My Journey to Black Belt: A Personal Narrative

Foreword: Here follows part of a talk I wrote regarding my personal journey to my MMA Black Belt specialising in Krav Maga. I wanted to share a personal narrative, and I thought this was a good way to do so.

This is a part of my story. We all have a part in a grand story, and each of us in a way tells a story with our lives: Our successes, failures, wounds, scars, and struggles all form this story. My journey to Black Belt isn’t a single chapter of my story—rather it has been part of several chapters of my life thus far. So I need to give you a bit of context. 

Three months before my first class—which was mistakenly the June belt test four years ago—I had just moved back to Lawrence from Anchorage, Alaska. I moved to Alaska in large part because I was at the lowest part of a years-long depressive and suicidal time in my life. The Summer after I moved back, the Summer I started Krav, I once took a wrong turn while driving and burst into tears out of anxiety and fear—so you can see how much I’d improved since before Alaska. I was no longer suicidal, but mostly because I distracted myself by staying busy, which increased my anxiety. I started therapy that same Summer that I started Krav, but—while I had an amazing therapist and that experience was invaluable—I couldn’t tell you if that was more beneficial to me or if Krav was. 

My school and training didn’t provide me with one single benefit, nor does it appeal to a single need of the soul or body, like a gym membership might. True health and wellbeing, and the greatest achievements in life, are holistic: They do not incorporate just the body, or just the mind, or just the soul. This is why Aristotle wrote that the virtuous path—which is the path to happiness—is the middle path between extremes. That is what I’ve found at this school. Here I’ve learned and continue to learn not only physical discipline and technique, but virtue, which leads to true happiness. I learned humility, which is to know oneself in light of the truth—to be able to acknowledge one’s limits, weaknesses, mistakes, strengths, and successes with neither pride nor false modesty. I learned prudence, like taking a break or pacing yourself to avoid unnecessary injury. I’ve learned justice in becoming more respectful of others. I’ve learned courage to push myself further than I thought was possible or desirable. And I learned meekness—one of the most misunderstood virtues. There’s an old phrase, ‘to meek a river’, which means to direct its power in a specific direction, neither damming it up nor letting it rage and overflow. Meekness is part of temperance, and it allows one to direct anger properly as power to accomplish a difficult task. Meekness is one of the most important virtues, I think, for Krav—the virtue of standing tall amidst of the storm, of using anger to fight furiously without letting it dominate you and turn into recklessness. I learned a lot of these by my failures in these areas. But we learn nothing from our successes. We learn only from our mistakes and from others’ successes. And that has been one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned here. 

All this I’ve learned from the instructors and other role models we have at this school. The instructors here have encouraged me, admonished me, trained me and trained with me; they have taken an interest in me as an individual, and have pushed me to excel. They have done so not, I believe, because it’s their job, but rather out of a genuine desire that I learn and grow and prevail because they believe I can. The host of black belts and other senior belts here have also been role models; motivators and encouragers; and, many of them, friends. It may sound cliché to call my school a family; but when you see these people more often than you do a lot of your own family, when you fight against one another and with one another, when your intimacy with them might be directly proportional to the amount of accidental injuries you’ve given one another—when you laugh, sweat, maybe bleed, and train together in something like what I’ve described here—you become a sort of a family—strange, but good. 

I have said nothing here about fitness or self-defence, how I’ve come to be able to walk in peace wherever I go. That’s because I had a 1000-word limit on this talk. That is important to me. But it remains that I may never need to use self-defence. And all of us shall grow old and diminish in health and fitness. So, invaluable as Krav Maga is, I have emphasized here what has been of greatest value on my journey to Black Belt: The people I’ve come to know, and the lessons of virtue and true strength that they have shared. 

As an exhortation to myself and you, I’ll close with one of my favourite quotes, from a speech given at Westminster University in October of 1941 by Sir Winston Churchill: ‘never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’ 

Conversion and Transformation into Christ: A Meditation for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25)

Elizabeth is the aged and barren woman, unfruitful, who could bear no child. Zechariah is the aged high priest, unfaithful and, therefore, dumb—unable to produce the word. Yet by the Divine Mercy of God, Elizabeth in her lowliness and shame was made fruitful, and Zechariah at the revelation of this fruit not only spoke, but prophesied. And from God through them came St. John the Baptist, ‘the boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new.’ (St. Augustine) He came to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching repentance, by calling Israel to prepare their own hearts for God by repentance, by turning back to God so that He could convert them. This conversion is not merely a change in attitude, perspective, or thought. It is a transfiguration into the fullness of life, so that the very life and Spirit of God lives in us, loves through us, speaks through us, and transforms us into saints who think, see, and act as God does—with His power and mercy and grace. 

And St. John the Baptist bridges the gap between the old and the new, between ‘the law [which] was given through Moses’ and ‘grace and truth [which] came through Jesus Christ.’ For: ‘No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.’ (John 1:17-18) And Jesus the Son of God is revealed through the young and fruitful Virgin, and through Her faith is made manifest the fruit of the Father’s love for us: His Word, the salvation of mankind. Let us then daily convert, and turn: Turn to Mary and Jesus! Cast off your fear, let the Spirit rid you of your shame! Leap for joy at the voice of Mary as John did in the womb, and cast your cares and sins and troubles on the Word Mary bears. For: ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ (1 Timothy 1:15) And ‘from His fulness and we all received, grace upon grace.’ (John 1:16) 

The Beauty of the Precious Blood: A Meditation on the Hearts of Jesus & Mary

‘and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced’

Zechariah 12:10 

Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and today is the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Yet the Hearts of Jesus and Mary are one. Not only are they united spiritually in the great mission of mankind’s redemption, but Jesus and Mary share the same DNA. When we belong to one Heart, we belong to the other. On the Cross, Jesus commended us to Mary with the words: Behold, your Mother.1 And as the Holy Spirit formed Jesus in Mary, Mary and the Holy Spirit form Jesus in us, and transfigure us into Jesus the Beloved. For though Mary is not God, Her relationship with the Holy Spirit is so close that She is, as St. Maximilian Kolbe liked to put it, the ‘quasi-incarnation of the Holy Spirit’. Mary is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. So the prophet Simeon said: And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.2 For on Calvary, where the Sacred Heart was pierced, thus piercing the soul of His Mother, the beloved disciple took Her into his own soul, into his very self.3 This is consecration to Mary—total belonging to Her Immaculate Heart—and this is the best way to come to know and become like Jesus.

Continue reading “The Beauty of the Precious Blood: A Meditation on the Hearts of Jesus & Mary”

Wisdom the Storyteller

It seems there is something connoted by ‘wisdom’ in English that is appropriate to her praise in holy Scripture. For knowledge we understands as something limited in application (what good is all one’s knowledge if he does nothing with it, or knows not how to employ it, or perhaps even does not know its value); understanding as something acquired only after time, and something with a rather subjective quality (this is my understanding); and counsel as a means to an end. Yet wisdom both counsels and seeks counsel; she is often possessed by children yet may increase with learning and experience; and she leads men to higher things, yet is high herself and delights and gives peace to those who possess her. She is the queen of gifts, and all others are attained by her. 

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The Condescension of Divine Love

O Lord, blessed be Thy Name: 
Who, ineffable, perfect, 
give us to know Thee as Father; 
though of Heaven, 
make in us Thy hiding place
and home; 
though transcendent, 
magnify Thy glory,
making us Thy servants;
and Who, King of the universe, 
reign as love in men's hearts, 
and raise him of dust
to the excellence of angels; 
Who sustain ravens weak, 
flowers mortal, 
               men miserable—
giving him Thine own Life
as food, water, comfort;
and making him as Thyself,
O Divine Mercy, 
leading those lost not into ruin, 
but through the desert of sorrows 
unto communion of Life eternal. 
For our hearts,
          our weakness,
                    our salvation
belong unto Thee, 
even in this vale of tears
and in the life to come. 
To Thee be thanksgiving, always. 
Line 3 – John 17:3 
Line 5 – Isaiah 45:15 
Line 6 – John 15:3 
Line 8 – Luke 1:46
Line 9 – Luke 1:48, 17:10 
Line 11 – Luke 17:21 
Lines 14-15 – Matthew 6:26-28 
Line 17 – John 6:53, Psalm 23 
Line 19 – Luke 6:36 
Line 22 – John 16:33 
Line 23 – John 17:22-23
Line 25 – 2 Corinthians 12:9 
Line 26 – Psalm 3:8
Line 28 – Salve Regina (prayer) 
Line 30 – 1 Thessalonians 5:18 

The Gifts of the Lady Galadriel: A Meditation on Pentecost

Here follows a meditation on Pentecost, when God bestowed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, through the lens of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—in particular the chapter of the Lady Galadriel’s giving of gifts to the Fellowship of the Ring. This I began with ardour and undertook with caution in mind, for well I knew that Tolkien said of the The Lord of the Rings: ‘As for any inner meaning or “message”, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.’1 Yet the seed whence sprang the story, and which ‘grew. . . [and] put down its roots (into the past) and threw out many branches’,2 this seed I believe—and I think Tolkien would affirm—is his understanding and love of beauty. As he said, ‘If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the Earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.’3 The same principle I think holds true of the characters and themes of this great story, according to their constituents: the ‘characters’ Tolkien was familiar with in real life, such as his friends, his Lord, and his Lady; and the themes of beauty in the world which he wondered at and delighted in through his Catholic faith and his understanding of goodness and truth. Hence I write this, not to misuse the text of The Lord of the Rings as an allegorical text or to pervert the author’s intent, nor to mire the loveliness of the text with scientific analysis, but to perhaps, if I may, set its beauty in such a light that it may more easily for you, dear Reader, reflect the beauty whence I believe sprang Tolkien’s wonder and awe which he has shared with us. For if a painting were made in the memory of a lady, though not named after her nor intended as a portrait, would I not learn of her loveliness by contemplating that painting? In this spirit I shall comment but little, except to relate Tolkien’s passages to truths of the Faith. 

Continue reading “The Gifts of the Lady Galadriel: A Meditation on Pentecost”

A Literary Experiment in Autobiographical Fiction

Foreword: Here follows a short paper I wrote for my Tolstoy professor after we studied Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. The task was to write an autobiographical account from a time in our childhood, and afterward to analyse the process we went through to write it, in order to better understand Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Since these works by Tolstoy were fictional, I made this fictional as well.

An Alaskan Altitudinal Adventure

I’d seen people talking to one another in movies while in a helicopter, but in real life the propellers make such noise that you can’t hear anything. Across from me sat my best friend, Kayla, wearing a ridiculous grin as she peered out—so much as she could in spite of her fear—into the white, cold mountain air. It wasn’t snowing, and the sun shone on the other side of us, lighting up the crystal mountains. The Alaskan wilderness stretched out for miles beyond, sprouting woods and mountains, pouring out rivers. We’d nearly reached the top of our mountain. 

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Three Poems for the Troubled Heart

O Blessed Mary, Mother of All the Living

     O sweet lips 
which let fall
    fruit of the 
rest upon my sick heart; 
     Whose kind ears 
first would hear
     the Child's joy
and mirth resound, 
incline to my poor soul. 

Of Morning Birdsong

O thou downcast soul, 
     disturbed spirit, 
          weak frame—
     hearest thou weeping? 
Dost thou perceive sorrow,
     encounter careful
          worry or weight? 
     Nay! but listen! 
Hear them so simple and small, 
     of wakeful soul
          and fragile frame—
     Hark! how they sing! 
Here one, she sings her full, 
     Rejoined by 39 more, 
          inspired, in wonder 
     at One! so greater'n they! 

Who is the King of Glory?

Hey! blast the horn! 
Ho! see the Daystar from on high!
For to men a King is born; 
in the Lion Heart doth the vict'ry lie! 

Hark! stand ready, 
hear His orders given; 
keep footing firm, hand steady; 
at His Word our foes are far driven! 

See, our foes 'round us increase, 
so call our Commander, raise His banner high! 
Fear not His sending help to cease! 
For to the poor and oppressed He is nigh! 

Hosanna to the Son of Man! 
Help our brothers, O beauteous King! 
At Your gallop, the wolf fast ran; 
Strengthen hearts with the Love You bring! 
'Who is the king of glory? 
     the Lord, strong and might, 
     the Lord, mighty in battle!' 
~ Psalm 24:8 
'I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the afflicted hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together!
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,
    and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good!
    Happy is the man who takes refuge in him!
O fear the Lord, you his saints,
    for those who fear him have no want!
The young lions suffer want and hunger;
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Come, O sons, listen to me,
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is there who desires life,
    and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
    and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
    seek peace, and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous,
    and his ears toward their cry.
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
    to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
    and delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
    and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous;
    but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
    not one of them is broken.
Evil shall slay the wicked;
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.'
~ Psalm 34 
by Jeffrey McPheeters

Special thanks to photographer Jeffrey McPheeters for permission to use his photos (captions also added by him). You can find his website with more beautiful images here. His is also the main image at the top of my blog.

A Winding Garden Toward Enlightenment or Despair: How Anna Karenina Cultivates the Mind, Bears Relevance, and Leads to Existential Crises

Foreword: Here follows a short paper I wrote for a university class on Tolstoy which attempted to answer the question: Is 150-year-old literature such as Tolstoy’s still relevant to a contemporary reader’s every-day life, and if so, how? I have edited it some, and have removed all major spoilers of the novel Anna Karenina, but there are some mentions and hints of plot points major and minor.

The questions posed to the readers of Russian fiction are “left to sound on and on after the story is over in hopeless interrogation that fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with a resentful, despair.”1 Thus wrote Virginia Woolf of a feature which readers find, whether to their vexation or fascination, especially in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. His “endless labyrinth of linkages,”2 as Tolstoy himself referred to it, leads the reader through a winding garden, such that the reader must look at scenes, characters, and ideas from different points of view and in varying shades of light, and thus question what a thing is—if it is what he may have thought beforehand, or what this character says, or that one—for Tolstoy has certainly not given a clear-cut answer. These questions in Anna Karenina range from birth-control to existentialist questions of life and its purpose. These pertain to the reader so long as sex and the desire for fulfilling happiness exist. And in an age of easy access to information far surpassing that of even 40 years ago, Tolstoy’s stratagem of not only asking questions but forcing the reader himself to ask questions helps stretch the mind, challenge the intellect, and cultivate today’s reader. 

Continue reading “A Winding Garden Toward Enlightenment or Despair: How Anna Karenina Cultivates the Mind, Bears Relevance, and Leads to Existential Crises”

A Prayer to Mary, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary

O Burning Bush of Light so pure, 
pray, I pray, that I not endure
from afar the fiery Love Thou bearest,
but in Thy sorrowful Heart may rest.
When suffer I this life's great trials,
and battle against the devil's guiles,
may I the world's pleasures forsake,
an act of reparation to make
to Thy sword-pierced Heart, O gentle Maid,
Whom the Lord to love hath bade.
Know, dear Heart, both I and Thou,
can I mine own one gift endow:
Wretchedness, misery, whose love is self-care—
this to lay at Thy feet I dare.
O Virgin of virgins, O full of Love,
I cannot bear Thy glance of a dove.
So grant me grace—cherish, pity me;
that I may be-long, wholly, to Thee.