Monday, July 19, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Review: The Romans: From Village to Empire: A History of Rome from Earliest Times to the End of the Western Empire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a good, university level textbook which covers the history of the Roman Empire from its foundation to its end. Written by a team of first-rate scholars, this book provides a strong overview for the Romans and is an excellent place to start the study of the Romans. This edition is the second edition, so it has presumably been updated from the first (I hadn't read the first edition, so I can't comment on improvements).
What I enjoyed about this text is its blend of political and social/cultural history for each period. It makes interesting connections to cultures around it, as well as giving a good view of what was going on internally which influenced the development of the Roman state and culture. For me, it was a good review and, as I had intended it, a good general resource for my teaching, when I need to remind myself about something. That makes it a quite useful text.
Like any textbook, the view is general and there's always nuances that one might want to make, but for which there isn't space. However, this book gives a strong sense of the field and deserves a place on the shelf for anyone interested in Roman history.
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Wednesday, July 14, 2021
A word that has been going around my head the last few months happens to be a French word. That is a bit odd for me because my French is so poor that it is rare for any French word to stick, but this one has. It is resourcement. Its original meaning relates to a Roman Catholic theological movement of the early 20th century which set the stage for the Vatican II reforms by an re-examination of the past in order to re-examine the accretions of the past. Oddly, it, also, seems to be seeping into the world of the spirituality of education as a term whereby one shifts the emotional tone of a conflict to allow for a new and creative response. In itself, this shift is intriguing, but I'm not sure what to do with that. I don't normally quote Wiktionary, but here are some quotations for that usage: Wiktionary-resourcement
Now, what is it about this word that is causing it to stick in my mind? After all, it is a term for a somewhat obscure theological movement or a new word emerging in a strange, but intriguing corner of the educational world. That is a good question, if I say so myself. What fascinates me about resourcement is that, at least in my mind, it is a word that seems to look both backwards and forwards. The backwards part is easy, of course. The most common cry of those interested in resourcement is "ad fontes!" or 'To the sources!" and, if that isn't a cry that every self-respecting historian can get behind, I don't know what is. In its own way, isn't it just a historian's slogans which we keep shouting at each other as we beaver through the archives. How is all this resourcement talk supposed to relate to now?
Yet, somehow it does. Hidden in that strange French word is a hint that we don't just go back to the past for its own sake or because we'd like to escape there or for our own edification. We go back to try to understand. We go back because we look around this world and wonder, how did we get here and is all this all have be the way we say it is. It is reflecting on the past, but with different questions in our mind- 'did our source actually say that?' 'why did we think it said something else?' 'where did it get that idea?' 'is there some other way we could go?' We may find some surprising things which cause us to see our world and our practices with new eyes or we may find there are something about the past that we don't want to emulate anymore, which are no longer good for us (if they ever were). It is this sense of using the past to disturb the status quo which fascinates me.
I could go in so many different directions with how practically the word can be used in my varied interests, but I'll confine myself to just one- the field of Classics. Let me propose that there now, thankfully, a resourcement underway. We heard the first rumblings of it in the 1990s when I was in grad school with the Black Athena controversies, but it has burst forth with greater and greater momentum in the late 2010s and in COVID-tide. It is a call to look again at our sources with an anti-racist lens to ask new questions: 'what are the connections of the Graeco-Roman world to the rest of the world?' 'how does white supremacy influence how we read our sources?' 'how have we marginalized non-white voices in the past and how are we doing it now?'
Those are critical questions and ones whose answers are not just a matter of academic interest, but which need to inform our decisions about our future as a discipline as well as what we bring to the wider non-scholarly world. For too long, we have believed our privilege was our justification for our place in the educational world- knowing Latin and Greek as the marks of 'civilized' people. Yet, what we've discovered is that there are so many civilized peoples, so many flourishing cultures that we no longer have the corner of that market, if we ever truly did. What we are scrambling to do is try to figure out why Graeco-Roman Classics is worth studying, amid all these other choices out there? What makes us compelling when we remove our assumed privilege? The answer- I don't know, but one path to get that answer is resourcement- filtering for white privilege and recasting ourselves in a new way.
Wednesday, July 07, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This really is a lovely book. In it, Paula Huston focuses on ten practices which will make the second half of one's life more fulfilling- listening, delighting, lightening, settling, confronting, accepting, appreciating, befriending, generating and blessing. She weaves in some robust monastic theology, her own experience and just a lot of compassion and humour to produce a book which is beautiful guide to transformation.
What I love about Huston's writing is that it is both deeply personal, but able to connect meaningfully to the deeply wise monastic tradition- a juxtaposition which is not easy to achieve. Those theological passages are intriguing and thoughtful and presented with a clarity which not only make their points intelligibly, but relates it back in a way that one can take it into their own lives. And that is what Huston does as she moves back into the more personal sections of her narrative. Both work together-the theology deepening what we've experienced about God in this time of life, but the experience making the theology relevant to our own lives.
The overall message of this book is a hopeful, but realistic one. The practices Huston explains aren't a panacea, but they are things that, if we do them, will make us better and, hopefully, the world around us. Whatever we face in this second half of life, that strikes me as more achievable than ignoring the realities of what is to come.
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Sunday, June 13, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I found this book because I was digging around Google Books for books by some of the more recent authors I've been reading, especially Judith Valente and Paula Huston. Both are oblates of Benedictine monasteries and both talk about how they live out their lives as oblates- not as monks, but as ordinary people trying to apply Benedictine spirituality to their own lives. I've already reviewed one book from each. So, this seemed a logical step.
This book is more autobiographical than the previous book I reviewed. It is Valente's experiences on various retreats at St. Scholastica, in Atchison, Kansas which are the focus, especially on her encounters with various Sisters in the convent. The book focuses on how to apply the lessons she learns from the Sisters in her busy and complicated life.
Valente offers great insight into prayer, conversion and living a life of faith in the everyday world. She is honest about her shortcomings and her need for continuing conversion, which is heartening because we're all facing both our ideals and our shortcomings when we deal with people. The gentle wisdom of the Sisters leavens the book, but not in a saccharine or unrealistic way. Valente's journey is like most of ours- messy, sometimes inspiring, sometimes not, but familiar.
This is book which rewards slow reading. It is thoughtful and invites reflections. It is also likely to reward re-reading.
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Saturday, June 05, 2021
I'm back again after a long silence. Most of that is because I wasn't really in a place to reflect or think about things sufficiently to feel comfortable in writing. I kept being reminded of a quote from a composer I heard in a monastic talk I've listened to about how the music one makes should be better than the silence one breaks (or something like that). So, for better or worse, I just didn't write.
I'm not even sure that I'll be writing much in the foreseeable future. I want to keep that open .However, today, when I was considering this blog, I realized that I really didn't want to write about something- that is, give my opinion or pronouncements to the world- but rather I just wanted to lay some questions which are preoccupying my thoughts, when I have time, energy and quiet to think about them. So, perhaps it is worth while for me to lay them out, just as they are, with a minimum of explanation. Then, maybe, just maybe, I may feel trying to answer them, hopefully with the help those who have the patience or curiosity to read my rather long, discursive posts. I'm going to personalize these because I'm especially thinking of what can I do, rather than what can I tell other people to do.
1. How can I, as a scholar of the Graeco-Roman classics, foster a redirection of my discipline towards better understanding of the past we study as a way to bring both truth and reconciliation in the wider world?
2. How do I reconcile my firm belief in the importance of a contemplative approach to teaching and learning with an education directed to career goals and social/economic advancement?
3. How do I work through my own internal obstacles in fostering contemplation and reconciliation in my teaching and, well, the rest of my life?
I was going to give commentary on each of these, but I think I want to let these sit for a while without comment. If I do that, hopefully, I'll be back to start thinking out loud how I want to start trying to answer them.
As a last comment, as another change, I was thinking that I would take advantage of a new Goodreads function which will allow me to post my book reviews which I post there directly to here. I do that because my reading is frequently relevant to these questions and, well, if I want to keep this blog going, I need material which I can do, as well as material which I want to do. And the reviews are what I can do most consistently.
Sunday, May 03, 2020
What gave me the idea to write again was an article which has been circling around my feed in Facebook for the last couple of weeks- We're all monks now- America Magazine. In this article, the author discusses the experience of social isolation with three Trappist monks- 2 from the Abbey of Gethsemani, one from the midwest United States. Of course, monks are, in general, experts at social isolation. That is the point of being cloistered, so monastics might know a thing or two about solitude in community. The article points out that social isolation has stripped away from rest of us in the world many of things that we rely on to distract us- busyness, dreams of power and of wealth. What we are left with are ourselves and those we live with day to day. What the monks offer are suggestions from the monastic tradition about how to live fruitfully in simplicity. Practices like lectio divina or reflection can help us deal with the enforced isolation, just as they help the monks dealing with their chosen solitude.
It's a good and hopeful article. It makes the important point that this period of social isolation can offer an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth. And it can. I think we all realized this early on as the self-isolation was beginning, when we made plans for all the things we could do while at home-projects, more baking, more projects and, of course, spiritual renewal. Surely, we'll have time for all that.
Of course, it took a couple weeks for reality to set in that our experience in social isolation was going to be different from what we had envisaged. We found ourselves busy, sometimes even busier as we juggled remote work with the needs of our families without our normal supports. Or more stressful because of restrictions on us have made some of our daily or weekly tasks or activities like cleaning or food shopping much harder. And that precious time of reflection and prayer we thought we'd find has become even more difficult to manage because those hard feelings of stress, fear and frustration are also blocking our ability to settle down and pray without our thoughts chattering like an over-active ticker-tape.It isn't that God can't be found in this mess, but there is so much more emotional and mental interference than we thought there would be.
Don't get me wrong. I really do think that the article's essential point is right that the experience of social isolation for many of us is very similar to the experience of the cloister. Yet, I also recall, as the author himself states that
However, if I'm anxious, my fears echo. If I'm angry, my resentment echoes. All too often, all my emotions, good, but often difficult, are echoing around in here; each loud, each insistent, creating a cacophony that is overwhelming and confusing. It takes time and work to separate that noise all out. When I take that time and use that energy, there is opportunity for growth and for good. If I'm honest, though, I have to admit that often I just want to shut it all off and block it all out with something, anything. Sooner or later, everyone gets tired. So, emphatically, do I.
None of us know what the lessons of this time will be for ourselves or for society. It is still too early to know any of that. My hope is that we might learn something about the preciousness of our everyday lives and appreciate those who we love more. I'm sure that is as aspirational as we all were at the beginning of this time, but no one experiences growth without some sort of aspiration.
Stay safe and stay healthy.
Sunday, April 05, 2020
What is different today I think, is that I realized that what I need these days is not another anxiety list, but, rather, something which focused on gratitude. Gratitude in difficult times comes hard, but my experience with gratitude has taught me that consciously choosing gratitude shifts my emotional, mental and spiritual polarity to the good. It works that way because it makes me look at what gifts God has given me, rather than what I'm still missing. Amid the stripping away of the last few weeks, focusing on God's gifts is more important than ever.
Yet, choosing gratitude in difficult times is hard work, but it is, in these times, that any effort to appreciate gratitude is a blessing. I first realized that after the collapse of my PhD almost twenty years ago. Back then, I was meeting regularly with a friend/spiritual director. At the beginning of our meetings, I'd start listing all the things in my life that were bad or sad or frightening or whatever. He'd let me go on for a while, then, he's invariably would look at me and ask "So, what are you grateful?". I usually had to restrain the urge to slug him, but, then, when I did as he suggested, I started to see that things weren't as bad as I thought they were and that, quite unexpectedly, I was in a better mood. It didn't change the challenges that I was facing then, but it shifted the focus away from them for a while and that helped. So, if you promise not to slug me, here is my gratitude list today.
I'm grateful for ...
...health-both my family's and mine
There are so many people who aren't well or who are struggling in a lot of different ways, so it is an important grace to recall that we are still all okay here in our house. And that we're in a position to help, at least, some people who are struggling more or differently than us. And that my wife is so much better at doing that than I am.
... reconnecting with my students again.
The last few weeks have been hard for me because everything shut down at school so abruptly for the foreseeable future, so the community which my students and I have built up this year has been ripped away. However, last week, we started gearing up towards remote learning which will bring me back into contact with my colleagues and my students again. I'm grateful to hear from my students again. I'm especially grateful for the student leadership in the extra-curricular group I supervise, the Classics Club, who have been working on their own with their peers to keep their spirits up during the shutdown. It really was wonderful to reconnect with them on Friday and catch up.
...the Re-Center Christian Meditation app on my phone.
I downloaded this app a couple months ago and had already found it a valuable tool for managing stress even before all this. But it has been even more useful since. The calm, soothing voice of chaplain Jared who creates these meditations, his lectio divina meditation style and attention to breathing has really helped me when my anxiety has piled up and felt overwhelming, especially in the middle of the night. Mind you, I can't always promise that I heard everything he had to say at 3 a.m., since I have been known to doze off from time to time. But I'd don't think Jared would mind. Or God, for that matter.
...for virtual church
One of the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis has been the sudden advent of virtual church. Given that all churches have closed for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been the only way that Christians have been able to worship together. I really miss my church- the people, the liturgy and the grounding that brings me, especially when I serve. However, the plethora of virtual church options have helped my family and I to stay connected. There have been so many options, but I'm especially grateful for the the live streaming of services by St. James Cathedral, Toronto and the services by Bishops Jenny Andison and Susan Bell. Their prayers and their words have been important supports for my family and I for the last few weeks.
... everyday tasks
These are the simple things that my family and I do each day- walk the dog, cook dinner, cleanup the deck, clean the house. I'm grateful for them because they are comfortably routine. They remind me that, whatever else is happening in the world, I can do things that help people in the here and now by simply doing the next thing that needs to be done. Simple things like walking or cooking or cleaning remind me of the solidity, the stability of the world around me and that God is here in those 'chores' because they are an expression of my love of my family and the people around me. I'm grateful for the grounding they give me, reminding me that, whatever else is happening in the world, the ordinary remains a way to connect with other people and with God.
...time spent with the family
Despite how deceptively busy our days have become while my wife and I continue to work at home, I'm really grateful for the time we do get to be together as a family. It is so easy to get caught up with work or whatever at any time, but this time of social isolation has cast us more upon our own resources. So, I'm grateful to be spending this time with my family and for the times that we get together, whether it is simply eating dinner together, or playing a game together and chatting or watching a movie together. These are simple pleasures too, but I'm grateful for the company in these days of social isolation.
...for time to translate
Okay, this is sheer geekery, but one of the things that have been a blessing in the last few weeks is that I've been able to find time, not every day, but more often than usual, to get back to my project/hobby of translating various documents relating to St. Martin of Tours (the patron of my parish church). It isn't a lot of time and that is a good thing because I lose focus after a half an hour or so. Nor am I rendering the Latin into particularly elegant English. But it is something that I can walk away from and feel like I accomplished something tangible. Some days, that sense of accomplishing something helps me feel like the day hasn't been just wasted time, but that I did something useful.
...time to reflect
It's still a difficult time and that has led me to reflect more and to journal more. That isn't always an easy thing because my emotions in these days haven't always been easy. And that is okay. We're all in the same boat, I know. But journalling more has helped to process those emotions more consciously and dig deeper into my character defects or fears or frustrations. It has also helped me to keep an eye out for where God is in this mess. All of that is a blessing, even if not always an easy or uncomplicated one.
So, that's my list this week. The coming week is a special one for my family. It is Palm Sunday and Holy Week is upon us- the week when we follow Jesus through his last week of his life from his entrance to Jerusalem to his death on a cross on Friday to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is the most profound week in the Christian calendar and is normally a week of liturgy and community, story and song. Obviously, it is going to be a different Easter this year because we won't manage getting together for our services, but the story remains as powerful as ever. This year will be different and I don't know how it will look yet for us. But I look forward to walking this road again this week with my family and, virtually, my fellow Christians. Have a blessed week!