Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams

Above all, I recommend keeping the Ten Commandments. Secondly, I recommend reading Trollope.

I have three of his Barchester novels under my belt. But I will defer commenting on that particular shire for now. (In Trollope’s Shire, the hobbits are Anglican clergymen.) The years march on with the relentless hope of the fertile earth in Barsetshire. We will consider that fundamentally happy world some other time.

In 1859, Trollope took a break from publishing Barchester chronicles. That year he gave us a novel which his devoted fan Cardinal Newman found to be disturbingly “melancholic and skeptical.” Trollope more or less said that he came to dislike The Bertrams himself. But I think it is a heartbreaking masterpiece.

My new favorite person ever, Anthony Trollope
My new favorite person ever, Anthony Trollope

Near the end of The Bertrams, the two bachelors around whom the plot revolves find themselves on-board ship, returning from Egypt to England. (This novel involves a couple elegant interludes in the Arab world.) Also aboard the ship: two young widows, homeward bound, having lost their husbands to disease in colonial India.

One of the widows is particularly pretty. Both take vivacious advantage of the quick intimacy of shipboard life. They need husbands, and they have no intention of losing the chance.

Both of the bachelor-heroes love women back in England. But one of those women is married to a third man, a rising star of Parliament. And the shipboard bachelor who loves her could have been a rising star of the world himself, had he not flailed his way down another path. He resorted instead to bohemian circles and tried to understand the meaning of life and find true religion.

This bachelor has a nasty, aging, avaricious Croesus for an uncle. But the principled young man will not try to curry favor. He has no concern one way or the other whether he winds up in his uncle’s will.

The Bertrams TrollopeIn other words, this young man—George Bertram—has shown himself a willful, splenetic, self-destructive, and irresolute vagabond. He can manage to be faithful to only one thing: his unshakeable desire to live in the truth.

He finds himself on deck with the prettier widow. His future opens before him like an impenetrable night. He rolls the dice, and offers himself to her. She bats her eyelashes, but she hesitates. Maybe this fella doesn’t have quite enough money?

In the nineteenth century, young people had to contend with the question, love or money? Like they do in the twenty-first century. Of course, in the nineteenth century, divorce involved such agonies and ruinations of oneself that is was best regarded as all but impossible. Like in the twenty-first century.

In 1859, the National Review (of England, not the USA) excoriated the newly published Bertrams for unfairly portraying the profession of a clergyman as morally superior to that of a lawyer. We might find that criticism rather laughable now.

What I do not find laughable at all is the beautiful and heartbreaking climax of the novel, which actually occurs near the beginning. (All good stories are at least two-thirds denouement.)

Trollope knew the Holy Land. He despised the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, like many Protestants of his day. We will leave that to the side for now.

But Trollope, like me, loved the Mount of Olives. Twentieth-century Barluzzi churches dot the hill now. But in the mid-nineteenth century, pilgrims just sat on rocks amid the Jewish graves and looked across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount, and the city beyond, where the Savior carried His cross and was crucified, and rose.

Trollope put George Bertram on that spot, had him gaze at Jerusalem, had him choose to dedicate his life to the service of Christ and His Church, in a humble country parsonage, fame and money be damned.

But George abandoned his resolution.

The rest is the heartbreaking tale told in The Bertrams, peppered with delightful comic relief, and insight as deep as I have encountered into what truly makes a human soul independent and free.

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Better Future

Gandalf Frodo Moria

As the earth brings forth its plants and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11)

Hard to imagine a more hopeful book than the prophecies of Isaiah. The most beautiful passages accompany us during Advent.

sistine isaiahThe Lord God can and will give us a good future, by His power, according to His wisdom. The future will be brighter, because the Almighty holds it in His hands. His promises, wonderful as they may be, will certainly be fulfilled. Justice will spring up. The earth herself will sing to God a canticle of praise. Creation will reflect and magnify the splendor of the majestic Creator.

When the grace of Christ fills our souls, three theological virtues operate, namely: _____, ______, and ________.

Third Sunday of Advent, we seem to be talking about things, as yet unseen, that will give us joy in the future. In other words, because we believe that God will make good on His promises, we live in ________.

For the past two years, we have from time to time recalled the fiftieth anniversary of the great gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the 20th century, namely… When we look back at the days of Vatican II, we might get filled with nostalgia, nostalgia for the optimism of those times. Back then, in the 1960’s, the future appeared to open up like a fabulous suitcase, full of style and new possibilities. Hope practically grew on trees then. A better future seemed to lunge into the room like an eager hippopotamus.

Fifty years later, the atmosphere of the world has certainly changed. The hopefulness of the Sixties has all but vanished. The age of international peace that everyone dreamed of has been disturbed by terrorism and widespread political instability. The economy can’t snap out of the doldrums. I think it’s fair to say that we live in cynical, dispirited times.

Vatican II stallsWill our children have a better life than we do? Most Americans think not. It’s one of Tim Allen’s jokes: looking forward to having just enough to live on, in a small apartment—that’s the ‘Canadian dream.’ The measure of our short-term hope these days. Our grandparents nurtured the ‘American dream.’ But not us.

What about a year of favor? What about a jubilee? When captives held unjustly get liberated, and broken hearts heal, and debts racked-up in desperation get wiped away? What about a day of vindication—a day when everyone who has suffered wrongly gets compensated and made whole? Can we hope for better times? Better jobs, better government, and better Redskins’ seasons?

Not to imply any nastiness toward anyone in particular, but: I think people have cast ballots for candidates who talk about better things. Saying that an era of political compromise will come doesn’t make it come. Saying that America has a great future doesn’t make America have a great future. Saying that races and cultures and people need to get along better doesn’t make them actually get along better.

What, then, do we hope for? Well, if I might put it like Gandalf put it to Frodo, when the little hobbit started to realize how hard it would be to get the ring to Mordor:

We are going to hope, by God’s grace, that we ourselves, when everything is said and done, will stand before God without shame, because we did our little part to try to build a better world. It’s not for us to choose the times we live in. It’s for us to choose good over evil, no matter what happens.

THE GREAT GATSBYAfter all, even though all long-term economic indicators for the middle-class suggest that we are living through one of the worst decades ever, and the movies they come out with these days seem more and more boring—even though these are pretty cruddy times, as times go—they don’t totally suck. Because we have each other. And we have opportunities every day to act with kindness and honesty and courage. Even though the world has grown cynical and dark, we can greet each single day for what it really is: an opportunity from Almighty God for us to practice the teachings of Christ.

Hoping for satisfaction and pleasure from what this world has to offer has always been a vain business, whether the times be good or bad. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hero Jay Gatsby lived the high life, in a decade when money seemed to grow on trees. He had it all. But he did not have happiness. He longed in his heart for the kind of communion that this world cannot give.

So if the American Dream seems practically out of reach, we hope for a better future anyway. Because the work of God, and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, comes down to little daily acts of honesty and kindness.

Little acts of Christian heroism plant hidden seeds. Here a seed of patience. Here a seed of chastity. Here a seed of self-sacrifice.

On a day that only God knows, all these seeds will bear fruit, glorious fruit. It won’t matter then what the Dow Jones industrial average is that day, or the gross domestic product, or the national debt, or even the air temperature. It won’t matter. Because God will be all in all.

—————
answers: Faith HOPE Love

Ghosts of Kennesaw + Why

Another link between Atlanta and NYC: Two identical names get a lot of public use. Robert Fulton (steamboat inventor) and Johann DeKalb (Lafayette’s protégé, a German who fought in George Washington’s Continental Army). Both of these last names get barked out by countless municipal employees and traffic reporters in New York and Atlanta: Fulton and DeKalb counties in Georgia, Fulton Street in Manhattan and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn…

…William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding three armies, marched south from Chattanooga, Tenn., bent on wreaking destruction. The war had entered its fourth year. The pre-war South no longer existed. The city of Atlanta had grown almost four-fold since 1850, full of sweaty factories cranking out the war machine.

Uncle Billy
Uncle Billy: 43 years of age, under the command of the highest ranking U.S. military officer since Washington, 41-year-old Ulysses S. Grant.

One hesitates to refer to this duo as the Two Towers, a la Sauron and Saruman. But without question the Union command stood united in the spring of 1864 like it had never been.

Can we imagine these two stony, understated, and straight-talking generals–a new breed, really, with no courtly trappings to speak of–can we imagine the two of them having a mutual understanding between them: “Okay. Enough. Let’s finish this thing off for the old ape” (the president).

Joseph Johnston, Leonidas Polk, John Bell Hood, and Co.: They had no thought of prevailing against Sherman’s armies. Outmanned and outgunned more than two-to-one.

But, imagine this! ‘If we can only hold them until the presidential election in the fall. If we can only get Lincoln knocked out of office, then it’s a whole new ballgame.’ (American politics hasn’t changed too much in 37 election cycles.)

Anyway, Polk (our old friend the Bishop-General) baptized Johnston and Hood as Sherman made his way south towards them. Grim? Fatalistic? No. Praise God. We all die, after all.

Johnny Reb had been renewed and rejuvenated by Johnston’s attentions to him, especially when an extra whiskey ration came down the line following a huge early-spring snowball fight…

…Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park attracts more visitors than any other Civil War site, 200K more per year than Gettysburg. But a lovely morning reveals that the Kennesaw count may be inflated by Cobb-county soccer moms slipping away to get some exercise on the short and scenic trail up the mountain.

This sunny Atlanta suburb, though, has a lot of ghosts.

I beheld that which I cannot describe, and which I hope never to see again. Dead men meet the eye in every direction…To look upon this, and then the beautiful wild woods, the pretty flowers as they drink the morning dew, and listen to the sweet notes of the songsters in God’s first temples, we were constrained to say, ‘What is man, and what is his destiny, to do such a strange thing?’*

The Fighting Bishop breathed his last here, felled by a shell as he reconnoitered. The battles on the mountain and in the nearby plains came to a draw. But Sherman kept out-maneuvering Johnston and backed him up to the Chattahoochee. Jefferson Davis did not like Johnston’s “retreat,” nor his lack of a clear plan. So Richmond suddenly put Hood in command instead.

…Taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming, I now provide, for anyone interested, an explanation of the four reasons why I love the Civil War (special hat tip to the dearly departed of Smith Mountain Road)…

Continue reading “Ghosts of Kennesaw + Why”

Wetted County

Rain and snow fall from the sky. The water that lands on the Buck, Bent, and Poor Mountain peaks of the Blue Ridge–not to mention Tinker Mountain, Fulhardt Knob, the Peaks of Otter, and many others–this water flows down towards the Atlantic Ocean via the Roanoke River, which is also called the Staunton River.

East of the Blue Ridge, in the hills where moonshine flowed like water in the Prohibition Era, Smith Mountain rises as a solitary ridge. West of the mountain, the hills crinkle up like folds of crumpled paper.

Roanoke River watershed
Since the springtime of the world, the Roanoke River has flown through the Smith Mountain pass, or gorge. On September 24, 1963, mankind (specifically, the Appalachian Power Company) interrupted the flow of the river with a colossal hydroelectric dam. Over the course of the next two and a half years, the water backed up to wet all the earth that lies lower than 800 feet above sea level.

Paved roads, underwater; trees and ruined barns and God only knows what else. Now Tom Brady fans ride jet-skis over what were once tobacco fields where Booker T. Washington might have gone for walks when he was a boy.

Amazing world.

One of the roads that leads to the campsites at Smith Mountain Lake State Park used to be a country road that ran past the front door of a farmhouse. A couple of years ago, an Eagle Scout rebuilt the three-person swing that the farmer put up for his family.

…Speaking of amazing, we cannot take our leave of Shakespeare’s Richard III without contemplating the speech King Richard gives in Scene 3 of Act V. Night falls on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. The souls of all the king’s murder victims come to him in his dream and condemn him: “Despair and die.”

Richard awakes in a cold sweat.

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder’d
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.

The scene in “The Two Towers” movie where Smeagol and Gollum debate each other: perhaps whoever wrote it was inspired by this speech of King Richard’s. (Tokien did not write the part where Gollum accuses Smeagol of committing murder.)

Shakespeare’s Early Histories

Rivals of his later masterpieces? No. But the “first tetralogy” about the War of the Roses swims with scenes of consummate badassery and characters that make Mr. T. look like Mr. Rogers.

The most remorseless b–slapper of them all?

Not the vengeful Earl of Warwick, who instantly transformed himself from Edward IV’s ambassador to the champion of Edward’s foes, just because the king embarrassed him in front of the French court.

Richard III, who slew his in-laws, his brother, his nephews, his two best friends, and his wife? No…

…Queen Margaret of Anjou takes the prize for steely fifteenth-century malice. (She slung the bitter imprecation we recently recalled.)

Check her out in Act I, Scene 4 of Henry VI, Part Three. She reduces the Duke of York, pretender to her husband’s throne, to tears. Margaret’s henchman Clifford murdered York’s youngest son–just a little boy–in the previous scene. Margaret has offered York a napkin to dry his tears, a napkin drenched in his own son’s blood!

Also: admire the young Theoden’s (Bernard Hill) skill. He could really act, when he had lines to say that were a little less silly than the Two Towers and Return of the King screenplays…

Another thing…

…to keep in mind is:

In order to win the ACC tournament, the Virginia Tech Hokies will have to beat:

1. Georgia Tech on Thursday, which is eminently doable.

2. Florida State on Friday. (Tough.)

3. Duke on Saturday. (Been done!)

4. UNC on Sunday.

If Tech makes it to the final, I will root with the Blacksburghers. Otherwise, go Tar Heels!

…May I make one other observation?

If you are like me, you have watched “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy more times than you care to remember. The movies are now a decade old.*

When the movies were first released, I was livid because they departed so shamelessly from the books. But I soon persuaded myself to go easy. After all, film is a different genre, and some concessions must be made.

Does it make sense for Aragorn to be felled in a skirmish with Uruk scouts, only to be revived by a kissy-kissy from Liv Tyler? No, it makes no sense. But this is a movie.

Does Viggo Mortensen ‘own’ the role of Aragorn, as Peter Jackson put it? Um…Does Pierce Brosnan ‘own’ James Bond? Does Vivien Leigh ‘own’ Anna Karenina? Does Jim Caviezel ‘own’ our Lord Jesus Christ? NOT. No. Not at all. Good yeoman efforts, yes. But ‘own?’ Please. (By the by, in my opinion, George C. Scott does in fact own Rochester, so you can forget about this new Jane Eyre movie.)

However: I can live with Viggo Mortensen.

Should poor John Rhys-Davies, an accomplished Shakespearean, and poor Gimli son of Gloin, who could kick any of our butts before you can say the word ‘midget’–should the Dwarf warrior be reduced to silly comic relief? No. But…We will let it go.

So I have had a decade of peaceful coexistence with these movies. But two particular things still rankle. They both concern the final film, and they have helped me to realize exactly what these movies are.

1. How is it possible that the script-writers thought it was plausible for Elrond to demand that Aragorn “forget the Ranger,” and become the man he was meant to be? Makes NO sense. The Rangers are the Dunedain, the remnants of the most excellent men, the Numenoreans. Even if we leave that aside, Aragorn’s majesty derives precisely from his humble, hardscrabble Ranger resourcefulness. If he were no Ranger, he would be no king.

2. In the greatest betrayal of all time, how could Peter Jackson possibly have thought that it was alright to remove the most important part of the whole plot? The climax of the book is NOT the destruction of the Ring or victory over Sauron’s armies. The climax of the book is when the Hobbits return to the Shire and clear Saruman’s petty dictators out of it.

Oh–you didn’t know that Saruman went north into the Shire after Isengard was reduced to ruins by the Ents? You didn’t know that the evil wizard engineered a sinister take-over of the the Hobbits’ homeland by wastrels he found wandering the roads around Bree? You didn’t know that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had to show the punks who was boss when the heroes returned home from Gondor?

Well, that’s because you wouldn’t know it, based on the dagblame movie. Since the movie pretends that such things never even happened!

So, what are Peter Jackson’s movies? They are an extremely good comic-book version of the “The Lord of the Rings.” It is hard to imagine a better comic-book version.

___________
*This is the beginning of a LONG series of ‘Reflections on the Oughts Decade.’

Tough

Here is a question:

Retrospective Explanation

I am not much for apologias anymore. God knows the last time I tried to explain myself, it was kind of a Google-ripping disaster.

(Only long-time readers with sharp memories will remember last Assumption Day’s apologia. That little post is now lost in the sands of time, never to be surfed again…)

Now “Preacher” has turned in his Big Daddy. You and I, dear reader, have moved on to the next, more noble chapter together (the one named after I Corinthians 13:8).

Only the good Lord knows how this stage of the journey will unfold. We are always on the way to better things (as long as we do not die outside the state of grace.)

Nonetheless: I would, for the sake of the record, like to make two points. They are taken from the ultimate source of authority in faith and morals, The Lord of the Rings. Receive them as you will.

I.
Before the Quest began, the Breelanders thought that Aragorn was an unkempt, loopy vagrant who spent too much time smoking his pipe in taprooms and chanting decrepit elven lays.

But “Strider” knew most of the pathways of Middle Earth. He could guide anyone to their destination without getting lost.

When everything was said and done, Aragorn cleaned up pretty nice. He turned out be a skilled healer and, in fact, the king.

II.
Frodo carried the Ring of Power all the way to Mount Doom by the sheer force of his indomitable hobbit will.

But when he stood at the fiery chasm, Frodo did NOT have the strength to throw the ring in, to destroy it. Left to himself, Frodo would have walked away with the ring like Isildur did, and evil would have triumphed.

But the higher powers had a grander plan. Gollum attacked Frodo at just the right moment. In the struggle of two weakened wills, the evil ring fell into the chasm and was destroyed.

The higher powers see things we do not see. They know things we do not know. They make good winds blow when the time is ripe.

This is why the Valar most want us earthlings to be humble. They prize humility above all other human virtues.

…But, listen: I deserve every reproof I get, and I appreciate them all. In the ineffable words of Billy Joel, You may be right

…Pray for the new pastor on Sunday, please! Pray that I will be open to every grace, and we will all move forward toward heaven together!

Getting to Heaven and other news

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Graft, a.k.a. the White Tree

Down on the Mall, they keep putting up sculptures that make you think of The Lord of the Rings.

They don’t mean to do it. In the spring, they unintentionally put up a sculpture of Shelob, the giant spider, in front of the Hirschhorn Museum.

Now they have accidentally installed a sculpture of the White Tree of Gondor.

“Graft” is what they call a Roxy Paine “Dendroid.” Very trendoid in the art world, apparently. Little do these modern sculptors know that they are setting the stage for the success of the quest…

tommy_sheppard…Painful loss for the Wizards this evening. (Maybe Shaq isn’t a liability, after all.)

But congratulations to Wizards V.P. Tommy Sheppard for winning the 2009 NBA Splaver/McHugh “Tribute to Excellence” Award!

…Here is a homily which some poor people had to endure on Sunday, All Saints Day:

Your reward will be great in heaven…You will be comforted…You will inherit the land…You will be satisfied…Mercy will be shown you…You will see God. (see Matthew 5:1-8)

These are Christ’s promises to us. Countless Christians have gone before us, and they have already seen these promises fulfilled. Today we salute the saints. They can attest that the Lord is faithful to His promises.

Up in heaven, the saints rejoice in the faithful goodness of God. Here are a few lines of their hymn:

Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever…Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb. (Revelation 7:10, 12)

The saints see the promises fulfilled, and they sing out praise to God. May our hymns harmonize with the hymn of the saints in heaven. We sing because we believe in the One who made the promises.

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_AngelicoBut before we get carried away, we have to pause. To whom did the Lord make His sweet promises?

Blessed are…

The poor in spirit. They who mourn. The meek. The hungry and thirsty. The merciful. The clean of heart. The peacemakers.

This is what the saints were like when they were on earth: poor, merciful, meek, mourning, hungry, thirsty, pure-hearted peacemakers–like Christ Himself. Christ is the Blessed One, the Man of Promise. To be blessed, to inherit the promises, we must be like Him. We must be united with Him.

Every man who has hope based on Christ makes himself pure as He is pure (I John 3:3).

The saints have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).

To receive the promises, we must be purified. To be like Christ, united with Him, we must be washed clean of sin.

We may be humble and poor in spirit, but not humble enough. We may mourn the evils of the world, but we do not mourn them enough. We may be meek, but not meek enough. We may hunger and thirst for righteousness, but we are not hungry and thirsty enough. We may be merciful to our brothers and sisters in this world, but not merciful enough. Our hearts may clean, but they are not clean enough. We may make peace sometimes, but nowhere near often enough.

baptism-holy-card1At the moment after we were baptized, we were pure. For many of us, that was some time ago. Then it was God’s good pleasure to leave us on earth for a while. Our mission on earth is to do good and avoid evil, to be like Christ.

By God’s grace, we have done some good. We praise God for it. On the other hand, because we are weak and selfish, we have not always avoided evil. We have no one to blame for this but ourselves. The good is God’s, the evil is ours. The praise is God’s; the impurity is ours.

If only we could go back to the baptismal font, and get washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb again! If only we could meekly, mournfully approach the Prince of Peace—if only we could kneel before the Throne of Mercy, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and have our hearts cleaned and refreshed!

If only…if only? Would the all-merciful, all-loving Lord leave us high and dry, with no way back to His life-giving waters? Would He make promises that could never be fulfilled, because there was no way to purify ourselves so we could inherit them?

Of course He would not do that. What did He say to the first priests? He said: “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven them…Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

confessionalAll Saints Day. Let’s consider the one thing that all the saints have in common. When they trod the earth, they were very different people. They became holy in different ways.

But they all confessed their sins. They were all humble enough to confess. They were not too proud. They were holy, but they knew they were not holy enough.

And they were not too proud to confess their sins to a priest. They were not too Protestantized to admit that the way God’s mercy works is by confessing to a priest.

So, let’s keep All Saints Day holy by singing our hymns of praise to God. Let’s echo the hymns of the saints as best we can. Let’s give the Lord all the praise and glory that are His. Let us salute the saints with joy. And let’s remember that the saints are the people who spent their lives confessing their sins.