Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Novena for Mary's Birthday

Please join in nine days of prayer to prepare a birthday present for Mary...
It's the highest form of technology: the use of the human faculties to communicate with our Maker in Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.

You might wish to spend some time in meditating on the Gospels by means of that very scientific method called the Holy Rosary... or choose your own method.

You might also like to ponder this wonderful poem of Chesterton:
"A Little Litany"

When God turned back eternity and was young,
Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth
(As under the low arch the land is bright)
Peered through you, gate of heaven - and saw the earth.

Or shutting out his shining skies awhile
Built you about him for a house of gold
To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.

Or found his mirror there; the only glass
That would not break with that unbearable light
Till in a corner of the high dark house
God looked on God, as ghosts meet in the night.

Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In the strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.

Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.

Or risen from play at your pale raiment's hem
God, grown adventurous from all time's repose,
Of your tall body climbed the ivory tower
And kissed upon your mouth the mystic rose.
[from GKC's The Queen of Seven Swords]

Monday, August 29, 2011

"The Elements Fight For the Virtuous"

I am happy to announce that I have finished Part XIII, "The Elements Fight For the Virtuous", of From Darkness Into Light. Just to tantalize you, here is a sample.

Bernie turned around and looked up at the choir loft. He almost expected to see the four missing girls there – but instead, he saw four very old women in habits – one at the organ, the others clustered directly behind it.

It was a gorgeous experience to hear. Their plain, youthful voices were so perfectly balanced with each other it might have been one rich voice chanting alone. When it was over, the three went up to the choir loft and greeted the sisters.
"We live next door," the sister at the organ told them after they had introduced themselves. "We're so glad Father still permits us to live there, and to come here to do our Office! So few people come any more, even during Lent... We're glad you stopped in; you must have a great devotion to St. Joseph." She shut off the organ, then slid off the bench and turned – she was a very small woman, even shorter than Marty. "I'll come downstairs and let you out..." She signalled the other sisters to remain, then led the way to the other door.

The three followed her down the old wooden stairs – but at the bottom Bernie said, "But Sister, these doors weren't locked..." He looked, but to his surprise, they were now closed securely.
"Certainly they are; we've had to be so careful, as we've had some strange visitors here recently..." Her face was stern, and Bernie expected her to ask how they had gotten inside the church, but instead she lowered her voice. "We found threats against the Blessed Sacrament..."

The three looked at each other anxiously. "Threats?"
"Yes." From a pocket she took out a sheet of paper around which she had wrapped her rosary, and handed it to Bernie. "This one was taped to the altar today..."

Carefully Bernie untwisted the paper and opened it. Greg Weller gasped when he saw the bright red symbol – the double-loop with its eight trigrams encircling a five-pointed star –
the same symbol that had marked the destroyed furnace at North Belloc Steel. Bernie and Marty stared at each other. «We've come to the right place», Bernie muttered.
"You've seen such a thing before?" the sister asked.
"Yes, though it hadn't been done on a color printer like this. They're terrorists, they caused the destruction of a furnace over at the Steel recently. And now..."
As he looked again at the wrinkled paper, he saw something was printed at the bottom...

(Bernie would never repeat its exact words; he only said it was "something vile against the Eucharist.")

Bernie could see Greg's muscles flexing as he read the terrible words; Marty almost swelled in size as if he was mobilizing himself to action. "What can we do, Sister?" Bernie asked confidently.
She turned a very sad face to them. "We can offer no physical defense, of course, but we are steadfast in our prayer. Obviously our presence next door is a deterrent..."

She got no further. There was a sudden loud thump on the main doors, and they shook as some outside force battered upon them.
Then they heard a man outside – his voice had an oriental accent and a powerful carrying quality: "Bernie – Bernie Brown – we know you're in there – we saw you enter. We'll soon have these doors open, and then..."

(There was more to the statement, but this too Bernie would not repeat.)

The doors shook again – then they heard a similar noise from somewhere at the other end of the church.
Bernie turned to the sister, who had turned pale. "Quickly, Sister! Go back to your convent and lock your door. We'll defend this place...
"But... Bernie, if they enter... the Sacrament..."
"Go! We'll do what we can. Call the police."
"But the priests aren't here, they're on retreat, they won't..."
"The police," he repeated clearly. "Please go!" Gently he pushed her towards the stairs – then, as the doors shook again, and that ugly voice called another vile threat, she ran.

"Well?" Marty asked, his cellphone in his hand. "No signal – they must have some sort of jamming device..."
The door shook a fourth time, creaking ominously.
"I don't see how we can keep them out," Bernie said. "Those doors won't last much longer. The most we can do is delay them – and hope the police get here quickly."
"And pray that the convent still has a land-line!" Greg added grimly.

[don't you just hate it when they cut it off at the exciting part?]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Queen of Scientists, Queen of Engineers

As so often happens with my other work, I manage to annoy or at least worry just about everyone at once: the literati and the techs, the pagans and every sort of Christian, the believers and the unbelievers.

You sigh and ask: "All right, Doctor, what is it you're doing now?"

Well... (hee hee!) for some time now I've added two entries into the famous "Litany of Loretto" - that interesting and exquisite list of titles of Mary, the mother of God. I've always liked it, and for many reasons - one of them is its mystic ordering, its "sections", some of which have repeated parts (Virgin..., Mother.., Queen...) and others which do not. Such diverse things as freight trains or DNA or the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements or the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics - seem to underlie the scheme. Of course we Chestertonians already know that "The greatest of poems is an inventory." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:267] and the idea of making an "inventory" - as limited as it may be - about the glories of Mary is most definitely poetic.

Of course you may already know the famous epigram De Maria nunquam satis = "Of/about Mary [there is/ one could say] never enough." It is, of course, true simply because she is God's most excellent creation, and in speaking of her we speak of Him - but I am not here to study that line, or show how it relates to the clause in the Nicene Creed that states: Per quem omnia facta sunt - that is, "Through Him [Christ] all things were made." It is part of the mystical meditations possible to scientists where in we can begin to examine every branch of science and engineering in new ways, as they relate to the Real Story of our Salvation. Chesterton has a fantastic insight into this truth in his The Everlasting Man as it pertains to literature - I refer to the exceedingly rich paragraph on CW2:380 that starts "To sum up" - the key line of which might be this:
It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story.
There is a satisfaction in literature because of the Real (or True) Story of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. But at the same time, the tech fields are not ignored - no, they are exalted as well. For every part, every subsystem of the entire universe, also finds its satisfaction in that Story - or, if we want to transpose terms, we could say that Experiment. God Himself revealed that He considers it so, when (at the conclusion of His work He examined the entire System (which we call the Universe) and saw it was VERY good. [See Gen 1:31]

But that term is also right, because an experiment is (1) something experienced and (2) something immediately present and (3) a sort of trial - and all those things are most definitely true, whether one talks about the Cave of Bethlehem or the Hill of Calvary...

(Shhh! Come very close to the screen, so I can whisper the secret.)

Or the empty tomb.

And so, while it is right and just to claim Mary as the Queen of patriarchs and prophets, of apostles and martyrs, of confessors and virgins, we may also (at least in private) claim her as queen of writers and musicians and artists, of farmers, fishermen, and hunters, of miners, builders and teachers - and scientists and engineers. All things are to be united in everlasting kingdom of Christ - we must therefore obey our Queen who told us "Do whatever He tells you." [Jn 2:5]

Queen of Scientists, pray for us.
Queen of Engineers, pray for us.
Help us do whatever He tells us.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why 153 fish?

Recently I was asked what the great author on biblical archeology, Giuseppe Ricciotti, had to say about the famous catch of 153 fish mentioned in John 21:11. It would be so easy to digress into all sorts of topics - fish (borh real and symbolic) miracles, numbers - and the mysterious thing called "psephy" - which was an ancient sort of magic/horoscopic/predictive/symbolic thing by which a given word was converted into a number, or vice-versa. (The famous example for this is 666, the "number of the beast" from Rev/Apoc 13:18.) But for today, the feast of the Assumption, I will merely quote Father's words and let it go, since they suffice:
Why this number, 153? Obviously, because when the Apostles counted the catch, as fishermen usally did, they found they had 153. Ancient commentators discovered mysterious mystical meanings in the number, and since their explanations were didactic in purpose there is nothing to be said against them. For example, St. Augustine noticed that 153 is the sum of all the numbers from one to seventeen: 1+2+3+ ... + 17 = 153) and hence it is the sum of the first ten numbers, representing the Decalogue, plus the seven successive numbers, representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit that help men to observe the ten commandments. Others saw in it the conversion of the Gentiles (100) plus that of the Jews (50) plus the belief in the Trinity (3). Such were the mystical meanings the ancients found. Those modern scholars who see nothing but allegory in the fourth Gospel would have another fine opportunity to demonstrate their theiss in this number as they did in the case of the seven husbands of the smaraitan woman and the porticoes of the pool of Bezatha and the brothers of Dives, but they have not done anything about it. Or better, they have perhaps done too much, because so many and such absurd solutions have been proposed that the most recent scholars have concluded, more reasonably, that the number represents a riddle. It is impossible not to discover a riddle when the sensible explanations are rejected.

[Ricciotti, The Life of Christ, 663-4, note on § 636, emphasis added.]

Postscript: I heartily recommend this and the other books by Father Ricciotti - they are excellent, and well worth your time in finding, buying, reading, and re-reading.

A further note: since 153 is the sum of the integers from 1 to 17 - that is, (17*18)/2, it is a "triangular number" - which is yet another bit of symbolism. You can make a perfect triangle if you stack that many beer cans together. Hint, that requires six cases plus another nine cans.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Mystery of Carrying a Heavy Burden

As I was praying the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary - the mystery of the Crucifixion - I was thinking of the nails, and how their iron was formed in a stellar furnace, and recalling that hymn from the passion that says:
Crux fidelis, inter omnes
Arobor una nobilis:
Silva talem nulla profert
Fronde, flore, germine:
Dulce ferrum, dulce lignum,
Dulce pondus sustinent.
That is:
Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foilage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peers may be;
Sweetest Wood and sweetest Iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
[Britt, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal 127]
Now, I had to go hunting in my Cassell's and Lewis and Short, and found that the Latin noun ferrum = iron is not really related to the verb fero, ferre, tuli, latum = to carry. (The verb has a short e; the noun a long e; the root behind iron seems to be the one which also gives us "firm".) And yet, there is some correspondence, even if only by transference. (No pun intended.)

Certainly, the mystery of carrying, like the mystery of iron, is worth some pondering. I recall somewhere - I think it is in Out of the Silent Planet, the first part of Lewis's Space Trilogy, how he complains (through his "divine" Martians) that we humans spend so much of our time worrying about carrying things. This is so wrong - but I am not trying to produce a debate over the strange distortions of Lewis. No; not when I can turn to much more profound truths - like blood.

The entire circulatory system - the blood, the heart, the collection of blood-carrying vessels - is designed for carrying things. It seems that the very scheme of life - that is, life for nearly all multi-cellular creatures - requires a lot of worry about carrying things. Indeed, this is certified by histology and anatomy in very strong terms:
As a mammalian embryo advances through the stages characterized by cleavage, morula, blastocyst and germ layers, it satisfies all its metabolic needs by simple, diffusive interchanges with the fluid medium in which it is immersed. But as the embryo continues to gain size and begins to take form, a functioning circulatory system becomes necessary in order to make use of the required food and oxygen obtainable from the mother's blood. Hence it is that the heart and blood vessels are the first organ system to reach a functional state. [Arey, Developmental Anatomy 375]
In order for a being to attain its proper size, it requires a functioning transportation system. And, as we know, at the center of every molecule of hemoglobin the oxygen-carrying vehicle, there is an atom of IRON.

Now, there is a lot to say about that, and a lot needs to be said - about iron, about hemoglobin, about the erythrocytes (the red-blood cells), about the heart, about the circulation. But I will just say one more thing for now.

There is a reason for using this term "mystery". For the iron nails of the cross were serving not as ferre = to carry - which implies motion, but as firmo = to hold fast. At the same time, they did indeed carry something.

On the cross of Calvary, it was iron that carried His blood to us.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Yoo-hoo, Earth – D2-E2-C2-C1-G1!

Oh truly hilarious! Over the weekend I watched that old movie called "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", with its homage to the horn theme from the fourth movement of Brahms' First Symphony: D2-E2-C2-C1-G1, and that huge Christmas-tree ornament "mother ship" thing. Speaking of themes, it was of course the usual theme of "Man's Search for a Redeemer" - so honest and human and traditional and entirely Christian. But this isn't that sort of commentary - I don't have time to do the analysis, but speaking as a Chestertonian, I find it very suggestive. (See GKC's The Everlasting Man if you want more details - maybe another time I will write more about that.) No: I will say one more thing about it, since it's worth pointing out. It's one of the very first lines, and I always think about it as I consider the Third Joyful Mystery of the Rosary - except (like Chesterton) I've shifted things just slightly:
The Son came out at night and they [the angels] sang to him.
It's hard to get more deeply Christian than the Nativity.

There are a few scenes I particularly love, like when our electric company Field Tech hero is driving around through the Indiana night, gets lost, and stops at a railroad crossing to check his maps. Yeah, there's more to say about that, but I merely mean the setting itself... it's an awesome picture.

Though there are two (or three) other bits about that scene. He's there, lost, fumbling with his map and then a car comes up behind him and he waves it around - and we see the lights shift as the car passes him (the driver yelps, of course) - but that's just so we understand the next little bit. Then another set of lights comes up, and he waves it around again - but this time the lights rise up. Ahem. Very funny. Of course it then shines its super-bright beam at the truck, presumably zapping our hero with his "urge to get to Devil's Tower"...

Speaking for all my multitudes of extra-solar, galactic, and intergalactic friends, I find this so insulting. These beings have presumably crossed interstellar space, have all sorts of sophisticated technology - and an implied compassion for us - yet they cannot deal with English, nor with any human tongue, spoken or written? They're willing to handle our curious spherical coordinate system of latitude and longitude (that's how the government guys know to get to Devil's Tower too) but they can't bring themselves to say it very plainly. Oh well.

It's easy enough to say that God didn't tell the Magi "Go to Bethlehem" but just sent them a star as a guide... but these are supposedly superior alien beings, with nothing but open arms for us! It's funny, one of the places where Father Jaki can make one laugh is his quoting others on the idea that the typical extraterrestrial would be more likely to view humans as a "protein reservoir"...
Addicts of ETI research hardly ever think of the dark lining behind the silvery facade of their expectations. The most frightful of those dark hues is not that, instead of distant cousins ready to fraternize with us, we might contact an alien species that would take our bodies for a convenient protein reservoir and live up thereby to the Darwinian principle of universal struggle.
[Jaki The Savoir of Science 121]

But can an evolutionary theory, in which all is matter, provide logical ground for the emergence of mind as a form of living matter which is not subject to the law of speciation? That law means the inexorable rise of barriers among the different species. A chief of those barriers means the breakdown of biological altruism. While more often than not members of the same species do not feed on one another, members of one species all too often constitute the basic food for members of another species. There is a profound biological wisdom in the remark, now three decades old, by the Nobel-laureate physicist, C. N. Yang, that we should not try to answer an eventual radio message from another planetary system.
[Jaki, God and the Cosmologists 188]

If they came, they would have achieved an enormous technological superiority over us. But whether they speak English or not, they will be found to be a different species, another product of a universal grim struggle for survival. As such products, they would readily use us either as slaves or, what is more likely, a convenient source of protein.
[Jaki "Christ, Extraterrestrials, and the Devil" in A Late Awakening and other essays]
Wow, either slaves or "a convenient source of protein" (brrr) Well, we know that to be quite classical, and even more recently, Lewis has anthropophagy in his The Silver Chair and so does Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, and so we might link... Ah, but let's not wander off the subject. Ahem!

Let us return to the movie. Oh yes, the scene at the railroad. Well, everything electric shuts off or malfunctions, and junk flies around the cab of his truck - then the saucer cruises down the road and he peers out - suddenly, way down the road it beams its light again, but all it hits is a stop sign. Oh well. Then his truck comes back to life, and he yelps again. It's a great, funny scene - and afterwards it turns out he's sunburned on the side of his face where he looked out to see what the heck that bright light came from. Yeah, the next thing EPA or OSHA or is it the CDC will do is require little warning labels inside our cars: "Avoid Overexposure To Alien Brain Waves Beams Which Implant Urges to Visit Devil's Tower. Take Sunblock With You At Night." Or something. Hee hee.

Another scene I like is the one where the four little hot-dogging flying saucers (flown by teen-age pilots, I expect) are cruising the rural roads of Indiana, playing "catch-me" with the police. Of course the police go racing after them, which is a bit curious. But the great bit is when the saucers make the toll-gates rise on their way to Ohio, and THEN, as they hit a curve around a hill, they take the tangent to it (thereby revealing their knowledge of differential calculus) and fly off into space. One of the unfortunate police cars attempts to follow them, but he has neglected to enable his anti-gravity mode. Oh well. (In the book, the officer only sustains minor injuries, though his car is totalled.)

Finally, there's that scene when the "mother ship" shows up. Only the most embarrassingly silly of aliens would be caught flying such a thing! Please, do you think energy is free? What's the point of all those lights? Sure it looks nice, but let's be practical. And don't tell me they're part of the interstellar drive... I know that everyone requires that sort of flashy stuff for television, but it's rather disappointing. Now, I happen to like the album covers from "Boston" - which show proposals for taking that city into space. Maybe that's the idea... It' very nice, but it would seem a bit easier to not have lights so as to not give away your presence, if that's what you're worried about. I think it was in grad school that we concocted our own version of the Star Trek "Prime Directive":
No High Technology In Front Of The Natives!
It's far too easy for them to guess about things once they've seen it done... not always, but - ah well. Interstellar empires have crumbled because of slips like that. It was a famous line from World War II, but it's true in intergalactic commerce as well:
Loose Lips Sink Ships.
Ah, so where was I? Oh, yeah, the horn theme. Another oddity. The aliens know our latitude/longitude, and they also know our penchant for simple multiples of frequencies - the stuff that great music from Buxtehude and Jungen and Soler, from Gregorian Chant to rock-and-roll... Especially rock-and-roll, which seems to be built around the tonic and dominant and subdominant... Neither the movie nor the book explained what those notes were supposed to be, unless they were just intended to be a sort of alien "Yoo-hoo!" or "Anybody home?" - kind of a planetary doorbell in reverse. I know a college fraternity that used to have a "whistle" so you could catch a brother's attention from across campus - quite handy, though nowadays they'd just send a 146-character twit or a txtmsg, or equivalent. Hee hee.

But really, D2-E2-C2-C1-G1 as a cosmic doorbell - now that is something wonderful, and very Chestertonian. You may know he has a wonderful essay about it - here's just a bit:
a door-knocker is so full of significance that any person of quite average intelligence might write volumes of poems about it. It is - to name but a few of the things beyond question - the symbol of courtesy, the guardian of the home, the declaration of the proposed meeting between man and man, the salute to the rights of the individual, the sign of the bringing of news, the herald of happiness, the herald of calamity, the iron hammer of love and death. That we have a knocker on our doors means almost everything that is meant by the whole of our ritual and literature. It means that we are not boors and barbarians; that we do not call on a man by climbing into the window or dropping down the chimney. It means all that was ever meant by the old fairy stories, in which a horn was hung up outside the castle of the giant or the magician, so that the daring visitor might have to blow it, and utter in echoing sound the thing that he dared.
[GKC "The Pessimist and the Door-Knocker" in Lunacy and Letters]
So in this case the aliens came and tooted their horn - sort of like the teen motorhead crusing by his buddy's home some summer evening - honk-honk-honk - HONK HONK. (The last two notes are bass brass fortissimo, as played by the "mother ship".) It's funny too, because that melodic phrase works as a harmony to the famous Dresden "Amen": D-E-F-G-G, though I don't expect to ever hear the CE3K/Brahms tune in church.

Anyway, I had a good time watching it and a few good laughs, and found some interesting things to think about.

And in case you are wondering: Do I think there are aliens? No, I don't believe there are - but there could be. However, I don't think they would be quite like those imagined in CE3K. Of course, they may have an excellent explanation for these things - I don't deny it. It's the sort of thing that wants a sequel - just like "E.T." Which reminds me, I've got to finish off my own intergalactic adventure one of these days, and then, once it's been made into a movie someone can write a goofy commentary about. Maybe I'll write it myself - AFTER I've written the conclusion. Oh well.