The Goatherd & The Wild Goats

No cloak, no fleece upon that day sufficed;
The penetrating wind through every coat
Blew rain straight to the skin, as cold as ice.
It fiercely flogged a goatherd and his goats
Exposed upon the open mountain side.
But, oh! their joy to see a deep, dark gash
Cleft in the rock— “Come on!” the goatherd cried
“It’s snug and dry — I’ll feed you oats and mash
In comfort while it rains.” The soaking goats
Pursued their master through the cloven stone,
And huddled, dripping, eager for the oats,
But soon they sensed that they were not alone.
A herd of wild goats had come before
To shelter in the cave from that same rain,
And when the goatherd saw these many more
He made a different plan about his grain.
With hopes his flock to double on that day
He called to them “Fresh Oats! All you can eat!”
But for his faithful flock a stalk of hay
As sustenance for each he reckoned meet.
Yet when the sheets of rain had ceased to fall,
The stranger goats all scampered  from the cave;
“You false ingrates!” the outraged goatherd called
Is this your thanks for all the food I gave?”
“Why should we join your flock?” the goats then bleated,
“We’ve seen quite clearly how we would be treated.”
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Picture of a Dusty Mountain Road

To step into that picture-tile
On gramangrampa’s fire-place
And walk along a dusty mile
(Upon the path my hand would trace,
When I was young and of it’s height,)
And see what lay beyond that bend
Which turned away, out of my sight,
And not to find a final end,
In summer day without a night,
Of Spanish-Californian light,
This was my dream of deep delight.

~Watchful

On Reproof

The other day I felt like someone was reproving me.

Can you think of an example of someone criticising your behaviour?

If you’re having trouble thinking of an example of reproof in your own life, take the little example of someone disapprovingly honking at your driving. (This example may only work in places like Oregon where honks mean something.) Or think of being pulled over by the police. I think the implicit criticism in being pulled over (along with the fact that they have guns and power to throw you in jail) contributes some to the emotional intensity of interactions with cops. The interaction begins with an insult.

It’s not fun to be criticized, judged or reproved. There’s just a sting in being told you weren’t good enough. But thinking about the burning sting of judgment, a thought came to me that made me feel happy.

There is the fact that a criticism or a reproof can help one repent and improve. But that’s not the thought that made me feel happy. Still, a criticism, whether it is kindly meant or not, can be helpful. The Bible says “He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul: but he that heareth reproof getteth understanding.” (Proverbs 15:32) and “A fool despiseth his father’s instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.” (Proverbs 15:5)

This raises the question, though: what if the reprover is wrong? I suppose you should take into account who is correcting you (does he hate you?), but I think the main thing is to not be so overmastered by pride that you can’t hear or consider any criticism. Your pride and prejudicial favouritism toward yourself will skew your perspective. Is it possible for you to look at the criticism objectively? Sometimes people do criticize you for doing right, and you shouldn’t just be so “humble” that you change course. On the other hand, the fact that criticism can be wrong shouldn’t give you the excuse to disregard every criticism. That would obviously show an overweening prejudice in favour of yourself. Does it even make sense that you would always be right, and others never would?

But why do we all have this prejudice toward ourselves? Why are we willing to justify ourselves rather than others?

It is for the same reason that reproof stings.

Of course, proximity over time makes us fonder of people and things; we burn when anyone or anything that we are familiar with is criticized, and who have we spent more time “with” than ourselves?

But our self-justifying instinct is not merely because of a familiar fondness for ourselves — the kind one might have for an object, a place, or an institution, such as the Chicago Cubs or Chicago itself. It’s not just that out of the billions of people through history you choose to favour yourself and justify and defend your actions because you are most familiar with yourself and your circumstances. It is because you are yourself. You willed and performed the deed(s) in question.

When someone criticizes your actions the sting is mostly not in a sense of affront for who you are in terms of your raw material — who you are as an object; the sting is in the criticism of what you have done with the lot you’ve been given. The sting is not “you failed in your basic composition, by being born a human” but rather “you took your raw material as a human and with your own individual agency messed up.” Such a criticism is the most deeply personal. You You YOU messed up.

And that’s where the happy thought comes in, You are a You.

That core being who messed up. A being with agency who can be blamed. One who can will, and choose, and mess up. You exist. And out of all the figments and fragments that exist, you got to be an “I”; you got to be a human. An indivisible individual with agency. A little lower than the angels.

Pinch me. It sounds too good.

Take a deep, sweet, thankful breath.

Who Hides the Flavour in an Orange Slice?

Who hides the flavour in an orange slice?

Not the growers cooperative —
Planning and managing the crop day by day,
Not the truckers —
Bringing the produce from the groves far away,
Not the marketing men —
Working to tell us what folks like today,

And certainly not me.

But I take one from a basket full,
Peel off the fiery coat and taste the fiery core,
And discover a little universe, never touched before
In the tiniest vesicle.

~Watchful

Did I Ever Really Love You?

Did I ever really love you?
Or was it just my quest for Beauty,
To be near that which is lovely,
Like a sea-wave or a symphony,
And to feel it reaching back to me?

Did I ever really love you?
Or was Wisdom my delight,
And her candle burned most bright
When I sat within your sight,
So I stayed and loved her light?

Did I ever really love you?
Or was my bliss in Selflessness,
That last-mite-giving cheerfulness,
The kneeling, praying, willingness
To serve for other’s happiness?

Wise and lovely, selfless  one,
Like an ember-glowing poppy
Set a-fire by the sun,
Virtue’s lovers every one,
In your presence shall be happy.

~Watchful

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You can read some of my thoughts behind this poem in my comment in the comment  section.

 

Conclusions

In talking and writing there’s usually the expectation of some kind of conclusion. In arguments/conversations, this can take the form of trying to establish some piece of common ground before parting. It can feel forced — we have to find some common ground, so we come up with something like “Well, at least we agree that one of us is wrong:)”

In essays as well I think conclusions are the hardest part. Like in conversations we feel our thoughts should have a conclusion, and so we tack on conclusions even if we haven’t reached very coherent ones.

This is also true in people telling stories of their own lives. A lot of the time people don’t like to tell their story unless they can put some conclusion on it, and so they end up either not telling their story or, if they share about something like a struggle with melancholy or some family/relationship dilemma, they make it sound as if they have come through in some definitive way when they have not.

I do believe in deliverance, and I rejoice to hear of people who have been delivered for good and all from some malady or trial. Yet often when I read people telling of their struggles, it can seem that they feel that they must put some happy ending on. And so the sadness is put in the past tense, and one of the ups, of the ups and downs of life, is chosen as the definitive end of their story.

Aside from hope or pride that might make us try to put a happy ending on our stories, I guess it’s not thought polite to tell a downer story that ends “And I’m still sad,” but when someone is telling me of a struggle from their past, I sometimes think that they might just be trying to talk (in a more delicate way) about a problem in their present.

I suppose the psychologists and novelists have written about this phenomenon before.

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My experience in writing is that I have a much narrower set of conclusions that I come to than subjects I deal with. As in chess, where there are fewer possibilities in the end-game than in the middle-game, so it seems I could talk about an almost limitless list of subjects and they will all funnel down to just a few conclusions.

Discussing things as various as Ars Nova music, the indigenous language of the Canary Islands, Henry VIII’s sixth wife (Catherine Parr,) the Heimskringla, Craftsmen-style houses, French singer Jacques Brel, Pixar’s The Incredibles, property tax, the Amish, Etruscan necropolises, and baseball, if I try to put some conclusion on, I seem to end up boiling them all down to my handful of conclusions.

This isn’t necessarily all bad. Solomon, in the book of Ecclesiastes, boils everything down to:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Everything that he says in the sermon-book Ecclesiastes comes down to this one, concise conclusion. You might say “That’s only the conclusion to one book.” but I would reply “read Ecclesiastes” — he’s talking in that book about every thing and purpose under the heaven. If wisdom comes to that conclusion about everything, what other conclusion could one come to about anything? It should be some form or sub-category of “Fear God, and keep his commandments.”

Music’s Ennobling Power

So it seems that James Levine, longtime conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, is an abusive creep. Still, he was a good conductor.

This makes me think about something which I have long pondered. Growing up, my main identification was as a Christian, but my parents also took me and my siblings to a lot of music lessons. We were members of the Community Music Center’s choirs, the local youth symphony, and went to week-long Suzuki Violin camps in the summer along with lots of other musically enriching classes and ensembles.

I mention this in relation to being a Christian not so much in comparing the duties (going to church and going to the music center) but rather the beliefs, because across the board in the music world there was a pretty unified philosophy.

That was:  music has great power to make us better people.

Like in the Orpheus myth, music could raise us from being savage and beast-like to being noble and humane. If only every child were part of a choir, he wouldn’t want to do graffiti or drugs. If only enough money were allocated to music education, world peace could be achieved, for what man would want to pick up a bazooka if he already had a bassoon in his hands? What nation would have time to practice violence while practicing violins?

What always concerned me, however, was that the trained classical musicians of our community did not seem to be automatically more kind. Exposure to the music of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and Debussy did not seem to have given them compassionate hearts.

Dr. Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki Violin Method, famously spoke of “a beautiful tone from a beautiful heart,” but I have not really noticed there to be a strict correspondence. Levine seems to be a good example of good musical sense and skill coming from a manifestly selfish heart. And involvement in the splendid and sensitive work of classical music-making didn’t take away that selfishness.

Of course, I can encourage myself that music does have some ennobling effect, that though classically trained musicians are not delivered from being unkind, we would be a lot more vicious without the training and exposure. There is a lot less crime among classical symphony musicians than gangster rappers.

I think music helps you be a healthy human being — like hiking in the great outdoors, listening to Shakespeare, eating healthy food etc.

The first half of the last century saw a widespread movement to equate things like fresh air and good music with moral goodness. I once read an article from the August 1909 issue of Sunset about Katherine Tingley’s Theosophist colony at Loma Linda. It definitely portrayed them as a group that believed in the salubrious effect on the soul of exposure to fresh air.

The activity of the Theosophists, according to the article, “might be said to consist of the teaching of an amplified evolutionary philosophy, in some respects similar to that of Spencer and Darwin, with the addition thereto that the law of evolution and progressive development works the same in the invisible realms of spiritual existence as it does on the physical plane; to this is joined a system of child training…”

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“The indoor study hours are short”


I’m not exactly sure what it means that progressive evolution works in the invisible spiritual realm the same as on the physical (re-incarnation would be a necessary component, obviously) but evolution always was a kind of vague and magical science; it would seem in the invisible spiritual realm as we evolve up — like a snake being raised from the basket to the sound of the pungi — music is used.

“Music instead of being regarded as an amusement, is taught to be one of those subtle forces of nature which, properly applied, tend toward higher aspirations and higher ideals. there are not many hours in the day that music is not heard from some part of the grounds.”

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Mrs. Tingley’s boast of the effectiveness of Theosophical education

But how did all these children turn out? Impervious to all the temptations common to man? Even with all the music and fresh air, it seems unlikely. The Theosophical way of running the colony even with all its dedication to music, exercise, and work also had a certain hard-heartedness. Recounted in the article is how the writer of the article saw a young lady become disenchanted with Theosophy. She was being shown around the campus in the same tour as him, and on seeing some children playing, this young lady inquired, 

“”Whose babies are these?”
“Most of them belong to the members of the organization.” was the reply.
“Kept here during the day I suppose?”
“And at night, too,” was the surprising reply.
“But where are their mothers?”
“They are here, engaged in their chosen work.”
“You don’t mean to say that the mothers give up their babies, allow their little ones to be separated from them and cared for on a community plan?” asked my companion, her eyes wide with astonishment.
“Give them up? Oh, no. At first they see them once a day, when they grow a little older once a week…”
“I cannot conceive of the mother’s heart that would willingly separate herself from her babies. That part of your philosophy does not appeal to me.””

So there’s some cold-hearted wickedness afoot in the Theosophical paradise.

C.S. Lewis critically depicted a somewhat similar progressive 20th-century education in his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. His character Eustace Scrubb is raised in a family of “very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.” 

And personality-wise Eustace is a first-rate stinker. 

But in such a critique one could go two ways: either point out the particular problems in a specific educational model, or argue that even the best training methods that seek to bring out and develop humans are ultimately limited by the wickedness of the human heart. 

C.S. Lewis goes both ways; He often says that Eustace hasn’t read the right books (there were particular problems in his education), but he also reforms this beastly character only through a miraculous new-birth experience. 

In the showing the need for a re-birth Lewis sides with Christ who, in contrast to progressive idealism, is not sanguine about a goodness in man (even with the best education.) Christ says “ye must be born again.” You need a new heart from above. 

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I took a break from writing this and went over to my Grandma’s house as I do most nights, and she was watching a classical music concert on the TV. I sat down in front of the T.V. and felt my heart uplifted by the music. Beauty’s uplifting power seems real; I think that it is real and that is why God gave us beautiful music.

Look around at the beauty of the stars, the flora and fauna of the land and the sea; beauty is something God gave us to be a part of life, and it’s to be received with thanksgiving.  But I still think that Christians should remember the limitations of the power of beauty and not make the field of aesthetics the main battlefield. For, what does it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his own soul?

Yet God certainly can use beauty to give us a sense of something beyond this world of sights and sounds. I pray that classical musicians like Levine would not only receive the blessings of getting to experience beauty in this life, but that they would take the hint of a world beyond, and seek God.