Monthly Archives: March 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Via Dolorosa—Thoughts on Poverty & Sacrifice

The via dolorosa. The way of suffering. Though the adjective meaning “of suffering” is rare and occurs only rather late in antiquity, I have thought about this phrase many times. One such occasion occurred, I can recall, when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia, walking well beyond University City near West Catholic Preparatory School toward the Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church on 51st Street.

episcopal church
Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church, Philadelphia (51st and Spruce)

There are row homes all around, and some of the surrounding neighborhoods were then, and still likely are, starkly poor. I was young, and though I had no money myself, my heart went out to those living in what I then perceived to be poverty, because I knew that for me, in the end, there was a pretty good chance, with all the education I was privileged to be getting at the time, life would likely work out somehow; but for many of those living there, it might never change, might never turn out well.


They might in fact be held in a less-than-living wage category for their entire lives, with no hope for a future. Theirs, I then thought, was the true via dolorosa, the true path of suffering. Theirs would most likely be a life of subsistence living.

row house
West Philly row houses

On the one hand, save one letter, I wasn’t too far off about that being the via dolorosa. Truly it is hard for someone stuck in an impoverished situation to break the cycle of poverty, whether they live here in America or anywhere else in the world. Yet the letter I was missing was a ‘T’, as I was confusing the life of suffering (vita dolorosa) with the way of suffering (via dolorosa). Those row houses, row upon row upon row, had all the earmarks of underprivileged living, poverty mingled with poverty, sadness dripping more sadness. That would be the life, not the path or way of suffering. And that was all merely from the outside. For in any of those row houses, I’ll wager, there could have been, and very likely was, a real home, a place of warmth and care, love and acceptance. And that is real wealth, real prosperity.

On the other hand, no sound-thinking person could say that poverty is a desirable situation to live through year in and year out. And, on that same other hand, one has to realize that poverty is often on a sliding scale. What I was calling poverty in Philadelphia, genuine as it was and still is in that city, is still not the same as poverty everywhere.viewfromKM2

I was not too long ago—just two years this month—in a country, Ethiopia, where poverty is much more severe. There we visited a family who lived in a small hut with a small not very private, at best, semi-isolated area alongside of it that served as a bathroom. There was no running water in the hut or the makeshift bathroom and it was a long walk to the nearest well. The floors were beat-down dirt with a rug over a portion of the dirt. The possessions inside the hut were meager. A few pictures. Stick furniture. Something that served as a bed. A very modest life, and no hope, no way out—ever. Not what we in the affluent West call poverty as it most often manifests itself in our culture; something worse.

neighborhood in Addis

Yet by the time I got to Ethiopia, all those years after wandering and pondering in West Philly, I knew that what I saw in Africa was not the via dolorosa (way of suffering), which had in fact led me there, but rather the vita dolorosa (life of suffering). The latter can occur anywhere, but obviously can be quite acute in situations that offer no opportunity for improvement, no hope for change for the better. The former is a frame of mind. It is a choice to embrace pain, not to run from it. It is, as anyone who knows anything about Christendom will be aware, peculiarly poignant, even palpable, this time of year. It is not the right to bear arms (too often a pet issue for American conservatives), but the right to roll up one’s shirtsleeves and work with those less fortunate. If it is a burden, it is a light one, because it is a choice. It is the choice willingly to give away much of one’s material wealth to help the poor, hopefully empowering them that they may discover a way out, that they may get the opportunity to improve their situation; it is a choice to spend time with the disadvantaged; it is a choice to embrace a friend in need and to help to carry his burden. Even if some Christians might self-effacingly deny that it is a choice—after all, what happened to Simon of Cyrene does not seem to have been much of a choice—it nevertheless can feel like one. In Simon’s case, he bore a small burden for the One who would bear a much heavier burden on that very cross. We can do so, as well.

Simon of Cyrene by Titian

So I close with these thoughts a day earlier than usual, for I offer this blog not on a Saturday but on a Friday, a very good, if a very dolorous Friday. These reflections about poverty are couched in a discussion of the distinction between the life of suffering and the way of suffering. Though there can sometimes be joy in spite of it, the former is unfortunate in any culture; the latter, by contrast, is desirable, the only truly desirable outcome for a life well lived, at least for those who seek to follow the path that Simon of Cyrene trod. That path led Him, whose cross Simon bore, to the quintessentially heroic, propitiatory sacrifice. For those of us on that path, we shall find that it leads not to but through personal sacrifice surprisingly to joy, and it does so in a relatively short time. Though in this life it may seem to us to take an eternity, it will turn out, in fact, merely to be a span of three days.

empty-tombAs the Devoted Life website says,
“Easter changes everything.”

Happy Easter!



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Persius and the Apollo Room

Persius quote on storyIn roughly 60 AD, when a Roman Emperor known as Nero was reigning, the poet Persius wrote the telling and gloomy admonition: “What you live out is what belongs to our world—after death you will become ashes, a spirit soul, and a story.” For the sake of this blog, I am not concerned with the way one might parse that statement spiritually—i.e., I leave aside the notion of a “spirit soul” (manes in the original). Rather, I want to focus on the last word of Persius’ dictum: “story” (fabula).

That word fabula is obviously related to the word “fable,” and in addition to “story,” one might render it even as “tale.” The gloomy Persius reminds his reader that he or she will be talked about after death; you will become an object of discussion; your life will be remembered. A scene in A Christmas Carol comes to mind: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come brings Ebenezer Scrooge to overhear the conversation of a charwoman with the undertaker. charwomanThey chat about the dismantling of Scrooge’s room even as his body lay there. Their tone is markedly unsympathetic, for Scrooge had left such a legacy. He had lived his life only for himself, for his coffers. The decisions he had made and his sudden departure from this life had left him only to be a fabula, not one to be perpetuated in glowing terms, but in the starkly cold terms that befit his starkly cold life.

And it is possible to stop there, and I’m sorry to say that someone who never thinks about Persius’ dictum might just do so incidentally. Yet the word fabula has another obvious cognate, no less obvious than “fable.” The word I have in mind, of course, is “fabulous.” And fabulous is just what I want to talk about in this blog, for just when I might have thought that I would be all travelled out, I find myself in a fabulous place, Williamsburg, Virginia. Why I am here I leave aside. Rather, I simply look to the story of this place to address Persius’ dictum.

william&marylogoFounded at the end of the first third of the seventeenth century, Williamsburg became Virginia’s capital in 1699, serving as such for the next eighty years. Thus, it played a pivotal role in the planning of the revolution that took place in the 1770s. Its school of higher learning, the College of William and Mary, was founded in 1693 and is America’s second oldest such institution. It is a marvelous school to this day and is the birthplace of the highphibetakappakeyest honorary society, the societas philosophiae, known as Phi Beta Kappa.

But it is not about the exciting details of Williamsburg’s history or Phi Beta Kappa’s origin developed by five students over several glasses of beer in a chamber known as the “Apollo Room” in a bar called Raleigh Tavern that I want to discuss here, but rather the story behind them. For those well-educated founders of that then quite secret (but obviously a badly kept one since chapters started popping up at numerous universities outside of William and Mary) society must have recognized the truth of Persius’ dictum.

Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg, VA

In so doing, they most certainly recognized something else: that how we define that fabula, what we make of our own story, and how we transmit it, won’t necessarily change its more difficult characteristics and features—that is, if you’ve had a personally difficult time in life, simply looking at it positively won’t change what has happened to you—but how you define your story, how you interpret the data so that you can move on will very much define the future that abides.

So, those insightful youths, led by John Heath, the society’s first president, founded Phi Beta Kappa over beer many years ago in December of 1776, while our country was still itself struggling to be established. Yet even in the midst of that struggle, they took the time to lay out what they believed to be the tenets of liberal learning. They did so because they understood that there is a legacy involved, when it comes to the word fabula, one that is inherent in the very word itself.JohnHeath

That legacy can either be that we become a “mere story” and maybe a bad one at that, or that it be a “fabulous” one, like that of Williamsburg, a place preserving to this day more than merely old-world charm. It preserves history, it is associated closely with history, the history of our nation, the history of liberal education, and beyond that, the history of the world, for those young men in a tavern established more than merely accidentally, and certainly not without consequence, the tenets of liberal learning that continues to influence to this day higher education (and thus education in general) throughout the world. Their legacy, Williamsburg’s legacy, is truly fabulous.

In closing, perhaps by now the truth of Persius’ old dictum will appear to be obvious enough: the choices we make and the boldness with which we act will define our legacy. We can be merely a story that nobody will tell or we can choose the fabulous, to make fabulous choices, and in so doing, to do fabulous things. One visit to the Apollo Room reminded me of all that, and I thus raise a glass in the Raleigh after many a year to the fabulous. Won’t you join me?


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Donkeys, Snakes and Other Talking Animals 

verona streetTwo weeks ago I wrote a blog about a parrot with a Brooklyn accent.  And just when I thought that I was done with talking animals, I went to Verona which made me think of a conversation I once had with my fifth oldest child. She was not born in America; in fact, she was born in Ethiopia, and she came to America with little English. When I was walking her home from school one afternoon, after her ESL class, she mentioned to me that she was hungry, so I told her that I would fix her a little snack when we got home.

“I don’t want one,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, “I thought you were hungry.”

“I am,” she said.

“Well then,” I responded, “I will fix you a snack.”

“No, no, no,” she said, “I don’t want one.”

“How hungry are you?”

“Just a little.”

“Then a snack would be perfect.  Just a little one. There’s no need to fix you a big one.”

“No, no, no. I don’t want one.”

Only later did I realize that her hunger pangs followed by moments of apparently complete lack of hunger were engendered by her misunderstanding of the word snack. She thought, of course, that I was saying snake.  Now I know that some of my Texan friends eat snake.  But I am not a herpavor.  I come from Pennsylvania where, to my knowledge, no one eats snakes.  But my daughter thought I was referring to making her eat a small snake (as opposed to a large one) after school.

Now I had almost forgotten about this event until we arrived in Verona two days ago and, on the advice of an acquaintance, went to one of the finer dining establishments in this beautiful town, a five minute walk from the House of Juliette, which features, of course, the balcony said to have inspired the bard.  juliets balconyDrifting on from the mildly (if tragically) romantic courtyard of Juliette, we came to the aforementioned restaurant, one that astounded me, only in part because the tortellini that I ordered was deliciously garnished with fine northern Italian Balsamic—real Balsamic comes from either Reggio Emilia or Modena (whose accent rests on the first syllable).  balsamicIndeed, the pasta that I had chosen was delightful, far more delightful than the menu which featured, to my great consternation, both pasta with a meat sauce made of horse flesh and another with a donkey ragù.  Good heavens, I thought, it has come full circle.  Now I have become my daughter—but this time they really are eating the forbidden animal.  And the couple at the next table fulfilled my worst fears, he ordering the horse and she, with a chuckle that sounded to me a veritable bray, the donkey.

Now this seemed to me especially wrong on two counts.  First, having been a mule skinner for much of my childhood years, I can never brook the notion of eating the father (a jackass) of one of my beloved coworkers—hybrid, yes, but certainly almost human. Second, the woman who ordered the spaghetti a la donkey ragù herself cavorted in an asinine manner.  I’m not sure what nationality she was, but suffice it to say that the manner in which she displayed her discerning palate was a bit too much for my taste.  Thus it seemed to me that a bit of cannibalism might just have been going on at table 12.

Alexander mosaic, detail

Coincidentally or not, there are only two animals in the Bible—that is the donkey and the snake—ever reported to have spoken Hebrew (presumably Hebrew).  The ass, was of course, that of Balaam and the snake, well, that was Eve’s little friend in the Garden.  But the horse, while never having been said to speak in the Bible, has human characteristics, too, as anyone who has owned one can tell you.  Some horses have been very famous.  Need I mention Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, who spoke, or rather at least understood, perfect English and would come when called and do exactly as he was told; or Bucephalus, who despite his ox-headed name was said to have been the best of horses in antiquity, his master’s favorite and often depicted in artistic renditions along with Alexander.  The equus of Caesar was said to have been equally beloved of his master.  Both were said to have been portrayed with hooves resembling human feet.[1]  And should I even mention Mr. Ed?  Of course it’s a horse, of course, of course, but not ever meant to be a dinner course.

So, when the waiter offered me the spaghetti a la donkey ragù, I, as my daughter had once said to me, found myself stating repetitively, “No, no, no…!”  I was amazed at how visceral my response was, but I simply could not and would not dare even think of eating a donkey or a horse on basically the same principal that my dear daughter had innately adopted vis-à-vis even a small snake. Even though the waiter insisted it was tasty; even though the woman at table twelve was by then ravenously devouring it; even though it is part of Veronese culture, new to me on this trip (new since Switzerland, where I was two days ago, studying more manuscripts in lovely Bern); even though I normally try to embrace as fully as possible a new culture when I am travelling. In spite of all this, I simply could not eat an animal like Bucephalus or Balaam’s ass, or even Eve’s slithering sidekick.

Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino
Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino (sauce of donkey)

Wait, what about dogs and cats?  They don’t speak in the Bible, but they certainly have human characteristics and are a part of many a family in ways that snakes and donkeys normally are not. Well, that can be gotten around easily enough.  First, the dog is the one animal in the Bible whose name is everywhere, just written backwards, of course. So, the Eucharist notwithstanding, I think we can safely say that we should not eat dogs on roughly the same biblical principal as not eating donkeys.  It’s a bit harder to come up with a biblical refuge for cats.  The best I can find is about as convincing as Mr. Trump’s by now quasi infamous (but somehow not damaging to him) “Two Corinthians” reference.  Still for the sake of the species, I will try. The word “according to,” used for titles of each of the gospels in Greek, is “kata,” which is easily shortened to “kat/cat.”  So, cats, it seems, are if only indirectly, like dogs, in the Bible and thus sort of protected from being dinner—at least according to me.  Besides, our own dog, Knight, is a Great Dane, and thus qualifies both under the backwards goD heading and the horse category, as well.

But I will eat balsamic, and I will eat palatable pastas in peculiar places.  So I leave you with but a trifle this week–you should try a trifle as well, or I should say a truffle, which in Italy are fresh and quite lovely in late November. Indeed, though I normally recommend trying the odd foods and accepting the strange things that life throws at you, I don’t recommend eating animals that can talk or whose names can be somehow manipulated as to being semi-divine, even if they can’t quite talk.  And I do recommend warm Verona and snowy Bern, both lovely. Bon apetit, mon ami.

[1] Miriam Griffin, ed. A Companion to Julius Caesar (Cambridge, 2015).



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts about Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbuettel1Traveling abroad this week, I saw somewhere—I think it was Heathrow—a sign that vaunted, perhaps as a bit of advertising, something along the lines of your past having nothing to do with your present.  It might have been the very “maxim” pictured below, or something very similar to it.  I thought about it in passing at the time—how untrue, I mused to myself—not thinking that I would be writing about that untrue saying in just a few days’ time.when your past calls

And yet here I am, writing about precisely that.  And I am doing so for two reasons.  One is to call attention to the fact that our life choices—now, caveat lector, it is most certainly true that we and all people have choices—constantly inform who we are becoming. Let me go back, for a moment to the caveat that I have mentioned here between m-dashes. Too often I hear in dinner-party conversation among the intellectual in-crowd how great it is that we have so many choices today, in this modern world, for in the ancient world so few people had any choices at all.  Such a sentiment I would here significantly qualify: most of the so-called modern world to which that person is referring so cavalierly, has about as much choice as the ancients had, for most of this modern world lives in what first-world folks would qualify as poverty.[1] What that cocktail-party person means to say is, “In my very limited view of the world, there seem to be so many choices nowadays!”  But, if they could actually think for a moment to see that that is what they do mean, they might not say so anyway, as such accuracy doesn’t fly well at such highbrow get-togethers. Thus, they speak more generally, like a little child or some of the leading politicians of our times, sounding about as well-informed as each.

But I leave that aside to return to the fact that the sign that I saw, whatever precisely it said, similar to the maxim pictured above, could not possibly be more inaccurate.   It is inaccurate just as much for those of us who live in the prosperous regions of the earth as for those of us who do not, whether our choices are the comfortable type (“Let me see, which of these expensive colleges shall I choose to attend?”) or of the less affluent variety (“Shall I steal that piece of fruit from the fruit stand?”). And it is so precisely because we have, in either case, choices to make, choices in our soon-be-to past that will inform our soon-to-become present.

But why, in a blog about Wolfenbüttel, Germany, do I start with a disquisition about how it untrue it is that our past does not inform our present?  Precisely because Wolfenbüttel embodies very well the veracity of my proclamation.germany3
You may not know that Wolfenbüttel, founded in perhaps the tenth century and located just eight miles east of Brunswick on the map above, is but one of over eight score towns in Germany with a the nominal suffix  –büttel, indicating a hamlet or settlement of some kind.  Yet Wolfenbüttel stands out among the other “büttels” for its tranquility and striking beauty.  Undamaged during the bombing raids of the Second World War—raids that devastatingly wreaked destruction upon nearby and nevertheless still very quaint Braunschweig—Wolfenbüttel is a city that by its very look and feel preserves a rich cultural heritage.

One way that it does so is obvious to even the casual visitor, who admires its buildings that feature prominently delightful and typically German half-timber design.

Wolfenbuettel streetYet another way, though is less obvious.  It is the fact that one of its buildings, the Herzog August Bibliotek, houses one of the finest manuscript collections in all of Europe. Visitors come from around the world to see some of these books when they are on display. Yesterday I had the privilege of studying one of these, a very old manuscript (ninth-century) of Virgil.  This book was written about when Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor, before Wolfenbüttel itself was even one of the “-büttels.”  It was a different world then, though a world nonetheless filled with non-first-world choices.  It was a world when books were extremely precious objects, a world in which learning was starting to bloom again, thanks to the intellectual vision and appreciation for learning that the aforementioned emperor embodied.  He himself would seem to have come to appreciate learning a bit later than most young men, and even studied Latin when he was emperor, relying not merely on knowledge acquired as a youngster.

However that may be, let me return to how Wolfenbüttel is the answer, if not the antidote, to the false dictum with which this blog opened.  Merely entering the Herzog August Bibliotek, one senses that one is stepping into the past. Then, hunching over an ancient manuscript one realizes this even more robustly. The scribe who painstakingly made this apograph (i.e. a direct copy) of the Palatinus manuscript (some five hundred years older than this one) was himself connecting with a past more distant than the Palatinus manuscript from which he was working. He was, in fact connecting with the author of the body of work that contained the poem at which I was looking, Virgil’s eighth Aeneid.  That portion of the larger work (the twelve book version of the Aeneid) was written probably between 25 and 20 BC, a quarter of a century or so before Christ was born.

In the manuscript I was studying there are occasional mistakes, misspellings.  The scribe, perhaps because he was tired or had had too much to drink, occasionally switches the letter -i- for the letter -y-, writing, for example, “Thibrym” for “Thybrim” (the name of Rome’s most prominent river).  It is not a moral error, by any stretch; yet it is, in fact, an error, one recorded for posterity to see, or at least for me to notice when I am reading the manuscript.  That mistake is, thankfully, one that has little impact on the Virgilian tradition; but it is, nonetheless, a part of the history of that tradition.

Gottfried Leibniz

So, when one sees a sign or advertisement or whatever it was that I saw in Heathrow—if it was Heathrow, or was it Hamburg?—vaunting that one’s past ought have nothing to do with one’s present, one must stop and think about Wolfenbüttel’s Herzog August Bibliotek.  One must think of Gottfried Lessing (in the 18th century) or, before him, Gottfried Leibniz (in the 17th century), each of whom served as its head librarian.  One must think of them meticulously safeguarding that manuscript, one that I held in my hand yesterday, a document that contains a poem from the past, a past that is not lost, but informs our present in more ways than we know. The Aeneid, and other works like it (e.g. Livy’s Histories), influenced not only modern writers and artists but also political theorists, some of whom have shaped modern foreign and domestic policies.  The great institution of democracy itself, even if in the next American national election it should produce a less-than-desirable leader, is obviously owed to ancient models.

So I leave you, dear reader, with this thought. Our past does, in fact, inform our present and our future.  Our choices, particularly the universal moral choices that transcend the normally starkly demarcated boundaries of first, second and third worlds, are like that manuscript. They will be, whether of good moments of neat penmanship or weaker moments rife with error, with us in this life for the long term.  My hope for myself is that from here on out I choose wisely, I act thoughtfully, and I remember my past, lest the mistakes I have made before be repeated; let whatever parallel in my own life there may be for the river “Thibrym” not be repeated that way.  Let me live delicately, thoughtfully, and let me make choices that inform my present in a positive way. And based on my experience of this delightful town known as Wolfenbüttel, I extend that very hope to you.

wolfenbuettel square

P.S. To all my readers, because I am traveling, next week’s blog will not post until Sunday.