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Whan Maistrie Comth

“Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon, Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon.” - Chaucer, The Franklin's Tale

Paper writing season got off to a pretty slow and dreary start for me this year.  I was facing such an enormous number of pages (I have to write 90 pages in order to hit the minimum length requirement on my four term papers this semester) that it was simply too daunting to begin, and an exegesis on the expulsion of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael gave me a lot of trouble.  This joint religion-and-literature degree has me crossing disciplines a lot, which has been more trouble than I anticipated.  With my background in English, I had no idea how to speak or write as a biblical scholar, a theologian, or how to assume the historicist's voice I need in my Renaissance Italy course.  It's somewhat remarkable to see how these different disciplines can deal with the same texts, the same historical events, sometimes even the same manuscripts, and yet use entirely different language and method to work with it.  

My paper topics are as follows:

Renaissance Italy:  Grace and forgiveness in Machiavelli's The Prince and Savonarola's sermons and letters, and how the theme is used for political and theological purposes. 

Aquinas: Understanding St. Thomas' eucharistic theology through the language theory of Jacques Derrida.

Old Testament: Exegesis of Genesis 16:1-16; the way this passage can simultaneously accept feminist, post-colonial, and new critical readings to show how God is present with and has a plan for everyone - inside and outside the "chosen" people.

Chaucer: Grace and forgiveness in the Canterbury tales and the development of the language used to describe these themes in the 12th and 13th centuries. 

So far I've been spending all of my time on the Old Testament and Aquinas papers.  Oh boy.  I haven't had the first idea about how to begin approaching these topics and have felt unsure of my methodologies.  Yes, I have been listening to lectures about Thomas Aquinas all semester, but I've read maybe 15-20 of the roughly 4,500 questions in the Summa.  Where am I going to find the audacity to write about Thomas' eucharistic theology after reading the first word of his writing a mere three months ago?  I started to think that maybe I wasn't cut out for graduate work, or, worse,  somehow had lost my love of research and writing.  With the panic of the impending deadlines, these are the moments when one asks really big questions about life and entertains ludicrous conclusions.  

Two days ago, however, I turned my attention to my Chaucer paper.   After about ten minutes in the stacks in the Sterling Memorial Library I had five books of commentary in my arms and felt that old flame of passion start to burn again.  From my first glances into these books and a quick check of the concordance and the Middle English Dictionary, my thesis actually seemed not only provable but possibly correct and even relevant.  Hooray!  I couldn't figure out why I could write papers again all of the sudden, and then it occurred to me that I actually have a bachelor's degree in this field.  I know how to write these papers, and I've been cultivating a love of literature (and the theology buried inside of it) for my whole life.  

In The Franklin's Tale, one of the Canterbury Tales I'm using in my paper, Chaucer says, “Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon, Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon.”  This semester has been far too humbling for me to comfortably use the word "mastery" to describe my abilty as a scholar of literature, but these lines are meaningful to me nonetheless.  There is something about working in your area of expertise and using the skills you've developed over a long time.  It's so satisfying.  

However: I read somewhere that it is the hope of mastery that drives the amateur through the arduous hours of practice.  Robert Farrar Capon says, "No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them."  Of course.  This is quite true in the academic life.  For what, really, are the results?  Scholarly work, perhaps like parenting or ministry or teaching, will never be easy.  By nature, it must constantly thrust into the unknown, otherwise it isn't doing its job.  Constant engagement with the unfamiliar will always estrange us from the methods with which we are comfortable.  

This is why Chaucer depicts mastery as a brief flash of lucidity - an abrupt encounter with the beating of divine wings followed by their immediate departure in a rush of wind.  Whither He has gone we know not, but instantly we have our next quest to seek Him there.  

What joy it will be when I can face these new topics with the same confidence I have around literature.  What greater joy that every endeavor will place me before something bewildering and confounding.  


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