Monthly Archives: December 2010

God’s Passion, by Kendra Korte

Because it is Christmas, I thought I would post a chapel talk that I wrote and gave during my last year at college. I went to a private Lutheran college (university for non-USers!), and we had daily chapel. About once a month or less, depending on interest, a senior student would give the “sermon” – usually talking about their own faith and what being at Luther had meant to them. Mine was kind of like that, but a little bit different. I was an English major, and my advisor (who was also one of my favourite professors) had arranged for the first week in Advent to be “poetry week” in chapel. (It was all part of a chair-ship she had, where she was focusing on poetry and making poetry more prominent in everyday campus life, etc.) Anyway, she asked me specifically to give a talk during her week. I could not have felt more honored – or more overwhelmed. Writing this talk was more stressful for me than any essay, including my recent MA dissertation. Professor Gilbertson had asked ME to do it – I did not want to let her down!

Anyway, she provided the poems, which were amazing and I love them, and I got the thing written and gave it on my mom’s birthday, eight years ago. As soon as chapel was over, the editor of the campus journal, Agora, asked my permission to publish it in the winter issue. You can find Agora online – search for my name and you’ll get this and articles that I wrote for the newspaper, etc.

I’ve changed a lot in the last eight years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that I’m still pretty proud of this chapel talk. It’s one of the things that gives me hope that yes, I can write well and someday I will be able to write things that people want to read.

 

God’s Passion

What is your call? So many people have come to this podium this year and asked that question.  What is your passion? What is your vocation?  What does God call you to do?  In today’s Scripture reading, and in the poems that I will be reading in a bit, we find out Mary’s call, Mary’s passion.   A passion for God, to trust and to serve God.  Not only that, but we hear about God’s passion – passion for us, passion for this world, a love and a desire to come to us as a child, as a human, in the form of Jesus.

What is your passion? How do you find it? How does God reveal the call to you? It’s different for everyone.  For me, it came in a dream. I can’t tell you what the dream was – the details were gone as soon as I opened my eyes. But I woke up with the absolute certainty that God had spoken to me, and that I would be spending the rest of my life in God’s service, writing.  Mary’s call came in the form of an angel, of Gabriel, coming directly to her and revealing to her the will of God.  It’s not that obvious for everyone.  It doesn’t have to be.  Not everyone has to be hit over the head with God’s plan for their life, as I was. Not everyone has a calling like Mary’s, that affects the future of the entire world.  All a call has to be is something that makes you see the ordinary – your ordinary surroundings, your daily life – in the light of God.

Mary’s call came through Gabriel, a being that I always associate with light.  Every time I read this passage from Luke, I see light – blinding light that overwhelms you with its very presence.  How terrifying.  But somehow Mary was able to stand up to the light, even question it.  “How can this be?” she asked, or in an all-too-familiar phrase, “Why me?”  And the light answered her, illuminated her calling.  “Nothing is impossible with God.”  And Mary drew on her passion, her passion to serve God, her love and desire to trust God, and answered the call.

Edwin Muir’s poem “The Annunciation” describes the mutual love and passion that leads to the conception of Jesus.

“The Annunciation”

The angel and the girl are met.

Earth was the only meeting place.

For the embodied never yet

Travelled beyond the shore of space.

The eternal spirits in freedom go.

 

See, they have come together, see,

While the destroying minutes flow,

Each reflects the other’s face

Till heaven in hers and earth in his

Shine steady there.  He’s come to her

From far beyond the farthest star,

Feathered through time.  Immediacy

Of strangest strangeness is the bliss

That from their limbs all movement takes.

Yet the increasing rapture brings

So great a wonder that it makes

Each feather tremble on his wings.

 

Outside the window footsteps fall

Into the ordinary day

And with the sun along the wall

Pursue their unreturning way.

Sound’s perpetual roundabout

Rolls its numbered octaves out

And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

 

But through the endless afternoon

These neither speak nor movement make,

But stare into their deepening trance

As if their grace would never break.

 

Wow.  This is the part of the story that the Bible doesn’t really tell you, the part that you must read into the Scripture yourself, the part between Mary’s acceptance of her call and the angel departing. Can’t you just imagine the street in Nazareth, people going about their daily business, while inside a house, just like any other house, Mary is being overwhelmed by the power of the Most High?  Can’t you just picture the two figures – the girl and the angel – standing still, in the middle of the room, and just glowing with the light and the glory of God?  This is the perfect moment.  This is the moment when earth and heaven become one to create Jesus.  The angel had to come “from far beyond the farthest star,” traveling across space and time to earth, “the only meeting place,” in order for this to happen, in order for the girl and the angel to come together.  This is the moment when earth becomes part of heaven and heaven becomes part of earth, through the reflection – the shining light of God – in both of their faces. This is bliss, this is rapture. This is the beginning of the amazing grace of God through Jesus to redeem the world. This is Mary’s passion, to serve, to trust, and to accept God, a call and a passion that not only changes her life but all of our lives.  This is God’s passion, to come to us as Jesus, a passion so intense that even the messenger of God trembles with wonder.  This is what love is, this is what love should be for us – a meeting of equals, discovering earth and heaven together.

The end of e.e. cummings’ poem “from spiralling ecstatically this” talks about the passions and power that come from such a mutual relationship.

mind without soul may blast some universe

to might have been,and stop ten thousand stars

but not one heartbeat of this child;nor shall

even prevail a million questionings

against the silence of his mother’s smile

 

–whose only secret all creation sings

 

Destructive power is possible without soul, without passion – we see that every day on the news and even in our daily lives – but this kind of power without passion can do nothing to stop Jesus, the embodiment of God’s passion and power combined with Mary’s passion.  It cannot stop even one heartbeat of this child, our God, the expression of God’s passion for us and Mary’s passion for God.  He is the heartbeat of our world.  He is God, come to us on earth, as a human.  This is Mary’s secret, the love and passion she shared with God.  This is the secret that she tells us through the Magnificat, that God had enough passion for us to come to earth, to come to an ordinary girl, to become human, to live and die just as we do.  God became Jesus, the heartbeat of the world, the pulse of our lives, the steady presence that not even a million questionings or the destructive force of mind without soul can overcome, the strength that comes from loving and knowing that you are loved.  This is the secret that all creation sings, that God loves us enough not only to become human within Mary, but within all of us, with all of us, and for all of us.

Amen. 

 

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The Viceroy’s Daughters, by Anne de Courcy

I found this book at the charity shop where I volunteer. It’s a great-looking book (or I wouldn’t have set it out on the shelves), and I am, of course, fascinated by the subject matter.  It’s not my entirely favourite time period – the girls were still quite young in the Edwardian era that is my twentieth century love, but I’m not opposed to the inter-war era except in a literary analysis way (….modernism).  The actual events of the time interest me to some degree, and these women were not influential, but involved in all of the headlines of the day. But more than that, the viceroy of the title is Lord Curzon, one of whose homes was Kedleston Hall. Kedleston is just a few miles from where my godmother lives, and was one of the first stately homes that I ever visited (and, of course, I’ve visited again many times). One of the highlights of a trip to Kedleston is seeing the Indian artifacts that George Curzon brought back from his time there (he’s considered one of the best viceroys), including the Peacock Dress, which was created for his wife, and his daughters’ mother, Mary.

I found the book surprisingly captivating, and kind of raced through it. I’m not sure why: I’m reading a few other books right now that I like better (namely, A Suitable Boy and The Music Instinct). But I couldn’t put this one down. It helped that it had relatively short chapters, especially approaching the end, so the commitment didn’t seem as intense, even if I would spend an hour at a time reading. But, like I say, there are books that I like better.

For one thing, the book is populated by some pretty horrible people. The sisters themselves are not great: regularly unfaithful to their husbands, or incredibly jealous of pretty much anyone especially her sisters, etc. And then there’s Oswald Mosley – known, apparently, as Tom. Seriously, what was his deal? He is a horrible human being: fascist, friend of Hitler, rubs his wife’s nose in the fact that he has affairs even though he knows she doesn’t like it, sleeps with both his wife’s sisters, including a long-term affair with one (after his wife’s death, which is the only semi-redeeming factor there, but the sister was married herself, so not really redeeming at all), secretly marries a divorced woman (also a fascist and friend of Hitler) without telling his children and then cuts the children out of his life because he can’t be bothered with them anymore. And yet this man gets dozens of incredibly beautiful, sought-after women to sleep with him, gets a fair amount of political power (until, you know, people realize that he’s a fascist who sees himself as Supreme Leader)….he must have been incredibly charismatic.

And then there are the Windsors (the Duke and Duchess, formerly Edward VIII). Baba’s husband was one of the Duke’s closest friends, dating back to while he was still the Prince of Wales. And at the beginning, you can see why: they’re very close and true friends. But by the time he’s abdicated, the Duke has all but forgotten Fruity. Fruity is consistently one of the only ones who stands up for and follows the Duke – and the Duke and Duchess abandon him in France with the Germans approaching before the fall of Paris. And then wonder why he and Baba aren’t too fond of them anymore.

The book itself also has flaws. Some of the problem is that it’s not Georgiana. Amanda Foreman has, quite possibly, ruined me for any other biographers. Georgiana was so alive in that book, and everything else has paled in comparison (to the point where I almost don’t want to read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Sisters because her Bess was so pale).  The Curzon sisters are fairly real in this book, but they’re not as real as Georgiana was to me.

There are also a few structural problems, at least for me. There are a few characters that are prominent near the beginning (like Gracie, their stepmother) who essentially disappear for the rest of the book. The children also suffer that fate: the Mosley children, who are such an important part of Irene’s life and the sisters’ relationship with Tom, are mentioned as they serve that relationship but Baba’s children are essentially forgotten about. The viceroy himself is hardly mentioned after his death: for a book called “The Viceroy’s Daughters” his influence on their later lives is not made entirely clear.

It’s also a very name-droppy book. To be fair, the sisters did move in some of the highest circles: the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, whatever) was a big part of their lives, as well as most of the socialites and celebrities of the day. But quite a lot of them were mentioned without having been introduced, with the assumption that of course we’ll know who they are and the associations with them. Wikipedia was my friend – somewhat. Like I said, I’m not completely versed in the inter-war period, so some of the gossipy stuff passed me by.

I can’t quite put my finger on what kept me intrigued in this book. It’s not bad, of course, and the time period can be fascinating. And there’s something almost reassuring about the continuity of celebrity obsession, and self-absorbed promiscuous celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous. It’s also interesting to turn celebrities into somewhat real people. Not entirely real people yet, but closer to real people.

 

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The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

Ever since I read Moon Dust, I have been mildly obsessed with the space program. It’s not a new obsession; it’s one that lurks in the background of my mind and pops up every once in a while. I do wish that there were more of an active space exploration program, and that the space program as it is got more publicity (certainly when things go right, not just when things go wrong).

But, yes, ever since I read Moon Dust, I’ve had a renewed obsession. I watched through the entirety of From the Earth to the Moon (the story of Apollo 1 always makes me cry), rewatched Apollo 13 for the millionth time (stupid Ron Howard, sucking me in), had the Wikipedia pages on the astronauts up on a nearly permanent basis. And I acquired a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Next step, assuming the obsession hasn’t burned itself out, is to try to find a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s book about Apollo. (And watch the film of The Right Stuff, of course.  I may do a follow-up entry after watching it, to compare the book and the film. Oh, Ed Harris, I love your work.)

The other stimulus for The Right Stuff, for me, is the fact that it was written by Tom Wolfe. See, my senior seminar at university was on “New Journalism” – what is sometimes now called “creative” or “narrative” non-fiction.  (I won’t get into my full frustration with time-based appellations here. Let’s just summarize it by saying that in, say, fifty years, “new” forms of literature are going to have to be referred to as post-contemporary-post-post-modernist-new-literature or something ridiculous like that.) Anyway, “narrative non-fiction” is a movement that started in the 60s, as so many movements did, and changed the tone of non-fiction from very objective, impartial, and fact-based to subjective, personal, and fact-based. The writer, in creative non-fiction and new journalism, can be as much of a character as the people that he’s interviewed. At the very least, his (or her) personality and literary choices are acknowledged as a forming part of the book. Books – or articles, since a lot of the new journalism was found in feature magazines like Rolling Stone – are very personal, telling not only what happened, but what it was like. The tone is often very similar to sitting in a bar listening to someone tell about their experience.

Certainly The Right Stuff is. It’s full of facts, of course. There’s nothing in it that can’t be corroborated. There’s nothing in it that isn’t untrue. But there are any number of asides and perspectives that make it seem more subjective than you might expect from a non-fiction book.

Basically, The Right Stuff is about the beginnings of the astronaut program. I’m using that word deliberately, because in addition to the Mercury program (and all the hoopla around the Mercury Seven, the first astronauts) it’s also about the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, particularly Chuck Yeager and his group, and the unstated rivalry between the X-15 program (piloted planes that could potentially go beyond the boundary of space) and the Mercury program. It’s about the events, the politics behind them (in both a Washington and a non-Washington sense of “politics”), and the personalities involved.

The Right Stuff, as a phrase, is used informally throughout the book for that ineffable quality that pilots might have. One can lose the right stuff at any point (“it can burst at any seam”), and for any reason – some of which have to do with the person and some to do with external forces, especially doctors.

One of the things that I took away from this book – and, to some extent, Moon Dust – is how finite NASA’s goals were, and became. “Beat the Soviets.” “Put a man in space.” “Put a man on the moon.” Well, …. now what? It’s actually kind of sad – whenever they attempted to do something scientific or discover something in the Mercury program, it was thwarted for various reasons. Grissom’s capsule was lost. Carpenter was all but dismissed from the program. In Apollo, the “scientists” were looked down on, to some extent, by the pilots. And it’s sad, because the science of it, the discovery process, might not be as glamorous or as quick-rewarding, but that’s what keeps programs going.

The other thing that I found sad in this book was the dichotomy between the Mercury program and the X-15/X-20 program. It’s a great “what would have been”.  The X-programs were training and developing piloted aircraft to take off from the ground and enter space – kind of like the space shuttle eventually was, sort of. If they had been allowed to continue (they were killed to free up funding and resources for Apollo and other NASA programs), it is entirely possible that we would be closer to “space tourism” or at least more commercially viable space exploration today. We might not have put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s – and I do love Apollo – but we might be making more trips there today.

Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have been. But the overwhelming sense that I got from Tom Wolfe’s book was that NASA – and Washington – were playing the short game while the X-program was playing the long game. And too often we can’t even see the benefits of the long game for the risks, and the rewards of the short game.

This book is also a monument to how fickle and short-term public interest is. Not that the book itself has dated – it hasn’t, surprisingly. But Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (Mach 1) and was as feted as Lindbergh. Within a few years, it was the turn of the Mercury Seven, and all the work that was being done at Edwards was ignored. Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and got a ticker-tape parade in New York and went to the White House. Gus Grissom was second, and got a handshake on the tarmac. John Glenn was the first American in orbit, and was the Golden Boy for a long time. Who can remember the others who also made orbital flights? (Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. Deke Slayton was one of the Mercury Seven, but was grounded before he went into space.) And before Mercury was even over, attention had shifted to other aspects of the Cold War – in fact, people were declaring the Cold War over. NASA’s attention had shifted to Gemini and Apollo. The public’s attention had shifted away from NASA. And it certainly had shifted away from the test pilots outside of NASA. Chuck Yeager almost died trying to set a new flying record, and no one noticed.

It’s definitely a “new journalism” book. While Tom Wolfe is never explicitly present, the style is very much his, and you’re very much there. It’s “fly-on-the-wall” – you almost feel like you are there, watching John Glenn confront the other astronauts, or hiding in the houses with the wives and families trying to evade the press corps, or drag-racing along Cocoa Beach, or screaming up through the atmosphere in either a jet or the Mercury capsule. It’s not easy to read, exactly – the style takes some getting used to. Narrative non-fiction has become incorporated into most modern non-fiction today, but The Right Stuff is “new journalism” at its most raw (without being Hunter S. Thompson), so it can be a little bit disconcerting.

Next up on my agenda is the film – like I said at the top, I may do a follow-up post once I’ve watched that. (Probably within the week. Ah, the joys of being essentially unemployed.) And then perhaps I’ll be able to move on from this current NASA obsession, and on to other things….

P.S. I still want to read profiles, both mission profiles and post-Apollo profiles – of the CM pilots. Does such a book exist? Like Moon Dust, but for the astronauts who stayed in the CM….

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