Christian Castaways Part 2: Spiritual Survivors

Garrett reflects on a poem by Cardinal Newman, about trusting God in times of trial.

Last time around, we looked at the phenomenon of being ‘spiritually shipwrecked’ – moments where we realize that our pride and worldly desires have cut us off from God and left us spiritually desolate. I ended off that article with a quote by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, reflecting on how our struggles on Earth require us to change often in order to live an authentic Christian life.

As I reflected more on this idea however, I realized that Newman’s life and writings constitute a good reference on how to cling to God throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of life. With that in mind, I hope to provide a very brief introduction to this important Catholic thinker, as well as provide an analysis of his short poem, St. Paul at Melita, which describes the saint’s own shipwrecking and his response to that situation.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was an Anglican (and later Catholic) priest who distinguished himself as a thinker and academic at Oxford University. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement that sought to re-introduce Catholic elements back into Anglican theology, a movement that resulted in the Anglo-Catholicism branch of the Anglican Communion. In 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church, an extremely controversial decision that alienated many, but at the same time, led to him and many of his followers to set up the Birmingham Oratory. Newman wrote multiple influential works defending Catholic thought and tradition, and was eventually made a Cardinal.

St. Paul at Melita was written in 1833, before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was touring Italy with a friend. This trip seemed to have been a productive time for him – many of his poems were written during this time, and also around this time he wrote his famous hymn, Lead, Kindly Light, about trusting God through darkness and fear. In many ways, it is easy to see this period as a foreshadowing of Newman’s later spiritual journey, one of trusting God through difficult times.

The poem is a reflection on the events of Acts 27:9-28:6, the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita). Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Paul knows that the voyage is a bad idea. He attempts to warn the others, but they ‘took more notice of the captain and the ship’s owner than of what Paul was saying’ (Acts 27:12), leading to their shipwreck. Paul comforts the crew, and they eventually end up on the island of Malta. Newman in particular calls attention to Paul’s actions on the island – “Paul had collected a bundle of sticks and was putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by the heat attached itself to his hand” (Acts 28:3).

“SECURE in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.”

Paul here is described as a figure of authority. He has ‘prophetic strength’, and is described as ‘many-gifted’. The impression he gives off is one of supreme confidence and trust in God. Despite the trials that he is undergoing – Paul at this point is heading to Rome as a prisoner to testify before Caesar – Paul surrenders everything to God, trusting in His will and His providence, something that Robinson Crusoe eventually learns to do as well.

“He trod the shore; but not to rest,
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.”

Newman here draws attention to Paul’s actions on the island, namely his commitment to gathering sticks for the fire. Paul does not give in to despair or remain idle during his shipwreck. He does not even wait for divine help, but rather resolves to do his part. I think that last point is a poignant one, too often, I find the temptation to say that I will ‘leave something to God’ even though I know that there are more, possibly God-given opportunities for me to do something about the situation, and my holy language becomes a mask for my own resignation. No matter how little our actions can be, perhaps even just putting sticks to keep a fire going, if they bring warmth and cheer to those around us, they are surely pleasing to God.

But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.

These last few lines are ones that I find especially piercing, as it really speaks to me and my experience of service in Christian ministries. People are people, and in ministry and community there will certainly come moments of pain and disappointment. To choose to continue to serve means to sometimes be reminded of such moments of pain, I find the thought of facing such ‘vipers’ unbearable. However, Newman here reminds us that God is still with us in our tribulations, ready to be with us in these moments of pain.

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

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.

Continue reading “Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks”

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 Our Lord has a strange sense of humour. But regardless, it turned out to be an extremely fruitful experience for me.

Continue reading “Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur”

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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Thoughts in the Confession Queue

Garrett shares a reflection he had while queuing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I arrived in the mostly empty main church hall about half-an-hour before Mass. With an inward sigh of relief, I saw that the queue for the Sacrament of Reconciliation was mostly empty. Only one other person was sitting in the pew placed strategically outside the Confessionals, an elderly lady. Giving her a smile, I sat down.

The priests of our parish usually start hearing confessions about fifteen minutes before Mass, but if you allowed the queue to build up, you might find yourself attending Mass without having received the Sacrament. So being second in line pretty much guaranteed my chances. Continue reading “Thoughts in the Confession Queue”

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”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)

In the third part of the analysis, Garrett shows how St. Crispin teaches us the virtue of humility.

Welcome to Part 3 of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! Part 1 and Part 2 can be found elsewhere on this blog. I highly recommend giving a read through to Part 1 at least as over there I went through some important principles to take note of when reading this poem, especially on Chesterton’s use of violent imagery. In Part 3, we’ll be look at the second guild, the Shoemakers, who are addressed by their patron, Saint Crispin!

Now, Saint Crispin is a little obscure, so perhaps a bit of an introduction is in order. Crispin and his brother Crispinian are two martyrs from the time of the early Church, that mysterious, legendary group that I wrote about last month. The two brothers went to preach the Gospel in Roman Gaul, that is to say, modern-day France. Along the way, they earned their keep by making shoes, much like how Saint Paul supported himself through tent-making. Eventually, they were captured in the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian and martyred for their Faith. So the legend goes.

What we are learning today from Saint Crispin’s address is the virtue of humility. So let’s get right into it!

‘St. Crispin to the shoemakers said on a Christmastide:
“Who fashions at another’s feet will get no good of pride.’

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)”