Ursa Ensis (Bear of the Sword)*

A friend of mine has asked why, on my blog, at least, I take the form of a bear. The easy answer would be that someone was selling little white bears dressed as fencers at a tournament several years ago and I bought one and, in proper fencing fashion, put my name on its lame. But this is rather like saying that the reason I became a medieval historian was because I took Latin in high school. It would seem to explain something (why I have a toy fencing bear, why I am able to read the manuscripts that I have been looking at this week in the British Library), while in fact leaving everything of any real significance utterly opaque. What was I doing at the tournament in the first place? How, for that matter, did I come at age 38 to pick up a foil? What if, after we moved when I had just finished ninth grade, my new school had offered German (my original preference) rather than Latin? To what extent is the person that I have become an accident as opposed to a choice?

According to the medieval bestiaries (such as this one which Fencing Bear saw in the archive at Canterbury), bear cubs, when they are first born, are little more than pulpy lumps. In order for them to look like bears, their mothers must, quite literally, lick them into shape. (My son loved it when he heard this one!)

Further details about bears: they love honey but they die if they eat mandrakes unless they find some ants as (you guessed it, although the pun doesn’t really work in Latin) an antidote; they fight bulls by grabbing the bulls’ horns and attacking their nostrils because this is where bulls are most tender; if wounded, they know how to doctor themselves with mullein (a herb); they make love not like other quadrupeds, but rather face to face, like human beings; although they are most lustful in winter, the male bear does not try to mate with the female while she is pregnant but lies at a distance from her as if in a separate room. Bears are weak in the head but strong in the forelegs and loins; for this reason, they sometimes stand upright. Numidian bears are especially shaggy, but in all other respects just like other bears.

Clearly, there is a lesson in all of this. If I am a bear, I must especially enjoy the sweetness of life yet know how to deal with its bitterness (a.k.a. mandrakes), too. I am willing to fight if necessary (e.g. when attacked by bulls) and know how to find my opponent’s weaknesses. I don’t think I’m obliged to tell you anything more about my sex life than that I have one (witness existence of my own cub), but I can say my husband is most considerate about knowing when I need some space to myself (e.g. when blogging), so I suppose that makes him a bear, too. As a fencing bear, I need to be strong in the arms and legs, for moving on the strip and holding my foil, and I protect my head with my mask. I’m not Numidian but as I have never met a real Numidian bear, I don’t know how much shaggier they are than I am, so I’m not sure what that signifies except that they must be bears like I am. All the “how to” books that I read must count as my own variety of mullein; when spiritually wounded, I know where to seek advice. Which leaves only the most salient characteristic of bears: the fact that they are born shapeless and become bear-like only through their mother’s care.

It is, to put it mildly, an age-old question. Is it Nature (what we are born) or Nurture (the care that we receive from others, the training that we undergo, the context in which we find ourselves, the discipline that we impose on ourselves) that makes us who we are? As a Christian bear, I have, of course, a partial answer: we are all, as human beings (thus the significance of the Numidian bear), made in the image and likeness of God. But what that means is rather open to question. Is it our reason? Or is it our mental capacities more generally (intellect, memory, will)? The general consensus would seem to be that it has more to do with our mind and spirit than with our body (God being, except in the special instance of the Incarnation, bodiless), but as the kinds of creatures that we are (incarnate souls) it is appropriate for us to have bodies, unlike the angels, who are solely intelligences. Which is all well and good, except that it still does not tell us what it means for us to be God-like in our selves or in our lives.

The doctrine of original sin (I know, not everybody’s favorite, but bear* with me) is an attempt to explain some of the difficulty that we have realizing our innate God-likeness: if Adam and Eve had not succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, we would be able to govern ourselves perfectly because our wills would still be in harmony with God’s. But because we have fallen, we find ourselves incapable of willing, never mind acting in the way that we should, “should” being here defined as what it takes to become our true, God-intended selves—and, by the by, God’s will for us is wholly expansive. So what hope do we have? Again, there is, of course, a Christian answer; rather, to be Christian is to have faith in God that there is an answer. God himself has given us the capacity to become who He wants us to be—our true selves—by way of his grace. What we cannot do by ourselves, through our own power, we can do if we allow Him to shape us according to his will.

So, God is the mother bear, licking us into our true form, right? But then it was God who created us as shapeless lumps with, to be sure, the potential to be bears, but far from fully realized at birth. So perhaps we are our own mother bears, defining ourselves through the choices that we make. But this simply begs the question all over again: why do we make the choices that we do? And do we make the right ones? And how, after all, do we know what the options are? How meaningful is it that I am a fencer rather than a gymnast? A professor of medieval history rather than, like both my parents, a physician? A resident of Chicago rather than of, say, Canadian (where my mother grew up) or Santa Fe? A bear rather than a badger? You might say, all of these are incidentals, not really who I am—but are they? How much is my character as a scholar, spiritual seeker (true; I took the test), athlete, urbanite, and ursine accidental to my self and how much is it a true expression thereof? Could I have been anything else?

Those of you who have been following my adventures of late will know that, like most bears, I struggle with trying to become the person whom I would most like to be, if not in my exterior activities (fencing, studying medieval Christian history), then in my ambitions and responses thereto. Indeed, I have often wished that I had a character different from the one that I seem to have been born with; certainly, my mother has evidence from my earliest days that I have been like this more or less my whole life. For no matter how self-conscious I am about, e.g. my pride or my envy, it still plagues me. I cannot, it seems, simply will myself to be less anxious about my status relative to others or more accepting of my accomplishments to date (see above, on original sin). However one phrases the answer—recognizing desire as the root of suffering, surrendering to God’s will, being Here Now—the difficulty remains that I cannot, misshapen as I am, do it. At least, not without help.

The short answer as to why I first picked up a foil is that I wanted something that I could do with my son as he was growing up. The long answer, perhaps the more accurate one, is that I was seeking a discipline that would teach me what it means to become myself. This may seem, I recognize, something of an oxymoron: how do I become myself by submitting to someone else’s structure? Wouldn’t I be better off inventing a structure—or activity—wholly for myself? Perhaps. Or perhaps I would find myself in the condition that the bear cubs do, a blob trying to lick itself into shape.

*Sorry, couldn’t resist. See what I mean about our weakness in the face of temptation?


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