Ash Wednesday: The Beginning of Mending

10 02 2016

AshIn Herman Melville’s book Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, watched with interest the religious obligation of “Fasting and Humiliation” of his whaling companion Queequeg. While many might have viewed Queequeg’s rituals as strange and even comical, Ishmael did not. He observed in them something universal and says, “Heaven have mercy on us all . . . for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (Moby-Dick or The Whale [New York: W. W. Norton, 1976], p. 81).

Ash Wednesday is the beginning step towards Lent and the humble acknowledgement that we are not only “dreadfully cracked about the head” but also about the heart and spirit. For forty days, we are asked to be honest about ourselves to ourselves. Honest about what we think of others. Honest about our relationship to mammon. Honest about how we treat others. Honest about our fears. Honest about what we place our hope in. Ultimately, it is about being honest to God. At some point in these forty days, we should utter the words of Ishmael—“Heaven have mercy on us all.”

Whenever we reach this point, what started as a Lenten journey of personal and egocentric introspection transforms into the recognition that mercy is not just for me but also for all. The journey of Lent can create within us an empathetic spirit for those, who like us, are “made from dust and destiny for dust.” Our own flaws and failings can help us live more humanly, more Christ-like, with others who are also flawed and failed.

Ash Wednesday starts with the strangest of rituals—one that is almost comical, the imposition of ashes. A finger will be dipped into ashes, and a dark, irregular cross will be drawn on our foreheads. For those who are dreadfully cracked about the head, heart and spirit, and who need mending, these ashes are the healing balm of Christ.  It is the beginning of the mending.

Herman Melville’s Bible

5 02 2016

Melville's Bible 2Not every year, but most, I choose a writer and focus upon him or her for the year. Or as Pam would say, “I become obsessed.” I will immerse myself in his or her works and read various biographies. In the past I have focused on writers such as Thomas Hardy, Frederick Buechner, Robertson Davies, John Irving, Walker Percy, or Flannery O’Connor. This is the year of Herman Melville.

I have been reading Hershel Parker’s two-volume work Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1 (1819-1851), Volume 2 (1851-1891). Each volume is a 1000 pages. Reading these volumes makes reading Moby-Dick seem like reading a Little Golden Book. I feel like I know more about Herman than his own mother must have known.

Parker draws his research from the letters of the Melville family, newspaper reviews of Melville’s book, diaries, and from the assorted ephemeral that is the natural habitat of biographers and historians. He also utilizes the personal books Herman Melville had in his library. Melville had the habit of writing annotations in the margins and on the flyleaf. He would mark texts and highlight passages. Parker noted that Melville practiced this art also in his Bible. This intrigued the Bible scholar in me. I had no idea that Melville’s Bible, purchased in 1849, was extant and available for scholars to study. I am always interested in the passages to which individuals gravitate when marking and annotating their Bibles. These colophons are often tiny revealing windows. Below is a sample from one of my Bibles.

Annotation 1

I thought it would be interesting to examine Melville’s annotation, but alas, how could I get access to his Bible? Surely this Bible was under lock and key somewhere remote from Kansas City. (Actually, it is located in the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus). So I googled, “Melville’s Bible,” and miracle of miracles, his whole Bible (the New Testament and Psalms) is digitized and available online. Thank you Al Gore for inventing the Internet! Here is the website:

One interesting aspect of his Bible is that some annotations are erased. (Melville made his annotations in pencil).  It is likely that his wife, Elizabeth (Lizzie, 1822-1906), made liberal use of the eraser after Herman’s death in 1891. During his lifetime, Melville’s neighbors, critics, and even some family members considered his thinking and writings as almost sacrilegious if not blasphemous. As anyone who has read Melville knows, he was steeped in the Bible and had great acumen as a layperson in reading the Bible and juxtaposing its context and content with his narrative plots. Biblical illusions are woven throughout his works; this is reason I like Moby-Dick so much. From my reading, Melville was a creative critic of placebo Christianity, which did not sit well with the religious purveyors of pietism in that age.

Below is one of Melville’s annotations on Romans 14:22, “Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself.” His comment: “The only kind of faith—one’s own.”

Faith Melville

Look over Melville’s shoulder as he is marking his Bible.