Its Own Excuse

Books 001

“I guess maybe some of the things I said in my former speech were kind of a little bit obvious and what we used to call ‘old hat’ …  About the United States only wanting peace and freedom from all foreign entanglements.  No!  What I’d really like us to do would be to come out and tell the whole world:  ‘Now you boys never mind about the moral side of this.  We have power, and power is its own excuse.'”

  — Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

 (Speech by General Edgeways at the Fort Beulah Rotary Club)

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The Firebird XXXVII

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I continued walking for what might have been hours, days, or weeks.  How long this went on I had no way of knowing, for all sense of time seemed to have deserted me.  With every step I had the growing conviction that the light on the horizon was increasing, the glow encroaching further and further upon the darkness, black melting into blue, blue into violet, and violet into rosy red.  But though the stars were fading, the Firebird shone before me as brilliantly as ever.  Now at last my journey is taking me somewhere! I thought.

Soon the entire sky had grown pale.  Streaks of red, orange, and peach lay along the horizon.  When I looked up from my little book, I could not help thinking of the sky as I had seen it over the phosphorescent mountains surrounding the Valley of the Watchers – a Place on the Verge, as the Firebird had called it.  I trembled with anticipation, as if I, too, stood on the verge of something wonderful and altogether unexpected.  I sensed that the sun itself was now very near and marveled to think that it was not in fact rising but setting – that by this miracle of walking on the water, I was actually moving rapidly enough to catch it in its slow retreat and pass through its fiery eye.

After a long time the sharp silhouettes of two huge rocks rose up and blocked my view of the golden line on the horizon.  The current beneath my feet picked up speed as it was sucked into the space between them.  Before long the pull became so strong that, though I fought to stand still, I was drawn swiftly into the narrow gap.  Over my head the great cliffs glowered at one another, shutting out the light in the sky, and I began to be afraid.  But the Firebird flew straight on before me, very small and very bright against their black and glistening surfaces.  I clutched my book to my heart and strode forward.

Down the darkened corridor I sped, watching wide-eyed as the shadowy walls, dripping and green with moss and algae, flew past me on either side.  Here and there black holes stared like empty eye sockets out of the face of the rock.  On either hand the water boiled and foamed and the salt spray flew over me until I was soaked to the skin.  Looking up to where a thin ribbon of sky, bright with strips of red, showed between the summits, I suddenly realized that the Firebird was nowhere in sight.  At the same instant a horrible sound, half like a human cry and half the screech of a beast, broke out behind me.  I wheeled round to face it.

In the mouth of a cave not six feet from my elbow squatted a monster more hideous than anything I could ever have imagined.  Apart from its gaping, drooling mouth, which was filled with rows of sharp yellow teeth, its face was all eyes:  hundreds of eyes all fixed upon me and occasionally blinking in unison.  Its body was as shapeless and undefined as a huge slug’s.  From out of its slimy flanks grew long, snaky arms and legs like the tentacles of an octopus.

As I gaped upon it in terror, the creature sat up on its haunches and let out another scream.  Then, like the tongue of a frog when it shoots out after a fly, one of its arms darted out at me.  I leapt backwards, slamming against the opposite wall of rock so hard that the air burst from my lungs in a loud gasp.

Stunned and breathless, I slumped to the surface of the water and sat there gaping as the creature retracted its tentacle and prepared to strike again.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Firebird XXXVI

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In the next moment came unexpected relief; for during a momentary lull in the phantom’s assault, my face suddenly broke the surface of the water and I looked up to see the Firebird blazing in the sky directly above me.  At the sight I coughed up the water that filled my mouth and throat and cried out in despair.  “Firebird!” I screamed, “Firebird!  Help me!”

The great Bird descended like the sun itself falling from heaven.  At its approach the Old Self released its grip on me and looked up, dumb with terror.  I saw the red glow of the flames flickering over the ghost’s pale features and flashing in its glassy eyes.  Instantly the phantom rose and fled over the tips of the waves until I could see it no more.

Then the Firebird seized me in its huge talons.  Its flaming pinions whipped, snapped, and roared around me as it lifted me out of the water and set me on my feet once again.  For a while I stood there dripping and shaking and staring after my Old Self.  At length I heard the voice of the small gray bird at my ear.

“Well done,” it said.

I turned and looked fearfully into his deep blue eyes.  “Will it come back?” I asked.  “Why didn’t you destroy it?”

“It can always come back,” was his answer, “this side of the sunset.  “Once you have passed through the sun’s circle and arrived on the other side, then it will no longer be able to trouble you.  To that place the Old Self can never come.”

Again I looked off in the direction of the ghost’s flight.  “That’s some comfort, anyhow,” I said slowly.  “But I still don’t understand why you didn’t simply destroy it.”

To this he made no answer; and when I turned, he had gone.  A moment later the Firebird suddenly reappeared in the sky just ahead, leading me onward, straight into the sunset’s rosy red glow.  I shuffled my feet a little just below the surface of the water and found that my footing was still firm.  Then, book in hand, I set myself to trudge after him once more.


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     “They, therefore, brought him out, to do with him according to their law; and first they scourged him, then they buffeted him, then they lanced his flesh with knives; after that they stoned him with stones; then they pricked him with their swords; and last of all they burned him to ashes at the stake.  Thus came Faithful to his end.” 

                           — John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part I


* * * * * * * * * * * *


As he makes his progress through this world, the Pilgrim finds that most of the real dilemmas, difficulties, and challenges he encounters can be boiled down to a choice between two antithetical options:  either he can prevail or he can remain faithful.  In most instances the two are mutually exclusive.  They represent an unavoidable fork in the road.

The reason is simple:  it’s all part of the elemental opposition between kingdom and kosmos.  After all, there’s nothing easy about being in the world but not of it.  Sometimes it’s no fun at all.  If you’re willing to play by the rules, you have a chance of winning the game; if you aren’t, you’re sidelined.  Going against the grain creates uncomfortable friction.  And when individual conscience comes into conflict with entrenched power, the outcome is rarely in doubt:  those who march to the beat of a different drum generally get the worst of it – provided they keep on marching and don’t look back.

Christian, the hero of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and his loyal companion Faithful found this out the hard way.  They hadn’t been long on the road together when they came to a town called Vanity where a “lusty fair” – in contemporary speech, a bustling market – was kept all year round.  The merchants who plied their trade at this fair had a great deal in common with the advertisers and marketers who crowd the thoroughfares and jam the airwaves of our own modern Babylon, for in it they hawked such attractive commodities as “houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.”

It was inevitable that Christian and Faithful would get into trouble at Vanity Fair, and it didn’t take much to precipitate the crisis – nothing so bold as overturning tables or raising a cry in the streets.  Their offense was something much simpler and, from the perspective of the locals, far more heinous:  they refused to buy.  When one of the hucksters asked them, “What’ll you have, boys?” they answered, “We buy the truth.”  That was enough to get them locked up, beaten, and exposed to public ridicule.

When the case came to trial, they were convicted of disturbing the peace and causing a ruckus.  When Faithful asked to speak a few words in his own defense, he was told, “Sirrah, thou deservest to live no longer, but to be slain immediately upon the place.”  In the end, he was cruelly put to death for his crimes.  As for his companion, Bunyan tells us that “He that overrules all things, having the power of their rage in His own hand, so wrought it about, that Christian for that time escaped them and went his way.”

Like most of Bunyan’s allegorical characters, Faithful was well-named; and in this connection it’s worth mentioning that, in the language of the New Testament, faithfulness and faith are merely two sides of the same coin.  Translators use these two English words in different contexts to render a single Greek noun:  pistis.  Significantly, pistis, at its root, is all about persuasion (Greek peitho).  When I place my faith in someone, it’s because the evidence persuades me that he is steady and trustworthy, regardless of circumstances; and when I am faithful, I am behaving in a manner that persuades others to draw the same conclusion about me.

Here’s the point:  Faithful remained faithful to the end.  He was a Pilgrim of proven character.  Unable to prevail against the powers that be, he declined to save his own neck by becoming a cooperative consumer in the market of Vanity Fair.  Instead, he stood his ground and suffered for it, thereby making it clear to all concerned exactly who he was and what he stood for.  In the words of the song, “He fought the law and the law won.”  And in this silent but eloquent testimony to Pilgrim truth lay his victory – a victory the kosmos cannot possibly comprehend.




God and Caesar

Books 001

“How infinitely preferable it is to be abhorred, rather than embraced, by those in authority.  Where the distinction between God and Caesar is so abundantly clear, no one in his senses — or out of them, for that matter — is likely to suggest that any good purpose would be served by arranging a dialogue between the two of them.”

      — Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered 

The Firebird XXXV

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The Firebird flew on ahead of me, shedding a broken flicker of red-gold over the tops of the waves.  I followed, reading in my book all the while.  As I read, I discovered that the little volume contained, among other things, practical instructions for walking on the water.  By heeding its precepts, I found that I could increase my pace and improve my surefootedness.  My feet began to move faster, my steps grew lighter.  In time I became convinced that the glow on the horizon was getting brighter.  There could be no doubt about it now! I was drawing nearer to my goal!

After a while I looked up and saw a dim figure approaching at a great distance.  It, too, was walking upon the waves, moving steadily towards me.  As it moved closer I could see that it was wrapped in a white shroud.  Nearer and nearer it came.  A ghost! I thought.  A ghost walking over the water to meet me!  I stopped and stood still, frozen with dread.

At last its face began to emerge out of the dusk, horribly pale in the diffuse light.  When I was able to discern its features, my mouth dropped open in surprise and dismay.  For what I saw coming over the waves to meet me was myself:  the self I had dragged out of the house at the beginning of my journey; the self I had cast away and sown in the ground as seed; the self I had seen lying cold and dead upon a stone slab in the cleft of the rock.  Deathly pale it was, yet it came briskly up to meet me, took hold of my arm with one cold, white hand, and spoke.

“You fool!” it hissed.  “What do you think you’re doing?”  The mouth moved, but the rest of the face remained stiff and expressionless as a plaster mask.  The eyes were set like glass in their sockets, unmoving and unseeing.  Up from its chest came a throaty laugh, but the mouth showed not the slightest trace of a smile.  Instead, it merely hung open in a kind of distorted half-frown, one side slightly lower than the other.

I stammered in its presence, groping for an answer, anxious somehow to justify and explain my actions.

“I’m travelling to the place of the rising sun,” I said, “in search of Christmas morning and the rider of the eight-legged horse.”

“Travelling? How?”

“I have travelled by a number of different means.  At the moment I am walking.”

Walking?” it replied in a shrill, irritated voice.  “Walking on water?  Who told you you could do that?”

“It says so right here in this little book.”  I produced the book and turned to the passage I had just been reading.

“Ha!” laughed the ghost, half closing its staring eyes.  “You haven’t changed a bit!  You’ve always lived your life in books, haven’t you?  You incurable romantic!  You stupid idiot!  You’re playing at being something you’re not!  Just look at you!  Don’t you think it’s time you grew up?”

“You don’t understand,” I countered.  “This wasn’t my idea!  The rider of the eight-legged horse invited me.  He enticed me to follow him.  The Firebird persuaded me to come out when I was unwilling.  He pierced my heart and put his flame within me!”

“Did you read all that in your book?” scoffed the phantom.  “And now I think you quite believe it!”

“It happened to me!” I protested.

“No!” screeched the ghost.  “No it didn’t!”  And suddenly its face and voice became so hideous that I stumbled three steps backward and sank up to my knees in the water.

“Give me that book!” it screamed.  Once again it seized my arm with one of its cold, strong hands and tried to wrench the book from my grasp with the other.

It was then that I realized my disadvantage.  This was, after all, my Old Self – the self I had been before I set out on my journey – before I began to grow gradually younger and smaller.  I was no longer any match for it in size or strength.

The phantom grappled with me and threw me down upon my back in the water.  I began to sink, but still I did not let go of the book.  Then it flung itself on top of me. I saw its mouth, full of jackal’s teeth, open in a wild cry as it shoved my face beneath the surface of the waves.  Through the rush and gurgle in my ears I heard it shouting, “Down!  Down!  Down!”  Salt water choked me.  It burned my eyes and throat.

Now I am down indeed, I thought, and I fear I may never rise again.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Books 001

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.”

— Proverbs 16:18


“… The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison:  it was through Pride that the devil became the devil:  Pride leads to every other vice:  it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

— C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


“It is in vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the remedy for your ills. All your light can only reach the knowledge that not in yourselves will you find truth or good. The philosophers have promised you that, and have been unable to do it. They neither know what is your true good, nor what is your true state. How could they have given remedies for your ills, when they did not even know them? Your chief maladies are pride, which takes you away from God, and lust, which binds you to earth; and they have done nothing else but cherish one or other of these diseases.”

— Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 430


“Do not love the world, nor the things in the world.  If any one loves the world, the love of he Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”

     — 1 John 2:15, 16


They are  inclosed in their own fat:

With their mouth they speak proudly.”

 — Psalm 17:10

 Fat Trump  Fat HILLARY


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    “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme …”

          “Awake!  The Voice calls us …”

                              — Philipp Nicolai, 1599


* * * * * * * * * * * *


To watch, in Pilgrim parlance, is not simply to look and stare in dumb amazement, as one might watch television.  As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite.  To watch, in the good old Anglo-Saxon sense of the word (OE wacian), is to stay awake and be aware.  It’s to maintain close contact with one’s surroundings and keep a sharp lookout for the approach of unexpected threats.  It’s about cocking your ear for the rustle of every leaf and the cracking of every twig.  In this respect it is precisely parallel to the Latin vigilare, “to wake, remain vigilant, or stand guard.”

The Pilgrim knows how important it is to stay vigilant.  He understands that the world is a dangerous place, a perilous enchanted wood where enemies prowl like roaring lions seeking whom they may devour.  Because he lives by trust, he knows how important it is to guard his trust.  He realizes that to invest it in an unworthy object would be a fatal error.

Little Tom Thumb, inhabitant of a world almost as depraved and dangerous as our own – the world of fairy-tale and romance – grasped the importance of keeping vigil.  Tom, having taken lodging in the house of a child-eating ogre, knew better than to doze off in the middle of the night.  Lying there in a great feather bed beside his six snoring brothers, he concocted a daring scheme.  In the wee hours, he slipped out from beneath the covers, crept to the bed where the ogre’s daughters lay, and exchanged their seven golden crowns for the boys’ seven felt caps.  Soon the ogre came tip-toeing into the room and began fumbling around in the dark.  Feeling the golden crown on Tom’s head, he muttered, “What a mistake I’ve nearly made!  I must have drunk too much last night!”  With that he went straight to the other bed and cut the throats of all his seven daughters.  When he was gone, Tom and his brothers made their escape into the night.

The point of the story is that watchfulness and cleverness trump brute force and violence every time.  But the Pilgrim knows that physical dangers are the least of the perils he faces as he travels through the kosmos.  Far more formidable are the ogres that lurk within his own heart – those natural, inborn inclinations to evil that lie in perennial ambush, looking for a chance to leap out and link up with the first suitable opportunity that comes along.  Those inclinations and opportunities can be subtle, inconspicuous.  They can also be deceptively familiar and comfortable; for as the prophet Jeremiah saw so clearly, it’s the heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”  Fearsome are the monsters that dwell within:  fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

When Lord of all Pilgrims returned from His prayers only to find His most trusted followers sleeping, like Tom Thumb’s heedless brothers, in the midst of invisible perils, he roused them with these unforgettable words:  “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).  The same Voice calls to us today.  Those who complete their pilgrimage successfully will be those who have ears to hear.








Books 001

“Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most unmistakable significance is for the governing nothing but a weapon for the attainment of aggressive and mercenary aims, and for the governed is the denial of human dignity, common sense, and conscience, and slavish subjection to those who are in authority.  This is what is preached wherever patriotism is preached.

“Patriotism is slavery … ”

     — Leo Tolstoy, Christianity and Patriotism  

The Firebird XXXIV

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Though glad to be free of the yacht and back in the water, I was nevertheless shaken by my experience with the three strange men.  A feeling of disorientation overwhelmed me.  It was as if I had entirely lost my bearings.  I tried to swim, but to no avail.  Again and again I sank beneath the water, so that I began to fear that I might drown.

If only I had not so foolishly thrown away my cloak, I thought in despair, and my lamp and basket of apples.

Then I thought of the words of the lady who met me in the cleft of the rock:  how she had told me that I had all I needed for my journey in the little book.  I drew it from the breast of my nightgown and found it whole, sound, and dry.  Opening it quickly, I read the first words that came to my eye, devouring them as a famished traveler gobbles his food:  “Look up,” they said, “for help draws near.”

I did look up and found the sky all ablaze.  In the next moment the Firebird swooped down and caught me up in his terrible talons.  His grip was frightfully strong as with a great roar of flame he soared up into the air, then leveled off and began to glide in wide circles above the surface of the sea.

“Firebird!” I cried in exultation.  “Are you now going to carry me the rest of the way?”

“No,” he answered in a voice like a waterfall.  “I have lifted you out of the water only to set you down again.”

“But I can’t swim!” I protested.  “And I’ve lost the cloak that once kept me afloat.  How can I go on?”

“You shall walk,” he said.

“Walk?  What do you mean?”

“Child,” he answered, “I have come to tell you that you have done well.  You have chosen to remain true – true to your own smallness and weakness.  You have trusted in your Guide rather than in yourself.  In that weakness I will set you down upon the surface of the water and you shall walk upon it; and in the end you will find that none of the devices and machinations of men shall be able to outdo you.”

So he did as he had said.  He flew down and set me on the water once again; and to my surprise I stood upon it and walked.  It was a strange sensation at first and difficult to get used to – like trying to get your sea-legs aboard ship, only without a ship.  Several times I lost my balance, stumbled, and fell as I tried to step over the uneven and constantly shifting surface of the waves.  But I did not sink, and after each fall I was quickly able to rise again.  In the end I found that, with careful concentration and the right mindset, I was able to find smooth and solid footing just beneath the surface, and thus walk steadily forward while the waves broke and sloshed over and around my feet.

“You are doing well,” said a familiar voice at my ear.  It was the small gray bird with the eyes of burning blue.

“Yes, thank you,” I said.  “I think so too.”

“Walk straight on,” said the bird, “towards the glow on the horizon.  The place is not far now.  When you get there you must not stop, but go straight through.  Remember my words and listen for my voice.  If you meet with trouble, look up and I will be there.  Remember the Book.”

A moment later the Firebird reappeared in the sky and began to lead the way forward.  I followed, walking on the water and feeling as if I were making great progress, onward and ever onward towards the place of the rising sun.

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