On a visit last month to some old friends who are living now in London, my wife and I ventured up to Scotland and stayed for a couple of days on the far northwest coast, near the little fishing village of Lochinver. Suddenly all those poetic celebrations of the beauty of the Highlands, all the heartbreaking ballads, the romance of the clans, even the music of the bagpipes made sense. (Well, maybe not the bagpipes. They still give me the creeps, although I'm trying to like them.) The country has a way of sweeping you off your feet.
Scotland is so different from any other place I've ever seen that it's not even possible to say that it's the most beautiful place I've ever seen -- much as I want to say that -- because comparisons just don't make any sense. Unless you're a better photographer than I am, taking pictures doesn't make a whole lot of sense either, but that's about all you can do to preserve the memories. Here are a few that at least help me remember.
Given the British Isles' meteorological reputation, we were afraid our whole stay was going to look like this:
but as you'll see, the weather cooperated magnificently.
Arguing the subject of their countries' respective scenic attractions, the Englishman Samuel Johnson once said to a Scotsman: "Your country consists of two things -- stone and water. There is, indeed, a little earth above the stone in some places, but a very little; and the stone is always appearing. It is like a man in rags -- the naked skin is still peeping out." It's dangerous ever to contradict Dr. Johnson, but it's also possible to say that there are those who can look good even in rags.
Water is everywhere in Scotland -- a feature that really gets the attention of a Texan, especially this summer.
Next time I'll bring my fishing tackle.
And then there's the ocean. On our last day in the Highlands, the sun came out -- there was literally not a cloud in the sky at one point -- and the drive back along the coast offered the kinds of views that the Scottish Tourism Board only dreams about most of the year.
Here's the picture I'm using as my computer desktop at the moment. It's Ardvreck Tower, the 16th-century ancestral home of the MacLeod Clan, destroyed when Clan MacKenzie wiped out the MacLeods in 1672, took over that region of the Highlands, and built a larger, more elegant house nearby. (That MacKenzie residence, Calda House, burned mysteriously in 1737 and its stone remnants stand nearby. Say what you want about the lawless Scottish clans, they were good at making picturesque ruins.)
The area of the Highlands that we visited is called Assynt and it is famous for its weird terrain, with large isolated mountains rising up steeply off the moors. Lochinver, the village where we stayed, is dominated by one such mountain, Suilven. Its distinctive shape is hard to forget. Here's how it looked from the walking path above our hotel.
And here's a nice picture postcard shot (not by me).
Believe it or not, the summit of Suilven is reachable as a kind of walk-up, without any technical climbing, from an approach along the ridge. One of Scotland's best modern poets, Norman MacCaig, loved the Assynt region and wrote several poems about it, including a nice one about this mountain. It's an eloquent expression of how simply the feeling of being in nature changes man's perception of himself. I probably would never have paid any attention to this little poem if I had never seen Suilven, but now it's one of my favorites. An example, perhaps, of what Chesterton meant when he referred to travel (paradoxically, duh) as a "narrowing experience."
I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust A mountain down and down. Between my feet a loch shines in the brown, Its silver paper crinkled and edged with rust. My lungs say No; But down and down this treadmill hill must go.
Parishes dwindle. But my parish is This stone, that tuft, this stone And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone. I claw that tall horizon down to this; And suddenly My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.
Even if you've never thought you wanted to go to Scotland, believe me, you do.
As you can see from the previous post, I'm making an effort at getting back to blogging, in response to thousands...well, hundreds...well, dozens...okay, two very earnest appeals that I do so. And then, just when I'm all set to make a new start, wouldn't you know it -- I find out that the end of the world is at hand.
I don't know whether to start writing as fast as my rudimentary typing skills and low-end laptop keyboard will permit -- something along the lines of "Lord, Lord," I guess -- or just wait until Sunday (si veniat) to find out whether there's any point in going on at all.
There is an evolution in the enthusiasms of a baseball fan as he grows up and then grows old. I now enjoy baseball as a more cerebral game than I did 40 years ago. I appreciate the good decisions (and excoriate the bad decisions) of managers in a way I never took the trouble to do in my youth, before I appreciated how central those judgments are to the outcome of a game. I never paid much attention to pitchers when I was young either, because just throwing the ball never seemed as interesting to me as hitting the ball. I've changed my mind about that too, now that I understand more about how the way the ball gets thrown affects the way the ball gets hit.
Above all, baseball gives us a chance to revel in the particular physical endowments we most lack ourselves. I now admire the speed and mobility of shortstops more than I ever did when I was young (and not quite so conscious of how fleeting speed and mobility are). And as a scrawny little 12- and 13- and 14- (etc., etc.,) year old, it was big brawny sluggers that I idolized more than anybody else in the game -- Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and above all during those years of the early 1960s, Harmon Killebrew. I checked the stats today, and he did not in fact hit a home run every time he came to the plate, but it sure seemed that way to me at the time. On August 3, 1962, he hit a home run over the left field roof of Tiger Stadium. Years later, recalling the feat in an interview, he said matter-of-factly, "I'd never seen anybody do that before." That's because nobody had ever done that before.
And that one statement of his shows just how thoroughly he combined the complementary virtues that nothing can foster better than sports: the opportunity to be supremely good at something and humble about it all at the same time. Harmon Killebrew was the consummate sportsman, even in an era when sportsmanship had not yet become the rare commodity it is today. It is not recorded that he ever feuded publicly with a manager, or spoke ill of a teammate, or yelled an obscenity at an umpire. He simply went out every day and played baseball; and he played it very, very well. This passage from The Ballplayers, an indispensable reference now incredibly lacking an update and out of print, shows how much of Harmon Killebrew's vision of the game is missing in this age of temperamental baseball divas.
Throughout his career, Killebrew changed positions frequently. He came up as a second baseman, was soon moved to third, then to left field for a few seasons, over to first base for a while, then back to third, back to first, and finally off the field altogether to DH. He would often shift between two positions in the same game. But he never groused, and his lack of a permanent defensive spot never seemed to affect his power.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.
Every Christian has certain inclinations, certain predispositions that can become an obstacle to the fullest possible realization of the Christian life. I'm not talking here about sin, which obviously is an obstacle for every Christian; but just about innocent differences in personality. There are Christians who regard religious faith as primarily something to be felt. They are very good at experiencing the grief of Good Friday, and the despair of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday. The mirror image of this first group of people, along the spectrum of Christian psychology, are those who take comfort in having all the proper intellectual convictions demanded by the Faith. They've read the whole Catechism. Maybe they've even read the Summa, or Ratzinger, or Rahner, or every 20th-century papal encyclical. They subscribe to First Things or America (or maybe, if they're real eggheads, both). And they may be slightly embarrassed by the effusive, emotional Catholicism of the first group, just as that first group is perplexed by the "cold, sterile" intellectualism of the second group.
There is a third group of Christians, the group to which all of us should belong, regardless of whichever of the first two groups may also claim us. It is the group of believers who regard Christianity primarily as something to be done, rather than as something just to be felt or understood. It is the group of people who have realized that our zeal for the Faith, rooted in our knowledge of Christ's teaching, compels us to live in an entirely new way as a response to what we feel and what we know.
The papacy of John Paul II was important in many ways, but it was especially important, I think, as a way of uniting these three groups of Christians. No one I can think of in the last 100 years was a more intellectually powerful scholar of Christianity than John Paul II (although his successor is giving him an impressive run for his money on that score). Nor was any Christian in my lifetime more obviously consumed with an elemental love of Christ and an almost childlike joy in Christ than John Paul II. So it's only natural that, combining as he did in his own person the full mind and the full heart of the Christian, he would be so eloquent in calling us all to join that third group -- those who turn their emotional commitment, or their intellectual commitment, or both, into a life of action in the service of Christ and His Kingdom.
Nowhere did John Paul II express this Christian synthesis more clearly than in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor -- maybe the greatest Catholic document of the 20th century.
It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one's whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters. [VS 88.4]
I'm old enough to have a clear recollection of the day John Paul II was elected Pope. I watched the live TV coverage, and saw a very unfamiliar figure, suddenly and inexplicably dressed in papal vestments, step out onto the balcony of St. Peter's, while all the commentators kept asking, "Who? Who did they say?" I knew just enough Italian to understand his first words as Pope, declaimed in a trained actor's voice, and I have remembered them a thousand times since:
"Sia lodato Gesu Cristo!"
Praised be Jesus Christ!
If we had only known it at the time, we might have understood that the new Pope was giving us, in those four words, a complete Catholic catechesis, one that he would expand on and enrich in the course of the next 26 years -- a vision of Christianity as something to feel, something to know, and something to do.