Thursday, May 30, 2013

In Which I Am Bold

Today is the feast day of St. Joan of Arc. I have a special fondness for St. Joan. She was a great influence on me during my teenage years. I liked her. She was the sort of girl with whom one could easily be friends. She was devout, but passionate with it. She loved beautiful things, which gave here just a wee, charming touch of vanity. She was brought up simply, and was well-contented. If she had been left to her own devices, she would have remained in obscurity, a shepherd-girl, who loved her home and her family, and enjoyed her life amongst them. Yet, when God literally spoke to her, through His angels and saints, and revealed what His will was for her, she had the moral courage to walk away from everything she loved, and serve Him as He wanted to be served. She became her country's great hero, an almost legendary figure, but she remained herself to the end - Joan the Maid, who would have gone home to her mother, if she could. I wanted very much to be just like her. Indeed, my goal in life is still very much the same: to be contented in the life God has given me at the moment, but, if at some point, He gives me another way of life in which to serve Him better, to show the same sort of courage as St. Joan and follow Him.

I think I have mentioned before on this blog, that there were Scottish soldiers fighting in the army of Joan of Arc. One of the great number of books I intend to write, but have not gotten around to actually working on yet, is a work of historical fiction, from the viewpoint of one of those Scots, possibly a piper. (Yes, there were pipers too. Once the French had lifted the Siege of Orleans, St. Joan marched into the city, with a company of pipers.) Several years ago, however, I did write a short story as a sort of back-history to the book I intend to write. It takes place sometime after the Scots had suffered a defeat at a Rouvray, in a skirmish known as the Battle of the Herring. And after much debate within myself, and with a certain measure of trepidation, I have decided to post it here:


Hughie Stewart was drinking, though he no longer knew what, nor did he care, so long as it was strong. He had started with just a little of the rough, red wine common to that area of France, but that was weeks ago and no matter how much of it he took, it had not the strength to keep the faces of his dead comrades from coming to him in his sleep. Whatever it was he had now was a harsh, strong drink that burned his throat and belly. It was vile, and made him long for the pure uisce beatha of his own native Scotland, but it served his purpose. He drank until forgetfulness came, until the world around him blurred and spun, and sleep was deep and black and dreamless.

Occasionally during those weeks, he would come to himself, lying in some forgotten corner of a dirty inn, or in a back street, with a sickness upon him, and a head shattered by drink. Then he would look at himself with a clear, sardonic eye, and see himself plainly - and the sort of man he was rapidly becoming. At such times he would be bitterly ashamed of himself, and resolve to break from this life, but grief was more bitter still. In those moments of clarity, he would see again the faces of his clansmen lying broken by the English assault on the field of Rouvray: his older brother Dauid, who had promised their mother to keep an eye on Hugh; his cousins, Robert and Angus; Roger, his friend from boyhood, who had left a wife; brave John Stewart who had led them… He was but a very young man, and now he was alone in a foreign land, wounded in both body and spirit. He drank alone. There was an intensity in his silence that prevented all but the most gregarious from approaching him.

He could never remember just how the fight started. There were three or four Frenchmen, that much he knew. They had been loud and crowded him too closely. He remembered that they had spoken to him, and he had stirred himself to answer. He was far gone in his drink, and the world was very distant. He heard the laughter at his response, but did not know the cause of it. He only wished for them to go and leave him in peace, but they would not. They sat down beside him, pulling their chairs up close, their faces too near and terrible to his blurred vision. He tried to pull away from them, but one of them had an arm around his shoulder. They were speaking and his muddled mind was trying desperately to make sense of what they were saying. There was something about a maid, something else about a battle and herring, and the Scots, and there was mockery in the tone.

Then he was on his feet and in a rage. He remembered with a painful clarity the sound of his chair falling back with a clap upon the floor. The one who had just spoken was looking at him with a lazy, arrogant smile, and Hugh hit him full in the face with all his strength. The man went down without a sound, and his companions were on Hugh in an instant. Had he been less gone in drink, or had a single man to stand with him, he could have held them off, for he was a fierce and canny fighter. But he was ill and drunk and alone. The wound he had taken at Rouvray was barely healed and the arm he had taken it in sore and slow. The Frenchmen took him out into the street and beat him for their companion; beat him, though he fought to the last, until he was bruised and bloody and fell unconscious in the gutter.

He came to himself some little while later, slowly, and in great pain. His head hurt so that he could scarcely bear to lift it from the ground. His very eyes ached. The wound in his shoulder had reopened and he could not move the arm. He had a hundred aches and bruises. For a time he could do no more than lay still, but gradually the pain receded, and he was able to sit up, though his whole body protested, and his head hung down upon his chest. He felt sick, broken and utterly wretched. He thought of his clansmen on Rouvray, and buried his face in his hands.

When he at last felt well enough to stand, he returned again to the inn, but only long enough to retrieve his gear. The innkeeper was a kindly man, with a son nearly the age of Hugh. He returned the things, shaking his head slightly, and said, “You should not drink so much, mon ami.” Hugh looked down at the sheathed sword in his hand, then at the innkeeper’s worried frown. “I will not do so again,” he vowed, and went out.

Nor did he, but neither did he eat. He wandered to streets blindly, though now it was not the ghosts of Rouvray he fled, but those of himself, and the man he had become those last weeks. Sometimes he came to a church, and at such times he would go in, and kneel in the dark shadows at the very back. He could not pray, his mind and soul were too disquieted for that, but he knelt before the hidden God, and showed Him his sorrow, for a small space of time before that sorrow drove him to wandering again.


He did not see the line of men on horseback until they were almost upon him. The foremost rider nearly rode him down before he was able to draw his beast up short and halt his men. The man uttered an oath, and a surprisingly high, light voice called, “Baudicourt!” in rebuke. The man recollected himself, and apologized hastily, almost sheepishly. There was a laugh, and the light voice went on, “What is it you have found there, mon capitaine?”

Hugh had leapt backward at the last moment, when the noise of their riding had finally burst upon his ears. He had fallen, weak from hunger, and lay there, spent and aching from head to foot. He stared up at the riders, nearly blinded from the glare of torchlight. There was a stir amongst them and a babble of voices. A figure, somewhat smaller than the others, broke from the line and came riding forward. He saw the red light glancing off armour, the dark shadow of cape billowing in a stir of wind, then a small, pleasant face looked down at him, the eyes bright, though there were shadows beneath them. "En nom Dieu!" the light voice exclaimed.

He stared helplessly back, astonished even through his pain, that it was a young woman who was looking down at him. He remembered, distantly, the night at an inn, when he had hit a Frenchman, and been unable to fight off that man’s friends. They had spoken of something like this, had they not? A maid, he seemed to remember one of them saying, who was coming to raise the siege of Orleans. A maid who was come in answer to a prophecy, who gave prophecy herself, and those prophecies came true. He had not paid attention to those men then. He had been consumed with his own grief, and had begged them to be gone, but they would not. Now it seemed he was looking into the face of their maid as he lay in the street. He felt the blood come to his face, and got to his feet, slowly, like an old, old man, but he was a soldier and of noble blood, so when he stood at last, he looked it.

Baudicourt was frowning at Hugh. He had been inclined at first to dismiss the man in the street as a beggar, or a common drunk, but now he stood straight and tall before him, with an odd dignity that was disconcerting. “Speak sir,” he said, abruptly, but not discourteously, “What is your name?”

“Hugh Stewart, sir, of Scotland.”

Baudicourt’s men began to speak at once, for the valour of the Scottish soldiers was well know, and the defeat of them at Rouvray had been the bitter blow that led to the siege of Orleans. “Écossais, Écossais” they said, and repeated his name, for it was John Stewart who had led the Scots.

“Well then, Hugh Stewart, of Scotland, why do you wander about the street, obstructing my horses?”

Baudicourt still glowered down on him, but it was not to Baudicourt that Hugh made answer. It was to the maid at his side, who smiled sympathy at him.

“I have lost my comrades, and…” he paused, unable to explain to these fighting men, what he had not been able to explain even to himself, “I have lost my way…” he finished softly, looking away from the goodness he saw in the face of the maid. He stared at his feet.

He heard the murmur of voices again, then the maid had urged her horse forward, till she stood directly before Hugh, and he had no choice but to look up at her. She had a good face, though she was not beautiful. There was a great purity and holiness about her, that would have been daunting, but for the frank humour that he had often observed in the faces of fighting men. She was smiling, a sad little smile, and she touched his shoulder lightly.

“It is not so hard to find yourself, mon ami .” she said softly, “The good God is kind to soldiers. How long has it been since you have eaten?”

Hugh shook his head. He could not remember when he had last taken food or drink.

“Well, Hugh Stewart of Scotland,” the bit of laughter that was seldom far from her was back in her voice now, “You cannot find yourself if you become a fantôme!” She produced a coin from the wallet hung from her waist, and gave it to him, despite his protests, “ Monsieur Stewart,” she said very firmly, “You must eat! And then en nom Dieu find a priest, yes? It will do you much good”

Hugh hung his head again. Her goodness had unmanned him, and he could not speak for a moment. “If it please the maid,” he answered at last, “I shall try.”

She shook her dark, cropped head, “Non, non, monsieur, not to please me, but to please the good God.” She smiled at him again, “Do not forget: food first, Hugh Stewart! France has need of good soldiers.”

Then she gave signal to Baudicourt, and the men rode on. Hugh watched them go with out a word, the coin she had given him clutched tightly in his fist. The maid had turned once and waved to him, and he had raised his arm in return. It was the arm that had taken the wound, the one she had touched when she had spoken to him. The pain in it was gone, and the pain in his heart seemed less burdensome. He allowed himself to think of her face once more, and grinned, a slow, unaccustomed grin. If the maid really intended to raise the siege of Orleans, he had no doubt she would. What a doughty companion she must be.

He did not immediately eat as she had suggested. He found a church first and took his customary place at the back. He still could not pray, at least, not as he wished, but he looked long and fervently at the tabernacle where his Lord lay hidden. He did not know how long he knelt there, for he forgot himself during that space of time. Then he came to himself, and looked at the little coin still clenched in his fist.

He took meat at the next inn he came to; meat only, and a bit of bread. Then he took to wandering again, and it was many days before could bear to look for a priest. It requires courage to speak of sins one wants to leave hidden, even into the ear of a good God. But at last the priest came to him, as he knelt in the shadows of a wayside church – an old priest, wise in God. Hugh allowed the priest to lead him out into the sun, and when the old man asked what it was that troubled him, Hugh told him, hesitating a good deal over the story. He wanted to be honest, but was shamed by the telling. The priest listened, saying no word until it was over, and then, there was no rebuke. He simply said, “ah, poor man,” and comforted him as a father. The next day, Hugh returned to him, and was properly shriven. Then he knelt for a long time before the altar, praying not in words, but from his heart, showing the good God the sorrows he still bore, and thankful for the comfort He had been given.


The army of the Maid of France lay camped before the River Loire, near the besieged town of Orleans. Hugh made his way there, neatly uniformed and girt with his sword. The guards stopped him at the edge of the camp, but he surrendered his sword to them with his name, and asked to see the Maid, or, failing that, Baudicourt. A soldier was sent with the message and returned a short time later with a grin on his face. He spoke to the guards first, before delivering his message.

“She’s arguing battle strategy with le capitaine. By my staff! There is a woman can argue for you! You think, mon ami, that you have won the argument, and then she says, ‘in the name of God, it shall be done this way!” and all at once you see that it must be so.”

The soldier nodded at Hugh, returning the sword to him. “She says she’ll see you, if you be the same Hugh Stewart of Scotland she remembers.” He laughed at the startled expression on Hugh’s face, and led the way across the camp to tent, where the maid sat before a table strewn with maps. Baudicourt was beside her, looking irritated and amused, as he often did in the company of Jehanne of Domremey.

The Maid saw Hugh as he entered. She rose, and a bar of sunlight from the open tent-flap fell upon her white armour, and threw a halo of light about her face. She held her hands out to Hugh, and he went to her and knelt before her, his hands upon the hilt of his sword, his head bowed.

“As it please God, Hugh Stewart of Scotland pledges his sword to the cause of France and the Maid.”

She smiled the frank, boyish smile of hers, and she touched him lightly.

“Then, en nom Dieu, I am glad to have you.”

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is rather a big deal for me. That is partly because I am quite a traditionalist and a proper observance of Memorial Day is rich in solemnity and ceremony, which I find both beautiful and satisfying. It is partly because there is enough history associated with the day, to delight the amateur historian in me. It is partly because I consider myself something of a soldier as well - albeit, a Soldier of Christ, so I find a great deal of inspiration in a day dedicated to honouring courage and sacrifice. But it is mostly because my little band has played for the Memorial Day service here in town, for as long as we have been a band. We get ourselves all brawly kilted out, with shined-up brogues, and (since Memorial Day weekend tends to be the last hurrah of winter here) our green military sweaters. We look very sharp and fine, since my pipey is a former Marine and has definite views on how to conduct one's self at formal occasions like this. It is grand, and I love being a part of the ceremony. It is, hands-down, my favourite gig all year. 

Normally, I would post a video of a bugler playing Taps or The Last Post or something along those lines, to mark Memorial Day. But Mark Knopfler wrote a really great song called Piper to the End which seems very suitable, so I am post that instead.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

St. Brendan the Navigator

So, back in the day when I was a wee child, I learned a bit of doggerel that ran like this, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in fourteen-hundred, ninety-two." And I was certain that before Columbus, not a single Old World soul had the slightest idea that there was another land across the ocean. Of course, Columbus did not discover the New World - he re-discovered it. Exactly who it was that first found the American continent is up for debate. There is a theory that the Chinese reached the New World in 1421. Indeed, there is a whole book dedicated to the idea. The Vikings, under the leadership of Leif Erickson, almost certainly reached North America in the year 1000. But if you ask the Irish, they will tell you that it was an Irish monk that got here first - sometime during the first half of the 6th century, and that monk is St. Brendan, whose feast day was today.

When Ireland was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick, the Age of Martyrs was passed, and the Faith came into small land at the far edge of the Known World, accompanied by very little in the line of persecution. Many of the Irish, on fire with the zeal of the newly converted, longed for martyrdom, but since that was denied them, they settled instead for something they termed a White Martyrdom - a complete, voluntary renunciation of the World; a continual, daily dying to one's self. There were various methods of accomplishing this. The most common, was simply to go out into the deserts (here used in the old sense of meaning uninhabited) and live in complete simplicity and poverty. The West Coast of Ireland, in particular, is dotted with tiny, dry stone, beehive structures, set up by early monks:


However, another method was one of exile. Some early Irish monks, such as St. Columcille, imposed exile upon themselves, and wandered about as missionaries to the Pagan tribes of Europe. In St. Brendan's case, he became a voyager. He and his monks, 'cast themselves upon the sea' in the small, leather curraghs, which are similar to the boats Irish fishermen can still be found to use. They lived monastic lives, praying, labouring, fishing, enduring the hardships of life upon the sea, and leaving their lives in the hands of God. And at one point, they set sail to the West, in search of the Blessed Realms, which they found after a voyage of seven years. Their adventures are set down in an ancient text, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani.

St. Brendan

For a long time, the Navigatio was dismissed as unreliable legend, as it is full of fantastic stories. It told of islands upon which lived giants smiths, who worked at huge forges, the fires of which shot into the sky; islands, big enough for the monks to land upon, but which were actually enormous fish; crystal pillars towering up out of the sea. For all that, it was widely accepted that a land mass of some sort existed out in the wilds of the vast Atlantic Ocean. St. Brendan's Isle showed up reguarly on maps until as late as the 16th century, and there were reported sitings of it into the late 18th century, long after the New World was well on its way to being settled by Europeans.

So, did St.Brendan actually discover America? There is,at present, no way to be certain of it. However, in 1976, a man named Tim Severin re-created the sort of medieval leather boat that St. Brendan would have used to make his legendary voyage.

The Brendan: A Curragh that sailed from Ireland to America

He and a crew of sailors were able to sail from Ireland to New Foundland in the craft, which proved, at least in theory, that is was certainly possible for a sea-faring people, as the Irish have always been, to have made the journey. He also came up with some very plausible theories to explain some of the more outlandish details recorded in the Navigatio. The easiest way to cross the Atlantic, is to stay as close as possible to known land masses, which means keeping a somewhat northerly bent to the sailing. It also means that the sailors will come very near to Iceland, which is famous - or infamous, depending on your view of the matter - for its volcanoes. The story of the giant smiths is pretty fantastic, but the descriptions of their fires could just as easily be applied to an erupting volcano. Several times during the Brendan Voyage, Severin and his crew encountered great pods of whales, whose backs broke the surface of the sea, so that the water appeared to be dotted with hundreds of islands, so perhaps the story of landing upon the back of an enormous fish is not so far-fetched as all that. And, they saw icebergs as well, which could very well be taken as pillars of crystal be men who had never seen such things before. Tim Severin wrote a book about the adventure, called simply, The Brendan Voyage which I highly recommend, as it is a great, adventuresome book, which often reads like fiction.

Finally, here is the prayers St. Brendan is to have said before he set out on his voyage:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May the Fourth Be With You

So, I shall be honest. I cannot rightly say that I particularly care about Star Wars. I enjoyed the first one well enough - as in, the very first Star Wars ever produced, not that dreadful prequel thing that is now the first in the series - but my reception to the rest of them was fairly tepid. However, thanks to a smarty co-worker, I discovered that today is Star Wars Day... or, to be more accurate, May the Fourth Be With You Day. Yes, you may all groan with dismay at the level of punning to which we have stooped. I do not intend to do anything particular to celebrate, but it seemed and excellent opportunity to post this clever video by The Piano Guys: