Thursday, December 29, 2011

Marriage in Middlemarch

Maybe it's a sign of a love for gossip that I've been enjoying the peek into people’s marriages in Middlemarch.  Unfortunately - or fortunately for my curiosity, the two Eliot features most prominently are the ones that are failing.

Even if it turns out that he is a genius of a doctor, Lydgate certainly doesn’t seem to be a very good judge of women. First he falls for a black widow of an actress and then Rosamond, who has her own means for sucking the life out of a man.  I’m wondering if she has any redeeming qualities.  Is the case of the Vincys a warning of sorts to parents? If you spoil your children, they’ll either turn out self-absorbed like Fred (who at least is earnest) or selfish and conniving like Rosamond.

While the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon seemed gloomy from the beginning, I initially thought love existed between Lydgate and Rosamond.  In both cases the couples don’t seem to know their chosen spouses very well.  Although it was aggravating that Dorothea was so blind to Casaubon’s pinched true nature, you have to admire her devotion to her vows and her persistence in trying to make Casaubon happy.  But I can’t say I can think of anyone I’ve ever met who had this kind of relationship. 

On the other hand, the relationship between Rosamond and Lydgate is immediately recognizable.  He fell for her beauty and from her behavior during courtship imagined her the model of femininity. She imagined him to be a potential savior of sorts who would raise her up from her present circumstances.  But then she turns out to be less flexible and docile than he imagined, and he doesn’t live up to her hopes for a more exciting life. It’s almost painful to read about how they destroy their relationship that seemed so promising: he expects her to be obedient; she’s secretive; he believes he knows best and shouldn’t trouble her with the money issues, but he’s irresponsible for buying what he couldn’t afford.  Meanwhile, she seems to have no care for preserving their state. At least he attempts to protect their relationship by trying to keep alive the image of what he loved about her, while she seems determined to tear him down with her secrets and silent treatment. 

It’s hard to imagine that the Lydgates can repair their relationship, unless Rosamond has some kind of conversion experience and recognizes her selfishness, and Lydgate stops treating her like she’s child, even though she acts like one.

Since Casaubon dies, the possibility of a relationship between Will and Dorothea is out there if both parties were willing to throw riches and public opinion to the wind.  But I still don’t think they seem suited to each other.  Even though she’s idealistic, he seems too romantic for her.  Is public opinion right in this case?
Maybe I have lost my sense of romance because I also think Mary Garth should marry Farebrother and not Fred.  Fred seems destined to disappoint her since he can’t seem to get over his love of a good time. Farebrother is so kind and companionable that you can imagine and healthy relationship between him and Mary. 

At least Mary has a good example of marriage in her parents. The Garths seem to be the most happily married couple in Middlemarch.  She recognizes his faults but still loves him for his goodness, and he recognizes her intelligence and good sense. Theirs is the one marriage that seems built on honesty and respect for each other, in addition to being genuinely affectionate.

Ironically, the little glimpses into the Bulstrode’s marriage seem to suggest that they can weather trials.  If Mrs. Bulstrode can still feel compassion and pity for her husband, even though he has deceived her, perhaps they can pull through their downfall.

I’m embarrassed by how little I remember from this book the first time I read it.  Thus, this quote from Robertson Davies on my new “Reading Woman” calendar from my mother-in-law jumped out at me: “A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”  (I know everyone is supposed to use interactive computer calendar apps, but this calendar has great art and good quotes and lots of space for writing stuff to do; it makes me happy.) 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A short study in contrasts

I don't have a well-formed review to write here because I need to focus my brain on getting through the next few days, but I've been thoroughly enjoying Middlemarch, which I started since I didn't order Mortal Love.  I was reading two long books, Middlemarch, and the latest from Ken Follet for the wives club book club.  Follet’s book is nearly 1000 pages, but I skimmed the last 400 in a few hours. I couldn’t/wouldn’t give the book any more time, even though the historical bits about WWI were interesting. All the characteristics of a bestseller: pedestrian language, love affairs galore, predictable characters.  

Meanwhile, Middlemarch is worth savoring. I rarely get more than one or two chapters read a day, but I usually find a corner to bend down every time I read. I was reminded of reading Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, about diagramming sentences, when the author picked several sentences from James Fenimore Cooper to diagram as an example of long unwieldy writing.  She also quoted Mark Twain making fun of Cooper’s effusiveness.  Some of Eliot’s sentences could surely rival or top Cooper’s for length.  But after reading at the fourth grade level (or lower?) in Follet’s book, I was happy for the challenge of Eliot’s vocabulary and structure. (I do, however, find Dorothea’s goodness a little too good. She really didn’t recognize Casaubon’s pinched ways or Ladislaw’s devotion? And she smiles radiantly a few too many times.)

To illustrate the differences, a couple of selections:
From Fall of Giants:

Ethel, daughter of a coal miner and one-time housekeeper to an earl, listens to her father speak at a memorial service: “Ethel was proud of him. This honor acknowledged his status as one of the principal men of the town, a spiritual and political leader. He looked smart, too: Mam had bought him a new black tie, silk, from the Gwyn Evans department store in Merthyr.
He spoke about resurrection and the afterlife, and Ethel’s attention drifted: she had heard it all before. She assumed there was life after death, but she was not sure, and anyway she would find out soon enough.”

From Middlemarch:
Dorothea, like Ethel, turns her thoughts to a man she thinks she loves and admires, her fiance: “Mr. Casaubon would tell her all that: she was looking forward to higher initiation in ideas, as she was looking forward to marriage, and blending her dim conceptions of both. It would be  a great mistake to suppose that Dorothea could have cared about any share in Mr. Casaubon’s learning as mere accomplishment; for though opinion in the neighbourhood of Freshitt and Tipton had pronounced her clever, that epithet would not have described her to circles in whose more precise vocabulary cleverness implies mere aptitude for knowing and doing, apart from character. All her eagerness for acquirement lay within that full current of sympathetic motive in which her ideas and impulses were habitually swept along.. . . something she yearned for by which her life might be filled with action at once rational and ardent; and since the time was gone by for guiding visions and spiritual directors, since prayer heightened yearning but not instruction, what lamp was there but knowledge?”

You’d think that, with all the improvements in education and opportunity, the contemporary writer would outwrite his predecessor. A sad commentary or just a difference in style?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mortal Love and Italian Shoes

I know almost everyone is elbow deep in turkey preparations for Thanksgiving. At least, not our foreign correspondents, but all of us here in the US. Except I'm not because my Irish sister-in-law has the honor of hosting our extended family for Thanksgiving and she always goes overboard and makes far too much food so I'm probably going to make some rolls and pecan pie in the morning before we head over but otherwise I've been shirking holiday preparations and instead have been hunkering down with books. At least when the kids let me, which honestly isn't very often. Lately I've been longing for those single days when I could spend an entire day in bed with a book and only have to get up to eat. I tried to do that today but it was raining out and the children, seeing me sitting in one place, kept bringing me picture books to read to them. Still, I managed to finish Mortal Love this afternoon by locking myself in the bathroom during the boys' nap time. And now I'm trying to think what I think about it and what I can possibly say. But I thought I'd just jump in and say something to get the ball rolling and see if anyone else wanted to jump in with something that is a bit more substantial.

First, a greater contrast between this and the book I finished immediately prior to it I don't think I can imagine. Italian Shoes (I wrote more about it on my blog and incidentally I'd highly recommend it as a good, quick read that would be worthwhile discussing as a group. I thought there was some real meat to chew on and some interesting themes) is so stark, bleak --Spartan really-- while Mortal Love is so lush and overwrought, with a kind of hothouse quality. Italian Shoes opens with the narrator, a solitary hermit, on an ice-bound island off or Sweden who has had minimal human contact for the past dozen years. The cast of characters is small and the action minimalist. Mortal Love is bewildering in its operatic cast. I often forgot who was who as it shifted from the Victorian to the contemporary, from the coast of Maine to New York from London to Cornwall and back again. It's an interesting study in contrasts both in subject matter and narrative style.

I didn't dislike Mortal Love; but I'm not sure it was the book I wanted to read just now. I spent the first two thirds of the book feeling rather lost and unsure whether I really wanted to continue. I thought it pulled together by the end but am still not sure I'm satisfied by the ending. I didn't think that anything in the narrative really prepared me for the role that Valentine was going to play at the climax. It felt a bit deus ex machina. But maybe I was just being a sloppy reader and missed some major textual flags. That happens sometimes.

For me the novel does raise one interesting question. It posits that human creativity is mainly the result of the fact that we are mortal and finite. If we lived forever like the fairy-folk, it suggests, our drive to create art, music, poetry would disappear. It's not a new idea for me; but as I read it here suddenly it seemed like a false idea. I'm not sure I agree that mortality is the root of creativity. I think that rather it is because we are made in the image and likeness of God and one aspect of that likeness is that we share in God's creativity. I suppose you could argue that the fairy folk being soulless beings are not made in God's image and thus do not share in the divine gift of creativity. But then you're actually arguing that creativity goes along with having an immortal soul not with a finite being. Anyway, the novel's worldview is pretty pagan so I'm not sure I'm being fair by trying to read it with a Catholic sensibility.

One gripe... it kept knocking me out of the narrative because it was so jarring. The word "refractory" kept appearing where I'm pretty sure the author actually meant "refectory" as a room in the big English manor house. I kept wondering what the heck a "refractory room" was and it wasn't meant to be an important detail at all. It wasn't just once or twice and I can't think why the copy editor didn't catch it. More, I'm not even sure from context that the author realized that a "refectory" is a dining room since in one instance the list of rooms included both "refractory" and "dining room".

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.
From the Prelude to Middlemarch. As far as I've read. Couldn't find the Elizabeth Hand book at the library, although I knew a girl by that name, so in the meantime...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Invitation and a Book Suggestion

As we all know, Otepoti resides in the ass-end of the world, while most of us (with some notable exceptions) appear to reside in the Rust Belt. And, as you all know, Otepoti made a memorable trip to my notch of the Rust Belt last spring. Well, guess what? She's coming back.

As some of you know, we recently got our Letter of Approval from China to adopt Jude, who's now nineteen months old; it came, in fact, exactly a year to the day that we first learned about him. And those of you who know my older son know that it would be something of a disaster, and not a little one, for him if I were to go to China for two weeks and leave him behind (which is why I bring him with me on my out-of-town gigs). So my husband will be making this long journey on his own.

But not entirely on his own. Otepoti has offered, with a generosity beyond any generosity I've ever known, to meet up with him in China and bring Jude back with him. And then she'll be hanging out with us again for a couple of weeks at least.

This will be sometime probably in late January - early February. If any of youse (if I may lapse into the Mutterspräche) are free to make a road trip then, you will have another chance to meet our awesome sister in Christ, and, if I can plan it all, to attend Jude's baptism. All are welcome.

On to the book suggestion. It may be a bomb. Is anyone interested in reading Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand? It's a sort of quasi-fantasy that involves time travel, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Robert Graves's White Goddess, and also sex and drugs. Elizabeth Hand an Irishwoman from Yonkers, my former neck of the woods. It may not be interesting to anyone else but me, and that's completely all right, but I thought I'd toss it in.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Review of Amy Welborn's new Memoir: Wish You Were Here

by Melanie Bettinelli
(I went ahead and turned this comment into a post, because why not?--BD)

I'm trying not to be all gushy and fangirl about Wish You Were Here. Amy's was one of the first ever blogs I read and I've always felt she was sort of a kindred spirit. And I remember reading what she wrote at the time of Michael's death and her blog posts about Sicily so I sort of feel like I'm approaching the book with a very strong predisposition to love it. And maybe there are funny echoes in it for me in that I've never really wanted to go to Sicily very much until I married a man who is half Sicilian and then we discussed it as our dream honeymoon but couldn't actually afford to go. So there is that layer of the emotions from my own marriage weaving throughout.

All that said, I do think its a magical (I've not read Didion's book; but I can already tell you this is completely different) sort of mash up of travel memoir and a very Catholic exploration of grief. She does both genres so well but the way she slips seamlessly from one to the other is sort of breathtaking. (See, I'm gushing.) Just to do a reality check I read a chapter to my sister this evening while we were making dinner. Oh even better than I thought. The prose is lyrical but down to earth. The imagery doesn't beat you over the head but somehow the details of every tourist stop are marshaled so that you are constantly staring death in the face. Most of all what strikes me is how faith informs everything. It doesn't make death and grief easy, doesn't make it go away. Just that it is the medium in which they happen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ready to Read

Otepoti has threatened to remove her wonderful conversion posts if we don't start talking about books again soon. I'm here to remedy the problem by:

A) publicly imploring Otepoti to leave her posts up
B.) getting the ball rolling on another book
C) talking about my own reading.

With A accomplished, I now ask of you, "Believers in Reading," would you like to read a book together? And if so, who would like to choose one? I believe that Melanie, Dorian, Pentimento or Otepoti would be the likeliest choices for choosing, so if any of you are reading something interesting and would like company, please, speak up.

Alternately, I could tell you that I have picked up my first non-Walker Percy book in about six months, and it's A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower. I love the way Byatt writes, even though she's anti-Christian by her own self-description. She seems to have an accomplished sense of the Christian mentality regardless. I'm only about one relatively thick chapter into the book though, so not entrenched enough to recommend or the opposite.

I enjoyed an interview with Joan Didion in the most recent Poets and Writers magazine (the link is not the actual interview to which I'm referring). Notable in that Didion made a name for herself as an essayist, but never felt like an accomplished writer until she had written a novel. She's just put out another memoir (following the Year of Magical Thinking) concerning the death of her daughter, which deals with her sense of failure as a mother. Should be a lighthearted read. Heh.

I tried reading a short by Ursula le Guin recently and didn't finish. I keep trying to make myself like fantasy writing--and it never works out. This is how I have made it through thirty six years of my life with four male children and have never read any Tolkien. If anyone has fantasical writing that I might like in mind, please recommend. Of course, I could just call it quits on trying to read fantasy, and stick to my memoir-reading.

I'm feeling the urge to delve into a classic right now. I would like to A) make sure I still have the concentration for great literary works, and B) Not have to worry about whether or not the book is worthy of my investment. Anyone in the mood for Middlemarch?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute

“There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I mentioned a while ago how my dear old aunt, poor lady, came to stay with us in the final six weeks of her life. (No moral heroism here, mind you: when the hospital says, hop it, because it’s Christmas the day after tomorrow, the relatives had better have their ducks in a row. This is the reality of living in a country that is steadily working its way down the OECD tables.)

We nursed the aunt as well as we could, with flowers and conversation and visits from friends and basin baths, as she faded and dried into a pressed-flower version of her former self. The last day, the process sped up beyond expectation. Her body started shedding fluid dramatically.

(This is really a mercy, since it helps the body produce natural analgesics against the pain, but, still - And also, as a nursing note, if the Hospice people suggest a catheter, don't say, no, you don't want her to get a UTI. )

As she was struggling up to the commode for the last time, she said, fiercely, out of clenched teeth, “I hate this.” Dying, she meant.

Confession was like that. It was like dying, and I hated it.

I can’t quibble with its efficacy, though. When I fronted up, like Hagrid at a Hogwarts school desk, to an old wooden kneeler made for a past generation of smaller-framed penitents, I still didn’t know if I could do what I had to, so I think the grace of the sacrament took over. I asked a blessing, choked a bit and began the sentence that had to be said. “Father, ten years ago, I – “

Do you know, Father was actually sorry for me. After I spilled the rest of my dirt sheet, there was a happy lift in his voice as he gave me absolution. It must be a good day’s work to release someone from soul-killing sin. As he gave me a petit rien of a penance, he said, “Well, now you’ll know how light Catholics feel after confession.”

Well, no, not really, because we Kiwis wrote the book on low emotional affect. To me it was as when, after giving birth to a child, you get up off the bed and find that, since your spine is still an extreme S-bend, normal walking is yet a day or two away.

And yet, if I prod that terrible spot in my memory, the place that used to make me blench, and, if I thought of it while driving, want to wrench the car into the nearest power-pole, there is nothing there. The abscess has been closed over. Thanks be to God.

So on to the happy business of Confirmation and First Communion. I took the name of Monica; may St. Monica guide our adult children into the Church. “If your saint is Monica,” I was told, “all you have to do is pray and weep.”

The confirmation made me catch my breath a little. It’s a closure on twenty-one years of Reformed worship, and it puts me definitively outside that camp, and excommunicate. And I did so think I had the right of it, back when I chose that. Perhaps the difference is now that I think Christ has the right of it, and I have to be where He is. “So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”

As to the wonder of the Eucharist: it’s an odd thing, being (as I often have told you) mumblety-one years old, to be so little again, to look up to see this Person. I fumble for words and fall silent.

The moment of taking communion, though, since that’s when grace meets nature, that I can speak about, at tedious length. Father gave me the Host and then watched with something like questioning as I consumed it. I realized where I knew that expression from, that mixture of absorbed love and concern – will you eat? Do you know how good this is for you?

I recognized it because I’ve had that look on my own face half-a-dozen times, when I’ve approached a baby with a spoonful of carefully confected solid food, his or her first, knowing that when and if the food goes down, life will be forever different.

Here is the beginning of the rest of your life, child. Will you eat this, baby? Please don’t spit it out of your mouth. Do you know how good it is?

Do you understand what pains it cost to make?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

If the date didn't change

Happy First Communion, Otepoti!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sacraments of Healing

Sacraments of Healing, Booklet Seven, "What Catholics Believe: An Introductory booklet series", The Catholic Enquiry Centre, Wellington,

"No, it wasn't a dream," said Edmund.
"Why not?"
"Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been - well, un-dragoned, for another."
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

"Crap," I thought, when Betty Duffy pointed out that I was not, as I thought, dashing off occasional notes to friends, but in some sense Blogging My Conversion, "now, since it's the next way-point, I'm going to have to write about First Confession, aka Reconciliation, aka (in these parts) Hohou Rongo, and I really don't want to do that."

People say they loved their first confession, and some practical people advise taking a large handkerchief, but my problem is with the examination of conscience. Fifty-mumble years old, committing mortal sins on a regular basis: it's Zeno's Paradox. However fast I tally the sins, I'll never catch up to the present. It's dreary work, too. It consists largely of discovering that I am far from being the person I think I am (mostly moral) or the person I pretend to be (mostly harmless).

I've also made the strange discovery that, however intimidated I have been all these years by my mother-in-law, she is more frightened of me. Poor woman. All these years when we could have been, if not besties, then at least comrades-in-arms.

But my worst problem has been a failure of memory altogether. This is partly because the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity combined with the doctrine of Imputed Righteousness adds up to excusing moral failure as unavoidable while passing the penalty Higher Up. Why register failure when the books are cooked? But some sin is so heinous that the Calvinist cop-out cannot cope, and then memory corruption kicks in for self-protection. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

So, I had such a sin straitjacketed away, and I'd half-forgotten it. It was pretty bad. It was bad, and not pretty. It was the work of a moment. I cried off and on for about a year after I committed it. If I'd managed to fornicate on the Sabbath while committing it, it would just about be a perfect strike against the decalogue. Somehow I had suppressed the memory till this very week, till this day, Sunday.

I had forgotten it; God had not: still merciful, and still with the sense of humour. "Father," I said to our priest after Exposition today, "since I'm coming into the Church on Saturday, when would it suit you to hear my confession?" "Monday, after Mass?" he said. "Yes," I said, thinking of my half-finished Examen and this unsavoury addition, "I think I can pull it together by tomorrow." "Oh, no, how about Thursday? I have a funeral on Wednesday," he said. "Yes," I said, eyes widening a bit, "fine."

Friends, if I read this elsewhere, I would suspect the writer had sugared it up to make a better story, but I assure you this is not the case. I will be confessing this awful sin, one which has roiled years on my soul, on the ten-year anniversary of my committing it - to the very day.

See you on the other side - after my un-dragoning.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A recommendation

I feel sort of trivial writing about Young Adult books here after Otepoti’s moving post, but The Book Thief was so good, I wanted to say something about it.  I started to write about it before I finished it because I was enjoying it so much, but I worried that the ending would disappoint. I shouldn’t have -- throughout the last chapter, I was in tears, but although the ending is full of tragedy (the book is about a German girl during WWII), it is also full of hope.  This book lives up to its jacket blurbs – it really is stunning.  I felt like I couldn’t move after I closed the cover.

The story is a bit difficult to figure out in the beginning, until you realize the narrator is Death, and he rambles. But eventually the narrative voice gets stronger. Death narrows his focus to Liesel Meminger, a foster child in Germany at the outbreak of WWII. She is not Jewish, but her foster father was saved from death by a Jew in WWI, so he is reluctant to join the Nazi party even though he loses customers for his painting business. He also loses his son. But he gains a relationship with the son of the man who saved him (and taught him to play the accordion), when that man’s son seeks him out for help.  So a Jew hides in the basement while Liesel deals with her feelings of rejection, her sorrow over her little brother’s death, and her difficulties in school and life – hunger, loneliness, confusion over the changing political landscape.  But she finds purpose when her foster father begins teaching her to read the book she picked up (or stole) off the ground at her brother’s funeral.  As Liesel becomes a better reader, and shares her knowledge, she and the hiding Jew and her foster parents find consolation, common ground, and hope in books.

The story moves slowly, but it is beautifully told. Markus Zusak is a poet. The form might be difficult for a preteen reader; actually this book could be just as much at home in the adult section as on the YA shelf – but the preteen who sticks with it will surely feel as enlarged after reading it, as I did. It’s a good book for reading in small snatches, conveniently, because the language deserves to be savored.

For example, this scene, in which Liesel, the book thief, hears a noise in the night after her foster father has been drafted, and she sneaks out of bed to discover her foster mother, a curmudgeonly woman, sitting in the dark holding her husband's accordion:  

"Many minutes dripped past. The book thief's desire to hear a note was exhausting, and still, it would not come. The keys were not struck. The bellows didn't breathe. There was only the moonlight, like a long strand of hair in the curtain, and there was Rosa.

The accordion remained strapped to her chest. When she bowed her head, it sank to her lap. Liesel watched. She knew that for the next few days, Mama would be walking around with the imprint of an accordion on her body. There was also an acknowledgement that there was great beauty in what she was currently witnessing, and she chose not to disturb it."

I read this book in between some other books that I didn’t like so much, and its beauty was a stark contrast. While reading Anne Rice’s Feast of All Saints, I couldn’t find a single character I really liked; in The Book Thief, I loved them all.  They were all human, flawed but worthy of compassion. which I suppose is one of the themes of the book: the discovery of the humanity of those around us. Another theme: Liesel learns that while words can be full of truth and beauty, they also can be used to spread lies and ugliness. Her friend the hiding Jew Max writes her a simple but straightforward story about the intangible gifts she has given him with her words, but he also illustrates how insidious Hitler’s propaganda has been.

It was back at Christmas that I bought this book for my 13 year old. He wasn’t as impressed by it as I was, but did agree that it was good.  I didn’t read it before giving it to him because I wasn’t in the mood for one more Holocaust story. But it isn’t the typical story.  There is no suspense about what is going to happen because you know the story from history books and because Death tells you who is going to die. But you keep reading because you want to know how it happened, how it changed these people, how they persevered.  And the reading is rewarding – even though the book is not explicitly religious (other than in the certitude that Death is gathering souls – but taking them where?), it clearly shows that sacrificial love makes life meaningful. I hope that my kids who read it are strengthened in the belief that relationships and words matter. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hidden Manna

When I visited with Julia earlier this year, we talked about everything, but especially about faith, and she and her husband took me to Mass with them. I was awed by the beauty of the Catholic Easter, but still a country mile off in understanding. Just before I left for New Zealand, I said, sadly, "I can't be a Catholic: I can't understand the Real Presence." (I meant, of course, I can't believe the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist - because who could ever understand it?)

Then, in June, I stumbled across the "Called to Communion" website, and read the three big articles, "Ecclesial Deism", "The Canon Question" and "The Visible Church." They blew my Reformed Protestantism out of the water. Simple obedience and love of Jesus required I draw near Him in His way, not mine. I had well and truly removed any possible plea of invincible ignorance, as a defence against joining His Church. I emailed Julia, saying, "I think I have to become a Catholic. I can't believe I just typed that."

So I started limping off to daily Mass, feeling shell-shocked and mortified, wondering if I'd ever feel whole again, or if I'd just be walking wounded for the rest of my life. I believed, as hard as ever I believed anything, that I had to be there each morning, that the Mass is the prayer of Christ's people, but secretly I doubted that I'd ever be given the gift of faith in the mystery. I feared I'd always be kneeling at the back, hiding from direct view of the altar behind someone else, in case God saw me there, a bacillus on the Petri dish, desperately afraid of the penicillin.

For this I had paid with the loss of a close and fervent church community, one friendship completely lost, another permanently bent, a son alienated and slightly disgusted, a daughter saddened and confused, and, oh, yes, after the Reformed Church discipline process is complete, I will be officially excommunicated and the church members will be obliged to treat me as a "publican and a sinner." I can't deny that it has seemed hard.

Well, in case you didn't know this, the Lord is merciful. Stumbling in the dark, I came across my next hand-hold.

On his surpassingly excellent apologetics blog, "Shameless Popery", Joe Heschmeyer recommended a book, "The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist," by Rev. James T. O'Connor. I ordered it, and accidentally had it sent by fast post. (Cost of book, $12; postage, $30: this is the price we pay for living in Narnia/Middle Earth.)

This book has been a well of wonder, as it shows the Fathers from the earliest times paying homage to the daily miracle in terms of Eucharistic realism.

I had come from a Memorial Supper tradition, where the elements, ineffective and earthbound in themselves, serve to remind us of our God-given faith. I had advanced so far as to regard the Eucharist as a miracle on a level with the Incarnation.

"Why," I thought to myself, with the lofty insights of Epistemology 101 and Metaphysics 102, "just as God's naming of Christ as the Logos is His pre-emptive refutation of Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivists, establishing ultimate meaning at the heart of the universe, so the Incarnation is God's pre-emptive refutation of the English Empiricists, with their doubt that the supernatural can ever impinge on the natural. And the Eucharist is God's (almost humorous) repetition of the feat, as He enters His world, over and over again, in rooms great and small. Why didn't I ever think of that before?"

But this book teaches me that the Eucharist is even more: it is the prime miracle; it is the reason the Incarnation happened - to enable this even greater thing, a running tap of grace, which is made available to ordinary men and women, every day. Even I, non-partaker that I remain for now, am blessed by it. Even those who don't know that they are blessed by it, like my brothers and sisters at Reformed, cannot remain untouched.

About a Protestant Lord's Supper, Fr. O'Connor has this to say: "Such celebrations are certainly opportunities and occasions for receiving divine grace, even though they are not the efficient and effective causes of such grace as is the case when a valid sacrament is celebrated. Although the Catholic Church believes that the Lord is not corporally present in such celebrations, he is surely spiritually present and prepared to bestow on those who participate worthily and with faith a share in the immeasurable abundance of blessings that his Passion and Resurrection won for the human race. In their own way - comparable to a para-liturgical action within the Catholic Church - such celebrations may even be said to participate in the efficacy of the Eucharistic Mystery and are surely a means that mysteriously and gently orients the participant toward full union with the Catholic Church and the Sacrament that creates the Church and that she daily celebrates." pp164-165.

So here, as in so much else, those of us who are still afar off look up to see that the grace available through the Protestant churches is a gift of the true Eucharist.

Well. My world is well-lost for this.

[I just got a phone call from my RCIA leader. I will be received into the Church on Oct 15. Padre Pio, pray for me.]

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer Reading: Vogue Magazine

Technically, it's the September issue, but it had Kate Moss on the cover--apparently she got married recently--and I don't know why it seemed worth it to throw the mag in the cart at the check out counter just to see Kate Moss's wedding pictures. But it did seem worth it for some reason.

It wasn't, of course. Her dress was uninspiring. Her beau looks like kind of a hot dog. The flower girls were nymph-like and delightful, and her Cotswold Church idyllic. But why can't I believe in love for Kate Moss?

These are deep thoughts, I know. If I could be any guest at the wedding I'd be Daphne Guinness, just FYI.

I used to read good books. Here's the link for Suite Francais, though I think you did it better, Em.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More Summer Reading Rehash

Although I like the idea of reading the same book together, I completely agree with taking a break during August and September. After tonight, I won’t have internet access for about a week anyway. But later, if anyone wants to read a book together, post the request, and I’ll join in if I own the book, once our books arrive.  And I like the idea of meeting here to read recommendations of what books you are reading.

Despite having a busy summer, I found time while on the road to do some reading, albeit very light reading, mostly self-help books.  Self-help books seem to be easy to digest when a lot is going on, especially when the opportunity to recreate yourself is available. Only I can’t say that I have integrated anything that I have read into my life. So maybe these books aren’t very helpful, but here’s a synopsis, nonetheless, for the sake of conversation.

The first book I read on the road was The Handbook for Catholic Moms by Lisa Hendey. A friend gave this to me as a going away present.  Lisa Hendey is a fellow ND grad, although I was a few years behind her.  Lots of familiar names from the blogosphere appear among the pages.  The book gives advice to moms according to four sections: Mind, body, heart, and soul. A new mom would probably find a lot of encouragement in this book, so I passed it on to my sister-in-law who just had her second baby. I did note down a few good quotes, like this one about finding time for silence, from St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:

“God is there in these moments of rest and can give us in a single instant exactly what we need. Then the rest of the day can take its course, under the same effort and strain perhaps, but in peace. And when night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him. Then you will be able to rest in Him – really rest – and start the next day as a new life.”

Sounds good. I just need to work on that leaving it all with God part.

Also while on the road, I plodded through John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. The title was the best part.  I wish I hadn’t wasted my time. I can’t figure out the popularity of Updike. Not one character in this book about a family of failures was likable.  I couldn’t decide if the ending is a mockery of sorts or the final redemption of the family. The story begins with a minister quitting his church in the early 20th century because he has lost his faith. His family loses its social status, and he dies penniless. Meanwhile his three children battle soullessness of one kind or another. The third child is a pathetic underachiever who finally stands up for himself in marrying a lame girl and becoming a postman. They have a daughter who becomes a heartless movie star. Her son is a drifter who finally joins a religious cult, a la the Branch Davidians. As the cult is raided by the feds, the group begins to commit suicide, but the son finally wakes up and helps some women and children escape before he dies himself. So the family finally has a hero of sorts, perhaps confirming the original character’s replacement of faith in religion with faith in humanity, although these people are always disappointing each other. Bleak.

Once I arrived at my mom’s I picked up some books lying around her house. One was His Needs, Her Needs by Dr. Willard Harley, which was the 80’s version of Fireproof or The Five Love Languages. Since we have a number of friends with marital problems, and facing a lot of upheavals ourselves, I read this book with interest, although I felt a little like I was reading the tabloids because each chapter starts with the account of how an affair started.  But even though Dr. Harley isn’t Catholic, he is fully committed to rescuing even the most damaged of marriages, and he has real experience and insight, even if he lacks a poetic gift with language. He repeatedly hammers home the idea of making deposits in your spouses’ love bank.  In other words, you have to commit to small acts of love and affirmation, even if it means taking up a hobby you don’t really like, in order to keep a marriage strong. Pedestrian metaphor, but easy to remember and full of truth. It’s easy for me to be a taker; I’m always telling myself I’ve earned a break, but I don’t always remember to be a giver.

I also sped through Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy Your Child’s Imagination. I think he could have come up with a more imaginative title, don’t you? Anyway, this is one of those books that I agree with everything he says in theory: let your child run around outside, let him tinker with machines and motors, let him read good books and limit his connection to media, and instead expose him to fairy tales, poetry, heroes, real love, silence. But to commit to these habits requires a constant battle against contemporary culture, and in our transitory existence lately, we’ve relied a lot on electronic media to prevent tears and destruction. So I felt a little distressed about my parenting failures after reading it, although again I copied down a few quotes, for example:

“In the deepest heart of man, the motive for art and the motive for worship are bound together. That is not accidental. In both art and worship, the heart seeks out something beyond itself – a beauty or a power that is not its own. That seeking involves a great deal of what can best be called ‘play’ … The play of the artist’s hand is one with the praise of the artist’s heart.  .. . In other words, man’s imagination, when it is not corrupt, yearns for the holy – to behold its beauty from a distance, to be possessed by it. All the greatest art of the past, pagan and Christian, testifies to this desire. It is what inspires the poet Pindar and his Pythian Odes, for whom human glory is but a reflection of the divine. How can you celebrate a lad’s victory at the games if you do not contemplate the beauty and vigor of the immortal gods, from whom such blessings flow? . . . For the great threat of the imagination, roused to life like Lazarus from the grave by the faintly heard voice of God, is that it makes a man a man, not a consumer, nor a clodpoll to be counted off in some mass survey. The praise of God is inscribed upon the of man, says Saint Augustine, ‘man who bears about within himself his mortality, who bears about within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that you resist the proud.’

Lastly, I just finished Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. I don’t think Esolen and Lamott would necessarily get along if they met at a party, although they both would appreciate the power of the imagination. Lamott’s writing is poetic and evocative, but this is one of those books about a descent into the hell of alcoholism and drug abuse followed by a resurrection, which is heartrending, but also exhausting. I marked off a number of great quotes and observations, but I can't unqualifiably love this book because, after writing about forgiveness, love and acceptance, Lamott lets drop edgy political commentary that is divisive.

So none of these books would I say “Run and get this book for your library!”  Probably the best book that I read this month was Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which my sister loaned to me. She posted something about it, but I don’t have time to find her link (add if you like, Betty). It’s a beautiful, but unfinished, story about Paris in WWII, just as the Germans are setting up their occupation there. Nemirovsky was writing about the situation as it was ongoing, but her story reads nothing like autobiography. You crave more after you finish, but you don't want to read it quickly because her writing is lovely. The characters are surprisingly free of antipathy between vanquished and conqueror. In fact, several of the vignettes describe love affairs between the Germans and French. Love grows everywhere, and life persists in the most depressing situations. It’s a beautiful book that you don’t want to end. I'd like to read more of her work. Anybody read anything else by her?

Probably too much info for one post, but I don't have time to edit. I probably won't be reading anything for the next few weeks, as we get settled into our new house and figure out our schooling situation, so I'll be ready to read some recommendations.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Breaking out of the Summer Reading Slump?

Well, I finally finished a book!

I'll get to that in a later blog post. First, a few notes about the books I've started and haven't finished. Several of them were ones that people expressed some interest in when I suggested them, so I might as well give a brief report. I'm thinking the reason I've been plodding along with several books is perhaps that all of them are non-fiction and are so much easier to put down one when I get to a bit that's slow.

I've been enjoying Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset; but I'm not moving through it very quickly. You can laugh if you want to, but I was several chapters in before I realized it was a biography and not a novel. I know I'm not a careful reader, but it was still pretty funny. I found myself thinking: "This book really reads like a biography." And then I actually looked at the cover and discovered it is a biography.

It's not surprising that Undset is a good biographer since she is such a great novelist. She does know how to pace a story. And I love the way she approaches medieval history from a modern viewpoint. She explains those aspects of the medieval world that she anticipates will be strange for a modern audience so as to make sense of Catherine's life as a product of the world, but she doesn't let the historical details get in the way of showing who Catherine was as some historians seem to do. As a believer, Undset takes Catherine's faith seriously. When dealing with the miraculous she walks a nice path between being willing to credit eyewitnesses and accept the possibility of the miraculous, while also satisfying a more modern taste for critical examination of the credibility of witnesses. Here's a passage that exemplifies her approach:

But in our time and the language of our time the expressions we use for religious emotions and religious experience have become worn out and meaningless; words which in Catherine's language are as shining as new-minted gold, become, when repeated by us, worn-out coins, which have almost gone out of circulation. Catherine speaks of VIRTU, and for her the word retains its full weight; it means a vital and powerful pursuit of high ideals. "Virtue" in English has no connection in the popular mind with capability, capacity for goodness; we think rather of virtue as something slightly sour, weak, and boring. Catherine's eternal cri du coeur, GESU DOLCE-- GESU AMORE, is filled with very different associations from those which occur to us when we read "Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love." A sweet-Jesus, a lady-Jesus; Jesus-Love-- a substitute or sublimation of sexual love. In Catherine's language, and when she lived, sweetness was also a name for strength, for all that is good and at the same time gentle and merciful. That goodness must also at times be hard and aggressive, no one knew better than Catherine. For her and her contemporaries, even for the hosts of people who in practice tried to forget or deny it, it was acknowledged that AMORE, love, is fundamentally an expression for the connection between God and the soul of man. Analogously one can speak of AMORE, love, between people-- between children and their parents, between man and wife, between lovers, between brothers and sisters, between spiritual relations; and it can be a power of good or evil, according ot whether earthly love is in harmony or disharmony with the will of Him who is AUCTOR VITAE-- the origin of life. It is perhaps even more difficult for present day people in Protestant lands to understand her attitude towards the two Popes whom she can in the same letter call Christ-on-earth, the immortal Peter whom Christ has built His Church upon, and advise, command and admonish them for their human weaknesses; or she can turn to the Pope like an unhappy little girl to her father, calling him Babbo--"Daddy", in Italian baby talk. For her it was no contradiction, beyond the fact that all human relationships are full of contradictions, that Christ had set a vicar over His faithful as long as they live on earth, and that He demands we should show His vicar honour and obedience, even though the vicar may be unworthy to fulfil his mission. No one can know whether the Holy Father has been a holy man until his death-- and as it has been put in the hands of men to appoint a man a the Vicar of Christ, it is only to be expected that the voters will all too often vote from impure, mean, or cunning motives, for a man who will become an evil to the Church of God on earth. God will nevertheless watch over His Church, raise and restore again what mankind may ruin or soil; it is necessary, for mystical reasons, which the saints have partly seen and understood, that the offence should occur. But woe to that person through whom the offence comes. . . .
I think I got bogged down and lost steam when the focus of the book shifted from Catherine's interior life to her political activity. Her early years are all lived quietly at home in Siena but then she receives her marching orders and starts writing letters to Popes and various political figures. All of that requires quite a bit of explanation so as to follow the intricacies of medieval European politics and I think I just find that less interesting than the interior stuff that is directly about Catherine.

I've been having similar problems with the book about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Man of the Beatitudes. It's a good book by Frassati's sister, Luciana, but much of the focus is on his social and political life and the interior life isn't as clear. The first book I read about him was the second book she wrote, My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days. I think by the time she wrote that book, Luciana had grown in understanding of who her brother really was. It is a much deeper, more thoughtful book, but it has a very limited focus, recounting only the details of the final week of Frassati's life. I'd love to read a book that examines his entire life with the insight Luciana turns on his final days. Anyway, my interest started to wane in a section where Luciana recounts Pier Giorgio's political activities. Notice a trend? I have a very short attention span for politics and political history. All the political parties and minute details of shifting power kind of make my eyes glaze over. Especially when I'm trying to snag brief reading snacks while hiding in the bathroom as the children squabble outside the door.

I'm out of time for tonight. The toddler has an ear infection, the baby is teething, and my husband is in Spain. So I'd better call it a night. I'll write about the book I actually finished next time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fear of Sixteen

I want to note my thanks to you all, for teaching me the words of the daily intention. It did change my life! Because when I first got to "in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father" I had a mean-minded flick of "why should I pray for the Pope's intentions? Can't he pray for his own?" Erk. I'm ashamed to write that, but it really was my first reaction.

Unless you're a prospective convert from an anti-hierarchical, non-episcopalian Protestant schism, you probably could never understand the combined fear, loathing and awe in which the Holy Father is held in such circles.

I well remember watching the televised coverage from St Peter's Square as Benedict XVI's election was announced, and the grudging respect granted this event by the roomful of reformed people I was with. We all knew, I think, that somehow, he stood in some relation to us, that we owed him - something - but we weren't sure what. Also, those Latin numerals inspired the fearsome realization that he has a full fifteen predecessors, and that's just the Benedicts.

So the daily intention worked a small miracle to me. No sooner had the grumble, "why should I?" passed, then it was followed by "Because he's my Father. We're family. And he probably, no, almost certainly, prays for me, as the rawest, oldest, most stiff-necked member of an RCIA group."

So the daily intention laid on my shoulders the beginnings of obedience, that yoke and burden which are, respectively, easy and light.

Thanks, guys.

[wipes grateful tear]


[I promoted this from comment to post, because it's time I had the courage of my convictions.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A New Direction

We seem to not be reading anything.

For everything, a season. I'm wondering what you guys think about making this a place where we can post notes on what we're currently reading rather than choosing a book and reading together.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Catechism of the Catholic Church #1

"Without the Creator, the creature vanishes." (GS 36)

Comment exhaustively, or, if on holiday with small children, exhaustedly.

Friends, I thought through my issues with privacy, and I wondered why it would bother me, if, in fact, someone other than yourselves read my posts and managed to connect the internet handle with the person. It's a fear of being known, I guess, and being declared, definitively, a hypocrite. "Wha-a-? She wrote that? Pfft, anyone would think she was a saint."

Internet anonymity: it's the Tarnkappe of today, the cloak of invisibility that lets you get what you want without the cost. I want to vanish, but at the same time, I'd quite like it if my posts were recognized as genius. Just - don't watch me over here, yelling at my children: swearing, quite possibly. [Betty, I think you wrote something along these lines, lately. If I'm plagiarizing, I apologize.]

Fortunately for me, God isn't going to allow me the vanishing option. He sees me in my sinful skin. He sees me "naked and ashamed", and the worst thing about that is, I'm not even ashamed for the right reasons: I'm ashamed that I can't make myself perfect, all by myself, and snaffle the credit. Yet He still holds me in existence with His gaze.

If He blinks, I'm gone.

[Something about this connects with "Till We Have Faces": did Peter Kreeft quote this piece of the catechism in his considerable lecture?]

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Current reading

Alright, I want to apologize for my pathetic leadership on Til We Have Faces (which I did like, though I didn't say anything about it) by sharing some book recommendations with you all. One of the lovely aspects of this forum is that anything you ladies recommend is so good and readable

Julia and Melanie mentioned Room first, and now I'm dying to discuss it with those who've read it already. They've already covered the basics of the plot: a young woman and her son held in captivity, narrated by the five-year-old boy. I flew through the book and made Darwin read it as well so that we could talk about it. I'm a squeamish person and was very wary of the subject material, but Emma Donoghue handles her narrative with an exquisite sensibility.

What I'm pondering right now is the twisted way in which Ma's captor tries to establish this marital relationship with her, down to the put-upon husband routine when she asks him for anything.

The whole "memoir" is constructed as the introduction to the publication of a newly-discovered and authenticated Shakespeare play about King Arthur (the entire play is included as the last fourth of the novel). The author, taking advantage of his contractual obligation to write the introduction, uses his platform to explain why he thinks the whole piece is an elaborate forgery by his father. The novel is amusing, if the interpersonal relationships get a bit strained and irritating by the end, but the play, The Tragedy of Arthur, is pretty darn good. I'd pay to watch it on stage, that good.

Here's another book in which an author constructs a whole body of literary work to support the narrative. A minor academic, researching the famous Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovers a long-hidden and smoldering letter from Ash (renowned for his faithfulness to his wife) to the poetess Christabel LaMotte-- two literary lights who were never supposed to have met, let alone corresponded. The resulting novel is a literary thriller, detective story, romance (both ancient and modern), and compendium of "source material" from these two poets. I'm not the most familiar with the work of the Victorian poets, but A.S. Byatt doesn't seem to strike any false notes in her creation of the oeuvre and letters of Ash and the lesser-known LaMotte. I might have been convinced that these were authentic works if I hadn't been told otherwise by the friend who recommended the book to me.

But skip, I beg of you, the crappy movie (which consistently underwhelmed, except for the eye candy of Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle playing the Victorian poets).

What are you ladies reading?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Binx and me: towards a sacramental life

This morning, Pentimento Very Kindly (that's her full name, you know) sent me the words for a prayer of spiritual communion. So I wrote it out in spider-scratch and took it along to Mass this morning.

When I was writing it out, a tiny Protestant niggle kicked up: if this prayer is answered, and Jesus comes into my heart, then why bother with receiving communion? Can't we cut to a couple of hearty hymns and coffee?

That just shows that I don't have anywhere near the Catholic mind, I guess. When I saw the Mass, I understood that not partaking (when you could) makes as much sense as whipping your brain out, putting it in a jar on the mantelpiece and feeding it virtual experiences.

We're embodied. The sacrament meets us, body and soul. Though I know I will need this coming year of RCIA to shred my residual Calvinism, I want the sacrament to be my life, health and strength.

Binx has the same Protestant problem as I did. He has put his brain in a jar, and is feeding it movies. But he is a mystic without direction, and only movies can numb his sensory overload.

"[...] but then a peculiar thing happened. I became extraordinarily affected by the summer afternoons in the laboratory. [...] In the course of an afternoon the yellow sunlight moved across old group pictures of the biology faculty. I became bewitched by the presence of the building; for minutes at a stretch I sat on the floor and watched the motes rise and fall in the sunlight. I called Harry's attention to the presence but he shrugged and went on with his work. [...] He is no more aware of the mystery which surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in."

Binx knows that there should be sacraments; he just doesn't realize where they are.

"I asked Harry if he would excuse me. He was glad enough to, since I was not much use to him, sitting on the floor. I moved down to the Quarter where I spent the rest of the vacation in quest of the spirit of summer and in the company of an attractive and confused girl from Bennington who fancied herself a poet."

If he could get to the sacraments, he would find the rotations and repetitions that make sense.

There's more here than I have time to think about now.

Thanks for your prayers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pilgrim's Progress

I thought you might appreciate a progress report. I went and visited a priest, a lifetime first, and have made contact with the RCIA co-ordinator for the diocese.

Pentimento has been kind enough to teach me the rudiments of the rosary. It's still a guilty pleasure to kneel and ask the help of a Mother, who, if everything you say about her is true, doesn't actually despise me.

I have written a letter to the Session of my church, outlining my decision and a few reasons, and have posted it, so currently I am waiting for the sky to fall. I will be visited with cake.

Additionally, there will be a church discipline process. I expect I might be asked to confer with my elder.

There will be many hurt feelings over this, since I haven't mentioned anything of my internal debates to my two closest friends, both church members. (I didn't feel I had the liberty to unsettle them with my struggles.)

There will also be family difficulties. While I still have three children at home (hence my haste in this process), and an unruffled atheist for a husband, I also have three grown and gone, two of whom are professed (Protestant) Christians. There will be words. May they be charitable ones.

I wish I could take off the bandage by tiny degrees, but time is short. If nothing else, our year of earthquakes has shown us that we can't boast of tomorrow.

Here's a link to a post I've found supremely helpful in overcoming that most Protestant of stumbling-blocks, our Lady's title of co-redemptrix.

In the Lord,


Monday, June 20, 2011

How Does Your Library Grow?


While the latest online expression of bibliomania reminds Mrs. Darwin's other half of what it was like to start building his own library from scratch . . .

. . . certainly by age ten I had caught the book bug, and talked about "my library", which I consciously built--acquiring copies even of books my parents already owned so that years hence, when I was on my own, my library wouldn't have gaps in it. (Ah, the idealism of youth. I did not realize how inevitable it is that every library have gaps in it.)

. . . an impending move across the world threatens an older library Emily J has been building for years:

If I keep these books, will I be retaining a bit of the college student I once was? Will I maintain a certain elan if I have these books on my shelf? The problem is not only that I don't have enough shelves, but that that student is long gone. Why is it so hard to let go? Stripping away the accretions of the last few years is more painful than plucking eyebrows. This stuff represents a certain identity I don't have anymore. And the possibility of an academic identity that I will never achieve. I need to make a clean break. Detachment, detachment! one side of my mind keeps chanting. The other side whines, but I love this!

I'll bet even the ancient librarians at Alexandria had to face the fact that they'd always have gaps in their collection, although I don't know whether there were enough scrolls in their age for them to worry about having to trim some fat. In any case, the library was destroyed, thus becoming one of the hugest gaps in humanity's collective hoard--a loss we still feel today, an age when we are glutted with endless new things to read.

All this talk of tending libraries from infancy to maturity--with new hints that dedicated librarians might also have to guard against senility--has inspired a couple of organic metaphors.

The garden that needs as much regular weeding as regular watering.

The bowl of yeast we have to keep feeding if we want our daily bread.

I'm sure I'll be able to come up with more in time . . .

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Peter Kreeft on Till We Have Faces

A reader shared a link on my blog to this Peter Kreeft lecture on Till We Have Faces. It's more than an hour long; but very worth it. I feel like several pieces clicked into place for me. The interplay between Christianity and the pagan myth, the role of the Trinity. And what Ungit is all about. Actually, by the end of the Q&A session at the end of the talk I was in tears. So I thought I'd throw it out there if anyone is interested.

I am not making any progress on The Moviegoer, alas. I just don't think I'm in the mood for Walker Percy right now. I was hopeful; but I don't think it's going to happen.

And I suppose it's my turn to pick a book for June, right?

Anyone want to read Sigrid Undset's Catherine of Siena

Or a biography of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frasatti

Or Women, Sex and The Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching by Erika Bachiochi?

Or Pope Benedict's Light of the World

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Moviegoer

If anyone still wants to post on "Till We Have Faces," please do. And if anyone wants to post on something else entirely, please do. I'm going to go ahead with Percy.

In re-reading this, I keep thinking about my old La Leche League friends, a group of beautiful, creative, nice, generous, caring, self-styled sexy mamas who are also completely wack-a-doodle. Some of them would self-identify as Buddhist, a couple are Christian, but hip Christian, if you know what I mean, and the rest are completely anti-religion, but pro-love, and have hearts and stars surrounded by swirly marks tattooed on their forearms and lower backs.

In the past year, after extended breast-feeding, attachment parenting, home-schooling co-op style and eating about ten tons of scones, half dozen of them left their husbands and became lesbians. I'm not making this up.

And what does any of this have to do with the Moviegoer?

These are the kinds of doobies of disfunction that people roll when their personal definition of niceness and goodness are the only parameters they have for how to live.

I love the scene where Binx listens to "This I Believe" on the radio. (p108)

"I believe in people. I believe in tolerance and understanding between people. I believe in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual--

Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.

I believe in music, in a child's smile. I believe in love. I also believe in hate.

This is true. I have known a couple of these believers, humanists and lady psychologists who come to my aunt's house. On This I Believe they like everyone. But when it comes down to this or that particular person, I have noticed that they usually hate his guts.

…I believe in believing. This--I believe."

What does it mean to believe in believing? To value one's own opinion above any other-- to consider oneself beyond question, without flaw. "Belief" takes on its own authority, even if the object or subject of belief is ridiculous. How many times have you heard someone say, "Isn't it enough that I try to be a good person? I may not go to church every Sunday, but I care about others, yadda yadda…" So fine, it's good to be good. It's nice to be nice. Congratulations.

"Of my six living aunts, five are women of the loftiest theosophical panBrahman sentiments. The sixth is still a Presbyterian." (108)

Everyone Binx encounters is either good, nice, dead or Presbyterian, and not one of them cares what he has to say. He asks them questions, they ask him questions, but about one hundred percent of the time, Percy mentions that so and so wasn't listening for the response to his question.

"One hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead…" (228) There's no questioning or informed decision making. The self IS the decision.

Binx won't pick a side between liberal and conservative, but in acknowledging the humanism that most people espouse, he has tacitly chosen to be "other."

"Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside-down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive."

Binx has chosen to let his own opinions remain open to scrutiny. The sign of life is opposition, either to oneself or to others. Is he still selfish? yes. Is he still flawed? Yes. But he's not guilty of the kind of hubris that causes one to declare their life's work: "To make a contribution, however small, and leave the world just a little better off." (101) A life's "value" similar to those inspiring quotes by Rumi that my La Leche League friends love to put on their Facebook status--to change the world with a smile, to write love on their arms, to be the change you want to see. So self-satisfied. And so vague.

While Percy never makes a plug for Catholicism in The Moviegoer--for someone even marginally acquainted with the faith, he gives no choice. It's a question I ask myself sometimes, when I encounter people who seem to know exactly what they're going to do in life. They don't question or doubt their decisions, and I wonder, "How can you be so certain you are right? Why don't you question yourself--that it's the right thing to get a job, or get your tubes tied, or leave your husband?"

The cost of being so self-certain, of never doubting or learning from or listening to others, is death. You become immovable, uninterested. Or you become Kate, discovering that what she's been told all her life--that she's the authority on herself--is false. When she realizes she's not actually the authority--then what? She wants either to A) Die or B) be told what to do.

Hello Magisterium.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Walker Percy anyone?

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of The Moviegoer, I'll pay someone to read it with me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jumping in on Lewis

Well, I would rather wait and let someone else lead the conversation on Till We Have Faces, but I finished it on our recent trip to Texas and am already forgetting some of the thoughts it inspired. I had read the book before (maybe 10 years ago?) and remembered the plot but not the nuances. I commented to my sister on the phone thatI like this book, but it’s not on my list of favorites, and I have a hard time putting my finger on why I don’t LOVE this book, because I love the idea of it and I love the ideas in it. On the other hand, I didn’t love CS Lewis’ space trilogy either, so maybe it is that his fiction, aside from the Narnia books, doesn’t have the luminosity of his apologetics and memoirs. Maybe it’s the dream sequence at the end that seems like an artificial appendage. Maybe it’s just my taste buds.

Even though I don’t have this one on my all-time fave’s list, I did like it better this time around, especially reading it right after my recent review of world lit. Orual’s complaints don't seem quite so farfetched this time around. She’s so bristly and self-defensive that she is difficult to like as a heroine, and I think when I read this book the first time her faults seemed less excusable through the lenses of my own idealism. Her selfishness in her treatment of Istra/Psyche is so obvious to the reader that it’s hard to sympathize with her when she blackmails Psyche. Nonetheless I had more empathy for her this time, maybe because it’s so tempting to see yourself as ugly and unloved, the injured or aggrandized party, and to waste emotional energy contemplating how others have failed or abandoned you. I can only guess as you get older, you gain more and more experience in the shortcomings of human love. You would think that loving others would get easier with practice, but it’s easy to imagine how Orual doesn’t want to grant the people she loves the freedom to leave her. I didn’t want the Fox to leave her either. I fear that my own brand of love tends dangerously toward the devouring variety, also.

And what heartbreak to learn at the end of your life how much your selfishness has hurt others when you thought you were loving them. It’s hard to imagine that Bardia would’ve lived his life differently if his queen and his wife were less jealous of each other, but maybe he would have suffered less if they were more generous in allowing him freedom to divvy up his time between them the way he saw fit.

I’m still unclear about what to think about Ungit -- and how much of the pagan world is Lewis representing as figures for Christian faith? Is she supposed to be a fearsome pagan earthy fertility goddess to be abandoned, the Eternal Feminine, or some allegorical figure for the desire for fruitful rituals and faith? What does Psyche’s trip to the underworld to get Beauty for Ungit mean? That Psyche’s figurative death and resurrection out of love for Orual make Orual beautiful and worthy of standing before the god?  It's tempting to read this as allegory, but then the characters don't fit in a neat box, like the Fox who seems to represent the rational view of life, but he loves poetry and the girls and seems to want to believe in something.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Because You Care...

I solved my wedding shoes problem by wearing black pumps with this dress instead:

Except my dress was navy blue and looked better on me than it does on the model, because I fill it out nicely. Take that, ten-year-reunion.

And I read Till We Have Faces! But I'm still chewing on it. I was struck by Orual's refusal to allow herself to be joyful in any circumstance -- she's so shut into herself and her own loves that she can't open herself to happiness.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Until We Read Until We Have Faces

Ladies, I made a big deal about how I'd waited to read Until We Have Faces with you all, and then Holy Week and Easter happened. What I'm saying is that it's still sitting pristine up on the mantel in my library. Life is going on at a tremendous pace -- on top of our own sorrows and joys we've had the sorrow and joy of the Church. And this weekend I'm going to the long-anticipated wedding of an old friend, before which all fiction pales. I will try to read this week and put up a post, but I don't know if I can make any guarantees.

So, feel free to discuss Until We Have Faces if you're ready to talk about it. But if you really want to help out a friend, recommend some shoes to go with this dress:

And do it fast. Because I only have until Saturday before I have to make a stunning impression on college friends I haven't seen in ten years.