Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Author, Nobel Laureate

Solzhenitsyn is the greatest Russian author of all time, even greater than the master Dostoyevsky, and believe me when I say it, this is not a trifling estimation.

 

I first encountered his classic novella, A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was in my late teens. It was just a little book, it could be read in an afternoon, but it was heavy and it was deep.

 

In my early twenties I was still heavily involved with reading other parts of the Russian cannon and I was slow to get to Solzhenitsyn’s other writings, like the famous Gulag Archipelago for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, when I came to it, I found it life changing.

 

Solzhenitsyn thought of the Archipelago as more of an exercise in journalism than literature, he was surprised by how well it was received, though he should not have been because its principle achievement, was to personalize the gulag experience which he was able to do because he himself had been a victim of it.

 

He put a human face on all of that collected suffering which touched the lives of every citizen of Russia and the Soviet Union, in one way or another.

 

Solzhenitsyn was born in Russia, in 1918 just after the Bolshevik Revolution. He served in the Russian Army during World War II. In 1944 he was decorated for valor in combat, and Awarded the Order of the Red Star, but in 1945 he arrested for saying derogatory things about the government in his personal letters to a friend, after which he spent eight years in the gulags.

 

Surviving World War II and the Russian gulags is itself a heroic feat, and his status as a Nobel Laureate is another thing that marks him as a person of significance, but what makes Solzhenitsyn a hero is his insight into human nature and his profound ability to communicate that insight through the power of prose.

 

In my late twenties and early thirties I began to read other books by him, October 1914, and The First Circle. I was awed by the way in which he could present the myriad of forces; sociatal, intellectual, spiritual and emotional that comprise an individual’s motivations, and shape their intentions, he portrayed the movement of those currents in a way that made poetry out of the lives of characters…even the most ordinary lives, even the most heinous and cruel, and because he was so adept at humanizing the characters in his novels, he allowed his reader to expand their own view of the world so that it included his, and the reader is made a better person for having read him.

 

Solzheinitsyn

 

Given First – 2020.08.03

Michelangelo de Caravaggio – Artist

I was a teenager when I discovered Caravaggio.

Beginning in the seventh grade, when I was twelve years old, I spent a great deal time immersing myself art, wandering the halls of the Minneapolis Institute, our grand museum, when I should have been in school. There are none of Caravaggio’s work in the MIA’s permanent collection, but there was enough from the late renaissance to enable me to be conversant with those masters who were the precursors of his style.

I did not encounter Caravaggio there, I encountered him at my neighborhood art-house cinema, the Uptown Theatre at Hennepin Avenue and Lagoon.

It was the 1986 film by Derek Jarman, starring Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean that made me aware of his work and influence.

It was a lovely movie, somewhat surreal, and it familiarized me with Caravaggio’s great achievements in the history of painting, the foremost being his mastery of foreshortening, which allowed his images to leap from the canvass, and in the second place his development of the  chiaroscuro style, the sheer beauty of bringing light from the darkness which was his signature.

In 1990 I stood in front of a Carvaggio canvas for the first time. I was at the Chicago Institute of Arts and I was amazed at the dramatic realism in his work.

From that point forward if somebody were to ask me who my favorite painter is, I would say Caravaggio, without hesitation.

The more I learned about this masterful artist the more this remained true.

The 1986 film captured a great deal of his story, including the character of his life, its irreverent nature, which endeared me to him.

It wasn’t until I took an art history class as an undergraduate student at the University of Saint Thomas, in 1995, that I discovered what a rebellious spirit he had, and for that spirit I consider him a man of heroic stature.

As an artist his principle patron was the Church, and the most common subjects he was commissioned to paint were scenes of religious devotion.

He was imprisoned for his depiction of The Death of the Virgin, because he used as his model the bloating corpse of a prostitute he had fished from the river, painting Mary in a state of corruption and decay, which was an act of heresy because Mary was considered to be inviolate and incorruptible, even in death.

When he was commissioned to paint the Conversion of Saint Paul, seventy-five percent of the canvass he painted was taken up by the ass of the horse Paul fell from when he was blinded on the road to Damascus.

It was another great joke Caravaggio played on his patron, for which he is now well loved.

Caravaggio

Given First – 2020.07.18

Kinsei Musashi Miyamoto, and Sensei Clifford “Chick” Moody – Heroes

I first encountered the writings of Musashi when I was eighteen years old.

On the recommendation of a friend I went to a dojo on Selby Avenue and Chatsworth in Saint Paul, the Inner Truth School of Self Defense.

I introduced myself to the Sensei, Clifford “Chick” Moody, asked me what I was doing there, and on the advice of my friend I told him that “I wanted to learn strategy and self-defense.”

I think my response took him by surprise, it sounded a bit formal and it sounded a bit theatrical coming out of my mouth, but his demeanor changed. I think he decided he could take me seriously (at least in the moment).

He asked me to take a seat in the front of the studio to watch a demonstration, and I watched for a while as his students warmed-up.

Sensei moody was ancient already, he had two of his black belts come to the place where I sat, they proceeded to work through a series of blocks and strikes and falls. This gave me an idea of what I could expect the course of training might be at the way place.

At the end of the demonstration he gave me this bit of advice, he told me to read two authors, Carl von Clauswitz, on War, and Miyomoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings.

For the next three years I attended classes at the dojo, three hours a day, five days a week, with one on one training after the regular session on Sundays.

Sensei Moody was a sixth dan, he held black belts and weapons proficiencies in dozens of styles. He taught his own system, which he called Muashi, way of the wind, but its roots were in Okinawan Karate, the hard forms of Goju Ru and Goju Kiyokai, and he taught Ninjitsu.

Sensei Moody’s teachers were the men who first brought Japanese martial arts to the United States like Ron Duncan Jr. and Peter Irving, the children of American servicemen who grew up in Japan after World War II.

There were classes where Sensei would have us sit in sanchin while he read from the Book of Five Rings, the Go Rin No Sho. It was through Sensei Moody that I discovered the greatest practitioner of martial discipline and combat strategy the world has ever known.

Musashi, Kinsei (Saint of the Sword).

musashi-selfportrait

The Greatest of All Time – A Hero for the Ages

Muhammad Ali left us, and departed from the world four years ago, the greatest of all time is gone

Muhammad Ali held the world in his hands, the greatest of all time lives on.

I heard the news of his passing, waking in the middle of the night
I heard the news of his passing, I listened to the stories and cried

Ali, the greatest of all had died

Of all the heroes I ever fell for, he was the only one that was truly alive
The only one I ever prayed for, the only one I thought could make a difference in our time.

Ali spoke to the heart, he spoke for justice and freedom, he told the truth and he spoke of love.

He spoke to the world in the same way that he fought, he spoke to and fought for everyone.

He spoke in rhythms that dazzled and he spoke in words that hurt.

He floated past us
He struck us with his sting
As beautiful as the butterfly
As ominous as the bee

With the symbols of his fame he took on the powers of the world

Bumaye, Ali…Bumaye

He was a prophet in our time, he praised us as he scolded us, sharp tongued and pretty.

Ask him, he was the prettiest.

I remember the day in 1980 when I heard the news that he had lost the championship.

Muhammad Ali lost! They said Ali would never fight again!

All the kids on the school bus murmured, Ali was not the greatest after all, and the world stopped making sense.

Muhammad Ali gave my generation permission to be ourselves, be bold and to brag, to be good and do right.

Muhammad Ali taught us to question, to challenge authority, to shun war. Muhammed Ali was right.

He taught us to risk the things you desire most, to give up titles and money and fame

He let them go for the things that matter most to him, to serve the truth, seeking justice, to work on behalf of the poor and the outcast as he drew breath.

Ali handcuffed lightning and put the thunder in jail

His star rose like the sun.
Four years ago it set.

ali-1
Given First (as an essay) – 2016.06.04

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.