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...]

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...]

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...]

7 Reasons To Read A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor

Have you ever read something ineffable? Something so sublime that it was hard to talk about with anything resembling coherence? If so, then you’ll understand why it is so difficult to articulate my experience of reading Flannery O’Connor’s intimate and soul-baring A Prayer Journal. I closed the book with a combination of awed silence and heart-soaring joy. I’m afraid no critical, dry-as-dust objective review is possible for this reader. My sincerely heartfelt appreciation of this uniquely personal book by one of America’s greatest writers can, however, illuminate seven reasons why you need to read this book now.

APrayerJournalCoverFirst, some back story . . . Flannery’s friend, the scholar William A. (Bill) Sessions, was doing his own research in the O’Connor archives when he discovered the writer’s old Sterling composition book tied up in a stack of papers.  The journal, to be released November 12 by Farrar Straus Giroux, Flannery’s long-time publisher during her lifetime and the first new title FSG has had the privilege to issue by the author in decades, has been carefully edited by Sessions. The slim hardcover is exquisite, quietly simple and graceful in its presentation, and includes an Introduction by Sessions, as well as a facsimile copy of the entire journal so interested readers can read the prayers Flannery composed in her own hand. The journal’s contents, as well as its very existence – coming first now in the chronology of her published works – make clear that Sessions’ find will change the face of scholarship on Flannery’s life and work. But that, significant though it is, isn’t one of the seven reasons why you should stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of A Prayer Journal as soon as possible.

Reason #1: You will encounter a side of Flannery you’ve never known. The journal is a cry of the heart so deeply intimate I wondered at times whether I should be reading it at all. Indeed, to do so is a thorough privilege for it is the account of a soul’s singular yearning for God and is wholly different from any other published work of Flannery’s – it is the raw, plaintive voice of a young woman thoroughly in love with her God, who seems to behave with His beloved like the elusive bridegroom in the Song of Songs. Not one of her letters collected in The Habit of Being compares to the intense honesty and painful sincerity of the writer’s voice in these prayers to God. We may think we know her well from her letters, but we will come to know her more deeply and in a different way through this journal.

Reason #2: The journal echoes the gorgeously stirring mysticism of some of our greatest spiritual writers. Reading certain sections of A Prayer Journal call to mind the resplendent descriptions of the spiritual life written by St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and others. It is the rare 22-year-old who describes God as “the slim crescent of a moon . . . [which] is very beautiful,” while viewing herself as “the earth’s shadow . . . [which threatens to] grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.” Flannery confesses to being “afraid of insidious hands . . . which grope into the darkness of my soul,” begging God to be her protector, shielding her against those things which would tear her away from Him. In her fervor, she begs for an all-consuming desire for God that would essentially cause her to die of love:

“Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be Fulfillment.”

Is this not the numinous language of a mystic, who in the intensity of her desire already possesses that which she so longs for? In Flannery’s prayer, we are reminded that the intensity of our faith is not measured so much by feeling or emotion, but by the depth of our desire. The saints teach us that the desire itself is indeed the answer to the prayer. I confess to wondering, as I read: if the cause for canonization for G.K. Chesterton is successfully opened, can the cause for the little hermit of Anadalusia be far behind?

Reason #3: Flannery’s prayers offer a model of the rightly ordered use of one’s gifts. Wholly honest with God about what she wants in life – to be a great writer and to write a great novel – Flannery is also thoroughly convinced that her gifts come from God and should therefore be directed to His service. She asks God to “let Christian principles permeate my writing” and that she be given a “strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father.”  She is very aware that it is God’s spirit moving within her that allows her any success in the practice of her craft, asking God to “take care of making [the story she is working on] a sound story because I don’t know how.”  She acknowledges repeatedly her understanding that without His grace, she will never achieve what she hopes to accomplish with her art, stating simply “God must be in all my work.” Ideally, the rightly ordered use of our gifts would help us along the pathway to sanctity. Flannery knew this when she prayed: “Dear God, help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” The journal offers a portrait of the artist humbled and prostrate in the face of her gift – “Don’t ever let me think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story” –truly, a model for us all.

Reason #4: You will see the genesis of a novel. This is no small thing. Flannery’s first novel

Flannery O'Connor holding a copy of her novel Wise Blood.

Flannery O’Connor holding a copy of her novel Wise Blood.

Wise Blood was published in 1952, five years after she ceased keeping the prayer journal. However, the novel grew out of several shorter pieces published previously. In the journal evidence of her repeated pleas to God to help her to write a novel, and the brief articulation of a controlling idea with which she is preoccupied, call to mind the components of what would eventually become the saga of Hazel Motes. Thus, it appears that the idea for Wise Blood was already germinating during the time Flannery was writing the journal. Interestingly, the prayer journal predates the earliest letter in the volume of her collected letters, which is dated June 19, 1949, two years after writing in the prayer journal ceased. In that letter, Flannery is on the lookout for an agent to represent her novel Wise Blood.

Reason #5: Flannery articulates the need for a clear Catholic worldview as the thread with which to weave a novel. Towards the end of the journal, Flannery is immersed in pondering her literary philosophy and the role of the Catholic artist. Clearly she recognizes, perhaps through the grace of her prayer, that she must be accountable for her use of her gift in relation to her faith. She writes,

“To maintain any thread in the novel there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of the world is conception of love – divine, natural, & perverted. It is probably possible to say that when a view of love is present – a broad enough view – no more need be added to make the world view.”

She articulates clearly here the acceptable separation between the ways in which a purely secular view of love (pure physical desire) would be realized in a novel against the realization of love in the work of a writer inspired by an awareness of Divine Love. Flannery was never shy about her devotion to her Catholic faith, clearly evident in from her collected letters and numerous essays. When asked to speak publicly she emphasized the truth that her faith was the reason for everything she did and the perspective from which she viewed the world. The existence of the journal solidifies this view in a unique way, ensuring no one will ever be able to look at her work in the same way again.

Reason #6: Here you will find a kindred spirit in the experience of suffering. In her letters, Flannery’s tone is often no-nonsense and, if one does not understand or appreciate her dry wit, she might come off as harsh or abrasive, potentially causing the casual reader to forget how much she suffered over the course of her life. The prayer journal shows this suffering in all its nakedness. She suffers doubt and anxiety about her life and her vocation. She suffers from an acute awareness of her “mediocrity” and her pride’s inability to cope with it. She suffers torments of the flesh and the mind. She suffers because she cannot suffer well. For love of God and for the sake of those others – “the dead people I am living with” – she repeatedly asks for the grace necessary to handle suffering.  The journal shows the truth of her inner struggles and makes her more approachable, opening the door to the possibility of true friendship with someone who knows the difficulty of living an authentic spiritual life amidst great suffering.

Image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Reason #7: Flannery models and emphasizes the need for simple entrustment to Mary. There is a sense throughout the journal that the goal of the artist is to practice her craft with the heart of the tax collector.  Flannery’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a consistent prayer throughout the journal. The focus of her devotion to Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Help is significant, expressing the necessary awareness that the need for perpetual help supposes a corresponding acknowledgement of perpetual weakness in oneself. The image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is of a protective mother, carrying her child. When one considers the extreme suffering of mind, body, and soul Flannery experienced throughout her short life, one is reminded of the need to admit one’s helplessness and weakness, to trustingly allow another to carry you in her arms to your final destination. The journal is a beautiful reminder of the truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and that it is He alone who works in us and through our gifts to the extent that we are able to admit of our need for help in dealing with our weaknesses. Flannery lends her voice to the chorus of many saints who have for generations emphasized that entrustment to Mary is the safest, surest path to Christ.

The existence of A Prayer Journal is surely cause for great rejoicing.  It is safe to say that no one who reads A Prayer Journal will ever be able to look at Flannery’s work in the same way again and that pondering it will shed light on the many beautiful and challenging ways it appears her

Flannery O'Connor, 1947 -- during the time she composed A Prayer Journal.

Flannery O’Connor, 1947 — during the time she composed A Prayer Journal.

prayers were answered throughout her life. It is quite fitting that the gift of this journal comes during the month of November, a time when we celebrate our belief in the communion of saints. Surely, as a faithfully departed soul, whose writing in A Prayer Journal and throughout her life testifies to her intention to live a life of holiness, we can count Flannery as one of our friends in heaven who, along with the recognized saints of our faith, stands before us as a model of what it means to live a life consecrated to Christ and His Church and who provides guidance and encouragement so that we who are left behind will have the strength to persevere. A late encounter with this stalwart friend in faith has the potential to change your life, which is the very best reason for reading it.

 

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.

candles

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.

The Telos of a University

Mark C. Henrie

I.
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...]