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The Man who Saved Chartres Cathedral

Chartres, France - August 16, 1944. Colonel Welborn Griffith crept silently through the halls of Chartres Cathedral in search of German soldiers. Atop the roof was a bell tower-perfect lookout to spot American troops now bearing down on Paris to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Allied bombers had blown a hole in the German front near Cherbourg, France. Under the command of General George Patton, the Third Army had German soldiers on the run. American pilots bombed the path of the Germans as they retreated. Now Chartres Cathedral was in the crosshairs. Allied command believed that German observation posts were established inside the church. They gave the order to destroy Chartres Cathedral.

One man challenged this order. Colonel Griffith must have known about the cathedral. He must have known it was a national treasure in France. Built in the middle ages, he must have known that Chartres was considered one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, an architectural miracle that used principles far ahead of its time. Griffith took action. He volunteered to go behind enemy lines to determine if German soldiers occupied the cathedral. Accompanied only by his driver, Griffith searched every closet, every pew for the enemy. Every step into a darkened room could have been his last. Cautiously, he climbed the stairs to the bell tower, awaiting a burst of machine gun fire. Silence. The bell tower was empty. Triumphant, he hurried back to the command post. The order to destroy Chartres Cathedral was canceled.

Later that day, Griffith spotted a machine gun nest in the nearby village of Leves. He turned back to the American front and climbed the turret of an army tank. He was too big to fit down the hatch and stayed on top of the tank. In the battle, the Germans were defeated, but Griffith lost his life.

Colonel Griffith was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and awards from the French government. A plaque is nailed to a wall in Leves near the site where Griffith died. He is buried  in the St. James World War II Cemetery in Brittany, France.To this day, he is remembered as the American soldier who saved Chartres Cathedral. 

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Opera for dummies...

...and I am the dummy, yes, until now. Last week at the Waterville Opera House, I woke up to the truth about opera. I attended Puccini's Tosca on the big screen, part of the Metropolitan Opera's HD Live program. Here's the story. Two weeks ago, I held the firm belief that opera was an incomprehensible soap opera on steroids, an opportunity for buxom sopranos to show off their vocal range. Wrong! How foolish of me to hold such a prejudice. After all, opera is considered to be the most complex of all art forms. It combines acting, singing, orchestral music, costumes, set design, and even dance. Opera uses the enormous power of music to express emotion. What was my problem? I listened to opera on the radio. Without seeing the facial expressions of performers, without seeing magnificent sets, without the libretto (plot), without subtitles, I was baffled and bewildered. Thus the Jimminy Cricket in my brain said I hate opera. I concluded that only Italians appreciate opera. Since I am of Irish/English heritage without a drop of Italian blood in me, I was exempt from liking opera.

I sat in my seat waiting to be bored. Never happened. I was swept away. I watched the human soul on parade. I witnessed love, hate, jealousy, lust, torture, betrayal, death, and suicide. Tosca was written over one hundred years ago, but it is still timeless. One major plot line was sexual harassment. Our villain was Baron Scarpia, a sadistic chief of police who was consumed with desire for the beautiful singer Floria Tosca. She handled his brutal advances without calling the police. She stabs him several times with a steak knife. He drops to the floor. Tosca mournfully places two lighted candles next to him and places a crucifix on his body. As an aside, the actor who played Scarpia bore a striking resemblance to Harvey Weinstein.

Thanks to Metropolitan Opera HD Live, I experienced world class performances, read subtitles and could easily follow the plot. A program was provided that contained a libretto. Each 15 minute intermission treated us to behind the scenes interviews with the stars and gave us a glimpse at set production. HD Live was launched in 2006 as an outreach to the general public.The goal was to make opera affordable and understandable to a wider audience. Met Opera HD Live has streamed to movie theaters and local opera houses around the country.

All this being said, I probably never will attend opening night at the opera with its glamour and sparkle. I probably never will listen to opera on the radio. I do know that I will be attending Puccini's La Boheme on February 25th. I do not have to take the train to New York. I simply drive to the Waterville Opera House located across from our local barber shop. Opera has come to the people, even dummies like me. 

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Beauty defeats evil.

Auschwitz 1943-1945. Dr. Victor Frankl sat on his luggage in a crowded cattle car . One thought occupied his mind. Prisoners were being taken to a munitions factory, forced to hard labor by the Nazi government. A mournful train whistle sounded like a human cry for help. As they came to a station, the train shuddered to a halt. He looked up at the station sign-Auschwitz .It stood for all that was horrible-watch towers, barbed wire fences, gallows, and gas chambers.

Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist, wrote about these years spent in concentration camps in his book Man's Search for Meaning, published in 1946. At the time, it was an international best seller and considered one of the ten most influential books in America. With a psychiatrist's eye, he studied how he and his fellow prisoners adjusted to living in conditions of immense horror.

After initial shock, Frankl sank into a protective shell of apathy. This lasted for many months. One day he was in a march to work, enduring icy winds, kicks, and blows from rifles. Another prisoner whispered to him, "if our wives could see us now." Suddenly, images of his wife filled Victor's mind. He looked up and saw fading stars and a pink sunrise. Thoughts of his wife transported him to another place, another time. Thunderstruck, truth revealed itself-the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how man who has nothing left in this world can still know bliss…in the contemplation of his beloved.

From that day on, his inner life deepened. As prisoners were transported from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp, the men saw mountain peaks, golden in a brilliant sunset. He wrote, we were carried along by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long. After a dreary day chopping frozen ground with ice picks, the weary men sat down to eat their watery soup. One man burst through the door in breathless excitement. He called the men out to witness a blood red sunset.

Still he questioned the meaning of suffering. He was beset with gloom. Miraculously, his spirit broke through despair.I heard a victorious "Yes" in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. In this battle for their souls, these heroic prisoners quoted poetry, told jokes and even sang Italian arias.

Author of over 30 books, Frankl wrote that man had an inner yearning for love and beauty. Most difficult of all is the discovery of meaning in suffering. His work all began with thoughts of his beloved wife. Victor Frankl saw beauty in a sunset, even through the barbed wire of a concentration camp. 

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Beauty as a battlefield...

 For more than a year, I pondered the theme of this blog-the importance of beauty, not realizing that indeed beauty is powerful. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, "Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men." In our fatigue or disillusionment with life, beauty captures our hearts, even for an instant. We can't resist the lure of a sunrise over Otter Point at Acadia National Park or Winslow Homer's seascapes or the New World Symphony by Dvorjak. Humans are hardwired to appreciate beauty, for it defines that spark of divinity within us in our search for a transcendent God.

If beauty is a battleground for the hearts of men, all the more should we nurture love of beauty in our children. How is this possible? Surround them with classic literature, play Beethoven while sweeping the floor, take them to art museums and science centers. Read aloud to them before bedtime. Beauty will sneak up on you. Suddenly you are a little less tired, a little more hopeful. It is important to read aloud to your children. This is a theme I will visit again.

One of my favorite children's books is Brave Irene, written and illustrated by William Steig. Irene Bobbin is a little girl, daughter of a seamstress. As a dangerous blizzard bears down on Irene and her mother, they are in a pickle and a serious one at that. Mrs. Bobbin must deliver a ballgown to the duchess that night, but she can't. Influenza plunks her back to bed. Irene tucks the dressmaker's box under her arm and wades out into deep snow. Menacing winds and blinding snow do not deter our heroine. She is powered by love for her mother.

Steig's watercolors stir the heart, fully matched by his artful storytelling. By the middle of the pasture, the flakes were falling thicker. Now the wind drove Irene along so rudely she had to hop, skip, and go helter-skelter over the knobby ground.

Covered in snow, chilled to the bone, Irene accomplishes her mission. Brave Irene is a 1986 New York Times Book Review - Best Illustrated Book of the Year. 

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Snowflake Bentley

 Look up at the top banner, the bible quote of Saint Paul. That is the theme of this blog. If we appreciate beauty, even for a fleeting moment, it lifts our hearts. Life has a transcendent quality, giving us a glimpse of heaven. Since I live on a small farm in Maine, surrounded by fields, woodland birds, and towering blue spruce trees, I see God's hand in nature.

Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles writes about the power of beauty in his own blog. He points to the poetry of T.S Eliot, the cathedral at Chartres, the Sistine chapel, and Bach's Passion of St. Matthew as sources of inspiration. This is all true, but these are faraway places. I look closer to home, to the commonplace for beauty.In my first blog, I found inspiration in a miniscule bird that survives Maine winters in ways even naturalists consider miraculous.

Now recovering from a classic Maine blizzard, the most common attribute of our landscape is snow.Have you ever really looked at a snowflake? A man named Wilson Alwyn Bentley did. Known as the "Snowflake Man", Bentley lived on a farm in Vermont . As he went about his mundane chores, Bentley stopped to look at snow and pondered their hidden secrets. On February 9, 1880, he received an old microscope for his birthday. After that, life never was the same. He said, "I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design, and no one design was ever repeated." Snowflakes were a "road to fairyland". Blizzards were a source of delight bringing "from the dark, surging ocean of clouds, forms that thrill my eager soul with pleasure."

For hundreds of years, scientists have studied snowflakes. Back in 1610, Johannes Kepler noted that when snow first begins to fall, it always appears in the shape of a six-cornered starlet. Now there is something to ponder. I shovel a path to the barn. I shovel not annoying white clumps of snow. No sir! I shovel dazzling starlets cascading down from the heavens! 

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