On Friends: Clive Staples vs. Ernest

“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” – C.S.Lewis

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates.” – Ernest Hemingway

The above lines reveal tension. Though incomplete, it is palpable enough to bear fruit upon contemplation. For the first author, friendship (particularly that of Christian friends) is an experience worthy of rhetorical awe and thanksgiving. The other argues that even if community can temporarily alleviate our islandhood, the best writer will refuse such pleasure for whole-hearted devotion to his work. There no difference in the object of reflection, and hardly one of context as both are prolific writers, so the true divide must come from the interior orientation of each. The second author sees himself and his work, while the first is most concerned with sharing a marvel. There is a difference of focus.

The question then remains: What is the best thing to focus on? The clearest way to answer this giant question is to put it into perspective– universal and inescapable perspective.  The answer arises from another question, the one that I firmly believe we will hear in the stillness of our last day: How much did you love? If loving is primarily accomplished through one’s writing and work, then very good! However, it is only as good as it is true. Every moment we get closer to the day when we can no longer comfortably deceive ourselves about how efficiently the scarcest resource has been spent.

Lewis has chosen the better part.

This is quite heavy, but I like to remind myself of this very, very often because I’m a natural Hemingway getting caught up in my books, and work, and solitude, and coffee, and melancholy stormy nights. But fortunately, with good friends and twinkly-eyed writers like Lewis, I usually come out on the other side, laughing at myself.


The Way to Flourish at College and Beyond

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C.S. Lewis)

Originally and politely suggested in an ISI email, it nevertheless took a long line at the DMV (sneaky payback for every speed limit I’ve ever scoffed at?) for me to finally resign myself to reading this article. For some reason, I have a hearty disdain and distrust of these kind of articles that sell sweeping fix-alls and revolutionary advice. Perhaps it’s my generation; perhaps it’s just me. But I quickly knew that this advice would be true and truly original, since the opening paragraphs were not afraid to tell me that I was very wrong in my thinking but that someone else was very right. “The Muses do not keep a calendar or follow a plan,” is the summery trap I found myself in recently, but luckily, we are given the antidote:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12).

Funny me for muddling it all together. The river needs strong banks to channel its energy. The author proceeds to cite the fruitful routines of Lewis and Churchill to drive the point home (just mention Mr. C.S. Lewis and I’m all ears).

So– in my funny, long-winded way I’m politely suggesting that you read this article and take it’s advice to heart. Building routines in your life is like what happens in a simple piano piece when you merge the dancing right hand with the undercurrent of the left. Art is limitation. Games only work when we play by the rules. It’s yet another paradox of this life; know first what everything is for and then the mysteries of the world will flower before you.

Source: The Way to Flourish at College and Beyond

Cyprian Norwid on Beauty

Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up    –Cyprian Norwid (Polish poet)

A girl–even a girl who cares very much about economics and school choice–can only read and summarize working papers for so long until she has to take a break for something beautiful.  Something less useful. I came across this quote in a letter from Pope John Paul II, discovered through my brother’s recent blog post, and it struck a chord. Perhaps because he goes on to discuss a remarkable Greek word, kalokagathía which signifies the incarnation of goodness in the form of beauty, or because my cottage endured a glorious bout of spring cleaning this morning, I am quite sure that beauty is the one thing that we all desperately need more of. Especially in ourselves.

But what does it mean that beauty excites us for work? Beautiful things tend to resonate with us, and when we allow ourselves to be allured, they can draw us from where we are to where we ought to be. The power of beauty is that it resonates, but just not enough. We have to change if we want to feel at peace in the presence of a beautiful artwork, musical composition, or personality.  I felt this just a moment ago during my pre-class morning procession to the coffeeshop, over the well-worn cobblestones, past spring’s sweet-smelling trees, and under the light blue and light coral sky.

Beauty will humble us, then work exalts us. I am drawing completely from my personal experience here– the best feeling that I know arrives when I rest my head on my pillow after a full day of fruitful work. Whether it’s a long, refreshing run, a completed paper, or painted canvas for a birthday gift, we humans love looking over our shoulder and seeing progress. Work was made for us. Sure, it’s terribly frustrating, and the space between where I am and where I want to be seems insurmountable at least once a day (especially during those hours right before lunch), but beauty comes in and reminds us of the reward.

“You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.”

Beauty, truth, and goodness return us back to our right selves. They grant not only practical clarity, but pure excitement as well. It is precisely this reason why we should all care very much about surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and beautiful people, in our home, at work, and at play. It turns out that bare, useful things aren’t quite useful enough to complete the work we seek to complete.

And still the real crux of the matter has yet to be mentioned. At the end of the day, Peter Kreeft had it right in his lecture on the Sea when he spoke that we don’t want to possess beauty, but instead what we find we really want is to be entirely possessed by it. Just as the sea engulfs us as we rush into the waves, so we want to be engulfed by Beauty.

For further reading:

Asceticism: The Alternative to “Hope and Change”

C.S. Lewis on Ordinary People

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations –these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

–C.S. Lewis

Cheers to a brand spanking new year! It took me a full 3 seconds to decide that this quote would be the first “Weekly Passage.” If I had the magical power to convince every person in the world to read just one thing, this paragraph would be it. These words reveal the very heart of everything. Clive Staples Lewis (what a name, though!) lends us his eyes in this passage, and through them the world not only makes sense, but we detect the greater story unfolding .

We suddenly see what we have been looking at all along.

The best thing happens with those first two sentences; the questions come bubbling up. Ordinary people. Staring at my laptop, black coffee in hand, boots on my feet and hair in a braid, I feel pretty ordinary (like an ordinary nerd); I don’t know about you. We can interpret this in a few ways, ranging from the things we do every day to our profound human identities. While we all partake in those daily, “ordinary” human tasks that we unknowingly signed up for at our birth (well, except for my mother who I’m quite sure never sleeps and my brother who I’m quite sure never showers), even those mundane things are only the same on the surface. If we pay attention, no doubt we will find that we all sip a cup of coffee literally quite differently, with different idiosyncrasies and in a different spirit. Even here, there are no ordinary people.

Then, we may be tempted to refute his claim by pointing out how the lives of so many people still follow a similar, sluggish pattern, so the little differences don’t seem to have any significance. True, we are sometimes tempted to go about our day-to-day lives as act ordinary, or average, or lukewarm, but I really think that this is more of a cowardly disguise because we are nervous to confront the truth that there is something intrinsically precious and rare in us all. No two are alike, yet all are equal in unfathomable worth. Once you know that, you know that you owe more to yourself and the people around you. It’s scary to think that you are meant to become someone that no one else can become.

Now taken literally, C.S. Lewis was a Christian, and Christians believe that each human soul is eternal. That still sounds very abstract, though, so maybe it is better to emphasize that we believe everyone will live in the presence of our Creator and Father forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever… How often do we think about this? If this is true, this certainly changes things. I think that Lewis would agree that you are most at peace when your daily activities flow from who you are; that is to say, you make daily decisions knowing that yourself and those around you are headed towards eternity. This world is passing away, and we are all one one big family road trip on our way to “a country we have never visited.”

The next portion initially baffled me. What do you mean the life of our great American nation is like the life of a gnat? Here we encounter a concept of time that is unfamiliar, but logical. Our invisible souls are eternal; magnificent, rock-solid kingdoms pass away. Even Rome fell. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinth. 4:18).

We are brought up to desire the glory of being a part of something bigger than ourselves, from our dysfunctional families, to our book clubs, to our universities, to our countries. But all the significance of these nations, cultures, arts, etc. derives from their relationship to humanity. Here, it is easy to see that our purest association, family, grants the most human happiness as we share our works, joys and sufferings with those eternal souls who know us the best of all. The remarkable patentors of the Great American Experiment had it right here, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We must enjoy the vast riches that we can see with our eyes, from wondering at a gentle snowfall, to letting the huge ocean waves knock us off our feet, but we won’t find what we’re looking for until we can see Who they point to.

We must play. I sometimes think this is the best sentence I have ever read. I’m very tempted to set sail at once with my closest friends. You know those moments that you feel exuberant, when the joy bubbles out of you in great guffaws? Better, have you ever caught the mirth in a beloved’s eye, and shared a smile deeper in your heart than has ever spread across your face? It is in our childish play that not only do we find our purest happiness, but we find the feeling of home. When you glimpse the shimmer of another’s soul during such play, you know very well what C.S. Lewis meant.

And now, to bookend this piece properly by sharing with you the glorious passage preceding the above quote:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

If you’re reading this, thanks for hanging until the end (though I cannot fathom how you were able to accomplish it.) As the barista in this cafe just boisterously proclaimed to its humble occupants, “New year, new us!”

Here’s to making all things new.

Getting to Know You

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2)

There is something divinely human about hospitality. It is a universally-acknowledged truth that the measure of a soul’s nobility and elegance is in the generous hospitality that he or she displays. As a long-term guest in a foreign nation, I have had the constant privilege of being on the receiving end of such comforting generosity. From a sweet, steaming cup of coffee waiting for me each morning in the campo, to strangers taking on the role of self-appointed tour guides, to professors going out of their way to drive me to my favorite café, my time as a guest has only confirmed the comforting power of hospitality. But what of the duty of the guest? A snowball effect of experiences have let me to this conclusion, that my mom (and I’m sure mothers everywhere) was correct in insisting, one should always leave a place better than how it was found. Obviously this applies quite conveniently to messy playrooms, but as is so often the case, our lessons from kindergarten apply more gravely as adults (much like how I had the funny urge to pass out those “The Golden Rule: treat others how you want to be treated” rulers at the Haitian-Dominican Republic border yesterday.) Focusing on leaving a place better than how we found it gives us a great goal, while leaving the creative specifics up to the demands of the situation. I think its important to understand hospitality as a means to an end, that it provides a gentle framework for getting know a fellow human being on a deeper level. Both the host and the guest engage in an ancient, at times awkward, dance that allows space for a genuine relationship to flourish. Think about it– we offer our best to our guests, not because we actually feel any affection for them yet, but because we want to display our respect for them and our excitement to share time and space with them. To put it another way, the manners and formalities provide the avenues through which joy in one another’s company can be cultivated. At it’s root, hospitality is about the dignity of the human person, and that is why it is so ancient, universal, and continues to be needed all over the world. Whether through washing the dishes after a meal, arriving with a thoughtful gift, or simply inclining a listening ear, practicing the art of hospitality refines and beautifies our characters.  I have seen it over and over again here; the simple display of courtly manners, for example, asking if you can help with cooking dinner, blossoms into an unexpected friendship. No one can resist the inherent elegance of generous heart. Simply put by Mother Teresa,

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”

And how else to tie up this article but to share the lovely song from the King and I that lends itself to its title: Getting to Know You and of course, a timeless recipe from one hostess to another: The Best Lemon Bars Recipe. Here’s to good music, good food, and good company!

happiness doubled by wonder

Mount Tabor, Israel

As I demurely sat in this delightful cafe, musing over what I want my first actual post to be about, I credit these wise words from my pal, G.K. Chesterton, for the proper inspiration:

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

This first essay of mine is a tribute to thankfulness: the serene knowledge that I have been blessed and highly favored.

On this invigorating fall day, I am reminded of how easy it is to be appreciative of the primary blessings in life: family, friends, sound health, the beauty of nature, exciting future plans, etc. But being no fool, I am also all too aware, as you are too, of the grotesque stuff in life: jealousy, despair, suffering, torture, pain, etc. What to make of the ugly parts? I maintain that the struggle to be grateful and find meaning in the dreadful, gross faces of life is the noblest battle indeed. I will never cease to extol Viktor Frankl’s brilliantly hopeful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, for granting me the powerful insight into reality that guides me even today,

“We who lived in concentrate camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Consume these words. Let them nourish your soul with hope, as they did mine. These days while we take care what our mouths chew, we must also be cognizant of the sustenance we allow our brains to gnaw upon. I firmly believe that it is our job to manifold the blessings with which we have been blest, to multiply the gems of our talents and gifts.  The question is loudly put to us when we discern our life’s work, but it is also whispered in our hearts each occasion we touch the life of another – even think of the awkward minutes we pass in the elevator each morning with a random companion. To paraphrase the great Mother Teresa, we have the great capability to leave each person better and happier than when we found them.  How are we using that power?

To conclude this lovely jumble of attempted acumen, I want to leave you with this beautiful poem that I first unwillingly memorized in the fifth grade. It still plays through my mind (and with ah! bright wings…read it out loud and you will know exactly what I mean) every time I am witness to such natural beauty, as in the picture above from atop Mount Tabor, that I captured when I traveled through the land of Israel two Christmases ago.

God’s Grandeur

By: Gerard Manley Hopkins

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.