Wednesday, October 26, 2016

For All the Saints: Crispin and Crispinian
I've been away from my laptop for a few days while on a trip, so I'm a day late for the October 25th feast day of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian, believed to be Roman brothers who pursued missionary work in Gaul. To support themselves, they made shoes and gave some of their earnings to the poor. They were arrested during the Diocletian persecution, tortured, and thrown into the river, but when they survived that, they were beheaded.

St. Crispin is remembered in two notable ways in the arts. In the third act of Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger, the shoemakers' guide sing a song of praise to the saint who made shoes. More famously, perhaps, Shakespeare has Henry V make an inspiring "band of brothers" speech at the beginning of the Battle of Agincourt:

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Here's Kenneth Branagh:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Darwin the Botanist

I love antique books, and a few months ago I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over the next several weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

My two previous posts on this theme concerned Charles Darwin. Did you know that he was a notable botanist? I didn't, but several of his books have to do with plants. Here are eight of his twenty-five books, of which six are specifically focused upon plants and the other two are related topics. Like Darwin's books on natural selection, fossils, and geology, these are treasurable antiquarian books in their early editions by John Murray of London. (His American publisher was D. Appleton, New York).

Fertilisation of Orchids (1862)

The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (published as an essay in 1865, and as a book in 1875)

The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868)

Insectivorous Plants (1875)

The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876)

The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877)

The Power of Movement in Plants (1880)

The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881)

I found this site which discusses Darwin's interest in plants: The author writes:

An 1891 printing
"Darwin’s botanical interests were broad and eclectic. ... In addition to [his six books devoted solely to botanical subjects] Darwin also published botanical work in journals, was in regular correspondence with many of the outstanding botanists of the time (for example, Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray), and, in later life, worked with his son Francis on botanical research.

"Darwin’s love of plants appears to have been deeply rooted in his childhood. His parents were both interested in gardening and maintained a varied collection of plants in their conservatory and gardens in Shrewsbury, where Darwin grew up. Indeed, one of the few images of Darwin as a child (age 6) show him kneeling with a potted plant on his thigh. In his autobiographical chapter, Darwin (1887) mentions that '…apparently I was interested at this early age in the variability of plants!' A schoolfellow remembers Darwin’s bringing a flower to school and saying that his mother had taught him how to identify the plant by studying the flower."

Another site,, is a discussion of Darwin's botanical work. Both of these articles are worth reading as a whole. This author notes:

"Darwin wrote six botanical books, over 75 articles, and well-articulated and rigorously executed studies. He titled his last plant book The power of movement in plants (1880). Fascination with the ways that plants move entered the early botanical literature in conjunction with a difficult question: Are plants alive? Although they don’t have evident nervous systems, they can respond to irritation in some cases. This was taken as a sign of life. At the bottom is the even more difficult question, ‘What is life?’ For Darwin, the traditional ‘What is life?’ question was transformed into an effort to demonstrate the unity of all life and hence, by implication, the common descent of all branches of the evolutionary tree. This is the unspoken thesis of Power of Movement. Darwin was once again universalising. By showing that plants have a power of movement and given that mobility and the capacity for movement are animal-like characteristics, he is supporting the unity of common descent, which in turn is an underlying assumption or implication (depending on how the argument is phrased) of evolution...

"As we have seen, Darwin not only contributed to botany, he actually changed the discipline by his very contributions. Since all of his botanical researches were conducted as applications of the theory of evolution, replete with well-worked examples often treated as evidence for natural selection, he was using botany to defend his theory. But simultaneously he was also providing botanists with a model for how to think about their own observations in evolutionary terms....Darwin was so invested in his plant research that he himself built the bridge directly from the Origin to fundamental problems in botanical science. Thus did Darwin assist at the birth of evolutionary botany. This dual role as both founder of evolution by natural selection and exponent of how the theory could be applied in botany is quite remarkable. Later generations of Darwinian botanists would complete the transformation of botany into evolutionary science. But Darwin went a long way in providing a model for that transformation."

(Among his other, varied investigations, Darwin was also interested in marine invertebrates, and wrote articles and books on the subject, particularly barnacles, during the years prior to On the Origin of Species. Here is an article that discusses his research: )

A friend recommends Janet Browne's biography of Darwin.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

For All the Saints: Elizabeth of the Trinity

Mother Teresa was canonized recently, and today St. Francis canonizes another saint: Élisabeth Catez (1880-1906), Elizabeth of the Trinity, O.C.D. I learned about her thanks to a former student who is a Byzantine Catholic nun, who wrote on her Facebook page about Elizabeth, who entered the Discalced Carmelite order in 1901, took her solemn vows in 1903, and died of Addison's disease three years later. But the depths of her devotion and her writings have left a significant legacy. Here, for instance, is her prayer to the Trinity (from this site):

"The prayer to the Trinity
"O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth f from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.
"O my beloved Christ, crucified for love, I long to be the bride of your heart. I long to cover you with glory, to love you even unto death! Yet I sense my powerlessness and beg you to clothe me with yourself. Identify my soul with all the movements of your soul, submerge me, overwhelm me, substitute yourself for me, so that my life may become a reflection of your life. Come into me as Adorer, as Redeemer and as Saviour.
"O Eternal Word, utterance of my God, I want to spend my life listening to you, to become totally teachable so that I might learn all from you. Through all darkness, all emptiness, all powerlessness, I want to keep my eyes fixed on you and to remain under your great light. O my Beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may never be able to leave your radiance.
"O Consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, overshadow me so that the Word may be, as it were incarnate again in my soul. May I be for him a new humanity in which he can renew all his mystery.
And you, O Father, bend down towards your poor little creature. Cover her with your shadow, see in her only your beloved son in who you are well pleased
"O my `Three', my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to you as your prey. Immerse yourself in me so that I may be immersed in you until I go to contemplate in your light the abyss of your splendour!"

The Carmelite site gives more information about her:

Here are news stories about her canonization:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bible Road Trips: The Road to Exile

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures. 

The Road to Exile
2 Kings 23:21-25:30, Psalm 137

I’m thinking about the biblical exile—-thinking about the people of God as refugees forced out of the land and into Babylon, following the destruction of Jerusalem. Here is a map(1) of the way the people traveled. Among the biblical accounts of roads and travel, this is a particularly tragic one.

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

If you’re familiar with biblical history, you know that the exile is a milestone of a very long story of God’s promise of land to his people, extending about 1500 years from Genesis 12 till the end of 2 Kings. It was the end of the Davidic monarchy (conventionally conceived) that had lasted about four hundred years, and it was a second experience of wilderness for God’s people, perhaps more profound than the forty years of Moses’ leadership. God’s punishment for the people’s covenant-breaking, which is how the exile was theologically understood, is the subject of many of the prophets—and so a great deal of the biblical text is in one way or another related to the exile.

James Tissot, "The Flight of the Prisoners",
Jewish Museum, New York
You can read the account of the disaster itself in 2 Kings 23:21-25:30 and Jeremiah chapter 52. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians had already besieged Jerusalem in 605 BCE, resulting in tribute paid to the king by the king of Judah, Jehoiakim. But Jehoiakim eventually refused to pay tribute, leading to another siege, the death of Jehoiakim, and the exile of subsequent King Jeconiah and his court. Further deportations happened during the reign of Zedekiah. The dates of the deportation are often cited as about 598 and another in 586 (when Jerusalem was destroyed, along with Solomon’s Temple), and the last in about 582/581. Scholars debate the number of Jews who were deported, and how many stayed in the land, as well as the total number of deportations. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were the major prophets of this period; in fact, Ezekiel continued to minister to the people and communicated prophecies of hope.

The exile ended in about 538, when the Persian leader Cyrus allowed Jews to return to the land, and the Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt in the 510s and after. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover this history, which concludes the period of biblical history.

As I said above, this is a profound event in the biblical history, but also far beyond. The exile shaped the subsequent history of Jews and Judaism. The Hebrew language was developed during this time. The Torah was likely compiled and edited during this time, becoming the sacred text for a people.(2) Many Jews did not return to the land, and so the Torah, along with synagogues and teacher-sages and mitzvot-oriented observance, became crucial aspects of Jewish religious and ethnic identity. Expectation of the return of the Davidic monarchy became important for many Jews. Such expectation was also crucial for the first century CE group of Jews who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the experiences of exile, return, and expectation were also formative for the beginning of Christianity.

I write about this in more (informal) detail at this site. Here, I want to say: when you hold your Bible in your hand and read it, the whole book is can be understood as a story of exile, the trauma of refugees, and the hope that keeps them going.

If we need any “inspiration” to contribute toward the well-being of refugee people in our own time, we could certainly start with the experience of Bible people as refugees and exiles who long for their home as reflected in the 137th Psalm. With news of Syria and Appello as on-going news stories, I refreshed my memory about the plights of refugees and exiles in the world. Turning to the UNHCR website (The UN Refugee Agency,, I learned that there are currently 21.3 millions refugees in the world, over 50% of whom are children. Over 40.8 million are “internally displaced people” (IDPs), who have no home but have not crossed a border to safety. In 2014, 11 million were newly displaced. Colombia, Iraq, and South Sudan are countries with a high populations of IDPs. Ten million people are “stateless’; they’re minority people who have no citizenship status anywhere. About 3.2 million people are asylum seekers, seeking the right to receive legal protection and material assistance by being recognized as refugees.

Day by day I worry about my own small problems, in my own nice home, while these millions of people are in crisis.

You can find articles about specific refugee situations: for instance, I found this recent piece about IDPs in Serbia and Kosovo.

Here is another article concerning Syrian refugees, about whom American politicians have misinformed the public in key ways.

Don’t be distracted from politically motivated misinformation about refugees: find out more for yourself, from nonpartisan and reputable sources.

Here is the site of the Catholic Relief Service, for instance, that contains several ideas for helping:

Here is another site that I found, “welcoming refugees,”

Do a Bible study:

Writing this post has inspired me, too, to contribute to some of these ministries and to be more informed.



2.  The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemnan writes, “It may be that the final form of the Torah was not reached in the brief period of the Babylonian displacement, but rather in the subsequent Persian period during which there continued to be communities of passionate Jews far from Jerusalem. Either way, after the disruption of 587, under Babylonian or Persian aegis, Jews understood themselves to be exposed, vulnerable, not at risk without the visible supports of a stable homeland. For our purposes it does not matter greatly if the exile is ‘historical’ as given us in the Bible (as we are inclined to think), or if it is an ideological self-characterization. Either way, displaced people needed a place from which to validate a theologically informed, peculiar sense of identity and practice of life. The traditioning (sic) process that produced the Torah thus strikes us as a remarkable match for displacement, so that we may understand ‘the Torah of Moses’ as a script for displaced community [my emphasis]. This connection greatly illuminates the fact, as noted above, that the ‘Torah of Moses’ concludes in Deuteronomy 34 with the death of Moses (thus the end of the normative period) and Israel posed to enter the land of promise but still landless. We may believe that this now normative tradition was powerfully and peculiarly germane to a community that understood itself as exiles, poised to reenter the land but still landless. Thus the Torah came to have durable validity for subsequent generations in the community as canon….” (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, p. 42).

For All the Saints: Teresa of Ávila

Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) was baptized Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada. She is well known Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, and theologian. She was canonized in 1622 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Her works include the The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. This site has a good summary of her eventful life and spiritual pilgrimage:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Poverty as a Campaign Issue

Not long ago, a colleague commented on Facebook that the candidates seldom if ever talk about hunger. Then this morning I saw this good essay, "the main issue that faith based voters should be asking tougher questions about": The author writes:

"While conservative and progressive Christians may hold differing views on the most important issues of this election cycle, there is one issue that should take top-billing for ALL people of faith, no matter which side of the aisle or what their language for God. It’s the one issue that could bridge the divides over social issues, and it’s the one issue that none of us have been talking about enough:

"This is a non-partisan critique. Neither candidate has given proper attention to the issue of poverty in this election. And that’s because we, the voting population, have not been asking enough hard questions about their plans to address it. Candidates are always going to spend the majority of their mic time covering the issues that they think will get them elected. So if we aren’t good and loud about what we care about, we aren’t going to hear about it." The author goes on to say that concerns about abortion, jobs, etc., could be addressed via the issue of poverty.

That essay linked to this recent piece in the New York Times, which similarly raises the issue of poverty and whether the candidates' ideas address poverty, if peripherally:

Good pieces to read and consider!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Landscape: Hans Heysen

Hans Heysen (1877-1968), "Red Gold" (1913). From:

Copied under fair use principles.