Beowulf – “Heroes Under Heaven”

Garrett muses on the Christian elements of ‘Beowulf’ a poem both striking and simple.

“Alone in the history of the “epic,” Beowulf takes place in the “real,” tangible, recognizable world. Not in Heaven, Albion, or Middle Earth. That, in fact, is part of the point of Beowulf. Its author(s) want us to see its setting and characters and situations as real, as actually happening. And yet the magic is there – in Grendel, in Beowulf himself – in the capacity to find a redeeming reply to a superhuman evil, a transcendent answer to the void.” – Stephen R. Donaldsen, Epic Fantasy and the Modern World.

What does a 9th-century English poem have to tell us about the Faith?

A while back I wrote two articles musing on two terms used in fiction – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’, and how we may be able to use these concepts to understand and articulate our own spiritual journeys and struggles. In his essay quoted above, Donaldsen also outlines the history and development of the English epic. As all the examples he gives – the anonymously written Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and lastly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings – are born of the Western Christian tradition, I think it will be fruitful to go through these epics individually and see what lessons we can draw from them.

I do recommend reading my two earlier articles first, but if you’d prefer to go ahead and read this article first, here’s a summary of the two concepts I’m basing this article on: fantasy refers to a form of fiction where the characters inner struggles (anger, desire for power, etc.) are presented as externalised evils to be overcome (e.g. The Dark Lord, The Evil Organization, etc.). By overcoming (or failing to overcome) the external evil, the protagonist is truly attempting to overcome their own failings and weaknesses. Epic writing, on the other hand, is concerned with the big questions of life: What are we put on this world for? How should we live our lives? These two concepts do overlap somewhat and are often tackled together.

So armed with that bit of info, let’s take a look at the first of the epics – The Beowulf.

Summary

Strip the Beowulf poem of its references to other historical events and side details, and it is a refreshingly simple tale of good versus evil, with very clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The plot goes as follows:

A terrible creature named Grendel, a descendant of Cain (yes, that Cain) terrorizes the mead-hall of the King of Denmark. Hearing of this, the warrior Beowulf of Geatland (modern-day Sweden) sets off with his companions in order to save the Danes from this threat. On the night of his arrival, Beowulf boasts that he will not use weapons or armor in his battle with Grendel, trusting in both his strength and in God’s providence to carry him to victory.

That night, Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel when the beast enters the mead-hall. With his superior strength, he overpowers the monster and tears off its arm, leaving Grendel to run away and die. Though he is celebrated as a hero, that very night the mead-hall comes under attack again, and the Danes realize that they have drawn the wrath of a more terrible creature: Grendel’s Mother.

Beowulf again volunteers to slay the creature. This time he must enter the creature’s underwater lair in order to slay it, and when he engages Grendel’s Mother in combat, the magic sword that he brought with him, Hrunting, proves ineffective. When all seems lost, Beowulf spies another magic sword lying in the lair and uses it to slay Grendel’s Mother.

Having saved Denmark from these threats, Beowulf returns home to Geatland, and in time he becomes a great and mighty king in his own right. One day, a dragon awakens and terrorizes his people. Beowulf goes to face the dragon, but all his men save one are too scared to follow him. He slays the dragon, but dies in the process. The narrative thus ends with Beowulf’s funeral and a call for other heroes to rise up and take his place.

Spiritual Awareness

“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,

Nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him

To hear the din of the loud banquet

Every day in the hall, the harp being struck

And the clear song of a skilled poet

Telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,

How the Almighty had made the earth”

– Beowulf, lines 86-92

While the Beowulf poem tells of wild and fantastical things such as monster-slaying, the story uses actual historical figures and settings as a backdrop for its events. This actually caused a lot of head-scratching among critics, who didn’t know what to make of this pseudo-historical element of the text. Critics would continue to be confused until an Oxford don, one Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, provided a satisfying explanation:

“The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men, and within Time the monsters would win. […] Now the heroic figures, the men of old, [heroes under heaven], remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Tolkien argued that the inclusion of this fantastic tale in a historical setting made it very clear that there is a supernatural element to real life that is in many ways more important than dead historical kings. The poet who wrote Beowulf was trying to negotiate an understanding between the old pagan ways of thinking and the new Christian Faith they had received. In the old Nordic beliefs, the gods eventually would lose and be slain by their enemies, leading to the end of the world. The poet thus saw a connection between this and the ability of evil in the Christian worldview to triumph at least temporarily – perhaps he called to mind the suffering of Christ on the Cross. This can be seen in the poems description of some of the Danes who relapse into their old pagan practices:

“Oh, cursed is he

Who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul

In the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;

He has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he

Who after death can approach the Lord

And find friendship in the Father’s embrace.”

– Beowulf

We can see that the poet builds on the old belief of Ragnarok – though defeat might happen now, there is hope of a final victory. This would in turn inform Tolkien’s own rather grim yet hopeful worldview, but we’ll get to that when we cover The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien also noted that in the Beowulf poem, the word that we translate as ‘Lord’, as in referring to God, is more accurately rendered ‘Captain’ or ‘Chieftain’. The author of Beowulf thus paints a picture of spiritual warfare, where men and women must choose to side with their Captain in facing evil as represented by the monsters, whether that evil lurks out in the physical world or in the hearts of men.

Reliance on God’s Grace

“And the Geat placed complete trust

In his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor.

He began to remove his iron breast-mail,

took off the helmet and handed his attendant

The patterned sword, a smith’s masterpiece” – Beowulf

With an awareness of spiritual warfare must also come a trust in God’s grace. Beowulf’s decision to face Grendel bare-handed may come across to some like the boasting of an arrogant braggart, but it also shows his trust that God will help him overcome his trials, and that God’s help is better than any of the formidable weapons and armor he has brought with him. Rather than trust in these arms, Beowulf seems to be obeying the words of Saint Paul:

“That is why you must rely on God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground.” – Ephesians 6:13

Beowulf shows that to fight and win in spiritual battles, one must rely on and cooperate with God. He moves with the Holy Spirit, which is, as we shall see when we look at Paradise Lost, an element sorely missing from Milton’s opus and which renders his human characters rather one-dimensional and lacking in agency.

When we move with God, we find ourselves more empowered to deal with life’s struggles. It is not through our own strengths or possessions that we overcome our inner demons, but only by God’s grace do we receive healing.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, I find myself with a lot of things to ponder and contemplate about. Having made more friends from different walks of life, I find myself a little overwhelmed at just how much moral relativism has seeped into the life of the average person, and how I may be speaking a completely different moral language than another person. And just as Grendel was maddened by the sound of harps, my new friends sometimes shake their heads at my ‘quaint Catholic beliefs’ on matters like chastity and other moral issues.

That is why I feel that the Beowulf story speaks to me. The narrative trusts in God’s greater plan, and moves from that trust to make a call for a life of heroic virtue here on Earth, in order to build God’s kingdom where we are. Whenever I feel lost or confused, I like to think back to this poem, and it’s call for me to be, as Tolkien put it, also a ‘Hero under Heaven’.

A Letter to Saint Francis of Assisi

Garrett writes a letter to Francis of Assisi, his patron saint.

Dear Francis of Assisi,

Greetings, my patron saint! I believe this letter is long overdue. We’ve already had a long and interesting correspondence across the span of 800 years (and my comparatively shorter 25 years). You’ve definitely had a very strong influence in shaping my faith when I was younger, and your example continues to inspire me in various ways.

I think my first encounter with you was as a teenager reading Carlo Carretto’s fantastic book I, Francis. In this book, Carretto addressed the reader with your voice, giving an introduction to your life and thought. What I really took away from reading that book was your joy and appreciation for God’s other creations. At the time, I was struggling a lot with the question of how to make people see the beauty of the faith when it seemed as if no one was interested or had other things preoccupying their time. Thus, when I read your story, and learned about how you were so willing to be a fool for Christ in order to get people to pay attention and hopefully open their eyes to consider higher things. So when it was time to pick a confirmation name, for me the obvious choice was, of course, Francis.

Continue reading “A Letter to Saint Francis of Assisi”

将临故事中的客栈店主

可彬于此文章,分享将临故事中客栈店主的角色,试问我们是否有时也以客栈店主的身份对待圣家三口。

“他们在那里的时候,她分娩的日期满了,便生了她的头胎男儿,用襁褓裹起,放在马槽里,因为在客栈中为他们没有地方。”(路2:6-7)

我常想,当若瑟从客栈店主口中得知那里“没有地方”容纳他与身怀六甲的聘妻时,究竟有何感受?行路数日、历经坎坷的若瑟,必然气愤心烦,无比失望。我猜想,他甚至慌张失措。他有后备计划吗?夫妻俩总不能露宿街头吧?那怀有身孕的玛利亚呢?这样的生理状态下,仍要长途跋涉,肯定使她疲惫不堪,痛苦不已。听到一句“没有地方”,她是否也一时不能自己,无助痛哭?不知若瑟与玛利亚可曾感到消极、绝望?有时想想,也不禁感慨:我们熟悉的将临故事——那充满欢腾、盛满喜乐、灌满消费主义的故事——竟源于一次冷漠的拒绝。回首望之,倘若客栈掌柜知道自己拒绝的是圣家三口,他是否会腾出空间,让耶稣、玛利亚和若瑟三人入住?

Continue reading “将临故事中的客栈店主”

修直道路

Greg反思圣若翰洗者呼吁我们“修直道路”之意,从而发现自己有时误将“道路”视为“终点”。

有一个呼声喊说:
“你们要在旷野中预备上主的道路,
在荒原中为我们的天主修平一条大路!”(依40:3)

将临期的福音中,我们常听见圣若翰洗者准备迎接耶稣的使命。这个使命即是依撒意亚先知所预言,且圣若翰洗者所重申的这一点:

“我是在旷野里呼喊者的声音:修直上主的道路罢!”
(若1:23)

将临期提醒我们要在心灵之中为上主修直道路,好为祂的圣诞做准备。教会教导我们,修直道路的方法有好多:阅读圣经,尤其反思将临期的读经;检讨良心,在心中为耶稣腾出空间;深入祈祷,加深与天主的感情,等等。我想,这些都是准备迎来将临期的好方法。对我而言,此文章实属自我告诫:重要的不是道路,而是耶稣。

Continue reading “修直道路”

Why do I… believe in God?

Greg weighs in on the difficult existential question, “Why do I believe in God?”

Now, this topic has been discussed, debated, pondered and meditated upon ever since the beginning of humanity – whether you believe we were created in 7 days or evolved slowly over billions of years – an issue which splits even Catholics into 2 camps, not unlike Moses splitting the Red Sea. There are so many answers and ideas about this very topic by everyone scientists to saints, philosophers to priests and anyone who ever had a notion on where they stand on this issue. Ideas from brilliant thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkins, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and many more have attempted to justify their answers to this question:

Is there a God?

What I’m trying to do now, in the spirit of this series, is to try to make sense of this through my own experiences, beliefs and teachings that I know of, however hard this task may be. To this debate, I will probably not add anything that is not unknown or that has yet to be said (after all, the question’s been there since like humans appeared). However, what I will add are my own thoughts on this matter and that is that I believe there is a God (otherwise I wouldn’t have become a co-founder to this blog, would I?).

Personally, the main reason I believe in the existence of a God is the fact that not believing in one would be a less rational choice than actually believing in God. Let me explain. As one who is studying within the field of science, a foundational idea within science is cause and effect. A common example of this would be Newton’s Third Law, which is widely known as the law that states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While Newton generally devised this law to refer to forces, the idea of causality is not restricted to simply the domain of physics. Our body’s own homeostatic responses involve some form of reaction to a fluctuation of our body’s natural and healthy state. A major component of historical research is discovering causes that led to certain events. The door opens when I push/pull it. In short, to all things, there is a cause. Thus, by extension, the creation of the world, the stars, the universe must have a cause.

Even though many might point towards the Big Bang, what caused the Big Bang? Well, I think scientists are still trying to figure this model out but if you have any theories to this, please seek out your nearest physicist for, what I’m pretty sure will be, a very stimulating talk. Aside from that, you get the idea. If you continue this pattern of regression, there must be an initial cause to all things; a cause that cannot be regressed upon, or as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, the Uncaused Cause. This Uncaused Cause (or as Aristotle puts it, the Prime Mover) is what is commonly known as God. Quite appropriate actually considering that the Bible constantly refers God to Yahweh, or “I Am”. For example, “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14, the one who is unchanged and uncaused; the Alpha and the Omega.

Now, this seems like an awful lot of theorizing based on causality. What if causality’s a sham and Nature is random and disordered. What if it’s all just chaos or some sort that we’re just caught in? Here’s where the concept of beauty is so intertwined with truth: the sheer elegance of the world, in my perspective, just cannot be simply explained away with sheer chance. Maybe there’s a deeper explanation on the idea of chance in scientific enquiry but I cannot fathom how the creation of the universe, life, evolution and development of mankind are all simply caused by a series of very fortunate events happening at just the right time and space. Delving deeper into the mysteries of the world, you learn how interconnected the world is. Molecules and atoms obey a set of laws (be they quantum or classical) that allows for reactions to take places. Nature leverages on these physical phenomena to optimize cellular activities via enzymes and various pathways. This, in turn, allows living things to function, adapt and thrive in their environment. In nature, you can find tons of cycles, both on the microscopic and macroscopic scales, allowing resources and materials to always be recycled and used in an efficient manner (That is, before we messed things up slightly). That aside, there are just so many intricate details that are beyond human understanding in each of these concepts and yet, they all just work. They click. And that, brothers and sisters, is something that cannot simply be pure chance. That, is part of an intelligent design; one created by God.

Now, at the end of the day, I could give you all my thoughts on this topic. However, going back to truth and beauty, we must remember the last of the three transcendentals: goodness. A brother of mine once shared that faith is like a litmus test. Until you actually dip the litmus paper into the solution, you will never know the acidity/basicity of said solution. Likewise, unless we have experienced the goodness of God, how can we believe in our faith with all our hearts, mind and body? Just like how I have run synthetic reactions in order to believe that my synthetic mechanism yields good results, I too must experience God’s goodness before I am able to fully commit to Him. That is the crux. If someone is unwilling or unable to do so, then no matter what arguments I may have for them, it will never really turn into a belief. Until and unless somebody is able to see God’s goodness in Nature (and anything else really!), science remains simply a pursuit of knowledge instead of a gateway into understanding and delving into the mysteries of God’s Creations.

“I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.” – Albert Einstein

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan

Why Learning Complements Our Faith

Garrett muses on how the faithful should not fear learning, but learn to employ it.

“For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.” – Charlemagne, De Litteris Colendis

This is a quote from a letter written by the Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled over much of Europe for much of the 8th century, to Baugulf of Frida, the abbot of a monastic community. A towering figure who came to the support of the popes, Charlemagne was also extremely interested in the topic of education, and in the ability of the Catholic Church at the time to educate people (keep in mind that these were hard times with low literacy rates). In this letter, the Emperor expresses his desire that churchmen should feed the minds of the people as well as their souls:

“[…] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observance of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly.”

Reading this letter was interesting for me as I’ve always valued learning, and never really saw any disparity between knowledge and the faith. In fact, my faith was strengthened greatly by reading as a young boy the works of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and while my understanding was somewhat limited, it drove me to learn more and more about the faith and why we should believe. And indeed, one could argue this was the way God ‘trapped’ me – even if I were to want to walk away from the faith, I think deep down inside I would know that it would be a fundamentally dishonest act.

But that said, I find that most of my friends have become somewhat wary of knowledge and learning. And while their reasoning has merit, I think there is a better way to approach the problem, and if we’re going to grow as Christians, especially in a modern city like Singapore, it is necessary to strengthen our knowledge of the faith. Thus, this article will be serve as a discussion and hopefully a proposal on ways we can use knowledge to strengthen our faith.

So what is the main problem people have with knowledge? I think it lies in the fear that being so immersed in the technical aspects of the faith detracts from one’s personal relationship with Jesus. This worry can be summed up in the maxim that some people “know a lot about God instead of knowing God”.

I won’t say that this is an unfounded fear. I think most people in Catholic communities might know someone like that. Someone extremely widely read in matters of faith and spirituality, but whose knowledge gives them a sense of superiority over others. For such people, their knowledge has become a stick to beat others with, and not surprisingly, leave people with a bad taste in their mouth.

However, despite this potential pitfall, I don’t believe that we are justified in simply tossing out learning wholesale. As with all things, there is a right and wrong way of approaching the issue. One wrong way is the one I just described, to use learning as a means to engage in theological pedantry and endless (often fruitless) wrangling.

And yet I have had moments where being theologically informed did come in useful when ministering to others. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing”. What Bishop Sheen said about the Bride of Christ is true of her Spouse as well. There are a lot of misconceptions people have about God, and many people have false conceptions of Him. Even our fellow Catholics, and even ourselves. No one can know God in His entirety, but we can know what He has revealed to us, through scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church. In a sense, learning about God is getting to know Him better as well, and helps us to introduce Him more effectively to others.

 “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer.” – Saint Josemaria Escriva

St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was a big believer in the value of study and learning. So much so that he dedicates an entire chapter of short sayings on the topic in his most famous work, The Way. Having reflected on his writings, I think this is born of being appreciative of the time God has allowed us to live in. Think about it. We live in a time of extremely high literacy rates. Electricity allows us the ability to continue reading and learning even at night. This is both a blessing and a curse for us urban city-dwellers. On one hand, we have so much information available to us. On the other, we are overwhelmed by the plethora of ideas and views that seem omnipresent on social media and other things we interact with on a daily basis.

Thus, I feel that it is more important than ever to embark on an adventure of learning, to truly appreciate for ourselves the beauty of the Catholic faith, and to communicate that to others as well. I hope that this article inspires you to explore the amazing breadth of our Faith and learn more. God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Fishers of Men: Leaving Nets Behind

Garrett reflects on following the call of Jesus, and what it means to ‘leave the nets behind’ for him.

This is a response to Chris’ article, “What are my Nets?” where he reflects on the passage in Mark about the disciples leaving their nets behind in order to follow Jesus. It’s a poignant reflection, elaborating on the need for detachment in order to follow Jesus with a dedicated heart. What really struck me when reading this article was this image of the nets. It’s a striking image, and I wondered whether further reflection on this image would prove fruitful. So this article is an attempt to do just that, expanding on the imagery of nets as found in the Bible and an attempt to synthesize this with my own personal experience with the ‘nets’ of my life.

Chris mentions that nets can come to symbolize many things that are important to us – “Nets of affirmation and societal approval? Nets of security and material desires? Nets of past hurts? Nets of people? Safety nets?” I think in particular, nets had a special significance for the lives of Simon and Andrew as fishermen. In Chris’ words again, dropping their nets means “letting go of their job, their profession — indeed, letting go of everything that they have stood for and done in their lives”. Yes, nets can be things that we are proud of, things that we can take pride in, things that give our life meaning. This rings true for me in particular, as the ‘nets’ that I cling to the most at the time of this writing are my own abilities and what I have accomplished with them so far.

I consider myself to be a late bloomer in terms of recognizing the places and skills I excel at. When I take an honest look at myself, I find myself badly wanting to use my gifts in order to impact the world in some way, as much of a pipe dream as that seems to be. Deep down, I fear that my life will be meaningless, and I find myself unconsciously taking hold of my abilities a bit tighter than I should.

But the Bible shows us how unhealthy these kind of attitudes are. In the book of Habbakuk (How’s that for a book of the bible you don’t read every day!), the prophet laments “A people, these, who catch all on their hook, who drag them with their net, in their dragnet gather them, and so, triumphantly, rejoice. At this, they offer a sacrifice to their dragnet, for providing them with luxury and lavish food. Are they then to empty their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity?” (Hab 1:15-17). These ‘people’ that Habbakuk refers to the Chaldeans or Babylonians, whose growing power in the region threatened the prophet’s Kingdom of Judah, which they eventually conquered.

Habbakuk thus exposes the danger of trusting too much in one’s own gifts and talents. When we use our gifts in a self-serving manner, we often end up misusing them instead. When we are so confident in our own strengths and abilities, our pride can often lead us to do things that are… ill-advised, to say the least. True, I may have some talent in certain areas such as writing, research and literary analysis, but if I buy too much into the idea that I can use these things to glorify myself, I may very well end up hurting or alienating others. To pursue ‘greatness’, be it in the form of excess wealth, fame, or other things, to the exclusion of everything else, is to be like the Babylonians in Habbakuk’s time, ‘empty[ing] their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity”.

So rather than use our gifts in self-serving ways, what should we do with them instead? I think the answer lies within the call of Jesus to the apostles on the beach: “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

Fishers of men. What is the significance of this phrase, other than showing that Jesus was rather skilled at wordplay? For me, it shows that Jesus is not ignorant of our abilities, but rather, he values each of us for who we are. More than that, he teaches us and directs us to use these abilities for ends that perhaps we could not envision ourselves. He saw these rough fishermen tending the tools of their trade on the shore, and knew that they could apply the same effort and tenacity they employed in catching fish to gathering their fellow men into the Kingdom of God. He saw tax-collectors, men reviled as greedy and race-traitors, and knew that that same sharpness and business acumen could be applied towards matters of social well-being, as seen by how Zechariah repaid anyone who he had cheated four times over.

So for myself, in the coming weeks I will continue to reflect on the transformation between fishermen, and fishers of men. I will continue to try to offer up whatever gifts God has given me back to Him, to let go of the nets of my fears and comforts. In doing so, I trust that the adventure He sends me on will prove a fruitful one.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng