Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur

Garrett reflects on what his childhood hero King Arthur has to teach him about Christian leadership.

“Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Not too long ago, I volunteered to serve in a 9-day long School of Christian Leadership. Desiring a break from being a facilitator, I subtly hinted to the organizers that I wanted to help out in logistics instead. Just turn my brain off, do some manual labour, and reconnect with Jesus, you know? My plan worked a little too well, and I found myself in charge of logistics, because Jesus has a strange sense of humour. But regardless, it turned out to be an extremely fruitful experience for me.

Running things behind the scenes, I was privileged to be able to view the participants from a distance, as opposed to being in the thick of things as a facilitator or a participants. I saw my friends grow in their love for Jesus, the deepening of their faith and their desire to respond to His call in their lives. And being removed from the situation, supporting them through work and prayer, I was prompted to examine my own life and ask: how much of what I did as a Christian leader was truly for God’s glory, and how much was for my own? It was a difficult question to face, but through time spent in Eucharistic Adoration, God led me to examine my life through a story, specifically that of my boyhood hero: Arthur, the Once and Future King.

Why did this story appeal to me so much as a lad? As the eldest son and the eldest child in my family, I often had to figure things out for myself, and not always well. My older male cousins took pleasure in keeping me clueless and out of the loop, just as Arthur had been at the mercy of his step-brother, Kay. So I knew what a lonely, well-meaning little boy would do if he suddenly found out he was a king. He’d try to create a world where everyone would be welcome, where no one would be lonely, because then he wouldn’t be lonely. And he probably had just the right mix of compassion and arrogance to believe that he could pull it off as well.

And he came so close, didn’t he? I loved reading about how he gathered heroes like Lancelot into the Knights of the Round Table, tried his best to defend the defenceless, and loved his Queen Guinevere with all his heart. Good ideals and noble dreams…

But of course, however noble they may be, our dreams are often not God’s dreams, and it always moved me how the boy who wanted to heal the world ended his life a broken man – broken heart, broken dreams, broken everything. C.S. Lewis identifies the central theme of Malory’s text as Repentance, a turning again to the Lord. Arthur’s kingdom was built on the strength of men, and as such, failed by their weaknesses. It is only when we dream God’s dream that we ask for God’s strength.

“What we want is to see the Round Table sibi relictus, falling back from the peak that failed to reach heaven and so abandoned to those tendencies within it which must work its destruction. […] it is surely too harsh to say with Professor Vinaver that Launcelot repents not of his sins against God but of having brought all he loved to earthly ruin. It is in such a tragic glass that most men, especially Englishmen, first see their sins with clarity.” – C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

“For in me is no trust for to trust in:” These are humbling words for a king to say. To put aside his saviour complex and admit that he is not the saviour. I think at the end of his life, Arthur too had to realize his need to repent. One of the genius strokes of the writer Malory is that he seldom makes value judgments on the actions of his characters, even when they seem rather horrific. Take for example, Arthur’s attempt to recreate Herod’s murder of innocent children, all in a bid to preserve his power:

“THEN King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him [that] should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all […] and all were put in a ship to the sea […] So many lords and barons of this realm were displeased, for their children were so lost” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

The wholesale slaughter of innocent children described so matter-of-factly, by our great hero-king nonetheless. But perhaps Malory does not judge because he knows that even the best of men have this darkness within them. I guess sometimes in fighting for our own dreams, we end up taking drastic measures to ensure their success. Malory, who describes himself as a ‘knight-prisoner’ imprisoned on charges of burglary and rape (which some theorize in that time to mean adultery), would have understood this well.

Viewed in this context, Arthur’s request for Bedivere to ‘pray for his soul’ becomes a lot more significant than it would appear on the surface. While Bedivere looks to his earthly king for guidance, Arthur reminds him that in the end, they have only one true king – Jesus Christ. For those of us who are called to be Christian leaders, perhaps the call is always to recognize where we are in need of healing, and bring those places to Jesus, so that in turn, we can bring those we shepherd to Him as well, and not to ourselves. I’ve once heard that a sure sign of a shepherd is that he is wounded for the sake of his sheep. But perhaps that wounding is necessary in order to humble them, to allow their hearts to break for what breaks the heart of Jesus. As another king who sometimes struggled to do the right thing put it, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

It’s a beautiful story, not least because it shows us our darker natures while simultaneously appealing to our better ones. For me, it showed me how I had been wandering dangerously close to the path of self-righteousness, and encouraged me to continually surrender to the Lord on a daily basis. And maybe, just maybe, one day the final word left by Malory on the Once and Future King could be said of me too, by He who is the greatest Storyteller of them all:

“YET some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu [been taken] into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus (Here lies Arthur, who was king once, and will be king again.)” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

The Excellent Exsultet

Greg refelcts on the beautiful Easter prayer, the Exsultet.

“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,

exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,

let the trumpet of salvation

sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!”

Each time I hear this being sung at the beginning of every Easter vigil Mass, my heart and soul simply feel so uplifted, ready to exalt in the Resurrection of Christ together with His Church! The Exsultet holds such deep meaning, both in its verses and in the beautiful symbolism it uses. A century-old prayer that has been almost unaltered since the Middle Ages, the practice probably dates to even before that.

This beautiful hymn accompanies the lighting of the candles during the initial Service of Light of the Vigil as the darkness of the Church is broken by the gentle yet steady flames of the candles. It heralds the start of the vigil and prepares us for the great celebration of Easter. My goodness, I could go on and on about this brilliant hymn and the meanings about it that I’ve read up on. But I’m neither qualified enough, (going to leave the lit stuff to the very talented Garrett) nor will this article have enough space to fully capture the depth of this hymn. Instead, I thought it would be a good reminder, as the Easter season comes to a close, about the message of Easter.

I think, looking at the Exsultet, it falls nicely into 3 major themes. The first is one of praise. At its core, it is a call of exultation; a hymn of praise to God for His penultimate act of Love. It is not a quiet praise nor a personal thanksgiving; it is a praise that comes from the very depths of the souls of every human, a praise that transcends the Earth into the Heavens, a praise that “let(s) this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” It calls us to remember that our entire being should be to bring praise to God, that no matter the darkness, no matter the gloom, we are called to be joyful people of the Light whose very lives seek to glorify and praise the name of He who has saved us on the Cross. Indeed, as the line goes in the Exsultet:

“It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart

and with devoted service of our voice,

to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,

and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.”

The second theme, following the call of praise and exultation at the start, is the theme of salvation. The history of humanity has always been one of salvation and love. The middle part of the Exsultet proclaims this: the sacrifice of Christ,

“Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,

and, pouring out his own dear Blood,

wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.”

The best part? It never, and will never, stop at the past. It extends all the way through salvation history from Adam to the Israelites in Egypt to this very day.

“This is the night

that even now, throughout the world,

sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices

and from the gloom of sin,

leading them to grace

and joining them to his holy ones.”

Since the fall of Man up until this very moment you’re reading this article, and all the way till the second coming of God, the central message remains the same: a message of the limitless Love of God and the salvation of humanity back into unity with God. A message that we will continue to hold in our hearts, knowing that though we may fall and stumble and be chained to the darkness, the victory has already been won and the Light of God will never go out. The fire of Christ in our hearts will never go out if we only look to Him to rekindle it each and every time it dims.

And the final theme (at least for this article) is one of unity; unity not just of humankind but that of Heaven and Earth, of Nature and Man, of Divinity and humanity.

“O truly blessed night,

when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,

and divine to the human.”

I used to think that some of these verses seem a bit superfluous. I mean they talk of bees and wax to build the candle and talk of the fragrance of the candle. (The original text apparently had quite a bit more to say about the bees apparently. They mustn’t have been too bee-sy since they took so much time to talk about the bees.) However, reading up and pondering on it, it now makes a bit more sense.

Humanity cannot be divorced from nature. The Exsultet echoes the words during offering of the bread and wine. The bread is “the fruit of the earth and work of human hands”, the wine is “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” and the candle is “work of the bees and of your servants’ hands”. It is a reminder of Genesis, in which the Earth and all its living things was entrusted to humankind for his/her use but only as stewards, and not as Creator. The emphasis on the natural part leads up to an emphasis on the Creator of nature: God. At the end of it all, Jesus came down so that he could reform humanity’s broken friendship with God. He was the epitome of unity: both human and Divine. In this final part of the Exsultet, I am reminded of two very important things. I am reminded that my purpose on this Earth is not simply individualistic and material but it is part of the larger goal of humanity to be in union with God. However, I am also reminded that while the goal exists in God alone, it is not right to simply ignore the things around me that are, in of itself, created and gifted to me by God, including nature and His people. As the Jesuits put it, “God in all things”.

Alas, I stop here in fear that I may never stop talking about this glorious piece of sacramental. However, though this article and the season of Easter may end, may this Exsultet, which began our Easters, be in our hearts as a reminder to continue to live Easter each and every day of our lives, with lips ready to praise God, hearts always inflamed with God’s love and lives seeking union with God and His people.

 

Teaching and St. John Baptist De La Salle

Chris shares more about St. John Baptist De La Salle and why he is one of Chris’ favourite Saints.

“You can perform miracles by touching the hearts of those entrusted to your care.”                                                                                                                                                                                      – [Meditations 180.3]

It is often very easy for us to get lost in our work – especially when we live in a fast-pace, productivity-driven society like Singapore. Amidst the hum-drums of routine work and key performance indicators (cue the dreaded “KPI”), it is often tempting to lose ourselves in our jobs, equate our identities with our professions and forget that we are so much more than what we do. In short, in losing ourselves to work, we lose our self-identities completely. Indeed it is often very tempting to get so caught up with the things we do at work on a daily basis that we forget the very rationale, purpose and objectives of our work as calling. Therefore, it is often necessary to re-focus and re-center our attention to first-principles; it is important to (re)anchor ourselves lest we get blown around in the turbulence of societal expectations and competing voices.

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Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2

Garrett reflects on “epic stories” and their presence in Sacred Scripture.

This article is a continuation of my previous article with the same title, where I discussed Stephen R Donaldsen’s essay, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, and how fantasy fiction can inform our Faith. While my previous article focused on Donaldsen’s definition of ‘fantasy’, how fantasy speaks to the human heart, and how Jesus satisfies that desire as in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘a myth that came true’. This time around, I’d like to focus on Donaldsen’s other definition – ‘epic’. As Donaldsen himself states, the term epic is much better understood than ‘fantasy’, and indeed, a deeper look at this term can tell us much about Faith and Scripture as well.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that it’s going to be even more… ‘technical’ than what I usually write. In an article like this, context is important, and a large chunk of this article is going to be me paraphrasing and quoting stuff from other sources. But that said, I still hope that this will be an informative and interesting read. So, let’s get into it!

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Fearful Friendship with the Lord? Or Friendly Fear of the Lord?

Greg talks about the line between familiarity and frivolity in our relationship and friendship with God.

One day, during a consultation with my Professor, he asked me what my shirt meant. It was a Catholic shirt that had a pun about Jesus being the “King of my Life”. So, I explained the pun behind it and the meaning of the shirt. As my Prof was Catholic too, I didn’t really need to go into why Jesus was King and all that. However, what he asked next really struck me: can we really be so casual in our relationship with God? How can we be so casual in the way we address the God who created the Heavens and the stars?

It’s true. There’s a lot more Jesus memes and comics being shared throughout the Internet nowadays. And I have to admit that I personally really like many of these comics and memes. So that got me thinking: where’s the line one draws between being affirmed in one’s identity as a beloved Child of God, and downright blaspheming through frivolity? CCC 2144 states: “Respect for his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes”. And so, should we really be propagating such comics or memes or even jokes about God? I think to answer this queston, we have to reflect on the image we have of God, which stems from our own relationship with Him.

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Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds

Garrett muses on what fantasy fiction can teach us about our faith journeys.

In 1986, a writer named Stephen R. Donaldsen published an essay called “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”. By then a renowned fantasy author himself, Donaldsen achieved fame through his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, which was famous for it’s handling of moral issues. In this essay, Donaldsen elaborated on the two terms he used to define his work – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’. It is these two terms that I’d like to look at and evaluate, not simply because I found the essay insightful, but because I believe that the terms epic and fantasy as Donaldsen describes them find their fulfilment in Jesus (as all things eventually do).

In part 1, we’ll look at the more familiar term, fantasy. The word itself when applied to entertainment needs almost no introduction, as shown by the popularity of the Lord of the Rings series of films, and more recently, the Game of Thrones television series, which seems to owe no small part of its success to scenes of sexual violence, torture and gore. The word ‘fantasy’ conjures up images of a pseudo-medieval world where men (or women) in shining armor prance about, alongside wizards and dragons. But is there really all there is to the Fantasy genre?

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Letter to St. Teresa of Avila

Chris writes a letter to St. Teresa of Avila — a Saint whom he considers very very intimidating.

“Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee:
All things pass; God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for.
He who has God finds he lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”  –
St. Teresa of Avila

Dear St. Teresa of Avila,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have a quick confession to make: I find you incredibly intimidating.

Your writings are always so fiercely passionate and incredibly firery; they have pierced the depths of my soul, over and over again. Paradoxically, however, my trepidation towards you does not stem from fear but more from awe. I am awed that a living, breathing individual like yourself was able to reach such immense depths of union with Christ whilst on this earth. I am awed by how you remained steadfast and convicted to our Faith despite the numerous trials and tribulations that you experienced both from the world and from our very own Church.

Though I find you very intimidating, I must also add that your writings and ideas have aided me enormously and have drawn me closer to God. Indeed, you have been a very effective instrument of His will, and a very clear signpost pointing towards God to so many people. Some of my friends even consider you as their closest spiritual companion, and I know a couple of them who have entered Carmel, so moved by your life and intimacy with Jesus Christ.

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