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Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

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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Sorry for the initial mis-dating. I started this yesterday…

Good morning. Of course lots has happened since we last met, all of which I spent much time following and thinking about, but for today I’ll stick mostly to my formula in this digest. Maybe another post in a bit on something else.

Watching: As I do every two years, I watched some cable news on election night. You Thursdayknow, when you only see a group of people once every 700 days or so, you can really track the aging process and note how everyone just gets….older and fatter. Except Wolf Blitzer, who hasn’t changed in decades. And Laura Ingraham? What is the deal there? If I had the sound turned off, I would have thought, Huh, another cable news blonde. I didn’t  recognized her at all until she started speaking. What has she had done with her face? I spent the whole time she was on camera, every time, trying to figure it out  – lips? Eyes? General facelift? We’re almost the same age…uh…amazing.

Listening: The Edith Wharton episode of In Our Time. An interesting discussion in which the fraught and shifting views on Wharton as a female writer – feminist or no? – were fairly covered.

The thread that was introduced but not really tied up, though, involved an aspect of her background I’d not known about. She was tutor and self-educated (coming from a wealthy family) and when asked about her reading, one of the panelists emphasized the importance of the works of evolutionists from Spencer to Darwin and others. A few minutes later, as they discussed her predominant themes, they sketched a picture of a changing world, yes, but also a deeply hierarchical world in which the “lower” classes and non-Europeans were given scant attention and that, mostly dismissive. That is to say – a world very reflective of social Darwinism, although no one ever explicitly made that link.

Someone dropped a comment during the discussion about Catholicism, though, that sent me on a rabbit trail, which transitions us to….

Reading:  Aside from the very hot stream of  Super Hot Takes on the election, a close read of the great J. F. Powers story, “The Lord’s Day” – this was about all I managed:

So, as I mentioned, one of the In Our Time scholars mentioned that the Church had condemned or at least criticized Wharton’s work. The impression I got from the discussion was that any Church criticism must have had to do with sexually-scandalous material.

Well, the rabbit trails indicated that was only partly so.

The main critique is related to a poem Wharton wrote on Margaret of Cortona. You can read it here, along with an accompanying Howard Pyle illustration.

Reminder: Margaret of Cortona lived with a man outside of wedlock for nine years and bore him a child. The man was murdered, and upon discovering his body, she converted to a life of penance and charity, eventually becoming a Franciscan tertiary.

In Wharton’s poem, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1901, we meet Margaret on her deathbed, confessing to a friar – is it her son? I don’t know.

The gist of the poem, and what got Catholic readers up in arms,  is that Margaret is torn between her love of Christ and her love of her dead lover – and perhaps even not so torn, since she makes it clear that what she had found with the earthly lover seemed pretty close to heaven. Here on her deathbed, she has prayed and prayed, but has been met with silence, while she knows that if her lover were alive, at least he would respond to her.

I have lain here, these many empty days
I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys
So close that not a fear should force the door –
But still, between the blessed syllables
That taper up like blazing angel heads,
Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,
Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,
As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,
My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes
Alive in their obliterated faces!…
I have tried the saints’ names and our blessed Mother’s
Fra Paolo, I have tried them o’er and o’er,
And like a blade bent backward at first thrust
They yield and fail me—and the questions stay.
And so I thought, into some human heart,
Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,
If only I might creep for sanctuary,
It might be that those eyes would let me rest…

You can see how this would make people unhappy. From an article on “The Catholic in Fiction” from a secular journal called The Reader:

It is incredible that a writer of Mrs. Wharton’s refinement and ability should have taken a canonized saint as the subject on which to exercise such an unseemly flight of fancy….Mrs. Wharton makes this holy woman, after years of repentance, avow on her death-bed a preference for her lover’s caresses and the comfort his impassioned ardor, to the divine love of the crucified Lord whom she had so diligently served for years. Mrs. Wharton is entitled to no consideration for this affront, unless on the ignoble ground of ignorance.

Of course, I understand this objection, but I did read the poem from a slightly different angle as well.  The contrast between Christ and the earthly lover is certainly the major theme – in which Christ comes out less favorably – but there’s also, it seems, some grappling with an irony of the spiritual life which must strike any thinking person: you might even call it the irony of conversion. She’s asking: if I hadn’t been living a sinful life, would I have met Christ?

As well as, in a general way, the questions all of us have about the direction our life has taken as we look back on it:

 

Ah, that black night he left me, that dead dawn 
I found him lying in the woods, alive 
To gasp my name out and his life-blood with it, 
As though the murderer’s knife had probed for me 
In his hacked breast and found me in each wound… 
Well, it was there Christ came to me, you know, 
And led me home—just as that other led me. 
(Just as that other? Father, bear with me!) 
My lover’s death, they tell me, saved my soul, 
And I have lived to be a light to men. 
And gather sinners to the knees of grace. 
All this, you say, the Bishop’s signet covers. 
But stay! Suppose my lover had not died? 
(At last my question! Father, help me face it.) 
I say: Suppose my lover had not died – 
Think you I ever would have left him living, 
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret? 
– We lived in sin? Why, to the sin I died to 
That other was as Paradise, when God 
Walks there at eventide, the air pure gold, 
And angels treading all the grass to flowers! 
He was my Christ—he led me out of hell – 
He died to save me (so your casuists say!) – 
Could Christ do more? Your Christ out-pity mine? 

No, the poem is not anything great, and I certainly understand the reaction against it, but still. There’s a glimmer of truth in there.

I just spent a lot of time on that, but, of course, it wasn’t my intention when I began writing this to go as much into the poem as into the reaction to her novel The Valley of Decision. This was Wharton’s first published novel: a historical novel of 18th century Italy that, it seems from plot summaries, positions free-thinkers against Church and tradition, etc. I have zero interest in reading it, but when I searched for “Edith Wharton” and Catholic Church condemned – this was, besides from the poem, what popped up.

So initially I thought, “Oh the early 20th century American church criticized this content for sexual-related content it deemed immoral, obviously.” But..maybe not?

What I found was, of course, no “official” condemnation, but a strong critique published in Catholic World, which, in turn, reprints a critique from the Chicago Chronicle.

And what’s the basis of the critique?

The answer will surprise you!

The focus is the treatment of the primary female character, Fulvia, and specifically the role of education in her life. The critique takes on Wharton for, the author claims, indicating that higher education corrupts a woman’s character.  I’m going to reproduce this section at length, because I want you to participate in one of my favorite activities: Dispel myths about the past.

In this case, the myths are: No one believed that women should be educated before 1970 or so. In particular, the Catholic Church was opposed to women’s intellectual development.

Not to mention that this contemporary critique adds to the discussion about Wharton. It may or may not be an accurate read of her character, but the fact is that in this case, her narrative was received as anti-woman’s education and moralistic. Interesting.

The severest blow dealt against the higher education of women has been delivered by one of themselves, the author of The Valley of Decision, a somewhat tedious two-volume novel of the spurious “historical” variety.

It has been claimed by the opponents of equal education for men and women that whatever the intellectual results of the attempt, the moral result would be injurious to the family and society. It has been specifically urged that the tendency of the higher education would be to draw women more and more toward the laxer social standards of men, and to make women impatient of those restraints which until now have constituted the bulwarks of the home.

The Valley of Decision supports this theory. The heroine around whom the sympathy of the story is concentrated enjoys from early youth the advantages which other women, at least in the United States, must acquire, if at all, by long years of labor through primary and secondary schools into colleges and universities. A name of evil omen, whether in Roman history or in Ben Jonson’s “Catiline,” Fulvia starts the heroine out on a path of aspiration, independence, erudition, and ruin.

Her learning fails to develop moral or spiritual growth. In full womanhood, having had abundant experience enabling her to see the evils of society in the fullest glare of their malignity, Fulvia voluntarily accepts an unlawful and immoral social status from which all right-minded women instinctively recoil. She becomes the willing victim of a profligate weakling on a petty ducal throne, and feels neither shame nor remorse in her degradation.

The malign influence of such a novel upon the aspirations of American women for university privileges is made by the author the more certain and the more emphatic because the scene of the sinister fiction is laid in the country which was the first to open university doors to women. The poet Alfieri is dragged into the story to heighten the proportions of its all-pervading moral squalor. Sneering at the idea of a woman taking the degree of doctor of philosophy, the poet is made to say: “Oh, she’s one of your prodigies of female learning, such as our topsy-turvy land produces; an incipient Laura Bassi or Gaetana Agnesi, to name the most distinguished of their tribe; though I believe that hitherto her father’s good sense or her own has kept her from aspiring to academic honors. The beautiful Fulvia is a good daughter and devotes herself, I am told, to helping Vivaldi in his work, a far more becoming employment for one of her age and sex than defending Latin theses before a crew of ribald students.”

But Fulvia’s father was a sympathizer with his daughter’s tastes, which he habitually promoted. To make the lesson of the moral failure of the higher education of women still more convincing, the author of The Valley of Decision reserves the bestowal of her final degree upon Fulvia until after the university and the whole town are familiar with her adoption of a shameless life and her open rejection of religious or conventional standards.

In Italy the universities were open to women soon after their foundation in the Middle Ages. At Bologna, which for centuries was one of the greatest universities in Europe, a number of women justly attained distinction as professors of the sciences, languages, and law. Laura Bassi was of a comparatively late time. So great was her reputation for learning, but also for virtue, that her doctorate was conferred under circumstances of civic and academic pomp. She married happily and became the mother of fourteen children.

Two sisters Agnesi were distinguished in Italian higher education. One, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, was an eminent professor and author in the exact sciences during the eighteenth century, and lived to be upward of eighty years of age. A younger sister was distinguished as a pianist and composer. Upon the entire array of the learned women of Italy whose careers have been historically noted there was never a breath of moral reproach.

The injury which The Valley of Decision inflicts upon the contemporary higher education of women is shrewdly designed in the contrast which this repulsive novel makes in its alienation of the higher education from religious and moral control.

The atmosphere which is created for the reader of The Valley of Decision is the most repulsive ever introduced into an American literary production. In the large company constituting the chief participants in a story projected along hackneyed guide-book information there is not from the first cover of the first volume to the last of the second one honest man or virtuous woman.

The moral squalor of J he Valley of Decision is the more surprising because the scene is laid in the land which has given to literature and life the paramount group of ideal womanhood, Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Michael Angelo’s Vittoria Colonna; and to Shakspere his two most engaging characters, blending in their mutual devotion of a noble womanhood erudition and chastity, Portia and Nerissa.

The womanhood of the United States may justly deplore that such a volume as The Valley of Decision should have its origin in the United States, in which the experiment of the higher education of women has thus far been courageously carried to an advancement which few of the universities have been able to withstand.

 

And if you’re interested, go to p. 596 in the same volume of the 1902 Catholic World and read an article about Bologna called “A City of Learned Women.”

The universal spread of knowledge and literary culture among women is no doubt one of the boasts of modern civilization. We point to it with pride as emphasizing the superiority of this age over its predecessors; exemplified by the thorough training of mind and body considered equally necessary nowadays for girls as well as boys. Nevertheless, if we go a little more deeply into the matter, we shall find once more at the bottom of all our researches the most discouraging but true old adage embodying the world-weariness of the wisest king of old: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It is a shock at first to realize that our progress is not so wonderful as we imagined; and that, instead of inventors, we are only “revivalists”; perfecting perhaps what has gone before, with the help of added centuries of experience and science; but still only reviving things dormant, or at best forgotten. In an atmosphere of self-congratulation upon Women’s Colleges and Universities and the Higher Education of Women, can it come as anything but a revelation to find one’s self face to face with a city of learned women of long centuries past, who spread the light of their knowledge through a land which bowed before their intellect while reverencing their true womanhood?

Such was the revelation which disturbed my new-world complacency one bright morning in the ancient city of Bologna, in this year of the twentieth century; wandering through stately halls of learning where for centuries women had held intellectual sway. No fair girl-graduates were these, drinking their first draught at the fountain of mighty knowledge; but women whose powers of intellect had placed them in the professorial chair, instructing on equal terms with the men-professors the students who flocked around them.

I keep saying it, in one way or another: My Hot Take on 20th century feminism is that it happened because the Protestant Reformation, secular intellectual currents and the industrial revolution pushed Western women into the confined, defining space of a domestic sphere that didn’t exist in a holistic Catholic context.

There. 

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amy_welbornI am writing this Tuesday night, with the hopes that I can get something else substantive out on the day that’s called Wednesday. 

Reading: 

Well, an unexpectedly long wait at the orthodontist enabled me to finish yet another Goodis novel – this one called Nightfall – very, very good, intriguingly composed, flitting between past and present, between conscious and subconscious. And the more I think about it, the more I sense a bit of a twist on the usual noir theme of existential angst. In this one, the angst and yearning is for something concrete. What bridges the gap? What helps a man see that he might not be so alone in the universe as he thought?

Family.

And once again, really, people  – no, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

amywelborn

 

 

The plot: we meet Vanning – a man living in New York City working as a commercial artist, but is under the burden of being implicated in a past murder out west in Colorado.  There’s really no doubt that he did kill someone, but why? And was it murder or should we define it as self-defense? And where’s the loot from the bank robbery that he somehow ended up with? And who’s this dame who met his eye across the bar? Is she friend or foe?

In that way, it’s of course completely of the genre: a man caught up in circumstances, now on the run. Because this protagonist is essentially a good person, escape from responsibility for his actions is not really what he’s about. It’s more – having been pulled into criminals’ lives by pure accident, he’s trying to sort out whether there is any way he can stay hidden but also own up to his responsibility while bearing certainly fair, but not unjust consequences for what he tumbled into.

In a way, it’s an existential question: here we are in the midst of circumstances not completely of our making – how much are we responsible for? What price should we pay for the harm we’ve been a part of, whether what we’ve done has been accidental or purposeful? What pound of flesh will and should be demanded of us?

The most striking throughline of this novel has to do with the role of family, not only in Vanning’s life, but in the two other principal male characters: John, the leader of the goons who’s entrapped Vanning in their scheme, and Fraser, the New York City detective who’s been put on the case and sense that while Vanning might certainly have killed someone, his responsibility might well be mitigated by other, unknown circumstances.

I’ll start with Fraser. He’s a major character in this novel, and Goodis does a beautiful job of sketching out a solid, interesting, affectionate marriage between him and his wife who truly is his rock, not only in providing an oasis of sanity in a crazy world, but acting as a sounding board as he works out the puzzles he’s uncovering. It’s real, rare and touching.

She studied his eyes. She said, “You never buy yourself anything.”

“I do all right.”

“You do fine,” she said. She got up and walked toward him. Her fingers moved through his hair. “Someday you’ll be important.”

He smiled up at her. “I’ll never be important,” he said. “But I’ll always be happy.” He took her hand and kissed it and looked up at her again. “Won’t we?”

“Of course.”

“Sit on my lap.”

“I’m gaining weight.”

“You’re a feather.”

She sat on his lap. He drank some more lemonade and gave her some. She fed him a little more salad and took some herself. They looked at each other and laughed quietly.

“Like my hair?”

He nodded. He put his hand against her head, played with her hair. “You women have it tough in summer. All that hair.”

“In winter it comes in handy.”

“I wish it was winter already. I wish this case was over with.”

“You’ll get it over with.”

“It’s a problem.”

She gave him a sideway smile. “And you eat it up.”

“Not this one,” he said. “This one’s different. Something about this one gives me the blues. The way he talked. That tone. I don’t know——”

She stood up. “I want to see if the kids are asleep.”

Fraser lit a cigarette, leaned back a little to watch her as she crossed the living room. When the wall cut her off, he leaned forward and dragged deeply at the cigarette and stared at the empty glass in front of him. A frown moved onto his forehead and became more of a frown. The empty glass looked very empty.

A phone conversation, beginning with the wife:

“Do you have a plan?”

“Vaguely.”

“Anything to work on?”

“Just Vanning. I better hang up now. I’m beginning to worry again. Vanning isn’t enough. I need something else. It’s like waiting for rain in the desert.”

“Maybe you can talk to him again.”

“If I could find a good excuse.”

“But there’s only forty-eight hours——”

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “Every time I look at my watch I get sick.”

“Does it make you feel better, talking to me?”

“A lot.”

“Stay there and talk to me.”

“All right, dear.”

“Tell me things.”

“Things you don’t know already?”

“Anything you want to tell me.”

“Even if it’s unimportant?”

“Even if it’s silly,” she said.

 

John is a criminal and a terrible person, but guess what? In an Augustinian way, even he is motivated by a desire for the good. He wants the money so he can buy a boat and just sail the seas with his girl:

 

As if Vanning had not interrupted, John went on, “It was going to be the last. After the split and expenses, I figured on a little more than two hundred grand for myself. And then I’d wait awhile until things blew over and I’d go back to Seattle and get in touch with that girl. Look, I’ll show you something.”

Holding the revolver at his side, John used his other hand to extract a wallet from a hip pocket. He opened the wallet, handed it to Vanning. Under celluloid there was a picture of the girl. She was very young. Maybe she wasn’t even twenty. Her hair came down in long, loose waves that played with her shoulders. She was smiling. The way her face was arranged it was easy to see that she was a little girl, and skinny, and probably not too brilliant.

Vanning handed back the wallet. He bit his lower lip in a thoughtful way and he said, “She’s pretty.”

“Good kid.” John replaced the wallet in his pocket.

“Does she know?”

“She knows everything.”

“And where does that leave her?”

“Up a tree, for the time being,” John said. “But she doesn’t care. She’s willing to wait. And then we’re going away together. You know what I always wanted? A boat.”

“Fishing?”

“Just going. In a boat. I know about boats. I worked on freighters tripping back and forth between the West Coast and South America. Once I worked on a rich man’s yacht. I’ve always wanted my own boat. That Pacific is a big hunk of water. All those islands.”

“I’ve seen some of them.”

“You have?” John leaned forward. He was smiling with interest.

“Quite a few of them. But I didn’t have time to concentrate on the scenery. There was too much activity taking place. And smoke got in the way.”

John nodded. “I get it. But just think of working out from the West Coast with all that water to move around in. All those islands out there ahead. A forty-footer with a Diesel engine. And go from one island to another. And look at them all. No real estate agent to bother me with the build-up. Just look them over and let them give me their own build-up. And let me make my own choice.”

…. “When I have that boat,” John said, “I won’t wait. I’ll get on the boat with her and we’ll shove off. Did you ever stop to think how cities crowd you? They move in on you, like stone walls moving in. You get the feeling you’ll be crushed. It happens slow, but you imagine it happens fast. You feel like yelling. You want to run. You don’t know where to run. You think if you start running something will stop you.”

“I don’t mind cities,” Vanning said.

“Cities hurt my eyes. I don’t like the country, either. I like that water. I know once I get on that water, going across it, going away, I’ll be all right. I won’t be nervous any more.”

And then finally, Vanning himself. He has been caught up in this terrible situation, when all he really wants is just a normal, deeply ordinary life:

 

He worked, he ate, he slept. He managed to keep going. But it was very difficult. It was almost unbearable at times, especially nights when he could see the moon from his window. He had a weakness for the moon. It gave him pain, but he wanted to see it up there. And beyond that want, so far beyond it, so futile, was the want for someone to be at his side, looking at the moon as he looked at it, sharing the moon with him. He was so lonely. And sometimes in this loneliness he became exceedingly conscious of his age, and he told himself he was missing out on the one thing he wanted above all else, a woman to love, a woman with whom he could make a home. A home. And children. He almost wept whenever he thought about it and realized how far away it was. He was crazy about kids. It was worth everything, all the struggle and heartache and worry, if only someday he could marry someone real and good, and have kids. Four kids, five kids, six kids, and grow up with them, show them how to handle a football, romp with them on the beach with their mother watching, smiling, so proudly, happily, and sitting at the table with her face across from him, and the faces of the kids, and waking up in the morning and going to work, knowing there was something to work for, and all that was as far away as the moon, and at times it seemed as though the moon was shaking its big pearly head and telling him it was no go, he might as well forget about it and stop eating his heart out.

Oh, my word.

And even in a chance encounter – Vanning, an artist, takes some time to stroll in some galleries in the city. He has a conversation with a painter, who lets him know where his deepest happiness lies:

“My wife and I, we have three girls and a little boy. Every night I come home to a festival, a beauty pageant, a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. There’s so much yelling. It’s wonderful.”

What a fantastic insight, a marvelous way to look at your life – before you go home tonight, before everyone’s together, consider how you’re imagining the scene: as a bother, a trial, an endurance race? Or how about you’re about to open the door to…a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. …so much yelling…it’s wonderful. 

And know that David Goodis  was only married for a couple of years and never had any children himself.  To know this makes his characters’ yearnings even more poignant.

So yeah, back to the genre – there’s suspense, not only because you want to know what happens, but also – more grippingly – you want to see if justice will be done. It’s why art in a truly nihilistic culture becomes so dull: if there’s nothing at stake, who cares?

Just one more brief note: one of the things I enjoy about Goodis’ writing is his exploration of his characters’ mental processes – how they think, how they arrive at conclusions. He’s really very good at prying into characters’ brains. So here, Vanning’s trying to figure out how to solve his problem:

It kept jabbing away at him, the desire to get out of this city, to travel and keep on traveling. But it wasn’t traveling. It was running. And the desire was curtained by the knowledge that running was a move without sensible foundation. Retreat was only another form of waiting. And he was sick of waiting. There had to be some sort of accomplishment, and the only way he could accomplish anything was to move forward on an offensive basis.

He was part of a crowd on Madison Avenue in the Seventies, and he was swimming through schemes, discarding one after another. The schemes moved off indifferently as he pushed them away. He walked into a drugstore and ordered a dish of orange ice. Sitting there, with the orange ice in front of him, he picked up a spoon, tapped it against his palm, told himself to
take it from the beginning and pick up the blocks one by one and see if he could build something.

There weren’t many blocks. There was John. There was Pete and there was Sam. There was the green sedan. There was the house on the outskirts of Brooklyn. None of those was any good. There was the man who had died in Denver. And that was no good. There was Denver itself. There were the police in Denver. The police.

A voice said, “You want to eat that orange ice or drink it?”

Vanning looked up and saw the expressionless face of a soda clerk.

“It’s melting,” the soda clerk said.

“Melting,” Vanning said.

“Sure. Can’t you see?”

“Tell me something,” Vanning said.

“Anything. I’m a whiz.”

“I’ll bet you are. I’ll bet you know everything there is to know about orange ice.”

“People, too.”

“Let’s stay with the orange ice.”

And staying with the orange ice, he figures it out. He figures out how to begin again.

No, this isn’t Dosteovsky. Got it. But reading this kind of stuff – slightly more substantive mid-century pulp fiction – is a far better use of my time than scrolling through the latest Hot Takes to the latest news. Maybe it will grab you, maybe not. But here it is.

I’m all about sharing more. Not maybe the finest or the most perfect – just…more. I’m pretty convinced that one of the keys to mental, emotional and spiritual health is the proper perspective, and the core to finding and holding onto the proper perspective is the proper perspective: I’m not the center of the universe.  Out there in the present, back there in the past, I find different things, and ironically and paradoxically, in those different things, I find more that’s the same. Venturing out is the place where I find solid ground.

Update:  After I finished writing this, I read one more Goodis novel (yes, read it all last night) – Street of No Return.  It’s got a really intriguing premise and pretty killer framework: A former Sinatra-like figure whose career and voice were destroyed when he got mixed up with some shady characters has ended up on Philadelphia’s Skid Row, a penniless, homeless drunk. Over the course of one night, he gets wrongly blamed for murdering a cop and discovers a bad cop-assisted plot to fuel race riots so one particular criminal gang can take over a section of the city….yeah it’s kind of a crazy mess and nowhere near as compelling as the others, but bottom line is that I found Goodis’ imaginary world  and his characters pretty intriguing, from the washed-up singer to the elderly African-American bootlegger to the preening dirty cop.

And with that – I’ve had my fill. On to something else. Maybe even some history.

Writing: I’m in Living Faith. Here you go for that. 

Still working on my story! This week. Not that I have a clue what I’ll do with it, but it needs to get out of my brain, stat.

 

 

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“Lachrimae Amantis“
Lope de Vega Carpio (1562-1613), translated by Geoffrey Hill

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.

So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered ‘your lord is coming, he is close’

that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
‘tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.’

Agony in the Garden

Source

Also, from my favorite vintage textbook. We’ll just keep it simple today. That’s the best way.

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is a couple of days away, but don’t you want to prepare? Prepare yourself, prepare the kids…

 

St. Patrick's Well, Orvieto

What is this and what does it have to do with St. Patrick? See the end of the blog post…

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.

….

God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also  have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written. 

The point of St Patrick to me has always been he went back.  He (like Isaac Jogues and many others) returned to the people who had caused him much suffering. Why did he return? Because he knew, first hand, that they needed to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Who better to bring it to them?

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Breastplate in a Wordcloud. Wordcloud made via this. Feel free to share. 

The photograph at the top of the blog post is of St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto, Italy, taken during our 2016 trip. No, St. Patrick never traveled to Italy, and no one thinks he does, either. The assumption is that the name of this very deep, intriguingly constructed well is derived from the awareness of “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in Ireland, a cave so deep it led to Purgatory. 

This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide.  Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction.  Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.

Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo!  After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months.  He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.

It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged.  To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately.  It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.

It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”.

 

amy-welborn10

(I always like these vintage books more for the art than the text….)

Finally, you might be interested in this, dug up from the Internet Archive: A Rhymed Life of St. Patrick by Irish writer Katharine Tynan:

Irish nationalist writer Katharine Tynan was born in Clondalkin, a suburb of Dublin, in 1859. She was educated at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine and started writing at a young age. Though Catholic, she married a Protestant barrister; she and her husband lived in England before moving to Claremorris, in County Mayo. Tynan was friends with W.B. Yeats and Charles Parnell.

 Involved in the Irish Literary Revival, Tynan expressed concern for feminist causes, the poor, and the effects of World War I—two sons fought in the war—in her work. She also meditated on her Catholic faith. A prolific writer, she wrote more than 100 novels, 12 collections of short stories, reminiscences, plays, and more than a dozen books of poetry, among them Louise de la Vallière and Other Poems (1885), Shamrocks (1887), Ballads and Lyrics (1891), Irish Poems (1913), The Flower of Peace: A Collection of the Devotional Poetry of Katharine Tynan (1914), Flower of Youth: Poems in Wartime (1915), and Late Songs (1917). She died in 1931.

 

 

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I’ve been posting a lot of pre-owned content lately, but believe me, I have an excuse!

It’s called work. I’m involved in a project that, while not the most taxing in the world, does gobble up my free time in the very early mornings and later evenings, as well as another ongoing project that I’m still not settled into, and that is taking up a bit more mental space than I thought – once I do settle, I’m hoping I can spend about 15 minutes a day on it over the next few months. But I need to get this Other Thing done first – and the final deadline for the last section of that is in early March, so….

Brain is in Occupied Mode for the moment.

But a few notes, completely random, but mostly reading-related.

  • What am I reading? I realized with dismay that it had been a while since I had actually finished reading a book. I discovered a Trollope that was left hanging, and then The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers that I got 2/3 through and then there’s that Vietnamese priest book I started a few weeks back. Seriously, one of my Lent disciplines is to begin reading books and finish them. 
  • What I have finished, though, are books “for school.”  I had my 13-year old read The Lord of the Flies and read it along with him  –  a book as fascinating and depressing as it always is. Having recently finished watching Lost, we were both struck by some parallels and, we suspect, inspirations for the series in the book.
  • The very brief passage that struck me with the most force comes at the very end (spoiler alert!) in the scene in which the children are discovered by the British naval personnel. If you recall, the major conflict in the book has been between Ralph, the boy who attempts to hold on to civilization for as long as possible, and Jack, the leader of the choir boys who battles to assume leadership on the island, driven by a hunter’s bloodlust. Jack, through most of the book, is painted as a powerful, almost mythic figure. All the other boys come under is power and, as the book rushes to an end, Ralph is racing for his life from Jack and those under his sway.
  • But then at the very end, the point of view shifts, and we see the entire situation  from the perspective of the newly-arrived adult. He asks who had been leading the boys. Ralph quickly says that he was. And then:

A little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his
red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist,
started forward, then changed his mind and stood still.

  • I have read that sentence over and over, trying to absorb the power of the shift in point of view and what it tells us about what’s real, what we think is real, and what’s really real.
  • Other readings with the homeschooling 7th grader: Before Lord of the Flies, he read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – see appropriate Chesterton quote here. 
  • The next “school novel” is on a somewhat lighter vein – he suggest Murder on the Orient Express, and I had no problem with it. He started it today, so the “school” part of the reading involved an introduction to the genre of detective fiction (which interests him because he’s just started watching Sherlock), Agatha Christie’s life, and then some history and geography inspired by the first three chapters of the book – here’s an excellent page of chapter-by-chapter annotations, and really, take a look. When a kid reads Murder on the Orient Express and goes on all the rabbit trails inspired by it, look at what he can explore: the geography of the Near East, as well as the area covered by the train route, as well as the history of the period in that area – a time in places like Aleppo and Kirkuk very different from our own.
  • Short story read on Monday: “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” – by Stephen Crane. Emphasis on the humor in the story as well as the story as a metaphor for the changes then occurring in the West.

Poems read over the past couple of weeks:

  • “Do not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
  • “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
  • “The Lake Isle of Innisfreee”
  • “The World is Too Much With Us”
  • “Miniver Cheevy”
  •  “Fern Hill”

 

For his own, individual reading, he’s tearing through Dune. I gave him the first volume for Christmas, he read it, then read Children of Dune over a couple of days (it’s much shorter than the first) and is about to start Dune Messiah. 

  • Older brother has just started The Great Gatsby for school, so I’m reading that, too – can I admit that this is the first time for me?

Guys, I went to high school in the 70’s. We read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for religion class, for pete’s sake.

In case you think this business of “Mom reading along with school assignments” is weird and just too helicoptery for words, please consider:

  • like to read and talk about books. It’s what I do. 
  • Talking about books together is a good thing. Talk about books with your spouse, your friends, your kids, your book group, strangers on a plane – it’s all good, it expands your brain and your experience a little bit, every time.
  • Go see The Commuter – the latest Liam Neeson-as-unlikely-hero film.  Okay, forget I said that. Don’t go see it because it’s just barely okay, but it has a sweet – and actually crucial –  plot point related to Neeeson and his high school son’s school reading assignments.
  • So yeah, maybe if you read along with your kids’ reading assignments, you too can be a hero on a commuter train….

 

 

 

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Learn more:

John of the Cross was born in 1542 in the small village of Fontiveros, near Avila in Old Castille, to Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez. The family was very poor because his father, Gonzalo, from a noble family of Toledo, had been thrown out of his home and disowned for marrying Catalina, a humble silk weaver.

Having lost his father at a tender age, when John was nine he moved with his mother and his brother Francisco to Medina del Campo, not far from Valladolid, a commercial and cultural centre. Here he attended the Colegio de los Doctrinos, carrying out in addition several humble tasks for the sisters of the Church-Convent of the Maddalena. Later, given his human qualities and his academic results, he was admitted first as a male nurse to the Hospital of the Conception, then to the recently founded Jesuit College at Medina del Campo.

He entered the College at the age of 18 and studied the humanities, rhetoric and classical languages for three years. At the end of his formation he had a clear perception of his vocation: the religious life, and, among the many orders present in Medina, he felt called to Carmel.

In the summer of 1563 he began his novitiate with the Carmelites in the town, taking the religious name of Juan de Santo Matía. The following year he went to the prestigious University of Salamanca, where he studied the humanities and philosophy for three years.

He was ordained a priest in 1567 and returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass surrounded by his family’s love. It was precisely here that John and Teresa of Jesus first met. The meeting was crucial for them both. Teresa explained to him her plan for reforming Carmel, including the male branch of the Order, and suggested to John that he support it “for the greater glory of God”. The young priest was so fascinated by Teresa’s ideas that he became a great champion of her project.

For several months they worked together, sharing ideals and proposals aiming to inaugurate the first house of Discalced Carmelites as soon as possible. It was opened on 28 December 1568 at Duruelo in a remote part of the Province of Avila.

This first reformed male community consisted of John and three companions. In renewing their religious profession in accordance with the primitive Rule, each of the four took a new name: it was from this time that John called himself “of the Cross”, as he came to be known subsequently throughout the world.

At the end of 1572, at St Teresa’s request, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila where Teresa of Jesus was prioress. These were years of close collaboration and spiritual friendship which enriched both. The most important Teresian works and John’s first writings date back to this period.

Promoting adherence to the Carmelite reform was far from easy and cost John acute suffering. The most traumatic episode occurred in 1577, when he was seized and imprisoned in the Carmelite Convent of the Ancient Observance in Toledo, following an unjust accusation. The Saint, imprisoned for months, was subjected to physical and moral deprivations and constrictions. Here, together with other poems, he composed the well-known Spiritual Canticle. Finally, in the night between 16 and 17 August 1578, he made a daring escape and sought shelter at the Monastery of Discalced Carmelite Nuns in the town. St Teresa and her reformed companions celebrated his liberation with great joy and, after spending a brief period recovering, John was assigned to Andalusia where he spent 10 years in various convents, especially in Granada.

He was charged with ever more important offices in his Order, until he became vicar provincial and completed the draft of his spiritual treatises. He then returned to his native land as a member of the General Government of the Teresian religious family which already enjoyed full juridical autonomy.

He lived in the Carmel of Segovia, serving in the office of community superior. In 1591 he was relieved of all responsibility and assigned to the new religious Province of Mexico. While he was preparing for the long voyage with 10 companions he retired to a secluded convent near Jaén, where he fell seriously ill.

John faced great suffering with exemplary serenity and patience. He died in the night between 13 and 14 December 1591, while his confreres were reciting Matins. He took his leave of them saying: “Today I am going to sing the Office in Heaven”. His mortal remains were translated to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.

John is considered one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish literature. His major works are four: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love.

In The Spiritual Canticle St John presents the process of the soul’s purification and that is the gradual, joyful possession of God, until the soul succeeds in feeling that it loves God with the same love with which it is loved by him. The Living Flame of Love continues in this perspective, describing in greater detail the state of the transforming union with God.

The example that John uses is always that of fire: just as the stronger the fire burns and consumes wood, the brighter it grows until it blazes into a flame, so the Holy Spirit, who purifies and “cleanses” the soul during the dark night, with time illuminates and warms it as though it were a flame. The life of the soul is a continuous celebration of the Holy Spirit which gives us a glimpse of the glory of union with God in eternity.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel presents the spiritual itinerary from the viewpoint of the gradual purification of the soul, necessary in order to scale the peaks of Christian perfection, symbolized by the summit of Mount Carmel. This purification is proposed as a journey the human being undertakes, collaborating with divine action, to free the soul from every attachment or affection contrary to God’s will.

Purification which, if it is to attain the union of love with God must be total, begins by purifying the life of the senses and continues with the life obtained through the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, which purify the intention, the memory and the will.

The Dark Night describes the “passive” aspect, that is, God’s intervention in this process of the soul’s “purification”. In fact human endeavour on its own is unable to reach the profound roots of the person’s bad inclinations and habits: all it can do is to check them but cannot entirely uproot them. This requires the special action of God which radically purifies the spirit and "amy welborn"prepares it for the union of love with him.

St John describes this purification as “passive”, precisely because, although it is accepted by the soul, it is brought about by the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit who, like a burning flame, consumes every impurity. In this state the soul is subjected to every kind of trial, as if it were in a dark night.

This information on the Saint’s most important works help us to approach the salient points of his vast and profound mystical doctrine, whose purpose is to describe a sure way to attain holiness, the state of perfection to which God calls us all.

According to John of the Cross, all that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures we may arrive at the discovery of the One who has left within them a trace of himself. Faith, in any case, is the one source given to the human being to know God as he is in himself, as the Triune God. All that God wished to communicate to man, he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. Jesus Christ is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6). Any created thing is nothing in comparison to God and is worth nothing outside him, consequently, to attain to the perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to the divine love.

From this derives the insistence of St John of the Cross on the need for purification and inner self-emptying in order to be transformed into God, which is the one goal of perfection. This “purification” does not consist in the mere physical absence of things or of their use; on the contrary what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of every disorderly dependence on things. All things should be placed in God as the centre and goal of life.

Of course, the long and difficult process of purification demands a personal effort, but the real protagonist is God: all that the human being can do is to “prepare” himself, to be open to divine action and not to set up obstacles to it. By living the theological virtues, human beings raise themselves and give value to their commitment. The growth of faith, hope and charity keeps pace with the work of purification and with the gradual union with God until they are transformed in him.

When it reaches this goal, the soul is immersed in Trinitarian life itself, so that St John affirms that it has reached the point of loving God with the same love with which he loves it, because he loves it in the Holy Spirit.

For this reason the Mystical Doctor maintains that there is no true union of love with God that does not culminate in Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to pass through creatures in order to reach him. The soul now feels bathed in divine love and rejoices in it without reserve.

Dear brothers and sisters, in the end the question is: does this Saint with his lofty mysticism, with this demanding journey towards the peak of perfection have anything to say to us, to the ordinary Christian who lives in the circumstances of our life today, or is he an example, a model for only a few elect souls who are truly able to undertake this journey of purification, of mystical ascesis?

To find the answer we must first of all bear in mind that the life of St John of the Cross did not “float on mystical clouds”; rather he had a very hard life, practical and concrete, both as a reformer of the Order, in which he came up against much opposition and from the Provincial Superior as well as in his confreres’ prison where he was exposed to unbelievable insults and physical abuse.

His life was hard yet it was precisely during the months he spent in prison that he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And so we can understand that the journey with Christ, travelling with Christ, “the Way”, is not an additional burden in our life, it is not something that would make our burden even heavier but something quite different. It is a light, a power that helps us to bear it.

If a person bears great love in himself, this love gives him wings, as it were, and he can face all life’s troubles more easily because he carries in himself this great light; this is faith: being loved by God and letting oneself be loved by God in Jesus Christ. Letting oneself be loved in this way is the light that helps us to bear our daily burden.

And holiness is not a very difficult action of ours but means exactly this “openness”: opening the windows of our soul to let in God’s light, without forgetting God because it is precisely in opening oneself to his light that one finds strength, one finds the joy of the redeemed.

Let us pray the Lord to help us discover this holiness, to let ourselves be loved by God who is our common vocation and the true redemption. Many thanks.

And for children. He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints – here are a couple of the pages that I can reproduce for you. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who create.”

 

"amy welborn"

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