Tag Archives: World War I

Secret Stairs in Berkeley

secret stairs 1I’ve been studying a map of Berkeley and the secret stairs of the Berkeley Hills produced by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. The characters in my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, follow these steps that bridge roads winding into the forests above the university campus, winding up to the Fire Trails.

It is curious how maps organize a broad range of information and yet at the same time help the eye to focus and pinpoint one spot. Maps are like our brains, full of detail, a network of perception of both the past (memory), the present (observation) and the future (plans). Like this shiny unfolded paper that covers my desk, we too are mapped with broad ranges as well as focal points; our brains are miracles of design, epicenters of will and desire.

Novels are stories that connect the dots, draw the lines between moments of intense focus. These moments are often crises producing turning-points. A main crisis propels the major arc of the novel along, as sub-crises propel the chapters, and sometimes even sub-sub-crises propel the scenes. The process is much like walking through Berkeley, coming upon secret stairs that connect the winding roads; sometimes we rise and sometimes we fall.

History is full of these patterns, and these crises often catalyze action, focusing our attention, the attention of our community, the attention of our country, the attention of the world, upon a single incident. The crisis we remembered this week was the horrific bombing of the World Trade Center thirteen years ago on September 11. Our television screens invaded our homes with the shocking news, and although there had been many smaller crises leading up to this one, it was this one that caught our attention, that became America’s and the Western world’s turning point.

We had not been attacked on our own soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941. Our violence since then had been self-inflicted – shootings, riots, demonstrations. Some of us, in our arrogance, tried to deny it was the work of a foreign enemy. How could anyone do this? Each of us recalls, like the day that President Kennedy was shot, where we were and what we were doing when we found out, when we first saw the plumes rising, heard the rumble of the falling towers. It was as though the jets had sliced a knife into our hearts and minds. Our safe and civilized world crumbled; the map of our culture had been ripped apart and was increasingly incomprehensible. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were threatened; our freedom of speech – in word, deed, and worship – was attacked.

They say that the West experienced a similar shock as it counted its dead in the aftermath of World War I, a war we memorialize this year, begun one hundred years ago. Then too, the fire trail was breached, and the flames of barbarism crossed into our peaceful lands, threatening to destroy all that the West had built, over thousands of years since Abraham (then Abram) was called to leave the pagan world of Ur. World War I was a turning point, a catalyst that produced nihilism and despair, Lenin and Hitler and Mao, Nietzsche’s superman and the cold liberal arrogance of academic elite reigning from their own towers, these of ivory.

Church and temple imploded, divided on the path to take. Many of the once-faithful claimed God to be dead, or at least sleeping. Many delighted in such a claim, worshiping themselves and contributing to the anarchy of self-gratification now so fashionable. And so, darkness descended upon the Western world, lit here and there by communities of traditional believers, those who held onto their map, saw the way forward clearly in Scripture, Sacrament, and Creed, and who lit their candles, calling all to come and worship.

There have been three beheadings in the last month, at the last count, and I suppose now the world is watching and counting. We are finally focused. The many lines, the many roads, the many intersections where we weren’t sure which way to turn, have all converged in a single place on our map. Like the World Trade Center bombings, these violent images have stabbed our hearts and minds.

Through it all, the lights lit in our churches and temples burn brightly, calling us together, to gather as one heart and one mind before God. And as I knelt in the pew this morning in St. Joseph’s Chapel in Berkeley, my minutes and days of the week, however scattered, were gathered together in that single hour of worship. In that hour of song and praise and penitence and communion, all that was past was brought into the present and redeemed. All that would come in the future lay in God’s palm, cradled.

The connecting stairs were no longer secret passageways, but right there in beautiful bold print in my Book of Common Prayer. The paths led sensibly through the dark and into the light between the onionskin pages of my tattered Bible. Sin was forgiven, death destroyed. I could turn again, re-pent, re-form, in this weekly turning point. I could face the days ahead of me, the chaos of the world, the burning of the good and the beautiful and the true. For here was the essence, the distillation of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Here was life, for me and for each of us. Here was love that passeth all understanding, love that made sense of all maps.

Armistice Day

The leaves have turned in our valley. Splotches of russets, golds, burgundies burst from yards and hillsides, lining lanes, dotting the landscape. On a day like today, when the dome of blue seems to shelter our land and the sun is still warm in spite of the crisp air, it nearly seems magical. Days are shorter as darkness falls early, making the time between the later sunrise and the earlier sunset more precious.

So when we drove to church through this autumn world of oranges and yellows and reds, the piercing sun upon the leaves outlining each one in my memory, I was thankful. 

I had a quiet week, forced quiet, once my back went out after reaching for something at an odd angle, once I hobbled home from the chiropractor, once I arranged my ice packs and wound tight my elastic brace. I sat gingerly in an armchair before a blazing fire and read Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve. Also in my stack was Girls on the Edge (Leonard Sax), and Paul Among the People (Sarah Ruden), among others. The first two books were for research purposes, homework for my next novel. From time to time I scanned my Kindle’s collection of poems and prose by Christina Rossetti, for I wish to include her work in my work as well. Sarah Ruden reminds us in her book on St. Paul to read Holy Scripture in the context of the cultural setting, something not often done, especially in the feminist world. 

I cancelled appointments and lived with my pain, hour to hour, pain which subsided gradually. I was given renewed admiration for those who live with pain day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. I was also forced to bracket a few days and create a mini-retreat. It made me more dependent on God. 

We are fragile creatures in a fragile world, yet live as though both (creatures and world) were stable and strong and predictable. Perhaps this delusion is a form of self-protection, for how else could we arrange our human affairs? I believe this overabundance of confidence is also a reflection of the real world to come – God’s eternity – a vision, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, that colors our imagination and longing and deep desire for beauty, truth, goodness, love. 

And so, in church today I was glad to recall Armistice Day which we celebrate officially tomorrow, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the truce was signed on the eleventh hour that ended the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” the “great war.” I was glad to give thanks for the brave men and women who fought then and who defend our country today, who protect its fragility, who shore up the shores of our land. I gave thanks for peace in our time, relative peace, having lived through Vietnam and listened to the tales of my chaplain father who served in the South Pacific in World War II. Those other wars weren’t supposed to happen after the “war to end all wars,” but happen they did. And wars continue to scar the land, the people, the world. 

My father couldn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, but we have large glossy black-and-white photos of his ship, the Phoenix, and he described once the terror of the kamikaze raids, the planes diving into the sea on either side the ship. I have his Bible, signed by General MacArthur, tucked away in my glassed-in portion of my bookcases. 

War continues, for the seed is planted deep in our hearts. Our preacher today spoke of the necessity of prayer to end wars, that only through prayer can hearts be changed, can nations’ hearts be changed, can laws that govern our land be true and just, laws passed by such renewed hearts. So today I prayed especially for humility and penitence and then, perhaps when my own heart is scrubbed clean of all ill feeling, all grudges, all resentments, all, all, all… only then can my heart be filled with wisdom to choose, only then can it be filled with God, only then can I pray for my country and its leaders, and only then pray for the world’s leaders. 

I am so thankful for the men and women who protect our beautiful country and our fragile people, our delicate democracy. I am thankful too for St. Martin of Tours who shares this feast day, November 11. Did the generals who set the date for the armistice choose St. Martin’s on purpose? I think so. They would have had a choice, and in 1918 they would have known this day was St. Martin’s Day, one of the more widely known and celebrated saints days in Europe, one said to be even trans-European. 

Martin (316-397) was a Roman soldier, a Christian, who gave half his cloak to a poor beggar who had none. He then had a dream in which Christ appeared to him saying that when he gave the cloak to the beggar he gave it to Christ himself. When Martin left military service, he took holy orders. He established a Benedictine monastery, traveled the land preaching, and became Bishop of Tours, France. 

His cloak was soon a relic housed by a cappella, a covering for the cape, and from this came our word chapel. Such a cloak came to be worn by clergy in the military, those who ministered on the battlefield and at sea, and these clergy came to be known as chaplains. Our own priest wears a cope when he celebrates the Holy Mass. My father, being a chaplain, was in this sense a descendant of St. Martin. 

The sun is setting now, the dome of blue no longer cloaking our world with its bright beauty. The darkness approaches. But we have memory and we have the saints and we have the brave men and women who protect us today. God provides these shelters, these human chapels, and I am thankful, thankful to be covered by the cloak of his incarnate love.