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.]