More on Why?

The Backyard Offerings – May 17, 2019

Earlier I discussed the initial reasons for choosing Ulysses to be the main focus of my sabbatical studies. My decision focused on time and place, the two inescapable forces that envelopes our existence. We live in a precise moment registered by a specific time zone . Everyone can be plotted to a series of exact GPS coordinates.

Our movements change these numbers. Seconds tick off whatever is left on our biological countdown timer. Transportation expands the limits of our horizon. The experience of our lives is an ordered unfolding of the what and the who through the when and the where.

Journalists have reminded us of a fifth “w.” As imaginative creatures endowed with the gift of language, we squeeze reasons into our encounters. We learn about times and places not of our own making. We come to understand and interpret our stories in comparison to other stories. We engage in the requisite task of stitching together a coherent meaning for our lives.

Three distinct types of hero stories are of concern to the book Ulysses. The Archetypal Hero is elucidated by Odysseus’ epic adventures as recounted by Homer. They are foundational to the mythology of a hero’s status and may be some of the oldest stories known to humanity. Joyce organized his novel around the different chapters of the Odyssey, where the battle-weary hero spends 10 years trying to get back home to Ithaca, after the previous 10 years fighting the battle over Troy. The classical hero, usually against incredible odds and seemingly insurmountable challenges is finally proven victorious in the end.

The Tragic Hero cannot get out of his, her or their own way. Whether through circumstances or personal dispositions, or a combination of both, this hero who can be extraordinarily gifted, charming or powerful, is also fundamentally flawed. These defects override otherwise perfect opportunities and potentials. We feel sympathy for tragic heroes and see in them our own imperfections.

Like Telemachus (the son of Odysseus) in the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet features a son who is forlorn over his father’s absence and questions his mother’s fidelity to him. But Hamlet’s situation is far more tragic. Telemachus is separated from his father because of geography and will reunite with him in the future. Hamlet’s father has died and by visits heard only by Hamlet from his father’s ghost, he is persuaded how his uncle Claudius has been scandalously involved with his mother, Gertrude and together they were responsible for his father’s death.

The father of James Joyce was a well-known and liked Dubliner from County Cork with a mixture of strengths and shortcomings. Talented and charismatic, he had squandered his large family inheritance through the excesses common for a spendthrift and an alcoholic. Joyce both loved his father and was sorely embarrassed by him, paralleling his similar great faith and severe disappointment in his mother country of Ireland.

Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is an amalgam of Telemachus, Hamlet and Joyce’s projection of his 22 year old past. Dedalus is learned, insightful and engaged in the normal search common for all young adults– seeking to discover an agreeable path to guide and direct their quest for maturity and meaning in life. As with Joyce, his father’s esteemed talents are tainted by selfish behaviors and excesses with the drink (its always the drink!) and offers scant help for providing such instruction.

Almost by happenstance, Stephen finds a mentor in the unlikely personage of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged advertisement salesman of Hungarian-Jewish heritage who was born and raised in Dublin, but is sympathetically presented as a stranger, a searcher, an outsider, and a wanderer.

In Bloom, Joyce is crafting a new sort of hero for the 20th Century. Like Odysseus, he is estranged from his home and his wife, but it’s due to emotional not geographical distance. Compressed within a single day (June 16, 1904), he meanders around his native city of Dublin and through what appear to be ordinary occurrences: making breakfast, attending a funeral, shopping, doing a little business, running errands, walking the streets, feeding the seagulls, trying to find a spot for lunch, meeting friends for drinks, getting in an argument, checking on a friend in the hospital, dodging thunderstorms, getting lost, stumbling through the red-light district, falling into his bed upside down and exhausted at day’s end after trying to convince himself that he has done a little bit of good along the way, it is revealed, turn by turn, was actually a truly epic adventure.

Why am I here? This is always the grand question. Why here? Not there? Why this? Not that? Why now? Not later? Why Ulysses?

  1. All lives, however ordinary, challenging, difficult, messed-up or seemingly perfect reveal, if you take the time, a myriad of depth, significance and meaning. Spirituality is too often exclusively focused on the most visible, the best and brightest and most astonishing. Under the surface, we discover the flaws, frustrations and deeper longings that makes us truly human, and mysteriously one with one another.
  2. Ulysses is a means toward understanding a particular culture and city. While a work of fiction written during Joyce’s self-imposed exile, it is painstakingly accurate with respect to its geographical location and accuracy. In the chapter “Wandering Rocks,” more than 30 “characters” are described throughout the city of Dublin going about their daily routines between the hours of three to four in the afternoon. Clive Hart, through careful on-site research, traced each of these steps and synchronized their various encounters with tram schedules and expected times the distances would be covered on foot, finding Joyce’s exactitude to be amazing accurate, almost to the second (Davis, 2014). Joyce famously boasted, “If Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from my book.”
  3. This is a massive, dense and often confusing book, especially for a novice to it like me. It cannot be fully understood without some trusted guides to help (and even they can fail to answer all the many questions you’ll have). I’ve leaned on many resources in trying to break apart and appreciate what it right there in front of me. It has lead me to wonder about all those new persons who show up at the store-front of my profession. The person who, at-best, has a cursory, superficial and culturally-dominated understanding of any faith, including the Christian one of a particular Baptist persuasion I deeply treasure. How do they begin to comprehend the dense forest of the archaic language, metaphors and complex meanings within the Scriptures? How can I help free them from the terrible reputation and prejudices, often fairly deserved, associated by the title, “Baptist?” Though Ulysses is written by a single author over the course of nine years, it is jammed-packed with unfamiliar languages, ancient sayings and obscure references. It takes effort and outside help to move toward any true semblance of comprehension.
  4. Also, like scripture, I’ve found Ulysses easier to understand when read out loud than when read silently. I’ve used two audible companions to help me. It’s incredible to hear the book through proper Irish dialects, correct pronunciations and pacing than through the voice trapped within my own mind. When read aloud, the book flows better and is remarkably clearer. I’ve discovered I have picked up things from the audio versions of the same passage I missed when read silently.
  5. Ulysses convinces me of just how much I still don’t know. It’s humbling to find yourself a stranger in the English language of your heritage. Through patience, attention and focused study, we can all learn, grow and change. All who read well and often know the joy and liberation of fresh discoveries as the mind is richly fed, especially with the hard stuff.
  6. So, while daunting and difficult, this work is also a tremendous amount of fun. When we infuse our whats and wheres with a determined struggle toward the why, then life is truly a heroic adventure.

Should you read Ulysses? It probably would make for too challenging a beach-read, but I’ve found this audio version from the BBC entertaining. You do need to be prepared for some frustration (okay, a great deal of frustration) and the possibility of being a little bit shocked. I can also attest to some sections excellent for preparing to take a nap. But once, the mind is clear, and the dust is blown away, and a complex and compelling sentence is all broken down, and it slowly becomes appreciated as it appears, it ca be like listening to a great piece of music and you wonder why you’ve never been here before.

Picking It Out

In the Backyard – May 17, 2019

I’m reading Ulysses in the Modern Library Edition published by Random House (1992), mainly because it is features a hardback. I first ordered the more popular Gabler Edition, now affordably and conveniently available, like most all other things, from When I received it, I discovered it was the size of a healthy city’s phone book (remember those?). It was also in paperback. I didn’t relish the idea of hauling it around. It would soon be ragged and dirty from overuse. I was certain the cover would be bent and torn within a month of travel. But I was determined to make it work.

Two weeks later, I was meeting someone for coffee at the Bronte-Bistro at Joseph-Beth. I thought, “While here, why not inspect the Ulysses section?” There it was. The copy I have now underlined, written in the margins and transferred many of the Gabler identification markings that line up with the equally massive notations from Gifford’s 1988 Ulysses Annotated.

After spending too much time on Kindle (further Amazon-manipulated convenience, and even rationalized by me as saving needed room on the bookshelf), and from reading other e-books, periodicals, newspapers, blogs, social media posts and other linked articles online, it feels really good to have a bona-fide book back in your hands again, one with a firm cover, a sewn spine and pages you actually have to guide and maneuver by rolling them over the tips of your thumbs and fingers.

I’ve missed you my old familiar friend. But I’m not sold on turning back time and reading most everything the old-fashioned way. There’s too much out there and still scant space on the shelves at home.

But the worthy stuff needs a special status. All noise is not music. All images are not art. All words are not literature. There are certain books that deserve to be held in the hand – to literally and figuratively feel the weight of the words resting in your palms, and pressing down upon your thoughts, to turn down a page like the welcoming sheets of your waiting bed so you can rest between the folds and return to the replenishment granted to all seekers and holding on to be filled, once again with the magic and wisdom of dreams.

Why Ulysses?

Shillito Park, Lexington, Kentucky – May 14, 2019

Isn’t reading and studying James Joyce’s Ulysses, a strange choice for a spiritual sabbatical? I have faced this question a few times over when explaining my project for the next couple of months. Usually the inquirer is sincere and speaks from an above-average familiarity with this acclaimed and monumental work of dense fiction.

Isn’t the book full of atheists, agnostics and skeptics? Doesn’t it dispute the benefits and values of a faithful religious endeavor? Wouldn’t you agree that it makes a mockery of theology and ridicules any affection toward a life of prayer and reverence?

And how will you handle the vulgarity and quite literally, seedy and sordid observations and conduct of its main champions? Hasn’t it influenced and perhaps furthered the excesses of masculine bantering and bullying found in the 20th Century and still persisting throughout our own day!?

Why Ulysses, indeed? It wasn’t sitting on my shelf, half-started and never finished. I had not studied it in college or in other academic settings.

It might be helpful to recount how my decision was first made according to a particular place and time, rather than to a specific framework for study. I knew I wanted to travel abroad, but not too far. I am not extraordinarily gifted in other languages, restricting my search to English-speaking cultures. I had already been to England and Scotland (a long time ago in 1987), making Ireland a logical and suitable option.

The next decision revolved around my schedule and the month of June. I took my search to Mr. Google, Master of the Info-Verse, asking, “What of any significance is happening in Ireland during the month of June?” The answer? “Bloomsday!” On and surrounding, June 16, the day set in 1904 when all the action within Ulysses takes place and is commemorated each year by many special events in Dublin.

The grand peak of Ulysses appeared, patiently waiting out there upon the distant horizon, now just 3 years away from the 100th Anniversary of its first printing in 1922. I knew I would not be disappointed by the wealth of information that has been collected, assembled, processed, debated, written, cut, sliced, spliced and split into a million pieces over the course of the nearly past 100 years.

Additionally, there is the bonanza of the whole of Western civilization seen, heard, remembered and retold by Joyce’s amazing, prolific and comprehensive accounting and imagination. He famously said of his magnum opus, seven intensively managed years in the making, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality” (Gifford, 1988).

The difficulty ahead would not be trying to find enough information, but narrowing and focusing my study for the path ahead while attempting to make some meaningful contribution to it worthy of this sabbatical.

Come along. And join me as I explore an answer that is like all great adventures, opening up moments of clarity and insight and, also creating new mysteries and questions that may keep us busy over the next 100 years too.

A Bibliography and Video Bonus

The Journey Begins Within

The journey of this Sabbatical officially begins. “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step,” offers the wisdom of Lao Tzu. Yet, before the outward adventure starts, there is still time for preparation. Before embracing the earth’s invitation to travel upon newly discovered pathways and welcoming the sights, smells, and sounds waiting upon the open road and beyond the ocean’s vast horizon, I wait with a purpose.

“Prepare the way of the LORD”, declares the Forerunner, offering baptisms and new life. He echoes the longings for all pilgrims, waiting in the mystery of the unknown for the yet-to-be experiences above the surface of what is to come. Like the nervous anticipation of a five-year-old on the first bus ride to school, there is hope, and joy, and fear. Will new friends or unforeseen challenges be ahead? Will freshly encountered spaces provide laughter or danger? What if the desired engagement with the deeper self involves too many insurmountable frustrations demanding a measure of faith not in abundant supply?

So, we pack, and assemble and make lists, and check schedules, and secure funds and make ready. There is also much reading, the basic building block to all readiness. I’m offering some of these resources, already begun in exploration and waiting further discovery. I’ll be checking back, and if you are interested you’ll find the roots to my resourcing here.

But if you have ten minutes, scroll to the end and explore with me 1904 Dublin, Ireland and the world where James Joyce crafted his genius. I know the city waiting before me will be vastly different. Yet, perhaps, so too, will I.

The Bibliography

Alighieri, Dante. (1986). The Divine Comedy [Translated by Allen Mandelbaum]. Knopf: New York.

Barry, John M. (2012). Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soil. Viking: New York.

Berry, Wendell. (1973). The Country of Marriage. HBJ: San Diego.

Blamires, Harry. (1996). The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses. [3rd Edition]. Routledge: New York.

Bunyan, John, (2016). The Pilgrim’s Progress: Parts One and Two [Adapted by James Baldwin] Jawbone Digital.

Ellmann, Richard. (1959). James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University.

Davis, Kenneth W. (2014).  How to Read (and Love) James Joyce’s Ulysses: The Least You Need to Know . Komei Books. Kindle Edition.

Frazier, Adrian. “The Making of Meaning: Yeats and ‘The Countess Cathleen,'” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 451-469.

Gifford, Don and Seidman, Robert J., (1988). Ulysses Annotated. University of California Press: Berkley.

Gilbert, Stuart. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study. Vintage: New York.

Henke, Suzette, A. (1980, June). “Feminist Perspectives on James Joyce,” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. Vol. 6, No. 1, Literature, Language and Politics in Ireland. pp. 14-22.

Henke, Suzette and Elaine Unkeless, ed. (1982). Women in Joyce. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Henry, Douglas V, “Reading ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as a Great Book: A Response to ‘The Promise and Tempation of Allegory’ by Jordan Rowan Fannin,” American Baptist Historical Society, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Fall – Winter, 2014), pp. 290-297.

Homer. (2009). The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer [Halcyon Classics] Halcyon Press Ltd.. Kindle Edition.

Joyce, James. (2009). Ulysses  [Complete Text with Integrated Study Guide from Shmoop]. Shmoop University, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Joyce, James. (2004). Ulysses [with Biographical Introduction]. Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

Joyce, James, (1992). Ulysses [Modern Library Edition]. Random House: New York.

Joyce, James, (1986). Ulysses [The Gabler Edition]. Vintage: New York.

LaPlante, Eve. (2015). American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

McCarthy Jack with Rose, Danis. (1992). Joyce’s Dublin: A Walking Guide to Ulysses. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

McCourt, Malachy, (2004). History of Ireland. Running Press: London.

Milton, John, (2017). Paradise Lost. Sirius: London.

Mullin, Katherine. (2003). James Joyce, Sexuality, and Social Purity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Nicholson, Robert. (2015). The Ulysses Guide: Tours Through Joyce’s Dublin. New Island Books: Dublin.

Ryan, Scott C., “Journeying in Hope: Paul’s Letter to Romans and John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and ‘The Holy War’ in Conversation,” American Baptist Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Fall -Winter, 2014), pp. 298-318.

Somerville, Christopher. (2015). Traveler Ireland. National Geographic: Washington, D.C.

Ure, Peter, “The Evolution of Yeats’s ‘The Countess Cathleen,'” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (January, 1962), pp. 12-24.

James Joyce’s Dublin, 1904 with photographs from the William Lawrence Collection. IFI Film.

My Summer Sabbatical

Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland

This summer, starting in May, I will be embarking upon a period of travel, reflection, reading and blogging meant for rest, research and spiritual renewal.  This time is known as a sabbatical and I am greatly appreciative of the church I serve in Lexington, Kentucky for affording me such a wonderful opportunity.

I’ll begin my time with two primary personalities of 17th Century reformational Christianity: John Bunyan and Roger Williams.  Bunyan is the well – known author of Pilgrim’s Progress, a spiritual allegory that remains the most published work of English religious literature outside of the Bible.  Williams was the radical Puritan minister who was the founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and an early advocate of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.  Both were influenced by the 17th Century Baptists and both were persecuted for their determined and unfailing devotion to Christ.  Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in jail.  Williams was banished in the dead of winter by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and would have died if not for the kindness and rescue of Native Americans.

During the latter part of May, I’ll be retracing some of Williams’s footsteps in Providence, Rhode Island.

While there, I’ll be thinking about how the traveled landscapes of our experience impact our spiritual imaginations and perspectives.  Bunyan wrote from prison and crafted his wisdom of Christian journey, filled with temptations, distractions and final reward through a fanciful agrarian English countryside.  Williams forged his thinking in the natural and sometimes harsh realities of the American frontier.  I will be wondering about how the influence of place and location forms, shapes, and impacts our theologies and views of the world.

The bulk of my study will take me to Ireland in June as I delve more fully into the classic magnum opus, Ulysses written by James Joyce at the early part of the 20th Century.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Ulysses is considered one of the most important works ever constructed in the English language.  Heavily built upon Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joyce’s voice was also deeply influenced by his early Jesuit education and the rich history of Irish Catholicism he translated and critiqued in line with the arising and transforming breakthroughs of the modernist abandonment of traditional norms and civilities, many of which Joyce can be credited with advancing.  Based within the urban context of Dublin, Ireland, Ulysses focuses upon the ordinary experiences of one ordinary man going through one ordinary day (June 16, 1904) and sets the stage for the challenges, dilemmas, and questions that reverberate just as strongly into the contemporary experience.

I will finish my study with Wendell Berry’s poem, A Homecoming.  By returning to Kentucky, I am also returning home, to the agrarian nobility of my heritage, to the Baptist soil of my faith, and to my particular calling of modern demands integrated through the place and pilgrimage I have encountered along this part of the Christian journey.

Throughout this experience, I’ll have time to share some of my travel experiences and learning lessons through this blog. I humbly ask for your prayers as I travel. A new, old world awaits and I’m excited to get started again with it.

Under This Name

A naming controversy over an infamous bridge in Alabama is an appropriate location to reflect upon the polarities that divide us. America is stretched and pulled by the unavoidable differences arising from our cultural, racial, historical and personal experiences. We are cut off by our past and the hidden truths we refuse to acknowledge or the shame we are too frightened to confront. Distance and denial walk happily hand-in-hand when there’s little motivation to reach across the divide that separates the human family.

In 2015, a petition of 189,000 signatures advanced a Senate Bill in the state legislature to rename the Edmund Pettus bridge. Built in 1940, this bridge connects Selma to the capital city of Montgomery along Highway 80 and was named for a two-term U.S. senator who entered the race in 1896 at the age of 75 and stayed in office until his death 11 years later.

But it was not for a reputable gentility or seasoned statesmanship his name was meant to be proudly memorialized by the bridge that has made him better known in death than he ever became during his long life. Historian Wayne Flynt recounts how the purpose of naming places in 1940’s Selma was about a black person’s degradation. “It’s a sort of in-your-face reminder of who runs this place.”

The commemorated Pettus was a slave owner, from a family of slave owners who had profited enormously from the cotton industry and the enforced labor that sustained it. A “true-believer,” he fostered a “fanaticism” that moved him up the ranks as a Confederate brigadier general, “legendary” for his tenacious and rebellious spirit. Never at peace with the defeat of his beloved south or the prejudices and principles that provided the foundations of Antebellum society he worked so hard to maintain, he became, after the war, the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. His leadership in this well-organizational structure undoubtedly boosted his successful ascendancy into the U.S. Senate.

Whether or not he was an active participant in the violence of the Klan, it is highly unlikely he would have opposed it. “I would be very surprised if a man of his social standing actually went out with guns and masks on, but the fact that he knew what was happening is almost inevitable,” Flynt said. “There’s really no way of excluding Edmund Pettus of responsibility from the violence. He helps organize it, he helps protect it, and he does not seek to prosecute anyone who did it.”

John Lewis and other marchers crest the Edmund Pettus bridge on March 7, 1965

Therefore, the recent effort to rename the bridge proposed what sounded like a long overdue change. They suggest the “Freedom Bridge,” would be more fitting. But the movement failed in the Alabama house. It was challenged, not by those wishing to keep the old ways, but from those wiser witnesses who wanted to ensure the old ways were never forgotten so they would not as likely ever be repeated again.

House Reps. John Lewis (whose unique voice of authority is underscored by his suffering upon that bridge of infamy) and Teri Sewell are the ones who defended keeping the name of the bridge. “Renaming the Bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it — the good and the bad,” they said.

They are correct. We cannot pretend this past is well behind us. The tone-deaf response, as noticed by recent (and possibly short-lived) Presidential hopeful Howard Schultz, who claimed, “I don’t see color,” ignores the reality of on-going structural and societal forces that only grow more powerful by our neglect to acknowledge and address them. We repeat the worst parts of our past when we forget the past and fail to learn from its lessons.

The bridge to our future is an open, frank and honest look at our history. It requires a courageous reach across the racial and economic divide that separates us from our neighbor, and a brutal recounting of one another’s stories, even if we must bear the weight of the pain and shame they are likely to reveal.

Five year old Kendarius Vickers stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he waits for his family before the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in Selma, Alabama March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Under the name of Pettus, Jim Crow-era abusers sought protection. The name was obscured by troubles and tear gas when the world was shocked to see with their own eyes and on their own tiny black and white televisions the freedom fighters attacked and beaten and then courageously and peacefully returning on following days to claim a new destiny. Today, this name still spells out in honor and dishonor, a place where people of all colors and backgrounds visit, remember, and wonder what will lie ahead.