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Showing posts from November, 2008

The Eternal Feminine*

Paradoxically, given the fact that I've spent my entire academic life thinking about the Virgin Mary, I very rarely say anything directly about gender. You'd think I should, right? Most people do--think that I should, that is. Because, of course, most people who have written about Mary in the past thirty or so years have. Marina Warner, Mary Daly, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Reuther: how well I remember reading their work while I was in college and being swept up into the debate on the feminine image of the divine. Reading Andrew Greeley's The Mary Myth (1977) is bringing it all back to me, and not in a good way.

I'm discouraged, because I was really enjoying his treatment of Jesus and Sinai. Now, however, I am beset with sentences such as these:

"I will contend that Mary is a symbol of the feminine component of the deity. She represents the human insight that the Ultimate is passionately tender, seductively attractive, irresistibly inspiri…

10,000 Hours*

That's how long, according to the experts, it takes to become expert at something, say, writing academic prose or fencing.* Not "talent", not "genius", but 10,000 hours of practice. At 40 hours a week, 50 weeks in the year (giving yourself a bit of vacation), this means five years of full-time work. And full-time means full-time; it won't do simply to show up at the gym or the library and stand around talking. 10,000 hours means 10,000 hours of concentrated effort and attention under conditions of high relevance, that is, pushing yourself to the edge hour after hour, for years. Most of us can't really work all those hours in the day with full concentration, so realistically it's going to take more like ten years to make our goal, practicing--really practicing--some four hours a day, five days a week. You might be able to compress it a bit by practicing on weekends, but it's still going to take upwards of seven years to even come close.

Now …

Fur, Foil & Friends*

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I haven't written about this much yet for fear of embarrassing my friends, but it really is one of the most important reasons I fence. As my friend Neal always says, you meet such great people on the strip. Many of us (at least, this goes for Badger and me) think of ourselves as relatively shy beasts, but give us a mask and a foil, and there we are, scrapping it out like the fiercest of rivals. But take us off the strip and it's all hugs and kisses. It's a paradox worth contemplating.


Many of us would never even meet in "real" life. Among the women whom I have fenced at the national veterans' tournaments, including Badger, who works in museum design, there are several fencing coaches (perhaps less surprising, given the context), another history professor, a Latin teacher, a dentist, a social worker, a lawyer, someone who works in insurance, even a graduate student in medieval literature--and these are only the ones whose off-the-strip occupations I know.…

Et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam

On why prayer is not about cultivating a particular kind of self, but about praising God:

"It is Jesus Christ Who prays in us; it is He Who prays by us; it is He Who prays with us....

"Finite creatures, be they the holiest and highest, can never worship God as He deserves; for to Him is due a worship without bounds. How, then, can creatures, who are limited on all sides, pay such a homage? No one but God Himself, the Infinite One, can offer a worship which has the perfection that is required. It was therefore necessary, if He is to have a fitting worship, that God the Son, of the very same substance and equal to His Father in all things, should become Man, so that as the God-Man He, in His created nature, and in the name of all creation, should pay a homage which, on account of His Own Divine Person, is infinite and worthy of all acceptance by the Eternal Father.... He is decreed to be our Head in order to enable us through Him to worship our Maker....

"Sharing as we d…

Mind over Matter

I'm 43 years old (in human years); you'd think I'd know the symptoms. After all, I've been living with them for the better part of thirty years. A general feeling of heaviness both of body and mind; my thoughts disjointed; inability to make decisions; susceptibility to bogus Facebook flurries (see twiflash); lack of focus in my thinking; lack of direction in my work; rambling and incomprehensible blog posts: yes, it's that time of the month. I notice it most at fencing practice. Just days ago, over the weekend, I was feeling at the top of my game, able to see the moves that I needed to make; able to keep my distance, make my attacks. But on Tuesday, it was as if I'd never fenced before. There I was, dazzled by the twirly-twirly blade work some of the younger fencers were using, not able to make even a simple counter-beat in my lesson. I, literally, hadn't the foggiest notion what to do. If only I could think my way out of it.

Except that I couldn'…

In manus tuas

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Concede nos famulos tuos, quesumus, domine deus, perpetua mentis et corporis salute gaudere: et gloriosa beate marie semper virginis intercessione a presenti liberari tristicia et futura perfrui leticia. Per eundem dominum nostrum ihesum xpistum filium tuum, qui tecum uiuit et regnat in unitate spiritus sancti deus per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.


Lord god we preien thee, graunte us thi seruauntis that we moun be ioiful euermore in heelthe of soule and of bodi, and that we moun be delyuered of this sorowe, that we han now: thourgh the instaunce of the glorious euerlastinge maide marie: and fulli use the ioye withouten ende. Bi oure lord iesu crist thi sone, that with thee lyueth and regneth in oonhede of the hooly goost god bi alle worldis of worldis. So be it.

--Little Office of the Virgin Mary, Use of Sarum, Collect for Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None & Vespers

Exercise for the Day*

Here it is: Trust that God loves you. Are you there yet? Maybe a little more instruction will help: Trust that the Really Real is not only benign, but passionately, crazily in love with His creation, so much so that He has bound Himself in covenant to His creatures, asking only that they love Him in return.

I don't know about you, but I'm having real problems with this exercise. Not that I don't believe--intellectually, at least--that it's true; okay, maybe I don't. It's so much easier to fall back on a kind of resigned atheism, along the lines of "It would be nice if all this stuff about God were true, but I don't really see the evidence; plus, after all, there's still so much suffering and evil in the world. Either God doesn't care or it's all just random and absurd." Nor does the excellent book that I'm reading right now--Andrew Greeley's The Sinai Myth (1972)--get me out of this morass. In fact, in many ways, it has…

By the Numbers

The Microsoft Excel chart that I've been compiling of different liturgical Uses of the Little Office of the Virgin Mary now has 1104 rows and 24 columns. The rows show different texts according to their location in the Office while the columns beginning with E show the occurrence of these texts in particular manuscripts and/or traditions from the eleventh through the early sixteenth century. Of the texts, 323 are antiphons; 34 are blessings; 169 are chapters; 80 are hymns; 43 are lessons; 147 are prayers or collects; 96 are psalms; 106 are responsories; and 91 are versicles.* Not all of these texts are unique items: often the same antiphon will appear in different places in the Office from Use to Use.** The numbers should nevertheless give a sense of the scale of variation with which we are dealing when talking about "the Little Office of the Virgin." There was no such thing, at least not in the sense of a single, identical service observed throughout medieval Europ…

Competition, in a nutshell

I think this says it all. No wonder, even when I fence well, I feel somewhat disappointed--"It was too easy"--and when I lose, I still enjoy having made that touch (and, oh, it was a beauty!):

"Competition is characterized by a variety of paradoxes which derive from the difficulty of satisfying at once a wish to demonstrate aggressive individuality and a wish to be approved and protected. Many psychological needs are served by a single action, and each response to a stimulus represents the sum of myriad desires. Often simultaneously, and at least alternately, the competitor seeks opposing goals. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be daring, and he wants to be careful. He wants to expose himself, and he wants to hide. He delights in risk and uncertainty--early in the [bout]--and resents it later on. He desires victory and feels undeserving if he achieves it. He wants to fight and to flee, to charge and to escape.

"He seeks freedom, unrestra…

Navel Gazing*

This post would be much more lively if that's what I'd actually been doing. Navel gazing, that is. As it is, rather than sitting with my beard* pressed hard against my chest, my body curled in upon itself and my lips saying over and over again, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me"--the prescription for navel-gazing as championed by the fourteenth-century Orthodox hesychasts--I've been reading Gaudy Night (1935) and wondering what the point of it all is. Not the story, everyone knows that: will Harriet finally say yes to Lord Peter's proposal of marriage? But the setting: the life of the mind as practiced in Oxford and the lure of scholarship as one's "proper job".

It's clear to anybody who knows anything about Dorothy Sayers' career that in this novel she was asking herself some hard questions about her own career, thus far given to writing mystery novels, like her character Harriet, but soon to be given over to the work of writing…

The Morning After

We did it. Oh, my gosh, we did it. Now what? Is there anybody else out there (other than, perhaps, our new president-elect) who is feeling nervous today? This is it, our big chance to realize a new America. Can we do it? I'm back at my desk today, filling in data. Will this be enough to make our world anew?

I must confess, I did not expect to feel quite this way this morning. All yesterday evening, watching the returns, I couldn't believe it. Might we really win this election? We, as in those of us weary of educational legislation that means our children do nothing but take tests; we, as in those of us weary of losing the goodwill of our allies in Europe, not to mention in the rest of the world; we, as in those of us weary of being lied to by those in charge of our financial system; we, as in those of us long skeptical of conducting a war in one place (Iraq) when our real enemies were still at large in another (Afghanistan); we, as in all those of us who, for the la…

The Spirit Listeth

I stayed home from work today. I meant to go into my office after I voted, but when I got home from the polling station, I just couldn't get myself to pack up and get on my bike. Excuses, excuses. This morning I woke to the sound of helicopters hovering over our neighborhood. Obama's polling station (an elementary school) is right across the street and the news vans were already in place at 7am to catch his participation in our electoral process. My polling station was right around the corner at the high school (go figure, we live in a densely populated neighborhood). The line wasn't too long; it only took an hour to get to the booth. But by the time I finished, I knew my concentration was shot. So, instead of spending the day working on my chart of liturgical Uses for the Little Office of the Virgin, I've been reading Alan Jacobs' intellectual biography of C.S. Lewis.

Oh, my goodness, did C.S. Lewis write a lot of books! After The Pilgrim's Regress, wh…

All Souls' Day

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TOM (1999-November 2, 2008)





Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord: and let perpetual light shine upon them.

--Antiphon for the Office for the Dead


Requiescat in pace


For the Asking

It's a confession that I never thought I'd make. I don't really like prayer, not if it means asking for stuff. I'm fine with prayer as praise and thanksgiving: the universe is a beautiful, incredible place and it is a wonder that we are here to be conscious of it and marvel at its glories. I can't imagine not being thankful for being alive--at least, not in the sense of thinking I somehow deserve to be alive, rather than thinking that life is an unlooked for gift. And I'm comfortable with prayer as confession, perhaps too comfortable. It is easy for me to detail my failings, all the things I have done and, even more so, left undone, beginning with worshiping God as I should, heart, mind and soul. But to take all of this and ask for something, for example, that our cat should live, just seems selfish and empty, as if I somehow didn't get the point of how much I already have to be thankful for or how badly I have failed to live up to even my own ideals,…