Mary Stewart – Author

I read my first book by Mary Stewart in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, it was titled The Crystal Cave, and it was the first book in her Merlin trilogy.

The Crystal Cave opened my eyes to many things, among them was the notion that there were actual historical antecedents for Camelot and King Arthur, subjects that I had been fascinated by for a couple of years at that point, but which I thought were figures of myth and legend.

Mary Stewart wrote this book from the perspective of Merlin, she set the time in the fifth century CE, the period of time when Roman influence was waning in the British Isles, her books linked the rise of Arthur to a Roman dynasty.

She wrote about the Roman Army, thereby introducing me to the Cult of Mithras, Sol Invictus. She wrote about the Celtic people of Gallia, and she wrote about the Druids. She wrote about their myths, peeling away the most fantastical elements and leaving me to wonder if what was left, even the magic, if it was true.

The figures in her stories, Uther Pendragon, Merlin, Igraine and Arthur were presented with a kind of grittiness that made me believe in them. They were already mythic figures in my imagination, but through her narrative they became real; I felt connected to them.

Through her discussion of Mithraism I came to be interested in the real history of Christianity. I became a researcher, and I began to question everything that I had been told was true about the origins of the Church.

I cannot thank her enough for this.

If I had not read Mary Stewart I may never have become a theologian, if my interest in those things had not been peaked by her authorship, I would not be the person I am today, and for that she is a hero of mine.

Her books had an oversized influence on my life, though I did not read much of her body of work beyond the Merlin Trilogy, but I read everything I could get my hands on concerning King Arthur, including the work of Mallory, the La Morte de Artur, and all of the variations of that text which flowed from it.

From Mary Stewart I learned about many other things, I discovered the real presence of Arthurian myth in European culture, how it served as a beacon of hope, providing my ancestors with a set or mores and a code of conduct that instigated and promoter the chivalric ideal, while at the same time becoming a vehicle for subversion, as in the Albigensian Heresies, and other counter cultural movements around the turn of the tenth century.

Given First – 2020.05.09Mary Stewart

Leonardo Da Vinci, Engineer, Artist – A Reflection

Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci was one of kind, a genius out of time and a man of heroic stature.

I will not take up space in this short-reflection to talk about his famous paintings or his fabulous designs, we all know this stuff already, and they are less important than the spirit with which he pursued them.

Understand this: Leonardo did not really consider himself an artist, he thought of himself as an engineer.

He was a scientist and a problem solver.

He was more than a man of his time, slightly older than Michelangelo and Raphael, a little younger than Donatello, he studied with all of them at the bodega under the tutelage of Verocchio, and he set himself apart.

Leonardo was a heroic visionary, he studied, experimented and practiced his craft with a determination that made others shy away from him.

He was reclusive.

He painted as a means of funding his other projects, often taking the money from a wealthy patron, never to deliver the canvass they had commissioned.

He was famous in his day and was invited to take up residence at the court of many royal personages, most of which he declined, though he did take up with the King of France, Francis I.

He was happiest when he held the title of Military Engineer for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke Milan, in whose service he encountered the infamous Nicollo Machiavelli.

Leonardo’s genius was heroic, not so much through his personal habits and social skills but in his capacity as a problem solver, theoretician, scientist and engineer. He outshone all of his contemporaries.

He failed at many things, and his biographers say that he died a lonely unhappy man, but history holds him peerless, and an example to us all concerning the potency of the human spirit.
Given First – 2020.05.02

William Shakespeare – The Bard

Shakespeare

I was in the tenth grade the first time I read a play by Shakespeare. It was the first quarter of the school year, we read Romeo and Juliet aloud in class.

I quit going to high school the following quarter. I was not much in the habit of participating in school unless the subject interested me, most of it did not.

Rather than doing the work that my classmates were concentrating on I would usually sit quietly and read whatever was on my personal reading list, at that time in my life it was usually something in the genre of science fiction or fantasy, it might be a piece of classical history, metaphysics or mythology.

From my first encounter with Shakespeare I knew that he interested me. I took a reading role in class and I enjoyed the way the girls looked at me, because my allocution was good.

I realized that there was something special in Shakespeare, the mere mention of his name generated gravitas, so I began to read more of his plays, some of them like Hamlet and Mac Beth I would read over and over again, committing long tracks of his prose and many of his sonnets to memory.

If Chaucer is the father of the English language, and Boswell the midwife of the modern era, then Shakespeare is its high priest.

Later, in my adult life I steeped myself in his writing, carefully reading every word he ever wrote, as well as commentaries on his prose and verse, to include an exegesis of the philosophies contained therein.

Shakespeare’s expositions on the human condition are rivaled by few, but the sheer beauty of his composition sets him apart from everyone, which is why we call him The Bard.

There are many who claim that Shakespeare did not write all of the works attributed to him. Some who claim that he did not write any of them; it does not matter to me whether any of those conspiracies are true, it is only the work that matters, the body of it that we have inherited from his and have assigned to his authorship, the great works that will last through the ages.

These words below are among the works that have made him a hero of mine:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in its petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays are but lighted fools,
on the way to dusty death.

Out…out brief candle,
For life is but a poor player,
Who struts and frets its hour on the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Given First – 2020.04.23

The Feast of Saint Leonidas, the Father of Origen – A Reflection

Little is known about this martyr from the early 3rd century except that he was beheaded by the Egyptian prefect Lactus in 202 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus.

He would not be worthy of mention except for the fact that he was the father of the great philosopher and theologian, Origen.

Origen is considered a father of the church, but he is a controversial figure. His writings were condemned during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, though he himself was not officially anathematized, all of his work was, at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE.

Nevertheless, Origen’s work remained influential, guiding the thinking of the Church for centuries, and continuing to influence us into the twenty-first century.

But he is not a Saint of the Church and therefore we cannot celebrate his feast day, so I have chosen to celebrate him through his father.

Origen’s doctrine of apocatastasis is likely the particular teaching which caused him to fall out of favor with the hierarchy of the Church. Though it did not happen in his own day, but three hundred years later, after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, this doctrine began to be seen as dangerous, and heretical.

The Doctrine of apocatastasis instructs the believer in the understanding that all things emanate from God, and will return to God in the end, even the devil and his angels.

For Origen this understanding was merely the logical conclusion of the basic faith commitments that were held by all Christians in his time. We should note that these basic faith commitments are also held by most Christians today, and throughout the history of the Church, as they are succinctly set forward in the prolog to John’s Gospel.

Origen was not attempting to teach something radical or new, he was expostulating on the faith as he had received from his teacher Clement of Alexandria.

The doctrine of apocatastasis implies a theology of universal salvation and ultimately it was seen as a challenge to the authority of priests and bishops, to the Christian Emperor to the logic of the sacramental system, as delineated by Saint Augustine in the fifth century and subsequently accepted in its entirety by the Church and the whole magisterium.

Origen’s work was condemned, and he was marginalized because of the way the threat the hierarchy perceived as being axiomatic to his teaching.

It was pure unadulterated hubris on the part of the Church.

Origen followed in his father’s footsteps to a martyr’s death c. 252 – 254 CE, during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Decius. He was imprisoned and tortured and died after being released at the age of sixty-nine.

He was a philosopher and a theologian unparalleled in his day.
Given First 04.22.2020

Albert Einstein – Physicist, Activist, Hero

EinsteinIn 1905, two years after the Wright brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, Albert Einstein, at the age of twenty-six, published his groundbreaking work in physics that fundamentally changed our understanding of the world, of time and space, of mass and matter, of gravity and the universe itself.

It was a heroic feat of genius.

Einstein is not the greatest physicist who ever lived. There were limits to what he was able to grasp, he spent his entire life in search of a theorem he called the cosmological constant, he hunted it like King Pelinore hunted the questing-beast, a mathematical construct which he was never able to define, it eluded him throughout his days.

By the end of his life, what the world came to understand as the province of theoretical physics had passed Einstein by. He grappled with the men who came after him, men like Heisenberg with his uncertainty principle, countering their “uncertain” view of the world with his famous maxim, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Einstein was right…I think, but then again…who knows?

Einstein lived a humble life. I cannot speak to his actual personal humility but he famously wore the same suit of clothes every day, stating in effect that he had too much on his mind to bother with trying to sort out what he would wear on a daily basis.

I have always felt some kinship with him on this front.

Einstein was deeply engaged with the world, even though he was just a man of letters, remote and detached; nevertheless, he was an ardent member of the international peace movement. He was also a principle advocate behind the development of the atomic bomb, convincing the Americans that Germany was well on its way toward splitting the atom, and that if they did Hitler would certainly use that power to win the war.

Einstein’s advocacy for peace and his role in advancing us toward the nuclear age are somewhat paradoxical, but they show us the most important thing about his character, and that was his commitment to humanity and our collective wellbeing.

The man was a hero!
Given First – 2020.04.18

Listen – Editorial, The Week in Review

Analysis, Commentary, Opinion
03.29.2020

Listen
My sensei always use to tell that we have to be rich enough to pay attention.

Pay attention to what is going on around us, look beyond the tip of your nose. Listen to the warning we are being given, comply with the safety measures that are being recommended.

The sooner we all get on the same page, acting in concert with one another the sooner we get through this mess.

Be mindful, the risks you take go far beyond yourself and your family, the COVID-19 virus, if you come in contact with it, will spread out from you, well beyond your sphere of influence.

Limit your exposure, practice social and physical distancing. Do it for your sake, and for the sake of your family, yes do it for those reasons, but do it for everyone else’s families as well, do it for the doctors and nurses and emergency workers who are risking their lives for our sake.

They are heroes, honor their sacrifice.

Listen, and don’t listen.

Don’t listen to the selfish voices around you, correct those , do it gently, but correct those who complain about their need to be with people, to run around the lake, to have a drink with a friend, because they do not want to stay secluded.

You are not being asked to risk your life, to take up arms and go to war, you are only being asked to spend a couple of weeks, or so with yourself.

You can do this, and the sooner we all do it together the sooner we get through this and the sooner life will return to something we recognize as normal.

Do not listen to the conspiracy theorists trying to distract you with their colorful ideas about who dunnit and why, those people are not trying to help you adjust to the circumstances or see our way through it.

Listen to the doctors, listen to the scientists, listen to the men and women in the hospitals, do not listen to the politicians, the media pundits, or the televangelists, trying to make a dollar off your suffering.

Brenda Ueland – Author

Brenda Ueland

Brenda lived most of her life, writing and teaching in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city where I grew up, within a mile or two of where I have lived most of my life.

I was well into my forties before I even knew who she was, but from the moment I read her book: If You Want to Write I knew that I had found a mentor whose simple prose and honesty could guide me in the maturation of my own work.

Brenda, taught writing at the YWCA, she published a memoir about her life growing up in Minneapolis. She wrote for local newspapers and magazines.

She was born at the end of the nineteenth century and lived out her twenties in New York City. She was connected to various movements in art, literature and politics. She was a proto-feminist and revolutionary thinker, and she came to all of that with a simple self-assuredness that was her defining characteristic.

This is why she is a hero to me.

In her teaching, which she summarized in her treatise on writing, she offered the most basic advice to her students: she told them to find their own voice and write from there.

She encouraged her students to simply be themselves, to tell their stories with the written word as if they were speaking to their closest friend, to shout when they are shouting to whisper in the time of whispering.

She told them to be true to themselves, to write with authenticity, because the reader will know if they are faking it.

She encouraged her students to listen to themselves, to become familiar with the sound of their own voice.

Her book on writing had been out of print for nearly forty years until, a few years after her death in the 1980’s, it went back into production and became a best seller.

Like Brenda herself, her book was ahead of its time.
Given First – 2020.03.05

Frank Herbert – Author

I was fifteen years old the first time I read Dune. I had been an avid reader since I was eight years old, when I began reading novels in the third grade. I read the books that inspired me over and over again, I read all kinds of things, but at that point in my life I read mostly fiction, and with that said, at the age of fifteen, I found Dune to be somewhat dense, and challenging.

I had taken that first copy from the carousel of the library at the alternative high-school I was attending. I read it, perhaps not as carefully as I should, but as carefully as I could, and I went to see the motion picture when it came out later that year.

I found David Lynch’s adaptation to be one of the worst movies ever made, and with that Dune passed from my thoughts for a time.

In the summer of 1988 I was visiting a friend in Montana, and I picked up a copy of Dune from the bookstore in Bigfork. I needed something to read on the bus ride home to Minneapolis.

Four years later I was able to engage the book in a completely different way, after the first two pages I was hooked. I was nineteen years old, and in the intervening years I had learned enough and grown enough to understand what Frank Herbert was getting at.

Dune changed my life.

I would read it and all six books in the original Dune series, eight times in sum, as well as everything else Frank Herbert wrote on my quest to absorb his wisdom.

He was a giant.

I have given away dozens of copies of Dune throughout my life, and recommended it to more people than I can count, always with the words this book will change your life.

Many of them came back to me to tell me that it did.

Frank Herbert wrote science fiction, but he wrote science in his fiction had less to do with spaceships and laser beams (though it had those things), and more to do with the science of politics, religion, ecology and psychology.
What is most significant about Frank Herbert’s writing is this: he opens a window for the reader on what it means to be human, and he asks open ended questions about the range of human potential, in a way that allows the reader to believe in those possibilities for themselves.

Frank Herbert is inspiring.

He makes the reader believe that we can do more, be more, see more of the world than our sense sallow…if we are disciplined, if we are attentive to the world around us, and if we cultivate within ourselves the desire to live a life without fear.

He died thirty-four years ago today, when he passed a heroic light left the world.

 

Given First – 2020.02.11
Frank Herbert

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Author

When I was still a teenager and began to move away from reading science fiction, fantasy, and my comic books, when I got past the authors I had been introduced to in school, the so-called American Classics such as Lewis, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, it was then that I discovered Dostoyevsky.

A whole new dimension of literature opened up to me, literature became philosophy.

Through the great Russian novelist I came to understand the power of narrative, and its effectiveness at conveying certain truths that are universal to the human condition.

For whatever reason there are no authors more adept at this function than the Russian’s, with Dostoyevsky being the foremost at the craft.

His influence on me was profound.

From Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground, to The Idiot and the Brothers Karamozov, which are perhaps his most famous works in English, I spent years all through my twenties and into my thirties tracking down his cannon, until I was left with translations of his notebooks to read, which I did.

I purchased the notebook for A Raw Youth, at a used bookstore in Minneapolis (Majors and Quinn). It was the first one that I discovered, In its pages I could see the way he constructed the arc of his stories, and developed his characters from ego to id, and I found an Imperial Ruble, tucked into its pages, a bookmark left behind by whoever was last to read to it.

The note was wrinkled and faded but still a treasure to me.

I considered Dostoyevsky to be the father of existentialism, and through him I learned to love Dickens, who Dostoyevsky considered to be the greatest author of all time.

It has been one hundred and thirty-nine years since he died, and his influence has not waned.
Given First – 2020.02.09

Dostoyevsky

Reflection – Ursula K. Le Guinn, Author

Ursula K. Le Guinn

It has been two years since this great thinker moved on to the next world.

She was a hero of mine.

The first book of hers that I ever read was titled The Lathe of Heaven. It was science fiction, but it was so much more. The book spoke to me about the nature of reality, of consciousness, of what it means to be a human being.

She took the title from the writings of the Taoist, Chuang Tzu (book 23, paragraph 7):

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven ~

Her book, which then recapitulated this warning, took me outside of myself and allowed me to see the world in a different way.

I was sixteen years old at the time, and without realizing it I found that I had been introduced to Taoism (the esoteric tradition), which provided me with a perspective that would shape the course of my life.

I read many other books and articles written by this great lady. When I was in the Navy I found great comfort in the Earth Sea Chronicles, in which she introduced a hero whose greatest enemy was himself, but not himself exactly; his enemy was the shadow of guilt that most if not all human beings carry with them, because they are unable to ask for and accept forgiveness for the things they have done that have hurt or harmed other people, even their adversaries, because they are not able to forgive themselves.

They books were so simple and brief that they could really be seen as fairytales for children to read, and indeed they can be read on that level, but the story is so masterfully crafted that its depth lingers right below the surface.

Two years ago today one of our great luminaries departed from our world, leaving a legacy of literature to light the way for us.
Given First – 2020.01.22