Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over,
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys

Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Torn posters flutter; coldly sound
The boom of trams and the rattle of hooves,
And the clerks who hurry to the station
Look, shuddering, over the eastern roves,

Thinking, each one, ‘Here comes the winter!
Please God I keep my job this year!’
And bleakly, as the cold strikes through
Their entrails like an icy spear,

They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.

For if in careless summer days
In groves of Ashtaroth we whored,
Repentant now, when winds blow cold,
We kneel before our rightful lord;

The lord of all, the money-god,
Who rules us blood and hand and brain,
Who gives the roof that stops the wind,
And, giving, takes away again;

Who spies with jealous, watchful care,
Our thoughts, our dreams, our secret ways,
Who picks our words and cuts our clothes,
And maps the pattern of our days;

Who chills our anger, curbs our hope,
And buys our lives and pays with toys,
Who claims as tribute broken faith,
Accepted insults, muted joys;

Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.

St. Andrew’s Day, 1935 – George Orwell

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C.S Lewis on old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C.S Lewis Introduction to Athanasius: On the Incarnation

This is the year which holds the writer

This text was originally posted in the entry ‘I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book’ by A Clerk of Oxford. I think its appropriate to post this on All Saints Day.

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity… this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord’s incarnation. We are leading our lives, or – to put it more accurately – we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men – let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

Transcript – What are you fighting for?

I listened to this podcast recently and thought it was pertinent in light to my recent thoughts relating to violence in the world. I’ve posted the Transcript below. I don’t know what I think but I found this incredibly moving and powerful.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am recording this episode in Paris, so this may be one of the noisiest so far, and I do apologize for that. I’m here for a week, working in the archives at the Centre Pompidou. It is part of the work I do for the University of Oxford, and it’s been a very tough week to be in Paris. I came shortly after the attacks. They happened on Friday night, and I was here already on Sunday. It is a very sad time, and you can feel it in the city. You can feel it in people and their behavior. They do try to move on with their lives, but there is a certain type of lack of engagement somehow, and distance. A distance, that is the word. I’ve seen it before, in people as well as in larger communities, and it seems to be the reaction after something horrible.

I’ve tried to make sense all week of what has happened and what is happening at large. I’ve tried to make sense of that as I hold onto my faith and things my faith, Christ, ask of me. I can tell you two things that I’m sure are very common. On the one hand, nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense about Christianity, and that is all right. There is no logic in Christ’s asking us to be children of peace, makers of peace in the world. There is no logic in Christ’s commandment to allow ourselves to be crucified for the sake of our neighbor, to die for the sake of our neighbor and the world we live in. There is absolutely no connection; there is no way to fit the two together. But that is all right. It took me, again, a few days to understand that it is absolutely all right, because we are not part of this world, and we should not fit into it. It is painful, but it is the truth.

And the second thing I’ve understood is how small, how horribly small my heart really is, because as I walked the streets of Paris and as I felt this cloud of sadness just overcoming everything and everyone, as I kept on praying, as I kept on putting on the mask of a Christian, I clearly perceived in my heart a hope—a secret, horrible, disgusting hope—that while I look away and against my formal approval, somebody somewhere, some nation from somewhere, will in fact do so that this whole horrible thing is ended.

There is a fight at all times in my heart—and I’m sure many of you can identify with it—between my faith and Christ’s commandment for peace and love and self-sacrifice, and my instincts, which are naturally towards survival, my personal survival, the survival of the communities and groups I’m part of, the survival of my family, my friends, my nation, my church, my culture. And because these two do not fit in moments of crisis and because I’m too much of a coward, really, to choose either Christ or the world, I develop ways in which I fake everything. I am a Christian. I am called to make peace in the world. I hold onto that image, but in my heart, as I pray, Christ has clearly showed me that instincts are still alive.

It is disappointing after so many years of monasticism to perceive this in oneself. It’s almost like saying, “I shall look away and pretend that I don’t know what you’re doing, and as I do that, you go ahead and just bomb them all.” And that is not Christianity. That is not Christ’s call. And it is definitely not the path to salvation.

So for the last week or so—because this hasn’t started in Paris; this started a long time ago… There were attacks everywhere in the world. There’s a new one even today in Mali. And for a long time I’ve tried to just make sense in a spiritual way of what my actions should be, what my response should be to this, and Christ has given me an answer. It just is so difficult to formulate. This is the 16th attempt to record this episode, and I’m already tempted to just press delete again, because there are things we get revealed and told in our hearts that sound so feeble and illogical when you try to express them. So I’ll just tell you what happened.

I was walking towards Notre Dame, just because I love to be close to the sea, close to mountains, close to rivers, and once you are in Paris or in London, the only, well, presence of nature, really, are the rivers, the Seine or the Thames. I was walking down the river, praying and hoping for an answer, to basically the question: What are we going towards? Where will this all lead to? And how do we hold on to our faith and to Christianity? How will it all end? Is this the end of our faith: with wars in the Orient, horrible nationalism in most Orthodox countries, and perfect secularism in the West? Is this where we’ve got to, two thousand years after Christ?

And the answer I received is that this is not mine to worry about, because I am not the Maker of heavens and earth. I am not the Maker of anyone and anything. This is Christ’s worry. My worry and my responsibility is to hold on to Christ and his commandments, and if he says, “Be a maker of peace,” I should be a maker of peace, even as the whole world crumbles down around me, because this perception of life, as a chronological time, as a type of evolution or progression—history as progression—is a horrible temptation, as this fake, unChristian, anti-Christian idea that things should get better.

Progress is not something that happens in time. The right word should be, rather, to become, to grow, into something. Not to grow in the sense of getting from a seed to a fruit in time, because that implies time. Not to become in the sense of changing from one version of ourselves to a better version of ourselves. This whole way of thinking in time and space has nothing to do with Christianity, and it makes us think there is something to be won in this life and something to be lost in this life, when in fact there is absolutely nothing to be won, nothing to be lost. The only thing at stake is our salvation. Everything else is dust.

There is no time, there is no history, there is no evolution, and we must try to go back to thinking in a Christian way before we can even hope for things to make sense. The saints have tried to get out of this prison of time and space and idea of a progression in life. Think again of St. Brendan. We spoke of him last week. Think of his physical attempt to get away from the world and to free himself of the world’s vision of life, a vision where things happen in time, and you get from point A to point B to point C. Think of St. Columba and his lack of progression, of his failure, which then Christ turned into one of the most beautiful stories of Christianity. Think of the 68 monastics who were killed on Martyrs’ Bay in the ninth century by the first Viking attack. Think of all the others who were killed everywhere in the British Isles by the Vikings. Not one has fought back. Not one has taken a gun to fight back and protect himself, his brothers, his community, or his island—because what they were fighting for does not belong to this world.

It’s just what Christ was trying to say. If his aim had been to rule the world here, to rule this dust which he created, he would have fought. He would have brought armies to fight against those who crucified him. And as he apparently didn’t fight and as he apparently was defeated, he was actually fighting back and winning the battle, but not here, not over this dust, but over the kingdom, the eternal kingdom of peace.

All these monastics who died in the Celtic isles—not fighting back, butchered by barbarians the same way things happen today—all of these are beautifully represented on their tombstones, and they are represented as frightening, powerful, heavily-armed soldiers because they were frightening and they were powerful and heavily-armed in their fight for the kingdom. Yes.

We might die and our families might die and our culture and civilization might die, but if we die in the name of Christ, we have won. Whereas, if we win, abandoning Christ and his commandments, if we win and rule this dust at that expense, we have, in fact, lost.

As I was walking that day, I understood again that there is an essential difference between the mind of someone who is a believer, someone who functions by faith, and someone who functions by logics. Yes, there are religions on this planet—there have been before, and there will come long after we die—there are religions on this world who think in terms of ruling the earth, in terms of taking over the world and ruling it. There are religions that think in terms of progression and that rejoice in the fact that there were a thousand of them 20 years ago and there are a hundred thousand today. In that quantity, they see a sign that their religion is progressing and growing, but that is not the true faith.

In the true faith, things do not happen in time. I am not here so I can lead to the next generation. I am not here so I can leave behind some sort of heritage for those coming after me, because there is no future and there is no past. There is nothing to leave behind, because there is no “behind.” There is nothing to build for the future, because there is no future. The battle, the fight, happens here and now in me and in you. The kingdom is in me and in you and in each and every one of the people created.

The world does not need more soldiers; the world needs more saints. There is no question whether you or I should fight, because we are fighting, even against our will. We are all involved in this battle. We are all soldiers, but we can be the type of soldier that fights for a kingdom over dust and become a warrior, a terrorist, who [is] any kind of person who kills another person; or we can become the kind of warrior that fights for the kingdom to come, that fights for the kingdom of love, that fights for the kingdom of peace, which Christ promised to all those who make peace.

I have not succeeded to express what was on my mind. I know that, as I finish this; I know that. I will try again next week, or maybe in a text on the website of the monastery. Please forgive me. It is difficult to put into words and to structure things that have to do with the heart and the soul.

Let’s pray for peace, for all of us, everywhere. Amen.

Pensées, Section 2: The Misery of Man without God by Blaise Pascal

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God, that imagination loses itself in that thought.

Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?

Pensées, Section 2: The Misery of Man without God by Blaise Pascal