The cawing of the crow resounds among the woods | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 12th, 1841

On this day one hundred and seventy six years ago, this is what Nathanial Hawthorne wrote in his diary….

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October 12th.–The cawing of the crow resounds among the woods. A sentinel is aware of your approach a great way off, and gives the alarm to his comrades loudly and eagerly,–Caw, caw, caw! Immediately the whole conclave replies, and you behold them rising above the trees, flapping darkly, and winging their way to deeper solitudes. Sometimes, however, they remain till you come near enough to discern their sable gravity of aspect, each occupying a separate bough, or perhaps the blasted tip-top of a pine. As you approach, one after another, with loud cawing, flaps his wings and throws himself upon the air.

There is hardly a more striking feature in the landscape nowadays than the red patches of blueberry and whortleberry bushes, as seen on a sloping hill-side, like islands among the grass, with trees growing in them; or crowning the summit of a bare, brown hill with their…

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Great facts-of-life scenes: Elizabeth Taylor, “At Mrs Lippincote’s”

I read somewhere that someone (bear with me) explained the facts of life to their son by reading them a chapter of Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was MY Valley” wherein a father explains the facts of life to his son. I don’t think I, or anyone else, will be using this from Chapter 8 Elizabeth Taylor’s “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (by the way, Oliver is seven … and this Hardy, Brontë and Stevenson reading child is regularly referred to as ‘backward’ without apparent irony by other characters):

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“I still don’t make out where babies come from,” said Oliver, when he closed his book, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “Oh, where from. I know that. But not how that began.”

“Oh,” said Julia. “I see. Well, now,” she assumed an expression, controlled her mouth. A flat and unemotional tone, she had read once in a pamphlet on sex-instruction. He wondered what was wrong with her voice. “This bores her,” he decided. She sounded unutterably fatigued. “It bores her more than anything else in the world.” Julia, busy drawing on the back of an envelope, seemed to be conveying a wrong impression and leaving out the most important part. She had never been good at drawing and had in any case only a hazy idea as to how such things are arranged. Bladder, then some loopy tubes, glands. ‘It looks like a picture of a Sheraton chair ‘, she fought, discouraged Half-way through , curiosity made her give a glance at him. His gaze slanted down away from her, at the table. When she stopped speaking, his eyes swept down under the lids and took a narrow peep at her. He rolled up his handkerchief and stuffed it into his mouth.

The door opened. “What is it?” asked Roddy.
“As, there you are!” She rocked and sobbed, than stopped and dabbing her eyes, rose briskly. “The facts of life,” she explained.

Roddy, who had also read a pamphlet on how babies are born, was appalled.

“Don’t look so hurt! She cried. “You are not responsible. You are only a victim.”

She stacked up the tray. “You are home very early, Roddy.”

“Yes. The Old Man’s gone to a conference, so Is skipped off. I thought I might be able to give you some help for the party.”

“Ah, how kind of you. We’ll twist the furniture round in the drawing-room and see what we can make of it.” She went out with the tray.

Roddy, who as a leader of men disregarded the intricacies of his own body, looked at Julia’s drawing without recognition; then, conscious that his son now regarded his parents in a new light (and hilariously at that) he murmured “Well, then,” rocked on his heels uncertainly for a moment and followed Julia.

Oliver, when his amusement had died down, began to feel he owed his parents some kindness. He was touched that his father had gone to such lengths to bring about his existence and that Julia should have been so bored. ‘I must try to be a better son,’ he thought. ‘I will run wild more and please them.’

October in the Cairngorms – from Nan Shepherd, “The Heart of the Mountain”

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Among drifts of these purple glowing birches, an occasional rowan looks dead; its naked boughs are a smooth white-grey, almost ghastly as the winter light runs over them. The rowan’s moment is in October, when even the warmth of its clustering berries is surpassed by the blood-red brilliance of its leaves. This is the ‘blessed quicken wood’, that has power against the spirits of evil. It grows here and there among birches and firs, as a rule singly, and sometimes higher than either, a solitary bush by the rivulet in a ravine.

October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots—mosses that are lush green, or oak-brown, or scarlet, and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. Blaeberry leaves are a flaming crimson, and they are loveliest of all in the Rothiemurchus Forest, where the fir trees were felled in the 1914 War, and round and out of each stump blaeberry grows in upright sprigs: so that in October a multitude of pointed flames seem to burn upwards all over the moor.

For some spectacular Highland photos, including the Cairngorms in October, see Mark Hamblin’s website

Dylan Thomas, Poem in October, read by Dylan Thomas

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

“Of Smelly Monks and Annoying Neighbours” – Hannah LeGrand in Comment Magazine

Hannah LeGrand has a review of Kyle David Bennet’s Practices of Love in Comment Magazine which is worth reading. I’ve posted before on the romanticisation of monasticism. Both those who romanticise and criticise the monastic life tend to have a misconception of it being a retreat from community into isolation. As LeGrand writes:

There is a common misconception of the monastic life, that it was an escape from human society, a retreat into a solitary life and the personal cultivation of one’s relationship with God. The monk, we tend to think, was turned inward and upward, a strange and almost mystical figure—barely of this world.

The reality of the monastic life, however, was often quite different. Indeed, far from being plagued by an excess of solitude, the aspect of medieval monasticism that would most likely horrify modern sensibilities is the oppressive lack of privacy many cloisters afforded. Monks slept together in one open dormitory. They worshiped together, ate together, and worked together. The monk or nun who committed their life to God was rarely afforded the luxury of being alone with God.

As Bennett notes, “Monks and nuns make vows not to a cloister but to a community. And they do so not to escape the world but to enact a different one.” The monastery was not a rejection of community. Rather, it represented a commitment to enacting a new sort of community, one in which all members strove, with the help of the spiritual disciplines, to not only love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds but also to truly love their neighbours as themselves in all the patterns of their working and resting, their sleeping and rising, their meals, chores, and worship. It is to this end that the spiritual disciplines were employed.

LeGrand discusses contemporary “self care”, into which this romanticised view of monasticism can be fitted. She is endearingly self-deprecating about her own attempts at “spiritual practice” and how this was a form of spiritual pride:

As a high school student, I went through a brief and rather misguided period of fascination with the spiritual disciplines. In practice, my discipline of choice was most often that of silence. Being naturally a quiet sort of student, holding my tongue was no great burden to me, and as I fancied myself following in the footsteps of ancient Christians, my shyness and tendency to retreat inside myself seemed to take on a weighty and pleasing spiritual significance.

Thinking back on this high school practice while reading Kyle Bennett’s Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, I realized with an embarrassed sort of horror that throughout all those stretches of pious silence I had never really paid any special attention to listening. If anything, the weightiness of my own discipline cultivated a disdain for the shallow conversation around me, and I’m sure I barely paid attention to the day’s petty lessons on differential equations and the Meech Lake Accord that had, no doubt, been carefully prepared. In this way, I think it is safe to say that I was doing the spiritual disciplines wrong.

Bennet’s book looks like it will join my ever-burgeoning to-read list – it sounds like a bracingly practical approach to what can often be an over romanticised practice.

Indeed, Bennett does not spend much time on grand ideas or theological arguments. Practices of Love reads—in some ways much like the original recommendations of Cassian himself—as a practical manual on the spiritual disciplines in modern life, full of concrete habits to incline every waking hour toward love of one’s neighbour. His suggestions are often unexciting, sometimes downright intrusive, and, in their own way, radical. He recommends inviting neighbours to join in our precious Sabbath rest even when all we want is a long nap and a movie. He recommends setting aside time to think positively about that co‐worker we really can’t stand, and using our own silence as an opportunity to listen very carefully to even shallow conversation.

In this way, Bennett’s take on the spiritual disciplines offers us none of the seductive charm of a minimalist wardrobe. Rather, in true monastic spirit, there is only the strange and uncomfortable, day in and day out enactment of a new sort of community, one in which love for one’s neighbour is not just a beautiful idea or even a political position, but something sunk deep into muscle memory, something that fills even the in‐between moments of ordinary days.

One of the many things I have enjoyed about Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace is a certain honesty about the curmudgeonliness that can go with the pilgrim spirit (especially in the modern world, where pilgrimage is more of a Great Event than the norm of previous times)

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine

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I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.

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But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!

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Eleanor Parker on myths about the Middle Ages

An interesting piece that touches on anti-Catholic myths, historical myths, and science vs. religion myths.

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The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.

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Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.