Tag Archives: Aeschylus

Righteous Peace, Godly Glory

Over the past several weeks I have been working through the second draft of my current sabbatical book project; as I completed each chapter draft I had Jeanne, who is my “go to” reader for everything, to give me her impressions. After finishing one chapter she said that she liked it overall, but thought that I should rework the first section because it was “too depressing.” I made the suggested changes, replacing the opening section with something more upbeat and deciding to move the depressing part to today’s sermon. amtrakDon’t worry–it gets better at the end.

Jeanne, who manages to be on the road every time I am giving a sermon,  got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning a couple of years ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in the River’s Edge coffee shop just down the street, reading and doing my introverted thing. My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.herodotus1

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, stories based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,” codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to visit New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. lifes-a-bitch1Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In the midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

It’s not as if we need regular reminders of how a seemingly benign and beautiful world can turn dark at a moment’s notice. Just a year ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, a colleague at Providence College was killed far too soon in an automobile accident. SiobhanI’ve told people frequently since that time that if, out of the hundreds of faculty and staff on campus, I made a list of those persons who everyone liked and respected, Siobhan would have been at the top of the list. Truth be told, she might have been the only name on the list. Siobhán was the college’s Instructional Technology Development Program Coordinator, a position that put her in charge, among other things, of bringing the faculty into the twenty-first century technologically (after guiding them first through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Over the years I had dozens of interactions with Siobhán both in person and via email, sometimes asking for help with something that a two-year old probably would know how to do, other times asking for advice concerning what new technology might be useful and user-friendly for the faculty in the program I direct. She always had the answer, delivered both in language that I could easily understand and without a hint of condescension or impatience (even though I undoubtedly deserved both). Often Siobhán provided solutions for the next eight problems to follow that I didn’t even know about yet. She was gracious, creative, generous, funny, and had a smile that lit up every space she entered. I pride myself in responding to emails quickly, but Siobhán was the fastest I have ever encountered. I once complimented her on her immediate helpfulness; she responded “That’s because I like you!” I asked “What do you do to people you don’t like?” “I make them wait a week.”

During the days and weeks after Siobhan’s death, all of us on campus were in shock. How could such a wonderful person have been killed in a freak accident while still in her thirties? On the Friday of the first week after we returned from Thanksgiving Break, a memorial service for Siobhan was held on campus. As I settled into my seat in the chapel with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor Siobhan and celebrate her life, lamentationsI noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will give us the unwelcome advice that we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we feel.”

If you are not familiar with Lamentations, it’s probably just as well—it is undoubtedly the most depressing text in the Jewish scriptures, perhaps anywhere. I came face to face with it when on sabbatical several years ago. Of the many liturgical celebrations I participated in at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service. At 7:00 in the morning, the service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations, a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment. Except for a passage right in the middle of the book I had forgotten about, a place where for a moment Jeremiah comes up for air—the very passage read at Siobhan’s funeral.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

Advent is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; the promise of Advent is thaZechariah and Elizabetht a glimmer of light in the distance is about to dawn.

Instead of a Psalm this morning, the lectionary organizers chose The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,” which is the canticle that closes every Morning Prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. The second Sunday in Advent is always John the Baptist Sunday; in today’s gospel we get a quick introduction to grown up John the Baptist from Luke 3, but for the context of the “Benedictus,” we need to go to the story of John’s birth in Luke 1.  You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. The Benedictus closes with a beautiful meditation on Zechariah’s new son’s role in the divine economy, then a stunning promise.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation

by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God,

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

downloadAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. A distant, long-promised hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as described in Baruch:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

The phrase “It’s always darkest just before the dawn” is usually little more than a platitude, but in this case it makes sense. We have reason to hope, because help is on the way.

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

A Good Match For Myself

civcoverlogo-588x290Although the spring semester ended less than a week ago, I have been planning for my fall courses for several weeks now. Such is the life of a teacher—we often live at least six months in advance of the date on the calendar. My teammate in the freshman first semester segment of the four-semester interdisciplinary program I direct and have taught in for years and I have already made our book order with wonderful texts ranging from Aeschylus to Boethius in store for the incoming eighteen-year-olds we will meet in September.

Virtually every team teaching the first semester of this course includes one of Homer’s epics on the syllabus—the question always is “which one?” Iliad or Odyssey? This is not quite the academic equivalent of “boxers or briefs” or Red-SoxYankees“Red Sox or Yankees,” but it is close. I have led discussions on each epic multiple times over the years; which is most appropriate often depends both on the interests/tastes of the faculty on the team and the chosen organizing themes for the semester. Two years ago we used the Iliad; last year my team went for the Odyssey. I profess a preference for the latter, but as my Fall 2014 colleague and I discussed the Homer issue during a planning meeting a few weeks ago, she expressed a marked preference for the Iliad for a number of good reasons. i and oI’m senior faculty, she’s in her third year, I did not want to pull rank (imagine an academic choosing not to pull rank), I appreciate the Iliad’s greatness, so I deferred. She’s a classicist after all, has forgotten more about ancient Greek literature than I think I know, and (I suspect) just really likes the overall violence and bloodshed of the Iliad. But over the past few weeks I’ve wistfully thought “I really like the Odyssey better.” A couple of days ago I found out why.

“Which Classical Character Are You?” the latest Facebook quiz asked.

Which Classical Character Are You?

This quiz was from an Oxford Dictionaries blog, so I expected that it might be a bit more erudite and serious than most. But no, it was pretty much at the same level of complexity (about eighth grade) as the others I’ve taken over the past months. It asked first whether I was male or female, and shortly after the first couple of questions I could pretty much tell that the available options were Achilles, Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas or Odysseus. I was not surprised when I found out thatFWRO

You are Odysseus. You are renowned for your cunning wiles and fantastic plans. You’ve always got a trick up your sleeve. You are also a home-loving type and will do anything to protect your family.

I am more than happy to be Odysseus, although the quiz description hardly does him justice, nor does it sound that much like me. Odysseus was not the strongest soldier in the Greek army at Troy, nor was he the swiftest or the bravest. But he was definitely the smartest. He’s the one who manages to keep Achilles and Agamemnon from fighting to the death at the beginning of the Iliad (a good thing, or it would have been a rather short book). Other than that, he’s a relatively minor character in the Iliad. We find out from the Aeneid that the Trojan horse scheme that ended the 2011_odyssey_map_BTrojan War and sent Aeneas off looking for a new place to live was Odysseus’ brainchild.

In the Odyssey we get to know Odysseus intimately—full of hubris, always thinking and scheming, a good leader (most of the time) although all of his men die by the time he gets home, comfortable in his own skin, an introvert who has no trouble spending lots of time alone, incurably in love with his wife whom he has not seen in twenty years, and intensely focused on his one motivating goal—getting home. Tell me something I don’t know about myself.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to retake the quiz as a female. My options appeared to be Dido, Clytemnestra, Penelope, Medea and perhaps Eurydice.Penelope

You are Penelope. Loyal and patient you tend to avoid conflict. Everyone admires your restraint and elegance but sometimes you can be a bit of a doormat – but you never give up on someone you believe in.

This makes me even happier, because Penelope is my favorite female character in all of classical epic and drama (with the possible exception of Medea, who’s just a total bad ass). Once again, the quiz description does not do Penelope justice. She is undoubtedly loyal, patient and elegant (I am also loyal and patient, although inelegant), but she is anything but a doormat. 4917188777_f31b2c45e5_zShe is a consummate manipulator, putting her long-absent husband to shame in that category as she keeps a crowd of suitors at bay for years by weaving a death shroud for her supposedly dead husband during the day and unraveling it at night. She is a dedicated mother who is struggling with how to let her young adult son Telemachus go so that he can become a man, something every parent can resonate with.

And Penelope is a brilliant match for Odysseus, his complete equal in cunning, intelligence, and insight. He is a man of action, as all Greek heroes are; given the restraints on women in the classical age, her action is limited but highly effective. My favorite passage in the entire Odyssey is in Book 23, after Odysseus has, with a bit of help, slaughtered all of the suitors who have been plaguing Penelope for years in the banquet hall. P and O marriage bedPenelope is not entirely convinced that this is Odysseus—they have not seen each other for twenty years, and she is aware that gods show up in disguise at the drop of a hat in the classical world. Odysseus, grudgingly, agrees to give her all the time she needs to be sure—he’ll sleep on the couch, so to speak, until she’s ready. When Penelope instructs her maid to have the bed from the master bedroom moved into the hall for Odysseus, he goes nuts. “What the fuck are you talking about??” (my free translation). He knows that growing through the center of the house, and hence the center of the bedroom, is an olive tree that at the time of the house’s construction was used as the center post of the bed. In other words, unless the olive tree has been chopped down, this bed cannot be moved—something that only Odysseus would know. “Gotcha!” Penelope says, they embrace and live happily ever after. Not exactly, but close enough.dos-equis-most-interesting-guy-in-the-world-300x300

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite descriptions of The World’s Most Interesting Man: “He would be in touch with his feminine side—if he had one.” Psychologists tell us that everyone—other than The World’s Most Interesting Man, of course—has both a feminine and masculine side. In my case, I am thrilled to learn that my masculine and my feminine side are so well attuned that if they met, they would get married. Talk about integrated! So Robin, if you read this you will now know what a great sacrifice I made when I agreed to do the Iliad instead of the Odyssey with our sixty-four freshmen this fall. The Odyssey is more than just one of the greatest works of Western literature. It is the story of me!