Modern Letters

Everywhere we feel somehow at home


WE stand in a double and contrary relationship to objects outside ourselves. We stand to the world and all its contents as when God brought the animals to the first man for him to name. Among them all Adam could find no companion. Between man and the rest of creation there is a barrier of difference, which neither scientific knowledge nor moral depravity can remove or efface. Man is of another make from every other earthly creature. To him they are foreign. His kinship is with God.

On the other hand he is related to everything that exists in the world. Everywhere we feel somehow at home. The shapes, attitudes, movements of objects all speak to us, all are a means of communication. It is the incessant occupation of the human soul to express through them its own interior life, and to make them serve as its signs and symbols. Every notable form we come across strikes us as expressing something in our own nature, and reminds us of ourselves.

One of these image-objects strikes me, and I think most people, as having more than ordinary force and beauty. It is that of a lighted candle. There it rises, firmly fixed … distinct against whatever background, consuming in the little flame that flickers above it the pure substance of the wax in softly-shining light. It seems a symbol of selfless generosity. It stands so unwavering in its place, so erect, so clear and disinterested, in perfect readiness to be of service. It stands, where it is well to stand, before God.

It stands in its appointed place, self-consumed in light and warmth.

Yes, of course the candle is unconscious of what it does. It has no soul. But we can give it a soul by making it an expression of our own attitude.

Stir up in yourself the same generous readiness to be used. “Lord, here am I.” Let the clean, spare, serviceable candle bespeak your own attitude. Let your readiness grow into steadfast loyalty. Even as this candle, O Lord, would I stand in your presence.

- Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs

Making a Home Fit For Humans

I’m in Louisville, KY to attend Front Porch Republic‘s annual conference tomorrow. The topic is Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond Food, with Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry giving the keynote address.

I don’t think I would have discovered FPR several years ago if Berry hadn’t already sparked in my mind the kinds of questions that FPR has made it its job to explore.

I remember when I first encountered Berry’s work. I was visiting my older brother at university and picked up his copy of Berry’s agrarian essays, The Art of the Commonplace on a whim. The writing drew me in at once in both its simple elegance and the writer’s keen vision, which was clear and challenging, but not closed and self satisfied. Reading him, like other great writers, felt something like all the windows in a house being flung open by a strong breeze that rushes through, kicks up the dust, and smells very old and very fresh.

Needless to say I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s events. This is what’s expected:

A Front Porch Republic Conference

Chao Library, University of Louisville

September 27, 2014

Welcome: 9:00-9:15

 Panel 1: Going Home 9:15-10:30

Jeff Polet, Hope College
Jason Peters, Augustana College
Katherine Dalton, Louisville, KY

Panel 2: Educating for Place 10:45-12:00

Jeffrey Bilbro, Spring Arbor UniversityJack Ray Baker, Spring Arbor UniversityJohn E. Kleber, University of Louisville

Lunch 12:15-12:45

 Keynote Address: Wendell Berry12:45-1:45

 Panel 3: Politics for Place 2:00-3:00

Susannah Black, New York, NY
Justin Litke, Belmont Abbey College

 Panel 4: New From FPR Books  3:15-4:30

David Bosworth, University of Washington
Bill Kauffman, Batavia, NY

Surprised by Schubert in the Sanctuary of Oropa

In July some friends and I accidentally discovered a Schubert concert was playing the same evening we arrived in the beautiful Sanctuario di Oropa in Piedmont. Turns out not all those who wander are lost.

The New Ark Orchestra with the Choir Academy of the Voice of Piedmont was rehearsing the ”Kýrie eléison” (“Lord, have mercy!”) from Schubert’s Mass in G Major D.167, in the Chiesa Nuova of the Sanctuario di Oropa in Biella, Italy. Behind them is a painting of the black wooden statue of the Virgin Mary brought to Oropa in the 4th century A.D. by Saint Eusebius of Vercelli. The statue, enshrined in the ancient church below the upper basilica, has been an object of veneration ever since.

The text along the base of the cupola is part of the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, which Mary exclaims to her cousin Elizabeth who declared, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary replies (the inscribed text is capitalized),

“Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est,
et sanctum nomen eius,
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies
timentibus eum.”

“My soul glorifies my Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour,
The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear him.”

If I had wings like Noah’s dove…

This pyrographic (wood burned) copy of an image of the Dove and the Ark ships was made as a gift for an Italian family which kindly hosted me for part of the summer. I wanted to leave them something of my home state’s story. The Dove and the Ark carried Maryland’s original colonists in 1634, fleeing the religious discrimination Catholics faced at the time in England. 

 "If I had wings like Noah's dove, I'd fly up the river to the one I love. Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well." (-Dink's Song)

“If I had wings like Noah’s dove,
I’d fly up the river to the one I love.
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.”
(-Dink’s Song)

Upon landing on St. Clement’s island Fr. Andrew White said the first mass in the original colonies, offered in thanksgiving for the safe voyage. Not too long after, with the Religious Toleration Act of 1649, Maryland became one of the first states to guarentee religious freedom for all trinitarian religions, providing that no man should “be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion.” 


Poetry in Santa Maria del Populo in Rome


I happened on this gem of Latin poetry in Rome in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Populo, with the help of Tyler Lansford’s book, The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. (Multas gratias tibi ago! Sorry about misreading your name in the video.) It would have been painfully easy to accidentally overlook this inscription if I were not looking for it already.

My first encounter with the Eternal City was through a ten-day Latin class here, which I participated in last year. Our professors guided us through inscriptions throughout the city, from pilgrim tombs to palace terraces. They showed us why this place is rightly dubbed “eternal”: it is always speaking.

Yes, Rome can seem a mute pile of incomprehensible ruins, maybe softened by nostalgia’s rose colored glasses (and at the end of the day are we really content with this view?). But if you look and listen closer (and perhaps borrow a Latin dictionary) Rome begins speaking with you: caesars, saints, polemics, popes, even the obelisks themselves. And what she says often runs deeper than just another species of historical artifact. What these Rovere brothers, buried here in the same tomb, want to tell us is an excellent example- the tenderness and concord that unites them cannot be communicated through a historical point on a timeline, but only through the form of this poem and its timeless beauty .


1. The epitaph reads, in four lines of hendecasyllables:

(Just as you could say that our harmonious souls and faithful minds were one, so our commingled ashes follow in the same way, and it will please us that they are believed to be of one body.)

2. SEQUENTUR is properly translated in the future. I read it here in the present.

4. The Madonna in her self-named church is carved above the tomb, watching over the brothers.

5. The obelisk of Ramses II seen in the beginning of the video is one of the speaking obelisks, with fascinating and conflicting (or you could say, “developing”) voices. One side bears Caesar Augustus’s inscription gifting the obelisk to the sun, another bears Pope Sixtus V’s inscription berating these pagan origins, and the last side, appropriating and transforming its predecessors, has the obelisk speaking for itself, declaring that it rises “More august… and joyous, before the sacred shrine [Santa Maria del Populo] of her from whose virgin womb during the return of Augustus arose, the Sun of Righteousness” (Lansford, 345). Perhaps a video on that if I’m ever fortunate enough to be back in the Eternal City.

Chaucer and wayfaring to Saint Anthony’s


“The proverbe saith that many a smale maketh a grate.” – the Parson, Canturbury Tales.

Last weekend in Padua on a somewhat Chaucerian pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Anthony. Soon after he died construction began for the magnificent basilica which now honors the monk who advised, “Attribute to God every good that you have received. If you take credit for something that does not belong to you, you will be guilty of theft.” This, I think Anthony may agree, includes the good of quaffing a beer with a friend in view the basilica’s observatory-esque* domes after sprinting after trains and trams most of the morning to find the way here. Luckily it’s difficult to stay lost for long in Anthony’s home town.

*A completely anachronistic description.

More photos here.

A Wayfarer’s Notes In Italy

A Wayfarer’s Notes In Italy

Leaving for the land of popes and pasta tomorrow. If you’re interested in following along you can check this tumblr account where I’ll be posting notes when I am able.

Appreciator of Bourbon and Benedictines would have been 98


Walker Percy, southern writer and bourbon eulogist was born today in 1916.

The photo of Walker Percy’s grave marker was taken by a Louisianian friend. Its austere, elegant directness betrays its location, a Benedictine abbey. Walker Percy died a lay oblate of the St. Joseph Benedictine Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana.

That Percy found a home with the Benedictines at the end of his life is no surprise. We readers of Percy continue to love him for his own direct assessment of our times, woven in cunning patterns of indirect humor. He had something of the wry wit and simultaneously very low and very high opinion of man found in monks.

Thought Experiment: Imagine that you are Johnny Carson and find yourself caught in an intolerable one-on-one conversation at a cocktail party from which there is no escape. Which of the two following events would you prefer to take place: (1) That the other person become more and more witty and charming, the music more beautiful, the scene transformed to a villa at Capri on the loveliest night of the year, while you find yourself more and more at a loss; or (2) that you are still in Beverly Hills and the chandeliers begin to rattle, a 7.5 Richter earthquake takes place, and presently you find yourself and the other person alive and well, and talking under a mound of rubble.
If your choice is (2), explain why it is possible for a true conversation to take place under the conditions of (2) but not (1).”*

Happy birthday, friend.

* From that wonderful little book that should be handed out to college graduates along with their degree, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.



Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,
Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I am bursting with fraternal pride and admiration right now. My brother, Peter Atkinson, has been working on Contraries, a new university literary mag, for the better part of a year. Judging from the website, video, and the 80 page collection of writing and art that launched yesterday online and in print, it’s safe to say he hasn’t been wasting his time.

He wrote for the student newspaper, “We want artistic creativity to be our habit at Ave Maria [University]. Artistic creativity does two things: it allows us to understand our own personal experience more deeply and to read other’s experience more completely.”


Triduum 2014: We, too, shall divide the sod

Below is a poem by Charles G.D. Roberts, and a picture from a walk through the woods today which helped me decide on this to post as an Easter poem. I found Roberts on the always edifying Kingdom Poets blog, curated by D.S. Martin. Martin writes that “Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1860—1943) is often called the father of Canadian literature because he was one of Canada’s first poets to receive international acclaim, and because of the work he did to promote Canadian literature. He was born in New Brunswick, and grew up in Sackville and Fredericton where his father served as a church rector.” He published the poem in 1896.


Daffodil, lily, and crocus,
   They stir, they break from the sod,
They are glad of the sun, and they open
   Their golden hearts to God.

They, and the wilding families,—
   Windflower, violet, may,—
They rise from the long, long dark
   To the ecstasy of day.

We, scattering troops and kindreds,
   From out of the stars wind-blown
To this wayside corner of space,
   This world that we call our own,—

We, of the hedge-rows of Time,
   We, too, shall divide the sod,
Emerge to the light, and blossom,
   With our hearts held up to God.



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