Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks

Garrett uses tales of shipwrecks as an allegory for the times where we feel spiritually distant from God.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920Robinson Crusoe, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

As an English Major, one novel that I keep having to read and re-read is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. As a boy, I loved the abridged version of the story that I owned, one that simplified the story of this intrepid castaway for children. So it was with some horror that I discovered that the original was a slow, plodding book that seemed to drag on a lot longer than it had to. To be fair to the writer Defoe, he was writing one of the first great English novels, and the art would slowly be improved upon later. So while the novel isn’t without its faults (namely, being pretty boring), I was eventually able to look past them and get a feel of what made this story so well-loved to this day.

Robinson Crusoe’s story is, as I said, a well-known one that has been adapted multiple times in various different ways. It is not the story of the guy who traveled to unknown places and went to the land where everyone was tiny. That gentleman would be Lemuel Gulliver from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (which I was also forced to read). Interestingly, Swift and Defoe were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and Gulliver was in some ways a response to Defoe’s novel.

The story of Robinson Crusoe could be summed up thusly: As a young man, Robinson Crusoe defies his father’s wishes and sets off to make his fortune by the sea-trade. He is shipwrecked, captured by pirates, escapes and becomes a plantation owner in Brazil. While taking part in a slave-trading expedition, he is shipwrecked again on a deserted island. Overcoming his despair, he is able to eventually eke out a comfortable if solitary lifestyle. This solitude is broken when he befriends a native boy whom he names Friday, and he eventually escapes the island after about 20 years.

However, what this summary leaves out is Crusoe’s conversion experience on the island. As my professor pointed out, Robinson begins the book by lamenting how he should have listened to his father all those years ago and stayed home where it was safe. But if you think about it, if he had done that, he would have simply carried on being the shallow and money-obsessed young man he was in the beginning. Some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are his religious awakenings, such as when he sees the hand of God in the events that led him to discover what kind of edible plants could grow on the island, and the touching scene where he wakes to his parrot saying the words he’s been repeating to himself:

…for in just such bemoaning language I had used to talk to him and teach him; and he had learned it so perfectly that he would sit upon my finger, and lay his bill close to my face and cry, “Poor Robin Crusoe! Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?”

While at this point in the story Crusoe has come to a better understanding of God, we didn’t really know that he taught his parrot Poll to say these words. In fact, when he wakes up to Poll’s voice he has a moment of shock, thinking that he was being addressed by a Higher Power. And in a way, I think he was – it’s easy to imagine God using Poll to ‘parrot’ out some truths to Crusoe in his exile. It’s also easy to imagine Jesus saying these words to the worldly, fortune-obsessed man who was even willing to turn to the slave-trade in his quest for riches. Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?

Crusoe thus shows himself to be not only physically shipwrecked on the island, but also spiritually shipwrecked and in need of rescue by his Saviour. Charles Dickens would later bring his famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, into dialogue with this scene in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to the time where he read Robinson Crusoe as a lonely, isolated boy:

“There’s the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, […] ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know.

Scrooge, who up to this point in Dicken’s novel has been nothing but a grumpy, selfish old man, is shown to suddenly burst into boyish excitement upon remembering this scene. The reader is shown that the call of ‘Where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ resonates with the old miser’s heart, and offers the hope that Scrooge too can be redeemed from his spiritual shipwrecking on the island of Greed and Isolation. And of course, at the end of the novel, he is.

Defoe and Dickens were both great storytellers, and their stories of conversion and rescue from the shipwrecks of our spiritual lives shines through their (occasionally dull) prose. However, it is important to remember that whether consciously or not, their stories contain elements of a story told by the Great Storyteller himself. Long before either author was born, Jesus Christ told the story of a son who ungratefully left his father’s house, fell into tragedy and came back contrite of heart. And also of a Father who ran pell-mell to welcome him back and tell him that he was still loved and cared for. We are never told if the son truly came to love his father more on his return, but what is important is that he has every opportunity to do so.

I feel that we all have Robinson Crusoe somewhere in our heart. We all have moments where we forget God and wish to act by our own will and our own strength. But this timeless story encourages us to use the inevitable disasters that we face in those moments to turn back to God, to love Him more and try to serve Him as best we can. As John Henry Newman said, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

Speaking of Cardinal Newman, in the second and final part of this series, I will be introducing you a little more to him and his story. We will also be looking at Newman’s work St. Paul at Melita, a short poem in which he tells the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck near Italy, and how a true Christian reacts when facing the disasters of life. Till then, God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

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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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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The Donkey of Palm Sunday

Garrett reflects on the figure of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on during Palm Sunday.

It was Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Holy Week, which signals that Lent is about to come to an end, and Eastertide is drawing near. Arriving early to Church with my family, I jostled through the crowd towards the queue that had formed along the collection point for palm branches. Picking out two sturdy branches to bring back to my family, I made haste to return back to them. Along the way, I accidentally brushed the spiky palm leaves against the arm of a prim-and-proper looking lady. As she turned around, I raised my free hand sheepishly in apology. Re-joining my family, I fell into place as the procession began. Palms held aloft, we waited for Father to begin the procession into the main church. The procession has it’s own Gospel reading too, the one where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Ah, I thought, somewhat wistfully. It’s going to be a long Mass. Guiltily, I recalled the (paraphrased) words of St. Josemaria Escriva – “The Mass is long, you say. Because your love is short, I reply.” And indeed, I had little right to complain. The Palm Sunday service is a beautiful one. It is also the only time where the Gospel is interactive, with the congregation playing the part of the crowds of Jerusalem at Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, and later at His trial and Passion.

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7 Last Words — Know Not.

Garrett muses on what it means to follow God with both the head and the heart.

One of my guilty pleasures is reading the rules of various Tabletop Role-Playing Games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. Just reading the rules, since I have no one to play with (although hopefully that will change soon). For me, there’s something therapeutic about seeing a world broken down into simple rules and concepts. Yes, I know I’m a nerd. A while back during a moment of procrastination, I was browsing the Character Class section of a game called Dungeon World, when a particular line in the ‘Paladin’ class section caught my attention:

Continue reading “7 Last Words — Know Not.”

“Ash-Wednesday” and Lenten Resolutions

Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘Ash-Wednesday’ Garrett shares his Lenten resolutions.

So, what are you giving up this Lent?

I once saw a YouTube video (now taken down), where the speaker suggested that rather than giving up an arbitrary minor inconvenience to us during this season, we should instead follow a 3-step process: 1) Figure out where God wants us to be. 2) Think of something that will help us reach that goal. 3) Carry it out throughout Lent and be sure to think of what will happen once the season ends. I found this process helpful as it helps us to construct a sustainable framework of spiritual self-improvement as we enter the season of Lent.

So how does this influence me, personally, this Lent? I admit that in the present moment, I find myself in a complicated position. I find myself growing in my love for God, and also my desire to defend Him and His Church on campus, both in the classroom and by serving him through my friends. “When I was a child” said Saint Paul, “I used to talk like a child, and think like a child, and argue as a child, but now that I am a man, all childish ways are put behind me” (1 Cor 13:11). Never have these words held so much meaning for me. I strongly feel that the call for me this Lent is to take a good hard look at my life and leave behind the ‘childish’ things in my life so that I can become more mature in my faith, ready to share it and pass it on.

And yet, through prayer I also realize the need to be patient, to allow God’s plan to unfold in my life and purify me as I become more aware of my flaws and foibles. If undertaken in a prideful manner, my Lenten resolution can very easily become self-serving, a form of self-improvement rather than a drawing nearer to God. So how am I to negotiate this tension between self-seeking glory and the greater glory of God? I believe this question was also considered by T.S. Eliot in his conversion poem, ‘Ash-Wednesday’.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about Elliot, introducing him and his poetry in preparation for this article. This was because despite his complexity, Elliot’s poetry really spoke to me throughout the last year in some of my darkest moments, and I’d like to share it with as many people as possible. From the first part of ‘Ash-Wednesday’, which we will be looking at in this article, it is obvious that Elliot could grasp the issue I’m struggling with now – the ease of which we can use holy language to mask selfish motives.

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?”

Eliot begins by turning our usual expectations of ‘church-y’ language on its head, much like how I mention he often does in my previous article. He said that he does not ‘hope to turn again’, when hope is a word of such significance to a Christian (e.g. Faith, Hope and Love). Likewise, we often use ‘turn’ in a positive sense – metanoia, a turning towards the Lord. ‘Turning’ has connotations of repentance and salvation.

But remember the context here: if this is Eliot’s conversion poem, then he is already on the side of Christ, or at least striving to be. To hope to turn, in that case, would be to turn away from Jesus and back to the world. Describing himself as an ‘aged eagle’ (remember also that Eliot was born an American), he portrays himself as tired of the ‘usual reign’ of sin in his life, where he would compete with and be envious of others (this man’s gift and that man’s scope).

Returning to the eagle, one famous biblical image is the promise of Isaiah 40:31 – “but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength, they put out wings like eagles. They run and do not grow weary, walk and never tire.” Perhaps this Lent, one call for me is to recognize that I too am an ‘aged eagle’, grown old with pride and sin. It is only by turning –truly turning!- to the Lord can my strength be renewed.

“Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”

Skipping a little ahead in the poem, Eliot goes back to this theme of eagles. Well, wings, at least. In keeping with the idea of turning to the Lord in our weariness to be renewed, the poet describes an inhospitable environment around him. Eliot describes the air as ‘thoroughly small and dry/ Smaller and dryer than the will’, the air seeming to represent the things beyond our control, or rather, the things in God’s control. I may have lofty Lenten ambitions, but it is also important for me to remember that it is God that sets the stage for me to grow – the wings of an old eagle are ‘no longer wings to fly’ after all!

I love also the last two lines, ‘Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.’ I think these lines reveal to us something about detachment, that it isn’t necessarily something that you can force by supressing your attachments and putting up the façade that you have it all under control. Rather, detachment comes when you allow God to be at the center of your life, allowing Him to put everything in its proper place, to be a teacher to us.

This first part then ends with these two line:

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Sound familiar? Those lines are taken straight from the famous Hail Mary prayer, where we ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for us. I think that this is a nice way to end the first part of the poem, and a nice way to end my Lenten reflection as well. As Lent dawns upon us, let us keep each other in prayer, and ask for the intercession of the Saints in heaven as well, so that we can all look forward to Easter with our lives renewed!

I hope you enjoyed my Lenten sharing, and also along the way found Eliot less confusing and somewhat informative as we went through his poem. All the best with your Lenten resolutions and God bless!

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis Part 4

In the final part of the analysis, Garrett discusses the trials and responsibilities of creating art.

Welcome back to our final instalment of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s poem, A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! As always, the previous three parts can be found on this very site, and I highly recommend at least reading Part 1 first to provide some of the context behind my analysis. Otherwise, you might find some of the more violent imagery in the poem a little off-putting. Today, we’ll be listening to Saint Luke, the Patron Saint of Painters, as he teaches us the virtue of Prudence.

So why is Saint Luke the Patron of Painters? Wasn’t he a doctor? Well, Christian tradition has him as the first painter of religious icons, with various holy images attributed to his hand. In fact, in the medieval era, it was common for Painter’s Guilds to be known as Guilds of Saint Luke. Chesterton portrays Luke’s message as a warning to painters and those involved in the arts, exhorting them to be careful about what exactly they’re painting.

So for the final time, let’s begin our analysis!

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis Part 4”