Modern Letters

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.


Triduum 2014: Sleeping and Waking

Job asks, “If someone dies, will they live again?”

Peter replies, “The gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.”

In the silence of Holy Saturday far below the gate of hell is smashed and Christ receives the soul of Adam, the first man, the fallen man, our broken father.

"The Harrowing of Hell," 1490.

“The Harrowing of Hell,” 1490.

Last week my brother sang for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and String.” Britten composed it in 1943 by setting a cycle of poems to music, including this anonymous 15th century Lyke-Wake Dirge, or Corpse Wake Dirge (the fifth video in the YouTube playlist below). The song thunders along deliberately like a barge crossing the river Styx, finishing each stanza with the haunting refrain “and Christ receive thy soul.”

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny‑muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny‑muir when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

Triduum 2014: Today is Friday

Today in Washington, D.C. the Way of the Cross was enacted along the National Mall.

The Way of the Cross stops in front of the Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The Way of the Cross stops in front of the Capitol. Washington, D.C.

The Way of the Cross moving along the national mall. Washington, D.C.

The Way of the Cross moving along the national mall. Washington, D.C.

Through the heart of the city the crowd silently followed a stark black cross held up high in front. This drew more than a few quizzical stares, incredulous frowns, and in one case, panic, as two women hurried to cross the street ahead of the the procession and scurried down the sidewalk as fast as they could walk without running, the cross and its crowd of followers bearing down steadily behind them.

In 1926 Hemmingway wrote a four-page play called Today is Friday. Three roman soldiers shoot the Friday night breeze in a bar and exchange their reactions to the day’s work (another crucifixion). Observe how this single event, which takes place off-stage, produces three different reactions in these men, mostly only hinted at. All three feel compelled to make a judgement of the man (“He was pretty good out there.”) and are oddly changed in relation to this event, and to each other.

Triduum 2014: Commandment Thursday

“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him,
“You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”

Christ Washing the Apostles' Feet, Simon Bening

Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet (detail), Simon Bening

“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I give you a new commandment,
so that as I have done for you,
you should do for each other.”

Maundy Thursday’s name comes from the Latin word mandatum, “commandment”:

Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.
I give you a new commandment: that you love each other as I loved you.

See the painting in great detail here.

“Are you happy?” Asking the question with Fire Drill by Reflection Films

There was a group of guys I went to college with who I don’t think ever slept when the sun was down. Sometimes if I was up in the middle of the night- 1am, 2am, 3am- writing a paper or just restless, I would take a walk around campus and without fail every time they were there standing, sitting, and generally congregating around the entrance of our dorm, talking and arguing and, always, smoking, smoking, smoking. I still don’t know what they had to talk about every night but on the occasions that I joined them for a smoke I got the sense that the answer was “everything”- the whole world was laid out, questioned, dissected, probed, judged, rejoiced in and laughed at by these guys waving the glowing wands in their hands with the authority of a conductor arranging the band to play.

Now if that is all they had done- talk- that wouldn’t be remarkable and I wouldn’t be writing this now. But three of them, John Broadhead, Conor Hennelly, and Joe Donovan, harnessed this manic energy, rolled up their sleeves, and took this world of constant discussion and began seeing it and making it. Every semester they were working constantly on a new movie. John directed, Conor wrote, and Joe composed music.

I went to see all the finished films they premiered there and I played “Young Man” in an unfinished one (which, now that I think of it, may have been connected). The first one I saw was alright, and the next one was pretty good, and the next was good and even began flirting with great- you get the picture. This is what artists do- they just keep making and making and making and with each attempt they become more skilled in their craft and sensitive to the beauty around them. What makes an artist is not a masterpiece, not by a long shot. What makes an artist is that energy and perseverance to, however clumsily at first, make something every day.

I saw the energy they devoted to their craft during our college years and I frankly have no idea how any of them graduated, and some with honors.

After graduation Conor quit smoking, they moved out west to New Mexico, and began plying their craft out there, entering film festivals, winning awards at film festivals, etc.

Now they’re working on a feature film called Fire Drill and they’re raising the resources through Kickstarter. I won’t waste your time explaining either since both are well illustrated in the video below. I just want to say this: I wouldn’t have backed them or be inviting you to do the same if I hadn’t seen what these guys are capable of, the visions they have, and the sweat they put behind those visions. Artists like this need and deserve our support. 

And why this film in particular?

Yesterday with a group of friends I read the following from The Origin of the Christian Claim, by Luigi Guissani:

Either freedom manage to approaches its end or, since it strives inexorably to attain what satisfies it the most, it stops at whatever fulfills it at a given moment, and in this way, it contradicts itself because it is made for completeness. This contradiction is equivalent to the concept of evil. Whoever does evil renders himself a slave to a measure that is not one for which he has been created.

Behind this statement is the conviction that we are created for happiness, because even though our desires for happiness are frustrated and thwarted in so many big and little ways these annoyances and calamities are never enough to destroy the deep longing for wholeness, completeness, and again, happiness. Irrationally we can ignore this desire for great lengths of time and enslave ourselves to an unsatisfactory measure (wealth, security, acclaim, whatever- the list is as numerous as there are people alive), but it’s always there underneath it all like an underground stream waiting to break the ground open.

To crack it open all you have to do is ask the right question. There are many ways to ask the question and John and Conor and Joe are asking it in their way and their craft, years after the smoky conversations at three in the morning which began raising it.


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