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?

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.

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.

Giving Thanks for an Atheist

               ShostakovichDuring this season of thanks, I would like to take a moment to praise God for all the artists who have brightened, enlightened, beautified, and shaped my experience of living.  I hope it’s true for you, as it is for me, that men and women long dead, from other parts of the world, people with whom it would have been rather awkward to try to have a civil dinner conversation if we could somehow have arranged it, have nevertheless contributed to forming my worldview.  There is a wonderful sense of universality (literally, Catholicism) in being connected to distant lands and distant ages through the works their artists leave behind.  However, as I reflect upon my gratitude for the geniuses who paved my way toward becoming who I am, I cannot help but notice that many of them lacked the one thing for which I am most grateful: faith in our glorious Triune God, or, indeed, any god at all.  As a Catholic music director, I am constantly challenged by the fact that the composer who changed the way I understand the emotional power of sound–the man whose music scrapes the calluses from my soul in a way no one else’s ever has–was an atheist.

 I first encountered Dmitri Shostakovich in one of my college music theory classes, where the instructor played a snippet of his Fifth Symphony.  Nothing in my life had prepared me to discover such raw, immediate intimacy.  Fairy tales tell us this feeling is possible when Prince Charming meets your eye across a crowded room, but falling head-over-heels for the music of a dead Communist?  Really?

Really.  The composer who won my ears at first hearing was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1906 and rose to the height of his artistic prowess during the height of the Stalinist regime.  He spent the last fifteen years of his life as a member of the Communist Party.  He dedicated his Second Symphony “To October” and his Twelfth “To Lenin.”  He composed scores for Soviet propaganda films and received such awards as Hero of Socialist Labor, Order of Lenin, Order of the October Revolution… you get the idea.  However, the subject that dominates scholarship about Shostakovich is his rocky relationship with the Soviet government and Stalin in particular.  There were times in his life when he slept with a suitcase beside his bed, expecting the secret police to arrive at any moment to haul him off to a Siberian Gulag.  Why?  Because, as conductor Mariss Jansons says, “[His music] was in essence exploring people’s personal tragedies and dramas; it was a statement against the regime.”  Jansons is one of only many who speaks about a “dual code” within the music, who listens to the supposed “victory parade in Red Square” at the end of the Fifth Symphony and hears instead “[that] the optimism is contained in the fact that the true hero… was ready to fight.”

It was this true hero who stole my heart: who twisted it in gorgeous, brutal ways to shine a light upon its brokenness, its vulnerability, its capacity to overcome.  The Fifth Symphony sings of a battle between hope and despair.  Melodies as delicate as snowflakes lilt upon the air, struggling to breathe against the brassy onslaught of iniquity, whirled through a confusion of strings scraped in vicious frenzy.  Great art transcends its historical climate, and in the coded musical war wherein the Russian people weep against the oppression of Stalin, I hear Jesus overcoming temptation in the desert as well as Judas being lured away to give the fatal kiss.  I hear the one great battle that takes place every day, in every human heart.  Part of the genius of the Fifth is that it’s never really clear who wins.  Shostakovich lays bare the truth and then sends his listeners forth to write their own finales.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a great deal more than just the Fifth Symphony, and although the work through which we met remains my favorite, his insight into the war within the human soul shines through all of his best compositions.  How he could write such spiritual music without recourse to prayer, I do not know.  I do know that when the truth comes from an atheist’s lips, it is still God who speaks.  The challenge for us Christians is to find the humility to listen.

So, among the many blessings I praise God for this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the atheist who inspires me to hope.  I am grateful for a God so generous, He pours out his love upon our world through every available conduit–even the ones who deny that He exists.  I thank Him for the mercy that allows me to believe Dmitri Shostakovich and all the other heretics who have brought goodness to our world still live beyond the grave through more than just their works.  Above all, I thank Him for giving me the privilege Shostakovich was denied: that whatever little beauty God allows me to create, I can do it without codes, freely and openly, in His name.

 

Great Poetry Performances

Not actually Keats, but close enough

Not actually Keats, but close enough

The experience of hearing a poem recited is very different from that of silently reading it on the page, and ideally the performance should enrich our experience of the poem. Alas, many poetry readings fail to deliver. Naeem Murr fisked them all in a hilarious essay: “Why is it that so few poets think about the importance of leaving their audience wanting more—or at least not wanting to self-harm? We’ve all experienced it. A lively, engaging, funny person takes the podium. We adore her; we’re ready to adore her work. And then it’s as if someone has pulled a string in the back of her head to release the “poetry voice” from her abruptly expressionless face.” Now, it’s kind of unfair to attack poets too harshly for not being great performers. Composing and performing are two very different skills. But some performances are better than others, and it’s worth seeking them out. With that in mind, here are some of my favorites.

The Three Year-Old Who Memorizes Poems

This little guy is not only ineffably adorable, he also has serious interpretive chops. This is his performance of Billy Collins’ Litany. See how he tumbles forward when he says “the evening paper blooooowing down an alley”? An adult couldn’t pull that off, but it’s perfect for him. The way he modulates his voice, rising and falling, is more sophisticated than Billy Collins’ own recitation. The way he plunges down again at the end of the poem (“But don’t worry…”) makes him sound like a miniature Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October”

You can’t talk about great poetry performers without bowing down before Dylan Thomas. Whether he’s reading his own incantations or the war poems of Wilfred Owen, you won’t think about anything else while you’re listening. I could recommend many selections: “The Hunchback in the Park,” A Child’s Christmas in Wales ( a short story)… Or you could just spring for this 11 CD collection of his recordings, which is worth way more than $25.

This High Schooler Reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth”

You have to scroll down a ways to find Kareem Sayegh. I’m sure all the girls in his class had a huge crush on him. The way he interprets this delicate, Tim Burton-ish poem, with wry coolness and little fraying moments of vulnerability, is enchanting.

A Seriously Disturbing One By–Who Else?–Sylvia Plath

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. In this poem, Plath is Nurse Ratched, Mommy dearest, the HR lady from hell. Or something. Her voice is lye and honey.

Robert Hass, “Faint Music”

I didn’t expect to like this. I’ve not read much of Hass, and had a vague understanding that he was yet another academic hippie lefty poet. But I stumbled across these recordings and listened to them without reading the poems first – and I liked them better that way. There’s the faintest hint of gravel in Hass’s voice, and the poems slip through transitions as dreamlike as San Francisco in its states of light and fog.

Seamus Heaney’s Poem for His Mother

He wrote this sonnet after her death. His voice, so kind, so Irish, is always a pleasure to listen to.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reading Keats No I Can’t Stop Myself

I will let the women of YouTube speak for me: “I like this more than I like the crème filling of an oreo…” “BOOM my ovaries are gone.”

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.

 

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.

Introducing the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction

jf-powers-001

J.F. Powers

“One foot in this world and one in the next”: that’s how J.F. Powers described the Midwestern priests he wrote about in his fiction. Having one foot in another world can be awkward, and Powers’ characters are known not for their graceful mysticism, but for the humiliating and mordantly entertaining stumbles they make while trying to live their faith. We’re looking for carefully crafted short stories with vivid characters who encounter grace in everyday settings—we want to see who, in the age we live in, might have one foot in this world and one in the next.

The judges will be Eve Tushnet, Andrew McNabb, and Matthew Lickona, and the winner will receive $500. There is no entrance fee. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. Please submit your short story (no more than one, no previously published work) to our website by November 29.

Click here to make your submission and see the writer’s guidelines.

Glyph

I think it’s possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It’s possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy even of God’s attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I believe it. I don’t think God is there and we’re here, and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.        

- J. F. Powers

‘Banned Books Week’ Winding Down

book-2aI just realized that Banned Books Week is almost over and I haven’t celebrated it with a banned classic yet. I’ve been so absorbed in Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence that I almost missed the celebration altogether. Thankfully, I checked the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (KVML) website yesterday to see what they were up to, or I would have missed out completely.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Banned Books Week but want to know more, the KVML’s website and the American Library Association’s website are great places to start. My interest with the movement is not so much in saving the Captain Underpants books of the world (no matter how funny they are), but rather with celebrating the once—banned classics which have become a part of the literary canon. I don’t always agree with what the authors have to say and some go a bit further than I’m willing to follow, but I fully support an author’s right to express his/her view of existence, so long as the point is made intelligently and the piece itself has been well crafted.

Some of my favorite books can be found on the ALA list of “Banned Classics.” For instance, there’s Joyce’s, Ulysses, which (among so many other things) showed me just how unfocused and multi—threaded the thoughts in my mind truly are. There’s also Updike’s, Rabbit, Run, which opens with a wonderful illustration of a married young man confronting the enormity of his vocation (of course Harry doesn’t respond as we’d hope he would, but then would the story still be worth reading if he did?). There’s also the “Banned Classic” I most recently read, Slaughterhouse—Five, by Kurt Vonnegut — a writer that both Graham Green and Walker Percy held in high esteem.

Catholic authors have also fallen victim to censorship. The ALA list contains both Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (this one baffles me), and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I can see why Brideshead would upset some, but that’s only when it’s been given a superficial and/or incomplete reading. A deep reading reveals a work so totally infused with the workings of God and Grace toward the salvation of the (very flawed) major characters, that you would be hard pressed to find another comparable piece of fiction. The extremely powerful deathbed scene in particular is one of my favorite moments in all of literature.

So which “Banned Classic” am I going to choose? Every time I scan the various lists, I seem to find one that I hadn’t noticed before. This year’s surprise came from the KVML website where I found John Gardner’s, Grendel. Who could have banned this book? Haven’t they seen the picture on the cover of the Vintage edition? Grendel looks like a harmless kitten, mewing softly for a saucer of milk. A Google search lead to a page that claimed the book was banned for the usual reasons, such as complaints that it’s a bit to graphic, and it’s told from the viewpoint of a viscous monster whose thoughts/feelings contradict the standards of traditional morality. With the last item, I would assume that (given an appropriate reading) we will find ourselves on safe ground, as Gardner was responsible for polarizing so many people with his insistence On Moral Fiction (a work Tuscany Press approves of, but the great Frank O’Connor did not). At any rate, my interest is piqued, and I’ve found my choice.

“Valjean’s nobility inspires us because it is ultimately expressed in the quotidian and the domestic”

Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked offers an insightful response to The New Yorker critic David Denby’s pan of Les Miserables, in which Denby argues that “Saints don’t make interesting heroes.” The editorial board of Dappled Things holds no official position on the merits of the recent film adaptation, but Libresco’s post is a thoughtful examination of virtue as exemplified by the character Jean Valjean.

…we can see the fruit of making the right choice day by day.  It’s not winning the right to a love interest and getting a big, dramatic kiss at the climax of the story.  It’s the development of phronesis or practical wisdom.  By choosing the right thing day after day, Valjean is strengthening his conscience so that the wrong choice feels awkward and alien to him.

Read the whole thing.