In Pursuit of Suffering

“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

– Greg LeMond

Wind shear. Convection-induced air flow. Bow echo. As I sheltered in the barn of a friendly Wisconsin farmer, cycling shoes soaked through, skin sensitive from rain like nails driven sideways into my flesh, bicycle battered, I knew nothing of the science of weather. All I knew was that I had, perhaps, acted hastily in agreeing to a bicycle tour two-hundred and thirty miles through the heartland. It wasn’t all so traumatic, up to that point we had been traversing young, green corn along miles of unbroken pavement, steadily draining away calories and stopping only to silently pause in the interior of rural basilicas, have a cup of coffee, and eat as many eggs as possible. After that it was long steady climbs up and along the Mississippi River bluffs, following it north as it flowed in the other direction past fishing villages and summer cabins. Even here near its source the river is swollen with power, gathering up the rainfall of myriad lowly tributaries. This is all lovely. I, however, was not able to drift into a romantic reverie because I was busy hiding in a barn, lightning popping like gunshots across fields of bent over wheat.

As I stood there in the mud marshalling internal resources so as not to shiver to death, I took mental inventory of my past mistakes that had led me to such a moment. I had traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (by motor vehicle) and met a friend. He took me to a local parish where the priest offered a Mass that was intensely still, as if at the moment of consecration all the world spun about the axis of the altar. The next morning we awoke with the sun and hopped on our bicycles. Over the next two days we spun our way north La Crosse, Wisconsin, enduring mechanical failures to our machines, a destroyed derailleur and shattered rear wheel, respectively, muscle fatigue, hunger, and summer heat. This list doesn’t even include the full-on attack from mother nature. Even after she wore herself down, she continued glowering as we were turned away from a now-stilled riverside town, sapped of electrical energy, temporarily dazed and succumbed, fallen trees across her main street as if oaks, like elephants, travel to a graveyard to die with the herd. My mobile phone signal had been lost and an odd feeling of emptiness sets in as a result, but we set out to summit the next hill, bellys empty, set adrift in the hinterlands of a mighty river.

There is an eddy and flow, a steady current that, if we consent to float upon, will be the end of us. Like a dead thing, flotsam, we shall be cast upon the wide expanse of sea. It is the pilgrim’s struggle to stand upright and thrash upstream with all his might. If my past is full of mistakes, they are all downriver, left behind on the pavement as so many drops of sweat from the brow. Most of my life is sound and fury and I cannot help but feel that I am wasting much of it, but those days in the saddle, the physical confrontation with nature and encountering the limits of the human body, these were not wasted.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine2We are now at the trail head to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and began the final ascent on foot. This hill feels the highest of all. Sheltered at the end of the tree-bowered path, a piazza and the Shrine herself are dressed in the finest local sandstone. Inside, an order of Franciscan friars oh so softly chant vespers in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

I would have crawled on my knees through broken glass to partake in this moment.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine3Above the tabernacle, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe serenely listens to the chant as it drifts heavenward in gentle undulation. Although she is surrounded by the stars of the southern constellations, she has eyes only for her Son, head bent and eyes gazing down upon him and joining our adoration. I sit quietly in the pew. The tumult of the world that has tossed me like driftwood into this holy place could not present a more sharply defined contrast. Our Lord places a burden upon us, but the yoke is light and all who come to him will have rest.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine

I have found that, as a pilgrim, the physical struggle, the hilariously deflating setbacks (I mean that word literally, I seriously almost lost my mind), and the mortification of the flesh my life is forever different. Now, we do not all need to imitate Eddie Merckx on Alpe D’Huez in order to be true pilgrims. Those who have endured long plane rides, expense, and tiredness on your way to Fatima or Lourdes or Rome certainly know what I am talking about. At some point, after all the hassle and pains of traveling you wonder if pilgrimage is worth it. Perhaps visiting Rome isn’t so important at all! The papal Mass is on television at home, after all! But, in spite of the effort in getting there, in the end those pieces of you that are left behind turn out not to have been so vital after all. They are so many impurities to be discarded.

In fact, I believe that the struggle to simply get there is a vital part of the pilgrimage itself. The struggle experienced is but a minor reminder of the true spiritual struggle of a pilgrim. Perhaps it is our belief that to be a follow of Christ is to become comfortably happy and blessed in this life. This is not what the faith teaches. Our Lord offers not relief from suffering; instead he joins us in it. Will it make us happier to take our place next to him in his torment, to strive for greatness? My answer is yes and no. It will make us happier in the sense that our faithfulness is pleasing to God, will be rewarded in heaven, and we will live a more fully human existence, and yet, the disordered desires we all experience tend to remain and cause constant, unceasing pain begging for fulfillment. Which one of us, in some area of another, does not have a vice that we seem to be powerless to eliminate from our lives? This we call sin, and resisting sin and its pleasures doesn’t always seem to make us happy.

Life is a pilgrimage, and it entails struggle both physical and spiritual. We do not join the battle so as to earn God’s love; he loves us all very much, just as we are. We are struggling to break free from the limitation of sin. For this, God does not offer a quick spiritual release. He offers a Cross. To each pilgrim he provides a resting place, a Good Friday death. It is Our Lord who is the first pilgrim; the moment Adam and Eve taste the fruit, he begins his humiliating journey to earth, emptying himself of divine prerogative. With the Incarnation, he has already placed himself on the Cross. He makes his way to earth and now a massive pilgrimage ensues: the shepherds travel to his side, the magi see the star in the sky and make haste, Mary gazes on him in wonder, and soon billions and billions of people from every nation have made their way to him.

A group of riders cycle past a sunflowers field during the 198.5-km (123.3 miles) 13th stage of the 102nd Tour de France cycling race from Muret to Rodez, France, July 17, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard - RTX1KOT3

Life is a pilgrimage, a journey to heaven. Treat each moment as precious, for every breath we take brings us closer to the very presence of God himself. Our pilgrimage is attended by blessing and happiness, but also by suffering. This is the mark of sin but even suffering has been redeemed at the Cross, and so it becomes a sign of our total death to self and new life with God. If the government chooses to persecute us, perhaps we ought to thank it for the opportunity to imitate Christ. Our pilgrimage will have been made more difficult but ultimately of more spiritual value.

Each time you step out of bed, consider to where it is you are heading. You are made for heaven. Live in such a way as to prepare for eternal life. Make your journey to the side of Christ and there take your place. All the world streams to him, a vast pilgrimage to the holy mountain of the Lord.

It is odd, on the return trip from the Shrine everything was much easier. The gentle sway of my body over the frame of my machine, the poetic hum of the chain spinning, chasing the setting sun we fairly flew home.

The Paradox of Summer

heatThere is a joke people used to tell here in South Louisiana. An old Cajun named Boudreaux dies and goes to hell. When he gets there, the devil greets him and says, “So, is it hot enough for you down here?”

Boudreaux answers, “Quite pleasant, actually. Reminds me of sittin’ on my front porch in July.”

The devil goes, cranks up the thermostat, and asks again, “Is it hot enough for you down here?”

Boudreaux laughs. “This ain’t no worse than fishin’ in my pirogue on the bayou.”

The devil, beginning to get rattled, cranks the thermostat up one more time. As the brimstones begin to boil, he asks, “Hot enough for you down here now, Boudreaux?”

Boudreaux wipes his brow and says, “Brings back memories. It’s just like bein’ out in the cane fields in the summertime.”

The devil, determined to make Boudreaux suffer, decides to turn the thermostat down as far as it will go. Icicles begin to form. A snow flurry turns into a squall, and soon all of hell looks like the North Pole. The devil returns to Boudreaux and cannot believe his eyes when he finds the old Cajun dancing and singing for joy. “Aren’t you cold, Boudreaux? What are you dancing for?”

Mais cher,” returns Boudreaux, “I got to dance. The Saints just won the Superbowl!”

That joke became outdated in 2009 when the New Orleans Saints actually won the Superbowl (and I’m pretty sure hell froze over.) Unfortunately, Boudreaux’s sentiments about the temperature in Louisiana remain quite current. Joseph McDonough recently waxed eloquent on this blog about summer as a symbol of paradise, “as all the poets agree.” He and the poets are certainly correct. However, where I’m from, summer is the season of heatstroke, hurricanes, and disease-bearing mosquitoes. “Paradise” is the opposite of the word that comes to mind.mosquito

The problem with symbols is that they are often contranyms. Summer symbolizes heaven, but it also prefigures hell; the color red shows love but also hate; life itself represents both an unquestioned good and an inescapable drudgery through evil. No wonder so many people find literature, with its reliance on symbols, confusing. No wonder the orderly, empirical world of science and mathematics has gained such a hold on our modern intellectual life. Two plus two always equals four, but summer equals paradise equals damnation? Yikes.

Yet it was Albert Einstein who said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Fairy tales are little more than a distillation of confusing, multi-layered symbols. Why is this the work of true intelligence? Because the real work of being human is not to pursue the advancement of science for its own sake; the work of being human is to pursue the advancement of humanity. Orson Scott Card said, “We care about moral issues, nobility, decency, happiness, goodness—the issues that matter in the real world, but which can only be addressed, in their purity, in fiction.” (I would add: and poetry.) Literature is the laboratory of the moral life, where truth can often only be expressed in paradox. Only by giving do we receive; only by loving can we know what it means to be loved. Christians take this paradoxical logic to its most extreme conclusion–only by dying can we truly live.

The work of literature is to dare an honest gaze at the experience of being human, to explore our common morality or lack thereof. It would be dishonest if it did not deal in paradox. A symbol that could be directly equated with paradise but not with hell would fail to capture the truth of our human nature; we are creatures formed in the image and likeness of God who are nevertheless fallen, sinful beings. We ourselves are a paradox, and so is our world. Summer will always be warm days of relaxation soured by sunburn and storms. Winter will always be icy and barren, but brought to life by fire and friends. The trick is to be like Boudreaux: defy the devil, and find joy in them both.

Where Is All the Fiction-Inspired Art?

It is a curious phenomenon that so few of our works of fiction inspire great, or even mediocre, works of visual art. Once it was the case that the usual matter for visual artists was the popular stories of the time and of antiquity: Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, and many others provided seemingly endless fodder for painters, sculptors, potters, illustrators, and makers of decorative items. The popular romances of the middle ages—at times their version of our trashy novels—added reasonably to the mix, as well.

One can hardly imagine an illustrator itching to depict all the thrilling scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus bravely shooting a sick dog?), The Great Gatsby (an allegorical figure rowing a boat?), Of Mice and Men (Lennie crushing small animals?), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caulfield getting punched by a pimp?), or Catch-22 (perhaps a montage of the same event over and over?). Of the popular modern novels, only a few standouts like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm could provide especially interesting visual imagery, but even those wouldn’t spawn much more than a few interesting scenes (mostly involving pigs).

Just a few of the artists inspired by one medieval story.

Just a few of the artists inspired by one medieval story.

This is the downside of the psychological novel, as great as it is. The inner drama of the soul does not easily translate into a visual form without a medium of outward action. A great film actor could show this simply with his face, and a great sculptor or painter could do the same with his figure, but that sort of artistic greatness is rare. It is much better in the larger scope of things to have material that even merely “good” artists can clearly depict.

In a sense, the more it has become itself, the more the novel has drifted away from the other arts into isolation. One cannot imagine a great novel like Conrad’s Nostromo making a great stage play, for instance. Only an experimental artist would write a cycle of ballads about Mrs. Dalloway. The madness of Finnegans Wake would not even inspire a mind-blowing film dream sequence. The novel has become too subtle to successfully pollinate the other arts.

Nothing to see here.

Nothing to see here.

There are exceptions. Notably, the fantastic fiction of John Tolkien has inspired visual artists for decades. My parents collected the annual Tolkien wall calendars, all of which displayed twelve paintings or drawings in an impressively large reproduction. While the quality varied from year to year depending on the artist, most left a lasting impact on myself and countless other Tolkien fans. Some renditions of scenes from The Silmarillion were even more memorable than the published stories.

As a child, I often felt the tragedy of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth more tangibly through his illustrators than through his books. Likewise, I fell in love with Greek and Norse myths more through their artistic portrayals than through the often roughly-constructed stories. I became familiar with the Divine Comedy through Gustave Doré’s woodcuts long before I read the poem. And what child hasn’t flipped through his copy of the Chronicles of Narnia looking for all of Pauline Baynes’ drawings?

They were called unfinished tales for a reason, but doesn’t this just evoke an entire epic poem?

They were called unfinished tales for a reason, but doesn’t this just evoke an entire epic poem?

At the risk of becoming a heresy-hunting blogger, I have to wonder if there isn’t something rather Manichean about this problem. The separation of soul and body, of mind and flesh, is a perennial error we cannot seem to be rid of. The extremes of the psychological novel have something Cartesian about them, being all about internal thought and emotion, and very little about outward action. The less the characters of a story act, the less any visual artist has to work with. One cannot easily paint Hamlet’s internal distress, but any five-year old can draw Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.

Visually attractive art is a kind of gateway into a great book, attracting readers a novelist might not otherwise have. Someone who has never heard of Orlando Furioso might search out a copy after flipping through Doré’s set of illustrations. The cover art for novels that are popular (or required reading for school) are usually dull or so abstract that a non-fan can’t get even a moderate understanding of the story inside. Stephen King’s novels unfortunately make for better cover art than Harper Lee’s, despite his inferior talent.

If there is some happy medium–or exalted golden mean–between schlock pulp fiction and high psychological prose, it seems that few have found it. There is a natural tendency for any community to become more insular over time, and the high-art novelist community is no exception. But with book sales still on a steady decline in spite of the occasional Harry Potter-esque shot in the arm, perhaps an increased consideration of cross-medium artistic pollination is in order.

What could go wrong?

What could go wrong? (source)

The Denver Publishing Institute

I’m sure I’m not alone in the Dappled Things community in having been told way too many times that my Liberal Arts degree was useless. And not only was it merely Liberal Arts! It was an English degree. Oh frivolity of frivolities! How will you ever got a job like that?

Six years after the fact, I’m proud to say I’ve been gainfully and steadily employed because of that English degree, first as a teacher, and now as an editor. So don’t let the haters getcha down! But also. . .

If you find yourself a little stuck, or, maybe even if you don’t, start thinking about developing that “useless” degree with some practical application coursework. I like my current job! I really do. But it’s not exactly the kind of editing I had in mind. BOOKS. That’s what I had in mind. So, I decided to up my ante.

untitled

I applied to the Denver Publishing Institute (DPI), and, after some nail-biting (wait-listed?! NObody wait-lists ME!) I’m lucky enough to be attending it now. In a four-week intensive program, they’re teaching me as much as they possibly can about the book publishing world, from the work of a literary agent to an acquisitions editor to the breakdown of publishing houses to marketing and beyond. (And no, they are not paying me to write this post. Scout’s honor.) They’re giving me real in-progress manuscripts to work on, evaluate, learn from and write reports on (which, actually, I should be doing right now. . .). The lecturers are some fantastic people with wild stories, excellent advice, and hard-earned wisdom, like the head of Young Adult publishing at Penguin (who refers to Louis L’Amour as “Louis.” NBD.), the head of Princeton University Press, and a young woman who has quickly risen through the ranks to run Scribner’s.

There are two other comparable programs in the country, at NYU, and at Columbia University. DPI isn’t cheap, but those two are hideously expensive. Name brand and what-not, I suppose. Also, the other programs spend time teaching magazine, journal and (last I checked) digital publishing. Really cool stuff! But not what I wanted.

So, if you would like to be a book editor (or literary agent or publicist or independent literary guru) and you find yourself at loose ends, might I suggest you look into this program. One of the great advantages to it, on top of all the nuts and bolts of the publishing world it will teach you, is that it connects you with an incredible network of people, many of whom have been highly successful in the publishing world, know it backwards and forwards, and have a great respect for DPI and the young men and women who have gone through the program.

Also, the campus is beautiful, complete with a mountain backdrop, collegiate gothic architecture, and ducklings in the lily pad pond. Can’t beat that.

ducklings

I am not a Beach Person

I am not a beach person, and I prefer to take my long walks along rocky coastlines or in the mountains, where I am free from the distractions of beach towels, beach umbrellas, beach volleyball, sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun worshippers. If I go to the beach, it will be in late winter or early spring, perhaps in Florida, perhaps in the south of France, where I will fly kites or gather pebbles from the sand and collect foreign coins. But although I am not, as I say, a beach person, I think I know what the beach means. If the ocean is the primordial chaos, the beach is our earthly paradise. It is a Garden of Eden, and an angel stands over it with a burning sword. Dante thought of heaven, and he saw a mystic rose with the company of saints enthroned upon the petals, illuminated by the light of God. When we think of paradise we see palm trees and sand and the company of tourists enthroned upon beach chairs, illuminated by the tropical sun.

I suppose we’re no longer encouraged to think of heaven in anything but earthly terms, and that is why the first explorers of the South Sea islands believed that they had stumbled upon an earthly paradise, and projected upon its inhabitants the corresponding state of primeval innocence. Who was more surprised: the islanders to find out that they were innocent, or the explorers to find out that they were not? Even Dante placed the terrestrial paradise in the southern ocean, but he understood well enough to know that it could be found only by winning to the summit of the mountain of Purgatory. Are we wrong to think that the beach is a symbol of paradise? No, but we forget that it is only a symbol of paradise, and to enter paradise itself may call for devotion, purity of heart, and a clarity of mind not always found among beachgoers.

If you disbelieve in Heaven because you cannot imagine it, or because you can imagine only an eternity of clouds, harps, and music, and are not thereby filled with longing for the courts of the house of our God, then you might be listening to the wrong music. There is a story that St. Augustine, trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity, was reproved by the example of a boy trying to empty the sea with a shell. And there was once a king of England who placed his throne upon the seashore to show his flatterers that he was not the master of the tides. The beach is not the least of the places where wisdom may be found, if you know where to look.

Pity the peoples of the South Pacific islands, not because they have been misunderstood, but because they themselves know nothing of autumn and of winter, of the remarkable evergreens that never change their color, of the remarkable maple trees that do, of the snowfall whiter than the finest sand and the sea that freezes over. Untaught by the discipline of the seasons, they do not know that the blazing noondays and swift sunsets of their perpetual summer are not an eternal and universal possession but a gift that others dearly buy and slowly earn. Pity the islanders, for they have had their reward. Pity the beachgoers, for they have theirs. Pity the Australians, and all who must celebrate Christmas in the summer, and who miss the symbolic interruption of summer in winter, of day into night, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness that comprehendeth it not.

I am not a summer person, but I think I know what summer means. Summer is a reward in proportion to what we have earned. Summer is also a symbol of heaven, as all the poets agree, and heaven too is a reward in proportion to our capacity to enjoy it. I spent several of the past few summers in graduate school. I won’t say that graduate school is heaven, but when I recall the hours of reading Dante in the classroom, eavesdropping on a rehearsal of a Bach aria in the great hall, glimpsing the rings of Saturn from the observatory telescope, or demonstrating geometrical propositions on the blackboard, I’m inclined to compare it favorably with the beach. I know that school is not nearly so popular as the beach, probably because it takes more practice to enjoy it. But I also suspect that school has a higher graduation rate. The rules are clear for both: you take out what you carry in. But you can always find something new: a shell, a metaphor, a message in a bottle. Keep looking.

St. Elizabeth of Portugal – Pray for Us!

July 4th – America’s birthday and the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. A perfect pairing?

St. Elizabeth of Portugal (relative of St. Elizabeth of Hungary) was married at the age of 12 by proxy to King Dinis of Portugal. Despite praising his wife in word (he was a poet of some renown), King Dinis betrayed his wife in deed (he was an adulterer of some renown, too). Adding insult to injury, King Dinis asked his wife to raise these children of adultery in their house, as she would her own.

Her heroic response should not surprise, nor should the result of her generosity. Ultimately, her own legitimate son, Afonse, sought violently to overthrow his own father the king, for fear of his older half-brothers’ acceding to the throne before him. Unable to bear the impending slaughter between her husband and son, she endeavored to broker peace between the two. Though innocent of rumors that she had incited her son’s rebellion, Queen Elizabeth found herself exiled to a house-arrest at her husband’s hand. Despite the injustice, she remained faithful to her husband, breaking her exile only for the purpose of attempting to mediate peace between King Dinis and his son Afonse, who remained at strife until King Dinis’s deathbed, whereat Dinis charged Afonse to care for Elizabeth in his own place.

For her part, Elizabeth took up widowed life as a Franciscan Tertiary, building Churches, hospitals, caring for the sick (especially lepers), and praying intensely.

What, then, has Elizabeth of Portugal to do with America? Two points stand out. First, she offers an example of patient suffering, prudent and daring peacemaking, and prioritizing the good over the convenient. She served the good of her King and husband, despite accusations of subterfuge and a unjust exile. Second, she serves as a prophetic witness for Catholics attempting to contribute to the civic project of the American democracy. Like Elizabeth, American Catholics might find themselves exiled for their own best efforts at participating in America’s governance. A peek at the most recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex “marriage” gives a hint: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure” (emphasis mine). This sentence attempts to assuage the fear of many that religious groups will not be free to teach their position on same-sex marriage and argue for it publicly. No doubt such protections will continue, but more interesting is what does not appear in this sentence: the word “practice.” Religious practice might not be protected, though it’s “teaching” will. Tragically, the Church might soon be erroneously compared to truly evil institutions or persons. Consider this: as far as SCOTUS is concerned, the Catholic Church is like an institution that refuses to recognize interracial marriage, or a restaurant that refuses to serve minorities. We, the Catholic Church, could be maligned as an institution that continues to fight for a “dead issue”; we can be lambasted as being on the “wrong side” of history as far as the Supreme Court is concerned. Therefore, Catholics’ right to speech is protected, but not their right to practice, which is (in the eyes of the SCOTUS majority) manifestly unconstitutional. It would seem, terrifyingly and unjustly, in light of Obergefell et al., vs. Hodges, et al., that the Catholic Church could be likened to that backward-minded, pitiful owner of a diner who still pines for the days of Jim Crow Laws. He can attempt to argue for segregation, to “teach” segregation, but he’d be arrested (thankfully) for actually segregating his diner. Any comparison in truth between the Catholic Church and such a racist diner owner is an abomination; race has nothing to do with whether a person can order lunch, yet biological sex has everything to do with whether a person is capable of marrying. Likewise, race has nothing to do with whether a person is capable of marrying, yet biological sex has everything to do with whether a person is capable of marrying. The distinction the Catholic Church and the racist is invisible to SCOTUS because the court chooses an understanding of marriage along personal, intimate, romantic lines rather than biologically reproductive lines. The link between procreation and marriage (let alone the link between sexual intimacy and procreation) is entirely absent from the SCOTUS decision. One can hardly be surprised, therefore, at the Court’s decision as well as the possible consequences to come. Like St. Elizabeth of Portugal, the Church has been betrayed by one who ought to have protected her. Like St. Elizabeth, the Catholic Church will be asked to welcome and tend to the fruit of this betrayal as well. In all likelihood, the Catholic Church, as St. Elizabeth, will find herself innocent and exiled.

I imagine that, in the near future, if pastors are to be considered valid solemnizers of marriage contracts, they are going to be required to solemnize any legal marriage (including those between persons of the same sex). Refusing to do so might just result in their loss of status as solemnizer for all such contracts. Long-story short, all Catholic clergy may eventually be disqualified from solemnizing marriage contracts, since they practice discrimination on the grounds of orientation or sex. In this case, Catholics whose marriages are “solemnized” by a priest will need to see the justice of the peace (or Elvis) to make their marriage contract valid. It seems the stage is being set to defend the teaching, that is, the speech of religious persons (so long as they are safely in church buildings full of like-minded persons), but not any practice of religion that may be construed as having public or civic impact or visibility. Catholics, like St. Elizabeth, for all they contribute to the common good of their nation, may soon suffer exile to a house arrest of the sanctuary for mass and the parish hall for donuts.

The truth of the Church’s contribution to the common good will, like St. Elizabeth’s be vindicated one day. At his deathbed, King Dinis knew his wife’s true worth, and witnessed to it publicly, repenting of his sin against her. Let us pray the Church’s value in her defense of marriage and religious liberty need not await such dire circumstances for its recognition. Let us pray that, as St. Elizabeth, we may boldly break from our house-arrest and ride to the battle front to speak the perennial truth for the love of God and the love of our neighbor in God.

Be Praised! The Canticle of Creatures

Pope Francis Laudato Si

Pope Francis recently released the encyclical letter Laudato Si. I am still reading and thinking about it, but would like to offer an initial, limited reaction for your consideration. The title of encyclicals typically comes from the first line and this particular first line has a storied past. Here it is along with the opening section:

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.… Nothing in this world is indifferent to us. (1,2)

Here is the full text of the poem by St. Francis, The Canticle of the Creatures (or Canticle of the Sun):

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!

Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

I am reminded of the Canticle from Daniel 3 that is found in the breviary to sing for feast days: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord…”

Regardless of where one stands on man-made global warming or the prudential actions that may or may not be required personally or on the level of national economies to solve it (or not!?), I hope that we can all agree to take seriously our solidarity with and stewardship over nature. Pope Francis clearly does and, in my opinion, this encyclical is a sorely needed reminder for us to reflect on our obligations to creation.

Pope Francis comments further on The Canticle of the Creatures,

When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them. (87)

We miss the point of both the poem and the encyclical if we examine them through the lens of contemporary politics. All of this pales in comparison to the astounding fact that nature is God-shaped. In nature, there is beauty that leads us ever upward and into the eternal beauty of the divine. Our hearts are moved to praise God. Knowing this, how could we possibly disagree that it is our sacred obligation to care for our world? To deface creation is to deface the image of God himself.

So that we do not misunderstand, Pope Francis makes clear that a hierarchy is in place,

This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility.

Human beings are special, for we have a rational soul that is crafted in the image of God. This does not separate us entirely from nature but rather places responsibility on us. The hierarchy brings us to the heart of The Canticle of the Creatures,

Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

St. Francis is conformed to the Passion of Christ in this painting by Caravaggio. So is he able to go forth and love all of God's creatures.

St. Francis is conformed to the Passion of Christ in this painting by Caravaggio. So is he able to go forth and love all of God’s creatures.

Human beings are different than other creatures. Nothing is indifferent to us because we cannot be indifferent to ourselves. If indeed we are destroying the world it is only because we have first destroyed and alienated the human being. Neither Pope nor Saint Francis promotes sappy do-gooderism, sentimentality, or a cheap, overweening definition of love. No discussion of environmentalism can proceed without first considering what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as the ecology of the human person. What is a human being? What is our status as created beings in the image of God? What effect does sin have on us? What is our duty and obligation in solidarity with other creatures? How do we join in the praise offered God by all of creation?

I appreciate that Pope Francis always says exactly what he means,

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? (120)

If we want to be sensitive to the environment, we begin by protecting human beings: the innocent, the defenseless, the meek, and the exploited. Our commitment to creation is comprehensive, finding its source not in this world but in the world to come. God made us and he sees that we are good. We care for the environment by guarding her from rapacious economic activity and pollution. We also care for the environment when we defend the unborn and the criminal condemned to death. Most of all, we do so when we examine our own hearts and put our own spiritual house in order. When we are at peace with ourselves we will we be at peace with the world around us, for only then will we be acting with true human freedom and unreservedly embrace the beauty in all created things.

Confessions of a “Catholic” Novelist

A weak novelist?

A weak novelist?

The New Republic recently published an article that’s gotten a bit of popularity around the web. Novelist William Giraldi penned a 4000-word screed against Catholic novels and novelists ironically titled “Confessions of a Catholic Novelist.” Giraldi, himself an admitted heretic and apostate, wants to dismiss the idea that the Catholic has anything worthwhile to bring to the art of the novel, as a foundation to explain why he does not wish to be called a Catholic novelist:

The linguistic and narrative maneuvers of the Catholic novelist have at-hand explanations, ready-made motives, and so his characters tend to be denuded of complete and unique individual agency, of their own necessarily individual will. For the truly Catholic novel, there’s only one way to read it: the Catholic way. And any novel that can be read only one way isn’t a novel at all but an advertisement—or, worse, agitprop. If you want to know the aim of the avowedly Catholic novelist, the aim of his characters, of his storytelling sensibility, check in with the Gospels, the sacraments, the papacy, the Holy Ghost, the liturgy, the Mass. The Catholic novelist must, by definition, come to the novel with his epistemology embedded like a tick, his ontology fully explicable by deference to his faith…. Inside a Catholic novel, water, bread, and blood can never be just water, bread, and blood, and that’s a damning disadvantage for any writer.

Now, I have no other knowledge of Mr. Giraldi or his work. I had never heard of him before his article appeared in my blog reader feed. It might be that his novels are very well written and structured, that his imagery is rich and solid, dreamlike in the best possible way. But I cannot take seriously the intellectual meanderings of someone who pens something so ignorant as, “Sometime after my eighteenth birthday, I saw that Aquinas was no match for Nietzsche, and then Augustine lost by knockout to Hume.”

William Giraldi

Perhaps that’s beside the point–although if Mr. Giraldi can throw in a cheap shot, so can I–and the main point is ostensibly the aesthetic one: Can a Catholic write a novel in a Catholic spirit that succeeds as a work of art? But is that really what concerns him? “Here’s what I know with an almost religious surety: to be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist,” he tellingly writes. He is worried about being thought a fool in the eyes of the world after Commonweal and First Things started praising his book. He knows that the wider critical apparatus of the world hates anything that even smells of portraying serious religious experience in a positive light. Catholicism is like a sinking ship that Giraldi does not even want to be close to on a life raft, lest he be sucked down with its whirlpool.

Is there anything worth salvaging in this short piece of anti-Catholic agitprop? Mr. Giraldi does actually say something rather interesting in response to a selection from a Walker Percy essay,

[M]ost erroneous is the assumption that a novelist requires a dogma such as the Incarnation as “a warrant” to probe the enigmas of human living. Why not just probe them? You don’t need a monotheistic guarantee of mystery: Your fellow humans will furnish it for you every day, don’t worry…. Referring to Flannery O’Connor in his essay “A Cranky Novelist Reflects on the Church,” Percy contends that “the truly Catholic writer knows” that “it is only through the particularities of place, time, and history … that the writer achieves his art.” Why it would take a “truly Catholic writer” to figure out what good writers have always known—E.B. White advised: “Don’t write about Man, write about a man”—is a tad baffling.

This, I think, is perfectly true. It is a natural truth that man–and a man–is a mystery full of interesting enigmas which the novelist can explore, and this belief needs no supernaturally-revealed warrant. The pagans of old knew that a man was interesting without the slightest bit of divine revelation (“Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide…”). Even when one ignores the existence of God and of the multitude of open doors between the spiritual and physical worlds, man himself is a mystery of preternatural heights and depths. Hamlet’s “Piece of Work” speech could be expressed by a materialist as easily as by a monk, because it is too self-evident to ignore.

After all, man is created in the image of God, and we could not say it were so if he did not share in some of his Creator’s mystery.

What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

We all know that the contents of the bookshelf hold the key to the inner mind. What a person reads is the raw material for how they think. This personality quiz is not that.

No, I have chosen a far more abstract and less reliable method. It has the virtue of not only being quite inaccurate but it is also my own invention and has very little practical application! The method relies on the actual, physical arrangement of the books themselves. In this heroic attempt to truly judge a book by its cover, no account is taken of the actual subject matter or content of the writing. Apply this method at your own risk. It does not work but at least it can create hilarious misunderstandings and prejudices that will entertain you and your friends for minutes at a time! Anyway, I hope this amuses you.

(Any similarities between actual people and the personality types listed below are inadvertent.)

Read on to find out who you are…

Library2

The Aristocrat

stacks on the floor

You are lazy and/or upper class. Because of the ennui from which you are sorely afflicted, it is too much of a bother to sort your books. You do not re-read and have a good memory of what you have already read. When you read a book the whole experience is what matters: the coffee shop you were in, the smells you smelled, where you were sitting… you remember your life by recalling what sort of books you were reading at the time. You use holy cards as bookmarks. You refuse to check out books from the library because another person you don’t know might have touched them. You either are a genuine eccentric or attempt to give off the impression of eccentricity. You read whimsically, regularly, widely, and the books simply pile up as you finish them one after another. Often you read two or more books at a time. Many of them will be un-locatable later, you know this at the time you are adding it to the stack and don’t care. Reading is probably a pure pleasure for you and your reference books are kept to a minimum. When you were in school it grated on your finely tuned sensibilities to be pressured into working through a reading list for class.

You have a dark side that we cannot ignore. All of the above may simply be a ruse to hide the fact that you are obsessively goal oriented and your habits may have developed because you read so aggressively that you really have two, tightly controlled collections: that which has been read and that which will be read soon. Your personality is carefully manicured. You are doomed to spend your life fighting the desire to organize your books, full well knowing that to do so would be to admit that you might, after all, be a sensible person.

Library3

The Auteur

carefully arranged as a harmonic visual

You are the type of person who asks every acquaintance you have if you ought to purchase a particular book, which version, which dust cover is most attractive, but always a hardback. You insist on giving extensive tours of your bookshelf to guests. You like to hear positive feedback about the aesthetic sensibilities evinced by the physical beauty of your collection and you take great joy in the quality of the materials that go into making each book. You are an extrovert and like to read books with others and discuss them later. After consulting with friends for months you will purchase a book but immediately be dissatisfied with the way it fits on the shelf and sell it cheaply to your friend who has his books stacked on the floor.

We are not talking about a visual arrangement as simple as descending size or matching colors, that would be too easy. There is a mysterious orderliness in the organization that is unexplainable to others but you know it when you see it. The calculus has to do with the quality of the artwork on the dustcover, the size and weight of the book, the way in which the title is printed, and the general spiritual atmosphere cast by the contents inside. We know this but the exact formula itself is ultimately a mystery. When the books are in perfect harmony with each other, this gives you a sense of supernatural peace.

 

The Librarian

ordered alphabetically

You are a librarian. Literally. You and other librarians are the only ones who would organize anything in this way. You are type A. You appreciate the books specifically for the ideas contained within and are not a collector. They are valuable as a reference library and you have probably saved your college textbooks in case they come in use later. You are precise in your statements and cautious in placing any academic opinions when conversing with others. You do not loan books out because, even though you don’t particularly care about the aesthetic qualities of the physical book, you take care that they are in good condition. Others aren’t careful with them and they have returned to you in the past with creases and small stains that displease you. You discriminate carefully and dole out your reading time to only those books that are truly worth it. You will never take a flyer on a random book from the discount bin at the local bookstore. That would be crazy.

You have abundant organizational skills but either don’t consistently put them into use or overdo it so much that you derive no benefit from being organized in terms of efficiency or time saved. The organization of your bookshelf is a thin veneer over an ocean of turbulence. You do not have music on while you read, you require complete silence and may even sit at the kitchen table or a desk because relaxing on anything upholstered prevents you from concentrating. You set goals to read either a certain number of minutes per day or books per year.

Library

The Normal

by general subject

This is how books are supposed to be arranged, right? One friend I queried about the physical arrangement of his books did not even understand the question; after all, there is only one, normal way to organize books. It had never occurred to him that there was any other.

At your best, you are thoughtful and hospitable. You form the vast majority of humankind and there is something commendable in the way you fit into and form the dominant culture of book-organizing. It is a sign that you are at harmony with the universe. At your worst you fit in a little too well, without question. Or, if you do question you keep it to yourself. For instance, you patronize the nearby chain-coffee shop franchise because it is convenient and consistent but don’t really like it. That’s where everyone else goes, though, and it is better not to cause a fuss. Occasionally the siren song of the best seller list entraps you and you read a popular novel. You feel silly for doing so but you really shouldn’t.

 

The Resigned

stack of unread books on the nightstand

You are a parent. Children have destroyed all of your books by reinterpreting their contents as so many coloring pages. The few remaining good ones, i.e., all of your Laura Engels Wilder, have been brazenly re-appropriated and used as instruction manuals for how your entire family will now live. Your children now call you Pa and are demanding a butter churn.

You have no energy left to give and as soon as you begin to read at night you fall asleep. It has taken you years to read the first chapter of a historical biography. You have started and abandoned Infinite Jest at least 3 times. You probably gave up the pretence of being a reader years ago. In spite of all of the above, you are very happy.

 

The Capitalist

on a kindle

You have fallen into a modernist, techno-Heideggerian cult* and must extricate yourself immediately. You have good intentions but we are all worried about you.

*Or, as the Holy Father would have it, a “technocratic paradigm” run by economic Overlords.

Library4

The Student

piled onto a cinder block and plywood contraption

You are in grad school. You have not yet blossomed into the person you will one day become. You eat fried eggs on tortillas every night so that you can save money to afford to purchase more books. Your parents don’t understand you but don’t worry it should only be temporary. You are passionately interested, at this point in your life at least, in one or two subjects at most and your book collection is largely limited to these topics. A lot of your books have post it notes sticking out of them where you marked pages to go back over later. You will never go back over these pages later. In spite of this, you are a creature of hope, exemplifying for all the world the power of an oft-overlooked virtue. Seriously, though, you need to eat better. You are going to get sick.

 

God Speaks in Polyphony

polyphonyLast week, my church choir and I sang for the funeral of one of our long-time members. A terrible thunderstorm raged for the entire hour of the funeral Mass, shaking the windows in their frames and causing someone’s phone to scream the high-pitched wail of the Emergency Broadcast System. The pastor began his sermon with, “I knew Roy was musical, but I never knew he played the drums.” It was impossible not to find some connection between the storm and the life of the man we had come to celebrate. Was Roy, who was always soft-spoken in life, finally letting loose in the hereafter? Or was he up in the heavens whispering to the angels, “Shhh!” Our deacon assures me it was the former; another choir member insists on the latter; but no one who was present could escape the idea that the two happenings were connected by some spiritual truth. God spoke to the grieving in that thunderstorm, and we were reassured.

…Which is, of course, utter nonsense. Elsewhere in the city, streets were flooding, trees were being struck by lightning, life and property were jeopardized. Such things can hardly be regarded as acts of consolation carried out by a loving God. Nor is there anything unusual about a summer thunderstorm in Louisiana. They happen frequently, the result of very explicable meteorological phenomena. No deities need be invoked to account for them. To think that the thunderstorm was divinely timed to coincide with the funeral smacks of unenlightened superstition. Surely, we college-educated denizens of the twenty-first century allowed our grief to make us grasp at outdated spiritual straws.

I wonder how often such rational arguments have steered people toward despair. How ardently we humans long to hear the voice of God, and how resolutely we convince ourselves of His silence. We cannot reconcile the idea that a noisy instrument of destruction might also be a healing whisper of God’s eternal love. There are plenty of reasons to blame modern culture for our inability to accept such paradoxes, but in the wake of this very musical funeral with its boisterous natural accompaniment, it occurs to me that most of the music in our popular culture–even the very best of it–is complicit in training our minds to insist that life can sing only one tune at a time. One melody must dominate the song, while the harmonies march along in lock-step to support it. There may be room to elaborate and embellish, but there is no room for counterpoint, for an alternative point of view.

It is no wonder, then, that the narrative of a storm’s natural causes and effects–more widely understood than any private grace–should overwhelm all other narratives. We hear a theme that is loud, catchy, and obvious; it must be the melody. Any note that does not support it, any rhythm that refuses to be synched, cannot be part of the same song. We permit our empirical understanding to drown out the seemingly divergent voice of the divine. But this is not a triumph of science over superstition. It is a failure to listen to polyphony.

I suspect that, for the average American non-musician, the sum total of polyphonic music he has heard in his life amounts to a few random snatches from the occasional film score. Polyphony demands a great deal of its audience because, no matter how many different lines there may be, each of them is equally important. Every line is its own melody, a complement to the others, but neither synchronous nor subservient. That musical lines should move independently–weaving over, under, and through each other without recourse to ordinary chord progressions, without respecting that the soprano note must remain above the alto–is a difficult concept for modern ears to accept. Polyphony refuses to be reduced to something you can hum, yet it is rarely dissonant and undeniably beautiful. The voices sometimes echo each other, borrowing bits and pieces of each other’s themes, occasionally arriving at a cadence where they pause and breathe together. Then they go on, each to its own lofty heights or plunging depths, carrying the same text in different ways, until they all arrive at a single harmonious end.

This is what was happening at my friend’s funeral during the thunderstorm. Nature–that constant pedal-tone of life–carried on with its habitual song, but overlaid with it were other lines, equally important. Comfort for Roy’s friends and family was only one. Someone else might have heard a condemnation, a call to change his ways; another might have thanked God for a welcome rest from his labors because his job was rained out that day; those who feared the storm’s consequences had an opportunity (whether or not they made use of it) to unite their sufferings to the Cross and thank God for His mercy. God’s melodies are innumerable, written from the beginning of the world with a line for every single one of us to hear and heed and call our own. Every planet, every raindrop, every atom of creation dances to the song. It is not a song of harmony, with all the voices neatly aligned. It is polyphony, an intertwining of related strains, and we, with our finite minds, will never be able to read the entire score. We will never fathom the theory that structures it, but this is not our task. We need only pray for the grace to listen and join in, while we trust that the final cadence will come.

Now sit back and feast your ears on polyphony.