Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Art of Resignation

Sitting as I am here in Croatia, and being a contemplative sort, I couldn't help but let my mind wander to things that I have heard and things that I have learned.

Today, in my Political Theory class, we discussed two of the major "ideologies" of the modern world: Liberalism and Conservatism. Now, as most of you might guess, I am somewhat annoyed by some peoples' assertion that conservatism is an ideology for I believe, as Russell Kirk did, that conservatism is not an ideology at all, but rather the negation thereof, it being rather a collection of sentiments and an outlook on life rather than a body of abstract principles. One of the features of conservatism that the professor outlined is the idea of human imperfection. Indeed, as he explained it, I couldn't help but agree with him, as I did with Kirk, that we humans are fallen beings, corrupt, greedy, and often violent. Any look at history and the current state of world affairs will vindicate this belief. However, I couldn't help but feel that many, perhaps most, people would still like to think that through our own efforts, through the application of our reason and our good intentions, we might rise above this imperfection. Pondering this, and listening a trance/chillstep song, I could not help but be reminded of the opinion of a far wiser man than I on what I will call "the art of resignation."

Epictetus was one of the preeminent Stoic philosophers of antiquity, standing on equal footing with his fellow Stoics Zeno, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius as well as the proto-Stoic Cicero in his wisdom and prescience. It was Epictetus who, advising his students on how to find a source of happiness in this fallen world,

"There is only one road to happiness and that is to cease worrying about those things that are beyond the power of our will to control."

Now, this is a restating of elements of two of his quotes into one, but the meaning and the underlying principle are the same: if man is to find a semblance of happiness in this world, he must first gain an understanding of what aspects of his existence he can control through the application of his will and understand what aspects of life he cannot control, whether they be elements of himself or stark reality.

I am sure that many will take issue with this sentiment: in no uncertain terms, it means, for many, a kind of capitulation to whatever Fate throws at you. There is no escaping it entirely (whatever "it" might be). In my case and for the purposes of this post the case presented in class is that man cannot escape his imperfection, as it is something more than genetic and less than metaphysical. I would assert, however, that it is not really a "capitulation" to Fate, but rather a kind of resignation, a sentiment based on realism and necessary reflection on the state of the world we view.

To be resigned to something is, I believe, not something that is inherently negative. Often, when we find ourselves resigned to whatever situation we find ourselves in, we find a release, a burden lifted. The situation thus becomes what we make of it, granting us more freedom than we would have otherwise if we simple rejected the reality and turned our face from it. When we reject reality, it often becomes a consuming aspect in that we are forced to constantly run into it. But if we accept it for what it is, then we are "within," and thus have the ability to adapt and adjust. Taking a Christian perspective, when we acknowledge our fallen state and seek repentance, we resign ourselves to the truth that we are less than we like to think we are and that we are, by our very nature, less than we ought to be (and were at one point). When this happens, when we accept the reality of that which we cannot control (our sin and our need for redemption), we are, in effect, granted a measure of control over the remainder of our Self. This stems from the freedom found in Christ's mercy and the control over the state of our souls that He grants us. We thus have the freedom in Knowing: we are fallen, but have the freedom to choose redemption and a life truly Good. But all this hinges on the resignation to the Reality of our Self and, by extension, the Reality of the world we inhabit and have dominion over.

Going further, Kirk asserts in his "Ten Conservative Principles" that only when the inner order of the Soul is given harmony and structure will the outer order, the Commonwealth or the World, be ordered. This order will not be perfect, as that would require the perfect order found only in perfect humans. Seeing as humans are far from perfect, in fact fallen, we can only resign ourselves to making a tolerable order of the world and to making our inner Self, our Souls, as ordered as possible in our state. In this we are granted far more freedom than we realize, as our eyes are opened to the reality. Yes, much of what we see will make us shudder. But also we will see things with new clarity, and open our imaginations and self to the wonder and beautiful mystery of Creation, not to mention the myriad of ways that we can attempt to improve not only our own lot in this temporal existence but also be awakened to the needs and care of our fellow man. This is part of why I pity men who think they know everything and proclaim themselves to be "experts:" In doing so, they shut themselves off from this new world, unable and unwilling to see the greater picture of existence that is wider than they could have imagined. Again, to have new eyes is to first resign ourselves to the fact that we only see a small picture of the eternal tapestry of Creation. This is not to say that there are not aspects of life that we should not strive to change (Lord knows there is much of those in life) but these are granted fuller vision when we strive to accept what we can't change and discern them from those we can.

And thus, in the words of Blackmill's "Let It Be," I resign myself to the Reality of Existence, and that I will "Let it come and let it be," as I cannot change the sad facts, but I can control my destiny in the freedom I find in resignation to the need for salvation. I end with this thought that stems from the resignation:

"There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind." -C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Not All Fun in the Sun: Notes From a Troubled Mind

"Can you tell that I hurt? 
It's critical,
All I can smell is the burn
of chemicals..." -"Chemicals," Love and Death

The wail of sirens...

The blast of bombs...

The crack of rifles from above...

The cold grip of fear...

The choking fist of smoke and fire...

These are just some of the images I saw as I visited Dubrovnik's War Museum, a stunningly-picturesque memorial to sacrifice and fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. For ten months, the Pearl of the Adriatic was subjected to a kind of siege that its medieval walls were never built to stand against and offered the only defense for the city itself. As the walls and Old City weathered a terrifying barrage from Serbian/Montenegrin forces on the heights overlooking the town from the south, the city's small garrison fought desperately from the Napoleonic Imperial Fort overlooking the town directly above to keep the city from being encircled completely. I can't in my darkest nightmares imagine for a moment what that must have been like, for either the poor civilians in the town or the soldiers forced to fight for their lives...

The War Museum experience has only added to the increasing clouds of my mind. It began with my discovery of the song "Chemicals" by the band Love and Death, headed by former-Korn leadman and born-again Christian Brian "Head" Welch. The song is Welch's story of his years-long fight with substance abuse and the haunting undercurrents and disturbing imagery (both in the song and in the music video) leave me tossing and turning, wanting, nay, craving a strong drink to kill the empty, hollow feeling that creeps into my subconscious...

Now let me be clear: I'm not a drug-addict, nor will I ever be one. But I couldn't help but reflect about the concept of what Welch sings: the things we put into our bodies. In a way like Welch, I can't help but look deeper, beyond the superficial changes that affect us from what we take in and am left standing at a precipice above my inner dark. I look down and see a deranged, disfigured beast that otherwise lives in the corners of my soul. He stares up at me and lays my sin bare before me. It's terrifying: one look and I stare into Hell. And not the cliche of Hell that we all know, but that kind of Hell that only our minds can construct. Considering how wide-ranging my mind can be, this kind of Hell is a nightmare that haunts my subconscious and leaves me crippled in grief and near-depression when I glimpse it because it is the Hell that I construct. What I feed my soul affects it in a near-molecular level that, when positive, molds and gives form and order. But if it be negative, it twists, distorts, and otherwise renders ugly what God made in his Image.

Perhaps it is this that leaves me most despondent: as a Human Being, I am made in the Image of God, and yet all I do is corrupt this Image and continually feed the monster with the chemicals of this fallen world. When my Hell is laid bare before me I am forced to see what I would be were I not redeemed by Grace: burning in sin's chemicals, a freak, a monster driven mad by pain and rage. My visits to St. Blais' Church and Dubrovnik Cathedral only accentuated my dark cloud feelings. How can I walk into a House of Christ, twisted as I am? Who am I to beseech Mercy when I have done nothing to merit it, indeed reveling in the chemical cocktail of depravity, eschewing Virtue and Grace? I am no better than those who spat on Christ as He struggled to carry His cross, hearing but neither understanding nor caring for longer than was necessary...such a revelation, as I stare at my anti-soul, is crushing.

Forgive me for publishing such a dark post. I felt moved to post it as I needed an outlet for my feelings of late as I pore into theology, politics, philosophy, and ethics. I promise that this, too, shall pass. I will overcome it, as the One from Whom I draw strength and in Whom I find my help has "...Overcome the world."

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Thousand Year Story: From Ragusa to Byron's "Pearl"

It's been a hectic two days here in Dubrovnik.

For starters, I finally met my fellow Americans and my roommate. They're a great bunch to be around, and I really look forward to spending the next few months getting to know them and hanging out. On Saturday we were introduced to DIU properly. DIU is located in the historic Dominican Monastery, just inside the east (Ploce) Gate to the Old Town. It has a fantastic inner courtyard, or cloister, where the monks would go for a peaceful escape from their day to day tasks. Beautiful flowers, trees (including a grapefruit tree, complete with fruit) and white limestone walls with a well made it quite inviting. The monastery we're in right now is not the original-unfortunately that was destroyed in a 17th Century earthquake. Further, the Ploce Gate and the accompanying military fortress on that side was built to protect the new monastery from attack and to prevent attackers from using the monastery roof as a way onto the city walls. As a professor explained, the Dominicans housed a massive number of manuscripts and medieval books in their library, which is still famous for it's collections.

For now, that's all I have on the monastery, which is really only a small (but nonetheless important) part of the city. If you exit the monastery and walk south, eventually you'll pass under the original city gate and enter the main square of the Stradun, or essentially Main Street in Dubrovnik. Just off the square is the famous Sponza Palace, where an important merchant family held lived and conducted business, specializing in the sale of sponges (hence the name Sponza, a derivative of Italian). Within the Palace's walls is what I would call a "Hall of Heroes," a small museum of the 1991-1992 siege of Dubrovnik by Serbian/Montenegrin forces during the Balkan Wars. Adorning the walls are the names and photos of the over 200 locals who died defending their homes while a slideshow plays on the small TV in the corner showing the pictures of the fires and destruction of this beautiful city. It's sobering to think that this was less than twenty years ago, and the only reason that Dubrovnik was not turned to ash was its status as a UNESCO World-Heritage Site. The Ploce Gate fortress played host to the several thousand locals seeking refuge there, and the city suffered  withering fire from the mountains above the city. To think that in this day and age that women and children would have to endure siege is not only tragic but shows how little we humans have changed in over three thousand years of civilization.

On the other end of the square stands the beautiful Baroque Church of St. Blais, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. Designed by an Italian architect whose name escapes me at this time, the interior is beyond description. Though relatively quaint compared to the massive cathedrals of Russia that I visited last year, it nonetheless shares their majestic splendor and sense of holiness, that this is a space not meant for man, but for God. Beautiful Baroque paintings make up the altarpiece, while vibrant stained glass windows play a tapestry of color on the floor of the church. Unfortunately I did not stay long in the Church, as a Mass was going on and I did not want to disturb the worshipers. I will post the pictures I got at a later time.

After our introduction to DIU, we met up with our tour guide, Dijana, for a walking tour of the city. Let me just say that if the Dos Equis man is the Most Interesting Man in the World, then Dijana is most certainly the Most Interesting Woman. She endured the siege, joined up with the infant Croatian Army, smuggled weapons into the city to aid the defense, and ended up becoming a high-level subordinate of the Southern District Commander. Later, she worked on a Caribbean cruise ship as a dealer in the on-ship casino. She now gives tours in her home city and in the surrounding countries and areas. Yesterday, she took our group on a tour of neighboring Lokrum Island, a paradise if there ever was one. She nearly walked our legs off, marching us up a 45-degree incline to see a spot seen on the show Game of Thrones. She then took us down to see the rest of the Island, which has its own fascinating history involving Benedictine monks, a medieval curse, Habsburg emperors, and even Richard the Lionheart (more on that later). Lush botanical gardens and peacocks were common sights around the island, as are stunning cliffs fifty feet above crystalline blue seas, which (go figure) we spent a LOT of time in. Back to the city tour: she showed us various sites around the city, including one of the first (if not THE first) state-run orphanage in the world, one of the first public pharmacies in the West (which still functions as such today), and the Franciscan monastery. Then we climbed the walls.

The views from the walls are beyond description. The walls were specially designed by an Italian engineer to reflect cannonballs and feature various gate houses and formidable keeps at the corners. Simply put, as I discussed with an API coordinator, the city walls are nigh impregnable: they can't be assaulted from the mainland, as during the Middle Ages there were no modern roads lining the slopes, thus making moving troops almost impossible for all but the most determined attackers. Further, the local trees, save for the oaks, aren't suitable for making siege engines. The best bet for an attacker was, as the Venetians tried, to assault from the sea. But the various keeps and sea-side fortifications, not to mention the sheer cliffs that the city is built upon, made this a very risky endeavor, as did the well-armed and trained city militia. (Fun fact: never in its history did Dubrovnik or its Medieval incarnation, the Republic of Ragusa, have a standing army; instead, it relied on the citizen guards and local militias to come to man the walls in case of threat).

Some of you may be asking, so what? What makes Dubrovnik so important anyway? Why should we care? I can cite one reason: The Republic of Dubrovnik was the FIRST SOVEREIGN STATE to recognize the United States of America as an independent nation. Further, as mentioned before, Dubrovnik never had a standing army, nor did it need one. Amazing as it may seem, Dubrovnik was never conquered and remained independent from its birth in the 7th Century to the 1800s, when in 1812 Napoleon tricked the City Rectors into giving in to his army. Needless to say, they desecrated the Pearl of the Adriatic and when they left they took what they could and gave nothing back. Dubrovnik was independent for over a thousand years, relying not on military force but on its merchant wealth, its veritable army of spies all over Europe and the Middle East, and its diplomatic expertise. Ragusan merchants and envoys were known and respected all over the Old World, with its trade ships spanning the globe selling the city's beautiful coral, salt, and gold crafts, as well as their local wines, fruits, and timber. It is very much an important city in European history, and (I'm not joking very much when I say this) very much a city of "firsts." It's a very, very beautiful city, and a perfect place for those who prefer the "Laid-back" kind of life (note: THIS DOES NOT MEAN "LAZY"-Looking at you, Mom!) and leisure. It's not a fast-paced kind of place, and the locals frown on those who give too much attention to work and getting things done. It's this kind of tension between the new globalized emphasis on productivity and the old spirits of knowing the time and place for work and play-that is, traditional culture, where leisure and enjoyment of life's finer (or little) things (and giving thanks for them) are almost more important than productive work that is fascinating to me. Truly, Lord Byron was right when he described Dubrovnik as the "Pearl of the Adriatic."

For now, that's all I have. More to come. For now, I lay down my stylus. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dobrodosli u Hrvatska And Random Thoughts

"The world is like a book, and those who do not travel only read the first page."
-St. Augustine

It is with great pleasure that I send you greetings from the BEAUTIFUL city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. I knew that it would be amazing when, as I step off the plane, what greets you is an amazing view of coastal mountains flecked with trees and small bushes towering over the valley where the airport is with a crystalline blue sky playing host. So far, everyone I've met on the same program as I is very nice and my roommate (the one I've met and have gotten to know a little bit) is a real cool guy. The taxi ride with my program director from the airport to my apartment was great. What made it great? THE VIEW. We drove up a coastal road with mountains and cliffs to our right and the Adriatic Sea to our left. Bathed in the muted gold of the setting sun, the water a shimmering blue, such a view was awe-inspiring. Large islands straddled the coast, covered in green, while sailboats bobbed lazily in the bays and inlets as we drove by.

The city itself, particularly the Stari Grad, or "Old City" which Dubrovnik is so famous for, is a wondrous view to behold. Modern apartments like mine are inter-spaced between age-old traditional homes of white sandstone (?) in the "new" city, while the medieval walls of the Old City center are impressive and still seem like they could hold out in a siege, the buildings either the same sandstone or marble with red terra-cotta roofs in an Italian-esque flair. My landlord is a very sweet woman and my apartment is better furnished than I could have possibly expected.

Don't think it was an easy journey here. And thus I begin my random thoughts.

1. A big thank you to the group that I tagged along with from Tulsa to Washington. Without they're help I'd probably still be stuck in line at Dulles.

2. Dulles. Oh, Dulles. A modernistic monstrosity that can't hold a finger to Reagan International and less than half of the departure/arrival boards of any other airport I've been to.

3.It's amazing how a few thunderstorms can effectively shut down air travel along half the eastern seaboard. The sheer size of the lines at the Dulles United Customer Service desk needing reroutes was mind-boggling. Due to the weather issues and some fuel adjustments we had to make in Tulsa, my flight to Vienna was taxiing for take-off when we were pulling into the gate at Dulles, so needless to say I missed my flight to Vienna. Instead, thanks to only what I can describe as Divine Providence, the United people in Tulsa gave me a reroute through Frankfurt, Germany and from there to Dubrovnik. What a God-send.

4. Germanophiles, cover your ears and stop reading for a bit: I HATED Frankfurt airport. Don't get me wrong, I've been there before. And I remember it being a lot nicer. But, for one, it is typically German in that it sacrifices aesthetics for functionality: conrete, concrete, concrete. It is not a welcoming airport, or at least it wasn't to me. Secondly, for whatever reason, (friends from Germany excluded, of course) I don't really like Germans. Even at their happiest they seem...angry. Perhaps its just the language, but interactions with Germans leave me feeling cold.

Well, that should cover everything right now. I'll definitely be posting more in the future. For now, good night.