In the 1985 musical Les Miserables (recently presented in a new film adaptation), there is no shortage of stirring musical numbers. However, even by its own high standards, around its midway point it reaches an exceptionally rousing pitch. The song “One Day More” opens with the voice of the lead, Jean Valjean. He is soon joined by the lovestruck couple, Cosette and Marius. Then the lonely Eponine chips in. Before long, the leader of the uprising, the crowd of revolutionaries, Inspector Javert, and even the crass innkeepers are caught up in the grand number. Few people can watch this number unfold without a shiver or two coming down the spine.
In the average household, on your average morning, mothers quote scripture to their children more often than they realize: “Come and have breakfast” (Jn 21:12). This is a resurrection scene by the Sea of Tiberius, and what a way to spend time with The Lord! For many years now, I have loved breakfast. The following, in no particular order, are some reflections on the great and various “meanings” of breakfast.
On encountering the myriad oddities that constitute the standard fare of our day-to-day, it is natural to search out an explanation. Why do logging trucks with full loads pass each other on the highway? Why do fast food attendants hand you so many napkins? Why don’t Irish dancers use their arms? Perhaps small mysteries, but mysteries nonetheless. Now, by citing frivolous examples, I do not mean to trivialize the tendency, but rather to illustrate its universality. We observe this dynamic at work with phenomena ranging from the most ridiculous to the most outstanding. It simply seems that much of the substance with which life is filled is profoundly mysterious if subjected to a sustained gaze.
Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within
So sings Alfred, King of Wessex, to Guthrum of the Northern Sea on the eve of the Battle of Ethandune in G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. This is Chesterton’s famous retelling of the struggle between Anglo-Saxon Christians and Viking pagans early in English history. In the background of the Ballad, the Vikings have defeated Alfred’s army, taken large swaths of English territory, and are now feasting and enjoying themselves before continuing their conquest. Having entered the Viking camp as an anonymous harpist, King Alfred now sings his defiant song to the Viking warrior.
Only four pages long, Why Do the Heathen Rage? is Flannery O’Connor’s shortest short story—a fragment, really, of an unfinished novel. The hero, sort of, is Walter Tilman, a twenty-eight-year-old bookish type, unmarried, living at home, without anything that might commonly be called ambition. He remains enigmatic, partly because we only see him through the disapproving eyes of his mother, to whom he’s a maddeningly incomprehensible cipher, “like an absorbent lump . . . taking everything in, giving nothing out.” But he pretty clearly fits the profile of one of O’Connor’s flawed Southern prophets—a more or less crazy outsider who turns out to be saner, in certain crucial ways, than all the normal, practical people around him.
At the start of the story, Walter’s father (“Tilman”) has had a stroke, and after a two-week hospital stay, it’s time to bring him home. On the way, riding in the ambulance, Mrs. Tilman studies her husband’s paralyzed face:
Every four years, our republic celebrates the closest thing we have to a civic liturgy as we inaugurate the President of the United States for a term in office. Compared with coronations of monarchs in days of yore, it is an uncomplicated, straightforward ceremony. Yet for all its republican simplicity, the ritual itself is a powerful expression of who we are as a nation and of the self-government we have inherited from our fathers.
You’ve practiced what to do if you should be faced with many an unlikely but critical situation: what if your lunchtime companion starts choking on a piece of food? You know how to do the Heimlich maneuver; What if the fire alarm should suddenly go off in your building? You already have an escape route; if your clothes catch fire, you know to stop, drop and roll—but do you know what to do if you suddenly come face-to-face with God?
Yesterday marked the fortieth anniversary of the nationwide legalization of abortion. This Friday, hundreds of thousands of Americans will gather on the Washington Mall to advocate for the rights of children in the womb at the fortieth annual March for Life. In the intervening four decades, there has been much heated debate on the issue. Proponents of access to abortion often frame the matter in terms of women’s rights or women’s health, but one crucial consideration is often lost in the discussion—what happens to a woman after she has had an abortion?
It is the mark of the epic hero to stare courageously into the face of his foul foe who is bent on death and destruction; the hero is bold even when obviously outmatched. This is also the mark of the saint, but here the enemy’s gnashing teeth are generally spiritual rather than physical and the source of the saint’s mettle is found in Someone other than himself. Confronted with such a beast, it is the mark of our culture to flee, or worse, to refuse to acknowledge the adversary’s existence, or even worse, to call the evil good and enable its devastation.
Alienation, nervous excitement, homesick melancholy, wonder, anxiety, isolation—the experience of culture shock is nothing if not complex. The lone tourist, the exchange student, the refugee, and the immigrant are the most susceptible, but perhaps you feel a tinge of it yourself right now. Are you home?