Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012: probably NOT the end of the world

Prophecies of the end of the world in 2012 are based on a misreading of the Mayan calendar. This is pointed out in Robert Bolton's excellent study of the cycles and philosophy of time, The Order of the Ages. Himself a Catholic Neoplatonist, Dr Bolton examines the various calendrical systems and prophecies of different ancient civilizations, finding a number of significant convergences, indicating the possible end of a cycle of history (NOT "the end of the world") towards the end of the present century. The Mayan calculation is complicated, but if Dr Bolton is right we should take the Mayan "year" of 360 days as a symbolic round number. The Mayans were as aware as anyone of the fact that a solar year was a few days longer than this, and if this fact is taken into account the end of the present cycle would come around 2087, according to their calendar.

Of course, this kind of speculation will not convince or even interest most people, but some would like to go further and explore the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, comparing these to the messages of the various apparitions and visionaries approved by the Church (Fatima, La Salette, and so on). For those readers, Emmett O'Regan's book Unveiling the Apocalypse will be a delight. In it he even goes in some depth into the ancient number symbolism of the Bible, called Gematria. His website (follow the link I just gave) gives further material and offers a sample chapter of the book. Some of these topics, such as Gematria, also come into my book All Things Made New, although unlike O'Regan in my "spiritual" interpretation of the Apocalypse I don't refer to extra-scriptural prophecies and I don't come to conclusions that relate to specific dates and historical events.

Illustration: Fresco from Osogovo Monastery, Macedonia (Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A mystic in New York

If you go to New York, and have any interest either in art or in mysticism, do visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum, tucked away in a brownstone building up on 319 West 107th Street. Roerich was a Russian-born artist, spiritual teacher, and peacemaker – a collaborator with Diaghilev and Stravinsky – whose paintings explore the myths and symbols, the natural beauty, and the spiritual strivings of humanity around the world. The Museum displays approximately two hundred of these
works, and keeps them permanently on display. It is also a cultural centre, offering free concerts and poetry readings. The museum itself is a lovely building to visit and beautifully designed and kept.

"Kiss to the Earth"
You don't have to be an admirer of Nicholas and Helena Roerich's eclectic theosophical ideas (they were joint founders of the Agni Yoga Society), or even his efforts to bring about world peace through the harmony of religion, science and art, to appreciate his landscapes, many of which were painted in the last part of his life when the family lived in the foothills of the Himalayas, or his gorgeous set designs for various ballets, like the one on the right. The strong but often subtle colours and bold shapes give the impression of a world seen though the eyes of a child.

"Where can one have such joy as when the sun is upon the Himalayas; when the blue is more intense than sapphires; when from the far distance, the glaciers glitter as incomparable gems. All religions, all teachings, are synthesized in the Himalayas." – extracts from Shambhala.

Friday, December 23, 2011

What's in a landscape?

In a previous post some time ago I mentioned G.K. Chesterton's aversion to impressionism, with which I did not quite agree. I want to look now at some landscape art that I find particularly inspiring, both to recommend it to your attention and to investigate a little for my own sake why I find it so appealing. I begin with a group of artists known as THE GROUP OF SEVEN or Algonquin School, whose work is being exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 January. Unfortunately I will miss the exhibition, but do go if you can. The artists in this group were born or lived in Canada from the end of the
nineteenth century, and they all tended to work outdoors. They loved the forests, the plains, the rivers, the mountains of Canada, and would take off into the wilderness with a sketchbook small enough to carry in a canoe or a backpack, capturing what they could usually as far from human habitation as possible. As a formal group they exhibited between 1920 and the year they disbanded, 1933.

What is it that is so attractive about their work? It is sensitive to place, indeed it celebrates particular features of the Canadian landscape, but quite stylized and intense, almost as if  they were trying to capture some ideal version of each scene, an Edenic vision of it in bright colours and bold shapes. Unlike the impressionists, they don't particularly try to capture the weather or the passing moods of the light. In fact mostly the pictures seem not even to contain shadows: each neatly framed scene glows with an interior light. Or else the shadows are just there to accentuate form. They include human habitations in the landscape, but were sometimes accused of overlooking the effects of humanity on the landscapes they portrayed – it wasn't what primarily interested them. Browse the "Gallery" in the link provided above and make up your own mind what you think.

Next: Nicholas Roerich.

Pictures: Tom Thomson, "Autumn's Garland"; Lawren Harris, "Mount Lefroy"

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Social network

Billed as the "social network of the JP2 and B16 generations", Ignitum Today seems well worth a visit.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Weaver on Education

A superb essay by Richard M. Weaver is featured by "The Imaginative Conservative", one of the blogs I recommend. Please read it if you have the time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Faith formation

Some readers might not be aware that I am currently working on two other blogs, which explains why postings are a bit slow on this one for the time being. One of them is on Catholic social teaching (The Economy Project). The other is about the Christian mysteries (All Things Made New), and currently features a series on the revival of "mystagogy", or faith formation through the study of symbolism and sacraments and liturgy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A tribute to John Paul II

The Humanitas review of Christian anthropology and culture, edited by Jaime Antunez Aldunate for the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, has until now been available only in Spanish, but a new English-language edition has just been launched, and is available free of charge online if you register HERE. The first issue is a superb 252-page tribute to Pope John Paul II, containing some of the best photographs and the best articles about him to be available anywhere. Contributors include Livio Melina of the John Paul II Institute in Rome, Carl Anderson, Avery Dulles, Angelo Scola, Stanislaw Grygiel, Josef Seifert, and many others, probing to the heart of the late Pope's spiritual, theological, and philosophical vision. If you have any interest in JPII, please don't fail to look at this superb volume.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nature full of grace

For reasons of space, the following had to be omitted from our recent "Gardens" issue of Second Spring. Meanwhile readers who enjoyed that issue may like Jane Mossendew's blog Gardening with God.

An Early Kalendar of English Flowers

The Snowdrop in purest white arraie
First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie;
While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.
Then comes the Daffodil beside
Our Ladye’s Smock at our Ladye-tide.
Aboute St George, when blue is worn,
The blue Harebells the fields adorn;
Against the day of Holie Cross,
The Crowfoot gilds the flowerie grasse.

When St Barnabie bright smiles night and daie,
Poor Raged Robin blossoms in the haie.
The Scarlet Lychnis, the garden’s pride,
Flames at St John the Baptist’s tide.
From Visitation to St Swithin’s showers,
The Lilie White reigns Queen of the floures;
And Poppies a sanguine mantle spred
For the blood of the Dragon St Margaret shed.
Then under the wanton Rose, agen,
That blushes for Penitent Magdalen,
Till Lammais daie, called August’s Wheel,
When the long corn stinks of Camamile.
When Mary left us here below,
The Virgin’s Bower is full in blow;
And yet anon, the full Sunflower blew,
And became a Starre for Bartholomew.
The Passion-floure long has blowed,
To betoken us signs of the Holy Roode.
The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Blooms for St Michael’s valourous deeds;
And seems the last of flowers that stode,
Till the feste of St Simon and St Jude –
Save Mushrooms, and the Fungus race,
That grow till All-Hallow-tide takes place.
Soon the evergreen Laurel alone is greene,
When Catherine crownes all leaned menne.
The Ivie and Holly Berries are seen,
And Yule Log and Wassails come round agen.

Anon., cited in Gladys Taylor, Saints and Their Flowers (Mowbray, 1956), 51-2.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's wrong with modernist architecture?

An interview with Nikos Salingaros, a follower of Christopher Alexander, on what went wrong with architecture in the twentieth century. "By contradicting traditional evolved geometries, modernist and contemporary architecture and urban planning go against the natural order of things. When an architect or planner ignores the need for adaptation and imposes his or her will, the result is an absurd form—an act of defiance toward any higher sense of natural order. There is no room for God in totalitarian design." From The Public Discourse, with a link to download the full interview. For wonderful articles on Christian architecture, see the Institute for Sacred Architecture web site.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The coming of THE CHILD

15th November, the feast of St Albert the Great, patron of scientists, saw the launch of the new (free) online review HUMANUM: Issues in Family, Culture, and Science, edited by Stratford Caldecott for the John Paul II Institute in Washington. It is all about “the human”: what makes us human, what keeps us human, and how to rescue our humanity when this is endangered. Our aim is to pick our way with discernment through the flood of publications (some good, some confused, some pernicious) that claim to tell us about ourselves, about family, marriage, love, children, health, and human life.

Humanum has a particular concern with issues that directly affect the poor and the vulnerable in our society. Each issue will have a main theme around which the reviews and articles cluster, and we begin with an issue on THE CHILD, because this reveals the foundation of our perspective on humanity: the child is the purest revelation of man and his relationship to Being. The lead article is a major piece by the Editor of Communio, Prof. David L. Schindler, which goes right to the heart of our present cultural malaise.

The Humanum website was designed by Adam Solove. For an article about the first issue, go here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Discussion of The Lord of the Rings

What follows is a hitherto unpublished discussion of The Lord of the Rings by Gregory Glazov and Stratford Caldecott. (And if Tolkien interests you, you might also like to take a look at Andrew Abela's article "Shire Economics".)

Glazov: Many thanks for sharing a little time with us. The issue that I am excited about and wish to explore with you concerns the nature of a spiritual book. In a BBC interview I heard a few years ago between J.K. Rowling and Stephen Fry, when they were discussing C.S. Lewis and his book The Magician's Nephew, Rowling said that she always understood the pools between the worlds to be a metaphor for books. This also translates into understanding the Wardrobe of The Lion, the W, and the W, as a metaphor for a book… What I like about this metaphor is that it catches the fact that a book is a vehicle that can transplant us into another world, open our eyes to things we've never seen before, allow us to share in the adventure of the protagonists, broaden our world view, nurture ourselves and then return into our own world enriched. I especially like how in The L, W and W, the children, having befriended Aslan/Christ, are told that they would be returning to their own world and needing to learn to relate to him by his name in this world and then how their return to this world is depicted as being attended with suspense and a sense of adventure. C.S. Lewis thereby communicates very well that this same adventure is open to us readers to have as well, whereby the journey to Narnia through his book and back again gives us fresh eyes to believe and recognize the presence of Christ in our own lives and live more fully and adventurously with him. This I understand, but I'd like to take these insights deeper. What are some things that you might like to add here?

Stratford: I like Rowling's insight. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is like that too – very deliberately on the author's part, since the characters in the story often comment on the "tale" that they are in. The reader is hauled in by the ears, as Sam is hauled in through the window of Bag End in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. By "listening in" to the story he becomes personally involved, and in fact the whole journey to Mordor and back is his adventure as much as it is anyone's. Another moment worth remembering is when Frodo sees Lothlorien for the first time. Tolkien, and I think Lewis, believed that in a fairy story, real, created things such as metal, horses, and trees are manifested in glory (Excalibur, Anduril, Pegasus, Shadowfax, Yggdrasil, Telperion). The effect is to give a glimpse of the real world transfigured (or, as Tolkien would say, “enchanted”). Thus the reader of The Lord of the Rings, entering the imaginative world of the novel, may have a similar experience to that of a character entering one of those "pools" in the Wood, or (one of my favourite scenes) Frodo entering the Elvish landscape of Lothlorien: “A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever.” That is the experience we have, as readers, when we read a good fairy tale, and why we keep coming back for more – why we find it a wholesome and healing experience to do so.
   In one of his letters (Letter 131 in the published collection), Tolkien says a bit more about that "light" that shines within a good story. He calls it “the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and ‘says that they are good’ – as beautiful.” It is the light that takes us back to the very Beginning of things. That's what his "Elves" are all about. And the important point is that when Frodo leaves Lothlorien – as we leave the novel, by setting it aside or coming to the end – he will in some sense always remain there, out of time. "When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlorien."

Glazov: I have been researching and writing a short booklet on the prayers Glory Be and the Gloria recently. One of my interests is to understand and explain why we should give glory to God not just for what was in the beginning or what will be forever and ever but for what is now, given that the "now" is so intertwined with sorrow and grief. As a biblical scholar I am aware of how psalm scholars divide the psalms into psalms of orientation (those that praise God for the goods of creation), disorientation (the laments) and reorienation (the praises and thanksgivings that transcend the phases of disorientation). As a Catholic, I relate these three phases to the three traditional groupings of the mysteries of the Rosary: the Joyful, the Sorrowful and the Glorious. I intuit that the Christian tradition has here defined glory by distinguishing it from joy through the interposition of sorrow. This is to say that Glory involves a transformation or transfiguration of reality in a way that presupposes sorrow and transcends it. The challenge is to explain how this transpires organically, in life. How does sorrow turn to glory? In the course of preparing this booklet I was also underlining all the glory motifs I could find in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, which are many. One theme that I was very interested to understand occurred in the initial pages of The Silmarillion describing the creation of the world. There, each angel sings a theme that God gave him to sing with a view to intertwining it with others so as to make a great music. The music foreshadows the history of the world. Morgoth, the fallen angel or Satan, seeks to mar the music and destroy the harmony. In a series of movements, God works to work Morgoth's disharmony into a greater harmony: "And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other... essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern... into the devising of things more wonderful, which he (that attempteth the alteration) hath not imagined." 
   So are we – and how are we – to translate the perception of the light that shines within a good story into a perception that the same transpires in our own world and lives? How does sorrow increase beauty and lead to glory? And as for moving out of time, how is this movement to be mediated? What are some further ways in which Tolkien's stories illustrate these mysteries and sustain us with hope in the midst of sorrow?

Stratford: What Tolkien is trying to express using mythopoeia is what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the "theo-drama" based on the interplay of created and uncreated freedom. The message of his story is that by acting rightly we tune ourselves to the beautiful music, we become part of it. By acting out of harmony with others, we become part of the alternative music that he says is "loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated". In the end, whatever is of value in the second music is subsumed and transfigured by the first – evil can create nothing of itself, and whatever it achieves by marring the good can be turned by the good into an opportunity to make something "more wonderful". So "in everything God works for good with those who love him" (Romans 8:28). Tolkien shows us how to act, how to "work for good", through the way his characters behave. For example in The Lord of the Rings, the various members of the Fellowship manage to act with courage and kindness and wisdom even when evil appears to be triumphing all around them. Aragorn's very name (in Elvish "Estel") means "Hope", and he demonstrates the kind of heroism that is based on doing the right thing because it is right, even when we have no idea how it will turn out – a hope founded not on some prediction of advantages to be gained, but on the nature of things. This is the contrary of modern moral thinking based on "consequentialism". 
   At the end of the passage you quoted, God stands up and brings the Music to an end with a single chord "deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament". That could be a reference to the Last Judgment, which is brought about through the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, for that is the supreme case of bringing good out of evil. This, the final chord, integrates all the notes and themes of the Music, but in a way that could not have been predicted by Angels, Elves or Men. It is worth noting that Tolkien actually builds a prophecy of the Incarnation into the story of Finrod and Andreth (published posthumously), in which he speaks of the possiblily that Eru, the One God, might enter into the creation and heal it from within. So Tolkien's mythopoetic account is consistent with the Christian answer to the problem of evil. Jesus, on the Cross, accepts all that evil can throw at him, even allows himself to be killed, but turns it all into a story of love. In the end, love proves stronger. Sorrow is turned to beauty and joy.

Glazov: Yes, you told me about this piece, the Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, and having read it, it remains for me one of the most consoling and hope-sustaining texts I know, since it is all about the grounds for hope in the nature of things, and also about the consolatory value of words and conversation, but I also want to express wonder over this last insight of yours into the deeper meaning of that phrase "deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament" in its context and for explaining how it may be understood in a way that does not integrate evil into the final harmony and does not make the ultimate harmony dependent upon evil but allows evil to be an occasion for goodness to reach deeper and higher levels. And I can see how this explanation can also have profound pastoral and vocational worth. But let us turn to a related concern the expression of which I don't notice very clearly in Tolkien but which interests me, namely prayer. Now I know that from one perspective, Tolkien's work is a fictional, secondary world, and is, as such, an exercise in creative imagination. On the other hand, it is a concerted exercise on his part in understanding the nature of our existence. Now given this second point, why is it that his characters hardly ever pray, save perhaps when they sing what may be taken as hymns? If human beings and elves are the children of Eru, the One God, why is there so little consciously manifest spiritual communication between them in the realm of prayer? Even in our own world, way before Abraham, in the most primitive of times, "men still called upon the name of God" (Gen 4:26). But in Tolkien such prayers are at a minimum. How come? What are the lessons to be drawn from this as to his views on prayer and on the way we should conduct our own lives?

Stratford: Given the way thousands of Tolkien fans dress up as Elves and Wizards one must be grateful that he wasn't too explicit about religious practices in Middle-earth. One might by now have a number of Ring-inspired churches. I doubt, though, that he would have considered that as a possibility while he was actually writing the books in the 1940s. He tells us somewhere that in the pre-Christian, even pre-Judaic era where his stories are set, the One God was so “remote” that prayer to him would have seemed impossible. You could only approach the Divine through the intermediary beings, the Valar, who “knew him” face-to-face. The Elves venerated and invoked Elbereth, for example, even though they were aware that she was a created being. But "prayer" in the explicit sense of words or thoughts addressed to Eru would only become possible when Eru began to reveal himself to Men in preparation for his own Incarnation. In that sense the world of Middle-earth is a world in a state of "waiting" for God, without fully realizing what it is waiting for – without knowing any kind of Covenant. The only portrayal of a "pagan" religion among Men in Tolkien's work is the cult of Sauron in Numenor, which was obviously a kind of Satanism. 
   Now all of this strikes us as most peculiar when we come to the Shire, which resembles the rural England of Tolkien's childhood. Hobbiton is an English village with a pub but no parish church – hardly possible! Yet by omitting all reference to a religion among the Hobbits, Tolkien is able to produce quite an effective commentary on post-Christian, "postmodern" Britain – if you take the Scouring of the Shire into account along with the Long-Expected Party. The philosopher Nicholas Boyle has even suggested that the Shire represents (for Tolkien) an England deprived of Catholic Christianity by the Reformation, with the Scouring a prophecy of the return of the Old Faith. I think that is pushing things a bit! To find Tolkien's views on prayer and the Christian life there are two places we can look. Firstly, as a Catholic father he could speak quite openly about prayer and the spiritual life in letters to his children. Many important letters on this subject (for example Letter 250, which is partly about his love for the Eucharist, and Letter 310, about the meaning of life) are published in the official collection. Secondly, we can look within the book itself, provided we look beneath the surface. In his well-known 1953 letter to Robert Murray, Tolkien says it is BECAUSE the work is Catholic that he has cut out "practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and its symbolism." So we should not expect to find the Lord's Prayer in Elvish, but we can find Tolkien's understanding of the "religious element" of life embedded in the symbolism and the story.

Glazov: There is something jarring to me still about the absorption of the religious element (of things like prayer) into the story and its symbolism, but it is addressed by understanding that this absorption and absence were the result of a conscious intention and revision on Tolkien's part and that the search for what he thought about this element is better satisfied in his letters and explanations of the symbolism of his work than in his work. Perhaps we should turn to Tolkien himself in bringing this conversation to a close. Could we synthesize what we spoke about by clarifying the reason why you gave Gandalf's epithet, "the keeper of the secret fire" to Tolkien in your book about him? I have a few hunches, one of them being the identification in Tolkien's writings of Gandalf with the angel Olorin who, before his incarnation as Gandalf, would frequent men and inspire them with faith and hope without revealing himself to them, and whose name is connected with the concepts of "dream" and "artistic imagination." Would it be right to connect him with the keeper of that "light" you spoke of earlier that shines within a good story, “the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively)" and says that they are good and beautiful – the light that takes us back to the very Beginning of things? That fire or light that Gandalf seeks to sustain in Tolkien's world, Tolkien is dedicated to in ours. But what Tolkien is dedicated to is illuminating the salvific importance of the "light of art undivorced from reason" that shines in good stories. If this is ok, I'd now like to make a huge leap and suggest that the humble hobbits in Tolkien's world, to whom few but Gandalf pay attention, correspond in some way in our world to good stories, faerie to whom few of the wise of this world pay serious attention, but at a severe cost. Taking the analogy further would suggest that the salvation of the world depends in large measure on theologians recognizing the key role that humble good fairy stories have to play in bringing humanity onto the winning side of the good in its battle vs evil. I haven't said this very well. Can you clarify it?

Stratford: A servant of the Secret Fire would be more appropriate than "keeper", and I think is what I hinted. The Fire is with God, and kept by Him alone. Ultimately, it is none other than the Holy Spirit. So I guess I would make a distinction between the Fire and the light we are speaking of. The Fire is the power of making real. When Melkor sought to create a world independently of God, he needed the Secret Fire to make it possible, but "he found not the Fire, for it is with Iluvatar". Without the Fire, all he could do was copy and spoil. The light of "art undivorced from reason" is I suppose a kind of radiance from the Fire, or a reflection of it, not the Fire itself. Here Verlyn Flieger's book Splintered Light would be most helpful to read. Notice that Tolkien says it is a light "that sees", and so it must also be a kind of primordial consciousness. (Another of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, would have appreciated that, since his big theme was the evolution of consciousness.) That little quote we are discussing, from a footnote in Letter 131, is very condensed. The Light or consciousness of Valinor enables us to "see things... scientifically (or philosophically)", to imagine them by seeing them "sub-creatively", AND to recognize them as beautiful and good. Tolkien associates the Fall with the "divorce" of the first two, which he calls reason and art, and implies that once that divorce has taken place in our consciousness, we can no longer see things in the way the Creator sees them, as "beautiful". (A connection could be made here with what Hans Urs von Balthasar said about the loss of a sense of the importance and meaning of beauty in the modern world.) 
   So I would call Tolkien a "keeper", if you like, of the Light of Valinor in the sense that his work was intended to heal that divorce, to reawaken that primordial consciousness in his readers. In fact back in 1916 he even wrote in one of his letters about his mission as a writer being to "rekindle an old light in the world". He was writing to one of a group of schoolfriends, who felt they had been collectively granted "some spark of fire" to kindle that light. It turned out to be true, and Tolkien was the one who carried the spark, or through whom a glimpse of that light was passed on to us. You are quite right. The Hobbits and their stories embody the "old light" that is in danger of dying out in the world – just as much as the Elves do. In fact the Elves represent it to the Hobbits, and the Hobbits represent it to us, because they are closer to us than the Elves are. We get drawn into the story through the Hobbits, and with the Hobbits we are changed by their experiences. We start to be able to see the Elvish light.
Theologians need to see that they can't help us by using "reason" divorced from "art". Unless their work is imaginative as well as rational they won't be able to show us the light that comes from the Creator.

Glazov: Perhaps this is a good place to end a conversation on the light and glory to be found in our world through the mediation of fairy stories and imaginative literature. What you say suggests that it might not be inappropriate to commence a gentle campaign for Tolkien's beatification and perhaps canonization, who knows?, that could begin with a collection of testimonies to the spiritual nourishment that he may have provided to thousands of people, in ways analogous to those of Lewis and Newman. Are there any hearts and minds in the hierarchy who would be positively responsive to such a desire and credit it? Von Balthasar would have been one of them were he still alive. You probably know of others. Do you think it's a worthwhile venture?

Stratford: I would love to be able to say yes, and I certainly believe that Tolkien must be in heaven. The impact of his books cannot be overestimated, and he was instrumental in the conversion of C.S. Lewis, and thus at least indirectly in the conversion of many others. I think many Catholics would attribute their conversion in part to the influence of his writings on their imaginations, making goodness and providence more intelligible to them – myself included. But there are many saints in heaven who were never formally canonized and never will be. The process of canonization is extremely complex in cases like this, and I am not sure it would even be a good idea to try to get it started. Something similar has been mooted from time to time about Chesterton, because he inspires great devotion and his writings are so full of Christian wisdom. In Chesterton's case it would almost be easier, since his life was explicitly devoted to defending Catholic faith, and there is plenty of testimony to his personal virtues. But even there the cause for canonization has not even been started, and may never be. Tolkien is more complicated, even by his own account. And who would give testimony to his holiness? His colleagues were sometimes bitchy about him, his family probably had mixed feelings and in any case would not want to encourage a religious "cult" around him. That leaves the fans, who admittedly leave little tokens and symbols of their love and votive offerings on his grave in Oxford (I have noticed a woollen eagle, a sheep, scraps of paper inscribed in Elvish, rosary beads, action figures...). But the Church would want more than that. A few miracles would be needed, but first they would have to establish heroic virtue. My own view is that we should thank him in prayer for what he has written, that we should learn from him and study him by all means, praying for him and his family at All Souls, and if we are privately inclined to ask for his intercession, as someone we believe to be close to God, there is nothing to prevent it. No need to worry that he doesn't have his own feast day in the calendar! I trust that does not disappoint you.

Glazov: No it doesn't disappoint me. It's rather fitting really and helps to conform Tolkien to his character Niggle in Leaf by Niggle in a manner that suggests that that story, about the journey through purgatory of a man dedicated to a painstaking realization of the painting of his dreams/imagination, a Tree, but accomplishing no more than one of its leaves on account of constant interruptions and demands on his charity by his neighbors, and meeting little but contempt from the practical world, is autobiographical. It looks forward to the debate he anticipated about his career, reflecting real worries about the judgement he would receive but also a real hope of intercession by his guardian angel. It suggests that he had faith that his life task and vision would serve as a doorway and a gate to the realization of his dreams beyond all measure in heaven, where he would see not only the leaf he sought to realize but the tree and forest and world to which it was attached. I don't know of a more consoling or inspiring text. I've given it to several people who I think are Niggles at heart and it sustained and consoled them beyond measure. On the other hand, it might be enough to think of Tolkien as a Bilbo or a Frodo or a Sam, rather than as a Gandalf, for the labours he undertook, and not give up the hope that, were the first two analogies to apply, the cardinal analogues of Gandalf in our world might commemorate his memory by saying he deserves a publicly recognized place on a ship to Valinor. But as you've alluded to his family, then Sam-Christopher, might be the better judge of this as you say. Would Christopher reciprocate his father's identification of him with Sam (I recall this from somewhere) by identifying his dad with Frodo?

Stratford: I couldn't say anything about Christopher's present view, since I don't know the family well enough. It isn't easy to identify the author, let alone his son, with any one character. Tolkien senior at one point tells us that he feels more like Faramir than any of the other characters – and he also identifies deeply with Beren, whose name is inscribed on his tombstone along with "Luthien" referring to his wife. However, your question brings up an interesting point that takes us in a way to the heart of the books. If you read the series of volumes Christopher edited and published after his father's death under the title "History of Middle-earth", you see that the father-son relationship is closely related in Tolkien's own mind to the theme of storytelling. Over and over again in the early years of his project, after the First World War, he started, and then abandoned, attempts to "frame" the stories that were to become The Silmarillion by developing a plausible account of the "transmission" of the tales. The final version of The Lord of the Rings, as you know, purports to be a transcription of the "Red Book of Westmarch", which originates in the memoir that Bilbo is seen to be writing in Rivendell, which he then hands over to Frodo to complete, as his "heir", and Frodo in turn passes on to Sam. In the posthumously published "Lost Tales", the one who collects the narratives is a man called Eriol, who comes to the island of the Elves from the north of what is now the European mainland and hears the history of the Elves in the "Cottage of Lost Play". The island itself is later conquered by Eriol's sons (Hengest, Horsa, and Heorrenda) and becomes known as "England". In Tolkien's later writings, Eriol becomes Aelfwine ("Elf-friend", which you remember is also one of the names given to Frodo), and by 1937 in "The Lost Road" and 1945 in "The Notion Club Papers" Aelfwine is just one of a series of father-son pairs, descended in direct line from Elendil of Numenor, who share a kind of inherited memory of the island's fall. Tolkien and his son Michael (who was born in 1920) were haunted by exactly such an apparent "memory", a dream of great wave drowning a green land. It would, of course, be neat if the son who shared the dream had been Christopher, who was the one who went on to become the "heir", but nevertheless the idea of inherited memory suggested to Tolkien a non-technological means of time travel that would enable him to root his stories even more firmly in the reality of our present.
   The metaphor of the "leaf" and the "tree" that you found in Leaf by Niggle is tremendously relevant to all this. Not only is each of Tolkien's tales merely a leaf on the great "Tree of Tales" that he tries to sketch out in The Silmarillion, but he sees himself as a leaf on a great tree of ancestors, and the stories are a way of connecting himself and his people, the English, back to Numenor/Atlantis, back to the Elves, and ultimately back to the stars and the first light of creation. It is a vision of history in which we are all connected through a great story that begins in God and returns to him, woven of human freedom under divine Providence, a tale of loss and tragedy and defeat that culminates in eucatastrophe and ends in the healing of all sorrows. This is the landscape and the reality that is revealed to Niggle after his death. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters to his son Michael in the dark days of the Second World War, "The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas about it. There is a place called 'heaven' where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet...."

Gregory Glazov teaches at Seton Hall Seminary in New Jersey.

Friday, October 28, 2011

How I Made Over 10K In One Month!

Hi Everyone!
It's been ages since I've created a post on our blog. I truly apologize. I've been keeping everyone updated via my newsletter this year but I promise to create more post here as well.

Feel free to sign up for our newsletters below:

Well , I'm so excited to bring this post to you. I always like to give tips on how to optimize your site, market your site and on and on...
I also like to show you proof of what a particular tactic can do for those of you who are serious about being successful online. That's exactly what I am going to do in this post. I'll try to keep this one short so it won't be so overwhelming.
To make a long story short. I am not only a seo specialist, I also own and operate several online pet boutiques. I have recently started 3 new pet sites this year. This email is going to focus on my very specific niche dog Halloween costume shop ( ). I began this site in February of this year because I am a firm believer in creating niche sites/ spinoff sites or in other words, sites that are based off of one specific theme. This is always a great idea especially for those of you who know your industry in and out.
When I first started off the traffic was slowly but surely creaping in as you can see below. Within the first month, I got over 800 visits. Not bad for a new site but nowhere near where I wanted to be for such a popular type of market.
So instead of letting the site sit there, I started doing some keyword research and found the perfect keyword that I was going to use as my main targeted keyword : Halloween Costumes For Dogs. You can see below that this keyword is pretty popular as far as searches per month is concerned. I also complied a list of about 70 other keywords I wanted to target and started optimzing my site right away:
The goal for this site was to make sure that I optimized it earlier enough to get in the top searches in time for Halloween shopping time. I wanted to make sure I was on the first page of Google for my main keyword by the end of August which is around the time customers start shopping for costumes.
As I optimized more and more categories and products. My traffic started to increase. So I started my next step in optimizing : Link Building. I started link buildng with my main keyword as well as my main categories so I could make sure I was ranking for my lower competition keywords as well as my highly competitive keyword.
Low and behold, my SEO campaign paid off. I decided to check my stats last week to see how well the site had done for it's busiest months i.e. September and October. I knew that I was super busy and had to hire someone to take orders but didn't think I had done that well for the past month. From September 23rd to October 24th I had done over $10,000 in sales and my traffic was way over 20,000 as far as visitors were concerned.
The best things about all of the stats above is this:
  • My site is only 8 months old!
  • I am on the first page of google for my targeted keyword : Halloween Costumes For Dogs
  • The marjority of my traffic comes from organic search results : 70.76%
So if you get nothing else from this newsletter. Please take away this:
  • You don't have to be in business for a long time to acheive 1st page rankings and get your desired amount of traffic to your site.
  • If you are an online business now and you are doing pretty good with a particular product type, think about starting a separate business just based off of that product or category. Niche businesses bring in a lot of traffic and sales. Especially around peak shopping times.
  • Don't let anyone tell you that you don't have to worry about optimzing your site. SEO really does help when it comes to ranking for your desired keywords and you can definitely make it to the top page for your targeted keywords.
I hope this newsletter inspires you to keep your dreams for your online business going. Wishing you tons of success and prosperity.
If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to just reply to this email or Contact us with any questions.
Have a wonderful day!Smile
My SEO Gal

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Second Spring Catechesis

Take a look inside, and help your child follow along with the new Missal translation!

Some years ago we started our own publishing with the idea of producing high-quality artwork in children's colouring books in service of an imaginative and symbolic approach to catechesis. That simply means that rather than talk to kids about religious ideas, we would show them. Our colouring books use the symbolic language of Nature and the Bible to introduce children to the mysteries of the Catholic faith. One of our books is written by Scott Hahn. The beauty and enjoyment of interacting with the illustrations means that the child enters more deeply into the symbolism and the "visual language" of faith - the same language we find in icons, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, mosaics, and frescoes.

In developing this approach, Leonie Caldecott was partly inspired by Sophia Cavaletti. Leonie saw it as an application of the fundamental principle of the new evangelization: the intimate association of truth and goodness with beauty. This implies a vital role not only for intelligence and will but for imagination in religious formation. The Vatican has called for an “evangelization through beauty”, since this is the main way in which modern people can still relate to the Christian tradition and begin to grasp its meaning for them. But the first challenge was getting children to relate to the central act of worship, the Mass, which is why our lead title was always THE MASS ILLUSTRATED FOR CHILDREN, now issued in a revised edition, with improved illustrations and a text drawn from the new translation of the Roman Missal - so that the book can be used not only for colouring but as a first Missal, helpfully guiding the child through the unfamiliar prayers and responses of the Mass. (Order now, for delivery in October.)

Second Spring Catechesis involves taking the child, and the child’s sensibility and culture, much more seriously than most other forms of catechesis have done. It opens windows in the child’s imagination through which the vision of the faith can be transmitted, or (to vary the metaphor) it prepares the ground and plants the seeds for a later, more intellectual appreciation of the faith in the child’s mind. To nourish the child’s sense of mystery and of the sacred is essential for the healthy development of the life of faith and prayer through the difficult years of adolescence that lie ahead. The further benefit of exposing children at an early age to a wide range of rich and beautiful imagery lies in helping to perpetuate the best artistic traditions of Christianity. By fostering an appreciation of how icons function to express religious truths and support the interior life, Second Spring Catechesis thus complements and extends the work being done for an older age group by David Clayton in Thomas More College’s “Education in Beauty” program. Indeed David himself has illustrated two of our books for children, adapting his knowledge of traditional styles and techniques for the purpose. New titles are in preparation for next year, but in the meantime we hope you will order THE MASS for your parish or class, either through our UK distributor Prompt Reply, or if you live in N. America through our US distributor, Thomas More College, who can also give you current US prices.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"I See All"

Consisting of around 100,000 little black and white pictures with captions, interspersed with many gorgeous full-colour themed pages like this one, I See All (click on title for link) was billed as the "world's first pictorial encyclopedia" when it started appearing as a part-work in 1900, edited by Arthur Mee. Like the more recent Look and Learn, which I wrote about earlier, it is available online or in ebook format. My family inherited a set of the bound volumes, and I remember poring over it as a child. The imagination of a child invests such things with an intensity of life and colour - and an "atmosphere" - that grown-ups have mostly forgotten, until perhaps they chance on an old comic book or encyclopedia and experience a wave of nostalgia. We learn more from these experiences of beauty than we can put into words. I will be featuring some of the colour pages from this publication in future posts. They may be useful or inspirational to someone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Purpose of education

At the end of Part Four of G.K. Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World comes this wonderful quote, which is worth pondering:
There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education...
I take this out of its context, where he is talking about female education in particular, to encourage you to go to the original. The passage ends with the famous motto: "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly".

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


One way into a study of medieval history for some children is the aesthetic pleasure of heraldry - an imaginative delight in the visual symbolic language employed by feudal knights to distinguish themselves in battles and tournaments. The Church still has her own elaborate system of ecclesiastical heraldry, devising formal emblems for bishops and popes. Another angle would be especially appropriate for families reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Not only did Tolkien develop several viable languages for his "secondary world", including varieties of Elvish, but he even devised a series of mandala-like heraldic emblems for the different Elvish houses - you can find them online here or here. Some children will be fascinated with these, and they could be used in many different ways by homeschoolers (as I suggested in a previous post). For example, you could explore the symbolism of shapes and colours and how these relate to the story, or you could make black and white versions to colour in, or you could invent new ones (for example make a heraldic emblem for your own family or those of your friends). This in turn could lead you to compare Tolkien's symbology with traditional European heraldry. The subject also opens the door to possible discussions of symbolism in general, and of tradition, and of chivalry. You might like to read Chesterton on "pictorial symbols" in his book The Defendant, the chapter on Heraldry, or passages in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill where he talks about the "ancient sanctity of colours" and at the end of The Man Who Was Thursday where the six protagonists are clothed in symbolic vestments representing the days of creation... Then again, there is the whole subject of chivalry, that code of male ethics with which the Church tried to channel the aggression of feudal Europe in a more spiritual direction - but that calls for a separate post.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Little Way

I have written previously about a radical form of homeschooling called "unschooling". Perhaps the best introduction to unschooling for Catholics is a book edited by Suzie Andres, which I had previously seen in draft. Now published under the title A Little Way of Homeschooling, it is based on the experiences of a group of home-schooling families who saw in John Holt the articulation not just of a theory but of a spirituality of education, akin to the “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux – a way of trust and simplicity. Being based on the actual experiences of families over many years, the book builds a certain confidence that unschooling is not merely an ideology, and need not be considered an impractical, idealistic dream. (I should mention also the delightful black and white line drawings.)

These parents know exactly what they are doing. Here is Karen Edmisten: "Most of us would probably agree that in many areas of our society specialization can and does lead to fragmentation. Parsing education into subjects, which are then studied in a vacuum apart from other subjects, can also lead to a fragmented understanding of both the subjects and the world around us." Contrast the method or "unmethod" described in action here, in which history is full of literature, literature marches through history, history is interlaced with science, and everything points to Faith, because everything is connected with the Reason of everything.

There is in fact a deep compatibility between the radical homeschool or unschooling approach to education and other manifestations of the Catholic understanding of human nature. Natural Family Planning, like unschooling, is regarded by many as an impractical ideal or an ideology, but when practised in the right spirit it reveals itself as something else entirely. The point about NFP is that it requires mutual respect and attentiveness to the whole person of the spouse. It should not be treated as just another instrument for achieving the aim of reducing fertility. For a couple to master NFP is to for them to grow in mutual love and knowledge. Similarly, unschooling is based on respect for the child and love between generations.

And yet the accounts in the book underline one important fact. It seems that, to be realistic, one must acknowledge that the success or failure of the unschooling as well as the homeschooling approach depends in large part not just on the individual child and his motivation, but on the family as a whole, especially the parents. The flourishing of any individual requires the right kind of attention from others. Precisely because unschooling is a spirituality, it will only succeed (on almost any measure of success) if the family is of a certain type or has a certain maturity. As Cindy Kelly says in her chapter, “The most powerful way to encourage my sons to enjoy a new area of learning is to model it myself and continue our dialogue about their interests and mine.” Not every parent is capable of that; not all have the leisure, confidence, or motivation to do so. But for those who do, I can imagine - after reading this book - that it might work beautifully well.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back to the Circle

Reviewers of Beauty for Truth's Sake have been kind, but even the most ecstatic would admit that there are weak and even silly patches in the book, especially in the chapter called "The Golden Circle", where I play with some ideas relating theology and mathematics (inspired by Simone Weil's work and Vance Morgan's excellent book on her). Apart from anything else, I came up with a concept called "the Golden Circle" and wasn't able to develop it properly, since I lack the mathematical ability to do so. The "Circle" was simply a Golden Rectangle inscribed in a circle, which I thought one could use to explore the relations of Pi to Phi (Φ and π are connected together by the fact that the Golden Rectangle’s diagonal forms the diameter of the circle).

But my conception of the Golden Circle has evolved, and Michael Schneider has kindly redrawn it for me on the right (an intermediate stage was discussed in an earlier post). The Golden Circle itself is now a Golden Ring, shown in yellow. There are in fact three circles, one inscribed within the short sides of a Golden Rectangle, one inside the long sides, and one through the corners of the rectangle. On the basis of Pythagoras's Theorem, a large number of relationships can be established between areas and lengths in this figure, since we know that the circumference of a circle is Pi multiplied by the diameter, and the area is Pi multiplied by the radius squared. For example, the circumference of the middle-sized circle (the outside of the yellow ring) is Pi times Phi. But I'll leave you to work out what the rest of them are. Let me know sometime. It might make a nice exercise for a geometry class. The theology can wait.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Great Books and Western Studies

What is a "great book"? It is surely a book that stands re-reading many times, and deserves to be so read. And an educated person is one who knows the great books, and re-reads them. C.S. Lewis is quoted in Walter Hooper's Foreword to C.S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid (a wonderful new parallel text from Yale that could be used to teach Latin translation as well as introduce the Aeneid), as follows:
There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary. It is infallible. The literary man re-reads, other men simply read. A novel once read is to them like yesterday's newspaper. One may have some hopes for a man who has never read the Odyssy, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick; but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells us he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter. It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk.
I feel better, now, about having read The Lord of the Rings so many times. Reading great books, however (even more than one), does not suffice to make a person educated. They need to be placed in a context, they need to be loved, and they need to open the door to other interests and other
fields of knowledge. In a world where there are no longer any common binding assumptions, a world without real traditions, clinging to the great books is like clinging to pieces of wood broken off a great ship that has long since sunk. We need a ship, an adequate vision of reality, and it is the job of education to build it...

That is the kind of thinking behind the curriculum and teaching of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, which also offers programmes in Rome and Oxford, as well as other colleges, centres for Catholic study, and study-abroad programmes - such as the following from the Center for Western Studies, which offers a gap-year on Western civilization and its religious foundations:
Cultural critics are rightly concerned that we are declining as a civilization in the West. Once Western civilization imagined and created universities, hospitals, cathedrals, great art and music, all through the thoughtful combination of Greek and Christian thought that formed the basis for Western Reason (as exemplified in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas). Today, while we may sustain the outward appearance of these institutions, our culture has lost the general Christian convictions it once held, and the result is that these institutions are becoming hollowed-out shells that resemble them on the outside but inside are increasingly confused. Universities teach there is no truth, hospitals practice abortion, great cathedrals house more tourists than worshippers, fine art has gone from public significance to private museums, and we no longer believe there is a connection between faith and reason. We are living on borrowed capital from that earlier age of faith, and many historians and cultural critics are predicting that the West as a civilization is lost. While none would want to go back to a world of plagues, feudal warfare and no plumbing (which is still the way of life in many other parts of the world), we would like to regain anything that past generations have accomplished that is truly timeless, and find ways to apply those ideas to human life in our own day.
I have no first-hand experience of these gap-year programmes, but that too sounds like the right idea. And yet what do we do about other cultures, other civilizations? It's no use pretending we are not a multi-cultural society. And how do we revive faith, if that is the key to rebuilding our own civilization?

Illustration: Virgil, with Clio and Melpomene, from Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Diagram of the cosmos

The Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey was underfoot when the Pope met the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2010, and when William married Kate in 2011. It is the traditional site of royal coronations -- 38 kings and queens have been crowned on this spot since 1268 (the symbolism of the ceremony is analysed by Aidan Nichols OP in his book The Realm). The Pavement is a kind of Western "mandala", a representation of the entire cosmos based on squares and circles and sacred numbers. I have posted about it before, but there are things to add. For one thing a much more detailed image of the entire Pavement is available here, on the Getty web-site.

The central disk of onyx represents the world, and the two sets of four roundels around it the four elements and four qualities unified by love, a symbol of the Great Chain of Being that bound the monarch to the lowliest subject and the highest angel under God, as in this fifteenth-century text:
"In this order, hot things are in harmony with cold, dry with moist, heavy with light, great with little, high with low. In this order, angel is set over angel, rank upon rank in the kingdom of heaven; man is set over man, beast over beast, bird over bird and fish over fish, on the earth, in the air and in the sea: so that there is no worm that crawls upon the ground, no bird that flies on high, no fish that swims in the depths, which the chain of this order does not bind in the most harmonious concord. Hell alone, inhabited by none but sinners, asserts its claim to escape the embraces of this order." (Sir John Fortescue, trans. On Nature, 1492.)
There was a Latin inscription to accompany the Pavement which described the age of the world from beginning to end as 19,683 years - the lifespan of the macrocosm conceived as a living creature. However inaccurate this is in terms of modern cosmology, it was an attempt to make the Pavement an image of the whole of space-time. We lost our "Theory of Everything", and modern science has been trying to get it back ever since.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


C. John Sommerville's book is a brilliant indictment of the modern university. He writes about it in an article published in Reconsiderations, available online. As he says there, "Secularism is an impoverishment of thought. Religion can be a way of opening our minds, and quite relevant to intellectual questions," adding:
To be clear, accommodating Christian and other religious voices would not make universities Christian. They would remain secular in the sense of being neutral. Religion wouldn’t rule. But it need not be ruled out. Universities wouldn’t be officially Christian unless they somehow privileged Christian viewpoints. That would not be good even for those Christian viewpoints. We need to keep them honest, and you do that by leaving them open to discussion.
This seems to be a good example of the right kind of "post-secularism" -- what many Catholic thinkers these days are calling "a new secularity" genuinely open to truth, unlike the "liberalism" wrongly so called, which closes the mind in advance by operating with a narrow conception of both reason and freedom.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Communio - an introduction

One of the great resources of modern Catholic thought is the international review Communio, edited in the English language by David L. Schindler. Founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Josef Ratzinger with Henri de Lubac SJ and Louis Bouyer, with the support of Karol Wojtyla in Poland (later John Paul II), it has never sold in huge numbers but has had and is having a huge if indirect impact on the Catholic Church through the fact that many of its contributors and editors have been appointed bishops and cardinals, often placed in key positions (Francis George, Marc Ouellet, Christoph Schonborn, Angelo Scola, and of course Ratzinger himself are the most obvious). Communio theology is an expression of the Catholic ressourcement or "back to the sources" movement that partly influenced the liturgical movement and the Second Vatican Council, and is certainly now influencing their interpretation and consolidation under Pope Benedict.

All around the United States there are Communio circles that meet to discuss articles from recent issues, but in the UK there seem to be too few subscribers in any one place to make this viable. Even in the States, many readers find Communio hard going. (Second Spring was founded, in part, to offer a more accessible way into this tradition of Catholic thought.) But if you are seriously interested in creatively orthodox Catholic thought, Communio is indispensable. The journal has a News page which is a good place to start, and this has links to a number of articles.

I have selected several important Communio articles for our own site, which you can find under author in our Articles section linked from the menu at Second Spring. Look for example under Bouyer, Crawford, Granados, Hanby, Henrici, Kaveny, Lopez, Melina, Nault, Olsen, Ouellet,  Schindler (D.L.), Schindler (D.C.), Schonborn, Scola, Sicari - as well as, of course, Popes Benedict and John Paul II. There are also several recent ones on Catholic social teaching to be found in the articles section of our "Economy" site - Abela, Berry, Cloutier, Healy, Schindler (both), and Walker. And for an introduction to Balthasar go here. I hope to write more about Communio and education in the future.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tolkien - some thoughts

Here are some thoughts on the possible use of The Lord of the Rings by homeschoolers.

The first thing is not to impose the book as a lesson, but introduce it naturally at an early stage. Reading to a child every day, for example as part of a bed-time ritual that can start as soon as the child is capable of gazing at a picture, is the foundation of everything. (You know this already.) In the case of Tolkien, there are books that can be used much earlier than LoR – his Father Christmas Letters, Smith of Wootton Major, and of course The Hobbit – as well as dozens of books by other authors that can be read in conjunction with these, books by the other Inklings, traditional folklore from all over the world, and of course many wonderful passages from the Bible. It doesn’t matter that one is reading a book where the vocabulary is difficult – the meaning of a word can often be gleaned from context, although you should encourage questions and have a dictionary to hand.

When it comes to LoR, reading aloud continues to be important long after the child can read for himself. The sound of the words is important. Spend a bit of time getting the pronunciation of the Elvish words right (the Appendices contain some guidance) – something I never did. The magic is in the language, as Tolkien would be the first to tell you.

Once the story itself has come alive in the child’s imagination, and perhaps after it has been read more than once, it becomes possible to explore a range of topics suggested by the book. Let’s consider Language, Philosophy, Religion, Nature, Geography, History, Mythology, and Art.

First, Language. Many children try their hand at making up a secret language or code. Why not give them a helping hand, and use the game to teach them gradually about the basic rules and reasons for grammar and syntax, the possible use of word endings, and the shapes of letters? You could take a side-trip into the art of calligraphy, in which Tolkien was adept. Keep a good dictionary, and perhaps especially an etymological dictionary, to hand, and talk about the ways words have evolved. Often children’s spelling and also word-comprehension can be massively improved by paying a little attention to the composition of the words we use. It is, by the way, extremely helpful if a child can be taught to speak at least one other language while very young. It becomes much harder later on. Some children might like to try learning Elvish.

Philosophy. We are fortunate in having Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, The Philosophy of Tolkien, to refer to. This will open up the whole world of philosophical thought to anyone who loves the story. (Children, of course, are as much philosophers as anyone else, and more so than many adults, whose ability to wonder and to question has long since atrophied.)

Religion. As my own book, Secret Fire (in the USA, The Power of the Ring) pointed out, not to mention Joseph Pearce and many other authors, Tolkien’s work is permeated with religious themes and “atmosphere”. I don’t think it would be a good idea to treat LoR as a mere religious allegory and attempt to decode it – apart from anything else, this would be contrary to Tolkien’s intention (he had a “cordial dislike” of allegory). Rather the way to connect the book with Religion is by subtly directing attention to the plot, which illustrates the way Providence works in the real world, to the characters and how they develop virtues by struggling against temptations of various sorts, and to the moments when beauty reminds us of the transcendent. It should be possible also to talk about the way we find meaning in our own lives by answering the call to become a hero and following a quest of our own. Each of us is different, just as each member of the Fellowship of the Ring is different and has his own unique part to play. Our lives have a purpose, and we are part of a Great Story. But it might be better to let the book communicate these ideas in its own way and not turn them into a Lesson Plan.

Nature. Tolkien describes the natural word of Middle-earth with great love and attention to detail, so that one feels one has actually been there. You could examine his descriptions, study the flowers and plants and birds he refers to, and try to find places that remind you of parts of the book. Tolkien loved to go on walks in the countryside, and was always dawdling to look at the flowers and trees (unlike his walking companion C.S. Lewis, who liked to walk faster). Trying to draw or paint flowers or landscapes is the best way to get to know them.

Geography. Start with the maps. A fascination with maps and how to read and draw them will stand children in good stead later. Make similar maps of your own neighbourhood or places you visit. Pore over atlases of the real world, and try to see how Tolkien thought Middle-earth might have evolved into the Europe that we see today. Compare the maps of Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring with maps in some of Tolkien’s other, posthumously published works, of Beleriand and the other kingdoms in the earlier Ages. (The Encyclopedia of Arda might help.) Discuss how the forces of nature can gradually or suddenly reshape a landscape, raising or levelling mountains, drowning islands and plains, eroding new valleys. Convey something of the fascination of Dwarves with the “bones of the earth”, and if possible take your children to see some “glittering caves”.

History. LoR is about nothing if not history, and the “long defeat” of our exile from Eden, and the yearning for paradise which keeps us building civilizations, and our need for redemption (the “healing of Arda”, as it is called in The Silmarillion). To explore the history of Middle-earth using the Appendices, creating time charts and writing little essays on each of the invented cultures, might be a good way to get children interested in real history. With older kids you could look at what inspired Tolkien – the Anglo-Saxon culture, especially, and to some extent the Celtic. Connect Numenor with Atlantis, and read a bit of Plato.

Mythology. Here you have a golden opportunity to go on from LoR to the Norse and Icelandic sagas, and then to compare Tolkien’s “Ainur” (described in The Silmarillion) with the pantheons of gods not just in the Norse mythology but in Greek and Roman too. Read the tales of King Arthur and his knights, and the legend of Troy, which have so many echoes in LoR. Compare the creation story in The Silmarillion with those of other mythological traditions. Reflect with older children on the relation of mythology to truth – that these are not just failed attempts to explain the world scientifically, but contain poetic insights into truth, and a kind of symbolic metaphysics.

Finally, Art. There are numerous examples of drawings and paintings in different styles inspired by Tolkien’s writing, so it would be easy to look at these and develop an interesting Art class. Tolkien himself illustrated many of the events and scenes in the books, and even designed colourful heraldic designs for the different Elvish “houses” or families. Why not show these, and encourage children to design similar symbols for their own family and friends? Move on from there to look at heraldry and coats of arms, used not only in feudal Europe but in the modern Church. This can help to awaken an appreciation of symbolism, as well as a sense of colour and design (as well as connecting back to History).

I hope these sketchy hints are of some use. Do feel free to comment or submit other ideas. These are just initial thoughts, but I hope to include a more developed version of this essay in my new book eventually.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Lord of the Rings for homeschoolers

 At a recent Tolkien-related event in Italy I was speaking about the theme of "friendship" in The Lord of the Rings. In a way it is could be called a central theme, since the story is all about a Fellowship. Of course the novel is about many other things as well. Tolkien himself said it was about Death and Immortality, and on another occasion that it was about "the ennoblement of the humble" (e.g. Sam Gamgee and the Hobbits). But it is also about Marriage, Myth and reality, Heroism and Virtue, Temptation and Freedom, Power (true and false), Beauty, Technology, Nature, Creativity, Social Order, the Fall, and Language.... The novel could also be used quite naturally by home-schoolers to get children interested in and thinking about Geography, History, Ethics, Politics, Language, Poetry, Natural History, Mythology, and Philosophy. Is anyone interested in hearing more about this idea?

Monday, April 25, 2011

New Evangelization through Drama

The Quality of Mercy
In his Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II spoke of art as a bridge to religious experience: “I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music... I wish to remind each of you that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.” The late Pope himself had been a playwright and keen patron of drama, and worked with the “Rhapsodic Theatre” in Poland. Thus the beatification of John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday (1 May 2011) was both the occasion and the inspiration for Léonie Caldecott’s play, “The Quality of Mercy”, performed over three nights preceding the beatification at Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy. Part Theatre of the Word and part Ballet of the Word, it was a multi-levelled theo-drama about youth and age, despair and modernity, vocations to marriage and celibacy. The play was the second from Divine Comedy Productions, set up at the Oxford Oratory last year. In London, Sarah de Nordwall’s "Bard School" is also concentrating on poetry and drama as a way of expressing and communicating faith. In the United States, Fr Peter John Cameron OP is also an accomplished playwright and director. An article by him on this theme is available online here.

Philosophy is unavoidable, of course. As Chesterton long ago noted, everyone is a philosopher; whether you unconsciously absorb your philosophy from somewhere else (such as the newspapers) or think it through for yourself. And how you think about things shapes the way you act and behave, so nothing is richer in practical implications (even for art). Do you believe in God? But what kind of “God” is being talked about? What does the word mean to you? I have tried to address that question online here, and the main Second Spring web-site contains many useful articles on philosophical topics. Nevertheless, philosophy is never going to be a very effective means of evangelization. People open their minds, or change them, for other reasons than a good argument. “Heart speaks unto heart”, not head unto head, as Newman realized. The Christian faith places us under an obligation to communicate it where possible. But effective communication involves the imagination and the spirit, not just the reason or the intelligence.

Just as we cannot separate the virtues of faith, hope, and love, so we cannot separate truth, goodness, and beauty. It is the heart where they join together. The way we live and the beauty we produce are the most eloquent expression of the truth we believe. You cannot communicate a truth that has not changed you, and we are changed only by a truth that we recognize as in some way beautiful.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

10 Quick Tips To Convert Your Traffic Into Sales

So you've made the decision to start an online business. You have worked on making sure that your site is properly optimized and maybe have even done a few PPC (Pay Per Click Campaigns) but still aren't seeing any sales. Frown These are both great steps to take to get the traffic you deserve to your site and definitely vital to your online success. But if you are not getting any sales, you must be asking yourself  
At this day in age converting the traffic that you are getting to your site is very important to your online success. Without any sales, you may find yourself closing the website down that you have put so much work into.
No Need To Worry! Help is on the way!!!
Below are 10 tips that I use on a daily basis to convert traffic into sales for my clients sites as well as my own. These are not listed in any particular order : )

  • Easy Navigation: Make sure your site is easy to navigate. Place all the important links at the top of your site i.e. Home Page Link, Contact Link, Policy Link etc.. If you sell products on your site, make sure your categories are easy to follow and preferably in alphabetical order. This will make your visitors shopping experience less stressful.
  • Payment Options: Place a logo picture of the type of payments you accept in a visible area on your site.Some people like to know what type of payments you accept before they begin shopping on your site. If they can not find an image of the type of payments you accept or a note, you could risk losing a buyer.
  • Promote, Promote, Promote: If you have any promotions going on, list a banner at the top of the website, right above the fold (the area that your visitors see when they first get to your site) that displays your current promotions i.e. free shipping, special sales etc.. That way visitors see immediately what type of sales your site is offering. Make sure the sales show up on every page. If they show up on just your home page, visitors who land on your other pages may not know about your specials. If you are not familiar with adding banners above the fold, consult with your designer or hire a professional that is familiar with adding these type of banners to your website.
  • Phone Number : I know many sites are Leary about placing a number on their site especially if you work at home. Consider looking into a company that offers 800 services. These services usually allow you to get an 800 number that can be customized to your needs i..e you can enter in the times you want the phone not to ring, set up voicemail option only etc.. A phone number is a great way to establish trust and look professional to your online visitors.
  • Checkout Process : A lot of online websites end up with a lot of abandoned carts. Make sure once your visitors have gotten to  your checkout page, that it is as easy as possible. If a cart is to complicated visitors will abandon their cart. Top reasons why they abandon carts: shipping cost is way to high, to many pages or complicated wording that makes them nervous to continue their order. To eliminate confusion and abandoned carts, you can implement a flat rate shipping fee. For Example: Your entire orders ships for 9.99 (us residents only). I just opened two new sites and they both have a flat rate option, both have been online for 2 months and have already started to get orders in. If you can't offer flat rate shipping, try to set up a page that outlines your shipping charges and which carrier you use to ship your orders.
  • Be Emotionally Appealing (Sorry this one will be a little long but worth it) : Let's face it. We all love to shop and shopping online adds a extra special touch when shopping. The thought of finding unique items that may not be available in local stores and getting a nice package at the door with all of your goodies is really exciting. What does that really mean? Online buying is an emotional experience. So your job is to tap into the emotions of your buyers. Get to know your market! Are you marketing to Moms, Dads, Pet Owners, Geeks, Electronic Gurus etc.? Whatever your market, their is an emotion associated with it. Don't be afraid to step outside of the box. The one thing I always do with all of my online retail sites that I set up is to pick out images that are appealing to my market. I always have images on the home page that show a model in one of the products or similar products. For instance: If your main target market is mommies. What do mommies love? Cute adorable pictures of babies, toddlers and kids in the items they are interested in. If you can capture their emotions with your images, then you are more likely to convert your traffic into sales. With most of my sites, I take a funny approach when it comes to images. I try to think of concepts that will make people want to buy just because the site makes them feel happy. Playing into emotions is definitely a great way to increase sales and gain new customers. Which is always a plus. You can find royalty images for your site by doing a search for Royalty Free images. Most images only cost 1.00 each but may require you to purchase 10 to 15 credits up front for their images.
  • Best Sellers : Show case some of your best sellers on the site and use bold graphics that say BEST SELLERS or Customers Favorite Picks. If you have products that are best sellers, chances are, your new visitors may think they are pretty great as well.
  • Products: Whether you sell your own items or offer vendors items. It's very important to make sure you have a nice selection of products for your visitors to choose from. Although this is not the case all the time and there are some exceptions to the rule. It's still very important that when your site is live that you have products available to your visitors. Make sure not to have a lot of categories that do not display any items. Visitors may get frustrated or may think your site is not professional. If you have categories set up that may not have products in them for a couple of weeks. Think about disabling them until you have some products in them.
  • Social Media : Incorporate social media if you can. You can do this by simply adding a Facebook "Like" button to your website. The more followers you get the more you can promote your sales to. You can add a "Like" button to your blog as well. Social Media is a really great way to get new customers. So this is something that you definitely want to make sure you add to your marketing goals.
  • SEO  with long tail keywords: As you know it's very important to make sure that your site is properly optimized with your keywords but did you know that there is a way to get sales from choosing out the right keywords. Many online website owners look at targeting 2 word keywords that can be very competitive or that may take months or even years to rank for. Try focusing on the long tail keywords in addition to your 2 word keywords. Research your keywords and pay very close attention to keywords you find that are 3 words and longer. Research shows that buyers are most likely to make a purchase if they are using long tail keywords to land on your site. Make sure you are optimizing the proper page with your long tail keywords. There is not worst then when a visitor arrives to your site using a keyword phrase to find out that the page they land on, has nothing to do with what they are looking for. You lose a visitors and your Bounce Rate goes up!
I hope you can use some of the above tips to increase your sales!

Carla Phillips