Category Archives: Books, Writing, Reading

All about literature — both highbrow and for the rest of us, and how we write it and read it

I’m The Captain of my Soul

I started writing this post this morning, Pearl Harbor day, December 7, on my 62nd birthday, at 7:00 AM, at pain level 7. This is a victory for me, since before, at this level, I used to whimper and cower under a bush like a dog run over. But now I’m writing. I’m still whimpering a bit, but I’m making sure nobody hears me. But I’m writing. Writing admittedly grim stuff, with lots of typos and weird phrases, but writing. In some places I write those things that you edit out later, thinking: I was going to post THAT to my blog? In the background — OK, foreground — Michael W. Smith is singing “You are holy; holy are you, Lord God Almighty …” Anna doesn’t mind the music; in fact, I suspect that if I suddenly turned off the music she’d sit up and ask: “What was that?” She’s been doing this for forty years.


In my throes, the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, came to my attention. Henley’s leg was amputated due to tuberculosis, and he wrote the poem after he was informed that the other leg would have to go too. He refused to accept this latest blow, and eventually his remaining leg was saved by a competent doctor. But lots of pain, lots of anguish.

While you ponder the poem, I’ll make my way to the kitchen and get some coffee for Anna and myself. She’s the only person I know whom you can wake up in the middle of the night and give a cup of coffee. She’s the only person I really know, period, because the day before yesterday was our fortieth anniversary.

OK, here’s the poem. Read it and think about it. There will be a short quiz.

Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeoning of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate:I am the captain of my soul.

I’m back with coffee. Gave Anna her mug. Got a kiss for my trouble. Hey, Agamemnon started a war for less. [sip] I swear this stuff can not only cure cancer but possibly raise the dead. Cannot do without it. The coffee ain’t bad either. My name is Gerhard and I’ll be here all week.

Before we discuss, let’s just unpack some of the stuff between the lines.

In the first stanza,

But of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul

there are some clues to the eternal nature of the horror facing us: the “pit” in the second line refers to hell, “night” and “black” set a pretty dark tone as well. “Whatever gods may be” says the poet is not sure of the aid or even of the existence of a helping God. But in the mist of this picture of hell stands his soul: “unconquerable.” This “unconquerable” anchors the poem to its title; it’s simply the English word for the Latin title: Invictus.

The second stanza details the powers arrayed against him:

In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeoning of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.

The first stanza already placed him in a hellish situation; now he is in the “fell clutch” of this random earth. “Fell” is the favorite word of Tolkien, for instance, to describe the hellish forces of orcs, demons, and evil gods (or “wizards” in Middle Earth). He is “bludgeoned” by this randomness (“chance”), and his head is bloody. But again, just as in the first stanza, his soul defies all these forces of darkness: he has not winced or cried out, and his head is still “unbowed.” Still invictus!

More of the same in third stanza:

Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds, and shall find me, unafraid.

This hellish earth is a place of “wrath and tears,” which is self-explanatory. There is also the horror of “the shade.” In antiquity, the souls of the departed were not the immortal rays of spiritual light they are now; the departed were thought of as weak and powerless versions of our vital selves — mere shadows of our human bodies. Shades. The final scene in the Russel Crowe movie “Gladiator,” which paints his return home after his death, although triumphant, is set in shades of gray and in slow motion. Thus “shade” refers to death here. The years “menace” us, because inexorably with the years come old age and, of course, death. “And yet,” he says, death will find him how? “Unafraid!” See the pattern? In each stanza, first the forces of evil, then his unconquered soul, still standing.

It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate:I am the captain of my soul.

As we’ve come to expect, the last stanza begins with a detailing of the forces arrayed against us. Note how easy it has become by now to substitute “ourselves” for “the poet.” By now, he is speaking for all of humanity. The “strait” gate refers to the fact, in my opinion, that the Christian way of salvation is not necessarily open to him. Matthew 7:13, (*NIV*) reads: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. “Strait” has the meaning of “narrow” in the poem, as in sea straits.

In a similar Biblical vein, the scroll into which his name should have been written is, instead, full of indictments of his past sins. The dice are loaded against him. But by now we know that he will defy all this. And he does. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Now pay attention, class. He is not saying that he is stronger than God or “whatever god (there) may be,” or resistant to the bludgeoning of fate, or even qualified to get into eternal glory through the narrow gate. No, he is the master and captain of his soul because he, and only he, and not even God, controls how he reacts to his circumstances.

Yes, I said “not even God.” How can I say this? Because God gave each human being free will. He wanted us to have the power to love him; to choose to serve him out of our own accord. There was no claw-back clause. We were stuck with our new, exciting world, the one in which we were master and captain.

I think Tom Petty is saying the same thing when he sings, in I won’t back down:

No, I won’t back downYou can stand me up at the gates of hellBut I won’t back downNo, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned aroundAnd I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me downGonna stand my ground and I won’t back down.

Being invictus means that you, my dear reader, are in full control of how you react to your circumstances, no matter how grim they may be. If you get gangrene in your leg, you cannot control the fact that your leg will have to be amputated. But when your loved one walks in you must decide whether you say: “I love you, thanks for coming” or “Leave me alone, I’m in pain. Go away.” The leg? Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (or God, if you’re so inclined) are responsible for that one. But how you react to its loss and the pain and heartache? Look to the captain of your soul.

How is a devoted Christian to read this poem? Well, the bludgeonings of chance have done a number on me, too, so on some days I can’t even manage to get out of bed without my faith (imperfect as it is) in God. Note very well that I’m not saying that I’m a man of God who has an angel sitting on my shoulder 24×7. I am saying that I’m a poor, broken human being and that I sometimes fall asleep while I’m praying and sometimes don’t say a word to God for a week. And we all worry about having a few entries in that scroll when our final trumpet sounds.

As a Christian I’m not living in a hotel for saints; I’m languishing in a hospital for sinners. And as a Christian I’m not afraid to say: “I’m the captain of my soul.” But I wouldn’t want to steer that sucker without God in wheel house.

If I Had A Hammer – The Sayings of Thomas à Kempis

Original post by Gerhard Venter, May 7, 2013

In this post I tell how I came to start reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, whose Dutch surname was Haemerken (Afrikaans “hamertjie”) — little hammer. And his book is a little hammer, if there ever was one. I’m putting my reading life back together bit by bit. I don’t have a reading plan. I’m suspicious of plans. I just think broadly of the kind of things I want to read.

Fifteenth century mystics are not what I want to read right now. In fact, right now I’m reading The German Way of War by Citino as part of my self-imposed course of study in military history (but that’ a blog post in itself). In the process of trying to establish some semblance of order, I think of a very old technique to get your stuff together: positive affirmations.

I was in my early twenties back in Pretoria when I started dabbling in positive thinking. I got Paul J. Meyers Success Motivation Institute system and pasted positive affirmations (surely a tautology) up on my mirror; inane sayings such as “I get up every morning excited about the person I might help that day.” Don’t you just want to slap the man? Anyway. So I begin to look for some sensible affirmations — ones I can believe in.

In the process a website named http://biblia.com snags the seam of my toga and I have to pause. Mmm. They have wonderful books in there: Several Bibles, some in Hebrew and Greek (with the real orthographies); they have Luther, Calvin — everybody who is anybody. My eye catches The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Yeah, I’ve known about The Imitation for many years. These guys used to beat themselves over the back with little cats-o-nine tails they carried with them in silver boxes. Wore hair shirts and stuff. Really into their suffering.

Suffering . . . aha! One of my favorite topics. So I begin to read The Imitation of Christ. After the first page I’m wide-eyed like Ali Baba after he lights the first candle to see what treasure there might be in the cave. Dear Lord, thank You for a resource like this! For insight, for wisdom, for wit, for rules for living like this! This pre-modern man writes rules of thumb such as:

“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.”

Note that this is not quite a corporate “How to get your own way, no matter what” philosophy. But that’ okay by me at this time in my life. So, instead of compiling a reading list, I spend the next several work hours copying out aphorisms and and epigrammata (I’m not sure exactly what they are, either, except short witty sayings) into flashcards at Quizlet so I can hang onto them as tightly as possible.

I called à Kempis a “pre-modern man.” That certainly shows. To mine 21st century affirmations from him, you must do a certain amount of violence to his work by cherry-picking passages, because he was a religious and a mystic.

We squirm a little bit at concepts such as having Christ as your Divine Lover and doing violence to your own body. 99.99999999999% of us aren’t quite at that point. And if you want to be fair to the author, you need to remember that that’ the core of his work — indeed, of his soul. But his deep wisdom surely lifted my spirits and continues to do so.

The Monk’ To Do List

Originally posted on June 14, 2013

I started reading Thomas à Kempis to find some affirmations for my daily life, which, like everyone else’s, I suppose, can be challenging. Being a monk doesn’t exempt a person from work. I’ve met monks who told me one could become exhausted, because in some orders they don’t get a lot of sleep. Anyway, The Imitation of Christ is a treasure trove! Listen to these hints for the monk’ (and mine!) daily to-do list. First, general priorities:

“On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived” (Book 1, Ch.3)

Next, how do I prioritize my daily activities? Carefully, and in accordance with what pleases God:

“A good and devout man arranges in his mind the things he has to do, not according to the whims of evil inclination but according to the dictates of right reason” (Ch. 4)

What should my attitude be towards work? Do everything well and with love:

“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.” Book 1, Ch. 15.

Is it OK for a monk (or for me) to just read a lot or should our work be a bit more practical than that?

“On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived” (Book 1, Ch. 3)

Some days at the office are doozies. Work can be true suffering at times. How do we handle that?

“You have come to serve, not to rule. You must understand, too, that you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time. Here men are tried as gold in a furnace” (Book 1, Ch.17)

Finally, check your to-do list as a daily routine:

“Each day we ought to renew our resolutions and arouse ourselves to fervor as though it were the first day of our religious life. We ought to say: “Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolution and in Your holy service. Grant me now, this very day, to begin perfectly, for thus far I have done nothing'” (Book 1, Ch.19)
“. . . In the morning make a resolution and in the evening examine yourself on what you have said this day, what you have done and thought . . .” (Book 1, Ch. 3)

If you’re diligent, and you achieve something, albeit small, every day, you will feel fulfilled:

“If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide” (Book 1, Ch. 25)

I don’t think I’ve ever mined this quantity of gems from a single book, apart from the Bible. Mother lode! The Imitation of Christ is available free all over the Web. Check it out.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

gods-grandchildren-morgan-tcboo-e1477275117220This is a very important day! Today, I’m going to plunge into NaNoWriMo. This means starting my Sci Fi novel, God’s Grandchildren. I have a sort of an outline ready, but it’s not the detailed outline that James Patterson does. That’s probably the reason why Patterson writes eight books per month and I don’t. But we’ll see. If you know me, please hold thumbs for me (or spit in your cat’s eye — whatever your culture demands).
If you want to know more about NaNoWriMo, click here:
And so — off to work!

 

Welcome to my world

Welcome to my web home. Chances are you are here because you’re a Facebook or bricks-and-mortar friend of mine, or perhaps you’re here because you’re a soldier in the war against chronic pain. Maybe you have a loved one who is on active duty in this conflict. You could even be a gold star parent or sibling or friend — someone who lost a loved one to this scourge.

grandchildren

And then, on a lighter note, you could be checking out one of my Chri-fi novels (still in the works, but hopefully coming soon). I’m so excited about God’s Grandchildren I can hardly contain myself. And here’s what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to plunge into NaNoWriMo and write my heart out during the month of November. And I’m going to finish the draft of this novel by the end of November.

What’s NaNoWriMo, I hear you ask. It’s the National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of published and aspiring writers from the U.S. and all over the world get together, virtually and inBadge of NaNoWriMo homes and in coffee shops, and write a novel. In this kind of writing, there’s no editing, no research, no pondering of possible branches in the story line. There’s just writing. If that doesn’t uncork your genie(-us), then nothing will. Check out NaNoWriMo by clicking on the <= link.

 

Bibliophiles, Unite!

I’ve discovered WorldCat (http://worldcat.org). Same as Librarything (http://librarything.com) except you don’t seem to have to pay to store more than 200 books. Different business model – links to Amazon.com – who knows?  Telegram style blogging – I think it defeats the purpose, but anyway …  Let’s just say this is where blog meets twitter. Blitter. I’m blittering.

I’ve also discovered The New Interpreter’s Bible series of commentaries. (Check it out at Amazon.com) Wow! Great! I can’t get enough of them. I sit for many minutes and just smell them.  I’m in a moral crisis as to whether I shall expose their beautiful naked backs or leave their dusties on to protect them. If you understand, you understand. If not, okay, don’t pity me, for I’m happy this way.

Okay, since I’m supposed to be writing a paper right now, I’m first going to try and find out if there’s a limit on the number of books I can store on WorldCat.org.  Will let you know.

Quote of the day:
In Mexico we have a word for sushi: Bait. – Jose Simon

While writing this, I was listening to “Bizet: Symphony #1 In C, Op. 88 – 1. Allegro Vivo” by Alfred Scholz; London Philharmonic Orchestra

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While writing this, I was listening to “Hole Heart” by Arno Carstens

I Love LibraryThing

I’ve discovered one of the seven wonders of the web, as one member calls it. No it’s not In-Your-Face Book. It’s The Library Thing (http://LibraryThing.com)  You enter your books in minutes (because the details are automatically looked up from Amazon.com and Library of Congress) and you have a world class – no, and unprecedented class library cataloguing system.

Mmmmm … now all I have to do is find the API to export MyLibraryThing into Zotero. As soon as the term paper pressure is off and I’ve finished editing the Four Lions, I’ll rescue my other books from my proprietary online database.

In the meantime, back to “Movement in the Acts”…

While writing this, I was listening to “Rachmaninoff: Vespers 08: Khvalite Imya Gospodne – Praise the N” by Robert Shaw

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Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard

Book review: Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard.

This little book ranks as probably the best I’ve ever read. In any case, it’s a close tie with Buechner’s Godric. Annie Dillard is a mystic who earnestly searches for answers and gets a mystery instead.

In the first chapter of the book, Newborn and Salted, she establishes critical concepts of gods of days, salt and fire. The gods of days not only represent nature, but also randomness in the world – a randomness that ranges from the whimsical (a god dragged in by the cat) to blind destruction (a punk with a match in a barn). These gods will later be overshadowed by thoughts about the true God when the discourse turns to questions of immanence/emanence, theodicy and finally mystery.

Salt will turn out to be connected to Holy the Firm, and also represent the way in which “we” – especially artists and particularly the author – dissolve ourselves into this world to connect to the Absolute.

And fire – ah, that cruel and unforgettable description of the burning of the moth. The fire theme is strong: some of the gods play with matches, Rimbaud burned his brain out in his poems, the winged godlet’s hair was on fire, even the cat’s tail had to be put out. And later, of course, Julie Norwich gets burned in a plane crash, and will have to spend the rest of her life disfigured. The fate of this little girl, and the mystical union between the author, God and Julie, are main themes in the book.

Altogether, as I have indicated, the five stars in the standard rating system are insufficient for this book. As the cliché goes: You have to read it.

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The Monk’s To Do List

I started reading Thomas à Kempis to find some affirmations for my daily life, which, like everyone else’s, I suppose, can be challenging. Being a monk doesn’t exempt a person from work. I’ve met monks who told me one could become exhausted, because in some orders they don’t get a lot of sleep.
Anyway, The Imitation of Christ is a treasure trove! Listen to these hints for the monk’s (and mine!) daily to-do list. First, general priorities:

“On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived” (Book 1, Ch.3)

Next, how do I prioritize my daily activities? Carefully, and in accordance with what pleases God:

“A good and devout man arranges in his mind the things he has to do, not according to the whims of evil inclination but according to the dictates of right reason” (Ch. 4)

What should my attitude be towards work? Do everything well and with love:

“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.” Book 1, Ch. 15.

Is it OK for a monk (or for me) to just read a lot or should our work be a bit more practical than that?

“On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived” (Book 1, Ch. 3)

Some days at the office are doozies. Work kan be true suffering at times. How do we handle that?

“You have come to serve, not to rule. You must understand, too, that you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time. Here men are tried as gold in a furnace” (Book 1, Ch.17)

Finally, check your to-do list as a daily routine:

“Each day we ought to renew our resolutions and arouse ourselves to fervor as though it were the first day of our religious life. We ought to say: ‘Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolution and in Your holy service. Grant me now, this very day, to begin perfectly, for thus far I have done nothing’” (Book 1, Ch.19)
“. . . In the morning make a resolution and in the evening examine yourself on what you have said this day, what you have done and thought . . .” (Book 1, Ch. 3)

If you’re diligent, and you achieve something, albeit small, every day, you will feel fulfilled:

“If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide” (Book 1, Ch. 25)

I don’t think I’ve ever mined this quantity of gems from a single book, apart from the Bible. Mother lode! The Imitation of Christ is available free all over the Web. Check it out.

If I Had A Hammer – The Sayings of Thomas à Kempis, Monk

In this post I tell how I came to start reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, whose Dutch surname was Haemerken (Afrikaans “hamertjie”) – little hammer. And his book is a little hammer, if there ever was one.

I’m putting my reading life back together bit by bit. I don’t have a reading plan. I’m suspicious of plans. I just think broadly of the kind of things I want to read. Fifteenth century mystics are not what I want to read right now. In fact, right now I’m reading The German Way of War by Citino as part of my self-imposed course of study in military history (but that’s a blog post in itself).

In the process of trying to establish some semblance of order, I think of a very old technique to get your stuff together: positive affirmations. I was in my early twenties back in Pretoria when I started dabbling in positive thinking. I got Paul J. Meyers Success Motivation Institute system and pasted positive affirmations (surely a tautology) up on my mirror; inane sayings such as “I get up every morning excited about the person I might help that day.” Don’t you just want to slap the man? Anyway.

So I begin to look for some sensible affirmations – ones I can believe in. In the process a website named http://biblia.com snags the seam of my toga and I have to pause. Mmm. They have wonderful books in there: Several Bibles, some in Hebrew and Greek (with the real orthographies); they have Luther, Calvin – everybody who is anybody. My eye catches The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Yeah, I’ve known about The Imitation for many years. These guys used to beat themselves over the back with little cats-o-nine tails they carried with them in silver boxes. Wore hair shirts and stuff. Really into their suffering. Suffering . . . aha! One of my favorite topics. So I begin to read The Imitation of Christ.

After the first page I’m wide-eyed like Ali Baba after he lights the first candle to see what treasure there might be in the cave. Dear Lord, thank You for a resource like this! For insight, for wisdom, for wit, for rules for living like this! This pre-modern man writes rules of thumb such as:

[su_pullquote]“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.” [/su_pullquote]

Note that this is not quite a corporate “How to get your own way, no matter what” philosophy. But that’s okay by me at this time in my life. So, instead of compiling a reading list, I spend the next several work hours copying out aphorisms and and epigrammata (I’m not sure exactly what they are, either, except short witty sayings) into flashcards at Quizlet so I can hang onto them as tightly as possible.

I called à Kempis a “pre-modern man.”  That certainly shows. To mine 21st century affirmations from him, you must do a certain amount of violence to his work by cherry-picking passages, because he was a religious and a mystic. We squirm a little bit at concepts such as having Christ as your Divine Lover and doing violence to your own body. 99.99999999999% of us aren’t quite at that point. And if you want to be fair to the author, you need to remember that that’s the core of his work – indeed, of his soul. But his deep wisdom surely lifted my spirits and continues to do so.