Merry Christmas From Another Lost Place: This One Ancient and Cold

A while ago I wrote about a Christmas in the Sahara; a lost place far from the hubbub of the holidays in places cold and clean. A Muslim place which did not consider Jesus or His condescension to meet us where He had to, where we were to be found and to journey with us for a season in an effort to show us the way, to save us from ourselves – though the paths are hard and we are certainly a stubborn lot. But time flies: and I realize it must have been seven years ago as I now write this, another Christmas entry, having moved on leaving behind a nostalgia gently cradling my little boy and a frail peace dangling upon a strained hope as I find myself again on a Wednesday Christmas in another lost place, though this one steeped in the gospel – entrenched in the traditions quickened with suffering even before Justinian, before Constantine and the epic organization of our great faith. Cold and kind and at peace with itself, a peace product only of looking our God in the face in gratitude for the little we have and eschewing the envy which is so often used to advance wickedness – inequality they like to call it, those who think not of God and His great gift but instead of what they might successfully take from others.

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The animals here are different too – not the donkeys and the camels of the sands but instead the sheep herds, reminding me of a different part of the Christ story; the shepherds. The angels appearing to them and telling them of the arrival of the salvation of mankind, lodged not in a castle or fortress locked away safe and protected but in a drafty manger attended by only an unlikely couple. An inauspicious beginning, to be sure…

The other day I was driving along a crumbling road to an ancient monastery, where the monks still worship God and celebrate Christmas – though time passes and their calling is ridiculed, called foolish as are their vows in an age which thinks only of itself. Along my trek I slowed to drive carefully through a herd of sheep that seemed endless, watched over by the shepherds and their dogs as people have done in this part of the world since long before even Jesus walked the earth. Traditions that don’t die out, though our world has become mechanized and modern and cynical. As the snowflakes came down, the cold wind whipping the storms and the shepherds snuggling deeper into their coats, I imagined what those men – boys probably – must have thought of their nighttime angelic visitors. Why were they chosen to be a part of this greatest of all stories? Hard men, cold and gruff who suffered no foolishness and tolerated not luxury. Why would God have had these men, who talk to nobody, be the witness to the miracle?

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Today we speak breathlessly of influencers; meaningless though they are in their banality and oh-so empty of mind. But influence… influential? That is the joyous irony of the Christ story: the people, all the people of the greatest story ever were anti-influencers – as if God was challenging humanity, “You, who dream of virality? Tsk tsk, watch now what I am going to do.” A young woman, her carpenter boyfriend, a group of gruff and silent shepherds all gathered together in a drafty barn. That story went viral – and as I watch the Christmas movies that overtake the airwaves; as the entire American economy in all its might powers itself to deliver upon the promise of magic and mystery; as people who thumb their nose at God return – if only for one night – to render homage to that tiny baby I can only chuckle with some satisfaction. And as I sit here in this most lost place of all, rarely considered, I marvel at that unbroken thread fine as a spiderweb that holds suspended the connection with the ancient stories that endure despite the rising and falling of empire, smug and self-assured and so very brittle. And there is peace in that, for those who know how to look for it.

So Merry Christmas, you who read this – and thank you. Because these are times to be grateful indeed for our prosperity and our freedom to live in faith and write about our Jesus who came so long ago and yet still endures today.

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The Prose of the Mountains

The stories of the Caucuses reverberate with the ancient lands over which people have fought and suffered and died for millenniums. They are tales infused with the natural beauty of the indomitable gorges and ravines illuminated by the radiance of the blue sky and the deep greens of the forest, but above all the mountains. Mountains formed long ago, volcanic mountains like Ararat and mountain chains like Qazbeg, from whence comes this author.

Ivan Aivasovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky – The Darial Gorge (Currently on display in the National Gallery of Yerevan)

The mountains. Qazbegi from the mountains was a Georgian poet and prose writer. Born of a noble Georgian family, he lived a life of privilege ending in Moscow for studies until his father died, plunging the family into poverty and forcing his perfunctory return to Georgia. There, instead of rejoining the life of patrician he became a shepherd, learning the suffering and sacrifice of the high people before returning to write about it. Qazbegi’s work is an act of rebellion. He makes common cause with the Chechens (linguistic cousins to the Georgians who nevertheless do not share of the same faith) in their struggles against the Russians. His works seethe with issues of injustice and upheaval. His most famous book, “The Patricide”, is the novel that radicalized Joseph Stalin – the Georgian bank robber who became a world-class dictator.

“The Prose of the Mountains” is not as epic; short stories in the life of a shepherd seeking to move his sheep despite the depredations of the Russian overlords and their Cossack thugs. Of star-crossed lovers – Chechen and Georgian – seeking to find a way to be together in spite of the expulsion of the Muslims from their ancient lands; tragedy on the paths south to Istanbul. Of defense of mountain strongholds against the grasping avarice of petty despots. The mountains. For is it not even Biblical? “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” – Psalm 121.

This simple novel provides great insight into the emotions and ideas of a people, ancient and inhabiting a land as old as the story of Jason and the Argonauts. It is a story of a beautiful land of joy and suffering, drenched in so many tears and so much blood that it somehow speaks; but when it does it is in a murmur of quiet reverence.

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On Student Debt, the Albatross and the Year of Jubilee

It would seem the know-nothings are again reaching into our ancient traditions, our Bible, seeking as they always to do assume the forms if not the functions of our faith – crediting the ideas unto themselves in a society that knows no better. To them, who are calling for ‘jubilee’ – I would posit another way that is perhaps more fair, more reasonable, and with a greater sense of responsibility. For is it not that which is lacking from our society today?

Joel D. Hirst's Blog

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung

So goes a stanza from the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The albatross, that grand bird which to the sailor of old meant the approaching of blessed land. A sign of good luck; but in the poem killed by a seafarer – who was afterward forced to wear the carcass around his neck by his fellow mariners, as a sign of shame and stupidity and arrogance as an evil fate befalls the ship and the sailor’s recklessness is shared with all his peers.

But what has this olden rhyme to do with now? We no longer sail ships, we no longer lust for land as the water turns brackish in the barrels and the hardtack begins to crawl with weevils. An allegory – a…

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Fathers and Sons – A Review

Fathers and Sons is a novel about Russia, above all. A Russian empire still firmly under Tzarist control before the wars against the Ottomans and the Germans undermined and eventually ended that ancient dynasty. But its also about a Russia on the cusp of change. Ivan Turgenev was one of the first loudest voices raised in defiance against Russia’s intractable intransigent feudalism. A serfdom that was unchanging and embedded in the vast lands that spread across half the earth.

The story is about Bazarov, a youthful rebel, an aristocratic do-nothing and a nihilist. Maybe literature’s first nihilist (I’ve heard that said); trying to make the case to his family and friends that nothing matters. But then he falls in love; following which he contracts a disease and (spoiler alert) dies young – as he does raging against that unwelcome specter not in a youthful tantrum but in a sorrowful lamentation of life left unlived – and he expires, leaving his father and mother to mourn him. The last scene, his parents visiting his grave at the cemetery, rings true for those of us who have sons and for those who also know that the natural order is never for a father to have to bury his son.

Nihilism is popular in our modern world, a marriage of cynicism with increased knowledge butting up against a stubborn powerlessness that does not change. But it is also a youthful indiscretion; as we age, that which seemed to have no meaning is forgiven and we find purpose in watching our sons grow, in the extraordinary experiences lived upon this planet and in a renewed faith in our God that it all is in preparation for something; a bus station waiting room where we rage at the rules penned on the wall until we realize soon we are to leave.

A classic is a book still read 100 years after its publication. Turgenev, then, becomes one of Russia’s greatest classicists.

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On Absurdism and its Minions

We are told these days that truth is not objective. Nothing is right or wrong, not really. Simply the mood of the day, the fickle ebb and flow of culture. But who decides? We have replaced our philosopher kings with ‘influencers’ – are we really better off for it? Of course, if there is no right and wrong, then there are no wicked or saintly deeds; and thusly no beautiful and ugly paintings and certainly no great or bad books. ‘Postmodernism’ it is called – where we are all subjected to judgement by unjust judges and unwise seers. How could this go wrong?

I recently finished Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (again, I’m sure I read this before, as I did Timequake. A mistake I won’t make again, life really is too short) – perhaps the most important member of the ‘aburdist’ post-modern literary club (in that he represents its end state). He is the destination on a road that some say began with Camus (and others Dostoevsky) where we are all “wet robots made of meat”; because where does one stop? I am reminded of a scene from The Fountainhead:

“You’d better give up the theater, Ike,” said Lancelot Clokey. “Writing is a serious business and not for any stray bastard that wants to try it.” Lancelot Clokey’s first book–an account of his personal adventures in foreign countries–was in its tenth week on the best-seller list. “Why, isn’t it, Lance?” Toohey drawled sweetly. “All right,” snapped Clokey, “all right. Give me a drink.” “It’s awful,” said Lois Cook, her head lolling wearily from side to side. “It’s perfectly awful. It’s so awful it’s wonderful.” “Balls,” said Gus Webb. “Why do I ever come here?” Ike flung his script at the fireplace, it struck against the wire screen and landed, face down, open, the thin pages crushed. “If Ibsen can write plays, why can’t I?” he asked. “He’s good and I’m lousy, but that’s not a sufficient reason.” “Not in the cosmic sense,” said Lancelot Clokey.

In The Cause of Hitler’s Germany Leonard Peikoff wrote about just such philosophical abdication by German elites all at the service of Plato. First went the writers, then the painters, then the church, then the philosophers and eventually – so went the government. Glorify the ugly, the wicked, the meaningless – ridicule moral fortitude and replace it with, yes, the absurd. Create a Frankenstein’s Monster of a state and then surrender to it – sound familiar?

Vonnegut is basically unreadable. Slaughterhouse Five is supposedly an anti-war protest by a man who had observed the firebombing of Dresden. Does that not give him the moral authority to author nonsense? Who cares if its not beautiful, or tragic even; who cares if it conveys no meaning taken from an incident with such historic power – that is the point after all. Nothing matters – how could writing be any different? And who am I to judge, hasn’t Slaughterhouse sold a million copies (with my novels far, far behind, a fact that you dear reader could certainly help to remedy)? And is not therein found the ultimate opprobrium of a society towards itself?

Of course these days we are taught not to interfere with anybody’s “freedom”. People should be allowed to live exactly as they please, and those with greater ‘courage’ are those who pursue their absurd lives with more abandon in an ever-widening assault upon all that has come before – for is not everything in our past wicked?

Freedom for the ancients meant control of inner passions and the cultivation of virtue and self-control and restraint; at the service of that which is good and true and – yes – beautiful. We’ve come a long way from those days, haven’t we? And who really wants to live in a world created by the insane, at the service of the absurd? I sure don’t.

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To Talk of Many Things… (Vol. #7 – Influence)

They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”

I was walking through an ancient monastery yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, in a place lost in time and history. It is perched on the precipice of a gorge, far from anywhere we who live in the modern world would consider important; though greater significance in terms of the story of faith and freedom would be hard to imagine. Staying power – that is something that we don’t think much about. Our flames burn bright, extinguishing themselves quickly like one of those candle sparklers for my little boy’s birthday. Shiny and exciting and quickly forgotten as we move on to the next thing. I was studying the olden carvings in a strange foreign tongue when a monk sidled up to me, worn iPhone in hand and we had a Google-Translate conversation, and he told me of the ancient building and its secrets. He was only the latest in a long line of men who chose to use their precious time on this planet to safeguard something ancient, a living monument in stone to the one true God which had withstood invasions and plagues; famines and droughts and all the violence a wicked world can muster.

monastery

I woke up this morning thinking about that solitary man in that tiny place. Why would he after all choose that, of all things, to do with his years on the earth? Yet there he was; a look of calm and patience as he explained to me the stones and the arches; his sacred charge. Yet I’m sure he raged; I’m convinced he looked down into the gorge, as priests have done while Kennedy dealt with the Cubans, while Washington fought the Redcoats, while Napoleon’s war burned in Europe, while the House of Wisdom was sacked and the Vikings took to the seas and the Saxons migrated from their home in central Europe to England – and wondered what it was all about, human as he is after all. Did not even Mother Teresa, the great saint of our age, struggle with faithlessness and depression? If her too, why not that young monk – and if for him too, how will the rest of us, who live such frivolous lives, be spared?

Meaning; we live in the age of ‘influencers’. “Are you an influencer?” an app asks of you as you log in desperate to see if you have been upgraded to that coveted status, ‘not yet’ much to your disappointment, emoji frowning at you; “Be careful she’s an influencer” somebody says – and we tremble. But what does all this mean? That we can be more widely insulted? That my 140 character missiles will have a greater range? These days everybody wants to be an influencer. I just finished “The Crown” season three, and there’s a funny scene when Prince Charles is made duke and decides to insert into his speech some thoughts of reconciliation with the Welsh population, prompting an angry exchange with the queen; “Nobody wants to hear your ideas,” she says, “nobody.” Gone are the days that we have to entertain opinions of people based upon the blood flowing through their veins, much less the little blue check mark beside their avatar. Influence without insight, turns out, is tedious and not particularly helpful; the blind leading the blind, but it is those who allow themselves to be led who are cheated.

Back in that ancient monastery where the rock walls reverberate with the energy and hopes of generations of faithful come to ask God for help, to lay their souls bare before the Most High – where a young monk still sits in the quiet of a wintry thanksgiving afternoon pondering the great thoughts that do not change and losing himself in the majesty of the Almighty – silly concerns of algorithm-assigned status fade like the fog into the gorge below, overtaken by contemplation of the only influence that matters, one that endures forever.

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“Ordeal: The Sisters” – Book One

“I stood here in the crowd a short time ago, and listened,” said Roshchin through his teeth. “Fire and brimstone descends from this balcony and the crowd mops it up. I don’t know any longer who are the strangers in this city – ourselves, or that lot.” He nodded towards the balcony. “Nobody listens to us any longer. We mutter words devoid of sense. When I was coming here I knew I was a Russian. But now I’m here, I feel alien. I don’t understand…”

ordeal book 1

With those words, uttered by Vadim Petrovich Roshchin, Alexei Tolstoy finished Book I of his masterpiece of the Russian Revolution “Ordeal” (stay tuned for the full review after I finish all of them). But how did Roshchin arrive there, in that place captured so eloquently by Tolstoy; where the character, a soldier from the Tzarist war against the Germans and the Turks returns to Saint Petersburg to find that what he had been fighting for were shades and shadows upon a whitewashed wall – after the lights had been turned out? The answer, in the case of Russia, was found in a confluence of events. Tzar Nicholas the wicked, doubling down on autocracy and feudalism as winds of freedom were blowing all across Europe. An unwinnable war against the Central Powers; a foolish, elitist war – the last of the wars of the nobles fought by the peasants; a war that ended a world order. Inflation, hunger, poverty. The revolution was about these things – and Roshchin? An officer in the Tzarist army and one of the elites.

I recently had a conversation with my wife about this – who is Venezuelan, who has also fled the madness, and has often repeated to me the same reflections as those of Roshchin. “Where did all this evil come from?” To answer her is harder; for it comes not from so great a tribulation as the Russians faced. Envy and bitterness mostly – detonated by a great act of violence. That’s all it took in Venezuela; and yet the revolution still burns, the slow suicide still goes on. A lesson to all of us, I suppose, lest we too look for revenge through the fire and brimstone of balcony speeches.

It is amazing the similarities – in my own two-part “San Porfirio” series about the Venezuelan revolution, the protagonist finds himself on the “Balcony of the People”, it could have been Roshchin’s balcony, addressing the crowds who had finally had enough of revolution:

“Pancho walked forward through the bedroom to emerge onto the balcony of the people.  For generations El Comandante had stood on this same spot as he railed against his enemies and proclaimed violence against those who opposed him.  The spot still smelled of sulfur, and an evil pall seemed to dim the sunlight; for just a second Pancho hesitated.  Then beside him Susana’s ghost appeared, like a black pearl in shimmering obsidian beauty, lending him energy and resolve.  Pancho walked forward, the unlikely leader of a new country.  He had not won elections, manipulating the mob does not lend legitimacy.  He had not overthrown the government through non-violent or violent means.  He had not assassinated the leadership.  He was standing there because, as it must, everything else had just withered away; to ashes and to dust.  He stood because, after the chaos, the violence, the incompetence and the decay all his enemies – all those who had tried to peddle their second-hand ideas for generations – were gone.”

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