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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Life just is on a different timetable here, and not just because we’re traveling and our bodies are still discombobulated. The sun doesn’t set until probably 10:30 at night these days, so naturally, life goes on. We marvel at these Spanish late-night dinners, but once you’re here and you experience the rhythms of the natural day, you get it. It just makes sense: it gets quite hot in the mid-to late afternoon, so of course you need to get out of the heat and rest. And then with the extended daylight, why stop?

All that is by way of introduction to my openness to the concept of a 1:15 pm Mass. I generally prefer going either Saturday evening or no later than mid-morning on Sunday. Although the music at our parish reaches its pinnacle at the 11:00 am Mass, it still irritates me to get back home at 12:30 and find half the day “gone” – since I think of productive part of the day ending between 5 and 7. Not that I go to sleep early – far from it – but it’s just that marks the end of doing stuff. Not here! Knowing that Life Will Go On far into the evening, that 1:15 Mass seems … reasonable.

Of course, there are scads of churches within five minutes of our apartment, but I wanted to hear the organ at the Seville Cathedral, so after I figured out which part of the church featured the organ playing (there are Masses in different areas of the massive building at different times), we could settle on a time.

Before Mass, we stopped at the weekly collectibles market at the Plaza del Cabildo – right across the street. Stamp, coin, postcard and other antique vendors are ringed around the courtyard, and in the middle of the courtyard, kids gather with their football cards to trade. It’s a lovely scene:

Then to Mass. The program simply indicates the organ pieces that are being played and by whom over the course of a couple of months. There wasn’t any other music at this Mass – the Cathedral’s web page indicates a choral program, and I’m assuming they sing earlier. There were simply these pieces played at the indicated times, with the rest of Mass being spoken – even the 14 year old noted the disconnect between the grandeur of the space and music with the rushed (although not irreverent) informality of the spoken liturgy.

Some shopping, return to the apartment to drop off purchases, a meal – not easy to find in Seville on a late Sunday afternoon – then my two younger (but 18! and 14!) returned to Las Setas, where we paid the 3 Euros to go to the top and take in the views – then we walked to the Basilica of  the Virgin of Hope of Macarena  , a very important image to Seville:

The Virgin of Hope of Macarena (Spanish: Virgen de la Esperanza de Macarena de Sevilla), popularly known as the Virgin of Macarena or simply La Macarena, is a Roman Catholic title of the Blessed Virgin Mary associated with a pious 17th century wooden image of the Blessed Virgin venerated in Seville, Spain. The Marian title falls under a category of Our Lady of Sorrows commemorating the desolate grievance and piety of the Virgin Mary during Holy Week. The image is widely considered as a national treasure by the Spanish people, primarily because of its religious grandeur during Lenten celebrations.

Then back to the apartment to fetch grandson and daughter-in-law to take in one of the acts of the circus festival that’s been running here over the past few days – it was the last night. The trio performing in Las Setas when we went was…very…European. Somewhat charming in that Artsy-European-symbolic-of-something-sad-clown kind of way, but also mysterious and not super impressive, physically speaking – it was just interesting to consider that their applause moves were really no more challenging than what an American JV cheerleading crew performs.

But! An experience!

Daughter-in-law and grandson back to the apartment – it was only 9:30, though, so who wants to stay in? Not me – off with J and M to wander the city at night. Just about my favorite thing to do while traveling. First was a stop at a Spanish fast food chain I’d been img_20190616_221843.jpginterested in trying – 100 Montaditos – a montadito is a very small sandwich. The menu features (100) different kinds, each a Euro. The ordering process involves you filling out what you want on a piece of paper, turning it in, being served drinks and then waiting for your food. The food was serviceable. It was…fast food. Post-drinking food? Probably. But know that I got five of the montaditos, an order of fries, and order of olives, a beer and a soft drink for 9.50 Euros. Thanks to the tapas culture here, it really is possible to eat more cheaply than it is in the US, I think.

We then made our way, with ice cream stops, of course, down to the Cathedral/Alcazar area. Several street musicians, of course, including a fine young cellist and a guitarist who had claimed the most Instagrammable spot in town. For videos, go to my Instagram stories and posts.

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How to raise children like the saints:

Pray for their deaths, leave them in the care of others and join a monastery, leave THEM in a monastery..

and so on. 

Today (May 22) is the memorial of St. Rita, known for many things, among them, her clear-eyed view of her children’s lives, earthly and eternal:

Rita Lotti was born near Cascia in Italy in the fourteenth century, the only child of her parents, Antonio and Amata. Her parents were official peacemakers in a turbulent environment of feuding families.


At an early age Rita felt called to religious life; however, her parents arranged for her to be married to Paolo Mancini. Rita accepted this as God’s will for her, and the newlyweds were soon blessed with two sons.


One day while on his way home, Paolo was killed. Rita’s grief was compounded with the fear that her two sons would seek to avenge their father’s death, as was the custom of the time. She began praying and fasting that God would not allow this to happen. Both sons soon fell ill and died, which Rita saw as an answer to her prayers.

From The Church’s Most Powerful Novenas. 

Whether or not your faith can take you that far at the moment, it’s worth pondering, worth allowing your self-understanding as a parent  – or simply a person who is connected to others – to be jolted, challenged and questioned.

It’s worth pondering on what we really believe and what we really want and hope for others and what we really think would be the worst and best things that could ever happen to them.

Raising children to be fulfilled in this world, happy with who they are in this world, and helpful to others in this world is good of us, but it’s also very 21st century First World of us. Parental bonds naturally bring deep desires to protect our children from any kind of harm or suffering, and of course it makes sense to have our parental goal be that vision of thriving, successful adults. Who still call, of course.

But if we’re parenting like the saints, we’re nudged to consider different definitions and frameworks and paradigms. We’re sometimes even confronted with examples of what we’d today call bad – terrible – parenting.

That is not to say that we look to saints because all of their decisions were good ones. They weren’t and we don’t. It is also true that there is nothing much easier than using religion as a tool to manipulate others and escape responsibility. I’m really involved in church and God clearly has a mission for me that requires all my time there  can often be more simply translated as I’d rather not be around my family, thanks. 

But if we’re serious about the Catholic thing, we do look to patterns, and the pattern we see is that when the saints think about other people, they’re concerned, first and foremost, with the state of their souls.

Now, we’d argue that  – we are too! Because we can quickly direct our purported concern with “souls” into that “self-fulfillment” door that rules the present day. That is: your deepest desires, as you understand them at this moment, must come from God – because they’re so deep and you can’t imagine being yourself without them. So this is what God wants. What you want. And that’s: fulfillment, happiness and feeling okay about what you’re doing here and now. What more can we want for ourselves, for our children?

St. Rita offers….another paradigm.

And so does S. Marie de l’Incarnation – the great mystic and missionary to New France, died in 1672, canonized in 2014. 

Last year, I read From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin.  It seems appropriate to talk about this fascinating relationship on the memorial of St. Rita.

Marie was widowed at the age of twenty, left with a young son. She spent years – not only working in a family business and supporting her son – but discerning. It was a discernment that led to her, at the age of 32, when her son was 11 – into joining the Ursulines, and, a few years later, heading to Canada, where she would live, minister, and eventually die, never having seen her son with her physical eyes again.

(She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2014) 

So yes, she left her son with relatives so she could join a cloistered convent then sail across the sea.

The argument is made that viewed in historical context, this decision is not as strange as it seems to us today. Families tended to be more extended, parents died a lot, one-fourth of all marriages in France during this period were second marriages, children were sent off to school, sent to live in better circumstances with better-off relations and so on.

All of this is true, but we also know from Marie’s story that her son did not cheerfully accept either of her decisions – he ran away and turned up at the convent gate, and so on.

But, as it does, life went on, and in the end, Claude entered religious life himself as a Benedictine, and he and his mother exchanged letters for decades – and he eventually worked hard to collect her writings and present them to the world as the fruit of the mind of a saintly woman. From one of her letters to him:

You were abandoned by your mother and your relatives. Hasn’t this abandonment been useful to you? When I left you, you were not yet twelve years old and I did so only with strange agonies known to God alone. I had to obey his divine will, which wanted things to happen thus, making me hope that he would take care of you. I steeled my heart to prevail over what had delayed my entry into holy religion a whole ten years. Still, I had to be convinced of the necessity of delivering this blow by Reverend Father Dom Raymond and by ways I can’t set forth on this paper, though I would tell you in person. I foresaw the abandonment of our relatives, which gave me a thousand crosses, together with the human weakness that made me fear your ruin. 

When I passed through Paris, it would have been easy for me to place you. The Queen, Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon and Madame the Countesss Brienne, who did me the honor of looking upon me with favor and who have again honored me with their commands this year, by their letters, wouldn’t have refused me anything I desired for you. I thanked Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon for the good that she wanted to do for you, but the thought that came to me then was that if you were advanced in the world, your soul would be in danger of ruin.  What’s more, the thoughts that had formerly occupied my mind, in wanting only spiritual poverty for your inheritance and for mine, made me resolve to leave you a second time in the hands of the Mother of goodness, trusting that since I was going to give my life for the service of her beloved Son, she would take care of you….I have never loved you but in the poverty of Jesus Christ in which all treasures are found….

More thoughts here.

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Since May is Mary’s month, over the next few days, I’ll be highlighting aspects of my books related to Mary. Let’s start with something free. 

When you publish on Amazon Kindle, you have a certain number of days during each quarter in which you can offer promotions of free books. I have one more day in this quarter for Mary and the Christian Life and so just for 5/2 (starting and ending at midnight), it’s free! (And it’s usually only .99 so….if you miss it, you can certainly swing a dollar, right?)

An excerpt to get you going:

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Mother’s Day is still over a week away, but I thought I’d toss this out there, especially for any priests who might wander by. It’s a repeat of an old post, but still, I think, worth considering:

My mother & a friend in Nogales, 1950’s.

The question of how to “recognize” mothers at a Mother’s Day Mass is a fraught one.

There is, of course, the view (mine) that everything that happens at Mass should relate only to the liturgical year. Stop doing all the other stupid things, thanks. As a community, we’re free to celebrate whatever in whatever way we choose outside of Mass, but when it comes to Very Special Mass in Honor of Very Special Groups of any sort – scouts, moms, dads, youth, ‘Muricans….I’m against it.

But of course, over the years, American sentimental pop culture creeps into the peripheries of liturgical observance, and quite often, here we are at Mass on the second Sunday of May, with the expectation that the Moms present must be honored.

I mean…I went to the trouble to go to Mass for the first time in four months to make her happy…you’d better honor her….

This is problematic, however, and it’s also one of those situations in which the celebrant often feels that he just can’t win. No matter what he does, someone will be angry with him, be hurt, or feel excluded.

Because behind the flowers and sentiment, Mother’s Day is very hard for a lot of people – perhaps it’s the most difficult holiday out there for people in pain.

So when Father invites all the moms present to stand for their blessing at the end of Mass and the congregation applauds….who is hurting?

  • Infertile couples
  • Post-abortive women
  • Post-miscarriage women
  • Women whose children have died
  • People who have been abused by their mothers
  • People with terrible mothers, even short of outright abuse
  • Women have placed children for adoption
  • People who’ve recently lost their mothers. Or not so recently.
  • Women who are not now and might never be biological or adoptive mothers and who wonder about that and are not sure about how they feel about it.

And then there are those of us who value our role as mothers, but who really think Mother’s Day is lame and would just really prefer that you TRY TO GET ALONG FOR ONE STUPID DAY instead of giving me some flowers and politely clapping at Mass.

So awkward.

Nope. Making Mothers stand up, be blessed and applauding them (the worst) at Mass is a bad idea for a lot of reasons.

It’s not that people should expect to be sheltered from the consequences of their choices and all that life has handed them when the enter the church doorway.

The Catholic way is the opposite of that – after all, the fundamental question every one of us carries is that of death, and every time we enter a Catholic church we are hit with that truth, sometimes more than life-sized.

No, the question is more: Catholic life and tradition has a lot to say and do when it comes to parenthood – in ways, if you think about it, that aren’t sentimental and take into account the limitations of human parenthood and root us, no matter how messed-up our families are or how distant we feel from contemporary ideals of motherhood – in the parenthood of God. Live in that hope, share it, and be formed by that, not by commercially-driven American pop culture.

So here’s a good idea. It happened at my parish a couple of years ago, and is the standard way of recognizing the day.

Because we’re not walled off from the broader culture. People enter into that sacred space carrying everything with them, and Christ seeks to redeem all of it.  So knowing that Mother’s Day permeates the culture, accepting it, but also accepting that motherhood and parenthood in general is far more complex than the greeting cards and commercials let on, and that people come bearing, not only motherhood-related joy, but motherhood-related pain as well – the Body of Christ embraces and takes it all in.

So, quite simply, at the end of Mass as we were standing for the final blessing, the celebrant mentioned that it was Mother’s Day (it hadn’t been mentioned before this), and said that as such, it was an appropriate day to pray for our mothers, living and deceased, and to ask our Blessed Mother for her intercession for them and for us. Hail Mary…

Done.

And done in a way that, just in its focus, implicitly acknowledges and respects the diversity of experiences of motherhood that will be present in any congregation, and, without sentiment or awkward overreach, does that Catholic thing, rooted in tradition  – offers the whole mess up, in trust.

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— 1 —

Well, hey. If you only come here on Fridays, please stay a while and check out my previous posts. You might be interested in my account of the various Triduum liturgies I attended here in Birmingham or the page I’ve started collating much of the more substantive writing I’ve done on books.

The collage below (click on each image for a larger version) features images from my books related to recent and near future liturgical commemorations and highlights – saints, Scripture readings, seasons:

 

Divine Mercy (this coming Sunday), St. Mark (4/25), Mary Magdalene (Gospel accounts), Easter, last page of entry on St. Thomas’ encounter with Jesus (this coming Sunday), the Road to Emmaus, St. Catherine of Siena (Monday).

For more on these books, go here. 

I also have copies of all of them except Heroes here, as well as The Catholic Woman’s Book of Days (great Mother’s Day gift!) Go here to order if you’d like a personalized copy! 

 — 2 —

From the Catholic Herald: “What Happens when Celebrities Walk to Rome:”

 

They have their joking and bantering moments, but they grasp the deeper meaning of pilgrimage: a journey of discovery into the soul, as well as a physical challenge surrounded by inspiring scenery.

Each of the characters has a back story: most touching was Les Dennis’s feeling for the Ave Maria, because his mother had sung it as a young girl in Liverpool Cathedral (but she left the faith when a priest refused to baptise her child born out of wedlock – a very wrong clerical decision, surely). Dana didn’t say a lot, but when she spoke to illuminate a wayside shrine to Our Lady, she was so patently sincere in her faith that the whole group seemed moved.

The pilgrims have a sense of awe that they are following in the footsteps of so many who went before, on the same route, from Canterbury to Rome (although in this instance, they started off in Switzerland). They are also in the tradition of Chaucer, where adventure was part of the journey too.

And The Road to Rome has another striking dimension: in these Brexity days of adversarial debate and shouty political arguments, here’s a genuinely European experience which is about crossing frontiers in peace, discovery, spirituality and merry companionship.

— 3 —

Sohrab Ahmari on the Sri Lankan martyrs:

“He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” but “he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-9).

By that stark measure of discipleship, Sri Lanka’s slaughtered Christians have amply proved themselves. On Sunday, they filled their churches in Colombo to greet the Risen Jesus only to fall victim to Islamist savagery. The Christians of Sri Lanka lost their lives for the sake of the Lord – simply, beautifully, radically – and even now their wounds are glorified like his.

The question the Sri Lanka massacre, and others like it in places such as Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq, pose to Christians in the West is: what have we sacrificed for the faith lately? What have we suffered for the suffering God?

A friend of mine likes to say that “there are no Styrofoam crosses”. If you’re handed a real cross, you will recognise it by the heavy weight, by the pieces of wood that splinter off and prick your hands as you try to carry it.

–4–

From First Things, a fascinating exchange between French writers Michel Houellebecq and Geoffroy Lejeune. 

Geoffroy Lejeune: I have been going to Mass every Sunday for the last thirty years and have experienced almost all the liturgical styles. I frequented some charismatic meetings, notably with the Communauté de l’Emmanuel, and like you I saw people dancing, singing, speaking in tongues—in short, giving themselves over to all the effusions that we thought were reserved to Americans alone. I have to admit that a form of joy reigns over these assemblies that is sometimes a bit worrisome, because certain members seem possessed (their behavior during so-called “evenings of healing” leads one to believe that this mystery can only be experienced if one is in bad shape). And I have never felt farther from God than on these occasions: I was eighteen years old, I was neither sickly nor depressed, and I ended up believing that, because I was unable to sob uncontrollably or pour out my feelings into a microphone in front of people I didn’t know, I was simply not made for the faith.

There is a wound that ought to be treated by the Church: the wound of not knowing God, or of not knowing how to find him. In the 1960s, when the Beatles were making the world dance, the Church asked itself how to continue to announce the gospel. In 1962, it called the Second Vatican Council. Wags remarked that the cardinals arrived there by boat and left by plane: The institution had just entered modernity. In drawing closer to common mores, in speaking the language of its time, the Church believed it could maintain its tie with the faithful who were thrown off balance by the liberal and sexual revolutions.

The changes, notably, concerned liturgy: Latin was abandoned, ornamentation was simplified, and the priest turned toward the congregation. Parishes invested in synthesizers, and girls began to keep the beat in the choir. But the drama of style is that it goes out of style. Sixty years later, the synthesizers are still there, and the girls too, but they have grown old, and their voices quaver—even the priests can no longer put up with them. Only the dynamic parishes of the city centers escape this liturgical impoverishment, but even there on a Sunday one can hear a guitarist trying his hand at arpeggios, and recall this cruel reality: He’s no Mark Knopfler.

This race toward modernity is an obvious failure, and the churches are considerably emptied as a result. Before Vatican II, one-third of French people stated that they went to Mass every Sunday. In 2012, this number had fallen to six percent, the sign of a major cultural upheaval.

The phenomena are probably linked: The Church tried to conform itself to the world at a moment when the world was becoming uglier.

Well, that doesn’t actually represent an “exchange” – but you can click back and read it for yourself. I read Houellebecq’s Submission a couple of years ago and wrote briefly about it here. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, which will be published in English in the fall.

–5 —

If you have followed the story of the Notre Dame fire, you have probably picked up on the fact that what we see of Notre Dame includes a great deal of restoration. Here’s an article detailing centuries of work, destruction, and rebuilding:

What many don’t realize is that the majority of what one sees when one looks at Notre-Dame’s west façade is a modern restoration. The French Revolution badly damaged the symbol of the hated monarchy, robbed the treasury, and threw many of the art and artifacts contained therein into the River Seine. The 28 statues of biblical kings on the west portal were beheaded, even as the flesh-and-blood Louis XVI had been; the majority of the other statues destroyed; and the building itself used as a warehouse.

While Napoleon Bonaparte restored the building to the church in 1802, Notre-Dame was still half-ruined. Victor Hugo’s bestselling 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) drew attention to the cathedral’s plight.

 

— 6 —

Alabama prisons are terrible. Our governor wants to “fix” the problem by building more. A Republican state senator argues for a different approach – from a Christian point of view.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of a key prison oversight committee, and a longtime advocate for justice-system reforms, describes himself as appalled by the report’s findings. And, from his bully pulpit at the Statehouse, he’s been doing some preaching about it.

In comments to AL.com and to NPR, Ward has wondered aloud how a proud Bible-believing state can countenance such shameful prisons in its midst.

“No one in this state should read this report and just roll their eyes,” Ward said to AL.com. “It’s a disgrace to our state. I know everyone says, ‘They are criminals’ and ‘Who cares?’ We profess to be the most Christian state in the country, but no Christian would allow their fellow man to be treated the way that they are said to be treated. That may not be the popular view, but it’s the truth.”

 

 

— 7 —

Son who writes on film (and writes fiction) has a bunch of recent posts:

Jean de Florette

The Lord of the Rings

Silent comedies. 

Harold Lloyd, I think, was closer in style to Buster Keaton than Charlie Chaplin. All three’s movies were primarily made up a series of gags, but Lloyd was more interested in stunts and laughs (like Keaton) than narrative cohesion (like Chaplin).

Still, his comedy remains distinct. Where Keaton was The Great Stone Face, Lloyd was extremely expressive. He also had very boyish looks as opposed to Keaton who kind of looks like he could have just been a stuntman. Lloyd was also probably as daring as Keaton was. It’s the combination of boyish innocence in his face along with the outlandishness of his stunts that makes Lloyd my personal favorite of these three.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Well, it’s been a few days since we digested, so let’s go for it:

amy_welbornWriting:  I was in Living Faith last Sunday. Next appearance won’t be until the beginning of May.

Several blog posts – just scroll back for those. Lots of travel blathering to assuage my guilt about privilege and such. Dug up an old piece I wrote on St. Benedict the Black (Moor), posted that and discovered that I’ve been annoyed by the same things for a long time.

Lots of sitting around, staring and jotting notes.

Oh! The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols is a finalist for an “Excellence in Publishing Award” from the Association of Catholic Publishers. 

Listening:   Much Liszt and Ginastera still, but not as much Beethoven – we may be almost done with this particular piece for the year after last Saturday. Hopefully not img_20190409_200229completely done – that would mean he didn’t do well enough to advance to the state level – but we’ll see. Waiting for those results.

As that area of piano winds down, the jazz and organ levels up. Lots of listening to this this week – and for the next few weeks. 

Reading: All right, here we go. First, let’s do what’s in progress.

Rare for me, I purchased a brand new book, simply on the basis on a recommendation. I don’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but since it involved the Gospel of Mark – along with John, one of my two favorites – and seemed to take on some of my concerns, I was in: The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel of Mark. 

Simply reading the introduction was a revelation and prompted me to regret, once again, the thrust of Biblical studies in the era in which I came of age – the 80’s and 90’s – rooted in the historical-critical method, aka – as it panned out for most of us –  skepticism. I suppose what we are seeing now needed that stage to exist. Perhaps this moment couldn’t have come to life without both the shaking of old pietistic assumptions as well as the hard contextual work of the historical-critical scholars, but still. What time wasted, what distance created between the reader and Christ by fixating us – even the lay reader via Bible studies and homiletics – on what Matthew is saying to his Jewish readers here and how it differs from what Luke is saying to his Gentile readers there. 

More as I go along.

I’ve read two novels since last we spoke on these matters:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Why this and how? The typical rabbit-trail route. Browsing the “new releases” I came upon her TranscriptionIt looked mildly interesting, which led me to go to the “A’s” in the fiction section and see what else she’d written – a lot, as it turned out – so I plucked out a couple to try. I ended up starting with this one rather than the newest. It was..okay.

She writes well, and that’s why it wasn’t time wasted for me. I learned some things from reading her. But the novel wasn’t ultimately satisfying for me and led me to decide to just return the others I’d checked out and move on.

There are three mysteries introduced in the story, which end up being…sort of connected. I think what put me off was, first, I figured things out pretty early, and I never figure mysteries out. Maybe I’m just getting smarter, but I doubt that.

Secondly, there is a theme of abuse within a family which is treated rather lightly by surviving family members when it comes to light. The abuse was terrible, and I found the reaction of characters both unbelievable and – hate to use the word, but this is it – offensive.

My only other comment on the book is that once again  – Catholic themes and imagery pop up, and I wasn’t even looking for them – again. A family member ends up in a convent and while the treatment of this tumbles a little bit into caricature, and I honestly don’t think this person would have actually been accepted into religious life considering her issues and weirdness, still – there was a theme of contrition and doing penance for one’s sins that required a working out, and where do you go when you need to make that happen? Catholic Land, of course!

Now, for a much better, more serious book – The Blood of the Lamb by Peter de Vries. 

(The link goes to an archive.org version that you can “borrow.” The book is still in print, though and easy to find. )

As I mentioned the other day, de Vries was a favorite of my father’s and was quite popular in the 60’s. I’d never read anything by him, and this novel is a departure from his usual humorous work – although it has its moments as well.

I rarely, if ever suggest to you “You should read this book” –  simply because life is short, people’s tastes vary, and who am I?

But I’m going to make an exception here. I think you should read this book – if you’re interested in faith, period, but particularly faith and art.

Here’s an excellent essay from Image introducing de Vries, and particularly this book:

IT WAS AN ORDINARY autumn night in suburban Chicago when I received the most disturbing book I have ever read. I was seventeen, slouching in my bedroom making a half-hearted attempt at homework, my sweaty cross-country clothes festering on the floor. My father appeared at the doorway and handed me a yellowed paperback that looked at least a few decades old.

“You might like this,” he said.

It was The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries. I had heard De Vries’s name for the first time only a few days earlier. It came up at the family dinner table, and as I learned about him, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him sooner. He was once a well-known satirist who published twenty-six novels, most of them commercially successful. He spent forty-three years as an editor at TheNew Yorker, his short stories appearing regularly in its pages. He enjoyed a privileged perch in the cultural landscape, friends with J.D. Salinger and James Thurber.

And he came from our people—the Dutch Calvinists of Chicago. He attended my religious high school and college. He grew up in the same South Side neighborhood as my grandmother, worshipping at the same church, Second Christian Reformed on Seventy-Second Street. According to a family story, he had dated her, or tried to date her. Or they shared a hymnal at a Sunday evening church service. By Dutch Calvinist standards, that’s practically second base.

A short synopsis:

Don Wanderhope is , as the essay above says, from Dutch Calvinist stock, living in Chicago, when we first meet him, in the late 1920’s. His father runs a refuse company (common among Dutch Calvinists, according to this essay), and he grows to adulthood listening in on theological arguments, helping his father, going to school, discovering girls, and yearning for a different, more refined life.

Image result for blood of the lam de vriesHe gets into a bit of trouble with one girl (a hilarious scene – I mean, who can blame them for not anticipating the model home being shown on a Sunday evening?) but is spared from marrying her by a TB diagnosis. He goes to Colorado sanatorium (I always enjoy fictional sanatorium scenes because my mother had TB and spent time in one in New Hampshire in her youth – and remembered the time, in a way, as the best time of her life.) where he meets another girl, falls in love, but that ends and he heads back to Chicago, mostly healed (if he was ever really that ill at all) discovers his father in the beginning stages of dementia, goes to college, marries, moves to New York, works in advertising, has a daughter who eventually dies of leukemia.

I won’t say spoiler alert because everyone knows that the illness, suffering and death of the character’s daughter is the center of the novel – because it’s autobiographical. The novel was published a year after de Vries’ own 10-year old daughter died of leukemia, and oh, it is raw and painful and sorrowful.

So, no – if subject matter like that would be difficult for you to handle, you shouldn’t read it.

But if you can handle it, and you want to be immersed in a very honest, challenging exploration of faith and theodicy – pick it up.

Before I read it, I was under the impression that the book was the cry of an atheist soul, but it’s really not. It’s the cry of a suffering, loving soul who just doesn’t understand. It’s a dramatization of the question: You, a human parent, would do everything you could to alleviate your child’s suffering – why doesn’t God do the same for his own suffering children? This. Makes. No. Sense.

Jeffrey Frank, writing in The New Yorker in 2004 about De Vries’s legacy, calls the following hospital scenes “as unbearable as anything in modern literature.” I can’t say that he’s exaggerating. Don and Carol make a series of visits to a New York hospital, each time receiving assurances from her oncologist, Dr. Scoville, about his progress researching cures. De Vries charts the development of her leukemia in excruciating detail, tracking the cycles of remission and broken hopes, with each medication more desperate than the last.

Don joins the other parents in trying to preserve a sense of normalcy. They throw birthday parties and speak of returning to school in the fall. He watches a dying infant crawl the hallway “wearing a turban of surgical gauze, whom a passing nurse snatched up and returned to its crib.”

He describes these incidents as if laying out evidence against a heartless God. Here the book’s title becomes clear. It refers not to the blood of Jesus, the lamb of scripture, but to the young girl. Don’s innocent lamb is poisoned by her own blood.

When I read the book at seventeen, it was De Vries’s intensity that rattled me so deeply. The Blood of the Lamb attacked my community’s faith, furiously, from within. That’s something that Hitchens and the so-called New Atheists couldn’t do. We were taught to expect “the world” to mock our faith. But here was one of our own doing the same, and he struck me as funny, sophisticated, and intelligent in doing so. I felt an uncomfortable shiver of recognition, because I knew, even if it went unspoken, that our faith clashed with modern science, that our scriptures carried contradictions, and that religion often fueled as much bigotry as good in the world. I couldn’t defend the reasons for my faith against De Vries.

Returning to the book as an adult, I realize I misremembered two things. First, De Vries reserves as much rage for medical authorities as religious ones. When Dr. Scoville glibly tells him about the “exciting chase” of developing chemotherapy drugs, Wanderhope responds, “Do you believe in God as well as play at him?”

Second, I remembered Wanderhope as a settled unbeliever from his university days onward. Yet it’s clear that he keeps searching for divine guidance until the very end of his daughter’s life, even carrying a crucifix and medal of Saint Christopher. His retort to Dr. Scoville is a bitter joke, yet it’s also the question he can’t stop asking.

I’m going to close with a few quotes from the novel, but I want to point out something alluded to in what the essayist says here, something that is so interesting to me. De Vries’ background was solid Dutch Calvinist, and the theological discussions at the beginning take on faith in that context – predestination, and so on. But as the novel moves to New York, the religious context and imagery become very, very Catholic. The practical reason is that there’s a Catholic church on the way to the hospital. Wanderhope is always passing it and even stopping in. The crucifix outside the church becomes the focus of a final, enraged gesture.

Partly, I suppose because this reflects de Vries’ own actual experience, partly because well, Calvinists don’t have a lot of imagery that lends itself to dramatization of inner faith turmoil.

Once again. 

He resented such questions as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and slipshod have ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization. The vanity (if not outrage) of trying to cage this dance of atoms in a single definition may give the weariness of age with the cry of youth for answers the appearance of boredom.

 

I made a tentative conclusion. It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.

 

The greatest experience open to man then is the recovery of the commonplace. Coffee in the morning and whiskeys in the evening again without fear. Books to read without that shadow falling across the page.

Dead drunk and cold-sober, he wandered out into the garden in the cool of the evening, awaiting the coming of the Lord.

There is a point when life, having showered us with jewels for nothing, begins to exact our life’s blood for paste.

And then, on a light note, this – reflecting the mid-1930’s. The content is more explicit now, but really, has anything changed? The pride in putting something stupid out there and selling it as a manifestation of some sort of artistic progress?

One summer when Carol was attending day camp, Greta had an affair with a man named Mel Carter. He was an Eastern publicity representative for a film studio, and often instructed dinner parties to which we went in those days with accounts of the movies’ coming of age. ‘We have a picture coming up,’ he said once, ‘in which a character says “son of a bitch.” Lots of exciting things are happening. Still, it’s only a beginning. Much remains to be done.’

 

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In him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promised fulfillment. What the divine goodness had offered as a promise to them, he held in his arms.  – from a homily of St. Bernardine of Siena. 

Some images for you, first a vintage holy card from the Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal that interests me because it predates the construction of the large basilica:

From the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal.  

I just love the blues on the card above and the not-quite Art-Noveauishness of it.

At the shrine featured in the vintage holy cards.  Summer 2011. 

The sign says “Reserved for pilgrims climbing on their knees.”

 

SECOND DREAM of ST. JOSEPH

The wonderful Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui, whose depiction of St. Joseph dreaming is above, has  a blog. It is an absolute treasure trove of wisdom, whether you are an artist or not. Please go visit, bookmark, visit every day and support his work.  Easter’s coming. Surely there’s someone out there who’d appreciate the gift of one his prints?

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