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

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

And yes, it did.

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

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

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

Well, okay. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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First, Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

B16, from 2009:

Wishing now to sum up concisely the profile of the two Brothers, we should first recall the enthusiasm with which Cyril approached the writings of St Gregory of Nazianzus, learning from him the value of language in the transmission of the Revelation. St Gregory had expressed the wish that Christ would speak through him: “I am a servant of the Word, so I put myself at the service of the Word”. Desirous of imitating Gregory in this service, Cyril asked Christ to deign to speak in Slavonic through him. He introduced his work of translation with the solemn invocation: “Listen, O all of you Slav Peoples, listen to the word that comes from God, the word that nourishes souls, the word that leads to the knowledge of God”. In fact, a few years before the Prince of Moravia had asked the Emperor Michael III to send missionaries to his country, it seems that Cyril and his brother Methodius, surrounded by a group of disciples, were already working on the project of collecting the Christian dogmas in books written in Slavonic. The need for new graphic characters closer to the language spoken was therefore clearly apparent: so it was that the Glagolitic alphabet came into being. Subsequently modified, it was later designated by the name “Cyrillic”, in honour of the man who inspired it. It was a crucial event for the development of the Slav civilization in general. Cyril and Methodius were convinced that the individual peoples could not claim to have received the Revelation fully unless they had heard it in their own language and read it in the characters proper to their own alphabet.

….Cyril and Methodius are in fact a classic example of what today is meant by the term “inculturation”: every people must integrate the message revealed into its own culture and express its saving truth in its own language. This implies a very demanding effort of “translation” because it requires the identification of the appropriate words to present anew, without distortion, the riches of the revealed word. The two holy Brothers have left us a most important testimony of this, to which the Church also looks today in order to draw from it inspiration and guidelines.

They are  in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints: 

Now, to St. Valentine.

Chad C. Pecknold is a theology professor at the Catholic University of America – some of you may have heard of the Twitter seminar he’s running on St. Augustine’s City of God.  Today, he has a very good (public) Facebook post on St. Valentine, in which he takes on the modern assumptions that, oh of course the guy didn’t exist….mythology, legends….let’s take him off the calendar and make funny memes! Worth a read:

 Recently I read a skeptic claiming that medieval monks invented St. Valentine’s Day, which is a pretty common alternative to the fact that Pope Gelasius set his feast day on February 14th in Anno Domini 496. So little is known about him that even the Church, following the dubious claim of a book published in 1966 that the saint never existed, removed him from the liturgical calendar in 1969. It is an odd fact that his feast is celebrated (in a deracinated way) by the world but not the Church. Since a basilica was built over his tomb just 75 years after his death by Pope Julius, and relics from his body spread throughout the Roman empire, the evidence of his existence seems manifest to me.

MORE

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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— 1 —

Today’s one of my Living Faith days. Go here for that. 

Also – if you would like more of the same, don’t forget the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days.  Most Catholic womanish devotionals are mom-centered. This one isn’t. So check it out!

(Lent’s coming…Ash Wednesday is March 1. If your parish or school is looking for a devotional, consider the one I wrote for Liguori, available in Spanish, too.)

— 2 —

Work is going decently well. I wish, at some point in my life, I could get to the last weeks of a project deadline not in a state in which I must Adhere to A Strict Schedule or face failure, but it never seems to happen. I do think the lesson is to not work with big deadlines that fall so close after Christmas. I lose a lot of work time, no matter what my fantasies are about being able to work through it all, and it actually casts a shadow over the holidays for me, as I have it constantly on my mind and am borderline on edge about it all the time. So just remind me, next time, okay?

— 3—

I’m feeling rather posh at the moment because I just ordered a membership in the Historic Royal Palaces. It gets you entrance into several of the palaces, including the Tower of London and Hampton Court, the two I’m interested in visiting. There’s a few pounds in savings, plus skipping lines, plus the promise of “special membership events,” the last of which I am not counting on. I usually don’t do much planning or purchasing ahead for these trips, but I needed a bit of boost, to make that trip seem closer. So I did it. I will probably also buy some theater tickets ahead of time, another thing I never do, but it seems advisable this time.

If you would like to follow my random planning…I have a Pinterest board dedicated to the trip here and a Twitter list here.)

Speaking of travel, check out Mountain Bouterac, aka the Catholic Traveler’s blog post about three years in Rome. Three years ago, he and his family packed up and moved from Georgia to Rome. He’s got great reflections on the ups and downs of that time and that decision. Go read, and take a look at his tours!

That very first night, I went alone to Saint Peter’s Square. As I stood there, I prayed I’d never take for granted this opportunity, I prayed it was the right move for the family, and I prayed I’d be able to help others through my experience.

I arrived with hopes, dreams, and goals.

But Rome is not easy, it took nine months just to get wifi.

Still, some hopes were fulfilled, some dreams came true, and some goals were realized. Others evolved, a couple were crushed, a few are still in the works.

— 4 —

I love news like this. Really good news, and good for kids to read about to help them understand the intersection of basic knowledge, method and creativity.

THE LOOSE ASSEMBLAGE of paper and string Manu Prakash pulls from his pocket doesn’t look like much. And in a way, it’s not—just 20 cents’ worth of materials you can buy at an art supply store. But in another way, the Stanford bioengineer’s tangle of stuff is a minor miracle. Prakash calls it a Paperfuge, and like the piece of lab equipment it’s named for, the centrifuge, it can spin biological samples at thousands of revolutions per minute. That’s a critical step in the diagnosis of infections like malaria and HIV. But unlike a centrifuge, the Paperfuge doesn’t need electricity, complicated machinery, expensive replacement parts, or even much money to operate.

“There are a billion people on this planet who live with no electricity, no infrastructure, no roads, and they have the same kind of health care needs that you and I have,” Prakash says. His lab developed the Paperfuge with these people in mind.

Inspired by the design of a millennia-old toy, the Paperfuge is a hand-powered centrifuge made of paper, string, and plastic that can whip biological samples in circles at up to 125,000 rpm. That’s enough oomph to separate plasma from a blood sample (a standard diagnostic procedure) in 90 seconds.

— 5 —.

Here are ten great poems about churches.

— 6 —

Speaking of poets and poetry…sheesh. Read this. A poet found her poems being used on standardized tests. First, she can’t really understand why, and then when she tackles the questions themselves, she finds them to be massively missing the point, and giving the completely wrong lessons on poetic inspiration, process and interpretation.

This is what’s wrong with the testing culture of our schools. This is why it’s so tragic that the mainstream of Catholic education just floats along with this culture and even uses their participation in it as a selling point.

Oh, goody. I’m a benchmark. Only guess what? The test prep materials neglected to insert the stanza break. I texted him an image of how the poem appeared in the original publication. Problem one solved. But guess what else? I just put that stanza break in there because when I read it aloud (I’m a performance poet), I pause there. Note: that is not an option among the answers because no one ever asked me why I did it…..

…The only way to stop this nonsense is for parents to stand up and say, no more. No more will I let my kid be judged by random questions scored by slackers from Craigslist while I pay increased taxes for results that could just as easily have been predicted by an algorithm. That’s not education, that’s idiotic.

Melanie Bettinelli takes up the topic here. 

Here you can practically see the process of the death of poetry. You can peek between the lines to see those students in their classrooms faced with these bleak poems, these senseless choices: I must be dumb. This poetry stuff doesn’t make any sense. I don’t get it. I must be bad at poetry. I don’t like poetry. I HATE poetry. Well to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if poetry is the sort of thing that can fit onto a standardized test, then to hell with it. I don’t believe in that kind of poetry either. 



— 7 —

Here’s an article about the roots and branches of Birmingham’s Greek food culture. It’s fascinating, goes way back to the beginnings of the city, and there’s hardly a food category that’s not been touched by the Greeks, from groceries to barbecue to meat n’three.

(Do you have a Zoe’s Kitchen or Jim n Nick’s in your town? They are Greek in origin, and started in Birmingham.)

The story of Birmingham’s Greek restaurateurs has always been a complicated one, with as many chapters as a Greek epic. Greek immigrants adapted quickly, aided by civics lessons from the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. Patriotism and service are a point of pride within a family tree that’s filled also with doctors, educators, clergy, military, and other professionals.

The connection to Mother Greece remains strong. Millennials fluently speak their great-grandparents’ native tongue. George C. Sarris serves food from his homeland at The Fish Market’s weekly Greek Night. Back in Tsitalia, churches, schools, homes and infrastructure were built or fixed with money earned in Birmingham. Ex-pats return regularly; Sarris even took Frank Stitt for a visit to Tsitalia.

“Greek people assimilate, but always go back to Greece,” says Sarris. “We feel we have two mothers, with equal love for each one.”

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

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(He’s in it)

 

For an in-depth exploration, as well as a look at some of his letters, go to archive.org to this 19th century biography, in two volumes. (Of course his life and letters are published elsewhere, and in modern versions, but this is…free. )

What you will read about was a man who made tremendous sacrifices to travel across the world, endure great hardship….to teach fisherman and little kids the Creed.

Now think.

Why did he do this? Why did he think it was worth his life?

It seems, according to much of the current conversation in the air about how to spread the Good News which is not to be done by “proselytizing,” but rather by accompanying, that he was mistaken in his approach.

Was he?

Yes, the question of this encounter between Christian creed and various cultures is not uncomplicated. The question has rightly occupied Asian, African and European theologians for decades, and for literary shorthand versions, consider Black Robe and Silence.  Missionaries were not infallible. They made mistakes, they allowed themselves to become compromised, they were short-sighted.  All of that is true.

Even so – and not dismissing those questions – the 21st century observer who is anxious to diminish the importance of the particulars of belief in favor of a purportedly more pastoral engagement – who seems to believe that Jesus is more authentically and powerfully offered and encountered without much concern for the doctrine, and indeed that the specific articulation of belief functions more often than not as an obstacle to encountering Christ (for this is the essence, really of much of the direction of the current conversation ) – has a responsibility, as a Catholic, to engage this question in the context of the whole of Catholic tradition, which includes a lot of people making tremendous sacrifices, not only to live out the corporeal works of mercy, but the spiritual works as well.

Was Francis Xavier doing it wrong? What was the point – having the memorization of credal formulations and prayers, and baptism as the central focus of his missionary work? That model of “making them Christians” in this way…was it wrong?

Well, to explore the question requires us to go beyond simplistic categories, and to ask interesting, serious questions about the deeper spiritual dynamic that is engaged by this process of – dare we say it – making disciples –  the thinking behind it, and the cultural context.

It would require us to look to the past and..wait for it…engage in..dialogue, to listen and be willing to learn. It might even require…humility.

I and Francis Mancias are now living amongst the Christians of Comorin. They are very numerous, and increase largely every day. When I first came I asked them, if they knew anything about our Lord Jesus Christ? but when I came to the points of faith in detail and asked them what they thought of them, and what more they believed now than when they were Infidels, they only replied that they were Christians, but that as they are ignorant of Portuguese, they know nothing of the precepts and mysteries of our holy religion. We could not understand one another, as I spoke Castilian and they Malabar ; so I picked out the most intelligent and well read of them, and then sought out with the greatest diligence men who knew both languages.. We held meetings for several days, and by our joint efforts and with infinite difficulty we translated the Catechism into the Malabar tongue. This I learnt by heart, and then I began to go through all the villages of the coast, calling around me by the sound of a bell as many as I could, children and men. I assembled them twice a day and taught them the Christian doctrine : and thus, in the space of a month, the children had it well by heart. And all the time I kept telling them to go on teaching in their turn whatever they had learnt to their parents, family, and neighbours.

Every Sunday I collected them all, men and women, boys and girls, in the church. They came, with great readiness and with a great desire for instruction. Then, in the hearing of all, I began by calling on the name of the most holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and I recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer, the Hai/ Mary, and the Creed in the language of the country: they all followed me in the same words, and delighted in it wonderfully. Then I repeated the Creed by my- self, dwelling upon each article singly. Then I asked them as to each article, whether they believed it unhesitatingly ; and all, with a loud voice and their hands crossed over their breasts, professed aloud that they truly believed it. I take care to make them repeat the Creed oftener than the other prayers ; and I tell them that those who beUeve all that is contained therein are called Christians. After explaining the Creed I go on to the Commandments, teaching them that the Christian law is contained in those ten precepts, and that every one who observes them all faithfully is a good and true Christian and is certain of eternal salvation, and that, on the other hand, whoever neglects a single ore of them is a bad Christian, and will be cast into hell unless he is truly penitent for his sin. Converts and heathen alike are astonished at all this, which shows them the holiness of the Christian law, its perfect consistency with itself, and its agreement with reason. After this I recite our principal prayers, as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and they say them after me. Then we go back to the Creed, adding the Our Father and the Hail Mary after each article, with a short hymn; for, as soon as I have recited the first article, I sing in their language, ^ Jesus, Son of the living God, grant us the grace to believe firmly this first article of your faith : and that we may obtain this from you, we offer you this prayer taught us by yourself^ Then we add this second invocation : ‘ Holy Mary^ Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your most sweet Son that we may believe without hesitation this article of the Christian faitlu We do the same after all the other eleven articles.

We teach them the Commandments in the following way. After we have sung the first, which enjoins the love of God, we pray thus : ^ Jesus Christ, Sou of the living God, grant us the grace to love Thee above all things ; and then we say for this intention the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all sing together, ‘ Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your Son the grace to observe perfectly the first of His Commandments ; and then we say the Hail Mary. So we go on through the other nine, changing the words of our little invocation as occasion requires. Thus I accustom them to ask for these graces with the ordinary prayers of the Church, and I tell them at the same time that if they obtain them, they will have all otherthings that they can wish for more abundantly than they would  be able to ask for them. I make them all, and particularly those who are to be baptized, repeat the form of general confession. These last I question after each article of the Creed as it is recited, whether they believe it firmly ; and after they have answered yes, I give them an instruction in their own language explaining the chief heads of the Christian religion, and the duties necessary to salvation. Last of all, I admit them thus prepared to baptism. The instruction is ended by the Salve Regina, begging the aid and help of our Blessed Lady.

As to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing : often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating again and again the Credo and the other forms.

The fruit that is reaped by the baptism of infants, as well as by the instruction of children and others, is quite incredible. These children, I trust heartily, by the grace of God, will be much better than their fathers. They show an ardent love for the Divine law, and an extraordinary zeal for learning our holy religion and imparting it to others. Their hatred for idolatry is marvellous. They get into feuds with the heathen about it, and whenever their own parents practise it, they reproach them and come off to tell me at once. Whenever I hear of any act of idolatrous worship, I go to the place with a large band of these children, who very soon load the devil with a greater amount of insult and abuse than he has lately received of honour and worship from their parents, relations, and acquaintances. The children run at the idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.

I had been living for nearly four months in a Christian village, occupied in translating the Catechism. A great number of natives came from all parts to entreat me to take the trouble to go to their houses and call on God by the bedsides of their sick relatives. Such numbers also of sick made their own way to us, that I had enough to do to read a Gospel over each of them. At the same time we kept on with our daily work, instructing the children, baptizing converts, translating the Cate chism, answering difficulties, and burying the dead. For my part I desired to satisfy all, both the sick who came to me themselves, and those who came to beg on the part of others, lest if I did not, their confidence in, and zeal for, our holy religion should relax, and I thought it wrong not to do what I could in answer to their prayers. But the thing grew to such a pitch that it was impossible for me myself to satisfy all, and at the same time to avoid their quarrelling among themselves, every one striving to be the first to get me to his own house ; so I hit on a way of serving all at once. As I could not go myself, I sent round children whom I could trust in my place. Tliuey went to the sick persons, assembled their families and neighbours, recited the Creed with them, and encouraged the sufferers to conceive a certain and wellfounded confidence of their restoration. Then after all this, they recited the prayers of the Church. To make my tale short, God was moved by the faith and piety of these children and of the others, and restored to a great number of sick persons health both of body and soul. How good He was to them ! He made the very disease of their bodies the occasion of calling them to salvation, and drew them to the Christian faith almost by force !

I have also charged these children to teach the rudiments of Christian doctrine to the ignorant in private houses, in the streets, and the crossways. As soon as I see that this has been well started in one village, I go on to another and give the same instructions and the same commission to the children, and go I go through in order the whole number of their villages. When I have done this and am going away, I leave in each place a copy of the Christian doctrine, and tell ail those who know how to write to copy it out, and all the others are to learn it by heart and to recite it from memory every day. Every feast day I bid them meet in one place and sing all together the elements of the faith. For this purpose I have appointed in each of the thirty Christian villages men of intelligence and character who are to preside over these meetings, and the Governor, Don Martin Alfonso, who is so full of love for our Society and of zeal for religion, has been good enough at our request to allot a yearly revenue of 4000 gold fanams for the salary of these catechists. He has an immense friendship for ours, and desires with all his heart that some of them should be sent hither, for which he is always asking in his letters to the King.

There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out every where like a’ madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learn- ing is so much greater than their charity, ‘ Ah ! what a miiltiude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell . Would to God that these men who labour so much in gaining knowledge would give as much thought to the ac- count they must one day give to God of the use they have made of their learning and of the talents entrusted to them ! I am sure that many of them would be moved by such considerations, would exercise themselves in fitting meditations on Divine truths, so as to hear what God might say to them,^-* and then, renouncing their ambitions and desires, and all the things of the world, they would form themselves wholly according to God’s desire and choice for them. They would exclaim from the bottom of their hearts : ^ Lord^ here am I ; send jue whithersoever it shall please Thee, even to India /’^-^ Good God ! how much happier and how much safer they would be ! With what far greater confidence in God’s mercy would they meet their last hour, the supreme trial of that terrible judgment which no man can escape ! They would then be able joyfully to use the words of the faithful servant in the Gospel : ‘ Lord, Thou gavesf me five talents; behold, I have gained beside them other five. They labour night and day in acquiring knowledge, and they are very diligent indeed in understanding the subjects which they study ; but if they would spend as much time in that which is the fruit of all solid learning, and be as diligent in teaching to the ignorant the things necessary to salvation, they would be far better prepared to give an account of themselves to our Lord when He shall say to them : ‘ Give an account of thy steiuard- ship.’^”^ I fear much that these men, who spend so many years in the Universities in studying the liberal arts, look more to the empty honours and dignities of the prelature than to the holy functions and obligations of which those honours are the trappings. It has come to this pass, as I see, that the men who are the most diligent in the higher branches of study, commonly make profession that they hope to gain some high post in the Church by their reputation for learning, therein to be able to serve our Lord and His Church. But all the time they deceive themselves miserably, for their studies are far more directed to their own advantage than to the common good. They are afraid that God may not second their ambition, and this is the reason why they will not leave the whole matter to His holy will. I declare to God that I had almost made up my mind, since I could not return to Europe myself, to write to the University of Paris, and especially to our worthy Professors Cornet and Picard, and to show them how many thousands of infidels might be made Christians without trouble, if we had only men here who would seek, not their own advantage, but the things of Jesus Christ. And therefore, dearest brothers, ‘ pray ye the Lord of the harvest that He send forth labourers into His harvest.’

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 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

-1 Samuel 8:19

Some post-election thoughts. These are very specific. I have a lot more, but who knows what will become of them.

As I watched the course of the presidential campaign over the past couple of years, my long-held convictions about a fundamental problem with the shape of the process were confirmed. The reactions of the supporters of Clinton since the election have only deepened those convictions.

It all comes down to this: the office of the presidency has become too important. 

There are both spiritual and political dimensions to this.  I’ll take the political first.

So most of you, I trust, are familiar with the United States Constitution and the general shape of our government. There are three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intention of the founders was to create a system in which power would be balanced and checked. Hence the term “checks and balances.”

The President is the head of one of those branches – the executive.

He is the head of the executive branch which “executes” the laws that the legislature enacts and the judicial branch evaluate in terms of their constitutionality.

Here is Article II of the Constitution, which delineates the powers and responsibilities of the president. 

He is not the king. He is not a “ruler.” Moreover, he is not the representative of anyone’s soul, identity or deepest yearnings.

But of course, that limited sense of the president has not held.

I sometimes think, although it was probably inevitable, that it was unfortunate that a hero was chosen as our first president. It sets the bar high and imbues the office with an aura prone to idealization and idolatry – hence the 1865 fresco in the rotunda of the dome of the US Capitol, The Apotheosis of George Washington– which depicts Washington rising to the heavens in glory. “Apotheosis” means deification. 

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How much better it would have been, I think, if John Adams had been our first president!

The temptation of make too much of the presidency is also an extension of this country’s deeply-rooted sense of its own role in Divine Providence, beginning with the Puritans, continuing through the Revolution and formation of the nation and reaching a peak of sorts in the 19th century.

The expansion of the federal government, especially the executive branch, has not helped.  Beginning with the Progressive Era then escalating, of course with the Great Depression and World War II – big, global problems that seemed to call for big solutions that, once in place, are all but impossible to roll back. And yes, books have been written on the “Imperial Presidency.”

But now we are at a point at which people spend years of their lives, sacrifice their family and personal lives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attain this office, an office which has far more power than the founders intended, partly because the branch of government which it heads has far more power than it should.

Yes, there are and always have been profound differences in views about the shape and direction that the United States government should take. People with varying views group themselves in political parties to put forward their view and bring it into power. So in a way, yes, the President does “embody” something and that something can involve not only administrative responsibilities but the ideals that shape this direction. Fine.

But it’s too much. 

There is something wrong when the country is more or less constantly thinking about the president: who it is now, and who it will be in a few years. Don’t you resent the obsession and the attention to the office of the presidency? I do.

It seems to be a sign of a fundamental instability and lack of a core, as well as celebrity culture.

And of course politicians play on this. “Make America Great Again.” “Build a better world for our children.”  It’s all part of the same thing.

Which brings us to the spiritual, as it always does.

Over the past few days, protests have broken out over the country, centered on the meme #NotMyPresident. The anger, shock, dismay and yes, grief, is on full display.

When I look at this on the news or on my social media feeds, I see, above anything else, a spiritual vacuum.

There is room, of course, and if your conscience demands it, an obligation to express hesitation and opposition to a stated program of action with which you disagree or feel some aspect of your life to be threatened by. But even so, most people would, you know, wait for the person to actually take office and make decisions to make a judgment on how to react to that. To engage in this kind of protest at this stage is nothing more than attempts at intimidation.

No, what I sense goes deeper, and it’s not just the events of the last couple of days that lead me to that, but also the spiritual dimension of what I wrote above.

It’s too much. It shouldn’t be that important. 

But for some reason, it is. Why?

Well, when God has been chased out of your life, when the transcendent is simply what you make it to be, it is almost inevitable that the inborn yearning that we have for certainty in identity, belonging and meaning will be transferred.

Basically, this: If the election of the head of the executive branch sends you spinning and feeling distraught because the president doesn’t represent your values and moves you to disrupt your life to cry out  #NotMyPresident! …the presidency is too important to you. It’s become an idol.

It is possible to have high expectations of our leaders’ competence and abilities without deifying them or expecting them to embody your personal values and be crushed and outraged  and moved to violence and hatred when they don’t.

Perhaps a good way to get my point is to take it down a level. Think about the governor of your state. The mayor of your city or town.

When you consider who to vote for those offices, what enters into your decision-making? I’m going to guess it’s pretty practical.  I would think it would seem pretty strange to deal with the identity of your governor or mayor in the deeply personal way that some seem to be dealing with the presidency.

I don’t vote for mayor, governor, Senator or President, looking to have my ultimate personal values reflected or my sense of the ideal human being or social construction represented. After all, then I would never vote, would I? And if a candidate I vote for happens to win and hold office, I don’t look to he or she to do anything but move the workings of government in the general direction which he or she promised, and do as little harm as possible.

I can understand being upset. I really can. I can even sympathize with the identity politics aspect of this and the disgust with Trump’s personal character. Absolutely! Perhaps you are saying that you will be “embarrassed” to have Trump as president. Well, there are some of us who have been mostly  “embarrassed” by the president of the United States since the Gerald Ford days, more or less continually, for various reasons, so it gets to a point at which you realize…he’s just the president and there’s no need for me to tie who I am, even as an American, to the identity of who the president is today. 

So yes, the angst seems totally out of proportion to what this office *should* be about. I mean…who among us who was alive and sentient in, say 1977, looks back and says, “Gerald Ford! His presidency was satisfying because it represented me and satisfied my soul!” ?  Or..”That Ford presidency really did a number on me. Never been the same since, and what is life, my friends, anyway?”

So yes, resist.

Resist the temptation to put your trust in kings.

Resist their attempts to exploit your yearning for meaning and the transcendent.

Resist…and be free. 

 

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Busy week. Let’s get started.

First off, Publisher’s Weekly carried a brief notice about the book I’m working on with Loyola – the exciting completion of the Loyola Kids trilogy! Well, at least the third book I’ll have "amy welborn"written under that brand. It’s simple – a collection of Bible stories, but with an angle that I hope will make them particularly helpful to Catholic children, parents, families and catechists. When I wrote the Loyola Kids Book of Saints sixteen years ago, I never thought it would still be selling as well as it does – usually one of the top two or three titles in children’s religious biography on Amazon, and really still unique in approach.

My deadline for this manuscript is early February, so I’ll be working to get that done over the next few months as well as on some smaller projects.

— 2 —

The past week has been busy, with an odd recurring theme of organization and information – or really, a lack of it.

High Point climbing gym is one of my youngest son’s favorite places. It’s a huge gym in downtown Chattanooga, notable for the outdoor climbing wall.

They’re building a branch here in Birmingham, and last weekend, they had an open house for their still-under construction facility. So we started there – it looks good, although not as large as the Chattanooga place and sadly, no outdoor climbing wall. It’s also a bit far from our house on road that is often marked by horrendous traffic, but I told my son that if got up early on Saturday mornings to go, I’d take him once in a while. He was all in. What have I done?

— 3 —

After a brief stop back at home, I headed out and up the hill behind our neighborhood to the Altamont School, which was hosting a celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of Walker Percy’s birth. You’ll recall that he was born here in Birmingham, and it was from here that his mother moved the family after his father’s suicide. Percy attended a school that was the predecessor of Altamont, which explains the event. Unfortunately, it was barely advertised – I only knew about it because someone in my parish sent me an email saying, “Whenever I see something about Walker Percy, I think of you. Have you seen this?” No, I hadn’t. Neither had many other people, for the panel discussion part of the afternoon, which is what I attended, featured four people on stage and ten in the audience. Even with the Crimson Tide on the field at the time, that’s surprising. A few days later, I spoke with someone local who is a big Percy fan, well-connected into the local cultural scene and he was astounded that this event had occurred – he’d heard nothing about it.

Anyway, what I took away – besides marketing, people – was, first of all, how challenging it is for people to get a hold of Percy’s Catholicism, probably because hardly anyone understands Catholicism properly, not getting the fundamental point that a character who defines himself as a “Bad Catholic” is actually expressing a sort of ideal Catholicism. Secondly, I was struck again by the Percy Effect, best summarized on this occasion by the young academic on the panel who described his feeling upon first encountering Percy’s writings. “I was splayed open” – he said, and then filled with an urgent sense that Percy was onto something and that it was important, even essential, to follow and see where he led. The person I was talking to a few days later said that when he was in campus ministry he would often give The Last Gentlemen to students, and after reading three chapters, they would return to him wondering…was Walker Percy in my dorm room? How does he know?

Something I wrote about Percy for CWR a few months ago.

 — 4 —

Then it was back down the hill, fix dinner, and then my younger son and I headed out to the Alabama Theater to see Post Modern Jukebox. It was a good concert – even with a couple of dicey moments that I think went mostly over his head anyway. The talent level is amazing, which you know from watching the videos. Two of my favorites – Casey Abrams and Aubrey Logan– were both in the troupe for that performance, although a major, major disappointment was that Scot Bradlee himself was not. My 11-year old pianist son was quite let down by that – the pianist performing that night was excellent of course, but my son has really enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s stylings and style and was a little stunned that he wasn’t actually there – I wouldn’t say I was stunned, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing.

— 5 

Sunday morning – serve Mass at Casa Maria.

In the afternoon, we went to a big local state park – Oak Mountain State Park – for an advertised “reptile program.” Here’s what was advertised – come see reptiles from noon to three. Really not much more than that. We arrived at the interpretive center at 1:30 to an room empty but for refreshments. The program would be across the road in the other building, at would start at 2.

Which it did, to a full room, and with lots of interesting animals and expert educational offerings. But it was far more formal than advertised and did go on. So instead of the drop-in and see and chat about animals at your leisure during a time frame experience I thought we were getting, we sat in chairs for 90 minutes – including thirty minutes past the advertised ending time. Yes, snakes, lizards and tortoises are well worth our time – why do you think we were there? – but there was certainly a big difference between advertising and reality. Do people not even read their own copy and think about how it matches their plans?

amy_welborn5

6–

Back to school on Monday, and then Tuesday night, Birmingham – in the form of Rev. Peter Leithert’s Theopolis Institute – welcomed Joseph Bottum to town.

I had met Jody years ago at an informal event First Things organized for me on a visit to New York. He was here from his South Dakota home to speak on “The Novel as Protestant Art” –  the article upon which his talk is based is here. It was a good talk with interesting engagement from the audience. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed that kind of in-person adult intellectual engagement, and what made it even better was that Avondale Brewery, where it was held, is about two minutes from my house. Always a plus.

amy_welborn2

We won’t have that level of activity this weekend. What’s on tap? One kid gone Friday and much of Saturday at a robotics competition, the other serving a Saturday retreat Mass and having a make-up piano lesson (his teacher was on a short recital tour earlier in the week and had to reschedule). A family Halloween party Saturday night – almost forgot about that! – and then..it looks like Sunday is going to be what I hate most – Finish The Project Day – around here. One has an Archimedes project, the other on The Scarlet Letter.

"amy welborn"

Have a Happy Halloween, Slash.

— 7 —

Oh, I did do a bit of television watching, aside from Rectify. I have been poking around for a show to binge on – I missed the Stranger Things fad. By the time it had cycled through from New Hotness to Old and Almost Busted, I lost interest. But then I started hearing about this Australian show called Glitch just come to Netflix, so I thought I’d try it out.

And I did, and I watched the whole thing, sort of hating myself by hour four. Not exactly hating, but knowing by that point that this was going to be a Lost kind of experience in which an initial intriguing hook ends up taking you for a fairly contrived ride. And Lost was a lot better than Glitch.

The conceit is that several people have risen from the dead, crawling out of their graves in the cemetery in a small Australian town. Those first scenes are quite arresting, and a couple of the story lines are affecting, but the writing is formulaic and stiff, serious questions are glossed over and really, it all comes down to the fact that the reaction of a widower to his once dead, now-standing-in-front-of-him wife is not much more intense than if she had surprised him by arriving  home early from work. It’s clear by the end that this event has not been caused – as the devout Catholic among the resuscitated exclaims – by any miracle – but by pharmaceutical hijinks of one sort or another, and there’s a major twist at the end of the series that makes the, er, dead affect of one of the non-risen characters finally understandable – and so that’s where this first season ends. So yes, I kept watching for that dumb reason we all do – just to see what happens – but I’m not proud, especially in light of the intelligent, nuanced experience of Rectify a couple of nights later. I should have spent those six hours reading a book instead. Walker Percy, probably.

“Yes. Death is winning, life is losing.”
“Ah, you mean the wars and the crime and violence and so on?”
“Not only that. I mean the living too.”
“The living? Do you mean the living are dead?”
“Yes.”
“How can that be, Father? How can the living be dead?”
“I mean their souls, of course.”
“You mean their souls are dead,” says Max with the liveliest sympathy.
“Yes,” says Father Smith tonelessly. “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

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

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