Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Master

“What is your name, boy?”
The young slave looked up into the enigma of the man sitting upon the carved wooden chair. His face was hidden in the shadow of his hooded cloak, his form shrouded under the shadow of a canopy. Only his hands were visible, huge, callused, scarred and gnarled, clasped in absolute stillness before his face.
“My name is Daniel, My Lord.”
His Master remained silent and motionless. The boy went about his task, carefully pouring wine into the crystal goblet on the rough wooden tray. The Master had never spoken to him before. He did not know why he had spoken to him now. He arranged the towel upon the table and poured water from a bucket into the hand washing basin.
He stopped, half-frightened, unsure how or if to respond.
“How old are you, Daniel?”
“I do not know, My Lord.”
The Master spoke, “How long have you been my slave?”
“All my life, My Lord.” Daniel’s hands shook.
“Who gave you your name?”
“I do not know, My Lord.”
The Master snorted contemptuously. “What do you know, boy?”
Daniel had finished arranging the food, the drink, and the water for washing. It was time for him to leave now. He always left after arranging the food, the drink and the water for washing. The Master did not speak. The Master never spoke. In Daniel’s small world this was a breach of the laws of nature.
“Forget that question, Daniel,” The Master’s voice was quick and peremptory. “Sit.”
“My Lord?” Daniel struggled to keep his face blank, but his whole body was trembling.
He had no alternative but to sit upon the floor. The Master brooded in silence, while Daniel sat and tried to stare at the wall, not let his mind wander, not let his face betray any emotion. Minutes trickled by uncounted.
“Do you know what happens today, Daniel?”
“Th- there will be a battle, My Lord?” the little slave boy wished he was safely in his cubby above the rafters in the scullery. He was never supposed to speak in front of the Master. He was not supposed to be seen by the Master at all.
“Have you ever seen a battle, Daniel?”
“No, My Lord.”
The huge, bony knuckles flexed and stretched like a cat arising from sleep. “I was your age when I saw my first battle.” He was silent for a long ten breaths. “Horsemen rode into my village with the morning sun. They slew every person they found there before the sun was halfway up the sky. Do you know what I did, Daniel?”
“N-No, My Lord.”
“I hid in the woods. I hid like a rat in a hole and I watched as they carved up my father, my mother, my brothers, and my sisters. Then they rode away. Do you know what I did then?”
“No, My Lord.”
“I found my father’s corn knife. I walked after the horsemen until I found where they made camp. I hid again in the forest until they fell asleep. Then I crept into their camp. Do you know what I did then?”
“N-No. No My Lord.”
The Master barked a single, coughing, mirthless laugh. “I slew one of them. Ha! I was trembling more piteously than you are now, and I felt as if my hands would slip upon the handle of that knife. As I stabbed him they did slip and I cut my own hand on the blade of that same knife. But I did not give up.” One fist pounded his knee. “I stabbed. I stabbed. I stabbed. Over and over again, until he stopped gurgling and squirming like a chicken.”
Daniel shivered. He was very afraid, but he did not know what he was afraid of. Why did the Master want to talk to him? Why?
“Have you ever seen a man killed, Daniel?” The Master asked after another silence.
“No, My Lord.”
“You have lived in this castle your whole life have you not?”
“I have, My Lord.”
“I fought in many battles after that. I fell in with outlaws and with them I wreaked vengeance on the riders who had slain my family. In time, I became the leader of those outlaws. What do you think of that, eh?”
He leaned forward as if inspecting Daniel’s face for an answer, and his head came out from the shadow of the canopy, but his face remained hidden under the overhanging hood. Daniel could see just the barest hint of the grizzled gray beard.
His tongue felt as if it were dry as cook’s dried fish, staked out on the fence in July. Fortunately he was spared replying, for he Master sat back into the shadow and spoke again.
“My band swelled from twenty, to thirty, to fifty. We defeated a small chieftain and put his village to the torch, and took his women and children as our own. I banded with other outlaws, and then I slew them and took their armies as my own. Village after village, town after town. I burned them all.
“I will never forget killing my first king. He came out to put a stop to my plunder, but I slew him. He was old and fat, and he died like a pig.” The Master laughed another short, barking syllable.
“I married his daughter. Did you know that? Of course you didn’t. You were not even born. You cannot be more than ten winters old. You know nothing of power, or wealth, or the governance of provinces. That witch tried to poison me but she bore me a son. Ha! A son. A mewling, puking, milksop of a brat. I loathe the sight of him.” A long exhalation of breath came from the depths of the shadow.
There was a silence again, so long that Daniel finally worked up the courage to say, “Sh- sh…”
“Speak up!” snapped the Master.
“Shall I go, My Lord?”
A sound not unlike a growl rumbled through the room. “You are afraid of me too? Have I ever struck you, boy? Have I ever done the least thing to you?”
Daniel shook his head, too terrified to answer.
The hands clenched, unclenched, softly pounded the knees, thick and knobbly as old oaks above the rough leather arming boots. “I have killed many men, Daniel.”
“Y- yes… My Lord?” Daniel shook.
“By the time this night falls I will have killed many more.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“I have killed women, and I have killed children. But I will kill no more of those.” The Master stood upright with a speed and suddenness all the more terrifying because of his vast, mountainous size. He towered over boy, and retrieved something from his belt. “Follow me,” he ordered.
Shivering, Daniel followed him around to the wall behind the dais. The Master swept aside a wall hanging and stood in front of a section of wooden paneling. Daniel could see nothing because of the man’s enormous bulk, but he heard the key turn in the lock. “Go through this doorway,” the Master ordered. “Follow the passage until it comes out on the river bank. Follow the river to the right until you reach a bridge. Get out onto the bridge and walk to your left until you reach the first town. After that your wits and luck will have to serve you. Starve, or freeze, or work, or beg. Live or die. It is all one to me.”
Daniel could not move. He dared not run away, but he could not obey because the Master was still standing in the doorway. The old man sighed and with a sound like the rushing wind swept off his cloak into a bundle of rich velvet, which he thrust hurriedly into Daniel’s arms. “Take this. Sell it for copper.”
Daniel looked up at the thighs, as round as kegs of mead, the powerful waist as high above the ground as his own head, circled with a massive leather belt. From there the man rose up even higher, a mountain of broad chest, square shoulders, and a jaw like the wall of the castle, solid, implacable, criss-crossed with scars and lines. A stern gray beard melded into a tangled hairline, which thinned to a few scatter, straggling wisps as it reached the top of his head. Great bushy eyebrows lowered at the boy. One hand picked Daniel up by the shoulder and tossed him savagely through the doorway with a strangled snarl, “Begone, I say! Live, damn you!” The door slammed behind him so hard that the oaken panels cracked.
There was no more sound from the other side. Daniel gathered up the velvet cloak and, wrapping it around his tiny frail body as best he could so that it would not trip him up, he began to follow the passage.
By nightfall, flames and smoke could be seen as far away as England, across the water, rising from the Master’s castle. Everyone who saw that smoke blessed God and cursed the tyrant’s name. Within a couple of years his memory was gone, and weeds and vines covered the ruins of his castle. To those who had hated him so implacably and so justly, it was as if he had never been.
But in the monastery on the riverbank, every day for sixty years, Brother Daniel, alone out of all the monks, humbly whispered the Master’s name in his Father’s ear.

Friday, January 17, 2014

If you let them, they will build

I recently read an article about childhood and play and the increasingly all pervasive place of school in the lives of children. School work which runs all day, followed by extra-curricular activities such as sports, followed by hours of homework, does not leave a lot of time for playing. The author of the article argues for a central importance of play, unstructured and unsupervised, in the lives of children.

Sometimes it is hard for me to get into the mindset of school. When I was a kid I was homeschooled. All of us were. We did more actual work and got better grades and test scores than our public school peers, but we spent less time at it. I remember looking up at the school buses going down the road in the morning while I was eating breakfast or doing barn chores, not having even started school for the day. I remember looking up again in mid to late afternoon while I was working on hobbies, or reading a book, or playing with legos, or running wild with my brothers, having been done with school for hours. School was self initiated, self-directed. The lesson plans were given to us at the beginning of the week, and as long as we turned in the required assignments and got passing grades, we were free to decide when we did what, how quickly we did it, in what order we did it. We could knuckle down and get to it, or we could dawdle. It was completely up to us. My siblings and I frequently worked an extra hour on Thursday to do all of Friday's work, so that we would have Friday completely off to play all day, or go on a field trip or whatever else took our fancy.

This kind of personal control over our time, and the amount of free time we had are, in many ways, an ideal only feasible in a small group setting. (Or is it? Why would I assume that? Has anything different been tried?) My family's particular small group model was far from perfect, despite that amazing privilege, but that freedom was foundational to who we became. I think it is safe to say, and I doubt my parents would gainsay it, that the vast majority of our learning took place in the out of school hours. This does not mean that school hours are not useful, or that 12 years of unstructured play is the ideal educational model. Rather it seems to indicate a model of formal education that I am becoming increasingly enamored of.

Formal education is a foundation. It provides training in skills of the mind, through reading, writing, arithmetic, and the sciences and arts, which shape how the children think. Good training will yield better thinking than poor training. It will be more logical, more nuanced, more systematic, more communicable. However, the educator is really only laying a foundation. The real education is the building that is built on top of that foundation. To grasp the relative importance of the two, and to settle any silly debates about which is more important, simply look at any building you please and ask which is more important, the foundation or the building which is build upon it. A good formal education, like a good foundation, is largely a hidden thing. No one walks around spouting multiplication tables and spelling "prestidigitation" and balancing chemical equations, anymore than people live on cement pads in the open air. It is in the building that the real business of life happens, and it is in the active life of the mind that real learning happens. The practice in reading, diagramming sentences, writing essays on fungi and field mice and Ferdinand of Spain, mutilating multitudinous maths problems and learning about levers and and lemmings and chemicals that exploded when mixed with water, all of these were slowly shaping my mind into the sort of mind which could analyze, recognize, organize and philosophize. However, the real education came from the use I made of those abilities in my free time.

When children are little, in preschool, kindergarten, maybe first or second grade, they are full of dreams and schemes and big ideas. They want to build skyscrapers and castles in the clouds. By the time they reach middle school, a lot of them lose that imaginative spark. Instead of asking questions like, "Why does that work like that? Where do these chemicals come from? What makes gravity work? Why would Hitler do that? Didn't he know better?" they start asking questions like, "Is this going to be on the test? How many paragraphs do I have to write?" We start out by training kids to achieve a standard, usually one set by the lowest common denominator, and they follow by sinking to the level of the standard we expect of them.

I am hypothesizing that this is because education has tried to go into the business of building buildings instead of merely pouring concrete for foundations. We have codified and quantified, metered and measured every possible dimension of what we term success, broken it down into its component parts, and tried to fit children into that model of what we think they should look like when they are done. It is a natural temptation for any educator, trainer, teacher or mentor, but kids quite rightly resent being built. Eventually they want to build themselves, even if they cannot articulate it, and it is meet and just that it should be so.

We needn't worry about kids "making something of themselves." It is not the responsibility of adults, parents or teachers to see that children "make something of themselves," that is their responsibility, and I think we needn't worry too much about it. As I said, little children are natural born builders, (once they get past the natural born destroyer phase, which takes longer for some than for others.) Young children build castles on clouds and to them nothing is impossible. The ideal education is one which preserves into adulthood that imaginative spark, that impulse to build something beautiful and interesting and useful and just plain cool, coupled with a mature, level-headed knowledge of ways and means. Such young people will build themselves, and it will not be after the image that their elders would have chosen for them. It will be more nearly after the image they were created to show.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Questions and Questions

I was talking with some guys today about Judges 13, the chapter where Samson's parents get the message from the angel that they are going to have a baby. It was interesting that the general consensus among the guys present was that the angel came to the wife first because she was more willing to trust, rather like Hannah, Elizabeth and Mary (although not like Sarah.) One guy even said that God might find it easier to work through women because they don't question as much.

Now to me, perhaps because I am a natural born questioner, that raises the question of what the purpose of the men is, then. Throughout the Church there seems to be this assumption that women are "more spiritual" and somehow more naturally "religious" than men, and that this somehow accounts for, or even excuses, the fact that most of the Catechism teachers, parish staff and pre-daily-Mass Rosary sayers are women. There seems to be a hidden attitude that the spiritual, naturally religious women are going to put up with the coarser, more cynical, more "questioning" men and coax, nag and all but drag them into heaven.

So what is the point of men? If you grant that men are more likely to ask questions and be pigheaded (which I may or may not grant) then what is the purpose of that? It was not intended to be an obstacle, but rather an aid to doing God's will. No trait that exists in any gender, personality type, or individual was designed by God as an unfortunate byproduct, but rather as a glory and a stairway to heaven, if used correctly.

So for myself, it helps if I remember that there are two kinds of questioning that I typically engage in. I question either rhetorically, "What do you think you are doing?" or I question wonderingly, "What are you doing, Lord?" The first is a challenge. I am expecting God to justify Himself to me, explain His actions so that I may judge and approve or disapprove them. The second is a request for education. I want Him to enlighten my mind so that I understand His ways, so that my thoughts become more like His thoughts and my ways more like His ways.

That typically masculine curiosity, and the desire simply to know things for their own sake, to understand ways and means, is not a bad thing. It is a good thing, if the attitude is one of humility, acknowledging that there are limits to what we can understand. If the fundamental attitude is one of trust that God has a reason and that His ways are good, then all the questioning in the world can never harm us or prevent us from doing His will. It can only draw us closer to Him, make us better students, better friends, and better sons (and daughters) of Him who delights to teach. I believe that God will eventually answer all such questions, and I certainly believe He means us to ask them, and to keep asking and asking, so long as we leave room our minds for His answers, not for what we expect His answers to be.

In this sense, that questioning attitude is a means of emptying the mind to make it more capable of holding the Word that made the Universe. Never give up your questions, or the fundamental trust that leads you to ask them in the first place.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

What is Best in Life

So answers Conan, Barbarian type.
But isn't that really the question that we all spend our lives answering? What is best in life?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I had a lot of time today, so I made a youtube video. This is me, reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses."

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Me and My Calories

A short while back I had to go through a bit of a wringer in the form of a hospital rotation. I worked for 3.5 weeks at Madigan Army Medical Center, partially to maintain currency as a medic, but mostly as part of my civilian education. At the same time I was doing 11 credits of college coursework online, and preparing for a deployment with my unit. During one of those weeks I clocked 100 hours at work!

I noticed a strange thing during that time, and in the months since. I did not have time to work out, but I kept eating as I always did and my weight went up. It crept up from 210-ish, to 215, then 220, and finally topped off at 225 right before I deployed. More interestingly still, it did not spontaneously drop on its own!

Now, I have always despised dieting. I have never needed it before. When I was 19 in Korea, I used to order a 21 inch, 6 topping meat lover’s pizza and a dozen wings from Anthony’s Pizza on post, eat the whole thing in one sitting, and then go out and run six miles the next morning like it was nothing. I did this every weekend, and never weighed more than 205.

Now at 28, almost 29, I do not have that ability anymore. Ironically, I would not for anything in the world go back to being the 19 year old me. 19-year-old Ryan was a bit of an idiot.

However, now I have to think about things realistically. I have diabetes, hypertension and high-cholesterol on both sides of my family, with a tendency towards overweightness I get from my mother’s side. My fiancée keeps insisting that I am not allowed to die at 55 or 60. Additionally, I have always been active, and I enjoy being active. I like to be able to run up a mountain to see the view at the top, I like to be able to pick up heavy things without breaking my back, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be caught in a tight spot and not be able to give a good account of myself without passing out from exhaustion. All this to say, I have had it easy up to now, but from here on out if I want to be healthy and active for the long haul, I am going to have to pay for it.

So I have started counting calories. L

It isn’t as bad as all that. Wouldn’t you know, there is an app for that! I simply type in what I eat, use the drop down menu to select the closest match, and all the calories and most of the nutritional data are added for me. If it has a US barcode I can scan that, but not many things in the Philippines come with US barcodes. I guesstimate a lot. I can also add my workouts, and that gives me a ballpark of how many calories I am burning. Having used it for a month now I have gone from 225 to 220, while also bulking up quite a bit from heavy lifting. It is neither as difficult nor as time consuming as I thought it would be. The only downside is the hit to my pride, but as my mother would say, a little “humbilification” never hurt anyone.

There are two things I have learned from it so far. As Aristotle would say, errors come in pairs. On the one hand it would be very easy for me just to let it slide a little here and there and eat a little bit, and not plug it into the app, as if I was fooling anyone but myself, but in the end my body doesn’t lie. It either is a lean, strong 215, or it is not. The iPhone does not control that.

On the other hand, it is also easy for me to get obsessed with things, and start looking at food as simply numbers, just nourishment to be shoveled into my mouth. It’s like budgeting money. I can become obsessed with budgeting to the point where I become stingy.

As with everything, this has a spiritual dimension as well. The old monks used to practice asceticism in food by eating only enough to maintain life, but denying themselves any pleasures of the sense by eating not one scrap more, and denying themselves anything tastier than dry bread, bitter herbs, gruel and so forth.
There was a touch of Manicheaism among some of those practices. The notorious contempt for the body and physical creation so often caricatured was more of a remnant of old pagan notions than an authentic Christian tradition. However there is some truth in their philosophy. The body should master food, and not be mastered by it. (I am not talking about fasting. I am talking about establishing a baseline daily diet that is mastered by reason.) The idea of a daily calorie and nutritional allotment is a way of tailoring their spiritual discipline to my personal vocation. I eat enough to maintain my bodily health and strength, and then I say “No.”

On the other hand it is also true that the pleasure of eating is a legitimate gift of God which we ought to take care not to despise on the grounds that it is “unspiritual.” We may choose to give it up for a time, short or long, but, I think it should only be because we hope to receive a greater gift. This is why the Church calendar revolves around both fasts and feasts. But we are a Resurrection people, so the feasts outnumber the fasts.

So I find it is best if I maintain two simple rules:
1)   Eat tasty food. Do not sacrifice taste for quantity, i.e. go by the “I can eat as much as I want as long as it tastes like cardboard” mentality. Instead I look at it as a spiritual exercise. I eat good tasting food, I enjoy it as much as I can, and try to glorify God in my enjoyment of it.
2)   Just like with my financial budget, it is important deliberately to blow the budget once in a while. Once a week I have a day, usually the Sunday, where I celebrate by eating whatever I like (although still within moderation for spiritual reasons.) When I get back to the states I will still be throwing pizza parties, and I will still be making my pizza with all the verve and pizzazz I can muster, serving the best beer I can afford, and rejoicing in the magnificent prodigality of gifts God has given me.
On the whole, so far it seems to be a sensible and maintainable habit to build. We will see how I modify it as time goes on.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:32

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Good Morning

Yesterday morning I attended Mass at 5:45 at a beautiful church about a mile from my hotel. I walked there, as it is not that far and the weather is quite decently cool in the twilight before the sun comes up. The church was not only beautiful, but quite huge as well. The congregation seemed little disposed to sitting close to each other, but instead were scattered fairly evenly throughout the whole church, with only a slightly higher concentration near the pulpit. There might have been a hundred and fifty people or so, but in the vast hall that seemed like a tiny number, barely a handful. There is always room for more in the Kingdom.

That same church has to hold six Masses every Sunday to accommodate all the worshippers. I have seen the 5:00 PM English Mass filled to overflowing, every stone bench and plastic chair in the courtyard likewise filled, and only room to stand, with a crowd waiting outside the gate for the Tagalog Mass to start.

This particular morning there was a young fellow in a white cassock behind me. It was the same cassock as the priest wore, but he looked too young to be a priest. Then again, you never can tell with Filipinos, and he was praying the Divine Office from a very shiny and new looking breviary. So I asked him, “Are you a priest?”

His face lit up in such a smile. He replied, “No, not yet. I am just a brother,” but he was tickled pink to be asked. There was something childlike about his excitement. It was obvious, shining from his face, that he wanted with all his heart to be a priest and that he will, God willing, continue on attending Mass and praying his Office and studying and working until he receives that great gift.

Leaving from the church I started to walk home. The sun was already excruciatingly bright (I had not brought sunglasses) and the temperature was in the upper 80’s, on its way up. I stopped at a bakery shop where a little beggar girl with a baby appealed to me for some coins. I bought two bibingkas from the shop, thereby providing free entertainment for the two girls watching the register. They thought I was quite funny for some reason. I ate one of the bibingka, and gave the other one with a few pesos worth of coins to the beggar. She looked like she could use it. I usually avoid giving coins to the children, because most of them are handled by professional beggars who take all of the profits and the kids get the scraps, but in this case I saw a woman across the street that had been talking to the girl, and I took her to be the girl’s mother. Not because women cannot be pimps or exploiters, but because she was not dressed any better than the little girl. At any rate she got the coins and the bibingka, and a few prayers.

I did not give any coins to the three little boys who hailed me at the next stop because they were obviously hale and hearty and well fed, and were just curious to see a big bald white guy on their street and thought they might get some free pocket change.

I hailed one of the little motorbike side-car taxis and caught a ride back to the hotel, because it was getting hotter and sunnier out. The taxi driver asked where I was from and practiced his English, which, while not good, was way better than my Tagalog. When I got there I asked him how much I owed him, and I could see him hesitate. The real rate is 8 pesos for anywhere in the city, but I was white, and he knew I could afford more. He didn’t know whether or not I knew what the rate should be. Perhaps he wanted to make up a higher number and couldn’t think of one, or perhaps he was just too honest. At any rate I just asked, with my most “innocents abroad” white guy look, if 20 pesos would be okay. His eyes lit up and he thanked me profusely and wished me a happy New Year.

The guys like to laugh at me for doing stuff like that. They pride themselves on knowing the going rates and not letting the locals get over on them. I, on the other hand, get fleeced pretty regularly. I hate bargaining and I am not good at it. It just seems like a waste of time to me.

20 pesos is less than 50 cents. I don’t even carry loose change in America. I toss that kind of money into a jar for years and never miss it, and then eventually I give the jar away rather than go through the bother of counting and banking it. Here I can give some driver 50 cents and a friendly smile and conversation and totally make his day. That seems worth it to me.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Christmas Eve Feast

After Christmas Eve Mass I went out looking for some food. This town does not stay open late. The hotel would still have food at 10:00, but it would be approximately 1500 pesos for the Christmas Eve feast. I have found that two blocks from the hotel, the price of everything drops to about 25% of what it costs at the hotel and mall.

I found a little barbecue restaurant with a truly charming wait staff (one delightful young man was hocking loogies into his hand in front of my table) but the smell and the price was right. I looked over the menu and saw that they offered 100 grams of tuna belly for some 45 pesos, and about the same for 100 grams of squid. Now, I love both tuna belly and squid, and since 100 grams is not that much, barely more than a few good mouthfuls, I ordered one of each, plus an order of “Native Style Barbecue Chicken.”

(Carbs, you say? We don’t need no stinkin’ carbs!)

The waitress gave me a funny look, which you would think might have clued me in, but then again I always get funny looks when I order food in Asia. (I don’t always order food in Asia, but when I do, I get funny looks.)

Well, in due course the food arrived. The first plate was the grilled tuna belly. It was not 100 grams. It was 500 grams. That is about 18 ounces of fish. I was paying for it at the rate of 45 pesos/100 grams, and, while you can’t beat the price, 18 ounces is a fairly respectable amount of fish.

When the squid arrived it was, likewise, a hot plate of 500 grams of squid. I love me some fresh grilled squid as much as the next guy, especially the way the Filipinos serve it, stuffed with pico de gallo or mango salsa, but I was now looking at a full kilo of seafood, and my chicken hadn’t even arrived yet!

Fortunately, while the chicken was an entire upper shoulder and wing skewered on a bamboo skewer, it was from an anorexic chicken. I doubt I got much more than a few ounces of meat off of that.

What is a man to do, in such a plight, but begin at the beginning and going on until he gets to the end of it? Washing it all down with fresh mango juice also helps. (See? I am not totally opposed to carbs!) It was delicious, nutritious and very, very filling.

Yes. This sort of thing happens to me. All the time. You get used to it eventually.