Why Should You Write?

This is a question that plagues me. I like to know why I do the things that I do. But when I walk into a bookstore or a library, or browse new suggestions on Amazon, or look at my shelf that has all of the “waiting-to-be-read” books on it, I start to feel a little panicky for two reasons. First, how on earth will I ever read all the things in the world? Obviously, I won’t, but still, there’s a vague sense of guilt that rises to the surface every time I think about it. Second, and more pertinent to our discussion here, what do I have to write, what could I possibly add to the vast array of books and stories and poems and blog posts and letters, that could be worth anything more than everything that has already been done?

writingpic

As is often the case when I think about such things, I find that I’m not the first person to have wondered. (Blast! See? Everything has already been done!) One of my roommates, reading O’Connor’s The Habit of Being, shared a passage with me on Sunday. Miss Flannery is giving advice to a friend on accepting criticism and using her skills as a writer for the right purpose, that is, because she’s been given them. If God gives you talents, use them. Develop them. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what the dickens it’s all about; it’s your responsibility to use what you’ve been given, even if you never see the result of it. And, of course, in reading O’Connor’s advice, I was reminded of similar advice I had also been given by one of my writer friends when I put the question to him. If you’re in a rush, I’ve already summed up what both letters are about (chin up and get to it). But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, and you’re one of the thousand and one unoriginal souls who have pondered the same question with varying levels of frustration, they’re a comforting read-through. So, be comforted!

First, my query:

As far as my writing bringing solace to your mind and heart, and perhaps to others’ as well, I am so glad it does, and honored as well. Maybe that sounds formal or stuffy or something, but I really do mean it.  Sometimes I feel petty and childish (not childlike) because I wish that more people would read it or say something about it. I guess I just want attention; not a very original or singular desire by any means. But then, on what I like to think is a more noble plane, when I see something beautiful, it calls out to be shared. I want to share. I want people to be excited by the things that excite me. And if I have something that seems worth saying, I want to say it to as many people as possible. I want, I want, I want. Yes, well, maybe the fact that in this regard I want many good things along with the selfish things mitigates the wantingness of it all. At any rate, I am glad to know that I can occasionally give you something in which you find yourself delighted and more at peace, even if only temporarily so.

The response from J.B. Toner (Who, by the way, has had a number of things published in our magazine; he’s a good writer! Look him up.):

Regarding the yearning to have one’s words heard: holy Lord in Heaven above, do I get that. I used to go on rampages through my old apartment after I finished writing a chapter because it would be SO GOOD (everything seems brilliant immediately after you finish writing it, doesn’t it?) and I knew no one would ever publish it, no one would ever see it except a few of my friends that I pestered into reading it. I guess there’s an Old English saying that Tolkien used to quote:  Ciggendra gehwelc wile þœt hine man gehere, “Everyone who cries out wants to be heard.” What I keep trying to remind myself is that on the one hand, the temporal hand, every author ends in oblivion—even Homer will be lost when the sun burns out—and on the other hand, all is known to God and the best of what we create will be shared with everyone in the world to come.  So I shouldn’t be getting worked up over whether ten people or a million people read my stuff here on earth. Right? Sure . . . . But like Joey says, the great truths are usually not very comforting. Or at least, not right now. Just keep at it. Keep getting better, and trust your time will come. That’s what we do.

I think the closest thing I have to advice is the thing I’ve been trying for years to accept, with limited success: we have to write what’s in us, and just trust that He’ll use it somehow—that one way or another, it’ll find its way to where it’ll do good, and we will very, very likely never know about it. In this world, I mean. Someone, I forget who—St. T of Avila, maybe?—talks about all the people who will come running up to you in Heaven to thank you for all the things you barely remember, that you never dreamed would actually bear any fruit anywhere, but that somehow made a difference to people you never even knew on earth at all. Occasionally, that comforts me. Other times it just makes me go, “Yeah, yeah, great,” and be bitter because I’m writing all this stuff and nobody’s seeing it. So, believe me, I understand. Anyway, in short, I think we just have to offer it up and keep schlepping our tired asses forward down the path. I’m not exactly sure it gets easier, but it does get different—the angst sort of ferments with time into new and interesting transmogrifications—so, at least, there’s that!

I’ll tell you what I keep telling myself when I have fears that I will cease to be, and/or when I consider how my light is spent. When the unknown author wrote Beowulf, it was lost for centuries, copied down in a single manuscript that survived unnoticed in trunks and farmhouses for half a millennium, almost burned up in a fire, and was finally dusted off by scholars and remembered chiefly as a source of information on archaic heraldry and pseudo-history for many decades more. It wasn’t till Tolkien came along and wrote his seminal study of the work that it began to be valued as epic poetry rivaling Homer, Dante, and Milton in its own right. But in the meantime it inspired Tolkien himself so greatly that it became the chief wellspring of his own great works, and those works have become to millions of people (including the hell out of myself) just such an inspiration as Beowulf itself was to him. So, in short—we don’t know where our words will end up, or what use God will make of them on earth. Mostly we just have to trust Him. And it’s really, really hard. But, that’s who we are, and it’s absolutely worth it. So, you know—keep writing. Hard is good.

And from the Lady Flannery (I don’t know who B. is, I’m afraid. Do any of you?):

young flannery I asked B. what he thought might be the matter and he said he thought you might be depressed because you had shown something you had written to some young man who made a lot of criticisms of it that you thought were just. . . . Of course B. may be wrong and I hope he was but assuming for the moment he wasn’t, I have this to say. No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel. I feel that you are distracted, particularly when you say, for instance, that it is B.’s writing that interests you considerably more than he does. This is certainly not so, no matter how good a writer he gets to be, or how silly he gets to be himself. The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern. This sermon is now ended. (The Habit of Being, p. 419.)

So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.

Nearer My Dogs to Thee

John Zmirak

“Don’t like the weather?” they say here in New Hampshire. “Wait five minutes.” As summer comes, our polar clime becomes instead bi-polar. Four times this week, the day has turned almost instantly from brightness and balm to lightning and sheets of rain–then back again–several times. The sky is alternately black and blue, as if the weather had been punching it in the face. The lightning knocked out my circuits today, while the crackling of the thunderclouds sent the wimpier of my two beagles into a full-bore panic attack. Little Franzi cowered against my leg, buzzing like those massagers they use at old-fashioned barber shops, until I scooped up all 40 lbs. of quivering hound and laid him next to me in the bed. I actually had to cradle him like a child–albeit a bow-legged, pigeon-toed, stinky, fur-covered child with an IQ of under 25 whom you have trained to defecate outdoors. (It’s best not to admit this when Social Services comes knocking, FYI.) [Read more...]

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Two Bases of Morality in Catholic Theology

Robert T. Miller

There are nowadays at least two competing foundational concepts in Catholic moral theology. The first of these is the concept of human dignity, the intrinsic value of the human person, something the human person has simply by virtue of being a person. Because the human person has such intrinsic value, we are morally obligated to respect human nature, both in ourselves and in everyone else, and the content of this obligation is usually explained by saying that we ought to treat the human person always as an end and never merely as a means, especially never as a mere means to our own pleasure. The concept of human dignity appears in the writings of many contemporary Catholic philosophers(1) and theologians,(2) especially the writings of Pope John Paul II,(3) and even in some recent magisterial documents of the Catholic Church.(4) [Read more...]

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Welsh Starlight

Meredith Wise

Freshman year, I cut my hair after reading Hopkins. A girl had knocked on my door, interrupting my reading just as my eyes fell on the word “lovelocks,” and asked me if I would donate my hair to the cancer charity Locks of Love. My palms prickled. The poem was “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” with its solace for the despair of a young girl afraid of losing her beauty: “Give beauty back,” it says, “back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” [Read more...]

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The Problem With Being Friendly

As my classmates and I were preparing for our study abroad in Rome, we had one professor tell us ladies in particular that we had to wipe those happy American smiles off our faces and proceed to greet the opportunistic foreign types with “looks of unmitigated hostility.” Americans are often known for being friendly happy sorts (remember the American soldier at the end of Life Is Beautiful?), and therefore present themselves as unsuspecting victims to certain unwelcome wiles. After one of my roommates had an overly-friendly man cat-call across the street at her, “Hey! Cali-fornia!” she started wearing a huge ring on her left finger in an attempt to ward off the creepers. Cue American Girl in Italy, a portrait personally and infamously known to myself and many of my classmates:

Orkin.AmericanGirl_kpf

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as the reserved German Lutheran theologian that he was, found himself a little in awe of this American friendliness during the year he spent studying in the States:

Living together day by day produces a strong spirit of comradeship, of a mutual readiness to help. The thousandfold “hullo” which sounds through the corridors of the hostel in the course of the days and which is not omitted even when someone is rushing past is not as meaningless as one might suppose. . . . No one remains alone in the dormitory. The unreservedness of life together makes one person open to another. . . . One says nothing against another member of the dormitory as long as he is a “good fellow.” (104)

Beyond this genial good nature that existed in the hallways, he also noticed a great tendency towards generosity in his American classmates, a generosity in national character that did great things for all of Europe in the years following World War II (see the Marshall Plan):

The student body of Union Theological seminary has, over the winter, continually provided food and lodging for thirty unemployed — among them three Germans [Remember, this is in 1931. Memories of the Kaiser and hatred of the German nation were fresh and real in much of America]. . . . This has led to considerable personal sacrifice of time and money. (105)

Americans are friendly, he says. They’re generous. They’re kind and giving. They speak well of their comrades, and take care of people who need help. Aren’t we great? He even goes so far as to note that “in the conflict between determination for truth with all of its consequences and the will for community, the latter prevails” (104). Spectacular! We care so much about getting along with each other that we sacrifice truth! Wait. Hold up. Something is very wrong here.

Bonhoeffer was a clear, very rational, logical and dispassionate thinker. In an earlier passage of this book, his biographer speaks of the withering eyebrow raise of Herr Bonhoeffer, used to full effect when any of his children uttered an opinion that was ill-founded or irrational, teaching them with gentle exactitude the necessity of tight thought processes. And so, in his observations of American students, Bonhoeffer is happy to see their good qualities, but, as always, looks at the circumstances of their affability from all points of view, and thus comes to the sound conclusion that there is something rotten within; there is an unintended and thus devious result of their focus on social needs. The great thinkers of America had come down from the mountain of intellectual stimulation and achievement to be with the people, but in doing so had forgotten the vital importance of intellectual discipline, learned on those heights, and so had forgotten their principles, all for the sake of being friendly. Being friendly and generous is good, of course. But if it comes at the expense and to the exclusion of the reasons behind it, you better watch out. This is when something unsavory hits the fan.

American theological students knew more about “everyday matters” than their German counterparts and were more concerned with the practical outworking of their theology, but “a predominant group [at Union] sees it in exclusively social needs.” He said “the intellectual preparation for the ministry is extraordinarily thin. . . . the theological education of this group is virtually nil, and the self-assurance which lightly makes mock of any specifically theological question is unwarranted and naive.” His conclusion was withering: “I am in fact of the opinion that one can learn extraordinarily little over there . . . but it seems to me that one also gains quiet insights . . . where one sees chiefly the threat which American signifies for us. (105-106)

Worrying about the needs of society is, obviously, not something that can be shunted aside. Of course we need to worry about them, and, more importantly, we need to do something about them. But without a solid philosophy and well thought out understanding of why we should worry about our fellow man, and a rationally arrived at conclusion of how we ought best to help the physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually suffering individuals around us, we are going to make some big mistakes. In other words, our love, which is a good thing, will be confused, misguided, and ultimately not accomplish as much as it might in its finest form.

Anecdote: I took an elective course in Child Growth and Development when I was in college. In one exercise, the professor asked us each to draw a picture of a man behind a house. Suffice it to say, I am no artist with a mechanical pencil, nor have I ever taken a proper studio arts class. Quickly sketching a box house with a chimney, two windows and a door, I then drew a stick figure man, circled him, and drew an arrow pointing behind the house. Thinking myself very clever, and a little bemused at the exercise, I waited fifteen or twenty minutes while my classmates were hard at work. As our teacher finally collected the drawings, she shuffled them so that neither she nor any of us would know who had drawn each one, then proceeded to the front of the room to analyze each picture for the class. Apparently, this is one way to judge the developmental stage of children; the more detailed their picture, the greater their development. When she got to mine, she said, “The person who has drawn this is at the same developmental stage as an average 8 year old.” Well, a little chagrined, but laughing just the same, I claimed my picture and offered my lack of training in the fundamentals of drawing as an excuse for my poor performance.

Do you hear what I’m saying? Do you hear what Bonhoeffer is saying? What exactly is that “threat which America signifies”? It is that self-assurance making a mockery of specifically theological matters and proceeding to social exercises without the proper training in the fundamentals. Remember, again, he is writing this in 1930, over eighty years ago. He was diagnosing a lack of intellectual rigor in Americas universities as a serious threat to social well-being, a threat which, “The enlightened American, rather than viewing . . . with skepticism, instead welcomes . . . as an example of progress” (106).

And now look where we are. Bonhoeffer’s biographer calls him a prophet. The threat which he spoke of has, in our day and age, come to fruition. And why? Because we’re all so damned friendly all the time. We’re freakishly, progressively, nonjudgmental. We’d rather just get along than dig in our heels and have an uncomfortable conversation about real truth. And what is the result of that? Everybody has their own truth which they are rarely called to defend or examine because any questioning of it is offensive and therefore not socially acceptable.

I’m an American. Guess what that means? I like smiling. I like being friendly. I like getting along with people. I like feeding people. It bothers me, a lot, when there’s somebody who for some reason doesn’t seem to like me, and I find myself agonizing over what I might have done to upset them. I like the idea of winning people by love, rather than with intellectual proofs. (And yes, part of that is the whole “cunning as serpents, gentle as doves” line — as in “You don’t realize it, because I’m being so nice and friendly, but I’m getting you closer and closer to my side!” Now my secret is out.)

I’m an American. Guess what else that means? I have a tendency to let things slide that, thanks to the education my parents gave me, I know I should object to. I have a self-cosseted naivete that likes to believe that everyone is “a good fellow,” that each person is doing the best they know how, and that I have no legs to stand on to tell them, however kindly, to shape up and start living up to their full potential. Thanks to poor sots like myself, we find ourselves in this cesspit of relativistic confusion where each person, in his misguided and poorly founded pursuit of love and happiness, to which the laws of nature entitle him (here in America, we’re really good at talking about our individual liberties), has become a god unto himself. We are ready to follow emotion rather than reason, and to reject a call to cold and unimpassioned examination of facts. Such a course of action would undoubtedly lead to all kinds of unpleasantness, after all. It’s much nicer to let people who maybe don’t know any better do irreparable damage to themselves, their children, and the people they love, than it is to convince them that they might have made a mistake. It’s easier, too. Believe it or not, I don’t exactly fancy someone spitting on me and throwing lit cigarettes at me.

So, what will it be, friends? Comfort, or truth?

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World.

 

Why Saving Mr. Banks is Worth Seeing

Disney’s newest dramatic offering, Saving Mr. Banks, made a quiet splash over Christmas. But for all it’s unobtrusiveness, the story of how Walt Disney finally convinced the reluctant author of Mary Poppins, Pamela L. Travers, to allow him to make her beloved novel into a movie is one of the best films to come out of the studio in some time. The performances are stellar, there are plenty of decent reviews out there, and this post is not meant to be another, except to say that in spite of all the contested opinions about the key players and how they are represented, the movie stands on its own as a good story. However, the film also deals with two important themes that are either overlooked or only briefly mentioned in the reviews, but which offer two key reasons why you should see it.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Walt Disney Films.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Walt Disney Films.

One of these themes is the tension between two artists over the concept of an original work of art. P.L. Travers conceived of Mary Poppins and through her own creative gifts brought the plot, setting, and characters to life through the medium of words. It is clear throughout the film that the novel is beloved, and not only by children – adults “can’t put it down.” As the artist, Travers is charged with preserving the integrity of the work and she has a horror – an arguably justified one – of the “art” Disney produces. She rightfully believes his “animated cartoons” have no place in or business with her story and is convinced he will ruin it. Her anxiety is borne out time and again as she discovers daily the “adaptations” he plans for her art, each one taking the original concept farther and farther from the “truth” of the story as she imagined it.

Critics may see Travers’s attitude in all of this as uptight and unappreciative. But the theme and the lesson it begs to teach is a critical one. To understand the weight of it we need look no further than December’s novel-to-film premiere of Peter Jackson’s newest Hobbit film. There is no need to waste time reviewing the film; rather, I only want to point out by way of example that the film had very little to do with Tolkien’s novel. The departure from the original work of art was overt and extensive and, sadly, horrifying. While Tolkien’s novel offered a fairy tale coming-of-virtue saga in the best of the tradition and appropriate for all ages, Jackson’s film dispenses with the theme of virtue pretty much entirely in favor of gratuitous, malicious violence — including decapitations, extended bitter battle scenes and grotesque orcs which do not appear in the novel – and weakly drawn “new” characters who forge relationships which simply do not exist in any of Tolkien’s work, not to mention the egregious abuse the character of Legolas endures in a story Tolkien never intended him to appear in.

The travesty Jackson perpetrates on Tolkien’s art is exactly the type of travesty Travers fears her work will suffer at the hands of Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. It is a disturbing cultural trend that it now acceptable to judge the merits of a vast array of literary arts by the film adaptations made of them. It is so easy to just “see the film” of anything these days, rather than to commit to the mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual effort involved in engaging over time with a literary text. Sadly it isn’t unusual to hear someone say, as I did recently, when I told a woman she really ought to read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, “Oh, I really didn’t like that movie at all!”  Her experience with a mediocre movie soured her on reading the book, which is in essence very different from the film. The ease with which we say, “I’ll just watch the film” version of any book distances us from the truth that an author, somewhere in time, grappled mightily to bring this text to life, a text we see no problem with reducing to mere fragments of sound bites that more often than not have little if anything to do with the original work.

Thus, one of the things Saving Mr. Banks does is remind us of the delicate tension that exists between preserving an artist’s original intention in her work alongside the creative potential of the artist who would reinterpret it through a new medium. The integrity of the original work must be respected. We owe it to authors, and to ourselves, to experience the text in its original form before experiencing it reimagined, regurgitated or remade by someone else. Saving Mr. Banks and the example of Jackson’s non-Hobbit remind us of what is at stake and what can be lost when we fail to respect the integrity and dignity of a work of art.

The other idea Saving Mr. Banks explores well is Tolkien’s principle of eucatastrophe: story, particularly fairy story, can and should be a healing event in the life of the reader by way of the consoling joy of the happy ending – even though it arises from what looks to be darkness itself – and all of the hope and promise contained within it. Writers write, consciously or unconsciously, about what they experience in life; their art grows out of who they are as human beings, of what they know and believe of life, and the ways in which their experience has affected them. In the film, Travers writes to heal and to make what went wrong in her past somehow right. She writes to save lives, her own and her father’s. “These characters are family to me,” Travers says, hinting not only at how closely the artist relates to her work, but to the truth behind the art: that literature arises from experience, in order to make sense of it, to heal from it, to share it. The braided flashbacks of Travers’s life that punctuate the film show the visceral truth of this element of the writer’s life.

For all his faults and scheming, Disney does see that the crux of Travers’s novel

Walt Disney Pictures

Walt Disney Pictures

isn’t about the children at all, but about what Mary Poppins is able to do to save Mr. Banks. Disney’s ability to express his deep understanding of this to Travers affirms the very core of her as an artist. Though their artistic vision is fundamentally different, he sees the truth of her story and promises her that he can and will make this element stand out in his film adaptation, telling her the job of a storyteller is to reintroduce order, to mend, to heal. This is a beautifully stated reminder of Tolkien’s principle that is sadly lost in much modern storytelling.  Whether or not Disney’s film adaptation of Travers’s novel is finally faithful is open to question; in the world of the film, that the principle of fidelity to the goal of the art is even raised is noteworthy and deserving of attention. Ultimately, Travers does experience her own happy ending, a catharsis and healing evidenced by the fact that her mood and attitude is significantly lighter at the end of the film than it was at the beginning. In addition, she takes up writing again and lets the light shine on the darkness of her solitary life. It might be she needed to see her happy ending through some other storyteller’s eyes to gain the benefit of healing. In the end, this is a truth many of us can relate to and appreciate. The film’s depiction of it is touching.

Saving Mr. Banks undoubtedly presents an amazing cast at the top of their game, an excellent script, and technical accomplishment. But Disney’s ultimate success with the film is in pointing to the dignity of the artist, to the integrity of the literary arts as deserving of great respect, and to the core truth of the healing power of any good story in its essence.  In doing so, the film raises a gauntlet for those who assume the challenges that come with adapting an original literary work of art to another medium. The irony that this gauntlet is thrown down by Disney is not lost on this writer. And maybe that is another reason the film is worth going to see.

 

Pre-Christian Infusion: Faith. Hope and Charity in The Lord of the Rings

David Rozema

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes the four cardinal moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice from the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity). He maintains that the moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice are virtues only in “a restricted sense”: they bring only a “natural happiness.” But the very same moral virtues can be a part of a “supernatural happiness” if the practice of them is supported by the theological virtues. So a person may possess the moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice without possessing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but that person’s moral virtue will be imperfect. [Read more...]

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When the Goad Rises

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, the priests at my parish celebrate mass in the Extraordinary Form. Which is great, you know, because if I happen to be there on those evenings, I get to feel morally superior and well-educated, because I know when to sit and kneel down and stand up and genuflect and bow and cross myself and beat myself. And I know Latin. And I have a missal. So that adds up to what? 8 gold stars? Let’s keep it to a modest 7, since kneeling and genuflecting are kind of the same thing.

Thirty seconds before communion, the priest holds up the host, and I get excited to say the Domine non sum dignus prayer because I like the way Latin sounds, and I like the fact that I know that prayer, and can rattle it off without even thinking, while the uneducated plebe at the end of the pew is hopelessly lost even when he tries to read along.

And then, disaster strikes.

The guy 6 pews ahead on my right starts thumping his chest with notable abandon, and reciting the prayer with deafening volume, conspicuous speed, and deadly accuracy. And. my. goad. rises. Who the hell does he think he is? What a moron. What a self-righteous dweeb. Get over yourself already, dude.

Enter Brideshead Revisited. (Let’s be honest; when does it not enter?) “When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating.”

Remember when Julia hits Charles in the face? "'I hate it.' Her anger was as  unexpected as every change on  this  evening of swift veering moods. Suddenly  she  cut me  across  the face  with  her switch,  a vicious, stinging little blow as hard as she could strike. 'Now do you see how I hate it?' She hit me again.

Remember when Julia hits Charles in the face? “‘I hate it.’ Her anger was as unexpected as every change on this evening of swift veering moods. Suddenly she cut me across the face with her switch, a vicious, stinging little blow as hard as she could strike. ‘Now do you see how I hate it?’ She hit me again.”

We all just came back from Christmas, right? Family. Oh yes. Our families. There is nothing we dislike so much as seeing our own faults writ large. There is nothing so troubling as seeing our own weaknesses bared, out on display, raw and fractious and ready for a fight. And there is nowhere that the elements for such titanic disaster align so perfectly as at a large family gathering. The thing about families is, they share the bad traits as well as the good ones. Parents love it when their children look like them; it makes them feel proud, like they’ve left a mark on the world, and reminds them that they’re immortal and powerful (I helped create that child!). And guess what else? Even if they fail to realize it, as often they do, parents are particularly harsh with those children who most perpetuate their own faults. We do hate to be reminded of our shortcomings and failures (I helped spawn that thieving hooligan! Or, you know, whatever it is you’ve been spawning lately.).

So, here I am to preach at you. You see, after all, what with my 7 gold stars and everything, that’s what I’m qualified to do. Next time you feel like throttling somebody, chucking your substantial missal across 6 pews to knock the holy-roller off his kneeler, walloping the 6 year old or the 16 year old, badmouthing the boss or belittling your brother, take a breather. Think of the ways you’re like that idiot, and realize what it is you’re actually hating.

A New Kind of New Year’s Resolution

While I’ve never been much for making New Year’s resolutions, I do try to think about the things I’d like to do differently and the things I’d like to accomplish each New Year. And that is the thing about resolutions – they are all about “I”. This is not necessarily a negative; goodness knows there are an infinite number of things I could and should work to improve upon in my life and in my self. But this is where most resolutions begin and end – with ME. Which is likely why most of mine fade into the background, because I lack the resolve, strength, memory, or will to fulfill them over the course of the year. There is a paradox here – I want to be the one to make the necessary changes, but the truth is I am my own biggest obstacle.

Mary Untier of Knots, painted by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, c. 1700. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary Untier of Knots, painted by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, c. 1700. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Catholic Church celebrates New Year’s Day as the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. This is a day, the first day of a new year filled with hope and promise, in which the Church invites me to remember that I have a mother who is very concerned with everything that concerns me and all those I care about. She wants me to remember to involve and include her in my thoughts, plans, hopes, dreams, and resolutions for the year. This year, instead of going it alone as has been my past practice, I’ve decided to turn over my resolutions and all that needs fixing and improving and adjusting in my life to someone else’s more capable hands: Mary, the Untier of Knots.

The knots and difficulties I experience in my relationships and family life; the knots and difficulties associated with my health, finances, teaching, and writing; the knots and difficulties with my spiritual life and the lives of those most dear to me; the knots and difficulties associated with the good I’d like to do in the world and the suffering that breaks my heart . . . Mary’s capable hands can attend to all these things and more. Not only that, but unlike myself, Mary doesn’t get tired or discouraged or bored or forgetful about any of these resolutions. Full of God’s grace and love, she lives to act as the conduit of that same grace and love in my life, working tirelessly to untie the knots that paralyze me, that hold me bound and keep me from moving closer towards holiness and her Son. And because some knots are necessary and useful in life, Mary can take the loose ends that I am helpless to connect or understand the meaning or purpose of and find ways to knit and weave them together, creating the lasting, necessary grace-knots that aid me along on my walk of faith through this life.

This year, the only resolution I am making is to hang this image of the Blessed Mother in a prominent place in my home, to pray to God to deepen my faith and trust in His providence, and continue to make the effort to entrust all the resolutions and plans and dreams and aspirations and hopes I would like to make to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plans for my life and the lives of those I love. With her help and intercession, the knots in my life can be undone or reworked, my faith life can deepen, and the joy of God’s love can work through me to others as each knot/obstacle is loosened.

May the coming year be a blessed one for you and all whom you love. Mary, untier of knots, pray for us!

Our Holy Father has been a consistent reminder of the need for Mary in our lives and has himself a great devotion to Mary as the Undoer of Knots. Read on for excerpts from Pope Francis’s beautiful catechesis on Mary’s work as the untier of knots for all and how it corresponds to her faith journey, which serves as an example for our own, as well as a portion of his homily on this Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. 

From “The Faith of Mary” delivered Saturday October 12, 2013

. . . Mary always brings us to Jesus. She is a woman of faith, a true believer. What was Mary’s faith like?

1. The first aspect of her faith is this: Mary’s faith unties the knot of sin (cf. Lumen Gentium, 56). What does that mean? The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council took up a phrase of Saint Irenaeus, who states that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary; what the virgin Eve bound by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith” (Adversus Haereses, III, 22, 4).

The “knot” of disobedience, the “knot” of unbelief. When children disobey their parents, we can say that a little “knot” is created. This happens if the child acts with an awareness of what he or she is doing, especially if there is a lie involved. At that moment, they break trust with their parents. How often does this happen! Then the relationship with their parents needs to be purified of this fault; the child has to ask forgiveness so that harmony and trust can be restored. Something of the same sort happens in our relationship with God. When we do not listen to him, when we do not follow his will, we do concrete things that demonstrate our lack of trust in him – for that is what sin is – and a kind of knot is created deep within us. These knots take away our peace and serenity. They are dangerous, since many knots can form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo.

But nothing is impossible for God’s mercy! Even the most tangled knots are loosened by his grace. And Mary, whose “yes” opened the door for God to undo the knot of the ancient disobedience, is the Mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that he can untangle the knots of our soul by his fatherly mercy. We might ask ourselves: What knots do I have in my life? Do I ask Mary to help me trust in God’s mercy, in order to change?

2. A second aspect is that Mary’s faith gave human flesh to Jesus. As the Council says: “Through her faith and obedience, she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, without knowing man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 63). This was a point on which the Fathers of the Church greatly insisted: Mary first conceived Jesus in faith and then in the flesh, when she said “yes” to the message God gave her through the angel. What does this mean? It means that God did not want to become man by ignoring our freedom; he wanted to pass through Mary’s free assent, her “yes”.

But what took place most singularly in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us, spiritually, when we receive the word of God with a good and sincere heart and put it into practice. It is as if God takes flesh within us; he comes to dwell in us, for he dwells in all who love him and keep his word.

Let us ask ourselves: Do we think about this? Or do we think that Jesus’ incarnation is simply a past event which has nothing to do with us personally? Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. It means giving him our hands, to caress the little ones and the poor; our feet, to go forth and meet our brothers and sisters; our arms, to hold up the weak and to work in the Lord’s vineyard, our minds, to think and act in the light of the Gospel; and especially our hearts, to love and to make choices in accordance with God’s will. All this happens thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. Let us be led by him!

3. The third aspect is Mary’s faith as a journey. The Council says that Mary “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith” (Lumen Gentium, 58). In this way she precedes us on this pilgrimage, she accompanies and sustains us.

How was Mary’s faith a journey? In the sense that her entire life was to follow her Son: he is the way, he is the path! To press forward in faith, to advance in the spiritual pilgrimage which is faith, is nothing other than to follow Jesus; to listen to him and be guided by his words; to see how he acts and to follow in his footsteps; to have his same sentiments of humility, mercy, closeness to others, but also his firm rejection of hypocrisy, duplicity and idolatry. The way of Jesus is the way of a love which is faithful to the end, even unto sacrificing one’s life; it is the way of the cross. The journey of faith thus passes through the cross. Mary understood this from the beginning, when Herod sought to kill the newborn Jesus. But then this experience of the cross became deeper when Jesus was rejected and Mary’s faith encountered misunderstanding and contempt, and when Jesus’ “hour” came, the hour of his passion, when Mary’s faith was a little flame burning in the night. Through the night of Holy Saturday, Mary kept watch. Her flame, small but bright, remained burning until the dawn of the resurrection. And when she received word that the tomb was empty, her heart was filled with the joy of faith: Christian faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was the culmination of Mary’s journey of faith, and that of the whole Church. What is our faith like? Like Mary, do we keep it burning even at times of difficulty and darkness? Do I have the joy of faith?

 

From Pope Francis’s homily of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, delivered January 1, 2014. 

“Our pilgrimage of faith has been inseparably linked to Mary ever since Jesus, dying on the Cross, gave her to us as our Mother, saying: “Behold your Mother!” (Jn 19:27). These words serve as a testament, bequeathing to the world a Mother. From that moment on, the Mother of God also became our Mother! When the faith of the disciples was most tested by difficulties and uncertainties, Jesus entrusted them to Mary, who was the first to believe, and whose faith would never fail. The “woman” became our Mother when she lost her divine Son. Her sorrowing heart was enlarged to make room for all men and women, all, whether good or bad, and she loves them as she loved Jesus. The woman who at the wedding at Cana in Galilee gave her faith-filled cooperation so that the wonders of God could be displayed in the world, at Calvary kept alive the flame of faith in the resurrection of her Son, and she communicates this with maternal affection to each and every person. Mary becomes in this way a source of hope and true joy!

The Mother of the Redeemer goes before us and continually strengthens us in faith, in our vocation and in our mission. By her example of humility and openness to God’s will she helps us to transmit our faith in a joyful proclamation of the Gospel to all, without reservation. In this way our mission will be fruitful, because it is modeled on the motherhood of Mary. To her let us entrust our journey of faith, the desires of our heart, our needs and the needs of the whole world, especially of those who hunger and thirst for justice and peace, and for God. Let us then together invoke her, and I invite you to invoke her three times, following the example of those brothers and sisters of Ephesus: Mother of God! Mother of God! Mother of God! Amen.”

 

 

 

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