Little House On the Prairie

The children are in the front yard cutting down a dead bush with some sharp saws I gave them. They’re taking the dismembered branches, turning them into kindling, and pretending to cook supper over a campfire that they have created by appropriating landscaping pebbles and arranging them in a circle. When I see the makeshift spittle constructed of twigs, I know they mean business. My only fear is that they will somehow discover how to create a real fire.

Later in the day, I observe one of our daughters hand-embroidering a flower design by candlelight. I promise that I have paid the electric bill and the light switches all work, but these newfangled, modern lamps are unacceptable to her. In August it was over ninety degrees in St. Louis, but we did not have our air conditioner on because Laura never had air conditioning. The girls have already sewn their own circle skirts and they wear them frequently. The skirts double as “petticoats”, whatever those are. It is not infrequent that I arrive home from work and they are wearing bonnets and playing with home-made rag dolls.

Little House on the Prairie 2

The copper kettle looks a little too modern but we can’t all be perfect

Little House On the Prairie is my life now. I never should have let my kids read (and re-read, and re-read) those books. Parents, do not repeat my mistake! It is only a matter of time until the demand is made to cease using modern amenities altogether. It doesn’t stop there. They will be inspired to question all of your lifestyle choices relentlessly. One of the daughters complains that I did not name her “Laura”. She has taken it upon herself to amend our shortcoming and only responds to the name “Laura”. I am considering legally changing it as an act of penance. We use the Little House Cookbook and I am made to eat corn mush and all manner of vittles and fixins for dinner. I’m sorry, I mean “supper”. Dinner is actually lunch and lunch doesn’t exist. It is a modern word unknown on the prairies.

If this is the haircut that passes for stylish on the prairies, sign me up!

If this is the haircut that passes for stylish on the prairies, sign me up!

Pa is a much harsher man than I. I need to improve my parenting skills and demand, among other behavioral modifications, complete silence from my offspring on Sundays. My daughter informs me that children should be seen and not heard. Silly me, this whole time I was letting them converse with us! Pa is also far more capable than I, spending his afternoons skinning rabbits and pulling feathers out of prairie hens. When I read about him I wonder what in the world he does without a local coffee barista to make him a cappuccino each morning? How does he survive without a vintage turntable to listen to Puccini operas each evening as he sips a glass of port?

What is it about Little House On the Prairie that so captivates children? Whereas when I read I notice the hardships described and consider what I would do in a world without mobile phones, the children apparently are reading an entirely different story. They are drawn into a world of wonder and imagination. They are fascinated by sugar snows and butter churning, swimming in the creek and going to town in a horse-drawn wagon. I find the stories as interesting history; children read them as life instructions.

I won't be wearing a purple shirt like that any time soon

I won’t be wearing a purple shirt like that any time soon

It seems to me that, in these stories, children are drawn to an example of life that is inarguably more human, a world of family and friends who raise barns for each other and attend dances together, where the whole town dresses up and attends Church as a community. No one is at home watching television alone. Every person has a place and a contribution to make for the success of the family. No one would dispute that such a world is a harder place to make a living. When this world collides with the one we currently inhabit, one or the other must be ruined. I tend to opt for what I already have, but perhaps the way we live now is not all that great? If our lives were to look more like Little House On the Prairie with fewer immediate pleasures, is the trade-off a greater degree of dignity, a more authentic familial bond, greater connectedness to the natural world? If so, wouldn’t this trade-off be worth it?

In today’s world, eyes are glazed over from computer screens, dinners are eaten alone at the drive-through, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass an inconvenience for which a man cannot be bothered to put on a suit and tie. Our world is easier and it is softer, but is it really better? My children implicitly argue that it is not.

Pope Francis, quoting Paul VI, agrees, writing “Society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy” (Evangelii Gaudium 7)

Herein is the greatness of Little House On the Prairie. Laura Ingalls Wilder gives us the unvarnished truth about her life in, as my daughter would phrase it, the “Olden Times.” She writes about the struggle, the difficulties, and the hard times. She describes the loneliness of the Big Woods and the wildness of the creatures that make their home within it. This is not a fairy tale. It is an unvarnished, truthful look at a family that has no distractions and no resources beyond itself and its immediate community. Laura learns to rely on her Ma and Pa and that shared hardship is the soil in which love grows. There are fewer occasions of pleasure, but far more joy.

With our own children, we have a parental choice to make. When they want to sew and embroider and only use candlelight, when they strive to make our house the Little House in the Big City, do we deny them and attempt change them into “normal” 21st century citizens of a capitalist, consumerist society with all its attendant pleasures? Do I arrive home from work pumpkin spice latte in hand, flip on all the overhead lights, and settle in to watch the football game in the living room while eating packaged grocery store food, or do I turn off the television, make a mess cooking dinner in the kitchen, sing a song at the piano, pull out our copy of Little House On the Prairie to read yet again, and see if maybe, just maybe, our children are a little bit wiser than we are.

A Shrewdness of Screwtapes

I wonder if C.S. Lewis had an inkling that his Screwtape Letters would spawn a small mob of literary imitators. Every time something fishy goes on in the world, you can count on somebody writing a letter from the old Mentor-Tempter (or from a non-copyright infringing parody) to his ne’er-do-well nephew. Many of these have been published as books. Many more have appeared online in blogs and whatnot.

Since today is Michaelmas, I thought it would be fun to poke some fun at his enemy, the “prowde spirite [who] cannot endure to be mocked,” by rounding up a list of the many Screwtape imitations in publication. I offer no commentary on the quality to be found therein, so read at your own peril:

Lord Foulgrin’s Letters, by Randy Alcorn
Screwtape’s Master Plan, by Charles H. Anderton
Operation Screwtape, by Andrew Farley
The Screwtape Letters: Marvel Comics, adapted by Charles Hall
The Snakebite Letters, by Peter Kreeft
The Gargoyle Code, by Dwight Longenecker
Slubgrip Instructs, by Dwight Longenecker
Screwtape Writes Again, by Walter Martin
As One Devil to Another, by Richard Platt
Screwtape Teaches the Faith: A Guide for Catechists, Marlon De La Torre

Unfortunately, there are far too many out there for me to create an exhaustive list. I can definitely recommend the Marvel Comics adaptation, as well as the audiobook adaptation read by John Cleese.

Where Does the Story End?

If On a Winters NightYou are about to begin reading an essay about Italo Calvino’s novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. It can be difficult to read for long using a computer screen, so I’ve kept it short. I assume you have found a comfortable place and have closed the tab to the streaming television website. If anyone calls to you, yell out that you are reading Dappled Things right now and cannot be disturbed.

If a Reader, say a middle-aged man who has settled into happy contentment, is to re-read the story If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino upon the 30th anniversary of the Author’s death, does the Reader return to the time and place where he first read the book? Does he become a time traveler through participation in Story and relive his youth? If so, the Reader finds that he is a young undergraduate again, desperately exhausted and yet up late into the night voraciously consuming any and all literature that comes into his purview. The Reader is put in touch with the man he was and who he, in some sense, continues to be; it is a gift he receives from none other than Italo Calvino, an Author who displays the everlasting power of literature to draw a Reader into Story itself. The Reader would be mistaken to consider that a Story is consumed as a product or enjoyed at a distance. Similarly, an Author would be mistaken to consider that a Story belongs to him or that the Reader is unimportant.

 If On a Winter’s Night does not make this mistake. Although the conceit, a book of stories that never find completion and eventually draws the Reader personally into the narrative, seems like the sort of nightmarish preciousness dreamed up by a post-grad with too much ambition and cleverness, in the hands of a skilled Author, it really, really works. If you are to open the first page and begin, you will become the Reader, the Story will be yours, and somehow you will commune with the Author even though he died some 30 years ago. You will become a character and lines of reality and fiction will blur. Is it incredibly confusing to find yourself enmeshed in the plot of a book written decades ago? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes. But is it nevertheless enchanting? Absolutely.

Often, when I write I do so with trepidation. Not because of false humility; I am sure others write better (more good?) than me (than I?) but I am suspect that I in turn have my literary moments. Sometimes my words are good and sometimes they are not so good. No, what I mean to say is that I am fearful even of the words I consider to be good because these words cannot continue to belong to me as Author. Once they leave the confines of my imagination, they must also belong to the Reader. This, I find, exposes me to a reality I cannot control. We travel through this Story together, you and I. You might say that the act of putting pen and ink to paper is like holding out your hand to grasp that of a stranger. It is the Story that shall make us friends.

And, Dear Reader, you must make friends with Calvino. He will introduce you to exotic cities, a man who lives only in treetops, and the secret hiding place of urban cats. He has a towering intellect disguised by effortless, whimsical prose. In addition, he has done us the favor of classifying all of the books at the bookstore and will save us uncountable hours of confusion trying to find the right book to purchase:

– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them

Italo Calvino libraryCalvino loves books. He clearly loves being an Author and wants share his satisfaction with the Reader. Good and Bad, Long and Short, Fiction and Non-Fiction, True and False, If On a Winter’s Night is a romance to all forms of Story. Books both reveal and conceal. They confuse and enchant. It is wonderful simply to be surrounded by them, to open for the first time, to use as coasters, to decorate, to impress guests, to analyze, to overwhelm, but always, always they become a part of who we are. A Story cannot remain external to the Reader. An Author cannot keep a safe distance. In Invisible Cities, Calvino writes,

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

We are humble travelers in this world. We pass through quickly and are soon gone. Calvino is a consummate foreigner, born in Cuba to an anarchist-turned-socialist father and a botanist, pacifist mother, the family relocates to Italy in his youth. He actually prefers it, to live as one not quite at home in this world. He believes that this is the best way to see the world through new eyes, beyond its particularities to the grand Story that underlies existence.

Italo CalvinoWhat better way to find that Story than through Reading? He muses, “What harbor can receive you more securely than a great library?”

Life, with all its facts and particularities, can be melancholic for Calvino. As he sees it, all books, at least the good ones, are written by “somebody who went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery…” There are only two possible ends: the hero marries the heroine, or else they die. “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” He finds that, with each story that accumulates, he is further from the primeval Story, from his beginning. But there is always hope, for through writing and reading, somehow we are able to move both backwards in time to recover that which has been lost and forwards towards that which will culminate.

 Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.

Sounds exciting. Let’s never stop reading and let’s never stop writing. Somewhere out there in the vast labyrinth of Story, you and I shall meet.



A Farewell to Shouts and Whispers

[During the Christmas Truce of 1914, a] British Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote that on one part of the line the Germans had managed to slip a chocolate cake into British trenches.  Even more amazingly, it was accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening….  They proposed a concert at 7.30pm when candles, the British were told, would be placed on the parapets of their trenches. The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present.  That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing.  Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides. – from


It is hard to deny that we live in a world at war.  The omnipresent “culture war,” with its daily iterations of outrage at terrors both real and imagined, has made our everyday world a loud, vitriolic, and unforgiving place.  Dappled Things has long understood that our mission is not only to foster Catholic art and literature, but, to quote our founder Bernardo Aparicio Garcia, “to provide a safe-haven from all the NOISE that the Internet-age has ushered in.”  This is how we at Dappled Things view our role, and, by extension, the role of the Catholic art and literature we publish and promote.  Beauty is an oasis; we believe that art can re-shape and revitalize the culture not by being another weapon in the hands of the warriors, but by embodying the ceasefire.

It is against this backdrop that I would like to reengage the question of “Shouts versus Whispers” in Catholic fiction.  You may remember Paul Elie’s 2012 essay in The New York Times, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” in which he contended, “This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover.”  He went on to repeat Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”  Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image journal, responded in The Wall Street Journal with “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World.”  He contended that Catholic literature was very much alive, only writers had abandoned Flannery’s technique of shouting for a more subtle “whisper.”

I am not interested in trying to assess the current state of Catholic fiction.  Elie and Wolfe (and Dana Gioia) have already done so with far greater precision than I ever could.  But one thing that emerged from this conversation was that, in multiple platforms, including here at Dappled Things, Catholic writers themselves adopted the language of shouts vs. whispers to discuss how faith can or should be portrayed in their own work.  Should we (Catholic writers) shout–that is, paint larger-than-life stories where Catholic themes are obvious but may risk alienating non-Catholic audiences–or should we whisper, painting subtle portraits of grace that are more palatable in modern society, but also more likely to go unrecognized?  Of course there is no consensus, but it troubles me that, nearly three years after Paul Elie’s essay appeared, I continue to see the debate framed in these terms.

I may be late to the party, and it may be heresy to contradict Flannery O’Connor, but I think it is long past time we abandoned the metaphors of shouts and whispers.  Shouting and whispering are both terrible abuses of the human voice, two of the very fastest and easiest ways to cause permanent damage.  The fact is, whether you shout too much or whisper too much, the result will be the same: strain, hoarseness, and possibly nodules on your vocal cords.  And is not an author’s “voice” his or her most important asset?

Let’s also stop to think for a moment about how people actually respond to shouts and whispers.  There are few things less attractive than someone screaming at you.  It’s intimidating.  It triggers fight or flight instincts.  And, no matter how salient, well-reasoned, or even beautiful the screamer’s message may be, the hearers rarely pay attention because they are either yelling in return or trying to get away.  As for whispers, most people end up confused and frustrated by the continual effort of saying, “What?  Speak up!  I can’t hear you.”  Shouts and whispers are equally ineffective ways to convey any kind of message, fiction or non.  Are these really the metaphors we writers should embrace when we ponder how to portray our beloved Catholic faith?  If the object of true art is to create beauty, then neither shouts nor whispers can ever fit the bill because neither a shout nor a whisper is beautiful.

That is why Catholic fiction needs songs.

Let them be forte or let them be piano.  Better yet, let the ways we weave faith through our narratives crescendo and decrescendo through the scenes.  A single volume makes neither music nor the spoken word sound interesting; only dynamic contrast keeps listeners intrigued.  In fact, “soft” and “loud” imply nothing about the quality of a sound except in their extremes.  It is pitch, tone, and timbre that separate the beautiful from the mundane.  There is room enough for lullabies, arias, hymns, ballads, dirges, jazz, rock, hip-hop, whatever.  The point is, writers need to use our “voices” to portray our faith as something outside the commonplace, something that captures the ear and makes the hearer want to stop and listen.  A shout will never be heard above the booming cannons of the culture war; neither will a whisper.  But a song… yes, every once in a very long while, both sides can be convinced to lay down their arms for a song.  It may not end the war, but it can create a ceasefire.

What do I mean, when I say that Catholic fiction should sing about faith?  Probably, what Paul Elie means when he calls for fiction that “dramatize[s] belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade.”  I think everyone involved in the conversation about Catholic fiction wants to find and/ or create the same thing: stories that inform the beauty of their own art form with the beauty of God’s grace.  These stories already exist; one has only to pick up any issue of Dappled Things to discover that Catholic authors are already singing.  However, the more often I hear the terms “shouts and whispers” applied to Catholic fiction, the more I wonder how many beautiful voices have already been strangled.

Metaphors matter in fiction, even more so when the metaphor informs how a writer approaches his or her own work.  So, as one Catholic writer to any others who may read this, let’s stop whispering.  Let’s stop shouting (and, for goodness’s sake, let’s stop shouting about whether or not we should shout.)  Let’s make something beautiful.  Let’s get out there and sing.

The Attic Epiphany of Aimée Thanatogenos

I was flipping through my Waugh collection the other day, and I noticed another example of an epiphany passage written possibly for ironic effect:

Her mind was quite free from anxiety. Somehow, somewhere in the blank black hours she had found counsel; she had communed perhaps with the spirits of her ancestors, the impious and haunted race who had deserted the altars of the old Gods, had taken ship and wandered, driven by what pursuing furies through what mean streets and among what barbarous tongues! Her father had frequented the Four Square Gospel Temple; her mother drank. Attic voices prompted Aimée to a higher destiny; voices which far away and in another age had sung of the Minotaur, stamping far underground at the end of the passage; which spoke to her more sweetly of the still Boeotian water-front, the armed men all silent in the windless morning, the fleet motionless at anchor, and Agamemnon turning away his eyes; spoke of Alcestis and proud Antigone.

One can compare this passage from The Loved One (1948) with the earlier passage from Decline and Fall (1928). The commentary on Captain Grimes was clearly ironic and humorous. This entry into the consciousness of Aimée Thanatogenos is more mixed in tone, even though the novel is a humorous one. She is a pseudo-tragic figure, caught romantically between two seriously defective men. The passage above occurs after she has come to grips with the emptiness of both men, and it continues,

The East lightened. In all the diurnal revolution these first fresh hours alone are untainted by man. They lie late abed in that region. In exaltation Aimée watched the countless statues glimmer, whiten and take shape while the lawns changed from silver and gray to green. She was touched by warmth. Then suddenly all round her and as far as she could see the slopes became a dancing surface of light, of millions of minute rainbows and spots of fire; in the control house the man on duty had turned the irrigation cock and water was flooding through the network of pierced and buried pipes. At the same time parties of gardeners with barrows and tools emerged and tramped to their various duties. It was full day. (TLO 131-2)

Just prior to this, Aimée had sought the advice of the recently unemployed advice columnist Mr. Slump concerning her romantic troubles. He kindly tells her to “Find a nice window and jump out” (130). Considering the despairing undertones of the scene, and Waugh’s brutal sense of humor, I am inclined to call this passage ironic, although maybe not obviously funny. She does, after all, make the columnist’s advice her own.

Still, there is something absurd about portraying suicide as a noble act. One can see glimpses of nobility in Cato and even Dido, but for Ms. Thanatogenos to end herself over the troubles with Dennis Barlow and Mr. Joyboy? It hardly seems worth the effort, much less a part of a “higher destiny.” Perhaps this is not an epiphany but an apophany, a mistaken recognition of patterns in actual chaos.

By the time she walks into Mr. Joyboy’s workroom to find a hypodermic syringe, she has put the men entirely from her mind, and raised the matter to something exclusively “between herself and the deity she served” (133). Is this still meant to be ironic, or is Aimée now communing with the ghosts of Greek deities, or the devils who take their shapes? It is hard to laugh at this passage, in spite of the absurdity of her dilemma, the absurdity of her surroundings, and the absurdity of her actions. One could posit that Ms. Thanatogenos finally reaches a moment of transcendence above the ridiculous setting of glamorous American consumerism and image-worship, brushes her fingers against the wings of something Real, and decides that there’s only one way never to descend back into banality.

Leave it to Waugh to juxtapose life and death, tragedy and comedy, nobility and commonness, all together in one act.

“Your little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.” (source)

Isn’t it Ironic? Grace in the Wages of Sin

You know the joke about the pious man? The one who had received a prophecy about the coming hurricane and his own assured safety therefrom? When the hurricane struck, passed up the his friend’s car, then a rescue boat, and finally a helicopter? Having drowned, God asks him what happened. His response? “I was waiting for you to save me, like you promised!”


Of course none of us is so foolish as this poor sap. We’d never miss the obvious rescue for our drowning soul, to lazy, too presumptuous to reach out for the obvious deliverance. I mean this in all honesty; given the obvious salvation, we’d likely take it.


Unfortunately (maybe fortunately too) God’s ways are not man’s. You see, God’s grace is the unexpected rescue. Our missing the boat (so to speak) is far more common and more likely than we’d like to believe. Remember Alanis Morisette’s pop hit “Ironic?” If not, take a trip down memory lane. The difference between life and death, conversion and damnation, hinges on the ability to see (with this 90’s pop musician) that it’s “a little too ironic”, that “life has a funny funny way, of helping you out.” “It’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid / it’s the good advice, that you just didn’t take / and who would’ve thought…it figures.” The grace of redemption rarely looks like the Coast Guard. So rarely is God’s mystery so plain. More often than not, when God offers a hand, I’ll more likely expect a slap in the face than a merciful embrace.


This truth, the prevalence of grace unnoticed, the grace rejected, became obvious to me the same way that the layers of bug guts on my windshield finally come to my attention—someone has to tell me about it! That someone was Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset. Her method of communication: the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. (Now, before I go on, I want to acknowledge that “everyone” read this book during the summer. I had no idea at the time. A friend of my wife [Molly Breuning] mentioned last fall that she’d read it during college.) Set in 13th c. Scandinavia, KL narrates the life of a woman whose combination of passionate love and impelling fear continually blind her to the graces offered both to prevent disaster and correct her wayward life.


The first grace is the most obvious, but of course, it is the one given to her as a small child. By a chance of timing, she enjoys an afternoon with the saintly Brother Edwin as he paints a stain-glass window in the church. His comment to her serves as the hermeneutical key, a prophecy, for the rest of Kristin’s life of grace missed, rejected, or (to be charitable) of grace half-embraced. Looking at the painting of her namesake, young Kristin remarks:


“The dragon is all too small, methinks,”…”It looks not as though it could swallow up the maiden.”

“And that it could not either,” said Brother Edwin. “It was not bigger. Dragons and all such-like that serve the devil, seem great only so long as fear is in ourselves. But if a man seek God fervently and with all his soul so that his longing wins into his strength, then does the devil’s power suffer at once such great downfall that his tools become small and powerless—dragons and evil spirits sink down and become no bigger than sprites and cats and crows…No one, nor anything, can harm us child, save what we fear or love.”

But if a body doth not fear nor love God?” asked Kristin, affrighted.

The monk took her yellow hair in his hand, bent Kristin’s head back gently and looked down into her face; his eyes were open and blue.

“There is no man nor woman, Kristin, who does not love and fear God, but ‘tis because our hearts are divided between love of God an fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in life and death. For if a man had not any yearning after God and God’s being, then should he thrive in hell…nor would he feel the torment of the serpents’ bite, if he knew not the yearning for peace.”


The rest of the novel slowly and painfully walks with Kristin through the life of a divided heart, a life of refusing the unexpected rescues that would protect her from harm at the hands of her fears and loves. Worldly loves and fears blind her to the activity and providence of God in her life for her soul’s sake. At every misstep, God offers a rope, but her myopic vision perceives only a noose. Passionate love for Erlend competes against the filial love of her parents. She fears a broken heart more than a broken word and a broken relationship with Lavrans, her father, and Simon Andre, her fiancé. Fear of losing her children to death by sickness competes with fear of pagan superstition. Fear for her children’s future stifles her ability to love them. Their attempts to become worthy men she sees through the lens of this fear.


Eventually, guilt and fear of death (a close call) move Kristin to a kind of Christian repentance, but we see it remains a half-measure. Her confession and penance are the rescue she wants, the rescue she expects. True, she confesses and does penance for her sin fornication, and worse, for deceiving her parents about her being married in the flesh to Erlend before their nuptials. Yet, her newfound love of self-righteousness prevents her from absorbing the mercy of God and granting that mercy to others. She becomes like the servant in the parable who has been forgiven a great sum, yet strangles his fellow man for a much smaller sum. She cannot offer the grace of forgiveness to her husband, Erlend, for his part in leading her astray, for his infidelities, for his foibles, for his inattention to the practical matters of the estate and their children. The grace she refuses for herself becomes a grace refused to others. Unwilling to accept the grace of God’s mercy, she has no mercy to give Erlend, her wayward husband. For Kristin, then, the sacrament of penance becomes a sham of grace. It’s the olive branch she can control and seek, rather than the olive branch God extends to her.


The truest graces offered to Kristin come at the least likely moments. They present themselves in two places, as the appearance of the least likely savior, the apparent enemy. Simon Andresson, the promised husband she has betrayed and jilted, follows her to the harem where she secretly trysts with her paramour, Erlend. Breaking into their upper chamber, Simon confronts Erlend, takes Kristin from his sordid hands, and leads her away. For her part, however, Kristin experiences this rescue as cause for even deeper loathing of this man, whose constancy is true.


A second grace takes the form of Erlend’s concubine, Eline. In a surprise to Erlend and Kristin, Eline appears during a visit to Erlend’s aunt. Witnessing Eline’s demolished psyche, destroyed life, and desperation in seeking Erlend’s return to her and the children they have together ought to have woken Kristin from the nightmare of her sin and its wages. Instead, she rejects this rescue, choosing instead to throw her lot in with Erlend, come what may. Indeed, what comes is testing, for Eline is killed that night in a struggle with Erlend and Kristin, who cover up the death to hide the guilt rapidly accumulating on their hearts’ frozen terrain.


And so goes the tale, on and on, spiraling away from mercy.


Some of you may not have read the novel (yet), so I will not describe its conclusion, yet even without the conclusion in place the lesson learned for me in this beauty is to see the natural consequences of my sin as a grace of divine pedagogy. For example, I’m not inclined to hear a note of grace in my child’s disrespectful back-talk, but my soul’s simply out of tune. The grace is there, behind the distressing disguise. Wakeup, Kent. My child’s attempt to get out of sweeping is learned every time I sigh at or argue with my wife about whether my wife about whether to repaint the hallway or chop down that dead tree. May the wages of sin become a road sign to me: WRONG WAY!


Oh, divine teacher, open our eyes to the unexpected rescue from sin, from fear and love of the world that competes with our belonging to you alone. Non nisi te, Domine.

The Miracle of Language

My eight-month old daughter now makes three sounds. She gurgles raspberries, aspirates a popping “P” sound, and purses her lips to deliberately and painstakingly makes a little lamb “Baaa”. The latter in particular is an all encompassing communication and not merely a noise. She looks me in the eye, holds up a chubby hand to command the room, and “Baa”s meaningfully. Her great-grandmother uses her hands when she talks, too.

It really is a miracle that humans are able to speak at all. I don’t mean the making of sounds, which is fascinating enough from a physical perspective, but I mean it is a miracle that we communicate in any medium. I once read in a semiotics essay that, when humans communicate, the signs we use include symbols. We can speak with animals and animals can speak with one another, but the method of communication in the animal world is by way of sign and response and does not use symbols. A prairie dog lookout shouts that a specific man in a yellow shirt is approaching and everyone scatters. A dog hears a command from his owner to sit and sits because he knows a delicious treat is soon to follow. Animals have an amazing capacity to interpret signs and make responses, but, as semiotics would have it, this falls short of making use of a sign in the manner of a symbol. A human hears the word “sandwich” and, while he may or may not begin to salivate and look for a particular sandwich to eat, is also in his intellect able to contemplate the ideal of a sandwich. The particular word conjures a universal idea. We can even contemplate that which we have never even seen in the real world, for instance a 40-sided polygon. Through symbol, we are able to make the leap from a particular thing or situation requiring a response and into the realm of universals.

It is not hyperbole to refer to this human capacity as miraculous. From whence does it come, and why are we capable of that which is far beyond our evolutionary needs? This capacity is why humans write novels and poems and songs, a faculty having nothing at all to do with how large a mastodon I am able to shoot with bow and arrow.


Language is an irreducible triad connecting us to real objects and allowing us to make a conceptual leap to the whole. I say that it is irreducible because the clues to how we communicate seem to be irretrievably hidden in pre-linguistic clues. You either communicate or you don’t. Even an infant child, although physically inferior to pretty much every other creature at the same age of development, seems to be capable of communication. Any mother will tell you so. The ability to communicate reveals the intellect that is the distinguishing mark of our species. We are rational animals.

As I was playing with my daughter, I showed her a “DaDa” sound, hoping she would gratify me by saying my name. She watched my mouth intently, trying to see how the sound is formed. She reached out her hand as all babies do in their adorably pain-inducing way and pinched her fingers onto my lower lip to capture the magic of the sound. She is a Fisher of Men and I her catch.

We are hooked by language, enchanted by the innocence required by speech, to venture a communication in this vast, veiled world of sign and symbol. I say innocent because surely we are naive to expose ourselves to others through the act of communication. I don’t mean merely misunderstandings of intent but, more specifically, the fundamentally incomplete nature of language itself. Perhaps artists feel this most keenly. I once fancied myself a poet until I realized I am utterly, devastatingly, aggghhh…incapable! (incapax for all you Latinists). I am incapable of finding the words that truly express my intent. It is a helpless feeling. I am in awe of those who are able to write well and, to me, a poem is a finely polished gem of inestimable value; it reflects and colors the atmosphere. Novelists often feel that their work is unsatisfactory and would almost certainly continue revising forever, happily impoverished in a garret room lit by a single coal if a cruel editor didn’t eventually force them to cease and publish. Musicians find their past work inadequate and often refuse to play it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself exclaims that all he has written is like straw compared to the reality of God’s love.


We are all so many toddling babes struggling to form clumsy sentences. I cannot help but feel that, even in the masterpieces of great art, there are depths of emotion merely gestured towards, unbounded vision stuck within the strictures of a formal framework, artistic intent of infinite expanse compromised to the present world. There is no use pretending that our ability to communicate is anything other than incomplete. What is odd, though, is that if we depart from formal structure we achieve the exact opposite of what we might intend. Form is left behind because it feels constricting and what we want is a grand, all encompassing statement. What is left, though, is but a moment, a stream of consciousness snapshot of the mind of the artist with very little value. Formality turns out to be the container by which eternity is bounded. If we break with formality, the meaning of our words slips away like water from a broken pot.


I do not understand 95% of this but am posting a pic so I seem smart

Language is an interpretation of the universe, a way of making sense. There are always other interpretations but, although it is conjectural, it is not what we would call subjective. Rather, we might say that it is both accurately descriptive and incomplete at the same time. Michael Polanyi writes in Personal Knowledge, “Our choice of language is a matter of truth or error, of right or wrong–of life or death.” We are not nominalists and language is not a game. Babbling babes and poets alike are engaged in serious business.

Language is but straw. This ought to make us happy, because it reveals that language is analogical. If all we wanted was to receive a banana when we push the correct button marked “banana” in the lab experiment, then our communication would be perfectly adequate, for the banana would swiftly be ours. Human communication is much more! It is truly a miracle that binds earth to heaven, a word that participates in the eternal Word who speaks worlds into being, a part that somehow brings with it the whole.

Human language has pried open a crack in the fabric of the universe. We peer through and glimpse our future. Maddeningly, the future remains just that, far ahead out of reach in the present moment. We are babes forming earnest but ultimately inadequate speech. Let’s never stop, because it is truly a miracle.

The Mock Epiphany of Captain Grimes


Everyone who has read contemporary fiction in any great volume has enjoyed, and suffered through, a thousand stories that end in what Joyce dubbed the “epiphany.” Rather than ending in a confluence of plot threads or a climax of character arcs–an art taken to its extremity in Dickens novels–the protagonist rises briefly out of the ebb and flow of the apparently meaningless stream of events in order to receive a vision of the mysterious interconnectedness of all things. Think of the end of “The Dead,” Mrs. Dalloway, or Go Down Moses. Some might argue that the epiphany is too often a mere bandaid on the gaping wound of poorly wrought, narrative-less fiction. Others with a mind to do so might take the trope as an opportunity for satire.

Evelyn Waugh’s early novel Decline and Fall features a certain Captain Grimes, a public-school man who finds himself constantly “in the soup” with the authorities for various indiscretions. The protagonist Paul Pennyfeather ends up “in the soup” himself after taking the fall for his wealthy fiancee’s human trafficking business, and meets up with Grimes in prison, recently arrived for bigamy.

It is not long before Grimes is chomping at the bit, and he makes an escape attempt one day while returning from the quarry. His escape is traced to Egdon Mire, but the hounds cannot follow the path any further, and his hat is found floating in the most treacherous part. But later, Paul considers poor Captain Grimes and the inevitability of death. He wonders about the mysteries of life, and comes to a sudden epiphany:

Paul knew that Grimes was not dead. Lord Tangent was dead; Mr. Prendergast was dead; the time would even come for Paul Pennyfeather; but Grimes, Paul at last realized, was of the immortals. He was a life force. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at sometime, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb.

Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories, fire brimstone, and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters? (269-70)

Excelsior, Captain Grimes! Once more into the mire!

Salve Regina

In keeping with ancient devotion, the Church has been chanting the Salve Regina at Compline (and if your priest is a Pope Leo XIII fan, after low mass) since the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.
Straight outta compline

Because he faithfully spread its devotional use, there is a legend that the poem was composed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (whose feast day we recently celebrated). St. Bernard was said to have first entered a parish in Germany on Christmas Eve chantingSt. Bernard Salve Regina the words and genuflecting at the clemency, love, and sweetness of the Blessed Virgin.

The legend is doubtful, though, and it is widely accepted that the poem was composed by the monk Hermann of Reichenau. Even accepting his authorship, its origins are veiled in mystery, supposedly first overheard in a vision chanted by a choir of heavenly angels. One might almost believe the legend; the transcendent, haunting and yet peaceful melody combined with the sweetness of the poetry is enough to make anyone believe in its divine origins. When I first heard it, it felt as though I had been embraced in the very womb of the Church.

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae;
vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.

Here is the version most of us are more familiar with:

In the 18th century, Marian devotion was under attack from Protestants and Jansenists. In response, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a book that is now considered a classic, The Glories of Mary. Each chapter is a commentary on a line of the poem. For instance, the first chapter is dedicated to “Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae” and begins,

As the glorious virgin Mary has been raised to the dignity of Mother of the King of Kings, it is not without reason that the Church honors her, and wishes her to be honored by all, with the glorious title Queen.

St. Alphonsus goes on to explicate the theology of Mary’s queenship with liberal quotes from Church Fathers, saints, anecdotes, and Scripture. A Queen is a symbol of mercy, a type of Esther, exalted the right hand of the King and thus capable of dispensing favors on supplicants. This Queen happens to not only be our sovereign but also our Mother. In bringing forth Our Lord, she also brings forth many unto salvation. Further, she stands watch at the death of her Son, heart pierced Simeon prophesied, and through her sorrows helps to birth the Church. St. Alphonsus is careful to note that Our Lord redeems mankind and chooses to do so alone, “I have trodden the winepress alone,” but Mary co-operates with him and adds her suffering his. This Our Lord acknowledges, glancing to the disciple he loves and saying “Behold thy Mother.” In this way she, as a type of the Church, becomes the Gate through which we enter heaven.

This beautiful poem is a treasure of the Church. It communicates the reality of our life together in a way that a theological treatise never will. By meditating upon it and chanting it each day, I have come to love Mary more and more, and as I draw closer to her I cannot help but feel that she is steadily encouraging me and leading me closer to her Son. For all of us, memorizing the Salve Regina along with its plainchant and making use of it often is a commendable practice. Through the singing of it, one practically ascends to heaven and joins directly with the praise of the heavenly hosts.