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Also read about St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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As you may or may not know, every day of the liturgical year is full of saints’ memorials.  I’m sure there is a technical explanation somewhere as to which make it on to the universal calendar and why. If you go to the generally published calendar, say at Universalis, you find one saint mentioned, but there  are others.   But we do remember several saints on this day. If you have one of those multi-volume editions of Butler’s, you know what I mean – and also here, which lists most of the daily memorials.

So for example, there’s St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, a recently canonized saint from Chile, and one with – as is the case with all saints – an interesting story.

From the Vatican website:

…born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on 22 January 1901; he was orphaned when he was four years old by the death of his father. His mother had to sell, at a loss, their modest property in order to pay the family’s debts. As a further consequence, Alberto and his brother had to go to live with relatives and were often moved from one family to another. From an early age, therefore, he experienced what it meant to be poor, to be without a home and at the mercy of others.

He was given a scholarship to the Jesuit College in Santiago. Here he became a member of the Sodality of Our Lady and developed a lively interest in the poor, spending time with them in the most miserable neighborhoods every Sunday afternoon.

When he completed his secondary education in 1917, Alberto wanted to become a Jesuit, but he was advised to delay the realization of this desire in order to take care of his mother and his younger brother. By working in the afternoons and evenings, he succeeded in supporting them; at the same time, he studied law at the Catholic University. In this period, he maintained his care for the poor and continued to visit them every Sunday. Obligatory military service interrupted his studies, but once he fulfilled this duty he went on to earn his degree early in August 1923.

On 14 August 1923 he entered the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Chillán. In 1925 he went to Córdoba, Argentina, where he studied humanities. In 1927 he was sent to Spain to study philosophy and theology.

However, because of the suppression of the Jesuits in Spain in 1931, he went on to Belgium and continued studying theology at Louvain. He was ordained a priest there on 24 August 1933, and in 1935 obtained a doctorate in pedagogy and psychology. After having completed his Tertianship in Drongen, Belgium, he returned to Chile in January 1936. Here he began his activity as professor of religion at Colegio San Ignacio and of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students, and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor. He frequently directed retreats and offered spiritual direction to many young men, accompanying several of them in their response to the priestly vocation and contributing in an outstanding manner to the formation of many Christian laymen.

In 1941 Father Hurtado published his most famous book: “Is Chile a Catholic Country?” The same year he was hurtadoasked to assume the role of Assistant for the Youth Movement of the Catholic Action, first within the Archdiocese of Santiago and then nationally. He performed these roles with an exceptional spirit of initiative, dedication and sacrifice.

In October 1944, while giving a retreat, he felt impelled to appeal to his audience to consider the many poor people of the city, especially the numerous homeless children who were roaming the streets of Santiago. This request evoked a ready and generous response. This was the beginning of the initiative for which Father Hurtado is especially well-known: a form of charitable activity which provided not only housing but a home-like milieu for the homeless: “El Hogar de Cristo”.

By means of contributions from benefactors and with the active collaboration of committed laity, Father Hurtado opened the first house for children; this was followed by a house for women and then one for men. The poor found a warm home in “El Hogar de Cristo”. The houses multiplied and took on new dimensions; in some houses there were rehabilitation centers, in others trade-schools, and so on. All were inspired and permeated by Christian values.

In 1945 Father Hurtado visited the United States to study the “Boys Town” movement and to consider how it could be adapted to his own country. The last six years of his life were dedicated to the development of various forms in which “El Hogar” could exist and function.

In 1947 Father Hurtado founded the Chilean Trade Union Association (ASICH) to promote a union movement inspired by the social teaching of the Church.

From the blog of Ottowa Archbishop Terry Prendergrast:

In 1941, he published a book which sent shock waves through the country:Is Chile a Catholic Country? It was a provocative title which pointed up both the increasing mediocrity of Chilean Catholic life and the renewing force of his own vision. In its pages, he opened up an offensive against materialism, its toxic effects on the young, its atrophying of vocations, and, above all, the way its pernicious cultural impact aggravated the plight of the poor.

Alberto was years ahead of his time in his approach to social issues. ‘Injustice’, he insisted with enviable clarity, ‘causes far more evil than can be repaired by charity’. So he advocated and made his own the arduous tasks of reading, social analysis, planning action, establishing institutions and deepening that Ignatian contemplative regard which takes in the whole world and is free enough to see just how bad things truly are. It was the antithesis of feel-good, charitable giving, but he knew that in it he would find God.

With this in mind, he undertook a gruelling trip to post-war France to update his thinking. Once again he stood out from the crowd. A fellow Jesuit describes his intervention at a conference as ‘a cry of anguish but at the same time an irresistible lesson in pure, ardently supernatural zeal’.

The trip enthused him greatly. Doubtless, he had already begun to sense in Europe the tremors which would lead to Vatican II. The prophet in him, meanwhile, grasped the shadow-side of that renewal, an advancing secularism and ‘a tendency to forget the true values of the Church, its traditional vision’.

Few individuals can take in a truly panoramic vision, seeking refuge instead in petty dualisms: either charity or justice, either tradition or renewal. How did Hurtado sustain such imposing breadth?

He once wrote: ‘I am often like a rock that is beaten on all sides by the towering waves. For an hour, for a day I let the waves thrash against the rock; I do not look toward the horizon, I only look up to God.’

From the homily of Pope Benedict XVI at his canonization in 2005:

“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart…. You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22: 37, 39). This was the programme of life of St Alberto Hurtado, who wished to identify himself with the Lord and to love the poor with this same love. The formation received in the Society of Jesus, strengthened by prayer and adoration of the Eucharist, allowed him to be won over by Christ, being a true contemplative in action. In love and in the total gift of self to God’s will, he found strength for the apostolate.

He founded El Hogar de Cristo for the most needy and the homeless, offering them a family atmosphere full of human warmth. In his priestly ministry he was distinguished for his simplicity and availability towards others, being a living image of the Teacher, “meek and humble of heart”. In his last days, amid the strong pains caused by illness, he still had the strength to repeat: “I am content, Lord”, thus expressing the joy with which he always lived.

For a more thorough, in depth introduction to this saint, take a look at this longer article by a fellow Jesuit (pdf). I read it last night, and it’s very helpful.

As an advisor and spiritual guide to those working for El Hogar de Cristo, Hurtado always taught the importance of combining a solid spiritual life with the apostolate. The spiritual contribution of collaborators shared equal importance with the physical works. In a letter to a sister who was lamenting her failure to give more time to the movement, he described the role of the Communion of the Saints, an essential part of his spirituality.

Up until now you have helped the children with your work, your lessons, your affection; now you continue helping them with your affection, your patience, your prayer, your very sincere desire to continue doing them good. There is a truly consoling dogma, that of the Communion of Saints. It teaches us that there is not a single one of our actions that lacks a social value. Never do we merit solely for ourselves, since all our actions hold a deep social value. In doing good, in suffering with patience, in praying, we always profit for others, for the entire Church militant on earth, for those waiting in purgatory; we give joy to the just in heaven, and, in a special way, we help those who are most intimately tied to us. In this way you continue working for Hogar not only with affection, but also with the same, or even greater, efficacy than before.

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I’ve been rambling about tech all week.

Here – Introductory Thoughts

Here – Contrarian thoughts on new media and evangelization – Dom Bettinelli has a response here. 

Here – Thoughts on tech and education

More on educational tech. 

I have one more to go – I don’t know if I’ll get to it today (Friday) – my original plan. I’ll try, but you never know.

Computers 1979

Source

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Also on this here blog, I’ve started a more or less daily digest of what I’m reading, watching, listening to, cooking…etc. It’s really for myself more than for you people, a way Image result for vintage exerciseof getting myself going in the morning – the mornings of this new kind of day in which I have hours stretching in front of me, hours of uninterrupted work time, hours during which I have no excuses any more…early morning writing calisthenics, I suppose.

So:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday….(none today – this post counts for Friday)

 

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Charter schools have had a very hard row to hoe down here in Alabama. They have only been  permitted in the last couple of years – vigorously opposed by the Alabama Education Association –  and there are just a few open at this point. Here’s an article about an interesting effort in northwest Alabama – a charter school that’s the only racially integrated school in the county:

At 7:50 on Monday morning, when school started at the University Charter School in Livingston, in west Alabama’s Sumter County, students in kindergarten through eighth grade began a new era, hardly aware of the history they were making.

For the first time, black students and white students are learning side-by-side in integrated public school classrooms. More than half of the school’s 300-plus students are black, while just under half are white.

While not fully representative of the county’s split—76 percent black, 24 percent white, no public school in the county has come close to reaching the percentage at UCS, according to historical enrollment documents.

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At some point in the recent past, I reminded you of the case of Fr. James Coyle, murdered in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Birmingham in 1921. Every year the Cathedral holds a memorial Mass for him and has a program – it happened last Friday, and here’s a local newspaper article about it:

St. Paul’s Cathedral held its annual memorial Mass on Friday to remember its former pastor, a priest who was killed 97 years ago at the front of the cathedral.

The Rev. James E. Coyle, who had been pastor of St. Paul’s Cathedral since 1904, was shot to death on the porch of the wood-frame rectory, the priest’s house next to the cathedral, on Aug. 11, 1921.

The murder trial was historic, partly because of the role played by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Black defended the accused killer, the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan paid the legal expenses of Stephenson, who was acquitted by a jury that included several Klan members, including the jury foreman, according to Ohio State University law professor Sharon Davies, author of “Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America,” about the Coyle case.

“The Klan held enormously successful fundraising drives across Alabama to raise money for the defense,” Davies said. “They portrayed it as a Methodist minister father who shot a Catholic priest trying to steal his daughter away from her religion, to seduce his daughter into the Catholic Church.”

Stephenson, who conducted weddings at the Jefferson County Courthouse, was accused of gunning down Coyle after becoming irate over Coyle’s officiating at the marriage of Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican, Pedro Gussman.

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NYTimes story on the hollowing out of Christian life in Syria:

The number of Christians across the Middle East has been declining for decades as persecution and poverty have led to widespread migration. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, considered Christians infidels and forced them to pay special taxes, accelerating the trend in Syria and Iraq.

In this area of Syria, the exodus has been swift.

Some 10,000 Assyrian Christians lived in more than 30 villages here before the war began in 2011, and there were more than two dozen churches. Now, about 900 people remain and only one church holds regular services, said Shlimon Barcham, a local official with the Assyrian Church of the East.

Some of the villages are entirely empty. One has five men left who protect the ruins of the Virgin Mary Church, whose foundations the jihadists dynamited. Another village has only two residents — a mother and her son.

amy-welborn

— 6 —

Look for me in Living Faith on Sunday. 

Sunday is, of course Sunday – which takes precedence over any feasts and memorials, but it’s worth noting nonetheless that the day (August 19) is the memorial of St. John Eudes, dedicated in  part to the reform of diocesan clergy. Certainly worth attending to any time, but perhaps particularly in these times:

 In 1563 the Council of Trent issued norms for the establishment of diocesan seminaries and for the formation of priests, since the Council was well aware that the whole crisis of the Reformation was also conditioned by the inadequate formation of priests who were not properly prepared for the priesthood either intellectually or spiritually, in their hearts or in their minds. This was in 1563; but since the application and realization of the norms was delayed both in Germany and in France, St John Eudes saw the consequences of this omission. Prompted by a lucid awareness of the grave need for spiritual assistance in which souls lay because of the inadequacy of the majority of the clergy, the Saint, who was a parish priest, founded a congregation specifically dedicated to the formation of priests.

 

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

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

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

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

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Eh, it works. Let’s try to knock this out in the time between the first rising noises and the appearance outside the door, bookbag in hand.

Update: He beat me. Next goal: get it done in less than fifteen minutes and move on.

Reading: Because of some watching (see below), I didn’t make much progress on I was Dancing, but will probably finish it today. I also remembered that last week I’d started Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the CountrySo that will be next, after the O’Connor.

Writing: Well, all I got done yesterday was blog posts because I remembered that we were serving dinner at one of the women’s shelters in town, and I hadn’t picked up our designated item, so I had to leave earlier than planned for the school pickup and make a Tuesdaytrip to Sam’s Club for that.

Listening: To people complaining about school. Does that count?

Watching: Yes, yesterday was Better Call Saul, and it was good, but not worth an entire post this week. It’s not where my mind is at the moment anyway, because I made the mistake (or not) of watching the new AMC series that they’ve position after BCS – Lodge 49. 

I’d heard a bit about it, but I usually don’t watch shows right when they premiere – it took me a year to get to Breaking Bad – my heart has been broken too many times! Mostly by HBO shows that I got all excited about and intrigued by, settled down to watch the minute they aired, but which then turned out to be overstuffed, pretentious duds – I’m looking at you, Carnivale and, come to think of it, John of Cincinnati, which immediately came to mind when I heard of the premise of this show:

Lodge 49 is a light-hearted, endearing modern fable set in Long Beach, California about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business. Dud finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge where a middle-aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” of the order, Ernie (Brent Jennings), welcomes him into a world of cheap beer, easy camaraderie and the promise of Alchemical mysteries that may — or may not — put Dud on the path to recover the idyllic life he’s lost.

I also thought: trying way too hard. 

But, um..guess what.

really liked it.

Not loved. Not thought was the Best Show Ever. But I’ll keep watching it, for sure. Here’s what I liked – and guess what – depending on the direction of the show over the next couple of weeks, yes, a full post on it will be coming. Because guess what – there’s a definite Catholic sensibility about the piece, something I can smell a mile – or a continent  – away, and sure enough, from an interview with the creator of the show, short-story writer Jim Gavin:

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can’t escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I’m a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I’ve discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There’s so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn’t Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah — the beauty of hell! I’m a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It’s very un-American to ask for help — we almost have to be taken by the collar.

So what’s the Catholic sensibility? I won’t commit fully yet, but right now, two episodes in, it’s about seeking wholeness and a place in the world despite loss, disappointment and a continual sense of indebtedness that seems to define the life of every character: everyone owes someone, everyone’s scrambling to meet that debt, everyone’s life is defined by the debt. Is there hope for restoration? Is there a way to lift the debt? Is there mercy – anywhere?

The answer seems to be maybe. And maybe it’s in this place, a place that Dudley, the ex-surfer at the center, happens upon. He finds a lodge ring in the sand on the beach, unsuccessfully tries to pawn it, and then runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a place he’s lived near his whole life, but never recognized for what it is until now because he’d just happened upon a sign.

So yearning, brokenness, an intuition that there’s something more and then finding it – perhaps even being led to it –  in a place rich with signifiers, a place where people gather in community, a place where mystery – perhaps even a merciful mystery –  is encountered: Catholic.

Ernie: Once we can see that you are dedicated, there's a whole secret 
ceremony.
Dud: Cool, a secret.  What happens at the ceremony? 
Ernie: Well, I can't tell you that.But basically, there's a solemn oath, 
and then, we will begin to entrust you with the mysteries.
Dud: Entrusted with the mysteries.That's so cool. That's all I ever wanted.

I’m prepared for disappointment, but yeah – for the moment, I’m in.

What else did I like about it: The cast and the look is refreshingly diverse – the Lodge’s membership is male and female, of varied backgrounds.  It’s got some familiar faces in it – David Pasquesi, who plays Selina Myers’ ex-husband in Veep is a delightfully loopy “apothecary” here and Adam  Godley – Elliot in Breaking Bad – is the British liason from Lynx HQ to Lodge 49, apparently.

Eating/Cooking: We ate the Ropa Vieja last night, and it was excellent.

 

 

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You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires.

Hey, there’s Paul writing to the Ephesians. It’s the second reading for Sunday’s Mass, and, very conveniently, a decent hook for talking about the return of Better Call Saul.

Yes, Saul. 

better-call-saul3Better Call Saul – which begins its fourth season Monday night – is at once a prequel and (we think- I hope) sequel to Breaking Bad. In that (great) series, Saul Goodman emerged in season two as Walter White’s smart, opportunistic criminal defense attorney (“You don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”). Better Call Saul takes us back in the timeline to explore the question of where this guy came from.

Originally conceived almost as a joke, and, before production really got rolling, as a mostly comedic treatment of an already extreme character who lives life at a pace as rapid-fire as his quips, Better Call Saul has evolved into something quite different and surprising: an almost leisurely, affecting deep-dive into the question of identity: Who are we at a given moment – and how did we become that person?

(There are plenty of articles online about the series. This interview with showrunner Vince Gilligan is particularly good. And before I dig into the deeper stuff and get all meta and serious, let me say that the show is just wildly entertaining – masterful cinematography, compelling direction and great setpieces, hilarious and always surprising. It’s the only show I’m currently watching.)

It’s not dissimilar from Breaking Bad, which traced the descent of Walter White from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to cold-blooded meth king. The dramatic arc is a little different though – there was always a level of uncertainty about Walter White: would he ever turn back? Would he respond to opportunities to take a different path? With Saul Goodman, we already know the answer (in part). When we first meet him in Breaking Bad, he’s a slimeball. So there’s no suspense on that score. There is suspense, though – which shows you how skilled everyone involved in this is – because we don’t know how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman – and we actually care.

And why do we care? Because, as singular as this character’s life is – low-life con artist getting through law school (University of American Samoa represent!) and trying to make something of himself, it’s essentially, in the end, about that question of identity and choices, presented in an engaging way that doesn’t shy away from complexity. Jimmy could be – and, if we’re honest, probably is, in some way  – any of us.

For it would have been easy to take this character – Jimmy McGill – and make his trajectory a sure thing because of either all his own choices or all what others and life have done to him. A clear-cut perp or victim, either way. A victim of a background in which he saw his parents, particularly his father, taken advantage of, and then a victim of his brother’s arrogance and contempt, as well as the usual course of bad breaks. A victim of his own flaws – as his brother Chuck (who has his own issues)  growls at him, more or less constantly, You’ll never change. You’ll always be Slippin’ Jimmy.  Of course he turned out the way he did!

better-call-saul 2

But no.

Every step of the way, we see, sometimes in subtle ways, the choices Jimmy McGill makes – and could make. One step forward, two steps back – that’s his life – sometimes because of what happens to him, sometimes because of his own choices. Like every one of us non-fictional characters, he’s a mix of inherent goodness, the lingering effects of original sin and the impact of temptation, pure and simple. It’s a hard sell, and it’s relentless and it’s exactly what Paul is telling the Ephesians.  He’s being sold a bill of goods: that his old self is his true self and his desires aren’t illusory, but real, and they’re not corrupting him – they define him.

There’s really not a thing wrong with anything fundamental to his drive or character: he wants to make something of himself, he knows he’s got charm and creativity, he wants to live well. But how it all gets perverted: perverted by greed, fear, a desire for revenge, pleasure in seeing someone twist in the wind, and most of all, because it is the root of all sin – pride.

And all of this – good and evil, possibility and cynicism, surge, course and fight for the soul of a man  – is he Jimmy, Saul, Gene – or all of the above? Or none?

There’s more than one battlefield. With Gilligan and Gould at the helm, every character is fully-developed, every one distinct and interesting, every one moving in one direction or another, every one of them making choices, too, using what’s at hand, reacting and bouncing off one another. It’s such a fantastic cast all-round with my favorites being Rhea Seehorn, who plays Jimmy McGill’s business and personal partner, Kim Wexler, and Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin, a partner in Jimmy’s brother’s firm. Both roles are played, not against type, but simply not as a type, which is refreshing on television. Kim Wexler is one of the best female characters on television – ever – hard-working, real, but intriguingly reserved. Kim and Jimmy’s relationship is subtle: there’s obviously deep mutual affection and support, but it’s understated – so understated that’s it weird to see them express affection –  and works as a foundation (up to this point), not a plot point. Howard initially strikes you as typical high-powered, aggressive jerk, but he’s much more as he navigates his way between everyone’s best interests. He really is one of the show’s secret weapons, and I suspect he’ll play an even greater role in the coming season, as he has to grapple with Chuck’s death. (No spoiler alert – it’s in the plot synopses).

(You notice that I’m not saying much about the other two major plot lines – the Gus Fring/Nacho/Hector trajectory and the Mike storyline. I enjoy them, but they just don’t interest me as much as the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim/Howard material – although they are certainly on their way to converegence.)

In a series full of heartbreaking storylines, probably the most heartbreaking of season 3, and the one that expresses all of the contradictions and temptations of Jimmy McGill, is this one:

In a previous season, Jimmy had stumbled upon the dishonest ways of an assisted-living facility corporation, and had, on behalf of some senior-citizen residents, sued this company. Using all of his charm, Jimmy worked his way to a settlement that would benefit these residents and, of course, himself. There was fallout from that settlement that led to all kinds of complications, but it reemerged in this season and Jimmy discovered that the settlement had not actually been settled yet – that the law firm he’d left the case with (not of his own choice) was holding out for more from the company. Settling at this point, would solve all of Jimmy’s considerable financial problems, so he went to work.

The work involved essentially isolating the woman who represented the class in the suit from her friends – putting the pressure on her so that she’d go ahead and accept the settlement. Joining himself to the mall-walkers and chair-yoga practitioners, he planted seeds of doubt in her friend’s minds, building hostility to the point where the holdout broke down in tears after Jimmy rigged the community bingo game in her favor, trusting that this would be the straw.

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And of course it worked. She settled, all the elderly got their money, as did Jimmy – but at what price? That’s always the question.

There are, of course, other story lines in the show – story lines that will eventually converge in a way that sets the stage for Breaking Bad. But it’s the character study that has me hooked. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Is the person I’m convinced I am at this moment inevitable?

Near the end of season 3, Kim Wexler, already a driven workaholic, takes on even more work to compensate for the partnership’s losses now that Jimmy McGill has been suspended from practicing law for a year. As a consequence of this and related choices, she dozes off while driving and ends up wrecked on the side of the road, her arm broken and documents scattered to the wind. This conversation between her and the future Saul Goodman encapsulates the moral questions at the heart of the show:

Kim: I could have killed someone, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Yeah, yourself.

Kim: I worked most of last week on maybe six hours of sleep and then I crossed three lanes of traffic and I don’t remember any of it.

Jimmy: Look, you were just doing what you thought you had to do because of me.

Kim: You didn’t make me get in that car. It was all me. I’m an adult. I made a choice.

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This moral dimension plays out in the aesthetics of the show in a number of ways, but in my mind, most powerfully in an aspect that some critique: the show often proceeds, let’s just say, at a leisurely pace. There’s the “let’s take a third of an episode to watch Mike figure out a tracking device” or “let’s watch Nacho create fake heart pills for ten minutes” or “let’s watch Jimmy doctor documents for a while now” and  “let’s watch Chuck tear apart his house forever.”

What does this say? I’d imagine the directors and writers have their own rationales, but the way it strikes me is as a powerful visual expression of the conviction that everything matters. There’s no such thing as wasted movement in this universe, no such thing as a meaningless gesture. No, we don’t want to tumble into scrupulosity, but you remember what the Man said, right?  Even the very hairs on your head are numbered. That tight, sustained gaze of Better Call Saul  won’t allow us to forget: We’re adults.  Every choice we make takes us in one direction or another, towards greater clarity or even darker illusions about ourselves. Every single one.

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August is devoted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is an entry in my new book, The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

For more on the book, go to the Loyola site here. 

Ask you local Catholic bookstore to order it!

I have copies here – you can get them and some of my other titles here. 

For more on the series, go here. 

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— 1 —

First, take a look at this. It might have appeared on your social media feed as it did mine. It’s singer Alfina Fresta, who has spastic dystonic tetraparesis. She is supported here by Stefania Licciardello, president of the Neon Cultural Association, which offers performers with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together. 

It’s lovely. It’s what the world should look like: no one invisible, mutuality and support simply a way of life.

— 2 —

Last week, I linked to Emily Stimpson Chapman’s moving post on the adoption process. Well, earlier this week, Emily and Chris’ son Toby was born. As Emily says in her post: We have been snuggling non-stop ever since and are completely in love. Continued prayers are greatly appreciated, though, both for his birth parents and for this little guy, who is going to have a rough few days as some bad stuff works its way out of his system.

— 3 —

I read a most unusual book this week. It’s called Raising the Dad. As you can tell from the listing, the reader reviews don’t average out very well, but I liked it. It was nothing like I expected. The premise is that a father long believed dead is revealed to be alive. Consequences ensue. Going into it, I’d assumed that the dad had been, I don’t know – off in Italy or in Tahiti for thirty years and reappears, but that’s not it at all. This particular plot point might stretch credulity, medically speaking, but I went with it, and found it quite thought-provoking.

Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that the novel challenges, in an unusual and unexpected way, the contemporary assumption that only lives that embody certain qualities are worth living, and that the only meaningful relationships we can have are with fully conscious individuals.

Worth a look.

— 4 —

Speaking of books – I finished writing one this week. Actually, just today (Thursday). I’m ecstatic and relieved. Can you feel it? See, it’s not due until January, but I was determined to get it done before my 8th grader started back to school.  This might be my last “free” year for  few years, since we are probably going to home/roadschool high school with this one. I didn’t want to spend the first part of the (school) year working on a project that is more of an assigned thing rather than one that’s more dependent on my creativity, when I’ll actually have time and space to Think.  Yes, the words I bring to this project are my own and are far from formulaic (I hope), but still – there’s a template, and my job was to fill it in.

Not that I turned it in. It could be published right now (with some editing…I guess…), but it will be better if I let it sit and come back to it with, as we say, fresh eyes. So I’ll do that – let it sit until December, open it back up, hopefully not weep from despair, do some edits and tightening, add any new good stories that have popped up, and ship it off in January.

And in the meantime, I sent a file of the manuscript 1) to myself – since my main file cabinet these days is my email and 2) to my daughter, just in case. 

— 5 –

Morbid? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as “prepared.”

With, I admit, a dose of superstition.

For you see – and may remember from previous posts – before I go on big trips, I always send my adult kids very detailed itineraries, along with my attorney’s information, health and travel insurance information, passport copies and so on. We now call it “The Itinerary of Death.” As in “Mom’s going to Japan – she should be sending the Itinerary of Death soon.”

The motivation is twofold. Yes, I want as little trouble as possible in case something happens. Mike didn’t have a will, and that was a mess. My dad had a will, but was unprepared in other ways when he died, and as the only child and executor, I was left to straighten it out. I want things to go easily for those I’m leaving behind – especially if it happens suddenly.

Secondly, yeah, I’m superstitious. As in: If I overprepare, nothing’s going to happen. 

Obviously, that’s not going to work forever. But I’ll keep trying.

— 6 —

Speaking of books – look!

I finally got my copies!

You can find it at the Loyola site here and Amazon here, and hopefully at your local Catholic bookseller soon, along with all the rest of the Loyola Kids books – a great matched set to gift your local Catholic school and parish – every classroom needs a set, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about the book next week. 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort.

— 7 —

No family travel or movie-watching this week. One kid did a youth group paintball excursion, while the other went with a friend to a water park, so at least some people got out while Mom was feverishly, obsessively finishing a project that isn’t due for five IMG_20180726_222819.jpgmonths. (Oh, did I already mention that?) The older one worked several evenings, and the younger one did watch a couple of movies on his own, but again – I was in here, writing, checking off a box, writing some more, checking off  another box.

(I am a fairly disorganized, reactive, INFP, come-what-may person in general, but when it comes to this kind of project, I am very, very organized – I make a schedule, I write that schedule out, and stick to it. Simply put: I want to keep projects like this in their proper place in my life, freeing myself up to be all drifting and meditative for the rest of the day. Boxing this type of work in a strict schedule is the way to make that happen.)

I did watch, late one night, a bit of Lost in Translation. I’d seen it in theaters when it came out, and recall liking it – and had intended to rewatch it before we went to Japan – I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. I do like Bill Murray in almost anything, but wow, this film struck me as so simplistically racist and willing to exploit stereotypes. Yes, the scene in the beginning  where the commercial director goes on and on for a while, a speech which then the translator says to Murray comes down to “look to the right” – was funny because it echoes my experience in convenience stores, where the cashiers just talk and talk in a way that seems almost ritualistic, and really, all they’re saying is, “Thank you, and here’s your change.”

But I ended up only watching half of it. I was so deeply annoyed at the Scarlett Johansson character for being so helpless and unadventurous, I couldn’t stand watching her any more.  There’s also a way to capture that fish-out-of-water experience without resorting to stereotypes, and Coppola didn’t do it here.

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

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