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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

New readers: Please consider sticking around around. I blog almost every day. It’s random and scattered (as the sidebar indicates) , but you might find interesting things. Once in a while.

amy_welbornWhat kind of blog is this these days? Well, I just said it – random and scattered. It functions mostly as a way for me to stretch my writing muscles a bit every day before I get into either work-work or my ongoing attempts to Be Creative. 

Back in the early days of blogging up to about ten years ago, I ran a blog that was, perhaps, like one of your more active Facebook pages today. I blogged about current events, usually posting 5-10 times a day, had a super active (and mostly great) comments section and, somehow managed to write about two books a year. While having a couple of babies after forty.

Then you, know, life changed, and my husband died (ten years ago on 2/3 – hard to believe) and it just wasn’t the kind of blogging I wanted to do anymore, really. As I’ve said before in this space, when I was doing a lot of intense current-events blogging, getting into the fray wasn’t a problem, because I had someone who was here to assure me after I shut the computer down, “No, you’re not crazy. Well, you’re sort of crazy. But not that crazy. And you mean well.”

But without that – without someone who has your back in the sanity-department, you (or at least I) are really taking some mental and emotional health risks in engaging too heavily online. IRL is much, much better. Always.

But I do continue to write and even to blog here. Most of my blogging reflects things I read. I’m very interested in history, as I say again and again, because it helps me understand the present moment. I don’t have many missions in life, but one of them is to nag whoever is in earshot about the invaluable perspective knowledge of the past brings.

And I don’t blog every thought that I have on every issue. I tend to be cautious on that score because I want to have the whole picture – or as much of it that’s available to me – before I comment. That’s why I don’t say a lot, for example, about Pope Francis. I have opinions, sure, but the whole thing is so opaque and weird to me that it’s impossible for me to pin down what’s worth me saying for public consumption. At this point.

So I’m into sharing information and occasional insights. I’m a teacher, I’m the child of teachers and the daughter of a librarian. Ask my poor kids about the experience of being homeschooled by me – someday one of them will probably write a memoir called Death by Teachable Moment. 

Oh, and the travel. I write a lot about travel, and there will be much, much more of that, God and the DJIA willing over the next few years, as Son #5 and I embark on a homeschooling/roadschooling journey when Son #4 goes off to college in a few months.

Basically: I read things, I see things, and write about some of those things, trying to figure out Big Things.

So, one of the things I do around here when nothing in particular strikes me is throw together a digest of what I’m currently reading, writing, watching, listening to and cooking. This won’t be that interesting – we are still mostly in recovery mode from the oldest attending the March for Life.  Here’s today’s.

Writing: Finished That Thing. A week early. I could have held onto it and looked at it a couple of more times, but why? It’s fine, and if they want revisions – now they have a week more to wrestle them. The sooner to invoice you, my dear.

And now…what? I have another story I need to get out of my head, and then I need to focus on something bigger. Not sure what. I want to start and finish something by June 1. Something.

Oh, and I added links to our 2016 Italy trip to the “Travel” page. 

Reading:  That’s what this will be, mostly. I’ve not watched or cooked much over the past couple of days. Mostly I’ve driven my car. Two ortho appointments, one other doctor’s appointment, school dropoff and pick up and a Metallica concert.

No, I didn’t go to the Metallica concert. My 14-year old did, accompanied by a friend. He’d been gifted with the tickets by his oldest brother, who lives in NYC and had hoped to come down for the concert, but was unable to because of his work load. So he took a friend, and they had a great time (I’ll get a fuller report this afternoon.)

On Twitter a few weeks ago, I remarked on the contrast:

Of course, to be really fair, as someone responded:

In fairness Metallica is now what Sha Na Na was to you and me

Heh.

So, okay – reading. Not much of that either. Hopefully things will calm down soon and I can focus on words on pages again. I started Sheed’s Transatlantic Blues last night – I’ll give it a bit more attention today to see if it’s a keeper. Oh, the other night I started Chekov’s Ward No. 6, but found it just too depressing.

Since today is the memorial of St. Marianne Cope, I went back and read the poem Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote about her.

Perhaps you know Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote an “open letter” in defense of Fr. Damien, against a gossipy, bigoted accusatory published piece written by a Presbyterian minister in Hawaii. Stevenson had visited Molokai – after Fr. Damien’s death – and was strongly affected by it, and was moved to defend the priest.

You can read that letter here.

During his bit more than a week on Molokai, he spent time with Sr. Marianne Cope, of course, and even purchased a piano for the colony. He also wrote a poem about the experience, the gist of which is that even though the sufferings of those with Hansen’s Disease might cause one to doubt the existence of God, that course is corrected by the loving presence of the Sisters:

To the Reverend Sister Marianne, Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa. 
To see the infinite pity of this place, 
The mangled limb, the devastated face, 
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod, 
A fool were tempted to deny his God. 
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again, 
Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain! 
He marks the sisters on the painful shores, 
And even a fool is silent and adores.

I try to read a few academic journal articles a week.  Like much else in my life, my choice of topic is random, but I tend to settle on Catholic-centered medieval through early modern themes.

Last night, I read this one: ” Each Should Tend His Own Garden”: Anna Bijns and the Catholic Polemic against the Reformation

A narrow topic, yes, (as all academic journal articles are by nature), but interesting, since I learned things I didn’t know before. Always good. What I learned:

I learned, of course, about the existence of this woman named Anna Bijns – a well-known poet of her period and  – 

She was in fact the first writer in the vernacular to achieve widespread fame through the printing press. Everything she experienced in her city was material for her sharp pen. Nothing was taboo: badly thwarted love, the vain illusions of Luther and his followers, the threat of freebooters from Gelderland at the city gates, the insufferable policy of tolerance pursued by the city council, deceit and conflict within marriage, the sad but well-deserved lot of hen-pecked husbands and the need to relax with the hilarious nonsense of the repertoire of popular festivals.

She is able to express all that excitement with a verbal dexterity almost unequalled in Dutch literature. Complex rhyme-schemes, alliterations and neologisms gave her texts an irresistible cadence, while the subtly orchestrated passion still came across as natural. She was also the first author in Dutch literature, to present herself emphatically as an individual with personal views and emotions of her own. 

She was also a devout Catholic and determined to do what she could, in her small way to fight heresy. So she wrote poems and disseminated them. The article explores this aspect of the culture – most of the poetry-making and disseminating was oral, but she, as a woman in Antwerp, did not have access to the public fora in which that occurred. (In other cities women did, but not in Antwerp.)

80annabijns

Bijns was one of the very few Catholic lay people in the Low Countries who was prepared to take her fight for the Catholic cause into the public domain, and she was the only one to do this in vernacular print. The work of many rederijkers reflected the growing interest in evangelical ideas, or attempted to find a middle ground between old and new ideas, but there are very few examples of zealous defences of the Catholic faith in rederijker circles. There is only one rederijker play from before the Dutch
Revolt which takes up the gauntlet against the Reformation. In this play
entitled, Tspel van de Cristenkercke (c. 1540), a character called Dr. Genuine Scriptural Proof introduces a plot in which the virgin Honest Simple Faith holds out against the advances of Self Regard, the son of Heresy. Its author, the Flemish bookbinder Reynier Pouwelsz, may have written it to reaffirm his loyalty to the Catholic faith as he had been charged with selling forbidden books a few years earlier. Although we know of many Catholic poems that derided the Reformation, these were rarely published in print, and mostly date from after 1560. Th e first author genuinely to follow in Bijns’s footsteps was another woman, Katarina Boudewyns, whose Prieelken der gheestelyker wellusten [Bower of Spiritual Joy] appeared in Brussels in 1587. Like Bijns, Boudewyns presented both (Marian) devotional poems and spirited attacks on the heretics, especially the Calvinists who had ruled Brussels in the early 1580s. So why was work like that of Bijns such a rarity?

The article explores that last question – and concludes that up to a point, heresy had been presented as a moral problem – one was a heretic because of pride – and therefore a problem for clerics and spiritual directors. A lay person didn’t interfere in another lay person’s spiritual battle. But then, eventually, the issue came to be seen as one of principle and ideas, and could  – and should be – argued in the public square.

Note that at one point, though, Bijns complains about the way in which the clergy are not picking up the slack and doing their job:

  Decades earlier, Bijns had also expressed her frustration
at the perceived lack of leadership in a struggle for which she declared herself willing to die. One of her refreinen in Book II responded to the praise
heaped on her by a Flemish cleric:When I let my eye dwell over the various estates, I am amazed that there
are so many learned men today who do almost nothing to resist Luther’s
arrogant teachings [. . .] and however much I try, one person can’t make
a dance. Heretics may note my work, but they make fun of it, thinking
it’s just woman’s work [. . .]. So put your mind to it, priest, as a brave
champion, take up the pen, and it will easily have an impact. You have
been appointed watchman, let your trumpet sound, seeing the enemies
surrounding the people of God. I have the will, but I can’t do it.

Do you see what I mean about history helping to understand the present? Four hundred years later – has anything changed?

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If you only come here on Fridays, scroll back a bit for reports on last weekend, which included a wonderful Rorate Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham as well as Bambinelli Sunday.

If you’re interested, here are the music programs for the Cathedral’s upcoming liturgies, which will include the praying of the Office of Readings before Midnight Mass.

Here’s the general list of the music at all liturgies (links)

Here’s the Order of Worship (pdf) for Midnight Mass. 

  • We welcome you to our solemn Midnight Mass. This sung Mass is sung by Cathedral Choir; this year’s Mass ordinary is Tomas Luis de Victoria’s famous Missa “O Magnum Mysterium”, one of the most famous Masses of the high Renaissance. Also presented is the motet “O magnum mysterium” by the same composer, along with the various Gregorian chant propers of the day.

  • This year, the 11:15PM prelude is replaced by the celebration of sung Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours. This office (for Christmas Day) recalls the offices of Vigils and Matins, from which the Office of Readings is derived. Consisting of a number of psalms, readings, and responsories, this is a beautiful way to prepare for the celebration of the Christmas season. It concludes with a sung, solemn Te Deum.

  • Between the Office of Readings and Midnight Mass, Cathedral Choir will present Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nun/Good Christians, rejoice, BuxWV 51, by Dietrich Buxtehude. This important sacred work, composed for the Sunday evening “Abendlied” Vespers services that Buxtehude began for the Marienkirche in Hamburg, alternates between instrumental, choral, and solo movements, and is an the ancestor of J.S. Bach’s transcendent cantatas.

 

— 2 —

These quick takes will function as a digest of sorts as well.

(Again, for those of you who only come on Fridays, a few days of each week, I attempt a “digest” of what I’m watching/reading/listening to.

Related image

Watching: Tonight (Thursday) we watched The Killing – Kubrick’s first Hollywood movie. Great stuff – short and not-sweet at all. A marvelous array of character actors, including Tim Carey’s bizarre turn as the puppy-stroking sharpshooter Nikki, whose interactions with a parking attendant also flesh out the era’s racial politics in quick strokes, and Elisha Cook Jr., weak link in the plan from start to finish, but who comes out with the most arresting and iconic final shots.

Image result for the killing kubrick

(That was after they went and saw the Spiderman cartoon in the afternoon, which they said was really good.)

I’m hoping to watch Roma over the next week some time.

—3–

Reading: I read a really terrible novel this week. It’s a new novel by a living writer (well, duh) and it’s not like I know this person or anything, but I still don’t feel quite right about trashing it by title. It struck me as weak after the first twenty pages and probably almost worthless after the next, but I kept on reading. Partly because it was short, and a short genre novel – it’s like sitting and watching television for an hour or so. Which is probably not the best use of my time, but there I was.

It had a Catholic – not theme, but hook – and the author obviously had some knowledge of Catholic things – the lingo was correct (sort of like the Mystery Catholic who writes for The Onion) and, okay I take that back – I guess there was  sort of redemption thread happening, but wow. The writing was stilted and repetitive, plotting was coarse and characterization wasn’t even an option, it seems.

Why did I keep reading it?

To encourage myself to keep writing. 

Mostly.

Also reading a lot about Seville. Spain.

–4–

Writing: Speaking of which. Got an invitation to work on a small project that will be due at the end of January.

My guys will be gone for a few days over Christmas, and in the time I’m not in Charleston, I’ll be here, hopefully finishing up story #2 and maybe thinking more about longer fiction. I have something started – I just don’t know if what I envision is doable. By me, at least.

We’ll see.

–5 —

All right, we’ll finish up with links.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the Der Spiegel writer who is in big, big trouble. Deservedly. 

Seriously, if you haven’t, read this Medium takedown of his “report” on Smalltown, USA and be amazed and perhaps even enraged. 

Yes, this guy is a piece of work and an extreme example of journalistic malpractice, but after a zillion years on the planet, I’ve learned to view any piece of reportage that claims  to paint a picture of a place or movement with skepticism from the ground up.

Where does that leave us? I’m not sure. Probably where we’ve always been all along, just trying to figure out the truth.

–6–

This is an entertaining Twitter feed: Terrible Maps.

–7–

I’m usually allergic to year-end roundup things, but you might find useful bits here: 18 Pieces of Goodness in Pop Culture in 2018. 

It’s the memorial of St. Peter Canisius. Read about him here. 

 

 

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

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I don’t know why Blessed Miguel Pro is more known, studied and celebrated among North American Catholics.  But I did my part in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints under, “Saints are people who create.”

saints

— 2 —

A few months ago, when we were in Mexico City, we briefly visited the parish of the Holy Family, the location of Blessed Miguel Pro’s remains.

We made it to the church, and prayed in front of Miguel Pro’s relics, which are contained in a small casket on the right side of the church. What was really unfortunate, but not surprising, was that the museum was closed – the museum that holds, for example, the vest he was wearing when he was killed and of course other interesting items and information. I didn’t think that through when “planning” this – that of course it would be closed on Holy Thursday. I am very glad we got to the church, but really regret not being able to see the museum with the boys. I find Miguel Pro’s story so inspiring and humbling (I wrote about him in the Book of Saints under “Saints are People who are Creative)  that even without the museum, visiting him gave me a boost, and I hope did so for my sons as well, not to mention those for whom I prayed there.

—3–

I’m in Living Faith today. Go here for the entry.

–4–

Thanksgiving has come and gone. We had a very low-key day. In the late morning, we joined with a couple hundred other folks, delivering meals to the homebound on behalf of the Jimmie Hale Mission. The mission generally serves men and women (in separate facilities) recovering from addiction and other issues – we’ve helped serve lunches and dinners in their residences – but on Thanksgiving and Christmas, they work with Meals on Wheels to provide holiday meals for MoW clients – since MoW doesn’t serve on those days.

The way it works is that those delivering gather in the mission chapel, say a prayer, hear a Scripture and a few words of encouragement and some Iron Bowl jokes, and then you’re given a set of meals with a route for deliveries – it’s very carefully planned and meticulously laid out. This year, our meals were to be delivered to subsidized housing complex for the elderly. It went very smoothly after the beginning. There was no doorway attendant on duty, and calling the “office” on the intercom got me to an answering service. I finally just used the intercom and resident list to call one of the ladies to whom we were delivering, and luckily she was ambulatory, so she came down and let us in.

–5 —

After that, people requested Cracker Barrel. It was a crazy scene, and the wait was very long, but it was educational as we observed how customer service dealt with frustrated customers and a reservation/seating system imposed on them from on high and which obviously doesn’t work. Education. Everything’s an education if you let it be.

Later, people got hungry again, so I tossed together some Pasta Carbonara.

No, no Instagram displays of pies and place settings here.

–6–

Here’s a sobering article from the UK Guardian about the pressure on America’s national parks. Featured is Estes Park, Colorado, where we just were last weekend and is apparently insane during the summer. I’m glad we experienced it during a relatively low season.

Horseshoe Bend is what happens when a patch of public land becomes #instagramfamous. Over the past decade photos have spread like wildfire on social media, catching the 7,000 residents of Page and local land managers off guard.

According to Diak, visitation grew from a few thousand annual visitors historically to 100,000 in 2010 – the year Instagram was launched. By 2015, an estimated 750,000 people made the pilgrimage. This year visitation is expected to reach 2 million.

–7–

Advent is coming – look for a post next week about resources. In the meantime, don’t forget my short story (and in case you wonder about paying a buck for a short story – it’s a little over 7k words, so….maybe you’ll get your money’s worth?)

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

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All right, folks, here’s a story for you.

We can call it a “short story,” but it clocks in around seven thousand words, so maybe not.

kindle coverWhen I finished this a few weeks ago, I wondered what to do with it. I thought I might submit it to a journal or competition. I did send it out to a few friends, most of whom have read it, I believe.

But then, I decided, eh. Just publish it. Get it out there. Move on. 

Which I have – now working on something which will be much shorter and hopefully a little sharper.

Of course, I can probably use an editor. It could use fine-tuning and questions and honing.

But guess what? I’m not 25 or 32, just starting this stuff. I’m 58 – fifty-eight –  and when I trumpet my advanced age so emphatically, it’s not because I’m suggesting that I’m beyond help and that I know all. No – I’m saying that I just don’t have time to sit around and wait for a year to see if this might perhaps catch someone’s eye and make it to print. Life proceeds apace and I have a great deal I want to say, and who knows how long I’ll have to say it?

(No – no Walter White scenarios here. Everything’s fine as far as I know. I’m just morbid realistic.)

Now remember – it’s fiction. And fiction is not supposed to be prescriptive, although much of it ends up being just that, especially if someone is writing about anything vaguely related to religion. I don’t know if I succeed, but I’m trying to describe a moment in history as well as a couple of dynamics as I’ve witnessed and experienced them – personal and spiritual dynamics – and how they relate, which I’m firmly convinced they do. You may not agree. It may anger you – but it might strike you as true, even if you disagree with the characters and their choices and opinions. It’s all I can hope for, I think. Something that strikes you as true.

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This is a time of transition, as school begins. Lots of new experiences on the horizon, and no matter how much we plan, each day full of surprises.

A very moving post at the Bearing Blog on this theme:

Like all diarists and memoirists, I am an unreliable narrator.  I have been telling my story for years; maybe he was six or so when I started?  Kindergarten, or first grade?  In any case, I still felt fresh out of school myself.  (He was three and a half when I walked across the stage with his younger brother in a a baby wrap.) 

But the thing is, wherever I have written about my son, that first oldest boy, I have not really been writing the story that belongs to me.  My perspective is limited, by necessity and design,

If I myself had been a character written by a master, then the perceptive reader would have been able to see the true story between the lines, the story that managed to elude me even as I spooled it out in my own words.  But I am not so well-crafted as that.  

He has a story, and I am not the truthful narrator, and when I have tried to be one, I have fallen short.  I cannot even see where to bring the seams together, let alone stitch it up neatly for show.  And you cannot look through the seams.

 

 — 2 —

I always point you to this blog post this time of year: Why I don’t hate football. 

 

— 3 —

Dan Hitchens on “Two Resisters of Nazism” 

Von Hildebrand told his friends that, even inwardly, one must beware of adopting a neutral stance: Opposition must be “unconditional.” But that carries a risk, he adds, of sinking into bitterness and dejection. 

Here again Haffner’s account complements von Hildebrand’s. Haffner points out that, even among those who hated the Nazis, there were false “remedies.” Some, he says, especially the older generation, retreated into “superiority”: They mocked the childishness and stupidity of the regime. When the Nazis consolidated their power, and produced statistics about their success, many of these people collapsed.

Another temptation is “embitterment”—becoming addicted to gloom and rage. For the embittered, “The dreadful things that are happening have become essential to their spiritual wellbeing. Their only remaining pleasure is to luxuriate on the description of gruesome deeds, and it is impossible to have a conversation with them on any other topic.” This can drive people to madness—or to a despairing surrender. 

A third temptation, which Haffner says was his own, is the opposite: to flee from embitterment into illusion. According to Haffner, German literature of the mid-to-late 1930s was dominated by nature writing, childhood memoirs, and family novels. “A whole literature of cow bells and daisies, full of children’s summer-holiday happiness, first love and fairy tales” accompanied the rallies, the violence, and the blare of propaganda. For most of these escapist writers, Haffner relates, it ended in mental breakdown. 

Such are the psychological trials of resistance. Such trials may be the reason neither author finished his memoir: Both manuscripts were left unfinished and only published thanks to their families. That should be a warning to us not to make any thoughtless Nazi comparisons. And von Hildebrand and Haffner were the lucky ones. 

— 4 —

Here’s a great feature from one of our local television stations on Holy Family, our Cristo Rey high school: 

At Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School in Ensley, the business model is based on students working one day a week at a company in the Birmingham area, which helps pay their tuition. This was first put into action in 1996 in Chicago and has grown to 35 schools across the country.

“Cristo Rey itself is actually a 20-year-old model of Catholic education for serving low-income, urban communities,” Chalmers said. “The model is complex; there really isn’t anything like it. It’s a combination of academic college-prep education and experience in a corporate work study program, where each one of our students shares in an entry-level part-time job at a local institution or corporation.”

 

 

— 5 –

I’m in Living Faith on Saturday, September 1. Go here for that. 

— 6 —

This coming Monday is the feast of St. Gregory the Great.

Here’s a page dedicated to Gregory the Great’s influence:

The influence of Gregory the Great is so widespread that the great scholar of exegesis, Henri de Lubac, dubbed the period from Gregory’s death up to the thirteenth century “The Gregorian Middle Ages.” Preachers were everywhere citing, referencing, and, generally, re-using the work of one they affectionately called “our Gregory” or “the homilist of the Church.”

And he’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. 

amy-welborn-bookgregory-the-great

 

— 7 —

 

Don’t forget – The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols.

 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort. I have many copies of this, the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories, the Prove It Bible and the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days on hand at the moment.

Also – my son has been releasing collections of short stories over the summer. He’s currently prepping his first (published) novel, The Battle of Lake Erie: One Young American’s Adventure in the War of 1812.  Check it out!

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

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Writing/Saying: 

I was in Living Faith yesterday – here’s that entry. 

I’ll be on the Spirit Mornings program on KVSS this morning at 8:40 central talking about the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols  – the Mondayinterview will probably already have aired by the time you read this, but I’m guessing it will be archived at their page. 

Two other posts published today  – both on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate. One here and one here. I might have one more coming – not on St. Bernard – so perhaps return for that.

I am speaking in San Antonio on Saturday, so I outlined that talk.

Surfing: Kayak, Google Flights, the Marriott site. Trips west (Kansas) and east (NYC) in the works so far.

Reading: A few things, all over the map.

First, I reread Merton’s little book on St. Bernard, which I mention in one of the posts. You can find the book here, on Scribd. 

This is an excellent New Yorker article on the impact of e-commerce on rural China. Writer Jiayang Fan offers the intriguing observation that in the United States, the Internet had transformed and disrupted commerce, as it has replaced brick-and-mortar stores, but China did not have the same kind of commercial landscape so:

In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened—hasn’t needed to happen—because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up in the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has argued that the entire e-commerce sector in China exemplifies this pattern: people happily shop online because there haven’t been Walmarts everywhere. In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert,” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.”

And it’s fascinating to read her description of drone delivery – which is extensive and more common by the day.

And then then my main course of the weekend – the novel The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Oh my word, I enjoyed this novel so much. It won’t be for everyone – but what is? That’s why I don’t get into the business of “recommending” books, movies or television shows. People have different tastes, what engages me might alienate you, what absorbs you might bore me. I’m just saying what I’m saying – that’s all.

The House of Broken Angels is the story of an extended Mexican-American family, told via the events of a day or so – the funeral of an elderly woman and, the next day, the birthday of Big Angel, her son – the patriarch of the family. Of course, the narrative flashes back and forth in time within that 36-hour framework, so we ultimately get the gist of this family’s whole story, beginning decades ago in La Paz, in Baja California.

Coming down from Seattle to the gathering is another Angel – Little Angel, the youngest brother of Big Angel, but a son of their dead father by another mother – an American woman named Betty. The two Angels, both broken in various ways, and their siblings, spouses and children embody all the varied layers of immigrant experience and the almost unimaginable distance between the struggle and poverty in Mexico half a century before and the present day, surrounded by English-only speaking, smartphone-wielding grandchildren.

The dialogue is sharp and realistic, both revealing and elusive, just as human language always is. The writing can be gorgeous:

And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific–it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God’s own confetti snowed across those sky riots.

Pulling all of this together is the fact (no spoiler – it’s clear from the beginning) that Big Angel is dying, in the final stages of bone cancer. His mother dies, and his birthday will be the next day, so he’s convinced that this will be his last birthday. So the novel, even as it weaves many stories together, is essentially about Big Angel: his journey, his sins, the gifts he’s leaving and, in the end: his gratitude. For his friend and spiritual advisor, Fr. Dave, a Jesuit priest, has given him small notebooks in which he’s told him to note down what he’s grateful for.

The notebooks had a title: My Silly Prayers…..
marriage
family 
walking
working
books
eating
Cilantro

That surprised him. He didn’t know where it came from. Cilantro? he thought. Then:

my baby brother

Every day, he found his gratitudes more ridiculous. But they were many, and they reproduced like desert wildflowers after rain.

It took me a day or two to get into it, mostly because I found the riot of characters pretty confusing, and had to keep flipping back and forth to establish who was who and who was married to whom and whose kid this was. But when I finally got all of that straight, I couldn’t put it down. It was lovely and wild, jumping back and forth through time and space – which is my experience of consciousness and reality – and hilarious. Loved it.

Watching/Listening: Older son had to work into both Saturday and Sunday evenings, so there was no watching of things, at least by me. Sitting in the living room, reading St. Bernard, I listened to Thelonius Monk. Appropriate, I suppose.

Cooking: A batch of this Mexican Braised Beef, which is fantastic. It’s so simple – I replaced the plain canned tomatoes with Ro-tel or some other tomato/pepper mix. I also don’t have a slow cooker, so it’s all in the oven. Oh, and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. With the ritual burning of the second batch as I wander off and get distracted, of course.

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Also read about St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga

Today is also the memorial of St. Helena (Helen), mother of Emperor Constantine and according to tradition, discoverer of the True Cross.

True Christian zeal motivated St. Helena. Eusebius described her as follows: “Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile. While, however, her character derived luster from such deeds … , she was far from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting His Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct” (The Life of Constantine, XLIV, XLV).

For a decidedly novel and novelistic take on Helena, check out Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena.  It was his favorite of all of his novels. Some people hate it, but I love it. When I was working as editor of the Loyola Classics series, the book was amazingly out of copyright in the US, so we were able to publish it with an introduction by George Weigel.  I see that the copyright issue has gone another way, it seems, so the book is now published as part of a series of Waugh novels by .  You helena waugh amy welborncan get copies of the Loyola edition here, and the current edition here. 

Some, as I said, hate it because, they say, it’s basically the type of characters you find in Vile Bodies and Handful of Dust  –  1920’s British upperclass twits – plopped down in the 4th century.  Well, that’s part of the reason I like it. It’s entertaining in that way.

But also – when you read deeper, you see that this novel is about the search for truth – the True Cross is a real thing, but it’s also a metaphor.  Helena’s life is a search for faith, and what she is seeking is something that is true and real. She is offered all sorts of different options that are interesting, intricate, sophisticated or satisfy her wants and desires, but none of them are real.  Except one. From Weigel’s introduction:

Waugh was not a proselytizer, and Helena is no more an exercise in conventional piety than Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose hero is an alcoholic priest. But Waugh was a committed Christian apologist, and his apologetic skills are amply displayed in Helena. Thus Helena was not only addressed to those Christians who were trying to figure out the meaning of their own discipleship; it was also intended as a full-bore confrontation with the false humanism that, for Waugh, was embodied by well-meaning but profoundly wrong-headed naturalistic-humanistic critics of the modern world like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

More specifically, Waugh wanted to suggest that an ancient pathogen was lurking inside the hollowness of modern humanisms: gnosticism, the ancient heresy that denies the importance or meaningfulness of the world. So, to adopt a neologism from contemporary critics, Helena is, “metafictionally,” an argument on behalf of Waugh’s contention that modern humanistic fallacies are variants on the old, gnostic temptations exemplified by helenathe Emperor Constantine and his world-historical hubris. And at the core of the gnostic temptation was, and is, the denial of the Christian doctrine of original sin – which is, in effect, a denial of some essential facts of life, including the facts of suffering and death. In Helena, the arrogantly ignorant Constantine puts it in precisely these terms to old Pope Sylvester, as the headstrong young conqueror heads off to his new capital on the Bosporus: “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence, with Divine Wisdom and Peace.”

And what was the answer to the gnostic fallacy, which produced in Constantine’s time, as in ours, a kind of plastic, humanistic utopianism? For Helena, and for Waugh, it was what the aged Empress went to find: the “remorseless fact of the lump of wood to which Christ was nailed in agony,” as Waugh biographer Martin Stannard put it. This “remorseless lump of wood” reminds us of two very important things: it reminds us that we have been created, and it reminds us that we have been redeemed. Helena believed, and Waugh agreed, that without that lump of wood, without the historical reality it represented, Christianity was just another Mediterranean mystery religion, a variant on the Mithras cult or some other gnostic confection. With it – with this tangible expression of the incarnation and what theologians call the hypostatic union (the Son of God become man in Jesus of Nazareth) – a window was open to the supernatural, and the “real world” and its sufferings were put into proper perspective. For God had saved the world, not by fetching us out of our humanity (as the gnostics would have it), but by embracing our humanity in order to transform it through the mystery of the cross – the mystery of redemptive suffering, vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

….

Although set more than a millennium and a half ago, Helena is a bracing antidote to this contemporary gnosticism: this “bosh” and “rubbish,” as Waugh’s Helena would put it. From her childhood, Helena is determined to know whether things are real or unreal, true or false — including the claims of Christianity. For her, Christianity is not one idea in a world supermarket of religious ideas. Christianity is either the truth — the Son of God really became man, really died, and really was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world — or it’s more “bosh” and “rubbish.” The true cross of Helena’s search is not a magical talisman; it is the unavoidable physical fact that demonstrates the reality of what Christians propose, and about which others must decide.

One Waugh biographer suggests that the novelist’s later years were marked by an agonizing spiritual quest for compassion and contrition. As for many of us, the contrition likely came easier than the compassion. But it is difficult to read Helena without discerning in its author the capacity for a great compassion indeed – a compassion for the human struggle with the great questions that are raised in every life, in every age. Evelyn Waugh’s comic energy was once sprung from his pronounced power to hurt others, as a novel like Vile Bodies demonstrates. But in the mature Waugh, the Waugh who wrote Helena and thought it his finest achievement, the farce has been transformed into comedy, and the comedy has become, for all the chiaroscuro shadings, a divine comedy indeed.

St. Helena is in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints….first page here…her section is “Saints are people who are strong leaders.”

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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