The Wisdom of Children

John Steinbeck was born on this day, February 27th in 1902.  His masterful prose, with Wordsworth and Blake, was based on the belief that a child’s perception captures the essentials. Steinbeck scrawled reminders to himself: capture a “child’s vision” because “adults haven’t the clear fine judgment of children.” That meant to write with precision and freshness. Truth is like clear pure water.

In his book The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck wrote:

We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men.

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The Crisis of Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. It is also the birthday of Victor Hugo, the most towering figure in French literature, who was born on this day, February 26th, in 1802.  Though he produced extensive poetry and prose, he is famous popularly for the novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables – the story of Jean Valjean.

Newly released from prison after serving a long term for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is ostracized because of his ex-convict status. Bishop Myriel takes him in and treats him kindly, but Valjean repays him by stealing his silverware. When the police arrive, Myriel claims the silver was a gift, thereby giving Valjean another chance at a new life. Myriel’s only request is that Valjean becomes an honest man.

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That Day Before Ash Wednesday

The church doesn’t know what to do with Mardi Gras. That day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday has come to be known for revelries, festivities and a fair-mix of debauchery. The retired Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) said

It seems incongruous to speak of Mardi Gras in a theological meditation, because it is at best only indirectly a time in the Church year. But are we not somewhat schizophrenic in this regard? On the one hand, we are only too ready to say that it is precisely in Catholic countries that Mardi gras is most at home; on the other hand, we nevertheless ignore it both spiritually and theologically. Is it, then, one of those things that as Christians we cannot condone, but as humans, we cannot deny? In that case, we should ask: Just how human is Christianity?

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Lord Of All Creation

Praised be my Lord for those who for Thy love forgive
And weakness bear and tribulation.
Blessed those who shall in peace endure,
For by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned.

~Saint Francis of Assisi, from The Canticle of the Sun

On this day, February 24th in 1208 Francis of Assisi attended Mass in the little church of Saint Mary of the Angels. The priest read from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 10:

“Jesus sent out the twelve apostles with these instructions: You received without paying, now give without being paid. Don’t take along any gold, silver, or copper coins. And don’t carry a traveling bag or an extra shirt or sandals.”

Those verses so moved Francis that he resolved to become an itinerant evangelist in the mold of the original apostles, shaped only by his love for the Creator and His creation. Understanding for Francis was predicated on belief.

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Amazing Grace

O ye who revel in the ills of Slavery, O feeders on the groans of the wretched, insolent sons of Excess, shedders of own brothers’ blood, does not the inescapable Eye see these things? Does not Nemesis threaten fire-breathing reprisal? Do you hear? Or do you not hear? How winds shake the ground at its roots, and the recesses of earth groan beneath, and the depths roar terribly, pledging those below to wrath against the killers!

~Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from Ode on the Slave Trade

On this day, February 23rd in 1807, after 20 years of work by William Wilberforce, the House of Commons voted for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Though the process required two decades of his life, success could be measured by his influence well in advance of the passing of legislation.

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The Catcher in the Rye

What makes a book great? Some books regularly show up on “the greatest list” of literature and many are almost entirely unread or unreadable by contemporary audiences. Authors like Faulkner and Joyce are known for their difficult prose and it’s hard to imagine books like Light in August or Ulysses selling a single copy today.

The Catcher in the Rye has consistently sold tens of millions of copies every year since it was published over 60 years ago. Granted, banal books like Fifty Shades of Grey have also sold in the tens of millions, but most tend to be pan-flash amusements that grow cold in time.

Catcher resonates.

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Travels with Charley: America as Experiment

 

I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.

When my wife and I visited the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, I was surprised by what turned out to be my favorite item. I’ve been a Steinbeck fan since I was introduced to him by way of The Pearl in seventh grade English. No other writer commands his sense of place and his eye for landscape in the context of character is matchless. I read his masterpiece East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath a few summers ago. The museum memorabilia of these works and other favorites like The Red Pony certainly delighted me, but my heart was captured by an old GMC pickup with a large white camper on the back.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Think

On this day, February 16th in 600 AD, Pope Gregory the Great decreed the words “God bless you” as the proper response to a sneeze.  Now you know.  Well, maybe you know.  That’s a popular story anyway, and it stems from the myth and lore surrounding the nature of the common sneeze including things like the momentary stopping of the heart and even a quick expulsion of the soul. Superstition often steps up when the truth is murky.

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All Truth Is God’s Truth

Galileo Galilei was born on this day, February 15th in 1564.  Albert Einstein called him the Father of Modern Science.  Though famous for his scientific achievements in astronomy, mathematics, and physics, and infamous for his controversy with the church, he was in fact, a devout Christian who saw no conflict between science and religion. He said

“God is known by nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.”

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Love in the Air

For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every fowl cometh to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men think may;
And that so huge a noise gan they make,
That earth and air and tree and every lake
So full was, that underneath was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

~Geoffrey Chaucer, from The Parlement of Foules

I have long been the landlord of a colony of Purple Martins.  They are remarkable birds. Each year the first scouts arrive like clockwork on Valentine’s Day to return to their house in our backyard from their winter home hundreds of miles away in South America.  Like robins, the sight of them brings hope and the first spark of spring. Poetry and talk of love come easily as the bare, cold hand of winter yields to sunny songs of nesting birds and the bees’ industrious production of honey.

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