The remembered mercy of broken things

This is a guest post by Thomas Springer.

Brett’s 1/2 –ton pickup, righteously dented and rusted per farm truck specifications, backed into our barn driveway on a winter Saturday with a special delivery. Attached to the rear hitch was an empty flat-bed trailer that was long enough to carry another entire pick-up if necessary.

“That’s a pretty big rig just to haul 50 lbs. of frozen meat in,” I hollered, over the phlegmy cough of the truck’s exhaust.

“It would be,” Brett said, “if this was my only stop. But I’m headed to Muncie (Indiana) for a load of hay after this. I found it on Craig’s List. There’s none around here because of the drought. They want $100 for a round bale if you can believe it.”

It was a custom delivery from Brett and Debbie Green’s M&M Beefalo farm in nearby Mendon. The packages we unloaded were frozen so hard that they clanked like porcelain dishes when we stacked them in the freezer.

A beefalo is two-thirds cattle and one-third buffalo. It’s leaner than cattle, but with a wilder, more complex flavor. Brett feeds his animals hay, pasture grass, green corn stalks, some grain and even over-ripe watermelons when he can get them. But no growth hormones. They live a clean, happy life, until, as farmer/writer Joel Salatin says “they have one bad day at the end of it.”

“I hope this batch lasts you!” said Brett with a conspiratorial grin.

We usually buy a ¼ of a beefalo from him each fall, but this year we needed a second order. That’s because misfortune intervened — although that’s a secret heretofore known only to me, my wife, a few family members, and now, our cattleman.

It befell us on a Saturday evening in July, one of those lingering, saffron-twilight interludes that’s perfect for grilling burgers over hardwood coals in the backyard. As I fiddled with stick matches and kindling to start the fire, I asked Emily to retrieve two packages of 1/3 lb. patties from the freezer in the barn.

“Be sure to shut the freezer door tight!” I instructed. I said it in a shrill, fatherly tone, born of the time-tested expectation that such dictates often fall on deaf ears. Seconds later Emily sailed passed with packages in hand, ran them to the house and within a minute was back outside on her trampoline.

After a quick defrost in the microwave the meat was soon asizzle on the wood-fired grill. It’s an imprecise operation. There’s no control knob on an open fire, no steel burners to ensure an even distribution of heat and flame. So you’re forever flipping here and nudging there to center the meat between the too-hot spots and the too-cold spots. You know the patties are ready when the muddy brown “done” juice seeps out and dangles from the grill’s underside like a high-protein stalactite.

While campfire cooking in mid-summer makes for a lot of sweating and squatting, the eldest daughter’s imprimatur during dinner made it all worthwhile.

“Dad,” her eminence pronounced, “these are the best burgers.”

And so they are. Beefalo patties, even when cooked well-done as my wife insists hers be, retain a ruddy color and rich flavor. Garnish with pickles, garden lettuce and home-grown tomatoes and you’ve got a fast, slow-food that can — mirabile dictu! — make an American teen forego the Golden Arches.

Not until the next afternoon did I realize that this would be our last beefalo cookout of the summer and fall season.

I was mowing by the barn when an ominous thought came to mind: “Had I checked the freezer door last night?”

It’s an old freezer with a weak door seal that must be firmly closed. As I rushed in I could see from the 30 feet away that it was not. It had been left ajar for 24 hours. And the barn’s indoor thermometer read 92 degrees.

I instinctively shut the door tight as if doing so now would make any difference. Then I opened it slowly, with the wincing trepidation usually reserved for one who has, with a sickening crunch, just backed over a child’s favorite toy in the driveway.

“Son of a, son of a, son of a … arrgggghhh!”

It wasn’t just the packages of beefalo –about 25 lbs. — that were thawed and dripping a wretched pink fluid onto the floor. There were also five pounds of gorgeous steelhead and Chinook salmon filets, caught from a boat on Lake Michigan. We’d won the trip in a church raffle and it would not be repeated. There were 20 bags of strawberries, picked on my wife’s family farm, the promise of winter fruit smoothies to come (and now bound for the compost pile). There were venison steaks for which I’d traded six pounds of honey from our hives.

It was such a wasted blessing. In all, several hundred dollars’ worth of food had been reduced to an oozing heap of vacuum-sealed offal. Apart from the money, these were prized provisions of a sort that only our home place can provide. We’d caught the fish, picked the berries and harvested the honey that we’d used for barter. It was our hands and those of our friends that had done this: Brett and Debbie, Brian and John. Their care and handiwork was the food’s provenance.

The loss was beyond infuriating. And someone – I knew exactly who – would have to pay for it.
Picture a hot, dirty, angry father as he stomps to the house. Imagine his self-righteous fury about to be unleashed, channeled into a tongue-lashing about waste, irresponsibility and carelessness that a guilty child would not soon forget.

Then, as the magma of recrimination reached its eruption point, an unlikely thing happened.
Near the patio a memory came to mind of a 10-year-old boy on a Saturday morning in December, some 40 years ago. It was before catechism classes, outside the old Catholic school on South Main Street in Three Rivers. A large puddle on the playground had frozen into an ice rink that made a perfect place for the boy and his friends to go sliding.

Earlier that week, the boy had gotten his first pair of glasses and what a marvel they had been. For the first time in his life he could see, in fine detail, high branches of the tall trees that lined his street.

Such an expensive accoutrement must be protected, thought the boy. So with reasoning that could well be described as recklessly imbecilic, he removed the glasses … and stowed them carefully in his back pocket. It was, inevitably, just minutes before the long-legged, uncoordinated boy fell flat on his rear end. Thus did the new glasses shatter and their lens fragments cut painfully into his skinny buttocks.

My father was a barber and those glasses probably cost him a day’s worth of haircuts. On the way home, I feared his wrath. But it’s telling that my last memory of the event ends here. All I recall is that he didn’t explode. He lashed me neither with his hands nor his tongue. Did he sigh deeply and wonder how such an addle-brained son could have sprung from his loins? Perhaps — but he never let on that he did.

Anyway, by the time I reached the front porch I knew that I couldn’t tell Emily what had happened. I couldn’t lay this temporal loss, so inconsequential in the scheme of things, on the shoulders of a sensitive and usually conscientious 9 year-old girl. It would unjustly grieve her spirit. My father had stayed his hand, and in remembrance of that, I would stay mine.

His example of leniency was a fruit that took four decades to ripen.

Yet those of us who insist on thawing hamburger patties in a microwave oven aren’t inclined to wait long for anything. The head-long immediacy of modern life, the instant availability of all knowledge (even the proper spelling of availability, which the computer’s squiggly red underline now orders me to correct) precludes the long view. We live in a PayPal, overnight-shipping-from-anywhere culture. Instant gratification has been enshrined, even deified by our consumer-driven economy. By design, it’s a world that devalues and even derides patience, self-denial and self-control.

It’s instructive, then, to learn from those whose livelihood requires that they heed the seasonal limits that nature imposes on creation.

When Brett had mentioned “the drought” as the source of his hay shortage, I was at first surprised. The drought? Oh yes, the drought, from last summer. It was long since over for me and everyone else who doesn’t farm.

But when Brett says the “drought” he doesn’t qualify it with “last summer’s drought.” It’s still in the present tense for him. It’s as real as a barn full of bawling beefalo that need hay from somewhere if they’re to survive the winter. Brett will shoulder the drought’s burden until the spring rains, God willing, make his dormant pastures green again.

I told this to Nancy, who worked fall weekends at her family’s orchard and she understood completely. Last March weeks of record high temperatures in the 80s had made the fruit trees blossom far too early. Inevitably, when the weather corrected to seasonal norms, frosts came and destroyed nearly all the apple blossoms. Without blossoms there’s no fruit and the trees won’t bloom twice in a year.

But by fall? When customers came for their squash, pumpkins, garlands of onions, ears of dried Indian corn and, oh yes, bags of apples?

“We’re sorry,” Nance would say, “but there’s hardly any due to the hard frost last spring. We hope they’ll bounce back next year.”

Some customers were puzzled, others a bit put off.

“Well, yes,” they seemed to insinuate, “but we want our apples now.”

As if, through some digital chicanery, we could subvert natural law and produce pixelated Ida Reds on a virtual assembly line. Thankfully, we can’t. But next season, given the trees’ stored-up root energy, there could well be a bumper apple crop. Even should we forget last spring, we can count on nature to keep an accurate set of books.

Within these books – at least if you’re a tree — are pages ordered by a fixed, cellulosic memory of seasons past. It’s a record imprinted with concentric certainty upon their inner-most being. When I was a boy I used to wonder why people couldn’t be more like that. Wouldn’t it be crazy fun to lop off an arm or finger and count the growth rings? (To a curious boy, such thoughts are not morbid.)

While not anatomically true I may have been on to something. People and trees alike do bear within their circumference a lived history of plentiful growth, as well as indelible marks of injury and hardship.

In the haunting poem “Rings,” Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian poet, conveyed that sentiment about a load of old-growth trees that he saw chained to an Oregon logging truck. Even the smallest log, Bruchac observed, “has more than a hundred/scars around/the wrists of seasons.”

Alexander Pope, writing in 1732, had younger trees in mind (and certainly curious boys) when he composed this timeless proverb: “Just as the twig is bent so the tree’s inclined.”

The trick here is to bend with judicious care. In my experience, when maple saplings are bound too tight in the upright position the guy wires can leave harmful wounds of their own. One must loosen the wires as needed to accommodate new growth. It’s an apt reminder that all discipline should lead to freedom, not enslavement.

Finally, an image closer to home comes from Rachel Peden (1901-1975), an essayist and Indiana farm wife who wrote of rural life with a luminous sense of the ordinary. While raking her front yard, she compares the tree’s annual crop of leaves – meticulously grown from bud to leaf, then recklessly discarded as debris – with her own endless round of meals cooked, beds made, chickens fed and floors swept.

But the colored leaves now lying on the grass are not all. Inside the dark, rough trunk, the tree has added a new layer of live wood around its core … And something remains from a year of farm living, too … a layer of strength that will persist as a permanent record, long after the tedious household chores are raked up and carried out to the midden to disintegrate.

Peden strikes me as one who would understand the remembered mercy of broken things. A traditional farm is a place abundant with life and death, wonder and catastrophe. There must be times when even the strong can’t bear to hear the undiluted truth of it all.

Meanwhile, I’ll save the freezer story for a time when my daughter’s old enough to see humor in it. Until then it’s a door to the past that will have to remain shut – and with more gusto than she managed the first time around.

Why I am (not) Charlie

I am not Charlie because, even though millions of supporters have taken to the blogosphere (and, occasionally, to the streets) to use the catchphrase Je suis Charlie/I am Charlie in expressing their solidarity with the victims of the shooting that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week,* there’s still a lot that makes me uncomfortable about using those loaded words.

I am not Charlie because, well, saying “I am Charlie” kinda not only sweeps the ridiculously complicated elements leading to the shootings under the proverbial rug, but it frames everything in a dangerously simplistic dichotomy of West-vs-Middle-East or free-speech-vs-oppression or European-social-systems-vs-struggling-minorities or liberals-vs-fanatics or whatever shape your weekly slice of us-vs-them takes. I am not Charlie because, in addition to publishing pictures of the Prophet, the magazine has regularly shovelled layers of uncritical shat at social groups/people they obviously haven’t taken the time to understand.** I am also not Charlie because, incidentally, I’m not a magazine named Charlie Hedbo and French is not my forte.

I am not Charlie because I did not employ workers who are now dead *** and more who are wounded.**** I am not Charlie because attacks on my person and whatever staff I have didn’t overshadow the four people who died at a nearbyish grocery store. I am not Charlie because nobody, especially four additional people in Zinder, Niger, happened to die for my latest issue this week.

I am not Charlie because I’d kinda like for people to give my religious beliefs a serious investigation before dismissing them,***** and wonder if the God I try to worship demands that desire to extend to try understanding a religious tradition not my own – there’s that, and I wonder if it might generally be humanizing/helpful/worthwhile to try respecting the dignity of a love people have for a historical figure that’s as deep or deeper than the love I try (and fail) to have for a carpenter from Galilee.

I am not Charlie because I’m undecided about where I stand between the fact that freedom of expression is something ridiculously vital and the fact that responsibilities come with each/every freedom. I can’t quite say if I’m Charlie or not because I dunno whether the fact that most of the post-Jan-7th twitter-sphere seemed to forget the mag’s constant stream of ridiculous vitriol is a bizarrely touching act of mercy or terrible lapse of intellectual integrity.******(*******)

I am not Charlie because I don’t stand (intellectually) with people who say #iamcharlie while having issues when other people use that self-same freedom of speech to talk about abortion or alternative marriages or Holocaust denial or dead Palestinian children or ISIL precepts or the Ku Klux Klan – either freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone (especially the apparently disgusting, backwards or generally dangerous) or you’re not really all that interested in it.

I am not Charlie because displays of solidarity disturb me when they demand so little of the people displaying them, especially when those people conveniently forget the fact that several people die in terrorist attacks every week – apparently they don’t deserve rallies of over two million people.

I am not Charlie because it wasn’t my blood on the ground on January 7th, 2015. I am not Charlie because I don’t draw pornographic images of the Trinity. I am not Charlie because I myself don’t know to what extent I’ll defend freedom of expression. I am not Charlie because I hope, one day, to be able to say something of substance about Islam. I’m not Charlie because I can’t draw very well.

I am not Charlie because I am willing to compromise. I am not Charlie because that desire to compromise extends to folks labelled “terrorist” or “fanatic.” I am not Charlie because my values have never given me cause to run for my life. I am not Charlie because I’ve never died for what I believe in.

I am not Charlie because I wasn’t stupid enough to publish something under threat.

I am not Charlie because I am not brave enough.

 

 —

 

*The magazine was satirical and published some pretty offensive stuff in general, and was one of the few publications that didn’t back down from printing pictures of Muhammad. Which, according to some interpretations of Islamic precepts, is a rather large no-no occasionally accompanied by death sentence.

**Not that I take the time to be properly informed. Nope. Guilty there. I don’t even know if it is possible for most people to be as informed as we ought/beg them to be.

***Frédéric Boisseau
Georges Wolinski
Franck Brinsolaro
Elsa Cayat
Stéphane Charbonnier
Philippe Honoré
Bernard Verlhac
Jean Cabut
Michel Renaud
Mustapha Ourrad
Bernard Maris
Ahmed Merabet, a police officer killed at the scene

****Simon Fieschi
Philippe Lan
Fabrice Nicolino
Laurent Sourisseau
Various policemen

*****While I’ve never read the magazine itself and so don’t know how substantial the articles are, the cover images at times have been beyond gratuitous.

******I mean that genuinely – I’m disturbed but actually kinda moved too.

*******Although, when I think about it, all the best mercies are usually a lapse in something.

 

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.

“You’re not my Godfather!”

Tucking in my three-year-old Godson the other night, I reminded him of the fact that I am his Godfather. His immediate, passionate response at once brought me to laughter and convicted me.

“You’re not my Godfather! (long pause) Jesus is my God-Father!”

Let the reader understand, my statement had incredibly upset, even angered this child. I imagined a miniature Caiphas rending his clothes at my seemingly grave blasphemy. In his mind, I had called myself God. He couldn’t abide the outrage. Little does he know the humor behind his ironic misunderstanding and conflation of the term Godfather with the common prayer phrase “Father-God.” At the same time, the gap in his understanding exists from my own inept God-parenting. I have not given him a good enough category for what “Godfather” means.

Why mention this anecdote? The story is instructive when considering my own relationship to God. Consider…My higher viewpoint and greater knowledge made my Godson’s ignorant rejection humorous and endearing. His rejection kindled the desire to reach out to him more and better. I wonder if, in God’s providence our own rejections and foibles are as humorous for their being so ill-informed and weak. I was not threatened by my Godson’s rejection, in part because of the near inevitability of his eventually understanding the distinction between “Godfather” and “Father-God.” When it comes to God, however, our returns are by no means inevitable, yet God remains unthreatened by our passionate rejections, pitying my ignorance and patiently giving me (and other poor sinners) every opportunity to return to his kingdom. God’s patience is all the more incredible in light of the fact that my own rejection of God stems from sin rather than ignorance. While my Godson decried me due to a lack of knowledge, whenever I sin I reject God from a lack of love that amounts to contempt.

The whole episode reminded me, furthermore, of the second part of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisisted. Waugh aptly titles part two, “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” (a reference to one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories [1911, The Innocence of Father Brown]). For those who haven’t read Brideshead, I will say that it tells the story of the Flyte (Marchmain) family, including multiple members’ flight from and eventual return to God and his Church. At the end of part one, Cordelia’s dialogue with Charles Ryder suggests the higher viewpoint from which to see the wanderings  and spurning many of the characters offer to God:

"They've  closed  the  chapel at  Brideshead,  Bridey  and the  Bishop;
Mummy's  requiem was  the  last  mass said there. After  she  was buried the
priest came  in -- I was there alone. I don't think he saw me--and took  out
the altar stone and  put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with
the holy  oil on them and threw the  ash outside; he emptied the holy  water
stoup and  blew out the lamp in the  sanctuary and left  the tabernacle open
and empty, as though from  now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose
none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic.  I stayed there
till he  was  gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn't  any  chapel  there any
more, just an oddly decorated room. I  can't  tell you  what  it felt  like.
You've never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?"

     "Never."

     "Well, if you had you'd know what the Jews  felt  about  their  temple.
Quomodo  sedet  sola civitas .  . . it's a beautiful chant.  You ought to go
once, just to hear it."

     "Still trying to convert me, Cordelia?"

     "Oh, no. That's all over, too. D'you know what Papa said when he became
a Catholic? Mummy told me once. He  said  to  her: 'You have brought back my
family to the faith of their ancestors.' Pompous,  you know. It takes people
different ways.  Anyhow, the family haven't  been very  constant, have they?
There's him  gone and Sebastian gone  and Julia gone. But God won't let them
go for long, you know. I wonder if you  remember the story Mummy read us the
evening Sebastian first  got  drunk -- I mean the  bad evening. Father Brown
said something  like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an  unseen hook and an
invisible line  which is long enough to  let him wander to  the ends of  the
world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'"

Each of the wayward Flytes feels God’s twitch upon the thread, quiet, almost imperceptible to any outside observer. For each of these family members, God’s gentle twitch came as an experience of great loss. For Cordelia, it’s the loss of the Eucharist from her home’s chapel; For Julia, it was sudden loss (at her brother’s strong word) of the ability to silence any longer her muted conscience ; for Sebastian, God’s twitch was the unjust loss of a poor soul whom he had learned to care for in time of need; and for the family patriarch, the twitch came at the loss of his battle with the flesh, realized in the humility of inevitably-approaching death. In their raging, their railing, their rejection of God, the Lord’s patient providence saw the ever-present opportunity for grace. Especially interesting is the twitch God makes upon the thread of the agnostic, Charles Ryder. With no conscience, no beloved, and no paralyzing fear of death, God twitches his soul by the loss of beauty and the loss of culture he sees in the destruction of the art and structure of Brideshead mansion and estate at the hands of the military. In their effort to protect the nation, they have, for Ryder, killed her soul to make room for a new generation of vacuous men without experience of transcendent beauty. The moment of conversion then requires a moment of loss, because only in the loss of our idol (be it rebellious pride, inconstancy, confidence in the power of the flesh, or aesthetic culture), do we discover that God is our portion. He is the truth, goodness, and beauty each of us seeks.

Returning our wanderings, then, to where this blog started…Here, then, is my confidence as a parent, as a Godparent. There’s nothing I can do to make sure my children and Godchildren reign with the Lord in his coming Kingdom (pray God they do), but I must remember my role is to attest to and witness to the invisible line between their soul and their maker, between my soul and my maker, to invite them to be watchful and sensitive for God’s gentle twitch. Sever not the line, Lord, and twitch us back to Thyself, as deep cries out to deep.

 

A Christmas Carol

Madonna and Child - Titian

Madonna and Child – Our Lady gazes lovingly upon her babe. Painted by Titian, c1508

Every year at Christmas, GK Chesterton gave the world a gift. Without fail, like a Christmas miracle, he would produce a brilliant essay or poem. I would love to share them all with you right away, but let us pace ourselves, yes? The following is the poem “A Christmas Carol,” first published in the year 1900.

Upon reading it, I am reminded that all of my own joy finds its source in the virtue of love. First, it is found in the love of Our Blessed Mother upon whose breast I too would gladly rest my head. Second, it is given by the love generated from a contemplative gaze upon Our Lord. All of creation stops and looks upon him, darkness is made bright and all of the lesser stars pale in his glorious light. It is in the looking upon him and being seen by him that all of our happiness is to be secured. As the great Feast of the Nativity approaches, take a moment to direct your gaze upon the Christ Child. Happy Christmas!

 

A Christmas Carol

GK Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,

His hair was like a light.

(O weary, weary were the world,

But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,

His hair was like a star.

(O stern and cunning are the kings,

But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,

His hair was like a fire.

(O weary, weary is the world,

But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,

His hair was like a crown.

And all the flowers looked up at Him,

And all the stars looked down.

What the Fox Said

We’ve all had that moment where we read/listen/watch something and find that somehow, miraculously, there’s a line or image or melody that makes some mystery make sense with an all-but-audible though satisfying click of a puzzle piece locking into place. At the risk of constantly seeming to bounce off other bloggers’ topics (Michael Rennier,* again…), I can’t help but write a few words about a scene from The Little Prince.

desert

If you’ve read the book you know the one. The prince, after landing in the desert, makes a few sociological observations, asks advice from a flower, fails to make friends with a series of echoes, has an embarrassing encounter with more flowers (a surprisingly common issue) and finishes a disturbing, fateful first conversation with a particular golden reptile before meeting a critter who’ll come to change his life.

Who are you?” asked the little prince and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

fox 2

I am a fox,” the fox said.

fox 3

fox 4

fox 5

At this point in the story, the prince is lonely and quite shaken from his time in the desert. He’s far from home, concerned about his baobabs, knows his best friend and companion (a now-infamous rose) lied to him, just climbed a rather tall series of mountains and is a tad bewildered by the nonsensical customs of human adults and so, with his wonderful and usual directness, replies “Come and play with me…I am so unhappy.”

And thus starts a kind of love.***

Over the course of their small time together, the fox apprentices the prince in the art of relationships. Friendship, to him, comes down to a matter of “taming” each other, a long and tenuous process where (out of a hundred thousand similar foxes) one fox becomes dear and (from a giant mass of lumbering, deadly humans) one small boy can take on the proportions of an entire world. Once tamed, the fox says, the formerly useless colour of wheat will remind him of the prince’s hair.

The process is a tedious one where the prince has to learn to sit closer and closer to the fox each day without saying anything (because words are a source of misunderstandings), show up at the same hour every afternoon and come to earn the right to know the fox as the one, best and only-only fox in the whole world. No other will ever be as remotely close to being so real.

* * *

Entering adulthood in the Canadian Catholic community is likely to give one some pretty particular expectations of what it means to make and be friends. Compared to the wider and postmodern-influenced youth culture, traits like vulnerability, community and relational depth are not only encouraged but fiercely guarded. It’s not uncommon for church youth groups to (successfully) make safe spaces for youth to share some pretty deep, dark stuff and for university student movements to build a culture of constant self-disclosure not just in terms of your spiritual life but the trickier, emotional one too. As opposed to the image of the cool, detached, twenty-something cultural consumer, the young Catholic (and North American Christian in general) is encouraged to engage him-or-herself with the world, to be vulnerable enough to risk getting hurt.

This was my world from the age of 15-23, a social reality tantalizing enough to make any sociologist salivate. A nation-wide circle of friends, a very real, sub-cultural community formed where even if you didn’t know a particular person in the next major town you could bet your devotion-of-the-month you knew someone who did. And when you did meet them, nobody would bat an eye when you asked them for their story, conversion moment, temptations, touchier struggles and intimate details about their prayer life. For the most part, it just wasn’t an issue. If people are wary about how transparent Facebook makes our lives, it’s nothing compared to pop-Christian expectations of insta-vulnerability.

I can imagine it irked some people to find that vulnerability was expected of them, that it was part of the basis on which the great wheels of the sub-culture churned. But full disclosure: I loved it.

Brief tangent: for a number of reasons, I decided a few years ago that I was going to leave Canada and get some experience abroad. I’ve lived in a couple of different countries since then (usually in East Europe) and’ve spent the majority of my time in the former Soviet Union.

To make a long story short: making friends in Ukraine and Russia is a different ball game (without even referring to the present crisis). The rules and expectations are different, and you can only go so long surviving on the grace-period usually granted to foreigners who don’t know the ins and outs. Don’t get me wrong: in general, Eastern Slavs are incredibly friendly and will go out of their way to be hospitable with a strength that puts Western Christians to shame. Once their outer-wall comes down (which is often easier than it looks) there are unexpected, sometimes overwhelming amounts of warmth and effort coming from their end.

Which was wonderful and made me feel spoiled in more was than one. But as time went on and I, being well-trained in young Catholic ways of socialization, got down to the business of getting real, I found a very different response than expected. Rather than insta-openness about matters deep and vital, my friends were a little puzzled and, maybe, a tad offended by my assumptions that they would just unzip their aortas and let a relative newcomer peruse the intimacies of their heart.

I was confused and, well, a little hurt because I’d almost forgotten that, in the greater part of the world, intimacy has to be earned. It was dawning on me for a while but it wasn’t until re-reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece that I was reminded that, in the course of respecting the human person, sometimes I have to edge a little bit closer each day, speak quietly, come at the same hour in the afternoon and let myself be tamed.

* * *

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

* * *

And, well, because I can.

 

 

 

*I have to disagree here with Michael – he places The Little Prince as a Good Book to help prepare for the Great Books. I have to differ as this little text might qualify as a Great Book itself. Despite the brilliance of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, The Little Prince is hands-down more consistently awesome than The Brothers Karamazov.**

**It does help, though, that Prince is only about 100 pages to Karamazov‘s approximate 10,000.

***It’s gotta be said, though, that the prince doesn’t seem to have much of a need for relationships at all, flowers excepted. He leaves home and meets dozens of people without much of a thought to build any kind of long-term friendship with anyone (granted, accountants and drunkards may not be the most appealing demographic to pre-pubescent space travellers). Even when people start growing attached to him he seems confused and doesn’t understand why they don’t want him to leave. This, combined with the aforementioned directness, has led some people to wonder if the prince occupies a space on the autism spectrum. Either that or, well, he’s an alien.

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.

The Witness of Example: The Case for Canonizing Married Couples

Chester and Eileen Bellard picture by Nikki Barbre

Chester and Eileen Bellard
picture by Nikki Barbre

Three days from now–November 19, 2014–would have been my grandparents’ 70th wedding anniversary. They did not quite make it to that milestone. Both of them passed away this summer, he on July 28 and she on August 14, just seventeen days apart. Both were ninety years old, and they lived independently in their home together, against all odds and against all advice, until the stroke that took Paw Paw hit him six days before he died. Granny was admitted to the same hospital the next day. They died as they had lived: together.

It was, of course, a very difficult time for our family, but it also gave us cause to reflect on the beautiful witness of their life: sixty-nine and two-thirds years of a marriage so finely-honed, they made it seem effortless. Among the vast pile of stuff in their house, my mother found quite a few love letters. They are written, for the most part, on unlined white tablet paper and say things like, “To Eileen, I love you, Chester,” and sometimes, “This letter good for one trip to Las Vegas.” (They always won on the slot machines. Alas, I did not inherit that gene.) However, the most enduring testament to my grandparents’ love, I think, is the fact that all three of their children and all six of their grandchildren are married, and none has ever been divorced. A thousand other factors have contributed to that record, but I am confident I speak for all of us in saying that Granny and Paw Paw’s example certainly helped. We all grew up knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that such a marriage was possible, and we all wanted what we saw.

In fact, the children of parents in stable marriages are statistically far more likely to form stable marriages themselves. This is one of only many advantages studies have shown for the children of married vs. unmarried parents, but it is arguably the most important, because it is the one that breaks the cycle. If a child of divorced or unwed parents can find a way to live in sacred spousal union, then future generations of that family will be more likely to do the same.

In this time of history, when Holy Mother Church is seeking (some might say, desperately seeking) ways to pastor a world of blurred lines and broken homes, we know that we must help people overcome the educational, economic, and emotional struggles that often accompany non-traditional family structures. We know we must extend spiritual support to families of all configurations: a ministry so difficult, the bishops just held an Extraordinary Synod to try to figure out how to accomplish it. Still, it seems to me that we are overlooking one of the simplest and most effective things the Church could do to strengthen families, both in this generation and the next: we could leverage the power of example. The Church cannot wave a magic wand to bless every child with grandparents like mine, but it has the power to take the light of holy marriage out from under the bushel basket society has shoved on top of it, and show us saints.

The scriptures are filled with holy couples, husbands and wives who could not fulfill God’s plan except in communion with each other. Mary and Joseph are the pinnacle of such witnesses, but we also have Anne and Joachim, Ruth and Boaz, Tobit and Sarah, and on and on, all the way back to Adam and Eve. Yet, apart from these scriptural saints, the Church has never, in two thousand years, canonized a married couple together. Saints Isidore and Maria de la Cabeza were canonized separately, on the basis of individual miracles. A host of other married people have been recognized as saints, but without their spouses. (In fairness, not all of their spouses were saintly.) Yet surely, God did not cease to use marriage to work his will in human lives after the Biblical era. Surely, we can find couples to exemplify for this muddled generation the hope that marriage is as potent a path toward godliness now as it was when Zechariah’s child leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. We teach our children that a Christian has only one calling: to become a saint. How can we expect them to enter marriage as a means toward that goal if no marriages ever win the crown of sainthood?

Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini

Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini

The good news is, the road toward the canonization of couples is already half-paved. Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Therèse de Lisieux, have been beatified, along with Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini. It is a start, and a good one. One thing you and I can do to advance the vocation of marriage is to pray for the intercession of these holy men and women, and for their canonization. But we must also work to divest ourselves of the mentality that martyrdom, virginity, founding a religious order, and spiritual writing are the only paths to sainthood. We should acknowledge individual spouses blessed with holiness (Thomas More, Elizabeth Ann Seton), but we must not fail to see the Cross of Christ being lived within marriage itself[i], its grace efficacious for both husband and wife.

The crisis of vocations in our church is not limited to celibate vocations. The number of marriages celebrated in the church in 2013 was less than half the number in 1965. The two trends are not only linked by a societal turning-away from the faith; they are intrinsically linked in the life of the Spirit. “Whoever denigrates marriage also denigrates the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent.”[ii] Without vocations to holy marriage, we will continue to see a decline in vocations to priesthood and religious life because the two are halves of the same whole, both of them necessary for the health of the Body of Christ. Yet how will future generations know what a holy marriage is unless we show them? Documents and teachings are necessary and good, but they will never inspire human hearts the way that watching Granny and Paw Paw live their vows inspired mine.

Only God can award the crown of sainthood, and the Church should not lower the bar for canonization to create a “quick fix” of sainted couples. It is not necessary; if marriage is truly a sign of Christ’s love for His Church, then it cannot fail to produce miracles. We need only learn how to look for them. It is imperative that we demonstrate to the world that the ideal of Christian marriage is neither outmoded nor unattainable. If the Church shifts its focus from the abstract sanctity of the sacrament to the actual saintliness of real married lives, we might discover how much of the pastoral heavy lifting could be lightened by the strength of good examples. Not everyone has earthly grandparents like Chester and Eileen to emulate, but we can all become the spiritual children of Louis and Zélie, Luigi and Maria, and the countless others whose names we have yet to learn.

[i] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1615.

[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1620, quoting St. John Chrysostom

Three Poems for Brittany Maynard

Perhaps like me, you met the news of Brittany Maynard’s suicide today with the same shock, sadness, and guilt (yes guilt) that shook me when I heard this poor woman had killed herself. Like many thousands of others out there, our family had been praying for Brittany, and we hoped that God’s grace would soften her heart, fill it with joy for the dignity of her own life and the meaning of suffering revealed in Christ. I keep thinking I could have done more. She must have received thousands of letters daily (I should have sent one). If I had taken the time to write her, I might have sent along the three works of poetic genius below. I would have asked her to read them aloud and in order. No doubt she would have seen in them a movement from a celebration of death to a rage against death to a joyful confidence in the death’s own death.

The first poem, A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” lauds the athlete who dies (whether accidentally or not) before age outlives the quickly wilting garland of victory–a sign for the vigor of youth. The athlete is praised largely because he will never suffer the pain of being defeated, of being forgotten, of being a has-been. Housman captures the real, tangible fear the human soul has for the corruption of the body and the fickleness of fame. He captures as well the vain temptation to praise death as savior from these realities, for if the fame of the dead-in-youth lives on, it is but among shades who have mostly worn out their own. Shallow praise indeed to be adulated by the weakest of the weak, those whose only greedy wish is to have died as young as you. The poem at once creates an idol of physical health and popular renown while acting the lighthouse against their shoals.

The second, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” begs his dying father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas, falling to the opposite side of the mean, does not foolishly praise death but foolishly overstates and dignifies its power by his too-impassioned resistance. “Wise men,” “good men,” “wild men,” “grave men,” “and you” must do more than resist; all these rage. Perhaps were death a great injustice it may rightly demand rage, but it is on final count the fall’s just desert; the God of life patiently withholds it on account of his mercy yet only duly delivers when death arrives. Dylan illumines, though, the innate inclination to continue being what one is, as one is: a creature in the image and likeness of life, light, truth, goodness, and beauty itself (i.e., God). Dylan’s rage remembers the indelible dignity and value human life and the grave and disdainful, yet deserved disorder of death. Ultimately, though, Dylan’s rage serves an idol, the idol of temporal, material life, or if not that then the idol of man’s indomitable spirit. The poem displays a confidence but not yet the right kind.

Finally, John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10),” finds the true mean between rage and praise, the rightful place of peace in the face of man’s foe defanged. Donne denounces death; it is impotent, the pawn of the vicious and of chance, readily imitable, and ultimately mortal itself. Death, once a wall, has become a door opened to those who share in Christ’s resurrection. Donne opens for us a horizon onto death that allows the Christian confidence to see it for its temporary necessity yet its enduring evil. Though Donne sees in death a door, he does not loose sight of death as the enemy it truly is. In this balance Donne navigates the narrow way between “Athlete Dying Young” and “Do Not Go Gentle.” Death is no friend, but it is not so great an enemy as deserving the full passion of rage. Death, it seems, deserves a defiant laugh (and a bit of a scold). Death is laughable not for its impotence to cause intense pain, suffering, and fear. No, death’s comedy is its error, its pride. Death dies in a moment while the eternal life the faithful already possess remains and reaches fullness in saecula saeculorum.

We need neither the foolish celebration nor the desperate raging against such an enemy. We need instead the peaceful confidence of sharing in the life of the one who once conquered and will definitively destroy death on the last day. Read with me now, and pray with me that Brittany’s soul opened onto a horizon of humble Christian confidence, even if only with her dying breath.

 

To An Athlete Dying Young  —  (by A. E. Housman)

 

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

 

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

 

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay,

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

 

Eyes that shady night has shut

Cannot see the record cut,

And silence sounds no worse than cheers

After earth has stopped the ears.

 

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

 

So set, before its echoes fade,

The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

And hold to the low lintel up

The still-defended challenge-cup.

 

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl’s.

 


 

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night —  (by Dylan Thomas)

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 


Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10) — (by John Donne)

 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die.


 

 

 

Dappled Links

Since my post on native plants, I’ve delved deeper (ha) into gardening. I found a kindred spirit in this essay: Memory and Plants. Thomas Rainer’s blog takes garden talk to a more literary level than most: “But the gardener understands the cruelty of April. The derivation of the word April can be traced as far back as Varro, where the etymology, omnia aperit, literally “it opens everything” may be a reference to the opening of flowers and trees . . . . For the last few weeks I have been a witness to the openings of seeds. Birth is an act of violence. These dry brown seeds burst into life, ripping off their skins, splitting cotyledons, thrusting root into ground and stem to sky. Sometimes I lean in, expecting to hear the cries and wails of these infants.” I have been going back and reading his archives. Good stuff here, here, and here. I have been puzzled by my sudden interest in native plant gardening, but I realize it probably owes something to Hopkins and his adoration of inscape and “thisness,” for instance: “The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them.”

From the TLS, Rediscovering Regina Derieva. A poet I’d never heard of, she was Russian, Jewish, and Catholic.

From Aeon, Freedom from Food. Much has been written about America’s tormented relationship with food, but this article, and the other articles I’ve read about Soylent, attract comments from a subculture that has reduced our food anxieties to their most Gnostic roots: “For me, it’s not the time taken, because I don’t take that much care about eating, only over doing it, it’s how disgusting eating is, considering the end result. It’s just awful to have to continue eating to sustain this body, which disintegrates in the end anyway. OK, that’s too negative, but I still find eating gross, and I over do it, substituting eating rather than addressing the things I need to address.” Most people won’t want to abandon food for a futuristic vitamin gruel, but most of us do harbor an unhealthy concept or two. Recently I’ve been battling the idea that no matter what I’m doing, I could be doing something more productive – if I’m blogging I could be doing the dishes, and if I’m doing the dishes I could be blogging. It’s pernicious and “wasting” time on planning and cooking some elaborate recipe helps me be rid of it.

A book trailer for Heather King’s new memoir. And here, more memories of her mother.

Saturday Links

Signs of the budding Catholic literary renaissance keep popping up. In the nine years since we started Dappled Things, it has been very exciting to see how quickly things seem to be picking up steam. The National Catholic Register just posted an article in which I’m quoted, discussing the growing number of literary prizes offered for Catholic literature. For those of you who are interested, we remind you that we are currently accepting submissions both to our fiction and nonfiction prizes, each paying multiple cash prizes of up to $500.

Meanwhile, Dana Gioia has organized what looks to be the kickoff conference for a new era of Catholic literature, titled the The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination. We’ve briefly mentioned this event before, but the more details we learn, the better it looks. The conference is drawing some of the most renowned authors in the United States, including Gioia himself as well as others such as Alice  McDermott, Ron Hansen, Julia Alvarez, Kevin Starr, and Tobias Wolff. The conference will be held at the University of Southern California and will include sessions ranging from “The Jesuit Imagination in Literature” to “Latino Catholic Writers.” Our own Meredith Wise and Joshua Hren will participate in various sessions, including one titled “Catholic Literati: The New Generation.” There will even be special sections for high school attendees, where students will get to workshop with writers like Hansen, Gioia, and McDermott. Mark your calendars.

On a different note, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is finally getting some money of his own. Colombia, seems to have a knack for honoring writers in its currency. The country already features the poet Jose Asuncion Silva in one of its bills—including he full text of his poem “Nocturno”—as well as novelist Jorge Isaacs, author of Maria, the premier work of 19th century Colombian Romanticism. Now, the Colombian congress has just approved a law to feature the recently deceased Nobel Prize winning author in one of its future bills. Its about time someone devoted some money to the arts!

“Thank You for the Light” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the New Yorker.

While the New Yorker paywall is still down, you may want to check out “Thank You for the Light,” a previously unpublished short-short story of Fitzgerald’s. Though he wasn’t practicing for most of his career, the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald occasionally shows gleams and glimmers of his Catholic upbringing and early devotion. (The short story “Absolution” is one example, which has elements that are Catholic in sensibility if not in drift; there’s another about a young woman who faints during Eucharistic Adoration, though I can’t remember the title now. Daniel McInerny further unpacks the extent of Fitzgerald’s Catholicity here.)

While “Thank You for the Light” has a hint of the surreal and maybe of gentle miracle-story parody about it, it’s also strangely reverent. When Fitzgerald first submitted it to the New Yorker in 1936, the editors who rejected it are said to have called the story “absolutely out of the question . . . unlike the kind of thing we associate with him and really too fantastic.” For a certain type of reader, those words may function as a backhanded endorsement. I thought the piece would have been right at home in the pages of Dappled Things. If you read the story, do let us know what you think in the comments.

(photo: pre-Vatican II interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, MO, the setting of the second half of “Thank You for the Light”)