Thursday, December 3, 2009

Worth remembering...

"Every mother should teach her boys to look upon a woman as they would upon an altar."---Fr. Abram J. Ryan, Poet Laureate of The South

A Horse's Christmas Fable

[I publish this exactly as it was sent to me many years ago by a dear friend of whom I've lost track. Maybe she'll see it...]

The old gray horse sidled up to the pasture fence with little dancing steps. The place seemed familiar, yet somehow strange.
The grass was greener than any grass he'd ever seen, and when he looked closely at the white paddock gate it had a kind of pearly sheen. and there was another funny thing. A big, black cloud hovered just inside the gate. The cloud wasn't up in the sky where it properly belonged. It was like a great puff of black smoke rising from the grass.

Suddenly the cloud dissolved and revealed a horse. He was a small chestnut with a blunt head and one white stocking and brownish hairs in his tail and mane. The gray horse thought he had a kind of old timely look to him.

"Hello, old gray horse," the chestnut from the black cloud said. "Hey, that's a real good trick!" the gray horse exclaimed. "Where'd you learn it?"

The chestnut disappeared into the cloud again, but emerged immediately. "Learned it the day I was born," he replied, with a whinny that sounded like a chuckle. "You see, I was born on April Fool's Day and there was a total eclipse of the sun. So they named me Eclipse. I was always playing tricks on people too. Used to kick my grooms and try to throw my riders and I bit the auctioneer that sold me."

"My name is..." the old gray horse started to say politely, but the tricky chestnut ducked in and out of his cloud and
interrupted rudely. "Native Dancer," he said. "I ought to know you. I'm your great-great-great-great-great - I always lose count of the 'greats' 'a?" but anyway, you're a descendant of mine… almost everybody is, in fact. The Thoroughbreds, that is."

"Are you the gatekeeper?" Native Dancer asked.
"Mostly," Eclipse replied. "I'm on duty whenever one of my descendants is coming up. That's mostly so far as the Thoroughbreds go. Old Matchem has a few left and he takes over when one's due. And poor old Herod, he's posted here occasionally, but there's not many of his male line that aren't here already."

"What is this place" Native Dancer asked. "I guess I'm kind of lost." "the Green Place," Eclipse replied. "That's what
it's called. The Green Place. Most of the horses that get lost, come here.
We have to send some back of course."

"Why?" the Dancer asked.

"Because they don't belong here, that's why. Long before I came up there was this fellow Bayard, for instance. He was a devil-horse. Belonged to an old necromancer named Malagigi and he did the devil's work. Helped that villain Aymon of Dordogne to triumph over Charlemagne, they say. and a wizard named Michael Scott had a big black beast who used to stomp his feet and set al the bells of Paris ringing. He even caused the towers of the palace to fall down one day.

The Big Guy doesn't want that kind here. But we have Jesse James' horse, and Dick Turpin's too. The Big Guy says they did nothing wrong themselves. They were just faithful to their masters, and The Big Guy thinks that's a virtue."

"Who's the Big Guy?" Native Dancer asked.

"You'll find out!" Eclipse answered airily. He lowered his muzzle and pushed the gate open. "You might as well come in. You understand you're on probation though. The Big Guy makes his decisions about new arrivals every Christmas. Let's see, it's November 16, the way you figure things down there. So you won't have long to wait anyway."

"I'll bet The Big Guy is Man O' War" Native Dancer said as he moved inside and gazed over the emerald green expanses that seemed to stretch into infinity.

Eclipse snorted. "Don't get smart, boy" he said. Then he added maliciously, "You'd lose your bet too. the way a lot of people lost their bets on you at Churchill Downs one day."

Native Dancer felt hurt, for his ancestor had touched a raw nerve. His lip tremble a bit as he replied defensively, "That Derby was the only race I ever lost."

"I never lost even one race," Eclipse said unsympathetically. "So don't get smart up here. The Big Guy doesn't want
any smart-alecks in the Green Place. Remember that."
Native Dancer was a sensitive sort. He felt as if his eyes were teary and he hoped Eclipse didn't notice. "I won 21 out of 22, and Man O'War only won 20 out of 21" he declared. "And my son Kauai King won the Kentucky Derby."

"My sons won three Derbys at Epsom" Eclipse said.
"Young Eclipse took the second running and Saltram won the fourth and Sergeant won the fifth, and I'd have won the bloomin' race myself, only they didn't run it in my time. So quit bragging. Somebody's coming and they might
overhear you and tell The Big Guy, and that would be a mark against you."

A bay horse who seemed even more old-timey than Eclipse ambled up. "Is it my time now?" he asked eagerly.
"Not yet, Herod," Eclipse answered in a kindly fashion. "Old Fig's on duty now. One of his is on the way."

"Who's Old Fig?" Native Dancer asked. "I never heard of that one."

"There's a lot of things you never heard of, boy," Eclipse replied. "His real name is Figure, but down there they called him Justin Morgan, after his owner. Here he is now."

A very small, dark bay horse with a round barrel, tiny feet, and furry fetlocks came bustling up to the gate. "OK, OK, I'll take over," he said busily. "Where is that boy? Can't stand tardiness.
I've got things to do. A load to pull, a field to plough, a race to run, a trot to trot. No time to waste. Where is that boy?"

In the weeks that followed, The Dancer met hundreds, maybe thousands, of horses. Some of them were famous, and some of them were his ancestors and a few of them were his own sons and daughters.

He met a snorting white stallion named Bucephalus who had been approved for the Green Place by The Big Guy even though he was rumored by some that he was cursed by the deadly sin of pride because he had carried a conqueror named Alexander.

He met another gray horse who limped because he had stepped on a rusty nail back home just before he became lost forever. His name was Traveller, and he was a war-horse too, in the days when a man named General Lee had owned him.

There were other soldier steeds, two of them descendants of the bustling little stallion they called Old Fig up here. One was Phil Sheridan's black Rienzi and the other horse called both Fancy and Little Sorrel who had been the mount of Stonewall Jackson.

Native Dancer found Man O' War an amiable sort despite his proud aristocratic bearing, and he grew especially fond of a bony old fellow named Exterminator, who patiently answered all but one of his questions.
He asked the question of everyone: "Who is The Big Guy?" And the answer was always the same: "Wait 'til Christmas."

He met Messenger and Hambletonian and Hindoo. He met horses that had dared the dreadful fences of the Grand National. He met a horse who stared blindly into the emerald darkness. His name was Lexington.
He met horses who had pulled circus wagons and horses who had pulled brewers' trucks and horses who had drawn man's plows over the fields of earth, and he met others who had been the mounts of kings and captains.

Always the answer to his question was the same:
"Wait 'til Christmas."

Eclipse fussed over him and kept a watchful eye on his behavior and said he neighed too much and asked too many questions.
Eclipse could not stand the thought of The Big Guy banishing one of his descendants from the Green Place. And Native Dancer did not wish to leave. He doubted he could ever find his way to Maryland again if The Big Guy disapproved of him. And the Green Place was very pleasant in all respects. The grass was lush and he met so many interesting horses.

Back home he had sometimes been troubled by nightmares, for a Dark Star haunted his dreams, but now he slept
peacefully and rarely remembered the Derby he had lost. He became nervous though, as the weeks went by and the stars grew brighter.

And finally it was time.

On a night when the skies burned with starlight all the horses gathered as near as possible to a little hillock of the vast paddock. There were hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of them, a murmuring and expectant throng that seemed to stretch over the emerald grass beneath the diamonds in the heavens.

Eclipse was very tense. He hovered over Native Dancer, whispering, "Look your best now. Be quiet and humble. The Big Guy will be here any minute."

Suddenly the vast throng was silent as the stars themselves. The Big Guy stood on the hillock in a blinding blaze of
starlight, and Native Dancer could barely contain himself. He choked back a whinny of derision and whispered to Eclipse, "Is he The Big Guy? He's so little! And he's not even a horse! What did he ever do?"

Eclipse whispered, "He's a donkey. He carried a woman heavy with child to a small town on another night when the stars were bright. It was a long, long time ago."
---author unknown

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Blessed Advent

Sunday, November 29, marked the beginning of Advent. Advent has nothing to do with "The Holidays!" but everything to do with Christmas---because there cannot be a feast without a preparation for that feast, just as food cannot be enjoyed by the sated. As the house must be made clean for the coming of a guest, the soul must be prepared for the coming of Christ.
Advent has been described as a "little Lent". Like Lent, it is a period of prayer and fasting and abstaining from meat. In the bad old days, married couples, to whom was reserved the privileges of sexual intercourse (yes, really!), abstained from sex during Advent as they did during Lent. Even today, a dispensation is required to marry during this season.
But prayer and fasting are a fitting way to prepare for the Christ Child. They help us to recall the desperate longing of the old faithful Jews for the Messiah---How long, O Lord?
O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom Captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear!
Advent means waiting and longing and preparing one's soul. How does one prepare one's soul? For the Catholic, it means partaking of the sacrament of Confession. Yes, I know it's called Reconciliation now, in Newchurch Speak, but that rather misses the point and smacks of slapping the Savior on the back and inquiring, "Hey, are we cool, Lord?"
No, one must rid oneself of the filth and garbage one has accumulated before one dare approach Our Lord, not as a "bro", but as the prodigal son approached his father: "I am not worthy to be called your son. I have sinned against you."
Confession calls to mind the gravity of really facing our sins and being accountable for them. It's a hard task, and not everyone is mature enough, or courageous enough, to seek out and face up to his own sins. Facing one's sins requires action. It requires reparation, when possible, and it requires change. It may require losing some habits with which we have become very comfortable, but that is what's required.
Now the Protestants argue that Confession to a priest is not necessary and that it should be between you and Jesus---and in one sense they are correct, because the very admission to yourself that you are indeed committing certain sins should immediately bring about such severe contrition and such heartfelt prayers of sorrow for your sins that the formal act of confessing to a priest should be almost an anticlimax emotionally. But it is very necessary, simply because God wills it so. "You are Peter. Whatever you hold bound on earth shall be bound in heaven."
And so we tell our sins to the priest and in doing so we humble ourselves and convict ourselves. The priest listens with Christ's ear to our sins and, in the name of Christ, by the power of Christ's Holy Church, he gives us absolution while we intone the Act of Contrition: O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
" amend my life."
It's a terrifying proposition.
But all lives were changed with the Incarnation.
Have a Blessed Advent and save Christmas for the twelve wonderful days alloted to its celebration. Remember Good King Wenceslaus who was celebrating heartily on the Feast of Stephen (the first martyr) which falls on December 26 when he spied the poor beggar and went forth through the blizzard to bring him food and cheer. Remember the Beloved Apostle John on the 27th, and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, slain by Herod, on the 28th. Remember Thomas a Beckett, the great Martyr of Canterbury, and Pope St. Sylvester. Celebrate the Circumcision of Our Lord, and the feast of St Basil the Great! Remember the joy of the Magi who traveled across continents to follow the Star that brought them to Our Lord on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. Don't let them take away your Joy on Christmas afternoon. Hang onto it as long as possible, but make it your first priority to ready yourself so that you can enjoy it fully and appreciate it completely.

Sicut et nos dimittimus creditoribus nostris...

Recently, I picked up my much-loved ragged copy of Kristin Lavransdatter from the nightstand and opened it at random. My eye was drawn to the italicized Latin text, "---dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris"---forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
The passage follows the thoughts of Simon, Kristin's brother-in-law, whom, in her youth, she cast away to follow her passion for Erlend whom she subsequently married. Simon marries her younger sister, partly because the sister is devoted to him, and partly because of his own affection for Kristin's father Lavrans—but Simon always retains his youthful devotion to Kristin, his promised maid. He strives, because of his good character, to be a good relative to her and to Erlend. When Erlend forfeits his lands and faces death for his part in an ill-fated coup, Simon is responsible for saving his life, at a tremendous emotional and moral cost to himself. However, Simon now finds that he has been guilty of believing an ignoble lie concerning Erlend. Because the evidence seems to fit, and Erlend is certainly not innocent of dishonorable conduct, Simon believes it, and now must make apologies to his brother-in-law.
During their encounter, Erlend, who had married Simon's betrothed maid, Kristin, is dismayed that Simon could think so ill of him (you may make of that what you will)…The fact is that Simon also is dismayed, and cannot apologize strongly enough. "'Tis not worth taking so hardly," says Erlend.
Simon replies, "I am not so good a man as you! I cannot forgive so easily them that I have wronged!...I have heard you speak fair words of Sigurd…the old man whose wife you stole from him. I have seen and known that you loved Lavrans with all a son's love. And never have I marked that you bore me grudge for that you lured from me my promised maid—I am not so high-minded as you deem, Erlend---I am not so high-minded as you—I bear a grudge to the man whom I have wronged!"
It's an astounding concept. It is indicative both of Erlend's character, that he could so easily and sincerely speak well of and love all those whom he has monstrously wronged and ruined through his own thoughtless, selfish actions, and of Simon's character, that, rather than attribute Erlend's attitude to a lack of contrition, he chooses to call it a virtue. And who is to judge whether it is arrogance or humility? Only God knows whether people like Erlend ever comprehend the pain they've caused. But suppose they do…Would it not be a virtue to put aside the weight of guilt and forgive those whom we have horribly wronged?
We could do far worse than to add "and those against whom we trespass" when we whisper the Our Father…

Chesterton's defense of women...

"...the truth is that woman always varies, and that is exactly why we always trust her. To correct every adventure and extravagance with its antidote in common-sense is not (as the moderns seem to think) to be in the position of a spy or a slave. It is to be in the position of Aristotle or (at the lowest) Herbert Spencer, to be a universal morality, a complete system of thought. The slave flatters; the complete moralist rebukes. It is, in short, to be a Trimmer in the true sense of that honorable term; which for some reason or other is always used in a sense exactly opposite to its own. It seems really to be supposed that a Trimmer means a cowardly person who always goes over to the stronger side. It really means a highly chivalrous person who always goes over to the weaker side; like one who trims a boat by sitting where there are few people seated. Woman is a trimmer; and it is a generous, dangerous and romantic trade.
The final fact which fixes this is a sufficiently plain one. Supposing it to be conceded that humanity has acted at least not unnaturally in dividing itself into two halves, respectively typifying the ideals of special talent and of general sanity (since they are genuinely difficult to combine completely in one mind), it is not difficult to see why the line of cleavage has followed the line of sex, or why the female became the emblem of the universal and the male of the special and superior. Two gigantic facts of nature fixed it thus: first, that the woman who frequently fulfilled her functions literally could not be specially prominent in experiment and adventure; and second, that the same natural operation surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness."
----G.K. Chesterton