Repost: It’s A Monk’s Life

It’s been a busy couple of weeks so I thought I would share a post from a couple of years ago that didn’t get a lot of looks.  Hope you enjoy!


Religion is what you do with your solitude.”  – Archbishop William Temple

The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.

The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.

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Lindisfarne Island, Northumbria. CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand. In particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.

There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.

It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.

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This is a replica of St. John’s Cross at Iona Abbey, in Ireland, founded by Columba in 563 AD.  The original is found in the Abbey museum. This is possibly the first “Celtic” Cross erected in Britain.

Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all one hundred and fifty Psalms plus a Gospel; this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their four times daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.

In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.

But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hild, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?

I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.

“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.

This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.


Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr

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Book Review: Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

My stalled Book Bingo challenge is not going very well. But while I am not exactly reading suggested books on the bingo card, it has spurred me to read more Canadian speculative fiction, which I suppose is the point. So not an entire fail.

This month my local book club is reading Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. We are reading it at my suggestion, as it was the winner for CBC’s annual contest, Canada Reads, and it sounded intriguing to me.

Fifteen Dogs is a speculative fiction novel that has a fairly basic, but interesting, premise. Two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, decide to grant fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it will bring the dogs happiness or misery.

I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. 

I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

 Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift. 

 I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence. 

 An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

The fifteen dogs are chosen at random, they are ones at a nearby veterinarian’s clinic, and the story follows the exploits of the dogs as they begin to cope with having human consciousness.

I love dogs, and I love stories about dogs and stories that have dog narrators. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is one of my favourite books. And while I knew that Fifteen Dogs was more likely to be an exploration of what it meant to be human as opposed to what it means to be a dog, I still had high hopes that it would be one that I would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, not so much. In fact, I can honestly say I only finished it because we were reading it for book club.

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To start with the positive, though, the writing in the book is excellent. The prose is lyrical, and he does a good job of pulling all the stories of the dogs together, without making it too confusing.  The concept is an intriguing one, but the execution of it just doesn’t work for me.

This is a very depressing book. Alexis focusses on the negative aspects of humanity and dogs both, and I don’t think he gets the dog interactions exactly right, either. He sets his pack up using the concept of alpha and submissive dogs, which, although a very popular way of looking at dog psychology and behaviour, is becoming more and more outdated.*

So, marrying the idea of pack theory with humanity’s predilection for murder, greed, cheating, and selfishness makes for a very gloomy read indeed. Yes, the book is also a meditation on language, poetry, status, and power. And there are good points to ponder in the book about all those. But I just couldn’t get past my heartaches for the poor dogs to really appreciate them.

[SPOIER ALERT}

There is a lot of death in this book. Most of the dogs don’t make it out of the first few chapters. And like those dogs, the remaining ones die horrible deaths, especially the last one, due to interference by the gods, as Zeus tries to make something right but ends up making it worse.

Just as I quibble with the author’s understanding of dog behaviour, I quibble with his understanding of humanity. I will not argue with him that humanity is flawed, and that people do terrible things to each other. One can’t look at the nightly news and not come out believing otherwise.

But that is not all we are. And in my opinion, this book, which supposedly asks a question about  what it means to be human, only gives us part of the answer.

My rating: two stars out of five. One star for the excellent writing, one for the concept.


*if you are interested, here are a couple of articles about this.

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/dog-behavior-and-training-dominance-alpha-and-pack-leadership-what-does-it-really-mean

 

Back to School in the Dark Ages

It’s the first week of September, and back to school fever has gripped the land. My Facebook feed is full of “first day of…” photos, and everywhere kids big and small are getting back into the routine of teachers, classes, and new friends.

So, I thought this might be a good week to talk about what “school” looked like in the Dark Ages….specifically, of course, in Britain in the 7th century, as that is when my book is set. However, to a greater or lesser degree most of what I will write here will be typical of most of life in Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages (5th – 10th century AD), and even to a point for those in Celtic Britain at that time as well.

You might be surprised to learn that there even was something such as “school” way back then. I mean, everybody in the Dark Ages was pretty much ignorant and illiterate, weren’t they? A bunch of peasants who had to spend all of their days scrabbling out a meagre existence while fighting off hordes of Vikings and barbarians. They didn’t have time for school!

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Mostly wrong, anyway. Hopefully some of the previous posts I have done on life in the early Middle Ages in Britain will have given you some cause to be skeptical about those statements. However, there is actually some truth mixed in with the myths there.

First of all, was everyone in the Dark Ages ignorant and illiterate? My answer to that would be yes and no. Certainly most people would not know how to read, making them illiterate. But ignorant? Hm….

The schools during the 7th century were run by the Church. This is because Christianity is a religion very much based on a book, and in order for people to be able to understand and, more importantly, teach the religion to others, they had to know how to read. So from the very beginning the Church had a strong emphasis on literacy, and schools were quickly established along with the monasteries and cathedrals which began to flourish after Augustine came to Britain (to Canterbury, in Kent) with forty monks in 597 AD to evangelize the island.

Just a quick note here…the British/Celtic parts of the island (roughly Wales, Ireland and some parts of modern-day Scotland) didn’t exactly need (nor want, for the most part) Augustine’s help. The Church there was going strong, in an unbroken line from the days of Roman Occupation, which had come to a halt some two hundred years before. That was because those areas had never really been conquered by Rome, and so when the troops left to defend the Empire against the barbarian hordes and the rest of the island fell into chaos, vulnerable to the Germanic and local barbarians who came a-callin’ on all those rich, Romano-British estates and villages, the Celts sailed merrily along as they had been all along, Christian churches (and their schools) and all.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that little Ecgfrith and Egbert were trotting off to school each day with an apple for the teacher and books slung over their shoulders. A lagre part of the population were peasants, working hard to survive (but not fighting off the Vikings. They came later. They had to deal with warring kings and raids from nasty people, though). Schooling was, for the most part, for the privileged few. The schools weren’t exactly large, with probably less than a dozen or so pupils each. These were oblates (children gifted to the Church as an act of piety), or, children of high-ranking nobles or kings whose families could afford the fee the Church charged for this service (grants of land, sheep, cows, whatever…).

But if you were one of the lucky ones and got to go to school, from all accounts the education you received was of a very high standard, to the point where by the end of the eight century the English schools which had produced such scholars such as Bede and Alcuin were seen as some of the finest in all of Europe.

It’s worth pointing out, as well, that it was not only boys who got to attend these schools. The double monasteries such as Hild’s at Whitby or Brigid’s at Kildare also educated the women in their care, many of whom would become able administrators of double monasteries of their own. As a matter of fact, both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures gave women more freedom and rights than what came after the Norman Conquest. The Normas brought with them the Roman Continental ideas about the place of women in society which prevailed until well into the 20th century. Gee, thanks, William….

So what were the students studying in those schools? Keeping in mind that the main point of the schools was to educate Christian leaders who then could spread the Gospel, one of the main focuses was, of course, to teach the Christian faith. As mentioned previously, in order to do that, they needed to read the Bible. And in order to do that, they had to learn Latin, for at this point there were no Anglo-Saxon translations of the Bible available. So a pretty rigorous study of Latin was a large part of the curriculum. The young oblates were first given the task of memorizing the psalter (the Book of Psalms), followed by the Wisdom books (Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Book of Job*).

The students would use wax tablets for practicing their letters, which could be “erased” fairly easily and was much less expensive than paper!

As the students got more proficient in Latin, more difficult pieces would be tackled, classical works from both Christian-Latin poets as well as other classical poets such as Horace or Vergil. In fact the schools mainly followed the course of study set out in classical Latin education. This was broken up into the trivium, which included grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and the quadrivium, made up of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony/musical theory. The quadrivium was not as thoroughly covered, it seems, as the trivium, although one of the subjects definitely taught would have been the tricky subject of computus. 

Computus was the method by which one determined when the movable feasts of the Church would fall in the calendar year. Most particularly they were concerned with Easter, as it is dependent on the moon’s cycle. I tried to find a short description of the difficulties of this, but honestly I’m not sure I understand it well enough to describe it. For example, here’s part of the explanation from Wikipedia:

In principle, Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox (the paschal full moon). However, the vernal equinox and the full moon are not determined by astronomical observation. The vernal equinox is fixed to fall on 21 March (previously it varied in different areas and in some areas Easter was allowed to fall before the equinox). The full moon is an ecclesiastical full moon determined by reference to a lunar calendar, which again varied in different areas.

Er, ok. Bede used a perpetual calendar, an Easter table, tables for finding the moon’s age and the weekday, arithmetic tables, instructions for calculating and documents related to the history of the calendar in order to write his two textbooks on computus. It rather boggles the mind, doesn’t it? In fact, one could argue that this need to figure out exactly when Easter would fall each year was a major impetus for the study of astronomy.

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This is Byrhferth’s Diagram, from the Thorney Computus, an volume dedicated to texts and graphics explaining computus, made in the 10th century. This image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the description it says this diagram shows “the harmony of the twelve months and four elements, of time and the material world. The tables on the opposite page show a series of diagrams used for determining lunar cycles, days of the week, and divination diagrams based on numerical values assigned to the letters.” Alrighty then. 

 

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Of course if you didn’t have all those charts and whatnot handy, medieval scholars invented a manual method to calculate Easter (you never know when the King might need to know, after all….). One would use your hand to counting on the fingers (but not the thumbs, apparently!) and around the palm, allocating each joint and finger specific pieces of information such as the months, seasons, etc. Image from Voynich Imagery

So. Not just “Dick and Jane”, but computus, mathematics, classical Latin poets, and the Bible. And maybe a sprinkling of geometry or music. Those Anglo-Saxons who could afford to be educated (or who were plopped in the monastery by their parents) had a pretty vigorous education indeed, don’t you think?

Just be glad you don’t have to help your Grade 5 student with computus or conjugating Latin verbs!


*Astute readers may note that this list contains some books of what Protestants now call the Apocrypha. That is because these books, at that time, were accepted parts of the canon of Scripture. They weren’t taken out of Protestant Bibles until 1647, and some Catholic Bibles still include them.

 

 

 

 

 

YOFR: Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

This month’s category for the Year of Fun Reading Challenge was to read a book you don’t want to admit you’re dying to read. I was a bit stumped by that one, so I decided to tackle a different challenge off of the Reading for Growth list: a book that has more than 600 pages. The Way of Kings (published in 2010), by Brandon Sanderson, certainly fits that bill, with 1584 pages!

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I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time, so this gave me a good reason to dive in. I hoped that I would have more reading time to get this done, especially during my vacation. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we spent a lot of time walking around Montreal and Old Quebec City and visiting with friends in Ontario and I had hardly any time to read.  I had only made it to about half way through by three days before this review was to go live. Yikes!

So…I had to give up my end-of-month deadline and give myself some grace. Sorry I didn’t have anything up on the blog last week, things got a bit hectic and I just ran out of time.

Anyhow, September is here (!) and it’s a new start. Onward and upward! I’ve powered through and got the book done.

For those of you who don’t know, Brandon Sanderson is a mega-best seller fantasy author, who was picked by Robert Jordan’s widow and editor to finish the Wheel of Time series that was incomplete because of Jordan’s death. They picked him because they were very impressed with his first novel, Elantris, also an epic fantasy. Sanderson is a prolific writer, known for his long epic fantasy books,  but also writes shorter fantasy novels and novellas.

I have never read any of his books, but I really wanted to, as he writes the kinds of books I enjoy. He also is one of the hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast, which has been really good for me as a writer.

An epic fantasy (some use the term “high fantasy” interchangeably)  is generally a fantasy book set in a world not our own, with a hero  who usually begins the story young and matures throughout the novel; has some kind of magical power or extraordinary ability;  has a mentor/teacher; and is fighting against some powerful “dark lord” or force. This is a swords and sorcery type book, often with a vaguely medieval-ish setting. Very much a traditional type of fantasy novel. Think Lord of the Rings and you are on target.

I love big books with a long, drawn-out story line. And Sanderson certainly delivers that in this book. This is a sprawling epic focussed on Kaladin, a young man from a backwater town who becomes a surgeon and then a warrior, a bit of a reluctant hero but a hero all the same.

I will admit, however, that I struggled at the beginning of this book. It’s been a long time since I read an epic fantasy, because I just don’t have as much time to read as I used to. And I found the beginning difficult to get into. It’s confusing because there are many point of view characters, and chapters that switch back and forth between characters, settings, and timelines. It’s hard to keep up. The chapters are all headed by seemingly random quotes from books that one supposes are part of the culture Sanderson is building for us, along with notes that comment on the quotes. But I couldn’t figure out what they had to do with anything or how it was supposed to enhance the story.

So until I got a handle on who was who and what they were doing, the story line was very disconnected and distracting for me, and I honestly had to plow through about a third of the book before I began to really get interested in it.

However, once I finally began to see how the characters were related to one another and to settle into the world that Sanderson built for us, the book started to take off for me.

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One of the cool drawings included in the book. One of the drawbacks of reading it on my Kindle was that I had a hard time seeing the details in these drawings, and the map was also too small to make out details. But a small price to pay for not having to lug a huge book around! Illustrations in the book, as well as the cover, are done by the talented Michael Whelan.

I had heard that one of the strengths of a Sanderson novel is the world-building, and I certainly saw that here. His world of Roshar is a detailed one, including many cultures and people-groups, all with varied religions and appearance. The world is scoured by highstorms, which shape the landscape and the flora and fauna that populate it, as well as the architecture and culture of the people who live there. The magic system is based on “stormlight”, a force that infuses gemstones during a highstorm. This stormlight can power mundane objects such as lights or more dramatic objects such as the Shardplate that only a few high-ranking soldiers wear, which make them much stronger and more agile than other men, along with the Shardblades that kill with merely a touch.

Kaladin begins the novel as a young darkeyed son of a small village’s surgeon, and through the course of the book we see him mature, eventually going against his father’s wishes and becoming a spearman in the army of a lighteyed noble (the lighteyes are the upper class of nobility), whom he had idolized as being honourable but in reality turns out far from it. He joins the army to protect his younger brother, who is soon killed through a callous decision of the lighteyed commander, and Kaladin finds himself becoming more and more disillusioned by the lighteyes who pretend to be honourable but in reality are not.

Kaladin eventually finds himself in the lowest of the low positions in the army, that of a bridgeman, who along with a crew of about thirty others are responsible for carrying and setting the heavy bridges that the armies cross over between high plateaus on the Shattered Plains, where a long, pointless war has been raging for over a decade.

Dalinar Kholin is a lighteyed commander who seeks to be the honourable man the ancient book, called The Way of Kings, encourages them to be, but faces betrayal both within and without, for he begins to have disturbing visions during every highstorm that puzzle him, causing him to question his sanity.

On a different continent, a young woman named Shallan is plotting to steal a device called a Soulcaster which enables the wearer to transform and shape objects, such as to cut stone in order to build a fortress or even to change rocks into food. Shallan needs the device to help her family restore their lost wealth, which her now dead father had mismanaged.

Sanderson’s characters are interesting. He resists the temptation to people his book with stock fantasy characters with one-dimensional personalities (although there is a little of that here and there. With so many characters it’s hard to avoid that all together). His main characters feel like real people, and he explores themes of power and honour, religion and faith, with more depth than I was expecting, which made the book all the more satisfying.

The Way of Kings consists of  one prelude, one prologue, 75 chapters, an epilogue and nine interludes (you see what I mean about finding it hard to get into?). The three characters above had the most space in the book, but there are three more main viewpoint characters and nine minor viewpoint characters who also get some of their story included.

So a lot going on in the book, suffice to say!

I enjoyed Way of Kings, once I got into it, but that initial part was pretty daunting to tell you the truth. I’m not sure that I would have kept going except for the fact that I knew I was going to be writing this review. However, I am glad I did. The story was a good one, and it reminded me why I enjoy epic fantasy. There’s something about getting totally immersed in a world and taking a long time to get to know the characters and watch them grow that is satisfying to me.

The Way of Kings  is the first of ten books in the Stormlight Archive series (!). Only one other has been released,  Words of Radiance, in 2014. Oathbringer, the third book, is to be released in November of 2017. I liked Kings well enough that I would definitely like to read the others. But seeing as they all clock in at over 1000 pages, I’ll have to pick my reading time carefully.

I often find that authors who try to write that many books in one series can get bogged down, with the latter books not being nearly as good as the first two or three (Game of Thrones, anyone….?) So it remains to be seen if Sanderson can buck that trend.

Maybe over Christmas I can read the second one? We’ll see…


My rating: 4 stars out of 5. Just because the beginning was a bit painful. But worth it to keep going!