Many years ago, thirty-five or so, my father somehow or other obtained a little banana tree, which he planted in a wooden tub maybe two feet in diameter. This was in north Alabama, where the winter temperatures drop below freezing quite often, so he couldn't leave it outside or plant it permanently. So every fall he would drag the tub, which was quite heavy, into the basement, and in the spring drag it out again. It never grew more than a few feet tall, but it survived.
About twenty years ago my wife brought a shoot from that plant down to our home 350 miles further south, where freezing temperatures are much less frequent. She planted it (maybe I helped, but I hesitate to claim that.) It has survived and to some degree thrived; it's now a clump of half a dozen or so trunks which by the end of the summer are ten feet tall. Most winters have at least one hard freeze that kills them back to the ground, but they always come back. Last year we really didn't have a serious freeze. Now for the first time it's bearing real fruit. We've had a few little ones before but they never got this big.
A reed shaken by the wind?
For the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. I've always loved that line. (Luke 7:24)
I've been wanting to read Romano Guardini's The Lord for some time. This past Christmas I received it as a gift but had not so much as opened it, so I decided to make it my Lenten reading. If I had looked first and seen that it's 625 pages long I might not have chosen it. Sure, to average fifteen pages or so a day doesn't sound like it would be a problem, but it's probably not especially quick reading, and I know from experience how missing just a few days can completely wreck projects like this. Well, I'll proceed. I read twenty pages today and am greatly impressed.
After noting the failures and crimes of various figures mentioned in the genealogies of Jesus, Guardini says:
He entered fully into everything that humanity stands for--and the names in the ancient genealogies suggest what it means to enter into human history with its burden of fate and sin. Jesus of Nazareth spared himself nothing.
In the long quiet years in Nazareth, he may well have pondered these names. Deeply he must have felt what history is, the greatness of it, the power, confusion, wretchedness, darkness, and evil underlying even his own existence and pressing him from all sides to receive it into his heart that he might answer for it at the feet of god.
I'll probably be posting less during Lent, though "less" may mean shorter posts, not fewer. We'll see. Either way I'm going to make a big effort to stay away from current events, politics, and so forth, and to concentrate on the permanent things. But before I drop that stuff:
For at least ten years I've been writing that secular liberalism or progressivism or whatever you want to call it is a species of religion, and that the so-called culture war is essentially a conflict between two religions. Other people may have been saying the same thing then, but if so I didn't come across their writings, and I thought I was saying something that was not the conventional wisdom. Now suddenly I'm seeing it everywhere--for instance in this piece by David French. It has become in fact a pretty conventional observation. Although it's pleasing to be vindicated, I'm not entirely happy about this development, as the idea is central to the book for which I'm now trying to find a publisher, and which now has that much less to be said for it. Oh well.
I'm also thinking I may sometimes post pictures without words, partly in an effort to quiet my always-chattering mind a little, and to encourage silent contemplation, on my part and yours. But also I like posting pictures, and haven't been doing it for a while. They're pretty conventional, I know, and very limited in range. Most are taken within a hundred yards of my house. But I am continually amazed by the world.
I'm a little shocked that spring has come around again. The cypresses have been leafing out for a couple of weeks now. They're one of my favorite spring colors.
This was a notable Ash Wednesday. I went to Mass at the cathedral in Mobile, and for the first time in many years I did not hear "Ashes." Griping about it had become an annual custom for me, and I'm glad not to have to work on stifling that irritation, though I guess rejoicing that I didn't hear it is almost the same thing as griping about it. I had been working on treating it as a penance, with not much success. Anyway, as my wife said, the great thing about it is that you don't have to actually hear it--all you have to do is think about it to get it stuck in your head.
At that Mass Fr. Michael Farmer delivered the best Ash Wednesday homily I've ever heard. This is something close to an accurate transcription of it in its entirety:
Today we enter a period of deeper devotion, a time of fasting, prayer, and penance. Start doing it.
(This post is mostly photos and may be slow to load. I hope it's worth it.)
I mentioned last week that I was traveling. Where I was traveling to was Belfast. Why I was there is a longish story. It was a family get-together, and I have this odd reticence about saying anything very specific on the public web about my children and their children, so never mind the details. Suffice to say that my wife and I were hosted by a native couple, were treated royally, and had a great time. The weather was beautiful, and apparently atypical: it was either sunny or partly cloudy, and I heard people use the term "heat wave," which meant temperatures that almost touched 80F. Really.
And I took some pictures. It's an idiosyncratic travelogue, featuring not necessarily what was best or most important, but what I happened to have the inclination and opportunity to take a snapshot of.
This is a view from the front porch (I think--and I doubt that's the right word) of Castle Ward. I'm not sure how far the domain extends--at minimum to the water's edge, behind and below the trees. I think that promontory in the left middle distance is also part of it.
We got there too late to tour the house itself. I would not have called it a castle, at least not the main house, which was built in the 18th century, and looks it. But the estate as a whole includes structures, too many and too large to be adequately described as outbuildings, which look medieval. Some of these are used as sets for Game of Thrones (which I have not seen). Surely the Clock Tower is one of them.
If you deduce that I did not take this picture, you're correct.
Walking down to the water from the house I saw this very impressive and perhaps just a bit creepy old tree. Does anybody know what kind it is? I don't recognize the leaves at all, and have never seen such a gnarled trunk. I think it was a good four feet in diameter.
White Park Bay is on the northern coast, maybe 40 miles or so north of Belfast. It's at the foot of a hill which I'm going to guess is 150 feet high. That is just a guess, though. This is a view from the top of the path leading down to the beach.
You can walk out on a sort of promontory comprised of these columns. (Actually I think the formation goes on for a mile or more along the shoreline--we only saw one part of it.) This is a view from the tip of that promontory looking back toward the mainland. There's something kind of intriguingly ominous about this image.
I suppose it happens at least once a week or so on a certain Belfast street that a car stops abruptly and a tourist jumps out to take a picture like this. I am leaving the finger in as indicative of the excitement of the moment.
For many years when I listened to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks I thought he was singing about "Cypress Avenue," and never noticed that the title of the song is actually "Cyprus Avenue." It was fairly recently that I discovered this ("fairly recently" for me meaning "in the last ten or fifteen years"), and I was disappointed. Cypress Avenue sounds like a beautiful place; Cyprus Avenue does not. But actually it looks like a lovely place.
And speaking of Van, I spotted this mural on the side of a building:
That's him in the upper left, of course. Below him is Garry Moore, who is not all that well known in the U.S. I'm guessing that the soccer ("football") player in the upper right is George Best, for whom the airport is named. I don't recognize anyone else, though no doubt I would recognize the name of the guitarist at the bottom.
One day we drove south from Belfast along Strangford Lough ("Loch"), crossed its southern end at Portaferry, and drove back up the northeastern coast. Those little coastal farms and towns are about as close to an idyllic and ideal landscape as I can imagine. Unfortunately I didn't take any good photos on that drive. What I found especially captivating (and my wife felt the same) was the way the farmlands run right down almost to the water's edge.
And yet: no place on earth is idyllic, really. The shadow of the Troubles still falls on Belfast and the little towns round about. One of the beautiful little towns we drove through on our northward outing was Ballymoney. Leafing through a newspaper on Sunday morning, I read a story about the current doings of a man who had been involved in the incendiary bombing of a home there which took the lives of three little boys. You don't have to look very hard for signs that tensions still simmer, in spite of the peace agreement of 1998. We left on the morning of July 12, not realizing when we planned the trip that "The Twelfth" is a very significant day and a frequent occasion of violence. That night there was some--burning of cars and the like--though happily it was relatively minor.
Being the alarmist and pessimist that I am, I couldn't help thinking about the relevance of Northern Ireland's conflict to the current one in the U.S. I hear more and more talk about the possibility of civil war here, of the culture war turning into actual war, or of an attempt to divide the country, which could certainly lead to violence. It's not serious, in that no one except for perhaps a very very few fanatics is really preparing for violence. And our antagonisms don't have the historical causes and intensity of Ireland's. But it would be foolish to deny that it's possible. After all, as some '60s radical said, violence is as American as apple pie. It's not as if we haven't already demonstrated that we're capable of civil war.
The possibility is sometimes dismissed because the opposing sides in our culture war are not clearly separable by geography, as in the War Between the States, or easily identifiable by ethnicity. But the Troubles demonstrate that those are not necessary. All you need is a pair of enemies and the belief on each side that the other is a serious threat to its welfare and perhaps to its existence. There are still "peace walls" separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in parts of Belfast. (It's always seemed to me that it's misleading to think of this as a religious conflict: religion serves as a differentiating mark, certainly, but it's not about religion; they aren't fighting about doctrine.) We ought to be uneasy when we hear our fellow citizens declare that they don't want their political opponents as neighbors. We ought to be downright frightened at the level of political and cultural hate that is so frequently on display. If you think this kind of fury can go on indefinitely without expressing itself in deeds you don't know much about mankind.
Ok, enough of that. There is a place on the northern coast called Corrymeela which is an ecumenical Christian community devoted to peace and reconciliation. These peaceful waters are seen from there.