Sunday, July 30, 2006

High Flier

High Flier
© 1992 by Nigel Rees
From Volume 1, Number 2, April 1992 issue of The "Quote... Unquote"® Newsletter

On a bleak winter's day we drove up to a service station in the tiny Lincolnshire village of Scopwick. If there had ever been any poetry about the place it was probably a distant echo of some line of Tennyson's about the utterly flat wolds, but the pump attendant sized us up instantly. `It's Magee you've come to see?' he said, and directed us to a small burial ground (not the church graveyard) a few hundred yards away.

There, amid the score or so military graves from the Second World War--Allied and German--was the gravestone we had indeed come to find. We wanted to see whether it bore Magee's most quoted lines.

It did.

"Oh I Have SlippedThe Surly Bonds of Earth... Put Out My HandAnd Touched the Face of God"

How did these lines become so famous? Because they are a classic case of a speechwriter having the appropriate quotation to hand at the right moment. On 28 January 1986, in his TV broadcast to the nation on the day of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, President Reagan concluded: `We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.'
This immediately sent people the world over on fruitless journeys to their quotation books. Reagan was quoting `High Flight,' a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on 11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick.

Magee had been born in Shanghai of an American father and an English mother who were missionaries. He was educated at Rugby and at school in Connecticut. The sonnet was written on the back of a letter to his parents which stated, `I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.' The parents were living in Washington, DC, at the time of his death and, according to the Library of Congress book Respectfully Quoted, the poem came to the attention of the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, who acclaimed Magee as the first poet of the war.

Copies of `High Flight'--sometimes referred to as `the pilot's creed'--were widely distributed and plaques bearing it were sent to all R.C.A.F. air fields and training stations. The poem was published in 1943 in a volume called More Poems from the Forces (which was `dedicated to the USSR'). This is a transcription of the original manuscript in the Library of Congress:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,
-- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.
Hov'ring there,I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew--
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

How did the poem come to be quoted by President Reagan in 1986? As it happens, he knew of the poem: `I hadn't heard it in years, but of course I knew it from years back, the war. And I think it was written on a sort of tablet or plaque outside Patti's school that I took her to when she was a young girl.' It transpires that Reagan had also been present the night fellow actor Tyrone Power returned from fighting in the Second World War--a party at which Power recited `High Flight' from memory. (When Power died, the poem was read over his grave by Laurence Olivier.)

It was also used for years as the close-down reading of a local Washington TV station. It was generally well-known in the United States (and much more so than in Britain). One person who learned it at school was Peggy Noonan who wrote the speech for Reagan, as she describes in her book What I Saw at the Revolution (1990). This is not the occasion to discuss the rights and wrongs of speechwriters `going public' and revealing the extent to which they pull strings. Suffice to say, it was a brilliant stroke on Noonan's part to select such an apposite quotation and one it was not too far-fetched to put in Reagan's mouth.

Two footnotes: in his lyrics for the English version of the musical Les Miserables (1985). Herbert Kretzmer blended Magee's words with something from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (`to know and love another human being is the root of all wisdom') to produce the line: `To love another person is to see the face of God.'
Magee's original words are curiously reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's lines prefixed to his Poems (Paris edition, 1903):

Surely there was a time I might have trod

The sunlit heights, and from life's dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.

The Cab Ride

Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, and then drive away.

But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.

So I walked to the door and knocked. "Just a minute", answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no nickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

"Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. "It's nothing", I told her. "I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated".

"Oh, you're such a good boy", she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, "Could you drive through downtown?"

"It's not the shortest way," I answered quickly.

"Oh, I don't mind," she said. "I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice".

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. "I don't have any family left," she continued. "The doctor says I don't have very long." I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

"What route would you like me to take?" I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.

We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired. Let's go now."

We drove in silence to the address she had given me.It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

"How much do I owe you?" she asked, reaching into her purse."Nothing," I said.

"You have to make a living," she answered. "There are other passengers," I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

"You gave an old woman a little moment of joy," she said. "Thank you."

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift?

What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

People may not rememver exactly what you did, or what you said

~But~They will always remember how you made them feel.

You won't get any big surprise in 10 days if you send this to ten people.

But, you might help make the world a little kinder and more compassionate by sending it on.

Thank you, my friend... Thank you Jane.

Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we are here we might as well dance.

Paul Claudel et son Psaume 19


1-2 Peuple, mets-toi à genoux, baisse la tête, et que l'ombre de Dieu avance sur toi, le nom du Dieu de Jacob ainsi qu'une main étendue.
3 Dis-Lui qu'Il t'envoie de tous côtés à travers toi Ses anges pour te parcourir: comme les quêteuses à l'église.
4 Préfère-Le dans ton coeur: immole-Lui une bonne fois dans ton coeur cet ennemi que tu connais bien,
5 Qu'il y ait échange entre vous de connaissance et de force.
6 Et maintenant, relève-toi, la sens-tu, cette aile qui t'a poussé?
7 Tu n'as qu'à demander, demande! il y a quelqu'un qui est prêt à ne faire qu'un en toi avec Son Christ.
Il y a quelqu'un au ciel, l'oreille tendue, qui ne demande qu'à déchaîner sur toi les omnipotences de Sa droite.
8 Les uns ont des chevaux et les autres des machines, et nous, le nom de Dieu à notre disposition.
9 Pauvres diables! leurs pieds se sont embarrassés, ils bafouillent des deux jambes! Et nous autres, on s'est levé!
Debout! On marche, on est debout sur ses pieds!
10 Domine, salvam fac rempublicam - et fais bien attention, dimanche, à ce que nous te demanderons le dimanche d'après.


"If you have never seen beauty in a moment of suffering, you have never seen beauty at all."
-- Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Allez voir Dieu sur la montagne

Vendredi 21 Juillet 2006
Allez voir Dieu sur la montagne

Un ami, de passage dans les Hautes-Alpes, séjournait dans un village depuis quelques jours et, bavardant avec un vieux sage, celui-ci lui désigne deux hom­mes et dit : «Vous voyez, ces deux là-bas, de vrais amis, mais il n'en a pas toujours été ainsi. Ils habitent des maisons voisines. Autrefois ils consacraient l’essentiel de leur temps à se chamailler. Toujours de bonnes raisons pour se quereller. La vie devenait insupportable pour l'un comme pour l'autre, mais aussi pour nous tous dans notre petite communauté.»

Un jour, quelques anciens disent à l'un deux: «Il reste encore une solution, maintenant que nous avons tout essayé pour que vous réconciliez, c'est que tu ailles voir Dieu. - Je veux bien, dit l'autre, mais où ? – Il suffit que tu montes très haut sur la montagne, et là, tout prêt du ciel et des nuages, tu le verras.» Et le voilà parti quelque peu hésitant, à la recherche de Dieu.

Après plusieurs jours d’ascension et d'efforts, le voici face à Dieu qui l'attendait. Mais surprise ! Il pouvait se frotter les yeux encore et encore, pas de doute, loin de tout ce qu’il avait pu imaginer, Dieu ressemblait étrangement à son voisin.

Ce que Dieu lui dit alors, personne ne le sut jamais.

En tout cas, un homme nouveau rentra au village. Malgré sa gentillesse, son désir de se réconcilier avec son voisin, tout allait tou­jours mal car l'autre redoublait d'imagination pour inventer des sujets de discorde.Les anciens se dirent entre eux: «Lui aussi doit aller voir Dieu.» Bien que réticent, ils réussirent à le persuader.

La suite, vous l'avez devinée: Dieu avait aussi les traits de son voisin. De ce jour-là, tout devint différent, et désormais, l'un et l'autre sont devenus les meilleurs amis du monde.»

Au cours de ces mois d’été vous serez très nombreux sur les routes, chemins et sentiers des Hautes-Alpes. Peut-être penserez vous à vos voisins, à ceux et celles que vous côtoyez tout au long de l’année, avec joie ou déplaisir, si c’est le cas, n'hésitez pas, profitez de votre séjour dans notre région et allez voir Dieu sur la montagne.

Je me souviens d’un livre de Samivel, Gaspard des montagnes, et tout particulièrement de l’une des illustrations où l’on voit un homme de dos, tout seul, assis au sommet de la montagne. L’ascension a été éprouvante, il refait ses forces en contemplant la vallée, le regard vers l’horizon, et il dit: «Ce serait encore plus beau si je pouvais le dire à quelqu’un.» Oui, le visage de Dieu sera encore plus beau si vous le dites à quelqu’un !

+ Jean-Michel di Falco Léandri
Evêque de Gap

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pied Beauty

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
- Gerald Manley Hopkins

Friday, July 14, 2006

Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty and Rapture

Explaining the transcendent experience one undergoes when one is conquered by beauty - whether it be a a child, a woman, a man, a flower, a sunset, Dante's Divina Commedia, a Mozart symphony, Michelangelo's Pieta, or a rainbow...

Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty and Rapture

Balthasar argues that the encounter with beauty in the world is analogous to the encounter with the Triune God. What happens in the "aesthetic encounter"? He sees that beauty is an indissolvable union of two things: species and lumen. Beauty consists of a specific, tangible form (species) accessible to human senses with a splendor emanating from the form (lumen). Beauty has a particular form, is concretely situated in the coordinates of time and space, and thus has proportion so that it can be perceived. The splendor is the attractive charm of the Beautiful, the gravitational pull, the tractor beam pulling the beholder into it. When confronted with the Beautiful, one encounters "the real presence of the depths, of the whole reality, and . . . a real pointing beyond itself to those depths".

In the perception of beauty, two moments occur: first vision and then rapture, the result of which is the impression of the form on the beholder. The splendor moves out from within the form, enraptures the person and transports him into its depths. Thus the visible form 'not only 'points' to an invisible, unfathomable mystery; form is the apparition of this mystery, and reveals it while, naturally, at the same time "protecting and veiling it". In beauty, the beholder is drawn out of himself and pulled into the form by the attractive force of the beautiful thing, thereby encountering the beautiful thing in itself.

A simple example to illustrate the aesthetical encounter can be found in looking up into a clear night sky at the stars. One is struck by the immensity and order of the universe, by the arrangement of the constellations. On an especially clear night, one seems engulfed by the sheer number of stars. Presented with this beautiful form, a sensitive viewer is drawn in by light breaking forth from the form. This light is not simply the light emanating from each star, the result of burning gases. It is the light of Being. Transported into the depths of the form, the viewer ponders foundational questions such as: How did this happen? Where did these things come from? Why is this form so beautiful? Why am I so moved by it?

The result of the aesthetical encounter is an encounter with the mystery of Being-in-itself. One has been shown the form and through the form been brought into an encounter with the depth of Being. Wondering at the mystery of a particular being, one is drawn into that beautiful form, and touches the mystery of absolute Being. The form and the depths of its being are indissoluble. In beauty one doesn't "get behind" the form. Rather one touches the depths of Being in the form itself.

For Balthasar, things that exist don't just lay there in existence; they glow from their participation in absolute Being. In Beauty, one is taken in and grasped by Being. In order to perceive a particular being as it is, one must surrender, be receptive, and be willing to be taken in by the form. Control or manipulation on the part of the beholder derails the aesthetical encounter. To share in the beauty, the viewer must renounce himself. The result of the encounter with beauty is the impressing of the form on the person leaving him breathless, exhilarated, full of awe and infused with joy. He is "seduced" by the beautiful form whether it is a stunning landscape or one's beloved.

The excerpt is from "Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Apologetics by Fr. John R. Cihak.