St. Ogg's in Our Time

(This is not especially appropriate for Easter Monday--well, it's not appropriate at all, but it's not exactly inappropriate either. But I wrote it a day or two before Palm Sunday, then decided it should wait till after Holy Week. So....)

And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. 

That's part of a long description of St. Ogg's, the fictional town (named for a fictional saint) in which George Eliot sets The Mill on the Floss. It's an old town where things change slowly. That may seem the opposite of the constantly and wildly changing environment we live in. Our cultural atmosphere is full of rage, much of it associated with rapid changes that are pushed vigorously by some and resisted just as vigorously by others. Doomsayers of many persuasions are constantly telling us that the end is near. And so on.

Yet it strikes me that we are in some sense like the inhabitants of St. Ogg's. Most of our frenzy takes place against an assumed background of something like our current level of wealth and technology. I won't bother theorizing the many ways in which that could come to an end, but while many people are busy doing that, too few seem to appreciate that in the light of human history it is a very, very unusual--no, a unique--situation. Perhaps it will turn out to be a fluke, and a hundred years from now things will be back to normal, meaning that for most people most of the time the effort to get enough food to preserve life is their most important concern.

Now and then, listening to certain political views, it strikes me how thoroughly out of touch with fundamental reality they are. Self-styled revolutionaries assume that material plenty and personal freedom are the natural state of things, and all the questions are about how to rearrange them. All the material wealth and comfort are just there, as if they had just happened naturally. And the whole technological, financial, and political infrastructure of our lives has no connection to the civilization which produced it, but rather is like the land, a naturally-occurring phenomenon which will always be there and is ours to do with as suits us.

That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives. "Activists" openly preach racial division and resentment. Right and left increasingly speak of subjugating or eliminating the other as the only possible resolution of their conflict. The notion of "elimination" is at this point only political, not physical, but what happens if the political effort fails? 

Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone? That it is the product of centuries of thought and labor? That it continues to exist because millions of people do complex work in complex coordination with others?

The assumption that these things are just there is so strong that people freely sow the wind, because they don't really believe in the whirlwind. Worse, they're so far removed from reality that they no longer even see, much less understand, the connection between sowing and reaping. Or even have any real grasp of the words themselves. What do they even mean to people who have no conception of any way of life outside the modern city? Food comes from the grocery store. Obviously.


Psalm 104:1-4

Praise the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art become exceeding glorious; thou art clothed with majesty and honour.
Thou deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment 
 and spreadest out the heavens like a curtain.
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters
 and maketh the clouds his chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind.
He maketh his angels spirits
 and his ministers a flaming fire.

This is from one of the several psalms read at the Easter vigil, to which I'll be going in a few hours. A blessed and joyful Easter to all. 

Here endeth the posting of Coverdale psalms. 


Psalm 116:11-14

What reward shall I give unto the Lord 
 for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?
I will receive the cup of salvation
 and call upon the Name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows now in the presence of all His people;
 right dear in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
Behold, O Lord, how that I am thy servant;
 I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid; thou hast broken my bonds in sunder.


(Coverdale)

In more recent translations, "right dear" is "precious." I rather like "right dear."


Psalm 69:1-2,7-9

Save me, O God,
 for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.
I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is;
 I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.

And why? for thy sake have I suffered reproof;
 shame hath covered my face.
I am become a stranger unto my brethren,
 even an alien unto my mother’s children.
For the zeal of thine house hath even eaten me
 and the rebukes of them that rebuked thee are fallen upon me.

(Coverdale)

The first two verses are not included in today's Mass reading. I just like them. This is one of the imprecatory psalms, full of curses for the psalmist's enemies, and God's. Verse 23 has some relevance for our society.

Let their table be made a snare to take themselves withal 
 and let the things that should have been for their wealth be unto them an occasion of falling.


Psalm 71:1-2

In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion,
 but rid me, and deliver me, in thy righteousness; incline thine ear unto me, and save me.
Be thou my strong hold, whereunto I may alway resort;
 thou hast promised to help me, for thou art my house of defence, and my castle.

(C0verdale)


Ronald Knox Again

I'm just finishing up A Retreat for Lay People, which I planned to read over Lent, and have actually followed through on that plan. There's a lot of really good stuff here, a lot of quotable stuff. The next-to-last chapter is about Mary Magdalene, and this seems a good note for what will most likely be my last post, apart from the psalms, until Easter Monday. 

...for her, the interior virtues. She is the heroine of contrition; and contrition does not, of itself, alter the external fact of our sins; it only alters our attitude towards them. She is the heroine of resignation, and resignation does not help us to do anything; it only helps us to suffer, with patience, those bad times which will come to us whether we are patient over them or no. She is the heroine of hope; and hope does not change the course of the world's history; it only enables us to look forward, in a dark hour, to God's promise that the course of history will yet be changed.

 


Psalm 27:1-2

The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
 The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?
When the wicked, even mine enemies, and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh,
 they stumbled and fell.

(Coverdale)

 


Psalm 22:16-17

For many dogs are come about me,
 and the council of the wicked layeth siege against me.
They pierced my hands and my feet; I may tell all my bones;
 they stand staring and looking upon me.

(Coverdale)

The opening of this psalm is surely one of the most important for Christians. Usually it's not too far from what I grew up with in the King James:

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Though I don't recall hearing the words that follow:

why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

"Roaring" sounds pretty odd to our ears, and presumably had different connotations at the time. I think I'd remember it if it had been widely quoted. 

New American:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?

But Coverdale adds something noticeably different:

My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me,
and art so far from my health, and from the words of my complaint?

I wonder what his warrant for "look upon me" was.