Wiseblood Books

A Crime for Our Times

Growing up in the Colombia of the ’80s and ’90s, I find among the memories of my formative years numerous episodes that shock my American friends. While my day-to-day life in Colombia largely resembled that of an upper middle-class American kid—bus to school in the morning, tennis at the club in the afternoon, Saved by the Bell and homework to wrap up the day—it was impossible, hard as one’s family might try, not to be touched by the violent reality of those decades. There was the time my dad was almost blown up by a car-bomb, the guerrilla attack, the kidnapping of one of my classmates, the two or three bombs I heard go off with my own ears, the “guerrilla drills” we had at school in place of what Americans call fire drills—I could go on.

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I have been thinking a lot about those experiences recently in light of the mass-shootings that seem to plague the United States every few months. Because though I grew up in a place where for a while one literally couldn’t turn on the nightly news without hearing about some bomb, kidnapping, or assassination, there’s something about these shootings that leaves me cold. In Colombia, I had grown so desensitized that on one night when five bombs exploded around the city—the closest of which had gone off less than a mile away—I not only felt no urge to cower under my bed, but actually went out on the town with my friends (I mean, it was a Friday, after all). I saw during my time there (through the TV) a woman murdered with a necklace-bomb—along with the heroic explosives agents who tried to save her—buildings full of people blown to nothing, and who knows how many of my personal heroes shot to death. Yet I doubt if anything I have witnessed chills me as much as the thought of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Navy Yards, and all the rest.

So I’ve been wondering why. What is it about this brand of atrocities that makes them so grossly disturbing?

The first thing that strikes me is that, disgusting as it sounds, the random-shooting-concluding-with-the-perpetrator’s-suicide has become by now a fixture of our culture—one could almost call it a motif. Like the fanatical suicide bomber in other parts of the world, the random mass shooting is a very particular type of crime, one that outside the United States and parts of Europe is almost unheard of. And like a sickening art or ritual, this kind of crime follows a set of conventions, a form that we’ve come to recognize and even expect. It won’t do to simply point out the mental imbalance of the perpetrators. There have always been madmen—why do ours lash out in this particular way?

They say every country deserves the kind of government it gets, and I am tempted to say the same about the kind of crimes that devastate a people. Recently, while discussing the topic with some friends, the conversation immediately turned to politics, gun-control in particular. Personally, I care little for that debate, one that is itself also a facet of American culture. As a relative outsider to the whole thing, not having grown up with an emotional investment on either side of the question, I’ve come to sympathize with both sides. While at first I found the ease of purchasing a gun in the United States frankly shocking, understanding the nation’s unique history with regard to individual liberties and its tradition of robustly resisting any encroachment by the government—the same attitudes that have preserved in this country a range for freedom of speech such as is known in few other places—has made me appreciate much more than I used to the position of Second Amendment advocates. But in the end, whatever policy is right, I tend to think of the whole debate as almost beside the question. Because to look at this pageant of horrors—to see a man entering a crowded building, shooting at people for no particular reason, and finally killing himself—and see in it little more than a set of bad laws, is to miss the point entirely. No doubt we should do what we can to prevent senseless murders. But if we remain a society where a significant number of people nurture a desire to commit this sort of atrocity, even if as a matter of fact they can’t, to what extent can we really call that progress? There is something much darker at work here than what mere policies can fix.

I see it when I think of all the kinds of violence that I knew in Colombia. Whatever makes the US shootings so disturbing is not at the level of the objective acts: in both cases we have people killing people in cold blood, and just as in the US, in Colombia it was often kids doing the shooting. The violence there was often also perpetrated in a perfectly nonchalant manner, as if snuffing out a life were a mere errand, an item to check off from a to-do list. But horrible as they might be, one thing about all the crimes I knew of in Colombia was that they were intelligible. All of them, in other words, where committed for a purpose, all in the twisted pursuit of some apparent good. Most often it was easy money, or a sense of power or status, or at least a misguided attempt at retribution against some perceived personal or social injustice. However paltry the motives, one could recognize in them the twisted logic that usually attends human evil, the same we have known since Cain murdered his brother. When it is greed or revenge or the lust for power that leads to a crime, there remains something recognizably human in the very way the moral law is violated. The pursuit of some end, no matter how twisted in reality, makes the criminal follow a familiar pattern of human striving after the good, even if only as mockery. These kinds of crime attest to the moral law even as they violate it.

But things look very different when we look at Columbine-style shootings. They are crimes that attest only to the utter meaninglessness of everything—that, and the apparent narcissism of the perpetrators. The murderer seeks nothing from the victims, very often has never even seen them before. Whenever some perceived grievance does exist, is it usually of the most tenuous kind—not so much a motive as an excuse.  And what does it all conclude with? With the only crime that, as Chesterton puts it, allows the perpetrator to wipe out the whole world: suicide. The whole point of the entire act is that there is no point.

John Paul II’s description of ours as a culture of death has, unfortunately, descended almost to the level of a cliché. Events like these bring into focus the full horror hidden within those words. If these crimes are a facet of our culture, if they disturb us like few other forms of violence, it is because they are a stark image of the meaninglessness that pervades so many aspects of life—and so many individual lives—in the modern industrialized West. The mass shooting is truly a crime for our times. And no politics, no policies, no law is going to save us from it—unless it is the law of Love, the only antidote we’ve been given to the pandemic of nihilism that is killing us.

Contemplating a Literary Relic: Reflections For Writers

The écritoire (writing desk) of St. Therese of Lisieux has been making a quiet and brief pilgrimage to a smattering of parishes across the country. While the humble little desk might not be cause for much excitement for those devoted to St. Therese, devotees of the Little Flower who are also writers will find much to ponder and pray over in contemplating this literary relic.

The writing desk of St. Therese of Lisieux. Photo used with permission: Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

The writing desk of St. Therese of Lisieux. Photo used with permission: Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

Long before she became the saint we know and love today, Therese was both a writer and a painter. Known the world over for her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Therese’s other writings are virtually unknown; yet she was a talented writer who dabbled in many forms. According to the Lisieux Carmel Archives, Therese wrote eight theater plays, 62 poems, 95 letters, and 21 prayers, in addition to the three manuscripts that comprise her spiritual autobiography. Her plays were produced in the Lisieux Carmel for the entertainment of the sisters and novices – there are even photographs of Therese in the leading role of her heroine, Joan of Arc. Her poetry is deeply moving and introspective, its style reminiscent of the consummate poet and Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, whose works inspired and influenced Therese. And a majority of her written works were composed on this little desk, making it a uniquely literary spiritual relic.

Sadly, I learned the desk visited a parish in my diocese, just 8 miles away, the day after it departed. But as Therese says, “Everything is grace,” and simply knowing the relic existed and had been near held some special gift for me. As I pondered what I know of Therese and her life as a writer, I realized there are graces to be gained from contemplating the relic, whether or not I was privileged to see it. The desk is is a reminder that Therese’s little way of spiritual childhood is not only appropriate for living our daily lives, but for living our writing lives as well. Following are some things I reflected on while contemplating the desk which serve as a reminder that there can be no separation between daily living and my writing life.

Effort

Therese’s desk is a reminder that God is pleased with my effort. She always said that since she is such a little child, she could never be expected to do great things; rather, it was enough for her to trust in God and allow Him to work greatness through her, if He desired. Just as a parent is pleased when she sees her daughter make the great effort to take her first steps before falling down, so God is pleased when I take the gifts He has given me and do my best to practice my craft and bring ideas and inspirations to fruition. But without God’s help, my effort won’t come to much. The desk reminds me to do the best I am able, trusting God to handle the rest and to make up for everything I lack.

Embracing crosses

Therese suffered greatly—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—during much of the time she spent writing her autobiography, poems, plays, prayers, and letters. Her simple desk reminds me that the practice of my art will be paved with crosses. Sometimes these will take the form of simple irritations—my son may need my attention during my scheduled writing time, or perhaps my writing time is fraught with paralyzing “writer’s block.” Other crosses will be more humiliating and challenging—perhaps my work will not be well-received or will be misunderstood or mocked, perhaps the birth of a particular piece of writing will bring with it great pain, perhaps in spite of my “effort,” all of my work will come to nothing. The life of the artist in any field is fraught with struggles, uncertainty, and often pain. But the desk reminds me that my art is a key part of my pathway to sanctity and holiness. I can expect nothing less than to meet the cross of Christ; Therese reminds me to ask for the grace to embrace it.

Entrustment

This charming watercolor from the Lisieux archive shows Therese writing, overshadowed by the

Watercolor of Therese writing Manuscript A. Used with permission of the Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

Watercolor of Therese writing Manuscript A. Used with permission of the Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

Holy Spirit, with the statue of Our Lady of the Smile looking on from the doorway.  The little écritoire is a reminder that the practice of my literary art must come from an attitude of entrustment (especially to Mary) and prayer. In his book My Vocation Is Love, Jean Lafrance points out that for Therese writing was an act of prayer:

“She did not merely write for the sake of writing or to be read, but to pray . . . The book of Therese’s writings brings home to us in a particular way how writing can help us to pray . . . Therese does not write to look at herself but to contemplate Jesus’ privileges in her soul.”

I may not be called to write a spiritual memoir, but as a Catholic writer I am obligated to reflect the workings of grace on the human soul through the characters I realize in my work. Contemplating the desk reminds me of the need to entrust the right exercise of my literary gifts to the One from whom they come, so that my work might reflect His work and presence in the world.

Enthusiasm

Therese approaches her writing with a childlike simplicity that leaves no room for anxiety, stress, or doubt. She writes: “I am not breaking my head over the writing of my little life. It’s like fishing with a line: I write whatever comes to the end of my pen.” (Last Conversations 63) In his beautiful book Journey With Therese of Lisieux: Celebrating the Artist in Us All, Michael McGrath suggests the importance of modeling Therese’s attitude in our own work and posits that Therese was only able to create her masterpiece because she did not have “the distraction of perfectionism lurking over her shoulder.” Little children do not worry about being perfect—little children give themselves over totally to the experience of creating art. They revel in paint, they babble unselfconsciously, excited by the new sounds and words coming from their mouths. The desk reminds me that God has blessed me with the talent to write and that part of showing my gratitude for this gift is to share it unselfconsciously with others. Pride of perfectionism has no place in the right exercise of my gift. The desk reminds me to approach the practice of my art with the enthusiasm of a child at play.

Eucatastrophe

Therese, in her simplicity of faith, knew the truth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s principle of “euchatastrophe” (or the joy of a good ending) before he ever explored it in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” The principle is present in the Word of God itself and so is a foundational principle of faith. Therese knew that, if done in the proper spirit of love for others and devotion to God, her words had the power to help lead souls to Christ. There are many stories of conversions and healing via one individual’s experience of another’s written work. One has only to recall Edith Stein’s powerful encounter reading the life of Teresa of Avila. More recently, as efforts are underway to open a cause for his canonization, we are hearing stories of people moved to conversion by the works of G. K. Chesterton. John Keats, who lost his Christian faith, still never lost his belief in poetry’s power to heal a weary soul. As a Catholic writer, I need to be conscious of the power my words have to effect change in each person who encounters my work. Therese’s desk—and her works—remind me of the truth of the joy of the happy ending and inspire me to follow Tolkien’s principle of eucatastrophe in my own writing.

It is an intensely intimate and inspiring gift to observe and contemplate the tools and products of another writer’s commitment to the craft, to witness and study the fruits of their dedication to their gift. Therese’s writing desk reminds us all that the path to holiness and the practice of one’s art go hand-in-hand. Each rightly-ordered effort at practicing our given artistic gifts can become one more opportunity, one more moment of grace, in which God can work to baptize our imaginations.

For thorough and continuously updated information about the tour of Therese’s writing desk, the cause for canonization for her parents Louis and Zelie Martin, and everything related to St. Therese, her spirituality, and the Carmelite heritage, please visit Maureen O’Riordan’s excellent site St Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway.

A Fire-Stained and Blackened Cathedral: An Interview with Joshua Hren

Meredith Wise: What made you want to translate La Femme Pauvre? You mentioned that Bloy had some connection with Jacques and Raissa Maritain, who inspired your novel In the Wine Press (parts of which have been published, of course, in Dappled Things).

Joshua Hren: I first came across La Femme Pauvre—the name of the novel, not an actual copy of it—ten years ago, in 2002. [Read more...]

The Telos of a University

Mark C. Henrie

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Why go to college?

Here is a peculiarity of American life today: The young man or woman in high school invests enormous time and energy in the process of choosing and applying to the best colleges and universities within reach. Guidebooks are consulted, campus visits made, prep courses for the SAT or ACT taken with genuine zeal. Essays are honed and polished beyond anything ever written for a class assignment. Applications are placed in the mail, and students then fret day and night about the status of their case. [Read more...]

Cinemanemia or Revenge of the Bloodsucked

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

“I didn’t like it. It wasn’t serious enough.”

It was a reasonable enough comment out of context, but with my knowledge of the subject under discussion (i.e., the virtues and vices of a raucously goofy film about melodramatic vampyres, ancient curses, and heroes and heroines acting in a highly improbable but impassioned manner) the moment was rather piquant. Why would one go to a film about vampyres and expect it to be serious? Isn’t that rather like expecting a profound and coherent sociological message from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein? [Read more...]

Orders of the Analogical Imagination: An Introduction to ‘Catholicism and Modern American Poetry’

James Matthew Wilson

Some years ago, while I was still an undergraduate student of modern poetry, a professor of mine, who was an observant Jew, came to class one afternoon in a mood either pensive or disturbed. On the agenda for the day was discussion of Wallace Stevens’ (1879-1955) most beautiful early poem, “Sunday Morning.” That particular work fell with a certain irony on the course calendar, said the professor, for he had himself just spent two days in synagogue celebrating Rosh Hashanah. How discomfiting, he confessed, to return to the classroom, having just meditated on God’s dynamic romance with human beings, in order to discuss the great poem of modern atheism. [Read more...]

Our Essential Disfigurement and the Reparation of Fiction An Interview with Joseph O'Brien (Editor of the 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction: Selected Short Stories)

Joshua Hren: First of all, short of a plenary indulgence, I can think of few gifts better than good fiction. On behalf of Dappled Things, many thanks to Tuscany Press for the gift of the finely crafted short-story “Eyes that Pour Forth,” which was recently published, along with the other prize-winning entries, in the short story collection you edited.

Joseph O’Brien: On behalf of our publisher Peter Mongeau, I thank you very much for the kind words. However, your readers should know that long before Tuscany Press came on the scene, Dappled Things has been almost single-handedly holding up the standard for budding Catholic writers. The fact that there is an interest these days among young Catholics to write fiction is due at least in part—and maybe even large part—to the presence of Dappled Things. [Read more...]

“The Splendor and the Wackiness”: An Interview with Heather King

Katy Carl

After living on both coasts of the United States, working jobs as diverse as waitress and lawyer, surviving alcoholism, cancer, and divorce, and undergoing a life-altering conversion, Catholic writer Heather King might be said to have seen it all. Her most recent memoir, Redeemed, strives to set down these experiences and more as viewed through the fresh eyes of a new Catholic. In her writing, King expresses a truth that her heroine Flannery O’Connor described: that, though faith may seem to some a “peculiar and arrogant blindness,” it can be an “extension of vision” when the believer engages and records reality with honesty and clarity. Or, as King puts it herself, faith enables us to see in a unique way “the meat and the splendor and the wackiness and the grittiness” of the world and of our experience. [Read more...]

Many Faces, One God: Many Languages, One Prayer

John Rogers

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Some years ago, I volunteered at the San Miguel school where for the past ten years the LaSallian Brothers have run a low-cost middle school in the center of Chicago’s most violent area, giving Latino children from low-income families the opportunity to receive a quality education. San Miguel is run out of an ancient parish building, all brick walls and tile floors. Classrooms are cavernous and musty, ripe with the scent of old chalk and cleaning agents. Windows dimmed with years of dust and grit overlook the school’s tiny parking lot, which is framed by a rusty chain-link fence. The dilapidated building sat unused for years until the Brothers moved in, and as time has passed, art classes have brightened it with murals and paintings. One such work of art is a ten-foot image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted in vibrant blues, greens, and yellows, watching lovingly over the main stairwell. [Read more...]

Naming Sin: Flannery O’Connor’s Mark on Bruce Springsteen

Damian J. Ference

Not so long ago Bruce Springsteen made a surprise visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland to take in an exhibit dedicated to his life’s work.1 The exhibit, which took up two entire floors of the museum, was filled with artifacts from Springsteen’s life, including guitars, clothing, hand-written lyrics, and walls of photographs. One of the photographs was of an eight year-old Springsteen, standing with hands folded in front of the high altar at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Freehold, New Jersey—Springsteen’s first communion picture. [Read more...]

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