) specifically as a means to teach big, rough, tough, skull-crushing, Saracen-gutting, half-barbarian warrior types to regard women as people with rights, rather than merely as property. The element of service to women is an attempt to subdue the aggressive, lawless and particularly masculine to service of order, beauty and peace. Holding doors for women is a somewhat pathetic remnant of that.

Since it is a man-made concept, it must evolve with the times, something that most of the “bringin’ chivalry back!” (BCB) crowd does not realize. A lot of BCB-ers lament the absence of damsels in distress because they feel that distressed damsels are necessary for them to be chivalrous. As long as the damsels get through life steadfastly refusing to be distressed, you can’t blame the boys in cardboard armor for being a little put out. 

 The fact is that somehow or other, women do in fact manage to get through doors, get into and out of cars, and procure food items for themselves, even when men are not around. They seem to do it rather well. Therefore, if holding doors and paying for dates is seen as the measure of what chivalry is, well, thanks but I have better things to do

A more mature chivalry sees women with a critically balance poetry. He sees what is, namely, that women now-a-days are not as exaggeratedly vulnerable and crying out for a rescuer as Sleeping Beauty and his behavior towards them respects that. On the other hand he also recognizes that the vulnerability that the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale symbolizes is not a bad thing. Vulnerability is worth fighting for. It is worthwhile to cherish and value that side of a woman, while recognizing that it is not her only side. She is a fellow shipwrecked passenger, just like I am, and her ability to be vulnerable and beautiful is one of the most powerful strengths she brings to this lonely island. It would be a shame if that were lost because there was no one around to value it.

You see, a truly chivalrous man knows that it is a good thing to treat a lady like a lady, and knows also that a “lady” is not a euphemism for spoiled brat. A true lady is a very dangerous and powerful person indeed. She is not a Disney princess. She is not a tame lioness.

But that is the long way round. At its best, chivalry like all other virtues must first resemble and then finally be drawn into charity if it is not to become obsolete. Charity is better. While chivalry is an exclusive virtue in that some people can develop it and some people cannot, charity requires only that you be willing to know and love the other and be known and loved. It is open to man, woman, child, old person, scholar and day worker, athlete and invalid, fat, skinny, strong, weak, genius or dunce. It is better to be even the littlest of lovers than it is to be the greatest of knights. 

However, in the last year or so I have not thought about practicing chivalry at all. I have gradually been shifting my focus towards striving after charity. This does not mean I think that my previous focus on chivalry is superseded. I think it was valuable and worthwhile, for several reasons. 

Firstly, it was the search for chivalry that brought me to the point where I could recognize that charity is superior. That was the most powerful draw for a man of my personality, and I think it could draw other men just as strongly. That is why I will certainly teach it if I ever have sons, or am in any way in charge of the education of boys.

 Secondly, I do not think that concentrating more on charity will make me less chivalrous. Quite the contrary, I believe it will fulfill and make complete the chivalry that I have been practicing for years, but, alas, have still not mastered.

And thirdly, charity is as individual as people are. Every human's love is different from every other human's love. Chivalry was the most influential part of the raw material, and it imparts a strong flavor or color to the shape that my charity will take, when by God's grace it is full grown.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tacloban, Part VIII

Sometimes, even in the midst of a disaster area you have to stop and notice the beauty. 
Some people might think it a mockery. How could there be beauty in the midst of so much suffering? How dare we enjoy beauty, how dare we rest? Why are we not working still, pushing ourselves, doing something to relieve the suffering? There is no time for anything as frivolous as beauty. It merely mocks the loss of the people who have lost everything.
But then I have to ask, is it really a mockery after all? 

Or is it perhaps a sort of message? Perhaps even an answer?

For behold, all will be well, and All will be well, and all manner of things will be most well. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tacloban, Part VII

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A concrete and rebar ammo bunker that got ripped apart by the storm surge. Really.
We landed at Tacloban Airport with not a clue what we were supposed to be doing. There were six of us and only two of us had an explicit job. The Air Force CCT guys were suppose to assess the airfield and get it up and running. The rest of us were supposed to support them.

We had food and water to get us until the next day’s resupply, but the weight restrictions had been so tight and the Air Force CCT kit was so heavy, we had not been able to pack much of anything else. No tent.

We did have six mattresses, little foam pads, twin sized, wrapped in plastic. One of the guys had a hammock, which he strung up in a baggage trolley, so I took his mattress and mine. I laid mine out on the ground and set a heavy tuffbox on each end. Given that I am 5’9” tall and the mattress was barely 6’ long, this shortened my bed considerably, but the rain was coming on and I needed an overhead shelter. I laid the second mattress across the top of the two boxes and weighted down the ends with another box and some large rocks. As homeless shelters go, I’ve seen worse.

The rain started around 10:30 PM. At first it was no more than a steady, cheerful shower, not too cold, just exceedingly wet. I was stripped down to a pair of shorts and my Merrel Trail Glove running shoes, which can get as wet as you like without being ruined, or even especially uncomfortable, so I didn’t mind a little damp. That is fortunate, since I was destined to be quite damp indeed before morning.

At first all I had to worry about was the splashing of gargantuan raindrops in the puddles that rapidly formed around my cozy little dwelling place. Then water puddled on the top mattress and it sagged and when I moved it poured its burden off one edge, onto the bottom mattress. In no time at all I was lying on my side in a puddle. My shelter lasted about an hour before so much water soaked through the holes in the plastic that the mattress was completely sodden, and began to drip continuously. Then, just to put the cherry on top, it began to downpour torrentially. Yes. That is a word.
Home Sweet Home!! (There used to be another tuffbox holding up the left side.)



I have spent more comfortable nights, but all in all, it could have been worse. At least it was a warm rain, and I had some overhead cover. You might not think that makes much of a difference, but the truth is that it does. It is one thing to sleep in a puddle, but when you are wearing next to nothing and it is warm enough, it actually is not that bad. However, continually having torrential tropical depression type rain pounding into you, splashing on your face, chest, back, legs, etc. that is something else entirely. Each rain drop, in hitting you, emphasizes the overall discomfort, wakes you up again, and generally just brings your focus back to the here and now. I assure you it is hardly conducive to a restful night’s sleep.

The worst thing was actually my right hip. It turned into a pressure point because I was sleeping on my side and didn’t have room to stretch out, and the mattress was only an inch and a half of foam on cement. Apparently foam loses its cushioning ability when it is saturated. Who knew? 

At any rate, there I was, and there I stayed until morning. It took the whole rest of the day for the shriveled, macerated look to go out of my hands, probably because it continued to rain more or less constantly until about lunch, and the last rainstorm wasn’t until after 5:00. By then, however, we had received a tent and were figuring out how to set it up. Better late than never, right?

Was it worth it? 
Totally.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tacloban, Part VI

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You know, people are beautiful, crazy things. When I went back to camp to catch some sleep the night that we finally got the airfield moving at night, a Filipino man called out to me as I walked by. “Hey, Sir!”

He was squatting on the concrete, with his wife and their littlest baby squatting next to him, and six or eight little dark eyed chitlins squatting all in a row behind him, along with some aunties or big sisters or some such relative.

“Hey Sir,” he said again and gestured to the line behind him. He was hopelessly at the back of the crowd, and there was no way he was getting on an airplane tonight. But he had seen lines of people being moved to the airplanes, and he had figured out what we were doing and had separated his family and lined them all up in a row, ready to go.

“Wow,” I said, “All lined up?”

He nodded and smiled hopefully and his wife and babies all looked up at me with big, dark, hopeful eyes that just made me feel like the biggest ogre on the planet for not getting them out right away. (Okay, so I am a sucker for little brown babies with big brown eyes. So sue me.)

What a leader! What a man! I could see that he truly cared about his family, and keeping them together and making sure they were safe was the most important thing to him. They trusted him. They squatted in line behind him, one behind the other, keeping quiet and still and cheerful among the chaos all around them.

What I would not have given to move them right to the front of the line, right then! But I could not. That would have caused a riot, in all likelihood, and that would have shut down loading operations. I had to smile and say, “Good for you. Hang in there,” and walk away.

When I went back again the next day, they were still squatting there, all lined up, and he smiled at me hopefully again. He was still cheerful, but he looked worn out. Other people were still in line ahead of him. I had to get Marilee’s people out, because I had promised, and I owed her. He watched that plane leave sadly, and moved his family into the next spot.

After that I was no longer running the airfield. The Marines had taken over now and I had to go do other things. As I left for the last time, he smiled at me, still hopefully, but with a bit more fear in his eyes. All I could do was point to the only seven rows of people still in front of him, count them out and smile encouragingly, and then walk away.

He was able to get his family out later that afternoon, I think, because there were several planes in later that day, and I didn’t see him again.

Blessings upon him and his family.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tacloban, Part V

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I walked through the yard where they were collecting the bodies of those killed by the typhoon. They bring them in on trucks, collecting them from out of treetops along the beach, rubble piles in the city, drowned vehicles along the street. A body bag hides a lot about the person it contains, but it cannot hide the size. One old lady was swelled up so huge they couldn’t zip the bag, so they left her with the bag closed to her waist, one arm stiffened over her face, like she was trying to block out the sun.
One body bag had a pair of business shoes sticking out of a rip in the corner.
One body bag had only a single lump in it. A two foot lump in a six foot bag.
The juices oozed out of them and ran across the cobblestones. You cannot get sick from the smell. Death is not contagious.
Only two feet long.
They only had a few trucks left running. They needed them to haul bodies. They needed them to deliver food. So they used the same trucks to do both. Fortunately a weird, twitchy, ex-Pat guy who owns a pest control business donated his time, equipment and 300 gallons of boric acid to spraying out the trucks between uses.
They wanted him to spray down the cadavers at first. He told them it was a waste of time. Save the chemicals to protect the living.
Another lump was just about four feet long.
They do not have time to identify them. At first a few were found and identified by relatives, but by now the decomposition is too advanced. The National Bureau of Investigation is burying them deep in a mass grave, in single file lines, with layers of lime and dirt between each layer of bodies. Later, if they get the orders they may exhume them and forensically identify them.
I think the mother of that tiny lump would want to know.
Do you know how hard it is to get cadaver smell out of your clothes?

I asked God, why?
I think He means us to ask. I think He wants us to challenge Him for an answer. If we do not seek to know His mind can we really have any part in Him.
His answer came back like a fragment of a line of verse: “They died as they had lived, in the palm of my hand. Their mass grave was dug with the point of a nail.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tacloban, Part IV

I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.


When we finally did manage to load people at night it was almost accidental. We still had several hundred people on the tarmac. Marilee’s group had long since been overrun and surrounded and even though they had originally been first in line they were now completely enveloped by this new crowd, and this new crowd was big, and not willing to go back to their old places by the main gate. Airplanes were going to land all night starting at 10:00 PM so I rushed down to the airfield after supper and started trying to organize a night rescue. First I pleaded with the crowd through the police guards, telling them that airplanes were going to be coming and going all night, but that we were being told we could not load them if people were going to be bum rushing them. I explained that if they could all be patient and wait their turn, then we would be able to load many airplanes and get hundreds of them out. If any of them pushed or tried to run around the line, we would have to cut it off and then no one would get out until the next day.

The crazy thing is that it worked. They were still panicky, and they still begged and pleaded to be put on the airplane first, but there was very little pushing and shoving, very little trying to sneak around the group to get in. Most of those who snuck around the group to cut in line were officers and their families, who seemed to think that the rules did not apply to them.

I had a Philippines Air Force lieutenant who spoke excellent English and got the problem. He understood. There was also an Air Force corporal, a lowly corporal with crazy poofy hair, who likewise got the concept. Between them they were worth more than all the senior officers on the scene put together. They were the ones doing the actual work of setting up the police cordon around the crowd, directing police to the areas they needed to be, deciding who was going to be pulled out of the crowd first, setting them in lines of ten and keeping order among the lines. They did the work of making sure the lines were single-file, and no one cut from one line to the next. They were not afraid physically to grab people and set them down where they needed them to be.

It is remarkable how little actual work I did. A lot of running back and forth, seeing potential problems and yelling them over the engine noise, directly into the ear of the lieutenant, but they did all the actual work. Why did I get so tired then? Possibly because, once again, I had been going for about 20 hours by the time I turned in. It was worth it though. I had finally gotten a system built that allowed us to load at night. It wasn’t really me building it, I just happened to be around when a whole bunch of factors over which I had no control all came together, and I saw that the time was right and we got to it and it worked. I was able to teach it to two US Marine E-5’s (Sergeants) who took it and ran with it. I sometimes make fun of jarheads, but these two were good dudes, smart, compassionate, and squared the heck away. One of them looked like the Terminator. Even I felt small next to him.

Between them and the Filipino Air Force folks, they loaded 250 more people between the time I went to bed at about 12:30 AM and 4 AM. When I checked back in with them the following midnight, they were still going. 

That was a good night’s work.