St. Anselm, Public Safety Officer

St. Anselm himself, pondering the ontological argument for God’s existence, moments before pulling the fire alarm

The following headline appeared recently in the Manchester (NH) Union Leader:

St. Anselm to test emergency notification system today

Hope it was a success! Otherwise, a greater notification system– one that actually works– must exist.

via St. Anselm to test emergency notification system today | New Hampshire Public Safety.

Limits to Knowing– Donald Hall and Poetic Greatness

Recognizing limits is a mark of wisdom. One of Benedict’s instructions to the monks under his care was “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” To death-denying Americans and kindred spirits, this sounds morose; in truth, the recognition of the limit of a human lifespan is the narrow portal to a wide joy.

In a delightful recent New Yorker article, poet (and New Hampshire resident) Donald Hall reflects on a life of reading poetry. I snipped a bit of it for highlighting, and you will find the snippet below– but really, if you have the time, I recommend the whole essay.

Hall’s particular point is that a poet cannot know if her work is “any good,” “goodness” being measured by both quality and durability. Awards and accolades are nice, says Hall, but prove nothing. Extrapolating Hall’s point about poetic work to all human endeavor is apt: this stripping away of the importance– and even the authority– of outward, worldly accomplishment can leave a person momentarily untethered, suddenly weightless and unsure of the ground.  If we are not to be measured by our trophies, plaques, certificates, pay stubs, contact lists, and badges, how is a human life measured? Even if your answer doesn’t refer to a god or gods, it’s still a religious question: how is a human life measured?

Here’s the snippet from Donald Hall:

It’s O.K. to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treat you as deathless, but you must not believe them. If a poet is any good, how would the listeners know? Poets have no notion of their own durability or distinction. When poets announce that their poems are immortal, they are depressed or lying or psychotic. Interviewing T. S. Eliot, I saved my cheekiest question for last. “Do you know if you’re any good?” His revised and printed response was formal, but in person he was abrupt: “Heavens no! Do you? Nobody intelligent knows if he’s any good.” No honor, no publication proves anything. Look at an issue of the Atlantic in 1906; look at a Poetry from 1931. A Nobel Prize means nothing. Look in an almanac at the list of poets who have won a Pulitzer Prize; look at the sad parade of Poets Laureate.

via Thank You Thank You: Donald Hall on a Lifetime of Poetry Readings : The New Yorker.


The President

A central element of Obama’s argument for targeted military action against the Assad regime, is that NOT to act would lead other rogue states (see: Iran) to calculate that they can use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with impunity. Our national interest, according to the president, would be compromised by any action short of using deadly force, in response to Assad’s decision to deploy sarin gas on August 21st.

Because I am not a pacifist, and because I view international politics as largely (though not totally) anarchic, I find the above strategic calculation to be the strongest part of the president’s argument. That he is willing to wait on using deadly force, and see whether Assad will agree to place his chemical weapons under international control, is also pragmatic statecraft.

Where Obama overreaches– and where we should always be suspicious of anyone who wields great earthly power– is the moral argument. As an emotional appeal for our support of military action, several times he mentions the suffering of innocent Syrian children poisoned in the sarin attacks. Yes, this suffering is outrageous and obscene. But when we respond with a “targeted military strike” with the intent to “deter Assad” and “degrade his regime’s ability” to use chemical weapons, is there anyone who thinks that no innocent person will be killed? And so then: what kind of morality is it, exactly, that accepts the suffering of innocents, to pay for the suffering of innocents?

We Americans would do less harm in the world if we repented the self-flattering self-deception that the violence we use is redemptive: that, because our aims are righteous, our violence is somehow cleaner.  It is one thing for a state to have just cause for war; it is false to then claim, therefore, that your just cause means you are acting morally. In the Christian moral universe, everyone is a beloved child of God. Everyone.

In the rhetoric of persuasion, appealing to your audience’s emotions is page one in the playbook– so we know why Obama mentioned the suffering innocent Syrian children so many times. As an argument, though, it is weak. If bombing Damascus ends up being our policy, let’s do away with pious posturing, and name it for what it is: we’re bombing you because we believe doing so is in our national interest.

Statecraft is statecraft. It’s about power– blunt and brutal power: power that does not discriminate between the bad and the good, the blameworthy and the blameless.

via FULL TRANSCRIPT: President Obama’s Sept. 10 speech on Syria – The Washington Post.

Burying Clover


Clover, Buried

A small cow is still a big animal to bury. One man with a shovel might spend a full day or two or three at it, depending on how deeply he dug the hole, or how many rocks he hit. With a medium-sized tractor and backhoe, the same man can do the job in half a day– which is a mercy, because a dead cow is not a pleasant sight, and there’s no prospect of the situation improving over time.

Clover was our family cow, and she died last Friday, 36 hours after having her second calf.

I grew up in suburbia, with no connection and little understanding of natural processes, so that my apprenticeship year on a small farm in England, in my early 20s, was a continual epiphany. Chickens lay eggs according to daylight: fewer and fewer as the days shorten; more and more as late winter moves through vernal equinox towards summer. Who knew? Not me. I learned this, and a million other things, in my year on the farm.

I learned resurrection, too. I don’t mean that I learned to believe in a doctrine of resurrection; I mean that I formed the habit of seeing resurrection everywhere, and that I began to inhabit the resurrection rhythm: life rising from death–death taking life down into the earth–earth giving rise to life again. Living through the moons and seasons on a small, human-sized farm is a good way to become rooted in the fundamentals.

My wife and I wanted to raise our children to know where food comes from, to learn the responsibility of farm chores, and (hopefully) to have their character developed by daily contact with what is close to the earth. Clover was part of this life we chose for our family, and she played her part well: the children fed her hay on bitter winter mornings; they mucked her stall; and now they– we– mourn her death. She was a gentle, good cow.

The problem with the kind of resurrection that nature practices, is that the life that comes from death is not the same life as before. Clover’s body will nourish new grass in the field, but I want my cow back, not fertilized grass. My grandfather used to joke that one day he’d be “pushing up daisies,” but it’s him that I want alive anew, not a bunch of flowers.

Maybe the resurrection we see in natural processes on earth is only a copy, a facsimile, of the great resurrection promised in Christian scripture?  When all that is and was love– all that held love, spoke love, drank love– will be renewed and restored in the bodies we knew? God, I hope so.