John Hazlet

A sparrow's passage

Like a vocation (cf. Auden)

What now of the hunger theological? It is with me still. Much-muddled in youth by other hungers then stirring, both potent and (or so I thought then) entirely forbidden in the form they took in me. Dimmed by denominational hyperventilation. Shocked and edified by Nietzsche and his friends. Now swooning over liturgical splendour, now irked by liturgical folly, always relying on liturgical reality one way or another. Drawn toward priesthood as charming vicarage idyll, then as serious (too serious) cure of souls – mostly as ministry to the hearts of persons from the sacramental heart of things; also as (it must be said) opportunity to talk about what interests me and be heard. A hunger that learned in the cloister the truth of Brillat-Savarin’s famous dictum: “Hunger is the best sauce.” Mixed metaphors don’t seem out of place here.

And what now? I am at home with one whom I love. My mind is much occupied with thoughts of keeping-house and making a living. My reading these days: mostly The New Yorker (ever a staple, even in more theologically-focused times). I am seeking God – probably at present a little more feebly than those I used to advise, as a monk, on this subject – but seeking. But that hunger mounts toward a demand that I do something more toward its satisfaction – never, of course, to be attained; always only intensified. What to do, now, not only with this hunger but with the gifts (such as they are) I’ve prepared, the studies I’ve undertaken, to place at its service? I wonder. Waiting is called for. And listening. And creativity.

Facebook et al.: prelude to a departure

FB

I’m preparing to withdraw from Facebook and other the like sites, not without a poignancy testifying to the effectiveness of social media marketing. How can something so trivial seem so momentous?

I used reflexively to dismiss social media as silly. Then, a few years ago, I succumbed to their blandishments. I was a monk at the time, wanted to feel more connected to my far-flung friends, and found that many of them relied on Facebook to keep in touch. (I signed up for Google+, Twitter, and Linkedin, too, but my experience of these was not very vivid and I’ll ignore it here.)

Dismissiveness gradually gave way almost to obsessiveness. Many of my friends live far away, and whereas before FB my relationships with them consisted in rare visits and occasional exchanges of e-mail, phone calls, or – yes, really! – letters, now my screen was vividly awash in the personally-branded, FB-version of their lives: photos galore, snippets of witty or snarky or pointless but in any case somehow touching text. Little exchanges could take place in real time, but I could also explore what they had been up to during the years when I had been resisting their urgings to sign up.

Acquaintances from the past, long out of touch, reappeared. I met, virtually, new people.

I felt like I had missed out. I also felt like I was all caught up, having with mixed feelings (“Is this creepy or is it just what one does?”) pored over the contents of my friends’ (and my “friends'”) timelines. Facebook as conservator of all uploaded values.

I built up my own little FB identity, too, of course. Past and present life events and their photographic evidence were evaluated for their personal-branding suitability, and selectively uploaded and commented on. Boxes were ticked, categories agonized over.

It began to feel as if things hadn’t fully happened until they had appeared on my Facebook timeline. I felt more or less satisfied that my life came across online as sufficiently interesting (being a monk was widely received in the social media monde as cool, perhaps simply for its oddity), but there were rolling comparisons and constant tweakings.

Envy, scarcely admitted even to myself, crept in. But I began to notice other changes in the dynamics of my relationships. Before social media I may rarely have seen many of my friends in person, our contact by e-mail or phone call or letter may have been sporadic and sometimes labored, but it was personal. It was from me alone to some one of them, with rare exceptions. In contrast, we all now seemed to content ourselves on the whole with following and sometimes commenting on each other’s status updates: relationship by overlapping broadcast rather than by personal communication.

This, mostly, is what I hope to counteract by abandoning social media (assuming I get up the nerve to do that). I intend to focus more attention on genuinely personal communication with my friends – including those who started out as “friends” in only the Facebook sense. Staying in touch by e-mail, the phone, and the post will be more effortful. It will probably be less frequent. It will certainly be less visually stimulating. But I hope it will be, in terms of what matters most in friendship, richer, too.

St. Valentine’s Day

St. Valentine's Day

Orchid-signals
Blossom a message but
I don’t think I have the key.
Other means of
Communication
Between encampments
May strike me -
More un-Romantic than
I had thought myself -
As better-suited to
The task at hand.
But I am a wordy one,
And love, as I well know but
Easily forget
Speaks natively
An idiom
That dispenses with such encumbrances
As
Words.

The Parlement of Foules

Chaucer by HoccleveA day for lovers! It’s unclear why. And perhaps, given the vagaries of love, that’s just as well. The Roman Church struck poor St. Valentine from the calendar in a moment of historical-critical fervour, but even in the saint’s sketchy hagiographical literature there isn’t much to suggest his future patronage of lovers, still popularly vibrant if officially nixed. No, the first clear sign of this appears in Chaucer.

“The Parlement of Foules,” one of the 14th-century poet’s less well-known works, is full of delicious ambiguities. It’s association with today’s festivities is rather like one of those big red heart-shaped boxes full of a few chocolates, a jar of Marmite, and a note that says, “Keep looking, dear one.”

The poem recounts a dream, into which the poet has drifted while thinking a lot about love and reading hard (Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio”) in search of something particular but tantalisingly unspecified. He wakes up at the end without having found it. The story told in between in thus framed by searching and not finding.

The story is about the eponymous assembly of birds, who have convened in the presence of Nature to chose their mates (an annual event; I’m sure you followed it this year on the goddess’s Twitter feed). To reach this gathering the dreaming poet is escorted (by Scipio himself) through the Temple of Venus – beautiful and full of delights, but presided over by images of doomed, not of joyful, lovers.

From their parliament, the birds go home happily paired… mostly. Three eagles who had all been vying for the hand of the same mate are all sent away single, with instructions to come back next year.

Then there’s some lovely singing (to a French tune, of course) about summer and St. Valentine and how all the birds are now mated and can rejoice (except, wait – they’re not all mated!). And then the poet wakes up and keeps searching.

I wook, and other bokes took me to
To rede upon, and yet I rede alway;
I hope, y-wis, to rede so som day
That I shal mete som thing for to fare
The bet; and thus to rede I nil not spare.

This strange work – all about love; remote from the world of between.us – is about as close as we can get to the roots of the notion that Valentine’s Day is for lovers, for couples. Somehow, that seems about right. From the proem:

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Thassay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The dredful Ioy, that alwey slit so yerne,
Al this mene I by love, that my feling
Astonyeth with his wonderful worching
So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke,
Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke.

On Silvered Wings

Two of my pieces will be part of this show.

Blog 2014-02-12
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