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Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray. We know how it goes:

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them; your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So you should pray like this:
‘Our Father in heaven,
may your name be held holy,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test,
but save us from the evil one.
‘Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.’

Of course, we have taken Jesus at his word here and taken these prayers as literally– how we are to pray.

Although, I wonder how widespread memorization of these words are among those who aren’t Catholic? Years ago, my daughter was in a high school production of Lilies of the Field down here in Birmingham.  There’s a scene in which the sisters recite the Lord’s Prayer. They weren’t off book then, but, you know…the Lord’s Prayer. My daughter was the only one who knew it by heart, here in Bible country. Perhaps none of the other girls were church-goers at all, but it did prompt me to wonder…would evangelicals know the Lord’s Prayer as a stand-alone?

Anyway, as a memorized prayer, taking Jesus literally, the Lord’s Prayer is foundational. But it is more than that. My conscience has long been pricked by Jesus’ words here because it seems to me they go far deeper than telling me what words to say. They are about how to pray, no matter what words – or no words – I bring. They are about an attitude and approach.

So often when we think about prayer, we focus on petitions and on ourselves. We begin by spilling out our guts to God, loading up on our problems and needs. But how does Jesus tell us how to pray? By beginning in giving praise to God and acknowledging who God is. Half the prayer is that – God is Father, God is holy, God reigns. Oh, and then…may we be sustained. May we be forgiven. May we be faithful in the face of temptation.

Amen. 

Not a lot of words. No  self-centered babbling. A lot of God, not much us.

As I said, a conscience-pricker.

A bit more, on a slightly different angle, from The Words We Pray. 

"amy welborn"

 

 

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, books which are primarily focused on the clergy and their families of the fictional town.

The plot is simple. From Goodreads, because I hate summarizing plots. I must have had a traumatic experience in fourth grade or something.

“The Warden” centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

Reading Trollope, first of all, will disabuse a reader of the notion that in past eras, clergymen and church affairs were considered off-limits for satire, mocking and criticism. Of course this is not the case, and has never been, but Trollope’s treatment of religion is "amy welborn"particularly instructive because he is so straightforward in presenting the humanity and politics of the world of the church (of England in this case, of course).

The Warden is much shorter than most of Trollope’s other work, and more focused, although the political and journalistic world of London comes under scrutiny as Mr. Harding travels there to make his case. I earlier highlighted Trollope’s evisceration of the press in his chapter “Mount Olympus.” 

I want to highlight just a few quotes from The Warden, passages which I particularly appreciated either because of their insight into human behavior or high satirical quotient. In the first, “the doctor” is the Archdeacon of the Cathedral, who is also Mr. Harding’s son-in-law. He is determined that the threat against Harding’s position is no less than a threat against the privileges of the entire Church of England, and must be stopped.

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, the doctor stepped down to the hospital, to learn how matters were going on there; and as he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.

And who has not felt the same? We believe that Mr Horseman himself would relent, and the spirit of Sir Benjamin Hall give way, were those great reformers to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

I love this passage, in which Trollope is taking the language usually used to express how beautiful and orderly church architecture leads the mind to consider the glory and nature of God and turns it around.

A minor character, Sir Abraham Haphazard, will be the defender of the Church’s privilege in the House of Lords, but he is also busy with another cause:

Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers, or jesuitical symbols: and as there were to be a hundred and thirty-seven clauses in the bill, each clause containing a separate thorn for the side of the papist, and as it was known the bill would be fought inch by inch, by fifty maddened Irishmen, the due construction and adequate dovetailing of it did consume much of Sir Abraham’s time. The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for compelling all men to drink Irish whisky, and all women to wear Irish poplins, that for the remainder of the session the Great Poplin and Whisky League was utterly harmless.

Again, great, (if heavy-handed!) satire, not only on British anti-Catholicism, but on the ways of politics, so often centered not on direct discussion of policy, but on misdirection and throwing up false flags for distraction and disturbance of enemy forces.

Having gone through this Mr Harding got into another omnibus, and again returned to the House. Yes, Sir Abraham was there, and was that moment on his legs, fighting eagerly for the hundred and seventh clause of the Convent Custody Bill. Mr Harding’s note had been delivered to him; and if Mr Harding would wait some two or three hours, Sir Abraham could be asked whether there was any answer. The House was not full, and perhaps Mr Harding might get admittance into the Strangers’ Gallery, which admission, with the help of five shillings, Mr Harding was able to effect.

This bill of Sir Abraham’s had been read a second time and passed into committee. A hundred and six clauses had already been discussed and had occupied only four mornings and five evening sittings; nine of the hundred and six clauses were passed, fifty-five were withdrawn by consent, fourteen had been altered so as to mean the reverse of the original proposition, eleven had been postponed for further consideration, and seventeen had been directly negatived. The hundred and seventh ordered the bodily searching of nuns for jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen, and was considered to be the real mainstay of the whole bill. No intention had ever existed to pass such a law as that proposed, but the government did not intend to abandon it till their object was fully attained by the discussion of this clause. It was known that it would be insisted on with terrible vehemence by Protestant Irish members, and as vehemently denounced by the Roman Catholic; and it was justly considered that no further union between the parties would be possible after such a battle. The innocent Irish fell into the trap as they always do, and whiskey and poplins became a drug in the market.

Ending on a far simpler note, I love this tight observation of John Bold, who is pursuing this suit about the hospital, for no particular reason except, as we might say today, “Because Reasons” and with no real thinking through of the consequences to those he is professing to help:

And the Barchester Brutus went out to fortify his own resolution by meditations on his own virtue.

I think that’s a good nudge for a penitential Lenten Friday, myself….

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Well, if you are a Catholic, it’s a bonanza kind of day. It’s First Friday and it’s the first Friday of Lent. Both of the sons I have at home right now go to Catholic schools – one elementary and one secondary – and both will be having Adoration and Stations of the Cross on Friday at school. So tonight, we had a brief talk about how that’s a lot of praying, and a great opportunity to pray for a lot of people.

 

— 2 —

It’s also the memorial of St. Katharine Drexel. I wrote about her in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

— 3 —

Currently reading:

Barchester Towers

The Unbanking of America

The Astronomer and the Witch. 

— 4 —

The first because I’m on a Trollope kick, and I have to say that I can see why readers pick Barchester Towers as their favorite. It is tight and lively, and not quite the discursive experience as other recent Trollopes I have read like Miss MacKenzie and Rachel Ray.  The characters are quite a bit more vivid and the humor more pronounced. Really, the Stanhope clan and Obadiah Slope are terrific creations.

I had assumed there was a BBC adaptation, so I went in search of one and found that indeed there was – a combined production of The Warden and Barchester Towers featuring lots of familiar faces including, quite memorably, the late, great Alan Rickman as Slope, in his first major television role. It’s hard to think of a more perfect match of actor and role.

I’ve watched bits and pieces, mostly to see Rickman as well as satisfy my curiosity about how the Stanhopes – the family of an Anglican vicar who’ve been living in northern Italy because  the vicar caught a cold of some sort and needed a bit of a rest cure. Twelve years later, they’ve been called back by the new bishop, and between them, Slope, the new bishop and his wife and a host of other characters, sparks are certainly flying, plans are being hatched – and sabotaged. The television adaptation is mildly entertaining, and it’s always fun to see how a good character translates from page to screen, but in this case, reading the book is a far more satisfying experience. The television adaptation can barely skim the surface, and at times does get things wrong.

In the novel, Slope and his sometime ally and sometimes enemy Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife, are presented as adherents of the plain, more evangelical wing of the Church of England, people who are appalled that the trains run on the Sabbath and are unimpressed by chanting and other forms of music in the liturgy. In television terms, this gets translated into a kind of rationalism – Slope’s initial sermon, which causes scandal because he takes a stand against high church liturgy – becomes a paean of sorts to rationalism.

So, as I said, I’ve skipped around a couple of episodes, but enjoy the book much more.

— 5 —.

The Unbanking of America?  I read an interview with the author at Reason, the libertarian website, and was intrigued, as I always am, by the thought of someone who presents ideas that are opposed to Conventional Wisdom. I won’t rehash her arguments – simply know that the author is an economist who spent a few months working at both a check-cashing business and payday-loan business, and found that they fill a gap in the financial lives of many that banks just don’t anymore.  It’s like a long Atlantic Monthly or New Yorker article that you can knock off in a couple of hours, and I always enjoy that – grow my brain a bit without too much commitment, and thanks.

— 6 —

Did you know Johannas Kepler’s mother was tried as a witch? I didn’t, and this book is the story of that set of events – as well as a fascinating look at, of course, Kepler himself, and the very lively intellectual world of early 17th century Germany.  I’m just about halfway through and will talk more about it when I finish, but really, if you are even talking to someone who’s all about separating science and religion and who wants to tell you about that glorious time when scientists like Kepler finally busted the superstitious Age of Faith apart, invite them to consider what Kepler (and others) was really about – how he was a profoundly religious man who was all about discovering more about God via studying his Creation.

Oh, and about the witch business – it happened when Kepler was an adult, after he had started producing important scientific work, and when the accusations came to his attention, he rearranged his life to travel back home and work in his mother’s defense.

— 7 —

I was clued into this via, of course In Our Time, which had an excellent program on Kepler which featured the author of the Astronomer book as one of the guests.

Other recent listens have been programs on:

Parasitism – good, but not fascinating.

The Gin Craze – fantastic social history. 

And, just yesterday, a great program on Harriet Martineau, the 19th century British writer. If you listen to any of these programs – try this one first.

Just one note about Martineau. She was a prolific writer, primarily of descriptive and analytical essays reflecting her views on political philosophy and economics. I think it’s accurate to describe her as an early sociologist of sorts.Indeed, she spent two years in the United State and wrote about it – books of which I was vaguely aware, but now have put on the (very long) list.

What might interest you is Martineau’s conflict with Charles Dickens.

She had written for Dickens’ journal called Household Words, but over time, differences between the two developed. Martineau, a devotee of Adam Smith and Malthus, felt that Dickens’ view of what we’d now call the impact of the Industrial Revolution was simplistic, sentimental and uninformed by a coherent political philosophy. She didn’t appreciate his views on women and she was offended by his personal life.

But what caused the final split was Dickens’ anti-Catholicism.

Martineau herself was a strong, unwavering Unitarian, but in 1854, she was surprised that story she had written for Dickens, a story about the sacrifices of a Jesuit missionary, was rejected. As she wrote in her autobiography (written when she thought she was dying…but then she lived for twenty more years, and it ended up, indeed being published after her death.)

Some weeks afterwards, my friends told me, with renewed praises of the story, that they mourned the impossibility of publishing it, — Mrs. Wills said, because the public would say that Mr. Dickens was turning Catholic; and Mr. Wills and Mr. Dickens, because they never would publish any thing, fact or fiction, which gave a favourable view of any one under the influence of the Catholic faith. This appeared to me so incredible that Mr. Dickens gave me his “ground” three times over, with all possible distinctness, lest there should be any mistake: — he would print nothing which could possibly dispose any mind whatever in favour of Romanism, even by the example of real good men. In vain I asked him whether he really meant to ignore all the good men who had lived from the Christian era to three centuries ago: and in vain I pointed out that Père d’Estélan was a hero as a man, and not as a Jesuit, at a date and in a region where Romanism was the only Christianity. Mr. Dickens would ignore, in any publication of his, all good catholics; and insisted that Père d’Estélan was what he was as a Jesuit and not as a man; — which was, as I told him, the greatest eulogium I had ever heard passed upon Jesuitism. I told him that his way of going to work, — suppressing facts advantageous to the Catholics, — was the very way to rouse all fair minds in their defence; and that I had never before felt so disposed to make popularly known all historical facts in their favour. — I hope I need not add that the editors never for a moment supposed that my remonstrance had any connexion with the story in question being written by me. They knew me too well to suppose that such a trifle as my personal interest in the acceptance or rejection of the story had any thing to do with my final declaration that my confidence and comfort in regard to “Household Words” were gone, and that I could never again write fiction for them, nor any thing in which principle or feeling were concerned. Mr. Dickens hoped I should [94] “think better of it;” and this proof of utter insensibility to the nature of the difficulty, and his and his partner’s hint that the real illiberality lay in not admitting that they were doing their duty in keeping Catholic good deeds out of the sight of the public, showed me that the case was hopeless. To a descendant of Huguenots, such total darkness of conscience on the morality of opinion is difficult to believe in when it is before one’s very eyes.

Even worse, at some point later, was the publication in Household Words, of a rabidly anti-Catholic, scandal-mongering piece of fiction called The Yellow Mask. 

The last thing I am likely to do is to write for an anti-catholic publication; and least of all when it is anti-catholic on the sly.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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You know, sometimes Ash Wednesday is super early. Like last year, remember? It was February 10. (The earliest it can be is February 4)

When it does fall that early, some of us complain and moan that we haven’t even had time to recover from Christmas or enjoy us some Ordinary Time when here comes Lent. 

Well, here’s what I say. I say that if this year were last year, Lent would already be almost half over and wouldn’t that be great!  The sooner it begins, the sooner it ends.

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Several Lent-themed posts this past week:

(Not a post, but look for me in Living Faith tomorrow – 2/25)

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The role of the press in helping – or not- us understand what is going on in the world continues to be debated. I thought this Tweet from attorney and Federalist contributor Gabriel Malor summed up the problem nicely: 

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Another excellent contribution to commentary on the present ecclesial moment: “The New Jansenism” from First Things. 

We are, indeed, plagued by a new sort of Jansenism, one rooted in presumption rather than despair. The “old” Jansenism arose from both anthropological and theological despair—the Catholic absorption of total depravity, and the loss of hope in the possibility of salvation. Ironically, those who criticize the four cardinals—and anyone who believes that Amoris Laetitia is in need of clarification—often fall into a new form of Jansenism. This “new” Jansenism is marked by a similar pessimism with respect to human nature—total depravity under a new name, whether “weakness” or “woundedness” or “greyness.” And like what preceded it, the new Jansenism articulates a loss of hope in the power of grace to regenerate the soul. The difference is that the new Jansenism tends towards presumption.

— 5 —.

BBC 3 has a video series called “Things not to say to..fill in the blank.”   Some of them concern people with conditions like Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and facial disfigurements. Very worthwhile.

— 6 —

“Boy with ‘no brain’ stuns doctors.” 

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Over the past year, Noah’s brain has continued to develop beyond all expectation.

A brain scan taken when he was three years old showed that his brain had expanded to 80% of a normal brain – an incredible result that no doctor expected.

Now, after a series of painful and difficult operations on his hips, he’s even contemplating the possibility one day of walking.

— 7 —

And on the Catholic blogger front:

Mark Zuckerberg (not a Catholic blogger) was in Birmingham earlier this week – he’s doing this wandering-around-America tour thing, which surely seems like groundwork for running for political office to me, but anyway. He started his tour of Alabama down in Mobile, then worked his way up here. After meeting with Anthony Ray Hinton, wrongly convicted of murder and confined on death row for three decades, the Zuckerbergs dined at a place called Oven Bird  obviously because, I am assuming, Lisa Hendey told them about it, since that’s where I took her when she visited Birmingham in December. And there’s your Catholic blogger connection on that one.

Thomas Peters, whom some of you remember as the “American Papist” blogger and who still writes in other capacities, was paralyzed in a swimming accident several years ago. OSV catches up with Tom and Natalie Peters here. 

Jeff Miller started blogging not too long after I did – way back in 2002, according to his archives. He’s been around for a long time as the Curt Jester, writing witty Catholic blog posts, reviewing books and talking tech. Jeff’s wife Socorro passed away last month, and he writes a moving blog post about her here. 

I can hardly write how devastated I am from losing her. After over 36 years of marriage I am certainly struggling day-to-day. I thank God for my faith and that she was the instrumental cause God used in my conversion. She was a women of prayer day in and day out despite all those years when I held her faith in little regard. In my then atheistic pride her faith was something I had to put up with. To the end she never wavered in her faith or her prayers. In those final days when she could hardly communicate – she was still making the sign of the cross.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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(Feel free to swipe and share)

One week! One week from today!

If you’re on the lookout for resources for yourself, your kids or your parish or school, take a look at these. It might be cutting it close for parish or school resources, but maybe not – it’s worth a call.

So, yes. March 1. If you’re prepping for a parish or school, check out my Lenten devotional from Liguori, also available in Spanish.

(pdf sample of English language version here)

Kindle version of English booklet. 

Paper version. Still time to order with Prime. 

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The Spanish-language version is not available in a digital format, but here is an Amazon link, and yes, you can get it soon via Prime. 

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PDF sample of Spanish language version. 

Contact Liguori at 1-800-325-9521 for parish and school orders. No promises, but they can probably get orders to you by next week.

  • Reconciled to God, a daily devotional from Creative Communications for the parish.  You can buy it individually, in bulk for the parish our your group, or get a digital version. (.99)amy-welborn-3

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  • The Word on Fire ministry is more than the Catholicism or Pivotal Players series – as great as they are! There are also some really great lecture series/group discussion offerings.  I wrote the study guide for the series on Conversion – a good Lenten topic. 

  • A few years ago, I wrote a Stations of the Cross for young people calledNo Greater Love,  published by Creative Communications for the Parish. They put it out of print for a while…but now it’s back!

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Looking ahead to First Communion/Confirmation season? Try here. 

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Very quick, mostly about what I’ve read recently.

Monday is Presidents’ Day – Kevin Williamson inveighs against it, and I resonate with his inveighing:

The president of the United States is the chief officer of the federal bureaucracy, the head of one branch of a government that has three co-equal branches. Strictly speaking, it is not given to him even to make law, but only to see to the enforcement of the laws passed by Congress (and maybe to veto one here and there) and to appoint appropriate people, like the former CEO of Carl’s Jr., to high federal offices. In the legislative branch, the House of Representatives is the accelerator and the Senate is the brake; the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are pretty much all brake; the presidency is a kind of hybrid, sometimes pressing for needful reform and action, sometimes standing in Congress’s way when it is rash or overly ambitious. The architecture of our constitutional order is a complicated and delicate balance.

 But the president is not the tribune of the plebs. He is not a sacred person or the holder of a sacred office. He is neither pontifex nor imperator. He is not the spiritual distillation of the republic or the personification of our national ideals and values. (Thank God Almighty.) He is not even primus inter pares like the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the commander-in-chief in time of war (which, since we have abandoned the advice of Washington and Eisenhower, is all of the time, now) and the chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy. That is it.

He is not a ruler.

— 2 —

Good stuff from the Federalist on Common Core. A primer, if you will:

As I detail in full footnoted glory in my book out soon, Common Core’s own founding documents specifically invite federal involvement. Its success as a national program is directly attributable to federal involvement in education, period. Common Core’s creators and funders worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration, right down to transferring personnel and regular alignment phone calls, to impose it upon the nation and link it to every major federal and state education policy (data collection, teacher preparation and certification, school rating systems, curriculum, testing). The new law replacing No Child Left Behind codifies the federal government as the ultimate review board for state testing and curriculum policies, a Clinton-era policy that made Common Core possible.

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If you are interested in educational issues, and not necessarily from a religious perspective, the libertarian magazine/website Reason looks at the issue of school choice regularly and has a good library of articles, found here. 

My mantra, in case you’ve never heard it: more schools of all different types for all different kinds of students. 

— 4 —

I have so many notes headed “PF” with many words attached, but since every day brings a new development, what I was sure was most important yesterday inevitably fades with the dawn of a new day, every day, without fail.

So I’ll be lazy and offer this excellent analysis of a bit of the current situation from First Things: 

It can be no surprise, then, that the sacraments are under renewed attack. For the sacraments are the means by which the Church is ordered and by which she distinguishes, on a practical level, between good and evil. (What is the point of forbidding the evil of divorce, if not to uphold the good of marriage and its witness to the covenant of our salvation? What is the point of forbidding suicide and euthanasia, if not to uphold the sanctity of life and the good of honoring the Lord and Giver of Life?) The sacraments, of course, are much more than that. They are instruments of grace by which God communicates to us his own life through participation in our Lord Jesus Christ. They are not rewards for goodness, but the means of sharing in the God who is good. That is why they are holy sacraments, and it is their very holiness that makes them the object of attack.

— 5 —.

Earlier this week, I finished La Dolce Vita Confidential – if you’re interested in Italian pop culture and the movies, you’ll enjoy this. The writing was excellent, and Levy does a great job of excavating a cultural moment and helping us see how these moments just don’t happen – there are streams that are flowing that join to make the river…and then disperse again. For just a few years, Italy was everything, and then it was England’s moment and so life goes on.

I will admit that I have never actually seen La Dolce Vita, and will probably remedy that soon. There were a few other films discussed in the book that picqued my interest – for example, this early Sophia Loren-Marcello Mastroianni collaboration called Too Bad She’s Bad. 

— 6 —

There were a few more rabbit holes inspired by the text – various other movies, a purported, but false Marian apparition and this song:

 

Levy just mentions it offhand, as being inspired by the death/perhaps suicide of a Sicilian nobleman, who jumped/was pushed from a building on Via Veneto. I found it mesmerizing and haunting:

Who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Bonne nuit, bonne nuit, goodnight,
he keeps telling everything,
the lighted lamps,
a cat in love
that goes by wandering.
 
Now dawn has finally come,
lamps are turned off,
and the whole city
wakes up little by little,
moon has got stuck,
suprised, pale,
it will disappear in the sky
fading away.
 
A window yawns
on the silent river
and in the white light
a top hat, a flower and a tailcoat
float away.
 
Gently floating,
cradled by the waves,
he slowly flows down
under bridges towards the sea,
towards the sea he goes.
 
Who could it be, who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Adieu, adieu, farewell world,
farewell to memories of the past,
to a dream never dreamt,
to an instant of love
that will never come back.

…and then further rabbit holes led me to the fact that the singer/songwriter was Domenio Modugno whose main claim to fame was the Eurovision-competing (but not winning) Volare! which we all know from the car and the commercials,  (very funny to watch that commercial and see the boat that’s touted as a fabulous new “small car”) if not from the many covers of the song, including one by Dean Martin, but honestly, take a look at the video, read the borderline surreal lyrics and understand why the Internet is both the life and the death of me.

I think, such a dream
Will never return.
I painted hands and face in the blue
And then suddenly the wind kidnapped me
And I began to fly in an infinite sky.
To fly,
To sing
In the blue, painted in the blue,
I am happy to be above.

— 7 —

Forgive me for repeating this Take from last week…but..it still pertains, don’t you think?

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

The past two weeks, I’ve seen a spike in hits for  this post – and I’m glad to see it.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 19 is Sexagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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