A Case For the Devil

Damian J. Ference

After twenty-three years of Catholic school I can count on one hand the number of lessons or lectures I remember about the devil.

My first bit of formal instruction came in kindergarten. Sister Vincent taught us a song about having joy in our hearts, and if the devil didn’t like it he could sit on a tack. I had a hard time seeing the need for an archangel like Michael, having his way with the devil while wielding a shiny silver sword, if a sharp tack would do the job just as well. [Read more...]

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The Space Between: Ritual and the Practice of Art

“ Routine is the condition of survival.” – Flannery O’Connor

Is ritual necessary to the making of art? I hear arguments on both sides. While I have recently heard several writers I respect more or less say that for them writing rituals are anathema, the truth is that artists throughout history have settled themselves into the necessary frame of mind and physical space by marking the time set aside for the practice of their craft with some type of highly personal ritual. And it appears as though the having of a ritual is more the norm than not having one, at least that is one thing I gathered from exploring Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Curry.

One of Curry’s goals with the book is to “show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.”  In essence, it is these small, often seemingly insignificant, routines and rituals that box off the incremental bits of time necessary to make art, that in fact create the space between daily life and artistic practice which allow an artist to set aside not only the time, but her very self, to become an instrument in service to her unique gift.

Mark Twain writing in bedThe word routine suggests the idea of merely going through the motions or even a lack of engagement with the task at hand. But Curry makes the point that daily routines or rituals surrounding one’s creative practice are also choices and that “in the right hands, [these choices] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.” In other words the routine or ritual signifies the settling down to the task at hand, it initiates the habitual practice which will allow the work to commence, proceed and ultimately finish. It is a signal to the body and the mind that “it is time.” Thus, for certain artists, rituals can be an essential component in their creative processes. And these rituals or routines are as widely diverse as the artists who practice them and Curry’s book is an enjoyable wealth of examples of the diverse ways in which all sorts of artists approach the time designated to engage their work.

I confess to having a simple ritual for accomplishing my writing, and while it is assuredly less colorful than some others, it is no less effective in enabling me to achieve an openness of body, mind, and spirit in which I can create.

My ritual begins with an obnoxious alarm, which does a pretty decent job of dragging me out of bed at 5 a.m. on most mornings. After a valiant effort at my morning meditation, it’s a solitary coffee and breakfast during which I spend about 30 minutes reading — this nutritional caffeinated interlude is essential to promote blood flow to my still somnambulent brain – at the end of which I am ready to pay a visit to my novel.

The room where I write is dark. I light a fragrant candle, bless myself, and say a prayer for guidance in my work. The candle and prayer are essential reminders that I am beholden for the gift of my art and that whatever I manage to craft must bear light within it.

Then it’s time for poetry, which at the moment happens to be a moment’s rest reading selections from Averno, by Louise Gluck. I read somewhere that a writer should read a poem a day to keep her use of language supple and facile and I think this is wise advice. Prefacing my writing time in the company of a brilliant word-artist is the mental equivalent to stretching before lifting weights. Words used with precision fire strong images and sensations in my mind, speeding access to the as yet undiscovered store of words, ideas, and pictures waiting to be chosen to bring the world I am creating to life.

Then I simply write as much as I can on my own project for 15 or 20 minutes. At the end of my allotted writing time, I save what I’ve written, say a prayer in thanksgiving for the work I’ve been able to do, blow out the candle, and walk back to the world outside my imagination to begin my day as mom-teacher-wife and all that entails. Far from feeling routine, these simple daily habits leading up to and through my writing time immediately prepare my mind, limber up my imagination, and open an emotional and spiritual space to encounter the strange mystery of the creative process. They enable me to persevere in finding my way through the fictional world and characters I am creating. From my own experience I can say that having a ritual attached to my writing practice reminds me what I’m about and signals to my brain and heart that the time to work and “be” in the world of my novel is NOW.

This doesn’t mean that I am unable to write without the ritual, however, and I think this is an important point, because I hear other writers suggest that there is some sort of superstition attached to having a writing ritual, that it limits you to creating only against the backdrop of the ritual and conditions you to need or believe certain things about your artistic practice without which you hamstring yourself and so are unable to accomplish your work in the absence of said ritual. The mind is a vast and mysterious enterprise and certain temperaments or personalities are extremely susceptible to stimuli. For these individuals to align themselves and their creative practice to a routine or habit may make it impossible for them to do the work of art if their lives or circumstances change suddenly and the ritual becomes impossible or the space becomes unavailable or the object associated with their ritual is lost or destroyed. I like Bernard Malamud’s perspective on ritual as quoted in Curry’s book. Clearly, he sees value in rituals and routines, but emphasizes there is no substitution for hard work and self-knowledge.

“There’s no one way — there’s too much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place — you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time — not steal it — and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually, everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.”

It is up to each artist to ensure that the work takes priority over any ritual and that she is able to write in the absence of the ritual simply because the work must be done. After all, in my day-job, I must show up even if I do not have the right outfit or am missing some of my materials. The principle of committing to and accomplishing the work must take precedence over any “accessory” that inspires or motivates the worker.

That said, rituals can be of great assistance to certain artists. It’s all in how you think of them. In her book Pen On Fire, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett says that “rituals help us to change modes.” She compares a writer’s ritual and what it accomplishes to her actions upon entering a Catholic church, whereupon she immediately dips her finger into the holy water font and blesses herself. This simple act “helps me transition to a more spiritual place,” writes DeMarco-Barrett. “For writers, rituals counteract inertia and trigger the desire to write.” And for some writers, this is the golden ticket. For though writers may disagree on the importance of or even the need for ritual, no writer will ever tell you that it is easy to keep her butt in the chair – to even GET to the chair – to sit down to write. It is one of the most challenging aspects of the craft and no writer I’ve ever met has found it easy to WANT the pain of what writing really is, as opposed to the romantic notions we conceive when we aren’t actually doing the work. And this perhaps more than any other reason is a strong case for building ritual into your artistic practice – because it helps you to be and do what you are meant for. That’s a tall order, but the ritual helps us rise to the challenge.

The word ritual itself suggests formality. It even sounds religious. Ritual implies the act it signifies as being special and important, worthy of ceremony. We have ritual ceremonies for all of the special and important events in our communal lives as humans: We have rituals surrounding the swearing-in of witnesses, judges, and heads of state; rituals surrounding childbirth and death, commencements and weddings, birthdays and gala benefits. Rituals signify that the event we are participating in is something worthy of notice and that by our participation in the event we are in some sense “becoming” something other than what we are or were before. Rituals signify movement from one state of being to another.

The practice of creating art can and should be elevated to an act worthy of ritual, even if that means the ritual is carried out by the artist in solitude. The mere fact that an artist has a ritual implies and signifies an awareness of the importance of the creative act and the need to be very clearly present to the mystery inherent in that act, as well as to the mysterious transformation of self within the act.

In her diary, Virginia Woolf touches on this in a subtle, numinous way. She writes: “It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced in the raw. One must get out of life . . . one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain. . . [W]hen I write I’m merely a sensibility.” (Tuesday, August 22nd, 1922) in this, Woolf alludes to the practice of living in the present moment. Rituals can accomplish this, enabling the writer to be focused on the task at hand, with all its attendant requirements, open to the unfolding mystery of creation. If I believe the practice of my art is a sacred act, something like praying, my writing ritual is capable of  “transitioning me to [that] more spiritual place” which DeMarco-Barrett refers to, and in some way opens me to receive inspiration. My writing ritual allows me to escape mental chaos and distraction by placing me in the now, attentive only to what flows from some unknown place in my imagination to become the words on the page. It is an experience of seamless, quiet focus. It is the beginning of the practice of the presence of God. My ritual leads me to create from a place of prayer. All art can be a prayer when carried out with an eye towards being in the present moment. Writing rituals and the act of creativity itself are then elevated to something sacred and the ritual signifies the importance of the act.

Regardless of the oddity or seeming banality of the artistic ritual, the goal seems to be to open the artist, to move her out of absorption with the self, thus allowing her to become a conduit to the act of creation.  And this is a worthwhile goal to have, any way you accomplish it.

 

Portions of this piece originally appeared on Persephone Writes.

 

 

G.K. Chesterton and the Use of the Imagination

Dale Ahlquist 

The purpose of the imagination is to make us more like God. Sounds like something a serpent might say. But it’s not. That really is the purpose of the imagination. To make us more like God. After all, our imagination is a gift from God. It is perhaps one of the greatest gifts God has given us. It not only separates us from the beasts, it allows us to create new worlds of our own. Our imagination gives us a kind of omnipotence. There is almost nothing that we cannot do within the infinity of our minds. The Creator has made us in His own image. That is, he has made us creators. Our creativity is re-creation. And yes, it is recreation as well. It is restorative and rejuvenating. It is a pleasure. It is peace. It is a gift that we have abused, but perhaps even worse, it is a gift we have left unused. [Read more...]

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Idols and Ideals in Love

(Spoiler alert: I give away the endings of some of the books I talk about in this post.)

Ah, but I miss her.
All I have is a picture of her.
It was taken years ago,
I was a kid, you know,
Just leanin’ up against that El Dorado.

All of you bluegrass folk music fans out there probably recognize these lyrics from Old Crow Medicine Show’s “My Good Gal.” When I listen to this song, it makes me think about a lot of things. How are we supposed to draw the line between making an ideal out of love and our beloved, and being a cynic about the impossibility of love? Are we supposed to believe all the poems and songs and movies that talk about how powerful it is, how eternal it is, how transforming and beatific it is? Or, if we see other people who believe all that, perhaps we should shake our heads and say, wow, you poor dumb suckers, and walk away as the “sadder but wiser” participants in the game. I suppose I’m not the only one to wonder, as it seems that so many of the books I’ve read seem to have quite a bit to say on the subject.

When I was a teacher, I directed Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Briefly, it’s about a man whom everyone thought to be outstanding and perfect, intelligent and kind, who turns out to have a less-than-perfect past. His wife is a woman of high moral character and unyielding principles. When she discovers his history, it almost destroys their marriage. The scene of discovery:

Lady Chiltern: You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now—oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! the ideal of my life!

Sir Robert Chiltern: There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men: but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hand, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us — else what use is love at all? Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid I might lose your love, as I have lost it now. Let women make no more ideals of men! let them not put them on altars and bow before them, or they may ruin other lives as completely as you—you whom I have so wildly loved—have ruined mine! (43-44, Dover Thrift Editions)

Certainly, we can agree with Sir Robert that women make ideals of men. Young women are in love with love, and, when they find an object (and I say object though I am talking about a man, for he is functionally an object in the worst of these cases) which can supposedly carry the weight of all their fairy tales, well, they get used to the idea that this is it. This is “the perfect guy,” the one who will “make all their dreams come true.” It’s natural that every woman should assume that she will be the one to have the perfect life, because really, with any amount of self-respect, we recognize that we are worthy of perfection and so expect that we will have it. That’s a good thing, stemming from a sense of our dignity and worth and our privileged place in creation. And when we find that guy who makes the world seem like a better place, a finer world, who makes goodness seem more real merely by the fact of his existence, it’s easy to get carried away and decide that yes, here is the perfection for which I was made.

Where I disagree with Sir Robert is that men love women knowing all of their faults. Perhaps in some cases that is true, but certainly not in every case. It’s a two-way street; men are not immune from making ideals of the women they love. For instance, the concept of medieval love, which was by no means localized or specific to a certain place or story, was all about the man pedestalizing the woman whom he didn’t actually know. Think about Dante and Beatrice, or Arcite and Palamon falling in love with Emily in The Canterbury Tales. (There’s a great passage in Neville Coghill’s introduction to Chaucer that talks about the intensity of this practice—read up on it there if you need a little review.) And in the Old Crow song up at the top, guess what happens with his “El Dorado”?

And she don’t have the courtesy
To shut the door
when she’s been playin’ whore
Don’t wanna see his rags piled on the floor.

My good gal ain’t no good to me
And I only wish that she could see
That I miss her…

I drove her out of town,
And I shot her down,
And I left her there in the cold, cold ground.

El Dorado, huh? Bad for her, bad for him. For a little more development on this idea, let’s look at Jay Gatsby. Why did he ever fall for a flake like Daisy, anyway? Perhaps I’m being too harsh with her, but given the outcome of the book, I have very little energy to spend on pitying the ignoramus (ignorama?). Perhaps she had been more equal to him in her younger years, but, based on the following passage, I don’t think she ever deserved him. The narrator recounts the moment that Gatsby first kissed Daisy, shackled himself to a mortal, and limited his godly potential:

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (112, Scribners, 1953) (Footnote!)

Does he have any inkling of what that kiss would later compel him to do? He’s completely gone over her, and shapes his whole life, where and how he lives, in order to pursue her and win her back, years after this moment, years after she was married to someone else. He is giving up his incredible potential, for indeed he is a man of great talent and intelligence, to join himself with this perishable, white-faced girl. Certainly, she is beautiful. And certainly love requires sacrifice. But he gave up everything for her, remade himself, allowed himself to be incarnated in wedding his “unutterable visions” to her weak offering. He makes himself a slave to a woman unworthy of his great devotion, his star-struck love, and is killed because of it. Meanwhile, she lives without outward consequence for the harm she has done, the evil she has inflicted. Gatsby perhaps begins to realize his mistake as he is trying to convince Daisy to run away with him. In this scene, she is trapped between her husband (Tom) and her lover. She is too weak and torn to make a decision, as both press her, in turn, to stay and to flee. Her cousin, Nick, and her friend, Jordan, watch awkwardly. (I’ve curtailed the exchange here to the essential bits.)

Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.
“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Just tell him the truth—that you never loved him—and it’s all wiped out forever. . . You never loved him.”
She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing—and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all.
“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.
“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly. “Not that day I carried you down from the punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone . . . . “Daisy?”

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once—but I loved you too.” Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.
“You loved me too?” he repeated. (132-133)

Gatsby is perhaps realizing that Daisy is not what he once thought. No wonder she can’t stand under the weight of his expectations. She’s right—he does ask too much. Is it such a crime that she once loved her husband, perhaps does still love him? And besides, how many of us have only ever loved one person? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I think that it’s far more likely that most of us fall in love more than once. It would be glorious if each of us could end happily with the first person we fell in love with, and never had the distraction or memory of someone else who might at odd and unexpected times come back to our consciousness. But, realistically, how likely is that? And should we really hold it against someone else if they too have loved someone else before they loved us? Daisy’s predicament is slightly worse, of course, because she loved Gatsby “too.” I can understand his hurt in that situation. A little healthy jealousy in love is, well, healthy. But Daisy was set up for failure from the start, because she simply is no match for Gatsby. And, really, from the moment of her marriage, Gatsby’s destruction is marked. He’s charted himself, listening to the tuning of the stars, to pursue a woman who is not for him. Of course it ends in tragedy. He lived in a dream, just as did the speaker of the Old Crow song, and just as Lady Chiltern did.

Clearly, then, at this point we can all agree that making ideals of the man or woman that we love doesn’t end well for them, and it doesn’t end well for us. Pedestalizing and idolizing mere humans sets them up to fall short of our expectations, that is, sets them up for failure, and also sets us up to blame and perhaps hate them for it when it was really our fault in the first place. But does this mean that we have to throw up our hands and embrace a life of celibacy, because really, why should we put ourselves in a less than ideal situation? Why commit to something we know will only end in imperfection? Let’s hold out for that perfect situation, whatever it might be. That’s what we’re worth, after all. But, hold on. As Charles Ryder puts it in that most brilliantly and subtlely Catholic of all Catholic novels, “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.” (We could have a long discussion on what he means exactly, and various qualifications about how to understand that and how celibacy fits into it, but let’s accept it for now and hash it out later if you’re not happy.)

So, if that really is the root of all wisdom, perhaps it’s something we should contemplate doing. And if we should contemplate doing it, how on earth can we do it without lowering our self-respect by accepting something less than perfect, without lowering our standards, and without hurting either ourselves or the person we allow ourselves to love? Well, friends, this brings to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. At the end of it, incredibly enough, Jack “Binx” Bolling relinquishes his fascination with those big-bottomed sturdy western girls and weds his cousin, Kate (she’s not blood-related, in case you’re worried). Although Jack has his own issues to sort out, Kate is a mess, too. The following conversation takes place on Jack’s 30th birthday. He had promised his aunt that he would visit her that day and tell her his life plan. Kate asks him:

“What do you plan to do?”
I shrug. There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons. It only remains to decide whether this vocation is best pursued in a service station or—
“Are you going to medical school?”
“If she wants me to.”
“Does that mean you can’t marry me now?”
“No. You have plenty of money.”
“Then let us understand each other.”
“All right.”
“I don’t know whether I can succeed.”
“I know you don’t.”
“It seems the wildest sort of thing to do.”
“Yes.”
“We had better make it fast.”
“All right.”
“I am so afraid.” (233, Vintage International, 1989)

The “it” of the conversation is marriage, and Kate doesn’t know whether she can do it, thinks it the wildest sort of thing to do, and is terribly afraid of it. And Jack doesn’t seem to think that life is such a treat either, based on the one thing he thinks he can do. But watch what happens:

“If I could be sure you knew how frightened I am, it would help a great deal.”
“You can be sure.”
“Not merely of marriage. This afternoon I wanted some cigarettes, but the thought of going to the drugstore turned me to jelly.”
I am silent.
“I am frightened when I am alone and I am frightened when I am with people. The only time I’m not frightened is when I’m with you. You’ll have to be with me a great deal.”
“I will.”
“It seems that if we are together a great deal and you tell me the simplest things and not laugh at me—I beg you for pity’s own sake never to laugh at me—tell me things like: Kate, it is all right for you to go down to the drugstore, and give me a kiss, then I will believe you. Will you do that?”
“Yes, I’ll do that.”
She has started plucking at her thumb in earnest, tearing away little shreds of flesh. I take her hand and kiss the blood.
“But you must try not to hurt yourself so much.”
“I will try! I will!” (234)

Intelligent as she is, Kate can have no misunderstanding about the flaws in Jack’s character, about how long he takes to make something of his life, about his lazy dalliances, and his constant attempts to escape from a reality that he is actually terrified of as well. But her weakness, her dependency on him, gives him a reason to step up and do something. He sees her need, and actually decides to be something to help her conquer her fears, to help her be something. Because really, that’s what love is. Real human love doesn’t mean perfection on earth—of course we were intended for perfection, and of course we should never abandon that goal, never forget the dignity and the beatification of the perfection that is our birthright. But human love, in its best form, is a perfecting force. Because it is human, it is flawed. Because those participating in it are human, they are flawed. And yet, Jack says, I’ll take care of you, but in return, you have to promise to stop hurting yourself. And voila! She promises and is one step closer to perfection. So if you can look at a fellow human squarely and honestly, and, like Robert Chiltern said, love them despite their flaws and their shortcomings and perhaps sometimes because of the peculiarities of character that those flaws lend them—if you can look at them like that and still decide that they are worth the wedding, worth the incarnation that takes you away from the dreams of deity that are no more than dreams in the sky, then you might, one day, actually achieve that share in divinity. Love is a perfecting force. The best love sees somebody for what they are, and, though content with that, tries to help them to become the most worthy version of themselves. Love sees the actuality and the potential, and is not solely focused on either one. (Footnote!)

So, long story short, don’t make an ideal of human love or the object of it. Love involves fear, shedding of blood, stripping of flesh, tears, uncertainty, and, as we see with Gatsby, the possibility of failure. But wouldn’t it be worse not to have it at all? CS Lewis says something in The Four Loves about the heart of the one who refuses to love being all safe in a nice airtight little box, which then suffocates the heart, dries it up, and leaves its owner with no heart at all. Jack Bolling can’t dispel Kate’s fear of what surrounds her, and her attachment to him makes her all the more vulnerable to her fear of the outside world. For, once she begins to depend on him, what will happen if all of the sudden he is gone? Then she might really kill herself, as she once almost did. But it’s a risk worth taking. There is a peace, a calmness, an easing of all tensions at the end of The Moviegoer. They have an understanding with each other, help each other, are kind to each other, and are able to do what they need to do in this life because of each other. That, if nothing else, seems like a good enough reason to allow ourselves to know and love one other human being. Don’t expect perfection, don’t expect unmarred bliss, but do expect human happiness, and don’t sell yourself short by settling for someone who can’t even give you that. I’ll leave you with a bit of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters:

“Zelda and I sometimes indulge in terrible four day rows that always start with a drinking party but we’re still enormously in love and about the only truly happily married couple I know. The cheerfullest things in life are first Zelda and second the hope that my book has something extraordinary about it.” source

Zelda burned in a hospital fire eight years after Fitzgerald died at the home of his mistress, so perhaps they are not the best example of marital bliss. But this letter, written almost 25 years before her death, does paint a somewhat attractive picture. Perhaps, though, we’d best stick with Binx and Kate.

Footnotes:
1. By the way, they messed this line up in the recent movie; overall I was impressed with the adaptation, but I have to criticize their high-handed liberality with such an essential passage.
2. A further development on that idea of love as a perfecting force came out in a discussion about all this with my mother. She is a wise lady if there ever was one, and was the early impetus behind my love of literature. Her thoughts on the matter:
And another thing, you can’t go into it with the idea in mind that you will change the one you love. You have to love a person despite all the imperfections, and because you have what Alice von Hildebrand speaks of as the “Taber Vision” of the beloved. You see that person in a way that no one else does, you see the possibility of perfection, of glory, even glimmers of it in the here and now. A good image of it is one of those partly cloudy days when a shaft of sunlight appears through the clouds. Maybe you are the only one who sees that light in the beloved, but you know it is there. Still, you can’t push the clouds away so that he is only light. In the best of relationships, and with a lot of input from God and the angels and the communion of saints, you move in the direction of mostly sunny, but you can’t set out to do that for someone or, worse yet, to someone. It just happens that you “bring out the best” in one another, and perhaps most of all when you realize that despite all your faults that person loves you, too, just like you do him. And when I say, “It just happens,” I do mean that it happens when you are doing the work to love one another well. To love one another, not to change each other. This movement toward perfection is the fruit of real love.
 

This post appeared previously on Life in the Gap and Taking Back Our Brave New World.

The Gift Of One Book

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” – Marcel Proust

The book was small, hard-covered, with a broken binding. My grandmother held it carefully as she told me the book had belonged to my mother when she was my age. She had discovered it when she was cleaning out “the little house” – a small cottage on the back of their property filled to the brim with heirlooms spanning generations – and she thought I might like to have it.

The book was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I had no idea then what the story was about. But the fact that it had belonged to my mother and that it was something she and I could share was exciting.  And this bequeathal initiated me into a sort of curatorial community as far as the family was concerned, for I was being given an artifact, a treasure, from the mysteriously off-limits “little house” which meant it had to be worth something. My 10-year-old mind couldn’t possibly know in that moment what a treasure that book would in fact become, but I felt as though I had been given something truly special.

LittleWomencoverIt wasn’t an old book, but it had been well read. The mellowed cover had a color picture of a young woman, reclining on a candy-striped sofa with books strewn around the floor at her feet, thoroughly absorbed in reading the book she held in her hands. The sofa looked to be located in a sort of attic playroom, with the back of the book’s cover depicting old trunks, bookcases and an oil lamp surrounding a window laced with a flowering vine. It looked like a lovely place to wile away the day. The cover alone captivated my imagination and to this day I often look to a book’s cover as one way of determining whether I will or will not delve into the pages enclosed therein. The pages were brittle and brown all along the edges, which gave them a warm inviting glow. These might be off-putting to some readers, however, due to the musty breath they exuded when they were riffled, an aroma carefully cultivated over the course of many years by the damp beach air and the close proximity of older and wiser heirlooms. But to me those pages smelled glorious, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A scent I would say now was a blend of heavy dust, smoked old cedar and mothballs and which I will forever associate with a certain kind of comfort and rest that comes from the pleasure of reading.

Little Women was the first novel I ever remember loving like it was a living thing. I read it over and over and over again and this lingering dwelling within its pages brought with it not only the gift of many life lessons, but friendships I’ve continued to carry with me. The story of the four March girls – Margaret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Beth and Amy – struggling at home alone with their mother while their father was away fighting in the Civil War taught me there are various wars and battles that need fighting in every facet of a life. Spending time with the Marches, I learned a lot about anger and jealousy, sickness and love, poverty, worldly riches, and the unexpected joyful wealth of a rightly ordered soul. Their stories made me cry, but they also made me feel safe and helped me to make sense of the loss and joy and pain of life in its many stages. The girls and their Marmee taught me about forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and detachment from the vanities of the world.  Whenever I was sick or felt alone, I opened the pages of that novel and lost myself in its world. The book became a boon companion, never far from me, no matter where I moved. It is here next to me even now as I write this, days and years away from the moment my grandmother entrusted it to my care.

One of the novel’s themes was discovering one’s vocation in life and developing one’s unique gifts. There was a sense that each girl was meant for something, had a purpose to fulfill in the world and, though never overt, the gift of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a Christmas gift and the virtuous actions of the March family suggested an upbringing rooted in the Christian faith. Part of the fun of reading the novel was watching each girl find her way along her own path to realizing and developing her gifts. Gentle Meg had a talent and a love for homemaking, mothering, and everything that went along with it. Jo was a tousle of contradictions, loving an active life as much as the quiet life of the mind. Beth was a natural musician with a generous heart, and pretty Amy loved fashion and art. Like many young women before me and since, I fell in love with the tomboyish, headstrong, literary daydreamer Jo. Watching her pursue her path towards a life lived in writing and study, I began to conceive of a writing life and the sacrifices it would demand and the fulfillment it could bring. Every book, in some way, must necessarily change us, for we can never be the same person we were before we allowed the story and its people, places, and conflicts to enter into our lives for whatever amount of time they occupy. I think it is safe to say that my involved and repetitive experiences with Little Women at least in part defined my choice to become a writer and to surround myself with books and learning. Jo’s character and her journey in the novel made it possible for me to consider a life as a writer, that this was something I could choose. As any true friend would do, Jo seemed to give me the encouragement that I was seeking and in doing so helped me to attend to nurturing the gift that truly made my soul come alive.

And this is the gift of literature as an art – it has the potential to speak to our deepest human emotions, longings, fears, and dreams. It has the ability to push us into becoming who we were meant to be by exploring the urges that spring from the seeds of our unique talents and gifts. It has the power to make connections over generations and across time, showing the continuum of human experience and the power of story to move hearts and minds to truth and goodness, acceptance and understanding, awareness and compassion. It has the power to point us towards something higher than ourselves, to the One who bestows our unique gifts, and provides the channels of grace which allow us to recognize and develop them. My grandmother gave me a great gift the day she gave me Little Women, because she placed into my hands a key that helped to unlock the door to my heart, my mind, my talent, my future, and part of my purpose. And that gift is priceless.

What book have you been especially gifted with in your life?

A Light Provoking: A Response to the Paintings of David Anthony Harman

Christopher M. Petter

In 1905 Albert Einstein published papers on light and special relativity that disagreed with much of the scientific consensus and clarified much of the rest. No, he wrote, light is not just a wave. Look! Look how it acts like a particle. Look here: watch it bend around the edges of large objects—such as the earth. You should not see but half the sun, in these first moments of its setting—but see there it dips below the horizon. The light bends around the curvature of the earth to give you that final, full glow. That is what he said. (Those are not his exact words, but they are accurate enough to serve our purposes.) Only after ten years did the scientific community (hesitantly) begin to see all of what he saw. (This is only one of a number of discoveries from these seminal papers.) And as far as I can tell, our intuitions, our general and implicit understandings of light, are still having trouble taking Einstein’s insights to heart. [Read more...]

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Violence and Tragedy in Literature

When I hadn’t yet finished Light in August, some of my friends saw what I’d been reading and asked, “Do you actually like Faulkner?” Well, yes. I think so. I don’t know. Should I? Well, hm.

One friend noted that the explicit nature of some of the happenings in Faulkner’s stories, often described in very communicative detail, presents our minds with an occasion to be soaked in something unhealthy and possibly harmful. My response was that those less than pleasant elements of his novels are not gratuitous; good literature is truthful, is an accurate representation of our world, and not everything in life is shiny and rosy.

When I was in college, I went through a serious Hemingway/Woolf phase, and I’m still not really out of the Fitzgerald phase. Granted, there is a difference in tone among these three novelists, but they’re all part of that Lost Generation. Ultimately, as my much loved and wonderful mother worriedly assured nineteen-year-old me, they’re lacking something. Their novels are not the answer. These authors are not called “Lost” for no reason. They don’t realize that, all things told, the story of the universe is essentially one of comedy, not tragedy. Nevertheless, I maintain my position that there is a place for such novels; there is a place for such darkness.

If you object, I have a few things to say to you: King Lear. Hamlet. Sophocles. Dido. The Book of Job. “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful death.” We will all of us meet our wicked sisters, our blinded fathers, our conniving Uncles, our own damning Hubris, our physical and spiritual trials, and, many of us, a death of love that makes us want to kill ourselves. As a friends once said, “The theme of Oedipus Rex is: Life’s the pits, and then, you die.” Of course, experience is in many cases the best teacher. But it doesn’t hurt to have some vicarious experience and knowledge of the depths before you fall into them yourselves. In the good and the bad, this, I think, is a summary of the value of literature. It teaches us enormous truths in human terms, and so teaches us how to cope with our day to day human lives. Christ taught in parables, not syllogisms; He was, He is, a storyteller. And, if you recall, there was death and damnation in some of His stories.

All of that being said, we all know that virtue lies in moderation and balance, not in extremes. I am quite thankful that I had the foresight to do my senior thesis on Willa Cather rather than Hemingway, as I had first thought that I would. Too much dwelling in darkness isn’t a good thing. It’s easy to forget about the light if we never read comedies. However, the experience of life as a solitary vale of tears is only compounded if a soul never has the cathartic purging of living tragedy in art. Misery loves company is not a jesting and trivial phrase. It is deeply profound, deeply human, and speaks to the nature of man being a social animal and needing to know that there is someone, anyone, who understands and can help him through the dark night in which he finds himself. Even if that help is only in the form of companionship, even if it can’t give all the answers, that standing together is necessary for survival. This is, at least in part, why tragedies are necessary.

three little boys

Back to my friends’ question on Faulkner. In thinking over it more since finishing the book, I wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Not in theory, but in the particular instance of this book, perhaps the darkness was too explicit. Balance is difficult to achieve (Yes, that is my profound statement of the century. Duh.), and it is possible that art that is in many ways excellent can be over-the-top in others. This is how I feel about Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est, which I’ve sung with one of my choirs a few times. Just chill, buddy. And then there is some art, there are some stories, that I think can never be justified. Movies about demonic possession, for example, are incredibly foolish. Not in the, “This is dumb,” sense. No; Because such things are far more real than most people want to acknowledge, voluntarily dwelling on Satanic powers is unnecessarily putting oneself in real danger. To a less immediate degree, dwelling intensely on any sort of wickedness or darkness for extended periods of time is a danger. When the enemy is smarter than you, stay away from him.

When I discovered that both my mother and my older brother had stopped reading Light in August partway through, citing the intensely immoral parts of it as one of their roadblocks, I naturally began to question my previous position that it was not gratuitously, well, messy. I had defended the inhumanity of some of the characters to my questioning friends by saying that part of Faulkner’s purpose is to highlight the grace and beauty that still can exist, in characters like Lena and Byron, in a society that has been conquered and is fallen. I still think that this is true, but I do wonder if he needed to focus on the fallen part of that world as much as he did. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Even if you haven’t read this particular novel, where do you come down on this question?

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

Shedding Light on David Harman’s Work: An Art Historical Response to His 2012 Paintings

Robert Puschautz

David Harman’s paintings border a variety of artistic genres, from traditional landscapes to Impressionism, but his process separates him from these classifications. Harman memorializes his photos of light by painting them. Although he transforms his images, he retains the photographic quality.  Through this process, he makes these images of light a metaphor for his understanding of the divine. [Read more...]

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Flashes of Light in a Dark World: Why We Need Super Heroes

“I’m hyperventilating right now,” my 12-year-old son whispered to me and gripped my hand hard. He was waiting excitedly (and obviously breathlessly) for Marvel’s newest superhero film, Thor: The Dark World, to burst onto the screen in all its glorious action.

Photo credit: Marvel

Photo credit: Marvel

It’s no secret to anyone who knows our family that the Marvel heroes are preferred to the DC group and that my son measures time by when the next film, Lego set, or Nintendo game is scheduled for release. Thor was autumn’s happy milestone and now he has set the April release of Captain America as his spring marker. Not only does he spend countless hours reading his classic comics digests, lost in imaginative fantasy and wrestling with hefty issues of good and evil, but he hones his memory skills by memorizing intricate plot patterns and character details, regaling us with various character back stories, correcting egregious errors in the film or cartoon adaptations, while also filling in weak or missing elements in those same story lines. (And no, concerned reader, my son’s literary diet is not confined to comics. He gets plenty of classic literature, so have no fear. Also, consider how memorizing intricate story lines via the comics preps him for memorizing long passages of Shakespeare to rival Kenneth Branagh and you will see there is a method to this seeming madness.)

As we sat waiting for Thor to begin, I was excited that he was excited, remembering how much of an impact similar cinematic experiences had on me when I was his age. Some of those, like seeing the original Star Wars trilogy films for the first time, are impressed indelibly in my memory, not only bookmarking a certain time period in my life, but providing a back drop of classic stories, meaningful themes, and complex characters which have provided much food for thought and analogous comparisons throughout my life. I can see the same thing happening with my son through his fascination with super heroes, both in the comics and the films. Thor: The Dark World, as well as some of the other films in the Marvel franchise**, is like a modern fairy-tale, an entertaining and often gripping lesson about life, morality, virtue, and, ultimately, living a life of faith, hope, and charity.  Here are a few we’ve gleaned from our many forays into their strangely familiar worlds:

Super heroes teach us:

  • What it means to live with, embrace, and work with perpetual weakness;
  • That weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because through it we learn humility;
  • The temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle that must be fought within each individual, even in the very best of men;
  • Possessing compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;
  • There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the point sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, overcoming oppression and brutality, and putting the health and safety of one’s friends and loved ones before your own. Super heroes revive the nobility of authentic martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;
  • That each individual is possessed of unique gifts. Some of these gifts do not conform to what society perceives as valuable; sometimes society says the person and their gifts don’t matter or are expendable. However, the super heroes remind us that each individual has value and is particularly charged – as a debt of honor – with perfecting and using his gifts for the greater good, regardless of the value society attaches to them;
  • Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences – it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to finally use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done previously through their pride and self-serving ambition;
  • To recognize the varied faces of evil, a reality which a world without faith is apt to forget. Satan was first Lucifer, the angelic being of Light; thus
    Photo credit: Marvel

    Photo credit: Marvel

    Shakespeare is right to remind us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth – he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero: evil often does not appear “as evil,” but is often masterfully disguised, playing out its machinations and temptations under genteel subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;

  • A spade is a spade: darkness IS darkness in the world of the super hero and the edges are distinctly not blurred. There is no confusion between light/true goodness and darkness/true evil. When a character experiences a moment of grace which involves an opportunity to make the choice for good or evil, that moment is clear, as is the character’s responsibility for freely choosing that good or evil. Free will is dominant and the consequences following the exercise of it are clearly defined;
  • Evil within a character is ultimately manifested without — one becomes on the outside what one is on the inside. This visual depiction of the
    Photo credit: Marvel

    Photo credit: Marvel

    perverting, deforming effects of choosing evil is a powerful message in helping young people develop a moral sense of the damage moral evil causes to the one who chooses it, as well as the ways in which it can pervade the lives and environment of others;

  • Conversion is possible, even in the most seemingly hopeless situation. Even is a character who seems to be a lost cause, there can come the flicker of light, evidence that goodness is not yet entirely extinguished. Super hero stories remind us that it is never too late to change your mind and turn away from the path of darkness towards the light;
  • That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one still has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that purpose achieved.

The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a profoundly spiritual one. While it is not clear that every super hero believes in God, every super hero believes in something higher than himself: a higher power, a greater good which points towards truth, light, peace, and justice. In general, these comic figures operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth and in battle against the forces which would erode those virtues — and this truth is not the relative truth the secular world preaches. Watching Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and others wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.

Photo credit: Marvel

Photo credit: Marvel

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility”  – and Jesus’s words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.” Thor, the X-Men, and the rest of the Avengers don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories – both in words and actions – are flickers of truth, light and grace in a dark world. Their stories, and the reasons we need them, speak for themselves.

**This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. In addition, parents need to take responsibility for discussing whatever venues they do allow their children to experience, demonstrating clearly how these stories relate to daily and spiritual life. If a parent is willing to take the time to do this, and the child has the requisite maturity to handle and discuss these issues and connections, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied.

“Coming Awake in Love”: A Discussion on the Struggle for Holiness and the Writing of Shirt of Flame: My Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

Heather King

How did the book come about? Why St. Thérèse?

A few years ago, I was approached by an editor at Paraclete Press—an editor with whom I had a long-standing relationship—with the idea of writing a book about “walking” with a saint for a year. Not a biography, or a hagiography, but a sort of lived reflection on the saint’s work, thought, prayer, path. So I thought for a bit and chose Thérèse of Lisieux because there is something kind of irresistible about a beautiful young French girl who wanted to be the Bride of Christ so badly that at the age of fourteen she traveled to Rome, knelt at the feet of Pope Leo XIII, and begged for permission to enter the freezing cold, crawlingwith-neurotic-nuns, cloistered convent at Carmel. Who spent the rest of her short life in obscurity but on spiritual fire, going so far at one point as to offer herself as a “Holocaust Victim” to love. [Read more...]

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