Dan John: Wandering Weights, Issue # 149
Our Epic Journey Through All Things Heavy, Issue # 149
New article from Dan on the OTPbooks.com site this week: One of the things I like to tell the RKC participants on Day Three is simply this: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
I enjoyed teaching the RKC in Denver. Shari Wagner did a great job hosting and the assistants were “spot on” all weekend. I learned a lot from the candidates, too…we had a number of courageous women share some inspiring stories.
I was able to come home early and see Tiffini and my family. I dropped Tiff off at the airport this morning and I won’t see her for ten days or so. Next weekend, I teach an RKC II in California and I have a variety of talks and workshops on the horizon. I’m looking forward to my workout this morning, walking the dog, and tending to the simple things in life.
I think by the end of this year, I will be able to link together most of my work into a simple coherent one-day lecture and maybe a book. I realize that the biggest issue I have is this:
When someone asks me about strength training, I give them a simple solution: Easy Strength. Sadly, they usually “think” bodybuilding…so there is always a disconnect.
It comes up all the time:
“Dan, what about burpees/lunges/Jumping Jacks/Cossack squats/jumping rope/whatever?”
It’s all fine…all of it. And, some of these are ideal “fat burning” inefficient exercises (“junk mileage,” from the old track and field world) that are great for “Threes” in my 1-2-3-4 Assessment (See “Can You Go?” for details).
But, for getting stronger?
It got me looking for things and I found all kinds of stuff.
The book is more than just a bunch of different workouts. Four quadrants are examined in which an athlete might find him or herself during a career.
Quadrant I sees the athlete (often a kid) introduced to all sorts of games, exercises and movements. This quadrant is an inch deep and a mile wide. An athlete in Quadrant II may play a specific sport which requires a mix of strength, speed, mobility, endurance, etc. Think basketball, football, soccer, wrestling… An athlete in this quadrant must work on all these qualities and thus can’t be the best at any one quality. The athlete must live with compromises. Quadrant III is where most of us live. We’ve narrowed our focus to a few things but we’re not world champs. Quadrant IV is for pinpoint specialization. Here you’ll find weightlifters, sprinters, elite distance athletes, etc. These athletes have a very narrow focus and thus have very narrow training needs and requirements. The authors refer back to these quadrants throughout the book, and give considerations for the training needs of each of these athletes.
A quick word on the word “stronger.” It doesn’t necessarily equate to “bigger.” Many athletes (and everyone else on earth) need strength but not lots of muscle mass. Easy Strength takes this into account. Meanwhile some readers do want more muscle mass. This issue is also discussed in the book.
When came the barbell complex. In the beginning, this was by far the most dreaded aspect of the day. Without putting the bar down, you would perform 2-5 sets of 2-5 reps in each movement of bent over rows, power cleans, front squats, strict press, back squats and good mornings. That means up to 30 reps without putting the bar down on some days! This is where the mental toughness started to come into play. Sometimes I would have to rest about 5 minutes between sets because it destroyed me so much. Depending on the specific instructions for the day, I would perform this with 95-150lbs.
The last part of each workout day were the infamous high rep back squats. The weight squatted was dependent upon bodyweight. Like any program it starts out nice and easy, but by the 6th workout we had to perform 50 reps at 135lbs…and it keeps going…just two workouts later, you have to perform 50 reps at 185lbs! With the 6 remaining workouts, you have to perform this protocol 3 more times. The goal is to perform the set unbroken. You can stand and rest at the top as long as you want and keep grinding out single reps.
The idea of both the complexes and the high rep squats is time under load so the body will adapt to become stronger to deal with this stimulus. That is the crux of the program, it is incredibly effective in developing size and strength, but just thinking about having to squat a heavy weight 50 times repetitively will make you nauseous!
8. Daily practice
Think about—and train—your connective tissue every day. That could range from random sets of eccentric heel drops and static squat holds done throughout the day. I like Dan John’s “Easy Strength” program, where you basically pick a few movements to do each day—every day—with a fairly manageable weight. Front squat, Romanian deadlift, and pullups, for example. 2 sets of 5 reps each day for each exercise. Only add weight when it feels “too easy.”
Shockingly, he understands it! Did he do that weird thing….actually reading the book before commenting? Shudders.
Recently, the “Tight Tan Pants of Denzo Ban” site has had some great old school articles on isometrics (see the past WWs for details). Sadly, this year, one of the original warriors of this method of training died, Lou Riecke.
What did Coach Noll tell you was the biggest issue he needed you to resolve on those Steelers teams?
He really wanted his players to gain weight and get stronger.
How did the other players and coaches react to you being brought on board? Were they skeptical or excited to have you there?
I had to sell the program to the players first. I had them come in – first Joe Green and the stronger guys. I lifted some weights and asked them if they could do this too. And they couldn’t. I was only 158 pounds, so they were ready after that (laughing). I told them this couldn’t make you anything but stronger and faster. That impressed them.
Some of them were worried and asked me if it would make them too muscle-bound. So I did a standing back flip and asked them if this looked too muscle-bound to them? (laughing).
Riecke is prominently featured in Fair’s chapter titled “The NEW York Gang.” The chapter includes a full page photo of Lou on stage after his world-record snatch, but the bulk of the text involving Lou deals with Dr. John Ziegler, who introduced Lou and several other members of the ‘new’ York gang to functional isometric contraction and a little pill called Dianabol.
Ziegler’s pitch to Lou about isometrics was that “the way you improve is by lifting weights, the heaviest possible. What’s the heaviest weight you can lift?—one you can’t lift.” Lou was to do one rep isometric contractions in eight positions once a day and then test his gains by lifting limit poundages with a barbell once a week. To assure proper nutrition to the exerted muscles, Riecke was given an anabolic daily. “Riecke had no idea how these pills would effect his performance,” Fair wrote.
Ciba gave Ziegler samples of Dianabol in the hope that the drug would produce strength gains without the unpleasant side effects of straight testosterone. No one knew if it would work. Several York lifters had shown rapid improvement when Ziegler began working with Lou.
In less than a year Riecke added muscle and for the first time became a serious threat to win Olympic gold.
“He was doing things that became the talk of the country,” Fair later told Childs Walker, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
In correspondence unearthed by Fair, Ziegler sounded unsure which of his methods led to Riecke’s great leaps in performance. He didn’t run proper scientific experiments with control subjects and adequate sample size. Instead, he worked with a handful of athletes and bombarded them with everything from hypnosis to isometric training. “I’m not sure [Ziegler] knew where his results came from,” Fair said.
Like the other York Lifters, Riecke preferred to attribute the gains to isometrics.
Bob Hoffman wrote a book about the wonders of isometric contraction and began marketing a power rack for doing the exercises recommended by Ziegler. I talked to Hoffman directly and bought one of his racks. It was an interesting experiment. Maximum exertion while holding your breath turned out to be a tricky proposition. Go too long and you find yourself passed out on the floor. I know because that soured me on isometrics.
“I hate to attribute any portion of our success to medicinal factors,” Riecke wrote in a letter obtained by Fair. “But some portion of my improvement coincided with my ingestion of them.”
To see him in action, watch this great video. Tony Garcy is/was my coach’s hero. Dave, too, was a school teacher and Olympic lifter.
Until next week, keep lifting and learning.
Even if you’re not interested in attaining an RKC certification, you’ll benefit from studying Dan’s RKC prep material.
Picking up with “The Sword in the Stone” (Part VII)
Before I give you a rather lengthy section of The Sword in the Stone, I have to admit that this section, in my opinion, might be the best writing…the best descriptive writing…of White’s entire The Once and Future King.
Arthur falls deeply asleep in the forest alone and scared. When he finally wakes up, he is basically at the front door of Merlyn’s home.
It is so magical, one could deduce that Wart is still dreaming. As I mulled this over, I began to think about a professor who “ruined” the Odyssey for me.
Very simply, he pointed out that Ulysses washed up on a beach, naked, very close to the King’s daughter. To keep his head, he “sang for his supper” and gave us a delightful story of men turning into pigs, Cyclopes, Sirens and a variety of near death experiences. After his speech, the rest of the story continues in realm of reality.
Then, I slapped my own face and reminded myself “I’m an idiot.” This book is fantasy and it lives in the world of dragons, wizards, and magic.
Years ago, at discus camp, we had a particularly annoying teenage boy (as if there is another kind) who constantly found flaws in every meal selection, outfit and drill. While watching Star Wars, he shouted out “That’s so fake!” when the Death Star explodes.
I had my fill: “So, the Wookies…you thought those were real? The aliens in the Cantina? The X-Wing Fighters? The Force?”
In other words, as I leave you with this delightful selection, don’t tell me it is “fake!” Enjoy!
The story continues:
The boy slept well in the woodland nest where he had laid himself down, in that kind of thin but refreshing sleep which people have when they begin to lie out of doors. At first he only dipped below the surface of sleep, and skimmed along like a salmon in shallow water, so close to the surface that he fancied himself in air. He thought himself awake when he was already asleep. He saw the stars above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis, and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises of footsteps and soft-fringed wing-beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened or interested him, so that he moved to see what they were (but never saw), then soothed him, so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left him altogether as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the warm ground, into the unending waters under the earth.
It had been difficult to go to sleep in the bright summer moonlight, but once he was there it was not difficult to stay. The sun came early, causing him to turn over in protest, but in going to sleep he had learned to vanquish light, and now the light could not rewake him. It was nine o’clock, five hours after daylight, before he rolled over, opened his eyes, and was awake at once. He was hungry.
The Wart had heard about people who lived on berries, but this did not seem practical at the moment, because it was July, and there were none. He found two wild strawberries and ate them greedily. They tasted nicer than anything, so that he wished there were more. Then he wished it was April, so that he could find some birds’ eggs and eat those, or that he had not lost his goshawk Cully, so that the hawk could catch him a rabbit which he would cook by rubbing two sticks together like the base Indian. But he had lost Cully, or he would not have lost himself, and probably the sticks would not have lighted in any case. He decided that he could not have gone more than three or four miles from home, and that the best thing he could do would be to sit still and listen. Then he might hear the noise of the haymakers, if he were lucky with the wind, and he could hearken his way to the castle by that.
What he did hear was a faint clanking noise, which made him think that King Pellinore must be after the Questing Beast again, close by. Only the noise was so regular and single in intention that it made him think of King Pellinore doing some special action, with great patience and concentration—trying to scratch his back without taking off his armour, for instance. He went toward the noise.
There was a clearing in the forest, and in this clearing there was a snug cottage built of stone. It was a cottage, although the Wart could not notice this at the time, which was divided into two bits. The main bit was the hall or every-purpose room, which was high because it extended from floor to roof, and this room had a fire on the floor whose smoke came out eventually from a hole in the thatch of the roof. The other half of the cottage was divided into two rooms by a horizontal floor which made the top half into a bedroom and study, while the bottom half served for a larder, storeroom, stable and barn. A white donkey lived in this downstairs room, and a ladder led to the one upstairs.
There was a well in front of the cottage, and the metallic noise which the Wart had heard was caused by a very old gentleman who was drawing water out of it by means of a handle and chain. Clank, clank, clank, went the chain, until the bucket hit the lip of the well, and “Drat the whole thing!” said the old gentleman. “You would think that after all these years of study you could do better for yourself than a by-our-lady well with a by-our-lady bucket, whatever the by-our-lady cost.
“By this and by that,” added the old gentleman, heaving his bucket out of the well with a malevolent glance, “why can’t they get us the electric light and company’s water?”
He was dressed in a flowing gown with fur tippets which had the signs of the zodiac embroidered over it, with various cabalistic signs, such as triangles with eyes in them, queer crosses, leaves of trees, bones of birds and animals, and a planetarium whose stars shone like bits of looking-glass with the sun on them. He had a pointed hat like a dunce’s cap, or like the headgear worn by ladies of that time, except that the ladies were accustomed to have a bit of veil floating from the top of it. He also had a wand of lignum vitae, which he had laid down in the grass beside him, and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles like those of King Pellinore. They were unusual spectacles, being without ear pieces, but shaped rather like scissors or like the antennae of the tarantula wasp.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the Wart, “but can you tell me the way to Sir Ector’s castle, if you don’t mind?”
The aged gentleman put down his bucket and looked at him.
“Your name would be the Wart.”
“Yes, sir, please, sir.”
“My name,” said the old man, “is Merlyn.”
“How do you do?”
When these formalities had been concluded, the Wart had leisure to look at him more closely. The magician was staring at him with a kind of unwinking and benevolent curiosity which made him feel that it would not be at all rude to stare back, no ruder than it would be to stare at one of his guardian’s cows who happened to be thinking about his personality as she leaned her head over a gate.
Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair. The Wart was familiar with the nests of Spar-hark and Gos, the crazy conglomerations of sticks and oddments which had been taken over from squirrels or crows, and he knew how the twigs and the tree foot were splashed with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This was the impression which he got from Merlyn. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him. He had a worried expression, as though he were trying to remember some name which began with Choi but which was pronounced in quite a different way, possibly Menzies or was it Dalziel? His mild blue eyes, very big and round under the tarantula spectacles, gradually filmed and clouded over as he gazed at the boy, and then he turned his head away with a resigned expression, as though it was all too much for him after all.
“Do you like peaches?”
“Very much indeed,” said the Wart, and his mouth began to water so that it was full of sweet, soft liquid.
“They are scarcely in season,” said the old man reprovingly, and he walked off in the direction of the cottage.
The Wart followed after, since this was the simplest thing to do, and offered to carry the bucket (which seemed to please Merlyn, who gave it to him) and waited while he counted the keys—while he muttered and mislaid them and dropped them in the grass. Finally, when they had got their way into the black and white home with as much trouble as if they were burgling it, he climbed up the ladder after his host and found himself in the upstairs room.
It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.
There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox’s mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars’ tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence—all feeding on the appropriate leaves—a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, Old Man’s Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants’ nests between two glass plates, ink-bottles of every possible colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.
Merlyn took off his pointed hat when he came into this chamber, because it was too high for the roof, and immediately there was a scamper in one of the dark corners and a flap of soft wings, and a tawny owl was sitting on the black skull-cap which protected the top of his head.
“Oh, what a lovely owl!” cried the Wart.
But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so that there was only the smallest slit to peep through—as you are in the habit of doing when told to shut your eyes at hide-and-seek and said in a doubtful voice:
“There is no owl.”
Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.
“It is only a boy,” said Merlyn.
“There is no boy,” said the owl hopefully, without turning round.
The Wart was so startled by finding that the owl could talk that he forgot his manners and came closer still. At this the bird became so nervous that it made a mess on Merlyn’s head—the whole room was quite white with droppings—and flew off to perch on the farthest tip of the corkindrill’s tail, out of reach.
“We see so little company,” explained the magician, wiping his head with half a worn-out pair of pyjamas which he kept for that purpose, “that Archimedes is a little shy of strangers. Come, Archimedes, I want you to meet a friend of mine called Wart.”
Here he held out his hand to the owl, who came waddling like a goose along the corkindrill’s back—he waddled with this rolling gait so as to keep his tail from being damaged—and hopped down to Merlyn’s finger with every sign of reluctance.
“Hold out your finger and put it behind his legs. No, lift it up under his train.”
When the Wart had done this, Merlyn moved the owl gently backward, so that the boy’s finger pressed against its legs from behind, and it either had to step back on the finger or get pushed off its balance altogether. It stepped back. The Wart stood there delighted, while the furry feet held tight on his finger and the sharp claws prickled his skin.
“Say how d’you do properly,” said Merlyn.
“I will not,” said Archimedes, looking the other way and holding tight.
“Oh, he is lovely,” said the Wart again. “Have you had him long?”
“Archimedes has stayed with me since he was small, indeed since he had a tiny head like a chicken’s.”
“I wish he would talk to me.”
“Perhaps if you were to give him this mouse here, politely, he might learn to know you better.”
Merlyn took a dead mouse out of his skull-cap—”I always keep them there, and worms too, for fishing. I find it most convenient”—and handed it to the Wart, who held it out rather gingerly toward Archimedes. The nutty curved beak looked as if it were capable of doing damage, but Archimedes looked closely at the mouse, blinked at the Wart, moved nearer on the finger, closed his eyes and leaned forward. He stood there with closed eyes and an expression of rapture on his face, as if he were saying Grace, and then, with the absurdest sideways nibble, took the morsel so gently that he would not have broken a soap bubble. He remained leaning forward with closed eyes, with the mouse suspended from his beak, as if he were not sure what to do with it. Then he lifted his right foot—he was right-handed, though people say only men are—and took hold of the mouse. He held it up like a boy holding a stick of rock or a constable with his truncheon, looked at it, nibbled its tail. He turned it round so that it was head first, for the Wart had offered it the wrong way round, and gave one gulp. He looked round at the company with the tail hanging out of the corner of his mouth—as much as to say, “I wish you would not all stare at me so”—turned his head away, politely swallowed the tail, scratched his sailor’s beard with his left toe, and began to ruffle out his feathers.
“Let him alone,” said Merlyn. “Perhaps he does not want to be friends with you until he knows what you are like. With owls, it is never easy-come and easy-go.”
“Perhaps he will sit on my shoulder,” said the Wart, and with that he instinctively lowered his hand, so that the owl, who liked to be as high as possible, ran up the slope and stood shyly beside his ear.
“Now breakfast,” said Merlyn.
The Wart saw that the most perfect breakfast was laid out neatly for two, on a table before the window. There were peaches. There were also melons, strawberries and cream, rusks, brown trout piping hot, grilled perch which were much nicer, chicken devilled enough to burn one’s mouth out, kidneys and mushrooms on toast, fricassee, curry, and a choice of boiling coffee or best chocolate made with cream in large cups.
“Have some mustard,” said the magician, when they had got to the kidneys.
The mustard-pot got up and walked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.
“Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Wherever did you get it?”
At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit, but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a teaspoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.
“It is not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it is inclined to give itself airs.”
The Wart was so much impressed by the kindness of the old man, and particularly by the lovely things which he possessed, that he hardly liked to ask him personal questions. It seemed politer to sit still and to speak when he was spoken to. But Merlyn did not speak much, and when he did speak it was never in questions, so that the Wart had little opportunity for conversation. At last his curiosity got the better of him, and he asked something which had been puzzling him for some time.
“Would you mind if I ask you a question?”
“It is what I am for.”
“How did you know to set breakfast for two?”
The old gentleman leaned back in his chair and lighted an enormous meerschaum pipe—Good gracious, he breathes fire, thought the Wart, who had never heard of tobacco—before he was ready to reply. Then he looked puzzled, took off his skullcap—three mice fell out—and scratched in the middle of his bald head.
“Have you ever tried to draw in a looking-glass?” he asked.
“I don’t think I have.”
“Looking-glass,” said Merlyn, holding out his hand. Immediately there was a tiny lady’s vanity-glass in his hand.
“Not that kind, you fool,” he said angrily. “I want one big enough to shave in.”
The vanity-glass vanished, and in its place there was a shaving mirror about a foot square. He then demanded pencil and paper in quick succession; got an unsharpened pencil and the Morning Post; sent them back; got a fountain pen with no ink in it and six reams of brown paper suitable for parcels; sent them back; flew into a passion in which he said by-our-lady quite often, and ended up with a carbon pencil and some cigarette papers which he said would have to do.
He put one of the papers in front of the glass and made five dots. “Now,” he said, “I want you to join those five dots up to make a W, looking only in the glass.”
The Wart took the pen and tried to do as he was bid.
“Well, it is not bad,” said the magician doubtfully, “and in a way it does look a bit like an M.”
Then he fell into a reverie, stroking his beard, breathing fire, and staring at the paper.
“About the breakfast?”
“Ah, yes. How did I know to set breakfast for two? That was why I showed you the looking-glass. Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live, just as it would be easy to join those five dots into a W if you were allowed to look at them forwards, instead of backwards and inside out. But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight.”
He stopped talking and looked at the Wart in an anxious way.
“Have I told you this before?”
“No, we only met about half an hour ago.”
“So little time to pass?” said Merlyn, and a big tear ran down to the end of his nose. He wiped it off with his pyjamas and added anxiously, “Am I going to tell it you again?”
I was going to break this into much smaller bits but this entire piece is just so well knitted…and fun. Then, we come to what I consider the saddest line in all of literature.
“So little time to pass?”
It takes a few readings or a few minutes of thought to “catch” the sadness. In probably 1999, I wrote this:
Rereading is the Key
I meet with Bishop Niederauer about once a month to review the various religious education matters that arise and fall through the year. The last time we met, we enjoyed a fabulous lunch at a local restaurant. I’m not the food critic, but anytime you can get chicken breasts swimming in a thick pesto sauce, I give it my ‘thumbs up.’
After we finished with business, we began to discuss reading. I used to think I was well read until I began talking with the Bishop. When he pointed out the humor in a reference in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ I realized that the key was not being ‘well read,’ but rather ‘well re-read.’
In this bleak novel, there is a moment where we find a book of collected sermons. One of the sermons is entitled ‘The Four Hundred and Ninety-First Sin.’ Well, you have to remember the old translation of Matthew 18, where Peter asks how many times we should forgive a brother who sins. Jesus answers: ‘I say to you, not seven times but seven times seventy times (Mt. 18:22).’ One could pass over the title of this sermon on the first reading without stopping to see the dash of humor. Of course, without a connection to the Gospel of Matthew, the reader may never catch the point.
In elementary school, I read ‘The Sword in the Stone,’ by T.H. White, for a book report. I enjoyed the transformations into animals, the little jousts, and the great ending. Years later, I picked the book up again. I brought it with me on a trip to Egypt and discovered myself reading it from cover to cover twice. I had a lot of time in buses, vans and broken down airplanes. The fourteenth time through, a short line leaped out to me.
It seems the wizard, Meryln, (White’s spelling) lived backwards in time. He knew the future because it was his past and he learned about his future by reading history books. By the way, this is a fairy tale. I came to this short line: ‘Have I told you this before?’ Young Arthur replies: ‘No, we only met about half an hour ago.’ Merlyn, beginning to cry, says ‘So little time to pass?’
It occurred to me, on this re-reading, that this may be the saddest line in White’s five books of Arthur. Because Merlyn lives backwards in time, the first time he meets Arthur is the last. He knows he will never see his best friend again.
It took me multiple readings to see this point. Lots. I think there is a lesson here that is important: in order to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of the Gospel message, it takes more than one reading or one hearing. As we continue to move through the Gospel of Matthew in our Sunday readings, I am always amazed at the challenges to my way of thinking. How often have I acted like ‘the Unforgiving Servant?’ And how come all the workers in the vineyards got the same pay? I worked longer, so shouldn’t I get more? We need to hear these stories more than once or twice.
I had a freshman student once tell me that he didn’t need to take the Old Testament course because ‘we studied this in the Sixth Grade.’ I encouraged him to try to not get too bored with my review and had him re-read Genesis with the class. After three weeks working on the first few chapters, he sheepishly came up to my desk after school and said: ‘We learned the whole Bible in three weeks, I thought I knew it all.’ This is a good lesson to learn at fourteen: you don’t know it all.
Let us learn from this young man. First, remember that we don’t know it all. Second, begin the process of ‘re-reading.’ Whether simply listening closer to the readings at Mass along with the Homily or by a conscientious effort to study the Gospels, open yourself to the process of re-reading. You will find the buried treasures and the fine pearls.
And, finally, as a side note: the last time I counted my brother, Philip, is up to four hundred and seventy-nine.
Merlyn lives backward in time, to the first time he sees Arthur is the last. And, perhaps the worst of all…a curse, if you will, he KNOWS it is the last time he will see the king.
Both my father-in-law, Ron, and my mother, Aileen, died on the same day, October 2nd, but years apart (Ron in 2016, mom in 1980). I knew in both cases because of cancer that the last time I saw them alive would be the last time I ever saw them alive.
I can only imagine, truly, Merlyn’s feelings. I have thought often about immortality and I have always come away with the sense that I would so desperately miss my loved ones as they age, die and vanish that immortality would be a curse.
Worse is what Merlyn endures. He knows the future as it is his past and he gets confused (“muddled”) with living in the wrong direction.
After years of companionship, the first time he meets Wart, it is the last time he will see him.
White has brought us a curse worthy of The Twilight Zone.
I need to catch my breath every time I think of this, rearrange myself and move forward. Let’s look at just a bit more of this selection.
I’m not sure there has ever been a more loving tribute to sleep than this:
“The boy slept well in the woodland nest where he had laid himself down, in that kind of thin but refreshing sleep which people have when they begin to lie out of doors. At first he only dipped below the surface of sleep, and skimmed along like a salmon in shallow water, so close to the surface that he fancied himself in air. He thought himself awake when he was already asleep. He saw the stars above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis, and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises of footsteps and soft-fringed wing-beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened or interested him, so that he moved to see what they were (but never saw), then soothed him, so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left him altogether as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the warm ground, into the unending waters under the earth.”
With marching mustard pots, a magical office, a talking owl and sorcerer’s hats filled with mice dancing in my head, I leave this section simply appreciating White’s ability to fill my imagination.
Whether or not you’re interested in the RKC certification, you should read Dan’s RKC prep material.
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