Friday, December 21, 2012


I woke up thinking about arrivals this morning which is entirely appropriate, given the season. Many people travel this season- by plane, by car, by bus- so, there are a lot of arrivals in peoples' life right now. Many of us are planning arrivals or waiting for arrivals or have already arrived at our Christmas destinations. It is the right time of year for these reunions and for time spent with family and friends.

In the Christian calendar, it is, also, Advent which recalls the long wait for possibly the most significant arrival in history- the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. We spend this season listening to the prophets and John the Baptist telling us of the imminent arrival of our Saviour. We wait with Mary, as she expects her child, promised with such awe and mystery. Indeed, we arrive with her and Joseph in Bethlehem. We go with her into the manger as she begins to feel the labour pains of the coming salvation of the world. That is a lot of waiting. That is one very important arrival.

Arrivals come in all sorts and moods. Many arrivals are joyful; the reunion of friends and family who haven't seen each other for too long. Some arrivals add the joy of arriving after the fatigue of an arduous and difficult journey. Some arrivals retain their joy in seeing friends and family, but may be tinged with sadness or grief because of illness or absence of some of those we love. Some arrivals are difficult as one is reminded by strained relationships or loss which makes joy difficult this time of year. . Yet, they all share the journey and the anticipation inherent in travel. When we arrive, we pause for a moment in our travels and realize that we are where we intended to be.

For Mary and Joseph, however, the arrival of Jesus was a difficult one. They, too, did their stint of holiday travel; travelling to Bethlehem at the behest of the Roman authorities. Several days on a donkey while heavily pregnant is hardly a recipe for a peaceful and relaxing trip. Then, there was the hassle over accommodations which ending in the couple bedding down in the manger with the animals instead of in a private room in the inn. Then, as soon as they arrived, it became obvious is was Mary's time and Joseph had to stumble out into the night again to find a midwife to help his wife hundreds of miles from home. I'm sure as he stumbled through the darkness, Joseph was wondering whether things could get worse and whether the arrival of his son would be a safe one.

Still, despite the problems, this arrival was joyful, the most joyful known to humanity. All Creation, tradition tells us, held its breath and time paused for a moment the instant Jesus was born; a valuable tip-off for Joseph that he'd better give up his search for a midwife and get back to his wife and new son. Mary welcomed the child whose extraordinary birth she had agreed to months earlier and had awaited for so long with eager anticipation. . Angel choirs descended upon astonished shepherds in the hills near Bethlehem, sing 'Glory to God' for the arrival of Mary's child. The shepherds joyfully sought out this wonderful child as did kings from the East, bringing gifts to celebrate this arrival. Even the animals back at the manger, valued members of God's Creation, were welcoming the child and hoped that this arrival meant the beginning of the end of the rift between humanity and the world God made. . Did they, as mediaeval legend encourages to believe,  greet Jesus, enjoying the temporary power of human speech or did they assure Him of their love in their own tongues. Jesus' arrival began with difficulty and worries, but ends in a joyous celebration, not only of the happy parents, but of all people and creatures within reach of the news- angels and humans, poor and rich, animals and, I'm sure, the very earth itself.

Advent, the time we remember the arrival of Jesus to this earth, is almost at an end and we ready ourselves for Christmas Day. Another arrival is waiting in the future, but, for now, we celebrate how God arrived on earth as a helpless newborn and began to the process which will see the world and all in it redeemed and restored. May God grant you a blessed Christmas and peaceful holiday.


Sunday, December 16, 2012


Over the last year or so, I've been diversifying my reading a bit. I'm still reading mostly church history, except for the professional or dual-purpose Classical reading, but I'm reading a bit more in periods other than Patristics. A little Mediaeval, a bit more Reformation and a bit of the Enlightenment (sorry, 19th  and 20th century, I'm just not up for you just yet- not quite over the aversion from my university days). That has been good for me because, while I continue to love the Church Fathers, it is possible to get a little too familiar and insular about my interests. Yet, much of my interest in these periods tends to be how did we go from the Fathers to now. That is, how did we wind up in this mess, Christianly speaking?

I don't, I should warn you right away, have any brilliant answers to that question. The current post-Christian moment in history has been the result of millions of little decisions and circumstances, but my historian's heart still hopes for answers. So, it has been good to wander through various stages in the Church's life, looking at this or that thread, reflecting on the decisions made and where they led. That search sometimes me to feel that we have wandered so far and so long that we've lost sight of our starting point. That is, of course, the experience of most of us in our own lives, so it shouldn't be entirely surprising that this is true for us communally. Of course, there are those pivotal moments which we see as influential in our own lives or our communal lives. Sometimes, these events serve as pivots, clearly demarcating different phases of life. In our Christian history, that could be the Reformation or some such event, whose impact was so great it completely changed how millions of people lived their faith. In our own lives, it might be getting married, a conversion, a death or facing up to something we have long denied. Still, most of our lives, and the life of the Church, is lived in the mundane world of work, family and everyday life where faith is the unspectacular foundation we live with and we can wander from that faith so easily that it is hard to know where we are.

In my reading, what I've seen is millions of faithful people working, praying and living out their Christian lives over hundreds of years; sometimes well, sometimes badly. In the history of the Church, we see saints and sinners worshiping and working together, each mixing their good and bad motives together. We see the Church bonded to cultural limits which distort its faithful witness to the world and, every once in a while, we see it transcend those limitations spectacularly and in a life-changing way. And we see that promise sink back into the mire of human culture and sin, only to flash out again in a blaze of grace. Somehow God's work still gets done and the rich incarnational parade (to borrow a phrase from novelist Maggie Helwig) continues.

The funny thing is that that parade, in all its messiness and disorder, gives me hope for the future. It reassures me that God is still working in the life of the Church and the world. He hasn't given up on us because somehow he still works through us. The fact that we still see both sinners and saints in the pews with us each week should reassure us that God's healing of the world is continuing because we sinners learn this is a place for healing and redemption so we can reclaim the memory that we are all potentially among the saints. The messiness of Church history is the messiness of a world which, whatever it says about faith, tries to heal itself without God. Despite these obstreperous patients, God keeps working his healing and redemption of this world, step by step, person by person. The history of Christianity tries to track this process. While admitting where we have failed and knowing that we can't truly know its end, we seek to see God's fingerprints on how we humans have interacted.

Perhaps this is all too lyrical for some; too pious for others. Our failings as a church are grim enough, we all can set out those failings in detail. And those who reject Christianity and the Church are always happy to remind us, if we've forgotten. We live in an age where Christians don't want to remember our Christian past because it is too fraught and it has fallen to non-Christians to remind us of our failings. Yet, I wonder why we Christians let others tell our story for us. Why is the history for the Church left so often for those who have little interest in the Church as it is now? There has been some magnificent work done on church history in the last hundred or two hundred years, but do we need to go back and find again our Christian narrative, not papering over our sins and faults, but confessing them and looking for God's purpose in it all? What would a history look like which would celebrate faith and service to God, recognize sin and error, but still be essentially hopeful and faithful? How can we bear witness to the love of God in this world over our long history and offer hope for the future of our Christian lives?

These are more questions I don't have answers for. Yet,  I suspect that part of the answer is my own difficulty in seeing my own story in the way that I set out for Christian history. I would prefer to justify, to plead innocence and paper over my own failings. I know what the harder, and better, path is, but I rarely want to go down it. Yet, God is working in my life and others, as I know well. How to bridge the all too common reluctance to admit one is a sinner with the recognition of God in my life and those around me? And, if I can't do it, how can I speak to the broader question of our communal life as a Church?

We are all, in a sense, historians- most often of our own lives, but sometimes with a call for a broader vision. How would you tell your story, I wonder? How would you tell our story?

Saturday, December 01, 2012


Generally, one warning that a blog is not receiving enough attention from its author is when it is deluged by spam. Another warning is when a blog is when it is mentioned as past tense as a defunct blog (I appreciate the praise, incidently, and concede the defunct). Yet, ultimately, I'm not entirely sure what I think about continuing this blog. Clearly, my energy and willingness to blog has been at a premium over the last few years, but I'm still hesitant about letting this blog go. Perhaps, I'm just being stubborn. Perhaps there is something else I should be doing with this. I don't know.

Anyway, what I hope is that the readers I have left would add me to whatever prayers they make as I discern what to do with this blog. Suggestions, of course, are also welcome, but anything I take up has to a. excite me and b. be managable given my life.

Still pondering and praying....


Sunday, July 15, 2012


It has been nice to be back to translating this week, even if it is going quite slowly. Translating well is a slow process at the best of times because it requires great sensitivity in both languages and the sense of knowing when to stay literal and when to loosen up. Rendering Latin into good idiomatic English, while retaining the sense of the original, is challenging. I can crank out an accurate and very literal translation of Sulpicius Severus reasonably easily. The grammar and vocabulary he employs is not extremely complex and he doesn't write high poetry like Vergil or highly rhetorical prose like Cicero. Yet, many, many times, I find myself struggling to get the best sense out of him and into the English without it sounding awkward and forced.

For example, consider what I was working on last night in the (probably) vain hope that I can post the Sulpicius' 1st Letter. I sat down to work on it and, in the first sentence, ran into one of these 'I-know-all-the-grammar-and-vocabulary-but-how-do-I-say-it-in-English' problems. Here is the passage in Latin (for my readers who know it-the rest will just have to take my word for the problems I relate):

Hesterna die, cum ad me plerique monachi uenissent, inter fabulas iuges longumque sermonem mentio incidit libellli, quem de vita beati uiri Martini episcopi edidi, studioseque eum a multis legi libentissime audiebam.

English speakers will, of course, wonder at the length of the sentence and the multiplication of subordinate clauses, but anyone familiar with Latin or ancient Greek will recognize this as a sentence of rather average length. Latin does allow compression of thought, but it  tends to like subordinate clauses, although, here at least, the number of participles is down to a minimum. (Later Latin tends to like main verbs in subordinate clauses more than Classical Latin). So, really, the grammar is pretty straight forward as far as that goes.

Here is a pretty literal rendering of the passage:

Yesterday, when very many monks came to me, amid fresh tales and long conversation, mention of my little book, which I published on the life of Bishop Martin, the blessed men, occurred and I was listening very gladly that it was read by many enthusiastically.

As for as it goes, this isn't a terrible translation nor is it overly literal. I did take some liberties to clarify the English, but something about that second clause bothered me. It just didn't sound quite right. It took some time, but I realized that the problem was with the way that mentio and incidit were interacting. mentio is a fairly straightfoward word. Not surprisingly, it is the Latin equivalent of 'mention' in English. That makes sense because it is clearly the Latin root of the English word.

incidit was a rather more difficult word to deal with. The basic meaning of it is 'to fall in, fall, light upon', but its meaning extends to 'occurs, happens', which explains my initial translation. However, the more I thought of it, the more my translation sounded odd. Does a mention occur? Doesn't sound right, does it? Besides, my first translation of incidit really wasn't getting the tone of the word the way I wanted. incidit has the feeling of something which just, well, happens. That is, it has an almost random quality to it, so, in employing it, Sulpicius is trying to say that he didn't bring it up the subject of his book on Martin , it just happened that people started to talk about (and praise) it. This tone is in keeping with the studied modesty of Sulpicius Severus which is a feature of the Life itself (see particularly, the Preface of the Life of Saint Martin for a demonstration of this rather affected modesty). Indeed, this tone is already reflected in the choice of rather self-deprecating use of libellus- little book- to describe the book. incidit falls in with that tone.

So, what did I finally do about it? I had to adjust both the meaning of mentio and incidit beyond the standard dictionary meanings to get the English idiom I needed. Here is what I came up with (for now):

Yesterday, when very many monks came to me, amid new stories and a long conversation, the subject of my little book which I published about the life of the blessed bishop Martin, happened to come up. I heard with very great pleasure that it had been read with enthusiasm by many.

Better. The subordinate clauses are still piling on top of each other in odd ways. Particularly, the 'my little book which I published...' part sounds like odd English (if my students wrong something like this, I'd tell it was Latlish- not quite English, not quite Latin). And I'm tempted to change that last clause from the passive voice to the active because the active voice sounds better in English. Or not. That passive (to be read) fits with the sense that Sulpicius is trying to distance himself from praising himself. I still need to think that out a bit.

 I know that this blog entry has been rather a long discussion of what looks like very little. Yet, I think we can get rather blasé about the process of translating, partly because of the wide availability of translations of ao much of world literature and partly because we modern North Americans, as a consequence, don't think it necessary to pursue language study, even at the graduate student level, in its own right. So, we become language phobes who are afraid to do serious language study. That is a dangerous position to take because, while the language in, say, our Latin texts doesn't change, our language, the target language, does and there is a need to retool and refit translations with each generation. All one has to do is to read translations from even a generation ago and one will find them hard to follow. Regular updating of translations enables us to engage more fully with the literature from other culture - whether ones that have passed away or those which continue alongside us. Translating isn't an easy activity, but it is a culturally important one and one which deserves to be taken more seriously.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Return to St. Martin

For as long as this blog has been around, I've been working on a translation of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin. To be accurate, I've been working on it, off and on, for longer than that, but I spent time in 2007-2009, posting chapter by chapter of the Life which I gathered into a final posting in Feb, 2009. And, then, I set it on the shelf, intending to get back to it in a while. It has been a while and high time to review the whole project.

The project has, in the interim, expanded. I realized that I probably should translate the Letters and Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus because they shed considerable life of St. Martin as we have it. And, while I'm at it, there is St. Gregory the Great's work on St. Martin, which would supplement Sulpicius Severus' account. I haven't got very far on these last pieces, but now that it is summer I thought I'd spend some time on it.

Last night, I found the CSEL volume free on Google Books and have duly printed off the relevant portions of that volume. I thought I would post the translations as I proceed. Comments are always welcome, of course, and, just like the portions of the Life, I'll provide commentary to give a preliminary interpretation to the passages I'm translating.

With that intent in mind, I thought I'd take a post to reflect on what I've observed and learned about this particular enterprise.

1. The biography of St. Martin as remembered by many Christians is limited to one or two incidents. Of course, most people know about the cloak and the beggar incident (Life, 3). This incident has a particular resonance among many Christians these days as an expression of social justice. Of course, giving half one's cloak to a beggar is social justice and particularly striking when done by a Roman soldier, who were not, generally, well-known for acts of social justice. If one hangs around pacifists, one might quote approvingly about Martin's defiant refusal to fight in the late 350s in Gaul (Life 4). And that is about it. The balance of the life which describes St. Martin's episcopate in Tours and his reputation as a holy man is not as well known.

2. Following on this point, there are reasons why the balance of St. Martin's life isn't well known. If one reads it as either a modern or a post-modern, there is much about which to be offended or dismissive. The many miracles of St. Martin are bound to cause modernist readers to dismiss the whole life as fantastic and useless as a historical document. Martin's relentless campaign to root out paganism in the countryside around Tours, involving the destruction of altars and such like, are bound to offend post-moderns, who are liable to see this as an expression of power, not piety. So, one feels when reading the Life that one has the alternative of being credulous or oppressive- neither which are popular shortcomings these days.

3. What is interesting to me about the body of literature on St. Martin is that there is a reflective sense, if only because Sulpicius Severus wasn't content with just writing an saint's life, but he felt it necessary to answer his critics. Not every one of St. Martin's contemporaries agreed with Sulpicius Severus' take on St. Martin. Even in the life, we see opposition to St. Martin's approach to the episcopate, even if that opposition was condemned as being wordly. In the Letters and Dialogues, we see how deep that opposition went, even into St. Martins' own community which elected as his episcopal successor one of the most vociferous critics of St. Martin while alive. That is one of the reasons why I want to translate these works because they give a fuller picture of St. Martin and raise interesting issues such as Martin's mental competence at the end of his life (when, incidentally, Sulpicius Severus knew him).

4. Yet, this complexity is also unsettling. One of the reasons why I embarked on this project back almost a decade ago was that I attend a St. Martin-in-the-Fields (West Toronto, as it happens, not the original in London, England) as well as I attended in London, Ontario. It was, and is, in my mind to give a translation of the Life to both churches as a gift, but I find it is a rather odd one. Simply stated, I would not be giving a plaster saint for the edification of all, but rather a flawed, but, I firmly believed, deeply faithful saint, whose life raises many, many questions which are uncomfortable for us to answer such as our belief in miracles, attitudes to other religions, attitude to the military and, quite possibly, our attitude to mental illness as well as the more satisfying reflections on social justice and faith. I'm not sure I'll be thanked for raising these issues, but I'm also convinced the role of a Christian scholar, even an amateur as myself, is to tell our stories, no matter how unsettling they might be.

That is, for what it is worth, is where I am right now with what I've called elsewhere, the Martiniana. Hopefully, I'll be able to post the first letter before the end of the week and then work my way through the Letters and Dialogues in the  course of the summer. That's the plan at any rate.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Observations on history, faith and 'real life'

As I'm sure my readers have noticed, I've decided to refresh the look of uperekperissou a bit, with a changed format done and some tinkering with the sidebars planned. More to the point, I'm also anticipating a summer in which I might be able to do rather more blog writing than I've managed in the school year- a low bar, I know. One of the nice things about summer is that the crush of work in the school year abates and I get more time to reflect and, more to the point, read. So, that is what usually generates blog spots.

So, for today, I thought I'd be a bit self-referential and talk about my new subtitle. The alert reader will have already noticed this change and, I hope, approved of it. Living the Tradition, while reflective of my placement inside a dynamic Christian tradition, is rather a clunky and pompous slogan to go by. I mean, who do I think I sound like, a Tractarian or something? So, when I started to contemplate my summer writing, I thought of this subtitle as rather more reflective of what I do here on this blog. However, it does still bear some explaining, if only because those three subjects don't always go together.

For many, I'm sure, it is the history element of this triad that causes the problem. History, in the experience of very many people, is so removed from 'real life' that how could it possibly be related with it, even with faith serving as an intermediary. Of course, historians hasten to justify themselves with everything from vague, but ominous warnings about being doomed to relive the more unpleasant elements of our history or the quest for historical 'truth' or about redefining narratives et cetera. Or, if they're particularly pious, perhaps making observations about the morality of our present age by comparing us with the spiritual giants of the past or the spiritual villains, depending on one's theology and inclination. Yet, none of these justifications ring true with me. What motivates me to continue to study history, particularly Christian history is the inspiration that earlier Christians give me in their efforts to live out their faith in their own time and the salutary dislocation of my own modern (or post-modern, if you like) assumptions about what faith should be, based, no doubt, on my own accommodation with the cultural around me. What Christian history has taught me is that there are many, many different ways of being a Christian- most of which are as faithful and unfaithful as our own time-, so raises the question of whether I believe I have a lock on the truth. History reveals the cloud of witnesses which tell me to stop assuming that I've got this faith thing locked down.

The faith element, on the other hand, should cause no  consternation among Christians, but academically trained historians must now be wincing. Some of that discomfort is probably right. Anyone who has read any ecclesiastical history over the ages knows the piety of some authors has tended to overshadow their historical judgement.. Yet, faith isn't a substitution for using one's brain and, indeed, I would argue that any Christian should be alive to the danger and temptation of perpetrating pious frauds, if they should study history. The impulse to make Christianity look as good as possible is always there as is the impulse to use history polemically against our more vociferous cultural opponents. Yet, I think faith is ill-served when we engage upon any kind of deception (self- or otherwise) about our past. Faith is about trust and, I would argue, it doesn't work if the reasons why we trust are fraudulent.

Besides, my faith is central to how I look at the world and it should surprise no one that I'm going to want to write about it. Really, when push comes to shove and I have to explain why I have faith in God, my answer really has to be that I've found nothing else which give me hope that the evil that I see in the world will not prevail and that this mess that we call human life will be redeemed into something indescribably better. And it is that hope that sustains me in my daily life and pushes me to find a way to contribute to that redemption- through seeking out the dark places in my own soul and through seeking out God's peace in the world where we live.

That brings me to daily life. Ultimately, my faith doesn't allow me to live in a vacuum, but it has to be lived out as I go about my daily routine. I am blessed with work which also is my vocation and, where the rubber hits the road is my daily life. That is where I can see if what I believe comes out in my life or not. Can I live out a faithful life amid the concerns and pressures of my job? Can I trust God even when I really want to control my life and do what I want to do? Do my standards of right really measure up with God's? When I can answer those questions, I'm a lot further on in discerning what I need to do to continue in faith.

So, as I contemplate new posts, I'm hoping to combine these ideas, largely because the best of my posts in the past have done that. I have, as I've discovered, neither the leisure nor the exact skills to be a professional historian. I don't have the sense of detail needed to write history well at the highest level. Nor am I a giant of faith- I'm only trying to apply the little I know about faith and God to my life. However, I find hope and inspiration in finding the connections between the witnesses who preceded me and the witnesses who are before my eyes. If those connections prove helpful to my readers as well, then my task on the blog is done.