This guest post is by my good friend Don Volent, whose letters, journal entries, and conversations have encouraged, challenged, and delighted me for many years. Thanks, Don!
I was first introduced to the practice of Lectio Divina in the autumn of 1976, though I didn’t know it at the time. The initiation was given as an assignment by the Reverend Albert A. Cardoni, S. J. at Fairfield University in his Medieval Philosophy course of that term. The thirty students of this class were each given a single mimeographed sheet (blue inked sheets, the midcentury version of the photocopy) of only three paragraphs taken from the fifth question of the first part of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica entitled The General Notion of the Good. We were told to fold this sheet into eighths and to pocket it.
“You are to live with these three paragraphs for the next three months until the eve of Advent. If I see you on campus, I will ask you to fish it out for me. Like the peripatetic philosopher Aristotle, I want you to pace with it so that even your muscles and the blood that courses through your veins will question with you what these three paragraphs mean and where they can take you. Speak the words out loud inside your rooms and outside beneath sun and moonlight, because these shall be words that are with, with the being of things, with the sound of your pacing on the sidewalks of this university and with the way the autumn leaves –which you will soon see- blow across the open spaces between your dorms.”
Diligent student that I was, I listened to the man. From the afternoon of that class until the eve of Advent I lived with those three paragraphs. I paced with them on the sidewalks of the university and, just as Father Cardoni predicted, I saw the yellow aspen leaves swirling at my feet and gusting across the open space. “A thing is good insofar as it exists.” The words have stayed with me to this day. “Being is good! Shout it from the rooftops!” And God is the fertility of the Actual, the heart that beats in the what is. And the words were seeds, go figure, if one stays with them long enough to see that they actually germinate, break through the soil, peeking, seeking light, drinking in, nourishment, space, fertility, song.
Twenty years after this initiation I came across Luke Dysinger’s 1996 translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict and there, within the introduction, I found the description of the practice that Father Cardoni had introduced me to: Lectio Divina (Latin for “Divine Reading”). Mr. Luke speaks of the “art of lectio divina” as beginning with “cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear ‘with the ear of our hearts’ as St. Benedict writes in the Prologue to the Rule.” To listen. To listen deeply. To listen with the heart (the heart that has moved into the mind, the mind that has moved into the heart). To everything. To the sound of the man sweeping under the lintel of his shop. To the sound of a woman talking about a farmer’s porch. Mr. Luke further says “The reading or listening which is the first step in lectio divina is very different from the speed-reading” which we “apply to newspapers, books, and even to the Bible.” Yes, to slow the mind down from its dizzying whirl. This, too, I learned from Father Cardoni’s assignment, and which was further corroborated by the feeling of depth I felt once while, oddly, reading a passage from the writings of Thomas Merton that I happened to disagree with. But whence the depth? From the slowing down, from the staying with.
Mr. Luke, that fine friend of mine, also shed light, etymologically, on our “information” age, and, quite simply, it’s not. ‘Information,’ etymologically, points at a staying with something long enough for it to be formed in us (in formed, formed in), which is seed, germination, living with. But this is quite different to the norm of data surfing (surfacing) that we do nowadays, enticed by span to the detriment of depth. In fact, it seems like a variation of the canary in the coal mine that, when using the word ‘depth’ recently, in a conversation with a young 30’s gentleman, I was told that the word was pretty much an anachronism in the current age of expansive networking. Span versus depth? But why not span and depth, balanced? Which is to say, mustn’t our breathing out be balanced with our breathing in?
I take a short hike with sights like this.
And I think how nice it would be to keep walking in such a place. So I plan to leave Saturday for a few days or weeks on the trail. Then, as often happens before an extended solo outing, I sit in my small backyard and look and think, dang, there’s so much beauty here. Have I taken it in? Should I stay until I’ve gotten my fill of the wild flower in the grass, which I know I never will?
The stay in Denver last week was too brief and the snow too thick for us to hike in the mountains. But we did have time for foothill visits. This first set of pictures is of a delightful trail from Chatauqua Park, just above Boulder, up into the Flatirons. It could be a relaxed hike of less than two hours but we took longer, enjoying the views and climbing some of the rock structures along the way.
The next day we went to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where I proudly listened to my girls sing on the same stage that has hosted the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Carol King, Van Halen, Tim McGraw, etc. Others might have complained about the cold reception but we chose to think of the snowflakes as angels' confetti thrown in celebration ..
In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005), Llewelyn Moss is hunting for antelope when he sees through binoculars three trucks with no movement around them. He takes “a rough trail leading down” to the scene of a drug-related shootout and finds a briefcase containing 2.4 million dollars. Moss takes the money and this hunter, who from long range had nicked one antelope in a herd, becomes the hunted, isolated from others until machine-gunned down at close range. In the final scene of the novel, newly retired Sheriff Bell recounts his dream of riding horseback along a trail through the mountains: his father silently rode past him “carryin fire… fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”
McCarthy’s next novel is The Road (2006). It opens as No Country closes: with a dream of father and son moving through the dark with just a little bit of light. Awake, the father and son travel in the cold on desolate roads through gray landscapes, their moral as well as physical survival motivated by a sense of “carrying the fire.”
I would like to later discuss McCarthy’s The Road with regard to interests indicated in earlier posts and my website’s title. But as an introduction of sorts, I will suggest that No Country for Old Men and The Road may be read (or viewed: the movies well represent the novels) as a two-volume set: No Country as an apocalyptic prophecy, The Road as a post-apocalyptic quest.
No Country’s title is taken from the first line of William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees…
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
The poem’s speaker is an “aged man … a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick… fastened to a dying animal,” as the novel’s Sheriff Bell increasingly sees himself to be. But while the poet is soothed by a history of art, Bell is troubled by a history of violence. The poet considers “monuments of magnificence”; Bell is left wondering “who Mammon was” or, later shifting the tense, “who it is.” The poet envisions “sages standing in God’s holy fire” who can consume his heart and “gather [him] into the artifice of eternity.” Bell recalls a man whom he had thought innocent bragging “I shot that son of a bitch right between the eyes and drug him back to his car by the hair of his head and set the car on fire and burned him to grease.”
One Yeats poem provides the title for the first novel, which ends with a dream of father and son. Another Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” is alluded to in the opening scene of the second novel, also a dream of father and son. In this dream, “the man” is wandering with his child in a cave, “their light playing over the wet flowstone walls.” In a “great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake,” they see a creature that “stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless.” After swinging its head, crouching, it “turned and lurched away…into the dark.” Yeats’ beast is viewed in the context of “twenty centuries of stony sleep.” Its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” the beast “mov[es] its slow thighs, while all about it reel shadows… The darkness drops again.” The rest of the novel will depict a land suggested by the opening stanza of “The Second Coming”:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
Another link between the two novels is a numerological one: 117. In No Country, 1:17 is the time that “the prophet of destruction,” in the process of tracking down Llewelyn’s wife to kill her, pulls up in front of her mother’s house. 117 is the number of the motel room in front of which Llewelyn is killed. In The Road “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Some take 1:17 in The Road as an allusion to chapter 1 verse 17 of the book Revelation but more in view of the general relationship of the apocalyptic works than the specific content of the verse, which contributes little to appreciating the novel. A more complex interplay between the texts is suggested if the modern one’s colon is moved: Revelation 11:7 reads “And when [the two witnesses] shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them.” Both novels have relatively innocent twosomes and a beast figure that connect and disconnect with the context of Revelation 11:7 in a variety of interesting ways. Another suggestion is that` the number refers to January 17, the beginning of a new age according to Ovid, whose writing is more clearly alluded to in another section of The Road. I have wondered about another possibility: 117 is associated in No Country with brutal destruction of the relatively innocent by a powerful weapon and in The Road with a massive number of people killed, as is the date at the beginning of the American millennium whose month equals the sum of the three digits in 117 and whose day equals the first two digits.
So the two novels are linked by dreams, by “carrying the fire” and other themes typical of apocalyptic, by the poetry of McCarthy’s literary and Irish ancestor Yeats, and by numbers. There are other aspects of No Country that contribute to reading it as an apocalyptic prophecy, understanding prophecy in its biblical sense of speaking out about a present situation in view of the past and implications for the future.
The term apocalyptic is derived from the title of the biblical book which first used the Greek term apokalupsis (apo- “from” -kalupsis “concealment”) “unveiling, disclosure, revelation” to refer to “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world” (Collins). No Country has all these elements, with twists.
Revelatory literature with a narrative framework. The bulk of No Country is a narrative with a fairly conventional plot structure. Sheriff Bell’s italicized monologues provide a revelatory—or at least speculative—perspective on the characters and events.
Revelation to a human recipient. “I saw” occurs far more frequently in Revelation than in any other biblical book: the primary function of the apocalyptic prophet is to bear witness to visions of “what is past, or passing, or to come,” to use the concluding line of Yeats’ “no country for old men” poem. Similarly, Bell’s primary role is not to act but to report what he sees. His opening monologue of less than two pages is filled with visionary expressions: “my testimony,” “I’ve never seen,” “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” “I don’t know what them eyes was the windows to,” “another view and other eyes to see,” “those eyes” and, especially pertinent to the genre, “I have seen his work,” echoing the biblical apocalypist’s “I am the one hearing and seeing these things.”
Biblical prophets were often reluctant to be the recipients of revelation and troubled by what they saw. What Bell says later in the novel about watching the execution of criminals would of course be all the more true of innocents being killed: “It aint something I would like to have to see again. To witness.” As in the Book of Revelation, more attention is given to visions of destruction than to visions of peace, but his final vision gives a glimpse of a little bit of light “in all that dark.”
A transcendent reality involving a supernatural world. Bell begins the opening monologue by referring to a nineteen-year old who murdered a fourteen-year old and “Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again.” Bell finds it hard to think of such a person in natural terms: “maybe he was some new kind.” About to go to the gaschamber, the kid “Said he knew he was goin to hell” and Bell believes it. But, like the apocalyptic woe that was past with more to come, this kid “wasnt nothing compared to what was comin down the pike.” Bell refers to “a prophet of destruction” whose actions and nature are central to the narrative. Later he will say that “He’s a ghost. But he’s out there.” At the end of the novel, this being who had earlier escaped from handcuffs and recovered from a bullet wound is known to have escaped from a car accident which was fatal to the others involved. Bell reaffirms his conclusion that “He's pretty much a ghost… he's out there. I wish he wasnt. But he is”—like the beast of Revelation who “was and is not and is to come” (many think this refers to Nero who was rumored to have come back to life after committing suicide).
Revelation mediated by an otherworldly being. Throughout the novel, Bell attempts to make sense of what he sees but readily admits the limits of his understanding. The voice of the divine offering a vision of goodness in the midst of “all that darkness” is that of his wife Loretta, “a spiritual person” whom God “has spoke to.” Extending grace to doers of “pretty bad things,” she “knew what she was doin. She always did.” Like the prisoners to whom she gave home-cooked food, Bell was undeservedly blessed by his relationship with her, a sign that the “Good Lord…smile[d] on me.” Just before the final vision of riding with his father on a trail, the allusions to biblical apocalyptic throughout the novel are made explicit when Bell refers to Loretta’s role as interpreter and encourager:
At supper this evenin she told me she'd been readin St John. The Revelations. Any time I get to talkin about how things are she'll find somethin in the bible so I asked her if Revelations had anything to say about the shape things was takin and she said she'd let me know… Then she come around behind my chair and put her arms around my neck and bit me on the ear. She's a very young woman in a lot of ways. If I didnt have her I dont know what I would have. Well, yes I do. You wouldn’t need a box to put it in, neither.
A transcendent reality envisaging eschatological salvation. Eschatology (adjective: eschatological) concerns beliefs about the end of time as we know it, the end of an era. In biblical apocalyptic, it is the end of domination by greed, oppression, war, brutality and darkness and the establishment of a realm of harmony, justice, peace, beauty and light. The audiences of the apocalyptic texts are well aware of present-day evils; the producers of the texts wish to assure that these will come to an end and divine order will be reestablished. Echoing the words and sentiments of the apocalyptic prophets, Bell refers to “signs and wonders” of the present, devoluted age and says “I know as certain as death that there aint nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.” Biblical apocalyptic was intended to encourage believers to stand firm, with warnings about misplaced belief and “being led astray.” Bell experiences and observes similar struggles: “I’m bein asked to stand for somethin that I dont have the same belief in it I once did” and he has “seen any number of believers fall away.”
Bell believes “the end is pretty much in sight” but shares the uncertainty of Llewelyn’s wife about its nature:
How do you think this is goin to end? he said.
I dont know. I dont know how nothing is going to end. Do you?
I know how it aint.
Like livin happily ever after?
Somethin like that.
The prophet of destruction, in contrast, claims omniscience: “I could have told you how all this would end” and ironically talks of “a final glimpse of hope… before the shroud drops.”
Bell’s uncle offers a different perspective on the end times—of individual lives if not an era: “I think by the time you’re grown you’re as happy as you’re goin to be. You’ll have good times and bad times, but in the end you’ll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy.”
Bell’s final vision gives another view of the end: confidence that his father had “in all that dark and all that cold” made a fire and that “whenever I got there he would be there.” The post-apocalyptic The Road will develop in harmony with this vision.
Prize: All the land one needs (and possibly much more)
Registration fee: 1000 rubles ≈ $4,000
Location: Bashkirstan, Russia
Course description: Mostly flat steppe; non-technical but grass is high.
Course map: One out and back loop, starting from the shikhan “rise” determined by the race director; the length and shape of the loop is determined and marked by the entrant.
Start & finish times: From appearance of sun to its disappearance
--Unsupported. In addition to food and drink, the entrant must carry a spade to dig up turf to mark the loop’s boundaries. All land within the loop will belong to the entrant.
--Entrant is guaranteed the minimal prize. Gaining land worth much more than the entrance fee is possible on an all or nothing basis. The entrant must mark the loop and return to the starting point before the sun disappears behind the horizon; if not, any right to the land will be forfeited. (Compare The Barkley Fall Classic: “Those who reach [the 22.1 mile] point within the [9.5 hour] time limit…can…choose to end the suffering and run an easy downhill grade for another 7 tenths of a mile, to record a marathon finish.... or, they can strike out into another 9 miles of brutal climbs and descents in an attempt to complete the 50k. Unlike other races with ‘drop-down’ choices, those who choose to continue can no longer log a marathon. At the BFC it is all or nothing.”)
Pre-race meal: tea, koumiss, mutton.
RACE REPORT OF ENTRANT PAHOM (1886)
This report, along with the above information, is taken from Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”
Primary goal: cover a rectangle of at least 24 miles (35 square miles; almost double the known record).
Motivational mantra: “An hour to suffer, a life-time to live.”
Race fuel: a bag of bread and a flask of water
Race gear: hat, work shirt and pants, vest with a pocket to hold the bread, belt to hold the flask, boots. The boots and vest were removed and carried soon after what Pahóm estimated to be mile 3. But towards the end of the race, “he threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept only the spade which he used as a support.
Strategy: A common racing error is to start out too fast and then struggle to finish at a much slower pace. Pahóm did the opposite. He walked casually until the morning stiffness was gone, increased the walking pace, stopping only to mark his loop and to have a drink and bread, and then broke into a run as the sun neared the western horizon.
Temperature: “terribly hot.”
Performance. Pahóm experienced the physical and emotional gamut so common to distance runners:
Tolstoy’s short stories such as “How Much Land…” are available online. A published collection is a great gift for children (can be read as bedtime stories), youth, and adults.
Trails we follow,