Friday, November 23, 2007

His Dark Materials

As far as I can tell, the field of ‘literary catechism’ seems almost entirely dominated by Christians. It is, of course, a primarily Christian tradition—at least in the West—but, given the secularization of Western society, it seems that someone would have found out by now how quickly children and readers can learn a system of values from a well-told story.

Philip Pullman stands out as a ‘catechist’ of the secular, atheistic literary tradition and he does so intentionally. His best known work, His Dark Materials, is an entire world—actually, an infinite number of worlds—saturated with his secular humanist beliefs. One cannot help but compare his effort to The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, critics seem unable to avoid making the comparison. It is amazing how ready society seems for an author who can achieve an epic of this magnitude without an underlying Christian faith. William Waldegrave of the Daily Telegraph seems to speak for the masses when he writes, ‘Move over Tolkien and CS Lewis. Philip Pullman has completed his extraordinary cosmological tour de force.’

Of course, whether or not Pullman’s attempt is successful is another question. As a literary scholar, I think His Dark Materials leaves a great deal to be desired. His characters are internally inconsistent. His plot has gaping holes, questions unanswered at the end of the almost six-hundred-page third installment. The language is so ‘original’ as to be contrived. But how the story is told is not really important within Pullman’s books. He has, I must concede, outlined a compelling and riveting plot.

The trilogy centers around a little orphaned girl named Lyra who lives at Jordon College, Oxford, in a dimension very similar to our own. She soon finds out that she is not actually an orphan, but the illegitimate daughter of two of the most charismatic people in that world—Lord Asriel, a powerful scientist, and Mrs Coulter, a paragon femme fatale and Church official. Lyra finds out about a heretical substance called ‘dust’ that emanates from every adult human being with which she communicates using her altheiometer, the titular golden compass. The church wants to destroy it, but Lyra decides it must be good and that she must save it. On her quest, she finds a boy from our dimension named Will who comes into possession of a knife that can cut through worlds. In the climax, the pair journey to the underworld to free the spirits of the dead from their overlords placed there by a tyrannical angel playing the part of God. Once they are free, the spirits dissolve and rejoin the dust. In the end, Lyra and Will choose to return to their own dimensions to encourage creativity and learning so that more dust can be produced.

Dust is the underlying myth of the His Dark Materials universe. It arises from, and contributes to, human consciousness and imagination. It is man’s consciousness that gives the universe its purpose—to preserve that consciousness. It is actually dust, or the idea it represents, that is the basis for Pullman’s defense of atheism. I recently attended a dialogue between Philip Pullman and the pastor of Saint Mary the Virgin Anglican Church in Oxford entitled Writing, Myth, and Religion in which he explained these beliefs.

Pullman’s defense of atheism is actually an ethical one deeply rooted in the literary philosophies of William Blake and John Milton. Paradise Lost, and indeed the story of the Fall of Man, is a story of the end of innocence and the coming to experience. According to Pullman, ‘the closer we come to humanity, the more self-conscious we are, the less grace we have.’ Children have a kind of ‘unconscious grace’ which they lose during adolescents. The process of becoming human as an adult is to develop a kind of ‘conscious grace,’ within the story, the faculty to produce dust.

Religion is bad precisely, Pullman asserts, because is discourages the development of conscious grace. The ideas of sin and repentance encourage self-doubt and repression that inhibit our ability to be human. Dependence on a God-figure suppresses our need to think and feel for ourselves. The story of the Fall is the prime example—man is cast out of the garden for choosing knowledge. No God would want his creation to be ignorant or child-like.

As a Christian, I clearly disagree with Pullman’s assertions about the effects of belief. But I don’t think they may his story value-less. The books have literary merit and worth, though probably exaggerated by overzealous secular critics. But what impressed me the most about Philip Pullman is that he really does understand the way fiction affects people. He understands that the sense of right and wrong comes from watching others, but also from characters we admire in fiction. He claims, rightly, that writers cannot avoid preaching sermons—it’s just that a well-told sermon is rarely resented and often effective. He has actually created a fairly internally-consistent cosmos without God and written it into a story that people will read and from which they will learn. That alone is a feat worth respecting.

The first part, known in the US as The Golden Compass, will be released on December 7. I know many Christian groups are outraged by it, but I’m not convinced there really understand why. A catechetical story can only go so far—it teaches, it does not convert. Perhaps Christians should accept the movie as an occasion for learning more about secular humanism. More likely, though, Christians who see the movie should remember that the great human consciousness Pullman goes through so much effort to praise and preserve is a gift from God that we should use to think, to create, and to love.

His Dark Materials
Suggested Age-Range: Confirmation-aged, adult
Look for: a defense of atheism to critique, a praise of human consciousness, charitable love
Be Wary of: a defense of atheism, sexual overtones, occasional language, violence--though not graphic
Availability: Still under copyright

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Dream of the Rood

The Dream of the Rood is one of the most beautiful and evocative poems in the English language. In it, a wandering dreamer finds himself confronted with an image of the cross. The cross actually begins to speak to him, describing a heroic Christ climbing willingly onto the cross in order to save all of mankind.

I don't know what I can say about this poem that won't speak for itself. It is beautiful imagery and I sincerely hope you will read and enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed creating a translation.

The Dream of the Rood
Suggested Age-Range: First communion-aged (with help), Confirmation-aged, adult
Look for: the two natures of Christ--human and divine, Christ's love and mercy, the judgment
Be Wary of: --
Availability: Full translation available at Literary Catechist.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Fall of the Angels from Genesis B

The Old English Genesis is a verse adaptation of many stories relevant to Christians from the first book of the Bible. Historically it was attributed to the poet Caedmon, but there is no scholarly basis for this assertion. What we do know about the poem's authorship is that it was almost certainly composed by two separate poets. It seems the middle portion of the poem was lost and another poem, translated from Old Saxon, with the same basic content was inserted in its place. Thus, we get Genesis A and Genesis B.

Genesis B is the more famous section of the poem. It tells the story of the fall of the angels and Satan's plot to destroy God's handy-work, man. Literary rumor actually places Milton, who knew the man who once owned the manuscript, under the influence of the poem. Certainly the portrayals of a tragic Satan, and even the reader response of sympathy are shared. In the passage translated below, Satan, having just been cast out of heaven, laments the loss of his position of power and his lord. Particularly in the original Old English, tears come to the reader's eyes in the face of Satan misery and loneliness.

Yet, despite the sympathetic portrayal of Satan, the text is still a dark reflection on the sin of pride, both Satan's and, given the humanity of this literary portrayal, of man. He cannot determine what he has done to offend God, even as he presumes to plot revenge against him. His great sin, the one for which he was thrust into hell, is actually one of the most unique elements of the poem. There is no epic battle against God, as in Milton: here, Satan is guilty of refusing to obey God. Like man, Satan is cast into hell not necessarily for actively choosing to rebel, but for passively sheltering a disobedient heart that eventually became so corrupted he can no longer remain in God's heaven.

Satan's real point of contention is the loss of the heavenly kingdom to man. He continually refers to the heavenly kingdom as his by right. (Not under the modern notion of 'natural rights,' but the much older idea of 'birth right' or 'property right.') He thinks God owes him something. He deeply resents man for claiming his right. The more lost he gets in his depression, the larger his desire for revenge grows. His goal is to deprive man from spending eternity in heaven. It is a mission of revenge, not of conquest.

Contained in all of Satan's schemings, though, is a glimpse of the real impotence of evil. Satan's actions are constrained by his captivity. Most interestingly, though, the poem calls attention to the fact that evil cannot create. Satan wants, like God, to shape man into his image and he wants to do this by destroying man's will. Here is a very theologically complex detail to add to the story of the fall of man. Free will is what makes man human. It is what allows man to choose between good and evil and, ultimately, to choose God. Satan wants to make man like himself, a slave to his desires and unable to choose to serve God. That is what sin really is... slavery to the animal side of man's nature. By destroying man's free will, Satan will make man fall out of favor with God and forfeit the heavenly kingdom.

Of course, the most important element of the excerpt requires a certain amount of dramatic irony. We know what happens in the end. Satan succeeds in his plan to have one of his minions trick Adam and Eve. He achieves the mean but falls short of the end. Man doesn't fall out of favor with God. God continues to love man, even sending his only Son to die for man's sake, so that man can claim his birthright in heaven.

Genesis B
Suggested Age-Range: Confirmation-aged, adult
Look for: the dangers of pride, original sin--a will the doesn't conform with God's, the nature of evil, God's mercy
Be Wary of: a sympathetic portrayal of evil
Availability: Full translation available at Project Gutenberg. Excerpt available from Literary Catechist.

Click here to read Literary Catechist's translation of Genesis B.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bede's Account of the Poet Caedmon

Bede's Account of the Poet Caedmon is one of the most historically important texts of the English language and of English poetry. It tells the story of the oldest known poem, Caedmon's Hymn, written in English, ca 680, and of the first literary encounter between Anglo-Saxon culture and the Christian religion. There is perhaps no extant English text more relevant for the ideological foundation of Literary Catechesis.

The story of Caedmon is more memorable than the poem itself. As you can read for yourself in my translation below, Caedmon was a cowherd living a secular life near a monastery. (Among the interesting areas for further study, that monastery was controlled by a woman.) All his life, poor Caedmon lived every feast in fear of being called upon to sing a song or recite a poem, effectively the same thing, because he had no talent for it. On one such night, he slunk off from a 'beer party' to sleep in the cowshed with the cows. A man, presumably an angel, came to him in a dream and demanded that he sing. What follows is the God-inspired first poem in English:

Now we must honor heaven’s warden,
the power of the Creator, and his purpose—
work of the father of glory, as he of every miracle,
the everlasting Lord, established the beginning.
He first shaped for the sons of the earth,
heaven for the roof. The holy Creator,
mankind’s warden, then Earth,
the everlasting Lord afterward adorned
the earth for people, the master almighty.

The poem itself is less impressive that what it represents. In these few lines, Caedmon has used the form of heroic poetry to create a hymn to the Christian God. He has used contemporary culture to praise and to teach about God. It is a valuable lesson for those of us whom wish to interact with society on its terms, without sacrificing any of the purity and veracity of the Truth we profess.

Bede goes on to tell us how Caedmon went to see the abbess. She herself, along with the help of the most learned men in the monastery (who were, at that time, the most learned men period), inspected and questioned Caedmon. She was unwilling to trust Caedmon's own word that his gift was from God, in the same way that we should be careful of people who adapt culture to religious ends. But, the important point of the story, is that Caedmon passed the test and the abbess not just allowed him but encouraged him to continue writing poems. Unfortunately for us, all of Caedmon's other poems have been lost. (Several Old Testament narratives fitting the description from Bede do still exist, but most scholars attribute them to far later poets.) But an incredible tradition of Old, Middle, and even Modern English texts continue where Caedmon left off--making religion accessible and relevant to their readers.

Bede's Account of the Poet Caedmon
Appropriate Age: 10+
Look for: Faith meeting culture, obedience to God
Be Wary of: --
Availability: Available below and in several other on-line editions

Following, you will find a translation of Bede's account. This text was originally written in Latin and translated into Old English under King Alfred, several centuries after it was written.

In this abbess’ church, there was a certain brother especially made famous and honored with a divine gift. For he was accustomed to produce suitable poems, those which pertained to religion and to piety, so that, whatsoever he learned of divine letters through scholars, that, after a brief interval, with the most sweetness and inspiration he adorned and brought forth in well made English in poetic language. And by his sung poems the minds of many men were often inspired to contempt of the world and to joining the heavenly life. Moreover, many others after him among the English people began to make pious poems: however, nevertheless no one was able to make poems like him. For he was not at all taught by man, nor through man; but he learned the poetic craft because he was divinely helped and through God’s gift received that song craft. Therefore he was never able to produce a fable or an idle song, but only such songs as pertained to religion and which befitted his holy tongue to sing.

He was a man settled then at that time in secular life until he was advanced in old age and had never learned even one poem. He therefore often in feasts, when for the sake of making merry it was decided that, it was deemed that they all ought to, in succession, sing accompaniment to the harp. When he saw the harp draw near him, he arose out of shame from the feast and went homewards to his house. On a certain occassion,he left that house of the beer party, and out was going to the shed of the cattle: it had been given to him that night. There, in a suitable time, he set down his limbs in rest and fell asleep. Then a certain man appeared to him through a dream and hailed him and greeted him and called him by his name, ‘Cædmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said, ‘I cannot sing and because of this I departed from the beer party and came here because I do not know how to sing anything.’ Again he spoke, he with whom he was speaking, ‘Nevertheless, you can sing to me.’ Then Cædmon said, ‘What must I sing?’ The he said, ‘Sing creation to me.’ When he received this answer, he began at once to sing his song in praise of the good Creator, the verses and the words that he had never heard. This is the word order:

Now we must honor heaven’s warden,
the power of the Creator, and his purpose—
work of the father of glory, as he of every miracle,
the everlasting Lord, established the beginning.
He first shaped for the sons of the earth,
heaven for the roof. The holy Creator,
mankind’s warden, then Earth,
the everlasting Lord afterward adorned
the earth for people, the master almighty.

Then he arose from that sleep and all that he had sleeping sung he had fast in his remembrance. And to those words he soon added many words in the same meter, worthy songs in God’s honor. Then he came in the morning to the town reeve, who was his alderman. He said to him what kind of gift he had received, and he immediately led him to the abbess. He told and related it to her. Then she summoned them, all the most learned men and the scholars: and she commanded him relate that dream, and to sing that song, that the judgement of all of them would be decided, from what or from whence that gift of song had come. Then it seemed to them all, just as it was, that the song was from the Lord himself, a heavenly gift given. Then she taught and related a certain holy story to him in words of divine teaching and told him, if he could, that he should translate it into melodious poetry. When he received this command, Caedmon then went home to his house and came back in the morning. He recited and gave it back adorned with the best poetry: that was commanded to him.

Then the abbess began to embrace and love the gift of God in that man. They she exhorted and advised him that he should abandon the secular life and should take up monastic orders; and he heartily consented. And she accepted him into that minster with his goods, and he joined the community of God’s servants. She commanded him to teach of the sequence of the holy history and of stories and all that he could learn by hearing, he remembered, and, just as a clean beast chewing the cud, could translate it into sweetest poetry. And his song and his poem were so winsome to hear that the same ones, his teachers, at his mouth wrote and learned. He sang first about the creation of Earth and concerning the beginning of mankind and all that history in Genesis, that is the first of Moses’ books; and again concerning the exodus of the Israelite folk of the land of the Egyptians and concerning the entry of the promised land; and concerning the many stories of the holy canon’s writing book; and concerning Christ’s incarnation, and concerning his suffering, and concerning his ascension into heaven, and concerning the Holy Ghost’s coming, and the apostles’ teaching; and again concerning the imminent day of doom, and concerning the horror of tormenting punishment, and concerning the sweetness of the heavenly riches, he wrote many poems. And likewise he wrote another several others about the divine benefits and judgments. In all of them he eagerly took heed that he withdrew from men and from love of sins and of evil deeds, and to love and to try to rouse his desires to good deeds because he was a devoted humbly to service in the monastic rule. And against those who wished to behave in another he, he was kindled with a fervor of great zeal. And therefore, his life ended by a beautiful conclusion.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Mystery Stories of G. K. Chesterton

In most parts of the English-speaking and non-Catholic cultural world, if G. K. Chesterton is remembered at all, it is as a detective writer. This generalization is both correct and not. Chesterton is a great writer of mystery stories. The Man Who Was Thursday, The Man Who Knew Too Little, Manalive, and Father Brown are among the greatest tales of the genre ever told. What separates him from the rest of the Law and Order, CSI, or even Sherlock Holmes crowd is that his stories are primarily neither tales of the primacy of human wit nor, more importantly, ones which seek out and exaggerate the deepest evils of a man's soul the pessimistic reader can muster. Chesterton, the great optimist, writes not to entertain, but to convince--to make the reader see the world as it really is, but to accept that that world is beautiful nevertheless.

It is for this thematic reason that the contrast between two of Chesterton's most memorable detective characters, Horne Fisher from The Man Who Knew Too Much and Father Brown from the detective stories of the same name, is so striking. It seems difficult to believe both characters were created by the same man.

Father Brown is a bumbling, dumpy English priest. A great, French detective describes him thus: 'The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats; he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea.' Time and again he is perceived this way, and time and again he surprises those around him--sometimes heads of state and captains of industry--with his powers of observation. It isn't just the small details that Father Brown notices. He is really aware of the way men think and act and this ability makes him a good detective. He doesn't always turn a culprit over to the police, sometimes successfully dislodging hardened criminals from a life in crime in way of which the modern penal system is entirely incapable. He is a champion of reason, sometimes providing simple explanations that fly in the face the fantastic theories of great skeptics who consider the priest's religion to be silly superstition. Despite surviving five volumes of solving often gruesome crimes, Father Brown keeps a twinkle in his eye and an optimism about man's capacity for good.

Horne Fisher first and solely appears in Chesterton's novel (really more of a book of related stories) called The Man Who Knew Too Much, published in 1922. Fisher, in contrast to Father Brown, is a wiry, aristocratic man, constantly looking bored. His friend, Howard March, described him as a man, 'who expressed the opinions of a pessimist in the language of a lounger.' He is irritable, sometimes to the point of grumpy. Like Father Brown, he solves mysteries by a real understanding of men--how they think and how they act. Unlike the priest, he says that ability leads him to 'know too much,' to be so aware of what is going on in his society and country, but completely impotent to change anything. He increasingly finds that to denounce one man, is to bring the downfall of another. To reveal the treachery of one fiend is to bring ruin upon the nation. Like Father Brown, he finds himself running in the circles of the most influential and powerful, but unlike Father Brown, he seems personally powerless to change them or the consequences of their actions. He is a profound pessimist of the most un-Chestertonian kind.

The difference between the two characters is, at first, baffling. It is tempting to suppose that Fisher, as the product of a Chesterton who had seen a world war and aged ten years since his creation of Father Brown, is simply the creation of a more knowing mind. But Chesterton was a far subtler man than that. Besides, he wrote Father Brown stories almost until the year of his death.

The two men are linked, and by more than a common understanding of mankind that makes them good detectives. Both men are, in the most literal sense, saints--the only two kinds of saints for the modern world. Father Brown is a saint because he chooses every action based on what is right and what is holy. To all appearances, he is a simpleton, but it is his simple, childlike, saintly faith that makes him what he is. He never rushes to denounce or condemn; he is even prepared to let a thief go free. Father Brown is ultimately concerned with the souls of every man he meets.

Horne Fisher is a saint for a different reason. Nothing about his behavior is particularly saintly. He doesn't seem to bear a great love for those around him. He never seems to try very hard to make much better. Primarily, he is lazy and pessimistic. But all of the choices he makes, all of the thoughts he harbors about justice and compassion for all men, lead up to a climax in which he distinguishes himself for every bit of the saint Father Brown is--only in a different way a reader will have to discover for himself. It is this climactic choice which makes Horne Fisher into a memorable character of literary weight.

The mystery stories of G. K. Chesterton are so good because they are precisely what modern mystery stories are not. They are more concerned with what people are than what people do. They teach the reader about what he is, rather than encouraging him to be repulsed by that which he is not. And, most of all, they are based on the idea that mankind can be redeemed.

I have decided to provide a guide at the bottom of my posts as help for anyone choosing literary texts to teach religion or ethics. I am outlining that which is useful for teaching, not for reading. Thus, particularly for the suggested ages, my assessment would differ for individual leisure reading. Please contact me if you have any questions.

The Father Brown Stories
Appropriate Age: 14+
Look for: Redemption, compassion, charity, a critique of rationalism, the role of a priest
Be Wary of: Violent situations--though usually not graphic
Availability: Free Online (copyright expired)

The Man Who Knew Too Much
Appropriate Age: 16+
Look for: Discernment--making difficult moral choices, patriotism
Be Way of: Violent situations--sometimes graphic, one instance of Antisemitism aimed at usurers
Availability: Free Online (copyright expired)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bishop Ælfric's Life of Saint Edmund

King Edmund, the subject of this translation, became the King of East Anglia as a teenager in 855 and was martyred fifteen years later, still a relatively young man, at the hands of the invading Vikings. He is one of more than forty saints which Bishop Ælfric chose to make familiar to the English people through a traditional saint's lives story. During the Middle Ages, saints lives were very popular forms of literary entertainment. The idea seems to have been that, by learning about holy men and women, the laity could themselves become holy. It's very important to recognize that these stories are fairly formulaic--the idea is more to edify the audience to inform.

That really is a beautiful idea that I think many of us miss when we learn about the saints. The stories are told to us in order for us to be better. Each saint exemplifies a specific virtue that we are meant to emulate. In this case, Saint Edmund is particularly admirable because he not only chooses not to abandon his people, but also to follow Christ's example by committing acts of violence against the Vikings. It is a very foreign idea of bravery, and was perhaps more so for the Anglo-Saxons: a king who was brave for not fighting. The text itself provides an interesting contrast in the unmerciful Bishop Theodrid, who never forgives himself for ignoring Christ's example with a hasty act of violent punishment.

So here, without further ado, Bishop Ælfric's Life of Saint Edmund:

Some mightily learned monk came South over the sea from Saint Benedict's Place on King Aethelred's Day to Archbishop Dunstan three years before he died, and the monk is called Abbo [of Fleury]. They came into conversation until Dunstan related about Saint Edmund, just as he told of Edmund Sword-Bearer to King Aethelstan when Dunstan was a young man and the king was an elderly warrior. Then the monk wrote all the narrative in the Passio Sancti Eadmundi [The Passion of Saint Edmund] and afterward the book came again to us within a few years. We translated it into English and even so it hereafter stayed. Then, within two years, the monk Abbo returned to his monastery and was immediately appointed abbot in the same monastery.

Edmund the Blessed King of East Anglia was wise and worthy and always worshiped the Almighty God with august customs. He was humble and righteous and so resolute that he persisted and was never attracted to abominable vices. Neither did he deviate in either direction from his good practices, but on the contrary, was always mindful of the authentic teaching, "Are thou set as the headman? Do not honor yourself, but be among the people as their peer." He was generous to waifs and widows as a father and with love led his people always to righteousness. The wrathful he punished and blessedly lived his true beliefs.

It happened eventually that the Danish people set out with ships, ravaging and slaying far and wide throughout the land, even as their custom is. In one ship were the senior headmen, Hinguar and Hubba, united by the devil, and there on Northumbria landed with spears, sacked that province, and slew the people. Then Hinguar returned east with his ships and Hubba remained in Northumbria, having won victory with bloodthirstiness. Hinguar then came rowing to East Anglia, in the year that King Alfred, who was the illustrious king of the West Saxons, was twenty-one years old. The same Hinguar, as suddenly as a wolf on land, stalked and then attacked the people, men and women, guileless children, and shamelessly mistreated the innocent Christians.

Hinguar then directly afterward dispatched to the king a boastful message that he must bow in his service if Edmund cared about his life. The messenger then came to King Edmund and directly delivered to him Hinguar's message: 'Hingaur, our king, keen and successful on sea and on land has control of many people and suddenly came now with soldiers here to land that he would have winter quarter with his company. Now he commands you to share your secret gold-horde and the treasure of your elders quickly with him and that you be his under-king if you desire to be alive because you don't have the might to withstand a young man.'

Lo! then Edmund summoned a bishop that was then nearest to him and reflected with him how he ought to answer the cruel Hinguar. Then the bishop shuddered at the sudden misfortune and for the king's life. He said to the king that it seemed advisable to him that he might cave to that which Higuar commanded. Then the king became quiet and looked to the earth and then eventually regally replied to the bishop, 'Oh you bishop, the broken-hearted people of this land have been shamefully mistreated and to me it would now be preferable that I fell fighting, provided that my people may be allowed to enjoy their homeland.'

And the bishop said, 'Oh you beloved king, your people lies destroyed and you do not have the support that you would be able to struggle. The Vikings will arrive and will hold you fast alive unless you will protect your flesh with flight, or you would thus protect yourself that you would submit to him.'

Then said the Sovereign Edmund, just as he was fully brave, 'This I desire and dream with courage: that I alone not survive after my beloved thanes, who on their beds were, with children and wives, suddenly slain by these Vikings. It was was not ever customary that I took flight, but on the contrary, I willed rather to die if I needed to for my own country and the Almighty God. I know that I do not will to yield from his observances forever, nor from his true love, whether I live or die.'

After these words, he whirled toward the messenger of Hinguar sent to him and said to the messenger, unafraid, 'Certainly you were worthy of slaughter now, however I do not will to defile my clean hand in your vile blood because I follow Christ, who so set an example for us. I blithely desire to be slain by you if God preordains it. Go now mightily and quickly and make known to your cruel lord, '"Edmund will not ever yield to Hinguar in life, heathen headman, but only to the Savior Christ. Forever with faith, in this land I dwell."'

Then herald hastily returned and found by the road the bloodthirsty Hinguar with all his army accelerating toward Edmund. To the dishonorable man he said, 'You are answered.' Higuar then bade with boldness to seize the ships of the sovereign, of the only king who rejected his command, and to bind him immediately. Lo! King Edmund stood within his hall of the mindful Healer with Hinguar, who then came, and discarded his weapons. He willed to imitate Christ's example, which forbade Peter to fight against the fierce Jews with weapons. Lo! to the dishonorable man Edmund then submitted and was scoffed at and beaten by cudgels. Thus the heathens lead the faithful king to a tree firmly rooted in Earth, tightened him thereto with sturdy bonds, and again scourged him for a long time with straps. He always called between the blows with belief in truth to Christ the Savior. The heathens then became brutally angry because of his beliefs, because he called Christ to himself to help. They shot then with missiles, as if to amuse themselves, until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was. Then Hinguar, the dishonorable viking, saw that the noble king did not desire to renounce Christ, and with resolute faith always called to him; Hinguar then commanded to behead the king and the heathens thus did. While this was happening, Edmund called to Christ still. Then the heathens dragged the holy man to slaughter, and with a stroke struck the head from him. His soul set forth, blessed, to Christ. There was a certain man proximate, preserved by God, concealed from the heathens. He heard all this and told it afterwards just as we told it here. Lo! then the sea-army set out again to the ships and concealed that head of the holy Edmund in the dense brambles so that it would not be buried.

Then a while after Higuar was departed, land-folk came to where he was left. There the master's body lay, except the head. They became surely sorrowful in mood because of his slaughter, especially that his body did not have a head. Then the observer said that he saw before that the Vikings had the head with them and seemed to him, just as it was completely true, that they hid the head in the forest somewhere.

Then they walked all together to the woods, searching there throughout the bushes and brambles so they might be able to find the head anywhere. There was also great wonder that a wolf was sent, through God's guidance to protect the head from the other wild animals, over day and night. They walked then searching and always calling, just as it is customary to those who go in the woods often, "Where are you now, friend?" And the head answered them, 'Here, here, here!'; and thus it frequently called, answering them all as often as they called, until they all came because of the head's calling out to them. There lay the grey wolf that guarded the head, and with his two feet he held the head clasped, greedy and hungry, though because of God he did not dare to eat the head and held it from wild animals. Then they became astonished the wolf's guardianship, thanking the Almighty for all his wonders, that the wolf carried the holy head homewards with them; and the meek wolf forth also with the head until it came to village, as if he was tame, and returned again back to the woods. The land-folk then afterwards lay the head with the holy body and buried it as best they could in such haste and established a church immediately above him.

Again then in time, after many years, the harrying ceased and peace was given to the afflicted folk. Then they gathered together and built a church brilliantly to the holy man, because miracles manifested frequently at his grave, at the prayer-house where his burial was. They willed then to parade the holy body with public dignity and to lay it within their church. Then there was great wonder that he was all just as intact as if he was alive with unsoiled body. His neck was healed, which before was cut through, and there was as if there were a silken thread about his red neck, evidence for people of how he was slain. Moreover, the wounds which the bloodthirsty heathen made in his body with frequent missiles were healed by the heavenly God and he lies uncorrupted as far as this present day, awaiting resurrection and the eternal glory. His body, which lies undecayed, reveals to us that he lived without wantonness here in this world traveled to Christ with a clean life.

Many years later, a certain widow called Oswyn dwelt at this holy burial place with prayer and fasting. She willed to cut the Saint's hair every year and to cut his fingernails neatly with love and to hold the relics in the chest in the altar.

Then happened that the land-folk with belief in the saint and Bishop Theodrid greatly endowed that church with gifts in gold and in silver to honor the saint. Then, on a certain occasion, unfortunate thieves came, eight in a night to the honorable holy one. They desired to steal the money the men had brought thither and tried to contrive with craft how they might be able to come in. Some severely struck the hasp with a sledgehammer; some filed about it with a file; some also dug under the door with a spade; some of them wanted to unlock the window with a ladder. But they toiled in vain and miserably proceeded as the holy man wondrously held them fast, each as he stood struggling with a tool, that none of them neither had the might to perpetrate the crime to perpetrate nor therefrom to stir and stood thus until morning. Men then wondered at how the criminals hung, some on the ladder, some stooped to digging, and each was bound fast in his work. They were then brought them all to the bishop and he held that they all be hanged on the high gallows. He was not by any means mindful how the mild-hearted God called out through his prophet, 'Deliver them that are condemned to death--Eos qui ducuntur ad mortem eruere ne cessas [they who are commanded to death do not forbear to pull out]; those whom the man leads to death release out always.' The holy cannon always forbids the ordained ones, both bishops and priests, to be concerned with thieves because it does not befit those that are chosen ones by God to serve that they must assent to any man's death, if they be the thanes of the Lord. Then Bishop Theodrid looked again at his Holy Writ and afterwards repented with sadness that he thus set cruel doom to the unfortunate thieves. He regretted after until the end of his life, and he bade the people zealously that they fast with him fully three days, bidding the Almighty that he ought to pardon to bishop.

In the land there was a certain man called Leofstan, powerful of the world and ignorant with respect to God, who rode with arrogance to the holy man and fiercely commanded those who were there to show the holy saint and whether he was uncorrupted. As quickly as he saw this saint's body, he immediately went mad, horribly raged, and wretchedly ended his life by an evil death. This is similar to that which the ardent Pope Gregory said in his account concerning the holy Lawrence, who lived in Romebryig: that men, both good and evil, always willed to behold how he lay dead, but God stopped them. Thus there was a seven-men band that died together after their survey. Then the others ceased to look at the martyr with man-made error. Many wonders we heard in vernacular speech concerning the Holy Edmund, which we do not will to set in writing here because everyone knows them. In this holy man is manifest, and in many others, that God Almighty prepared the man to rise again on doom's day ,uncorrupted from earth, he who keeps Edmund's body unhurt until the great day, although that he comes from the earth. Worthy is the place for the honorable holy man in that those who visit might honor the man and well might equip themselves with God's pure servant for Christ's service, because the saint is more illustrious when men may to understand.

The Lord's holy English people is not deprived, when in England would lie dead such saints as the holy king is and Cuthbert the Blessed and Saint Æthelthryth in Ely and her sister, uncorrupted in body as a confirmation of the faith. There are also many other English saints which also worked worked, just as it is well known far and wide to praise the Almighty, he in whom they believed. Christ reveals to man through his memorable saints that he is Almighty God who makes many wonders, though the wretched Jews utterly renounced him because they are accursed, just as they wished themselves. There was not even one wonder worked at their tombs because they do not believe in the life of Christ. Christ revealed to man where the true belief is, that worked many wonders through his saints far and wide throughout the Earth. This would be glory to him forever with his heavenly father and the holy angels forever without end. Amen.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

By Way of Introduction...

I spent last year teaching nine Catholic third-grade girls. Among all of the amazing experiences I had and lessons I learned, one stuck out in particular: it is very difficult to teach religion from a text book.

Well, I suppose I knew that already. I grew up Southern Baptist. Anyone who has ever suffered through cheap newsprint Sunday School curriculum will understand what I mean when I say that finding Jesus at the middle of a maze will never help anyone find him in real life. Even the rigorous curricula on which many devout Catholics cut their teeth seem to promote memorization rather than thought, leading me to the conclusion Saint Thomas Aquinas reached several centuries before me: "If we resolve the problems posed by faith exclusively by means of authority, we will of course posses the truth--but in empty heads!"

The best religion discussions I had with my third graders were inspired, not by the authority of the religion book--regardless of how much truth it holds--but by our reading books! The Light Princess by George MacDonald got my girls talking about Christ's sacrifice and how it is both a gift and a responsibility for those who accept it. The Little Princess by Francis Hodgenson Burnett turned into a conversation about perfect charity. Even totally secular texts, like The Best Christmas Pagent Ever by Barbara Robinson, taught us about life-changing encounters with the Truth. These third graders learned to ask deep and probing questions many adults seem afraid to ask with real curiosity and insight. They weren't memorizing; they were understanding. I had unintentionally, and through nothing creditable to myself, stumbled upon something very worthwhile.

I am currently taking time off from teaching to get a second undergraduate degree from Oxford University in English language and literature so that I can begin to glimpse the vast cannon of Christian literature available to English-speakers. There is a lot of it--English was the first non-Latin language of scholarship in Europe, which means there are almost 1500 years worth of texts to study. I hope to reflect on what I read and post what is relevant to introduce these beautiful texts to those to whom they would be useful. My first post, a translation of The Life of Saint Edmund should appear early next week.

Ultimately, Christianity is an experience that should consume every aspect of your life--or, as one of my third-graders worded it, "God made everything, so it's kinda like every subject is religion class!" Literature is my area of expertise, an area where I most readily "see God," and I have found that useful for guiding young people deeper into their faith. I do not claim to be an authoritative source of theological truth or perfected educational strategies. I only wish to introduce new ideas into the world of religious education in the hopes that we can show students of all ages how interesting and relevant Christianity really is.