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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

— 1 —

Sunday is…Sunday. Which supercedes any saint celebrations – but you can still think about St. Teresa of Avila anyway.She’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, and Loyola has a very readable excerpt here 

(If you would like to read a pdf version, click here.) 

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 — 2 —

.Early last spring, I wrote a small prayer book for Creative Communications, publisher of Living Faith. And then I forgot about it until a couple of days ago, when I thought..Wait…what happened to that thing I wrote? Shouldn’t it be out now? 

Well, I discovered, it is:

They had forgotten to tell me it was out or send me copies. I think they’re on the way now.

It’s just a little thing, suitable for bulk purchases for your parish – like when you’re ordering your St. Nicholas pamphlet, right? You can read a pdf excerpt here.

And since it’s the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun….take a look at my Mary book, here. 

Speaking of the St. Nicholas book, when I was corresponding with the editor about it (it had been out of print for a few years), he said something like, “Yes, the prose has held up pretty well after twenty years. We didn’t have to do much to it.”

And I thought…twenty years? That’s crazy.  I’m sure I wrote that no more than ten years ago…right?

Nope. Sorry. 1997.

Wow.  I have to say that realization really set me back. That was a long time ago. I don’t know what to think about that….

— 3 —

Well, onward. I am working very hard on my next book for Loyola, and I’m optimistic about getting it done on time or, hopefully, earlier.  So between that, homeschooling and Lost watching, there’s not much time for writing in this space. Click on the image to the left to get the newest book – or get it, preferably, from you local Catholic bookstore. Or order it from me! 

But…we have done quite a bit since last Friday. I’ll fill in the blanks with some photos and a quick report.

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Last Friday (a week ago), we attended a morning concert of the Alabama Symphony orchestra – they were performing Brahms’ Symphony #1 for an audience of mostly older people and schoolchildren. It was quite good and just the right length.

— 4

Over the weekend, we hopped over to the Alabama Farmer’s Market which was having a little fall festival. There wasn’t a lot to it, but there were some animals with very nice faces.

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— 5 —

The science center class is over, so that frees Tuesday mornings up, but Tuesday afternoons are still about boxing. This Wednesday morning we participated in a very interesting homeschool  group field trip to Sloss Furnaces, an iron-producing furnace in operation from the late 19th century to 1971. It’s now a National Historic Landmark, and the great thing about it is that you can just go wander around it – at no cost. It hosts events like music festivals and, of course, Halloween fright nights, and it’s a center for metal arts as well, but really  – most of the time you can just show up and wander around this amazing abandoned facility.

It had been a few years since we had been, and they’ve really upgraded the visitor’s center since then. It’s all very nice, and this was also the first time that we’d taken a tour. Part of the tour had the kids carving a design in a sand/resin mold for their own iron tile. They hold these “iron pours” periodically through the year for the general public, and now that I see how it’s done, we’ll definitely come back to do it again.

 

— 6 —

There was also some photography class homework done, here at Railroad Park:

Birmingham is trying to get some Amazon facility to settle here, so one of the gimmicks is to set up big Amazon boxes all over the place:

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Tonight (Thursday) – a free concert by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. It was outdoors on the UAB campus, so we just ran over there and stayed for about half the set and had some sopes. 

We do try to get around. Life is short. Carpe Diem, etc.

Twenty years ago? Really?

— 7 —

Miscellaneous reads and listens:

In Our Time on Constantine was good, with a recurring theme of ambiguity about what we actually know. 

I listened to several episodes of Witness – a very short program in which an historical event is described from the perspective of those who witnessed it (obviously). I took in episodes on Catalan nationalist Lluys Campanys, the raising of the Mary Rose, and Australia’s rabbit plague, all in one walk.

Oh, and there was a Great Lives episode on P.G. Wodehouse – the structure of this program is that a non-academic picks out a “great life” to talk about – usually it’s a hero of theirs or role model or just someone they find very significant. They chat about this person with the host Matthew Parris and an academic expert in the figure they’ve selected. The non-academic fan of Wodehouse was Stephen Fry who is so very clever and charming in his way, but so creepy and off-putting in others. But he was utterly lovely on Wodehouse, and it was a very inspiring program, not just for writers, I think, but for anyone who would like to think about what it means to just do the work you’ve set out to do and do it well.

Reading: Officers and Gentlemen by Waugh and The Old Man and the Sea. 

In these days when it’s de rigeur to dismiss formulas-norms-rules-formulations-ideas when speaking of faith, here’s a voice raised in defense: Carl Olson “In Gratitude for the Gift of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

…..reading and studying the Catechism, Church doctrine and dogma, and theology are not ultimately about knowing things or facts but about knowing the living Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Redeemer and Savior. True theology is an act of worship and prayer; far from being dry or dull (or rigid!), it is an encounter with the Triune God, who creates, draws close, calls, loves, and invites. The Catechism is a tremendous gift that contemplates, explains, and shares the greatest Gift of all.

 

When the Catechism was in preparation – twenty-five years ago, I guess  –  I was in a meeting of parish Directors of Religious Education. The bishop of that diocese was there and the topic was the forthcoming Catechism. The diocesan Director of Religious Education said this:

We have to be careful with this. We have to make it clear that it’s for pastoral ministers, not the laity. If they think of it as something for them, they’re going to start comparing our programs with what they read in the Catechism. 

As my mother used to say, You think I’m making that up. I’m not. 

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

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Although you probably won’t hear him mentioned at daily Mass, Hermanus Contractus, or, less sensitively,  Blessed”Herman the Cripple,” has a place on today’s liturgical calendar.

I wrote about Herman and one of the prayers attributed to him, the Salve Regina, in The Words We Pray. Here’s that chapter.

I have copies of the book here if you’d like to order.

Or get it online almost anywhere, I think. Or request it from your local Catholic bookstore.

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Uncertainty has been the theme of the past few days, hasn’t it? Having spent the last two days concerned about my people in Charleston, as of tonight, That Cone looks like it might actually impact us here in Birmingham more…what? 

 — 2 —

I have a little bit of preparatory material for the new book due on Friday, so this will be…short. The good news is that this bit of work has clarified my process on this book and reassured me that yes, indeed I will be able to knock it out this fall even as we dive back into homeschooling. How much else  of other types of work I can get done is another question, though – I really want to do this Guatemala e-book, and I’m hoping after tomorrow’s work is sent off, I can clear out two compartments of my brain, one for each task.

— 3 —

A decent week in the homeschool. The science class began (it’s only four weeks long – he says next week, they will dissect a squid, which is great. I had wanted to dissect a squid on our last go-round with homeschooling, but I couldn’t find any fresh squid in town at that time. Since then, a new, huge Asian grocery store has opened, and we were there a couple of weeks ago, and yes, they have fresh squid, ripe for your eating or dissecting. Or both.)…and boxing continues. Today (Friday) is the Diocese of Birmingham Homeschool Beginning of the Year Mass at the Cathedral.

Speaking of school, speaking of middle school, speaking of middle school-aged kids – read this article and pass it along – on social media and this age group.

This sums it up for me – and not just in relation to young teens, either:

Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment attached to a marketing platform extracting bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your child every time they use it, not to mention hours of their time and attention.

Got that?

And you know, guys, I do have half of a blog rant on tech and schools that I dearly hope and pray I will have time to finish someday, but in the meantime, read this – and again, pass it on. Dear Teachers: Don’t be Good Soldiers for the EdTech Industry:

You are engaged in an effort to prove that they don’t need a fully trained, experienced, 4-year degree professional to do this job. They just need a glorified WalMart greeter to watch the kids as they push buttons and stare at a screen. They just need a minimum wage drone to take up space while the children bask in the warm glow of the program, while it maps their eye movements, catalogues how long it takes them to answer, records their commercial preferences and sells all this data to other companies so they can better market products – educational and otherwise – back to these kids, their school and their parents.

There.

— 4 —

We did manage a trip over to Red Mountain Park – an interesting place that is, like so many of this type around here, the fruit of such hard work by deeply dedicated volunteers and one that nicely reflects both nature and history. 

The “red” in Red Mountain is hematite – a type of iron ore that, along with limestone and coal, became a linchpin in an exploding local economy:

Red Mountain developed at steadfast pace. Pioneer industrialists such as Henry F. DeBardeleben, James W. Sloss, and T.T. Hillman ushered in an explosion of ore mining activity to support Birmingham blast furnace operations as they developed. Jones Valley’s first blast furnace, Alice, was partly supplied with iron ore from the Redding mines that will be an extensively developed part of Red Mountain Park. Iron ore flowed from the new mines over freshly laid rail of the Alabama Great Southern Railroad, and later via the Louisville & Nashville’s (L&N) Birmingham Mineral Railroad that first reached the Redding area in 1884….

…After the war, Birmingham remained one of the nation’s leading iron and steel centers, but change was on the way. Changes in manufacturing, difficulty in accessing ore seams, and increased foreign importing contributed to the decline of what had been Birmingham’s lifeblood since its founding. The last active ore mine on Red Mountain Park property closed in 1962. Much of the land that comprised the company’s former mining sites remained untouched for almost 50 years. But in 2007, through the efforts of the Freshwater Land Trust and through the ideas of Park neighbor Ervin Battain and a dedicated steering committee, U.S. Steel made one of the largest corporate land donations in the nation’s history, selling more than 1,200 acres at a tremendously discounted price to the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission. That transaction made possible the creation of Red Mountain Park, the opening of which makes Birmingham one of the “greenest” cities in America in terms of public park space per resident.

— 5 —

The park is new – as you can read above, it’s less than ten years old, so it’s really just developing. They have big plans, and it’s always interesting to go back and discover new things.

Here are two of the mine entrances (blocked off, of course), that you can see on the trails. If you enlarge the photo on the right, you can see the dates of operation of that mine –  1895-1941:

 

— 6 —

Took a quick trip to Atlanta on Sunday. Passed by this. Didn’t sample either:

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Book talk!

Celebrate the feast of the Nativity of Mary with a (still) free download of my book, Mary and the Christian Life.

Get a cheap e-book on Mary Magdalene here – Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.

As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available. Amazon doesn’t have it shipping for 2-4 more weeks. What is up with that???

 But you can certainly order it from Loyola, request it from your local bookstore, or, if you like, from me – I have limited quantities available. Go here for that.

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

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A post that’s a compilation from previous years:
St. Teresa is in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. You can read most of the entry here, at the Loyola site – they have a great section on saints’ stories arranged according to the calendar year. Some of the stories they have posted are from my books, some from other Loyola Press saints’ books.

When we think about the difference that love can make, many people very often think of one amy-welborn-booksperson: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A tiny woman, just under five feet tall, with no tools except prayer, love, and the unique qualities God had given her, Mother Teresa is probably the most powerful symbol of the virtue of charity for people today.

Mother Teresa wasn’t, of course, born with that name. Her parents named her Agnes—or Gonxha in her own language—when she was born to them in Albania, a country north of Greece.

Agnes was one of four children. Her childhood was a busy, ordinary one. Although Agnes was very interested in missionary work around the world, as a child she didn’t really think about becoming a nun; but when she turned 18, she felt that God was beginning to tug at her heart, to call her, asking her to follow him.

Now Agnes, like all of us, had a choice. She could have ignored the tug on her heart. She could have filled her life up with other things so maybe she wouldn’t hear God’s call. But of course, she didn’t do that. She listened and followed, joining a religious order called the Sisters of Loreto, who were based in Dublin, Ireland.

Years ago,  when the excerpts from Mother Teresa’s journal detailing her “dark night” were published, I wrote several posts. All have links to other commentary.

The first is here.  One of the articles I linked there was this 2003 First Things piece.

A second post, in which I wrote:

My first post on the story of Mother Teresa’s decades-long struggle with spiritual darkness struck some as “dismissive,” and for that I apologize. That particular reaction was against the press coverage – not the Time article, but the subsequent filtering that I just knew would be picked up as a shocking new revelation and used by two groups to promote their own agendas: professional atheists (per the Hitchens reaction in the Time piece itself) and fundamentalist Protestants, who would take her lack of “blessed assurance” emotions as a sure sign that Catholicism was, indeed, far from being Christian.  Michael Spencer at Internet Monk had to issue a warning to his commentors on his Mother Teresa post, for example, that he wouldn’t be posting comments declaring that Roman Catholics weren’t Christian.

So that was my point in the “not news” remark. Because the simple fact of the dark night isn’t – not in terms of Mother Teresa herself or in terms of Catholic understanding and experience of spirituality.  It is very good that this book and the coverage has made this more widely known to people who were previously unaware of either the specifics or the general, and it is one more gift of Mother Teresa to the world, a gift she gave out of her own tremendous suffering. What strikes me is once again, at its best, taken as a whole, how honest Catholicism is about life, and our life with God. There is all of this room within Catholicism for every human experience of God, with no attempt to gloss over it or try to force every individual’s experience into a single mold of emotion or reaction.

In that post, I linked to Anthony Esolen at Touchstone:

Dubiety is inseparable from the human condition.  We must waver, because our knowledge comes to us piecemeal, sequentially, in time, mixed up with the static of sense impressions that lead us both toward and away from the truth we try to behold steadily.  The truths of faith are more certain than the truths arrived by rational deduction, says Aquinas, because the revealer of those truths speaks with ultimate authority, but they are less certain subjectively, from the point of view of the finite human being who receives them yet who does not, on earth, see them with the same clarity as one sees a tree or a stone or a brook.  It should give us Christians pause to consider that when Christ took upon himself our mortal flesh, he subjected himself to that same condition.  He did not doubt; His faith was steadfast; yet He did feel, at that most painful of moments upon the Cross, what it was like to be abandoned by God.  He was one with us even in that desert, a desert of suffering and love.  Nor did the Gospel writers — those same whom the world accuses on Monday of perpetrating the most ingenious literary and theological hoax in history, and on Tuesday of being dimwitted and ignorant fishermen, easily suggestible — refuse to tell us of that moment.

     In her love of Christ — and the world does not understand Christ, and is not too bright about love, either — Mother Teresa did not merely take up His cross and follow him.  She was nailed to that Cross with him. 

Another post with more links to commentary.

And one more.

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As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available. Amazon doesn’t have it shipping until next week (and by next week, it will probably be…the next week) But you can certainly order it from Loyola, request it from your local bookstore, or, if you like, from me – I have limited quantities available. Go here for that.

— 2 —

Bible stories? For kids? Aren’t there plenty of books like that out there already? Well, yes and no.

Here’s the niche I want to fill with my book:

When do most Catholics, adult and children, encounter Scripture? During Sunday Mass. So it made sense to me to offer a book that would reflect that reality and build on it.

So the stories in the book – written for a 5-11 age reading/read aloud level – are arranged according to the liturgical season during which you would most likely hear them in the context of Sunday  or a feastday Mass. That means, of course, that it’s not comprehensive – if you don’t hear it at Sunday Mass, it is most likely not in the book, although I did make a couple of exceptions for readings that are strongly associated with a particular season and might be heard during a weekday Mass.

The stories are retold, faithful to Scripture – I am a stickler about that. Some re-tellings of Scripture impose, for example, emotions or thoughts on figures in the narrative that aren’t actually explicitly in Scripture. I don’t do that.

Following the narrative of each story are thoughts relating the story to either the particular feast or liturgical season or some other spiritual or theological point (sacraments prayer, virtues, and so on), and then finally, a question for reflection and a very short prayer.

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The book includes lovely maps as endpapers, a basic liturgical calendar, wonderful illustrations, of course, and an introduction that will hopefully help families and catechists use the book in meaningful ways.

What I hoped to do was to bring children and families more deeply into the dynamic of reading the Scriptures as a Catholic– that is, in unity with the Church. We hear the Scriptures in a liturgical context, we apply them to our own lives, we return to the liturgy with new insights – and we’re always part of that weOf course reading Scripture as an act of individual devotion and study is good and important, but even that must be in the context of our awareness of Revelation as a reality that’s for and about the cosmos, not just our little microcosm in one corner of it, and so to situate our hearing of the Word in the Church, the Body of Christ.

— 4 —

Speaking of books, I am finally getting around to “publishing” some of my out-of-print books for Amazon Kindle. There are other means of epublication, of course, but I can only handle one formatting effort at a time. You can find it here:

I’ll be doing Mary and the Christian Life next. Just as soon as I finish some actual other work this coming weekend.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this, I have taken the free version of Mary Magdalene down for the moment – just until I give it some time on Amazon. Then the free pdf will be back up at my website. I’ll do the same with Mary and the Christian life and the others: remove the free version for the first few weeks it’s on Amazon, and then offer it free again as well.

— 5 —

So how’s the homeschooling going? Thanks for asking! Well, if a bit scattered. I am not sure how the “unschooling” part is coming – we’ll see at the end of September – at that point, we’ll take a look at all of the daily and weekly record sheets (which are being maintained) – look at topics read about, books read, trips taken, and see what that looks like. What I keep telling him is that he needs to think about nine months from now – what does he want and hope to see when he looks back over the whole year?

Decent advice for the rest of life, I think.

— 6 —

So no big changes from what I’d said we’d be doing: Komen Pre-Algebra math review pages every day (fractions and decimals so far), Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra – finished chapter 1 and are beginning chapter 2. He’s been reading various magazines (National Geographic, National Geographic History, Archaeology) and non-fiction books on topics that interest him. He’s currently memorizing the list of US Presidents as a framework for History Bee prep. We do our daily liturgical prayer/Saint of the Day/poem reading. The Spanish curriculum arrived yesterday, so he’ll start that next week (his choice).  He had some heavy duty music theory this week – learning about the different kinds of minor keys/scales, which is all new to me, too. We had to do some supplementary video-watching for that. He’s watched various science/nature related videos – this on Daddy Long-Legs, for example.   Various videos from The Kids Should See ThisWe went to the zoo.  The homeschool boxing class got underway.  Piano lesson.

Another trip to Moss Rock Preserve. He climbed, made the acquaintance of a stick bug:

 

September will be very busy. His science center classes will be on Tuesday mornings. Photography class Thursday mornings. Boxing Tuesday afternoons. Piano Thursday afternoons. Getting two teeth pulled. Piano recital in mid-September. Our zoo does a “Zookeeper for a day” thing – really half a day, and of course, it ain’t free, but I justify the cost by saying…well, I’m not paying $600/month tuition any more, so I think I can swing this.  He’ll be doing that – in the reptile house – one afternoon in September, as well.  I thought they only allowed his age group to do this zookeeper for a day thing in either the children’s zoo (farm animals) or with birds, but when I contacted them, they said they’d just added the reptile house as an option – which is of course, our favorite. Although he likes birds quite a bit, too. But given the chance to hang out with the big snakes and lizards for an afternoon? Much more exciting.

— 7 —

I have taken some reins from the unschooler, though…you knew that would happen, didn’t you?

He reads a lot, but it’s very much leisure reading, which is just fine, but I did think…well, maybe I should be a bit more directive on this….so we agreed that he’d always have a “school-type” book going as well, of either his or my choice. So we’re starting with Animal Farm – which will be a good way for him to dive into various areas of history as well.

Then I read this article – “Memorize That Poem!” which is very, very good. 

It’s so good, I’d invite you to share it with any educators in your life or circle. We have done quite a bit of poetry memorization around here over the years, but it really fell by the wayside last school year with both of them in school. This was the nudge I needed for revival.

By the 1920s, educators increasingly questioned such poetry’s “relevance” to students’ lives. They began to abandon memorization in favor of teaching methods that emphasized self-expression, although the practice remained popular until about 1960 — and still endures in some foreign language classes (to pass a college Russian course, I had to memorize some Pushkin).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four).

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samara Huggins, 18, the winner of the 2017 national Poetry Out Loud contest, in which high school students recite poems before a panel of judges. She performed “Novel,” by the avant-garde 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud — not an author who, at first glance, has much in common with Ms. Huggins, a teenager from the Atlanta area.

Yet every good poem grapples with some essential piece of human experience. “Rimbaud wrote that poem when he was young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.

Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”

Of course, this writer’s evangelizing on behalf of poetry brought to mind all of my own evangelizing about the role of literature – and sacred literature, prayer, liturgy and yes, faith – in bringing us out of our own small narrow worlds and situating us in reality – which is much bigger than we are, and bigger than we  know.

So yes, poetry. We’ll be back at it –  next week. One good poem a month, that’s all. Now to figure out which one…

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

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Frost In May is a very  Catholic book, and I am really wondering how I’d never heard of it or its author before a couple of weeks ago, me being the self-styled pseudo-“expert” in Catholic Lit that I fancy I am.

Humility is always just around the corner, it seems.

I won’t leave you in suspense: it’s an excellent little novel, terse, painful, ironic and complicated.

People have various views on how much the biography of an artist should weigh on our evaluation or understanding of the art. I tend to land on the “let the piece stand on its own” side most of the time, even though there’s usually one significant biographical fact that helps illumine a work and is good to know before you go on: Walker Percy’s grandfather and father both committed suicide. Flannery O’Connor’s father died young from lupus, and she knew she’d die young from it too after a certain point. And so on.

I think with Frost in May¸ knowing a bit about Antonia White is helpful. I hasten to say, though – not too much, for there’s an event in her young life that makes its way into the novel and is a definite, sad twist – and it’s good not to know what it is going in.  So don’t do exhaustive research, and don’t read the introductions to modern editions before you read the novel.

(This is a pet peeve of mine – I have found this time and time again that these introductions to older novels, usually penned by popular contemporary authors, tend to give a lot of the plot away – so I’ve started skipping them. Perhaps it would be better for them to be supplementary essays in an appendix?)

But I will say that this incident – what happened to White and what happens to her protagonist – is an almost perfect distillation of the Plight of the Catholic Artist….

What’s helpful to know is this – Antonia White’s fiction is mostly autobiographical, pulling from her own life as the young Catholic convert only child of a Catholic convert father/schoolteacher, and then, as she got older, from her experience of mental illness and terrible relationships.

(Side note: when I was first running across mentions of this book and this writer, I thought I was reading about Antonia Fraser – and was a little confused. Not the same person.)

Her personal life was very, very difficult, and her own children weren’t spared from this difficultly – both daughters wrote negative books about their mother.

There’s an autobiographical entry from White at the Catholic Authors website – but be warned, it does relate this incident I’m talking about that figures in Frost in May – but I’ll quote here White’s assessment at the time she wrote the entry, of her own faith journey, as we say:

Though bad reviews can wound a lot, good ones do not always inflate one as much as they might. So often the flattering remarks seem to bear no relation to the novel one has actually written’ so that one feels rather like a cat that has been awarded a prize in a dog-show. What is far more heartening than even the kindest review is the letter from the stranger who has read the book and taken the trouble to write a personal appreciation. Best of all is the stranger who finds something in what one has written that corresponds to their own experience of life or even illuminates it. One such letter from a stranger in New Jersey (she is now a friend of many years’ standing) gave me courage to tackle a difficult theme . . . that of insanity. It is to this Catholic woman doctor that I dedicated my last novel, Beyond the Glass.

My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other. The fact that I lapsed from both faith and practice for fifteen years is naturally something I bitterly regret. Nevertheless, I think that it has given me a real understanding of those outside of the Church and of problems for Catholics themselves which those who have been spared ‘doubts’ do not always appreciate. Since I was fortunate enough to recover my faith in 1940, every year has given me a deeper conviction of its truth. If anything I have written or may write one day could reduce some of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholics, I would be more than rewarded for all the qualms and miseries I have every time I embark on the seemingly impossible task of writing another novel.

Frost in May is a novel about a young girl’s time in a Catholic boarding school at the Convent of the Five Wounds. We meet Nanda at the age of nine as she is on her way, with her father, to the school, and we say farewell to her at the end, when she is leaving – having been sent away – a few years later.

During those years, she encounters the sisters, strong women, one verging on the sociopathic, it seems, but the others, while strict and focused on their perceived mission, never really actually cruel. She makes friends – the girls do not come from a terribly varied background, given that this is a school that mainly caters to elite Catholic families, both British and Continental – but their personalities range in the ways you would expect, from the deeply pious to the scandalously skeptical, and, as is often the case in this genre (see The Trouble with Angels)  – those most deeply affected by life with the Sisters are never those you might expect from their external affect. Emotions run high and heated in such an atmosphere, as well.

The spirituality of the order is harsh and even a little nutty by modern standards. But what I appreciate is that White always presents these practices and traditions in a full human and spiritual context, so that while we, from a distance, can say..well, perhaps that goes a little far and isn’t necessary – we can also see that the rationale is rooted in a sincere desire to help these young women be faithful followers of Christ in all that life will be handing them.

We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.

It’s harsh:

Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.

The intention was always to teach the virtue of humility before God and other human beings – but this worthy goal can easily be perverted into a system of humiliation administered by flawed and sinful human beings in systems that ossify and lose sight of their original charism.

I think that Frost in May dramatizes that tension very well, and does so in a way that takes the root positive motivations seriously, and thereby avoids cheap shots or easy, cynical black-and-white post-mortems that don’t so much clarify the truth as heighten the pride of those of us who have the luxury of hindsight.

I’d also say that from the perspective of 2017 – almost a hundred years after the fictional Nanda is taken to the Convent of the Five Wounds – we can look at the fruit of that swinging pendulum with clear eyes. Yes, perhaps it was too much for the little old sister to correct Nanda’s sleeping posture on her first night:

“Now, lie down,” said the nun kindly, “you were not, by any chance, crying when I came in?”

“No, mother,” said Nanda decidedly.

“That is good. But you were lying in such a strange way. Did your mother never tell you at home to lie upon your back?”

“No, mother.”

“But it is more becoming that you should.”

Nanda straightened herself out from her comfortable ball, turned her back and thrust her feet bravely down into the cold sheets.

“So, it is better,” said the nun gently, “and now the hands.”

She took Nanda’s hands and crossed them over her breast.

“Now, ma petite,” she said, “if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night, you would be ready to meet him as a Catholic should. Good night, little one, and remember to let the holy Name of Jesus be the last word on your lips.”

She passed silently out of the cubicle.

Nanda retained her new position rigidly for a few minutes.

“I shall never get to sleep,” she thought miserably as she heard the outdoor clock strike eight. But even as she thought it her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus” before she was fast asleep.

But…you know what? There’s that tension I’m talking about – at first glance, the sister’s insistence of proper Catholic sleeping posture sounds crazy and definitely over the top. God meets us where we are! But then….Nanda falls asleep and yes, Jesus is the word that takes her there.

Hindsight. We can look back, and hear witnesses attest to how this spirituality harmed or helped them – but then we can also look back, not so far, at our own recent history and see that perhaps the externals are irrelevant…do what’s in your heart…has its own less-than-perfect fruit as well.

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This is a reprint from last year. Haven’t changed my mind on any of it – so here you go. 

I spent some time today reading about and trying to sort out St. Rose of Lima.  I knew the basics that most of us know, and not much more: mystic, extreme ascetic.  When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.

So today, I decided to dig deeper. I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Four in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.

What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother,  thought she was going too far?

It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill.  She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.

But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate st. rose of limaand to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.

In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.

St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.

They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.

In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.

She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.

It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.

 

St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death.  Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.

I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.

I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.

It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.

Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong. 

The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly.  She’s not wrong.

“Success”  in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.

She’s not wrong.

*****

Unrelated: Today you can find me in Living Faith.  (and yesterday, too, if you go back a day)

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