Over the next few days, the Word on Fire apostolate is offering the opportunity to view episodes of the Pivotal Players series online. Today, it’s St. Francis of Assisi. 

I wrote the companion prayer book to the series. 

Each figure gets five segments. Each segment begins with a quote from their writings, for even Michelangelo who left many letters and wrote poetry. This is followed up with some reflections and then some prayer and reflection prompts. The sections are thematically aligned with whatever is emphasized in the episodes

Here’s one of the chapters on St. Francis.

You should be able to get a clearer view by clicking on each image. I hope it gives you a good sense of the book – which you might enjoy whether or not you’ve watched the videos. (fyi – I make no royalties from this book – I wrote it for a stipend, and that’s it.)






His feast day is today, May 10.

This webpage at EWTN has a good introduction as well as links to a series of blog posts Joan Lewis wrote about a pilgrimage to Molokai. 

From Pope Benedict’s homily at his canonization:

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. The brief conversation we heard in the Gospel passage, between a man identified elsewhere as the rich young man and Jesus, begins with this question (cf. Mk 10: 17-30). We do not have many details about this anonymous figure; yet from a few characteristics we succeed in perceiving his sincere desire to attain eternal life by leading an honest and virtuous earthly existence. In fact he knows the commandments and has observed them faithfully from his youth. Yet, all this which is of course important is not enough. Jesus says he lacks one thing, but it is something essential. Then, seeing him well disposed, the divine Teacher looks at him lovingly and suggests to him a leap in quality; he calls the young man to heroism in holiness, he asks him to abandon everything to follow him: “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor… and come, follow me” (v. 21).

“Come, follow me”. This is the Christian vocation which is born from the Lord’s proposal of love and can only be fulfilled in our loving response. Jesus invites his disciples to give their lives completely, without calculation or personal interest, with unreserved trust in God. Saints accept this demanding invitation and set out with humble docility in the following of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Their perfection, in the logic of faith sometimes humanly incomprehensible consists in no longer putting themselves at the centre but in choosing to go against the tide, living in line with the Gospel. This is what the five Saints did who are held up today with great joy for the veneration of the universal Church: Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński, Francisco Coll y Guitart, Jozef Damien de Veuster, Rafael Arnáiz Barón and Mary of the Cross (Jeanne Jugan). In them we contemplate the Apostle Peter’s words fulfilled: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you” (v. 28), and Jesus’ comforting reassurance: “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the Gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time… with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (vv. 29-30)….

Jozef De Veuster received the name of Damien in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. When he was 23 years old, in 1863, he left Flanders, the land of his birth, to proclaim the Gospel on the other side of the world in the Hawaiian Islands. His missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity. Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who lived there, abandoned by all. Thus he was exposed to the disease from which they suffered. He felt at home with them. The servant of the Word consequently became a suffering servant, a leper with the lepers, for the last four years of his life. In order to follow Christ, Fr Damien not only left his homeland but also risked his health: therefore as the word of Jesus proclaimed to us in today’s Gospel says he received eternal life (cf. Mk 10: 30). On this 20th anniversary of the Canonization of another Belgian Saint, Bro. Mutien-Marie, the Church in Belgium has once again come together to give thanks to God for the recognition of one of its sons as an authentic servant of God. Let us remember before this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and makes it desirable. Following in St Paul’s footsteps, St Damien prompts us to choose the good warfare (cf. 1 Tim 1: 18), not the kind that brings division but the kind that gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.

He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

(written when he was still a Blessed)


Speaking of Hansen’s Disease, a few years ago, I read The Colony, which is about the history of the leper colony at Molokai.  It’s quite fascinating, and perhaps the most important figure I’ve learned about was one who was quite well known during the early part of this century and who now has, following his presently more famous colleagues, Sts. Damien and Marianne of Molokai, his canonization cause in process:

Brother Joseph Dutton:

In late July 1886, a ship pulled into Molokai, Hawaii’s leper colony. Father Damien de Veuster always greeted the newcomers, usually lepers seeking refuge and comfort. But one passenger stood out, a tall man in a blue denim suit. He wasn’t a leper; he was Joseph Dutton, and at age 43 he came to help Father Damien. The priest warned he couldn’t pay anything, but Dutton didn’t care. He would spend forty-five years on Molokai, remaining long after the priest’s death of leprosy in 1889.

Joseph’s journey to Molokai was full of twists and turns. 

Well worth reading and contemplating!

More here



Before his death on March 26, 1931, he said: “It has been a happy place—a happy life.” It had been a restless life until he found happiness among the lepers of Molokai. At the time of his death, the Jesuit magazine America noted: “Virtue is never so attractive as when we see it in action. It has a power to believe that we too can rise up above this fallen nature of ours to a fellowship with the saints.”


Father Damien—then a patient himself—greeted him as “Brother” on July 29, 1886, and from that moment until Damien’s death on April 15, 1889, the two maintained an intimate friendship.  Dutton dressed Damien’s sores, recorded a statement about the priest’s purity, and worked tirelessly to honor his memory and legacy in following years.  He led the movement to name the main road “Damien Road” and wrote both personal letters and newspaper columns about his sacrifice.  Included in Dutton’s collection at Notre Dame are strips of Damien’s cloak and several finger towels that he saved in envelopes.

In his 44 years in Kalaupapa, Dutton touched thousands of lives through his selfless service.  He headed the Baldwin Home for Boys on the Kalawao side of the peninsula, where he cared physically and spiritually for male patients and orphan boys.  From laboring as a carpenter and administrator, to comforting the dying, to coaching baseball, Dutton immersed himself in his community without accepting credit; to him, work was always about answering God’s call instead of personal fame or selfish desire.


7 Quick Takes

— 1 —

Well, hey. If you only come here on Fridays – again – why?  We’ve had stuff happen this week: a law school graduation, 8th grade things, etc. Various posts on books and articles – just scroll back. And if you like, check out my post on Mother’s Day at Mass, since that’s coming up.

Today is the liturgical commemoration of Fr. Damian of Molokai – go for a post on him here.

 — 2 —

Jean Vanier died this week. J.D. Flynn has a beautiful tribute:

It was Jean Vanier, who died today, who taught us that knowing about diagnoses, and therapies, and treatments, while important, is not nearly as important as knowing how to love.

It was Vanier who taught us that our two children, who seemed so very different from us, were really quite the same: that they, made in the image of God, needed most to love, and to be loved.

When Vanier invited two men with developmental disabilities to share his home, in 1964, he didn’t yet understand this. He expected they needed programmatic support, and that he would be the one to help them. Of course, he did help them. But he discovered that they also helped him. And that what they really needed, more than anything else, was friendship. They were looking for a brother. They wanted to be heard. To be understood.

They needed, Vanier discovered, to be seen.

— 3 —

I wish I were in NYC to see this production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met. Here’s an article about one aspect of the production:

Asked about his favorite page from Poulenc’s score, Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose a prayer — and not the Salve Regina that ends the opera, as the nuns are executed one by one. Instead, he picked a setting of the Ave Maria that they sing near the beginning of Act II. Here are edited excerpts from a conversation about it.

The Ave Maria starts with the nuns humming under Mère Marie [the second in command at the convent]. Most of the opera is about the conflict and competition between her and the new prioress. She says before this: Let’s agree to obey our new leader, not only with our mouths, but also from our hearts.

This is where Poulenc is such a genius, and a bit like Verdi: with minimal effects, which are so direct. The brass have this chord that indicates something solemn, but then the cellos intervene with this beautiful C sharp, which creates a dissonance.

This leads to the prayer, which is divided in the chorus. And it’s just so beautiful; every beat is more beautiful than the other. Poulenc is asking here for the music to be “très lié” — it has to be legato and intimate. People often assume that prayer is slightly distant, but it’s the opposite here.


–5 —

There’s a new novel (translated from the French) about the life of St. Josephine Bakhita:

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter into clear and affecting prose, “Bakhita” unfolds a distinctive array of timely concerns — the subjugation of women of color, human trafficking, female solidarity, personal and institutional conflicts that knot together issues of race, class, gender and religion — and explores them through the suffering, willpower and undiminished dignity of a small frightened girl turned resolute young woman turned gentle old nun. The novel also joins a much larger tradition of accounts of holy women and men that have been compiled over the centuries, including the “Storia Meravigliosa” (“marvelous or wonderful story”), a 1931 chronicle of Sister Josephine Bakhita’s life that was disseminated by the Italian religious order she had joined.

To be sure, there is nothing wonderful in the first half of the novel, never mind the evidence for the meaning of Bakhita’s name, “lucky one” in Arabic, which she is caustically assigned by one of the slave traders who sell and resell her and subject her to unspeakable barbarity. She never replaces it because she can’t remember her real name or that of her village and family, all destroyed when she was first captured at about the age of 7, in the mid-1870s….

….She leaves for Italy in 1885, in the company of the well-meaning Italian diplomat who buys her during a period of civil strife around Khartoum and then gives her to some friends as a servant and ardent companion for a fickle little rich girl. Drawn into other people’s family problems while surrounded by the many facets of Roman Catholicism, not to mention Italian poverty and degradation, Bakhita soon seeks a higher kind of purpose through service. In 1890, after court proceedings declare her Sudanese slave status void in Italy, she is baptized and a few years later joins the Canossian Sisters. She becomes known as the “Moretta,” the dark one, and then, a bit more respectfully, as the “Madre Moretta,” a quiet, generous, radiant and hardworking nun of increasing prominence and magnetism. Within and beyond the walls of her convent in the northern Italian town of Schio, she works and prays and remembers her past life, never mentioning the perpetual pain in her legs from the chains she once wore.

Regardless of what Olmi might privately believe about the true lives of Catholic saints, she has made the subtly provocative decision to offer a sincere and serious rendering of Bakhita’s life in fidelity to the institution that the actual person chose for herself, and that has since drawn her into its own convictions, communities and traditions. Olmi does so in a way that emphasizes the profundity of Bakhita’s personal presence, even power.

The novel ends not with Bakhita’s death in 1947 (screaming about the heaviness of the chains she once wore and calling for the mother she lost) and not even with her being named a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000 but with the stories of two otherwise unknown women, one in Italy and the other in Brazil. Each was to have her leg amputated and prayed to Bakhita to intercede. Each was healed, providing evidence of the miracles required for her canonization. For them, and for many others, St. Josephine Bakhita’s brutal story is also a story full of wonder.

— 6 —

Are you always looking for something to read? I am. Here’s a resource for exploring – a series of “top ten” lists from The Guardian. 

— 7 —


Mother’s Day! Still time! Maybe…

And keep this in mind for Christmas, not just for women, but for All The People:

Son who writes on film (and writes fiction) has a post on writing first drafts of his fiction by hand, not on computer. 

Also on Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. 

(I gave him the Criterion Bergman collection for Christmas, so he’s working his way through it…)

I was looking back at some of the old book posts, and thought I wanted to refresh my memory on Alfred Noyes, the author of the delightful and rather strange The Sun-Cure. And I found this amusing poem of his, with which I’ll leave you:


Everyone grumbled. The sky was grey.
We had nothing to do and nothing to say.
We were nearing the end of a dismal day,
And then there seemed to be nothing beyond,
Daddy fell into the pond!

And everyone’s face grew merry and bright,
And Timothy danced for sheer delight.
“Give me the camera, quick, oh quick!
He’s crawling out of the duckweed!” Click!

Then the gardener suddenly slapped his knee,
And doubled up, shaking silently,
And the ducks all quacked as if they were daft,
And it sounded as if the old drake laughed.
Oh, there wasn’t a thing that didn’t respond
Daddy Fell into the pond!

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


ThursdayHi folks. We’ve commenced upon commencement season in a big way. Law school graduation last Sunday, last night of Catholic men’s group Fraternus last night (photos here)  8th grade appreciation dinner tonight, a weekend full of music and working, then next week…here we go.  Two graduations, 3 AP exams, bunch of 8th grade exams, awards night, Baccalaureate Mass. Most importantly: Five more afternoon school carlines left, maybe, hopefully of my entire life. 

Listening: In Our Time on Gerard Manley Hopkins was quite good. No speculation, much respect for his art and religious faith.

(Blog tie-in – my post on Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means – a short, sharp novel that is tied with Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” )

Also this episode on the Danelaw:

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the effective partition of England in the 880s after a century of Viking raids, invasions and settlements. Alfred of Wessex, the surviving Anglo-Saxon king and Guthrum, a Danish ruler, had fought each other to a stalemate and came to terms, with Guthrum controlling the land to the east (once he had agreed to convert to Christianity). The key strategic advantage the invaders had was the Viking ships which were far superior and enabled them to raid from the sea and up rivers very rapidly. Their Great Army had arrived in the 870s, conquering the kingdom of Northumbria and occupying York. They defeated the king of Mercia and seized part of his land. They killed the Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia and gained control of his territory. It was only when a smaller force failed to defeat Wessex that the Danelaw came into being, leaving a lasting impact on the people and customs of that area.

Fairly basic for a history person, but well-presented, clarifying this period. Also: learned about the etymology of “cross” – the word replaced “rood” in English because of the Danish word making its way to Ireland, finding crux, and then making its way back to England. Somehow.

This morning, this episode on Elizabethan advisor William Cecil. Excellent deep dive into Cecil’s contribution to solidifying Elizabeth’s position and policies. The only eyeroll from me while I was hustling around Railroad Park this morning was in reaction to brilliant and prolific Reformation scholar Diaramaid “Darn those Romish Papists” MacCulloch sniffing that well, of course Italy in the 1520’s-1540’s was practically Protestant so, no you can’t refer to Italian architecture of the period as “Catholic.”


Moving on…

Music? Thanks to a tweet or FB post (perhaps both) from Terry Teachout, Red Garland the past two evenings. 

Cooking: I told you. No cooking!

Watching: Nada.

Reading: Aha!

In between novels, we turn to academic articles or short stories – yesterday, the former:

Vernacular Bible Reading in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe: The “Catholic” Position Revisited.

It’s from a 2018 issue of the Catholic Historical Review.  The abstract is here, but I think I accessed it through the database of my local public library, which then allowed me to download a pdf. 

Those of you with access to university libraries, of course, can find any of this easily. But even if you don’t, do check out the digital resources of your local public library. Chances are, you can access some academic databases, like Jstor.

Anyway – this was an excellent article, collating research of the past century with an eye towards revisiting the Luther-produced narrative that the only reason ordinary Christians were able to read the Bible themselves was because of him, thanks.

Of course, the truth is far more complicated. I’m going to quote some of his summaries, but really, it all comes down to a European landscape that was politically and ecclesially diverse, even before the Reformation. In some countries, Bible-reading was discouraged, in others, it flourished. Most of the time when individual Bible-reading or production was discouraged or prohibited, it was because of burgeoning or actual heretical movements that used and manipulated Scripture as part of their agenda. Most interesting to me was how in some areas even after Luther, it wasn’t Bibles that were prohibited by Catholic authorities – it was Bibles with Lutheran glosses. Aha.

Also important to note: during these centuries, when talking about the relationship of individual Christians to Scripture, it is useful and even necessary to broaden our sense of what “the Bible” is beyond a volume containing all the books of the Old and New Testaments. These were rare and expensive, but far more common were volumes that contained portions of Scripture: psalters, of course, but also the Gospels, or books with the Scripture readings from Mass or even books with, say, the Biblical accounts of the Passion.


On the eve of the Council of Trent, there was no outright ban on vernacular Bible reading in the Catholic world, but only regionally diversified positions. In Germany, the Low Countries, Bohemia, Poland, and Italy, vernacular Bibles circulated and were widely read since the Middle Ages. Censorship measures, however, existed in England and Spain, where the official Church had to deal with what it considered erroneous “Bible-based” faith-systems. In France, it was the advent of l’évangélisme in the 1520s that gave cause to more restrictive measures. In all cases, however, the question should be asked to which degree such censorship measures were effective or whether the laity anyway continued to read their Bibles.


Recent scholarship has re-emphasized that the late medieval Catholic Church did not forbid the reading of the Bible in the vernacular, and that there was simply no central roman policy pertaining to Bible reading in the vernacular—let alone an outright ban—that could have been in force everywhere in Western europe, and that biblical books circulated in most of late medieval Western europe’s linguistic regions. the manifold copies containing (parts of) the Bible, both in manuscript and in print form that are still preserved in libraries and archives everywhere in europe are testament to this historical fact.4 the most interesting copies show traces of intensive use, names of owners, and marginal annotations (next to sporadic interventions of censorship). taken together with book lists, found in the inventories of libraries, wills, and estate recordings, as well as other testimonies, both archival and printed, the picture emerges of a community of readers, consisting of (lay) members of religious orders, Beguines and tertiaries, in addition to lay people in the medieval towns, who took an interest in the Bible for their spiritual edification. and although the practice of silent reading became more and more prevalent with the emergence of late medieval spiritual reform movements, which precisely promoted personal Bible reading, one should not lose sight of the continued practice of reading aloud in (smaller) groups, so that the “illiterate” could also hear and profit from this reading. in this sense, one copy of a book usually reached multiple “listeners” or “passive readers.”

Recent scholarship has also prompted a reflection on what the notion of “Bible” might include. since the reformation era (and modern research dealing with this period), there is a tendency to consider the Bible in the strict sense as a complete collection of canonical books of the old and/or new testament. it should, however, be observed that the Middle ages leave us with a broader understanding about what the notion of the “Bible” might include. apart from separate books (the Gospels, the apocalypse etc.), the notion “Bible” also relates to collections containing the epistle and Gospel readings from the Mass—sometimes accompanied with short explanations—and Psalters, viz. books that were destined to prepare or to follow the liturgy in the church. in addition, History Bibles should be mentioned, which contain mainly the narrative matter of the Bible, albeit supplemented with extra-biblical and even apocryphal material. apart from “Bibles,” in which the “canonical” text of the scriptures is dominant, “Bible-based material” also circulated widely in the Middle ages, such as Gospel harmonies, lives of Jesus—containing either a text that was close to the canonical scriptures as well as clear-cut retellings—next to postils in which the extensive explanations and glosses overshadowed, to a certain extent, the biblical text itself.

Also reading:



Other notes: There was a May Crowning yesterday, but I didn’t go.  Lovely photos at the link! One May Crowning per May is fine.



Working on a story. Put up some more links to book notes on this page.

Son #2 is a writer and penned an interesting post about why he still writes first drafts by hand. I think you’ll enjoy it. 

About Miss Mole

Miss Mole is an unusual novel. It’s elliptically, densely written, a style that reflects the inner life of the protagonist, Miss Mole herself: a woman in her early 40’s, in service as a companion and housekeeper, highly self-aware and self-confident, with an intense and amy-welbornimaginative inner life. I enjoyed it quite a bit, although I was also ready for it to end. I do believe that part of the problem was the format in which I read it – via the Internet archive on a Kindle reader, but not really in Kindle format – more scrolling pdf pages. This was a case in which having an actual physical book would have helped me engage with the text more easily. It’s a book that calls for flipping back and forth – almost demands it as times – which was hard and annoying this time.


I’ll let another blogger do a basic summary:

The book begins just after Miss Mole, a poor companion out on a spree, has saved a man from suicide by breaking the basement window where he’d put his head in the oven – but Miss Mole is only an ironic hero, never sure that she’s done the right thing (and neither is the suicide’s upstairs neighbour, the thorny Mr Blenkinsop).

At forty, Hannah Mole has been a companion and dogsbody for 20 years. She has no prospects but impoverished old age, or perhaps a new career as a charwoman, but her interior life is as rich and varied as her clothes are dull. Fired by her current old lady (and after a little gentle blackmailing of her wealthy cousin Lilla), Hannah takes on a new role and becomes a kind of cock-eyed Mary Poppins to a Nonconformist minister’s family: the patriarchal toad, his two desperate daughters, a son at Oxford (his fees paid by Lilla) and an amiable nephew.

They all need fixing, one way or another, and Hannah sets to work willingly, proud of her swift intelligence and subtle understanding of human pain, and only hampered by the appearance of the nasty Mr Pilgrim, who might reveal her ‘sad little past’.


Hannah Mole is a forty-year-old spinster, the daughter of a Somerset farmer who has earned her living by working in that ambiguous, intermediate form of service that comprises governesses and companions to fretful old ladies.  At the start of the book she is about to lose her position, having told a small fib to her current old lady to gain some much valued free time; but that scrounged free time leads her to commit a brave and impulsive act, an act that will change her circumstances entirely.  Her cousin Lilla, who has married well, finds Hannah a job as housekeeper to the widowed minister of the local Baptist chapel, Reverend Corder.  Caring for him also involves caring for his daughters: scruffy, fearful Ruth, and Ethel, a fretful young woman trying to find her place in life.  Their household includes Wilfred, a cousin studying to be a doctor, and Howard, Reverend Corder’s son who is intended for the ministry himself.  Hannah – unmarried, thin and dowdy with a markedly long nose – should be an invisible woman, working away in the background, making little mark on the world.  But Hannah has remarkable powers of imagination and hope; confronted with obstacles, she makes lateral moves that confound her opponents and advance her plans; and she is able to extract the maximum amount of joy from the most unpropitious circumstances.   However, she is also a Woman with a Past, and the tension of the novel is created by the possibility that, despite her natural optimism, her Past will rise up and vanquish her.

There. Now you have the plot, and I saved some time.

I’ll just add that the book was originally published in 1930, was written by E.H. Young, a woman with her own interesting history:

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Young went to work, first as a stables groom and then in a munitions factory. Her husband was killed at the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The following year she moved to Sydenham Hill, London to join her lover, now the headmaster of the public school Alleyn’s, and his wife in a ménage à trois. Young occupied a separate flat in their house and was addressed as “Mrs Daniell”; this concealed the unconventional arrangement.

This change seems to have been the catalyst that she needed. Seven major novels followed, all based on Clifton, thinly disguised as “Upper Radstowe”. The first of these was The Misses Mallett, published originally under the title The Bridge Dividing in 1922. Her 1930 novel Miss Mole won the James Tait Black Award for fiction. In the 1940s, Young also wrote books for children, Caravan Island (1940) and River Holiday (1942).

After Henderson’s retirement and the death of his wife, Young moved with him to Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. They never married. During the Second World War, she worked actively in air-raid precautions. She lived in Wiltshire with Henderson until her death from lung cancer in 1949.

What I enjoyed about this novel was the deep-dive into the character of Hannah Mole. I said in a previous blogpost I feel seen!  What I mean by that is she articulates a understanding of how to experience daily life that echoes my own: what I very tediously tell my kids all the time: Everything is interesting. Boredom is an impossibility. God is working in every person’s life – everyone is on a journey, an adventure. It’s all just so – interesting.

A few passages to illustrate:

She stood on the pavement, a thin, shabby figure, so in-significant in her old hat and coat, so forgetful of herself in her enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility, and while she watched the traffic and saw the moving train-cars like magic-lantern slides, quick and coloured, no one who saw through that cloak would have suspected her power for transmuting what was common into what was rare and, in that occupation, keeping anxious thoughts at bay. To-night she could not keep them all at bay, for though she was pleased with her adventure and the speculations in which it permitted her to indulge, she was altruistically concerned for the other actors in it, and it would have obvious consequences for herself.

I absolutely love the passage below. I’ve bolded the sentence that is actually something I think all the time:

Much had changed in the city since those days. The steep street roared with ascending and purred with descending motor-can; there were more people on the pavements 12
— where did they come from? Hannah asked, thinking of the declining birth-rate — but she did not resent their presence. A throng of people excited her with its reminder that each separate person had a claim on life, a demand to make of it as imperious as her own, and an obligation towards it, a thought that was both humiliating and enlivening. And she had no miserliness in her pleasures, no feeling that they were increased by being hidden. Involuntarily, she half flung out a hand as though she invited all these strangers to share with her the beauty spread out below, and it was with regret, but a pressing hunger, that she turned into a tea-shop a few paces down the street.


A little spatter of rain fell between her and those memories. She looked from the dim line on the horizon to the lights of Radstowe, far below on her left hand, and she thought they were like the camp-fires of innumerable explorers in a strange and dangerous country. Each man tended his own fire sedulously and to one, as to Hannah Mole, what lay beyond the ring of light was hopeful adventure; to another, as to Ruth, the justification of his fears was in the darkness. Hopeful adventure, even here in Robert Corder’s house! She was grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself She might have been meek and dutiful and dull inside as well as out, or she might have been discontented and defiant. She was lucky, she thought, as she knelt there with her face towards the cottage which might be crumbling and her back to the narrow room which held everything else she had, for the chief of her possessions, as she knew, was the power to see those lights as camp-fires, and herself as an adventuress.

Here she reflects on her new position with the Corder family, headed by the widowed Nonconformist (aka Baptist, basically) minister, with two daughters (around ages 11 and 18, I think) at home.


Naturally, no one saw Miss Mole when she was alone in her dovecot and no one was privy to her sleeping or her waking dreams. They were all too young or too self-absorbed to understand that her life was as important to her as theirs to them and had the same possibilities of adventure and romance; that, with her, to accept the present as the pattern of the future would have been to die. This was the attitude of hope and not of discontent and what Ethel saw as the resignation of middle-age was the capacity to make drama out of humdrum things. Here was a little society, in itself commonplace enough, but a miniature of all societies, with the same intrigues within and the same threatenings of danger from outside. It had its acknowledged head in Robert Corder,who, sure of himself and his position, had no suspicion that his rule was criticized by his second-in-command, or that his subjects might rebel. In one of his public speeches, or in a sermon, he would have described the home just as Hannah saw it, as a small community in which personalities were stronger than theories of conduct, resilience more enduring than rigidity; he would have said there was no life without change and struggle, and, becoming metaphorical – Hannah enjoyed composing sermons for him – he would have likened young people to plants which must be given space and air, and their elders to the wise gardeners who would not confine or clip until the growth had attained a certain sturdiness, and he would have meant everything he said, and believed he followed his own counsels, but in his home he had planted his seedlings within a narrow compass and assumed that all was well with them. It was enough that he had given them good ground and it was their privilege and duty to prosper. He cast an eye on them, now and then, saw they were still where he had put them, took submission for content and closeness for companionship. Doubtless, he wanted them to grow – Hannah gave him credit for that – but he would have resented any divergence from the shape he liked him-self and though he did not flourish his shears openly, every-one knew they were in his pocket.

It’s a very wise book, an intense character study and quite observant. As I said, there’s an indirection at work in the narrative. There’s a core event in Hannah’s past that, if discovered, would apparently discredit her greatly in the public eye, rendering her unemployable as a companion to decent families. We eventually understand it, but even then only in outline.

What makes this all even more challenging and interesting is that Hannah Mole has an idiosyncratic relationship with truth. She would probably not define what she does has “dishonest” – she would say that she’s a storyteller and an actress of sorts. She deflects, she distracts, she entertains herself by playing with people and their expectations. Partly because she must be guarded about her past and also because of the nature of her employment, there are few situations in which she can be honest about herself – and that carries through in the narration – which is why the flipping back and forth in the text is useful.

The end is rather conventional in a way the rest of the book was not – but it’s not unsatisfying, for what Hannah Mole has been seeking throughout is a place to be herself, and – well – she does find it, at last.


Quick Digest

Cooking: We have many many activities over the next couple of weeks. So, not much cooking. I did manage Michael Chiarello’s fabulous Chicken Cacciatore Pronto – some of Tuesdaythe versions use boneless chicken thighs, but of course using bone-in gives more flavor. The porcini mushrooms are pricey, but really essential to the flavor of the dish.

Listening: Finally getting myself back outside. Recent listens – one will get a blog post of its own:

In Our Time: The Gordon Riots (anti-Catholic riots of the 18th century)

The Food Programme: How to Start a Food Revolution

The Champagne Underground (very interesting, made me crave champagne)

Porridge – a GREAT episode. I guess American “oatmeal” is basically our “porridge?” Porridge, I take it, refers to any form of boiled grain eaten on its own. (So maybe even grits and polenta are “porridge?”) I mean – the Jamaican guy singing “No Woman, No Cry” as he’s making the traditional Jamaican porridge was a marvelous moment. Recipes on the page.

Making History: History being unearthed along the route of a new high speed train line. Most intriguing nugget – about the “Rebecca Riots” – 18th century Welsh riots against tollroads in which male protesters often dressed up in women’s clothing.

No, sorry, I do not listen to inspirational podcasts of people sharing their inspirational stories. I’m a hard, hard, woman.

Watching: I binged (over two days) Dead to Me. It seemed to be right up my alley – a dark comedy about grief, starring two wonderful actors – Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. I ended up not liking it much – the very plotty plot ended up overwhelming any potentially interesting thematic qualities. I’m going to try to write something about it, but I need to think about it more.

Movie son nagging me about watching First Reformed and Virgin Spring, so I will probably try to get to those soon. They’ll be worth my time far more than Dead to Me, I’m sure.

Oh, we watch the Netflix film about the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde, The Highwaymen. It was good – and a good corrective to the 1967 movie, although I think there’s probably room for another treatment that’s more in the middle. Highwayman was made as an explicit correction to the romantic treatment of the pair in the Penn film, as well as to the same movie’s cartoonish (and in his family’s view, defamatory) treatment of former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer.

I did like the way that this movie treated Bonnie and Clyde – we barely see them, which expresses, not only the filmmaker’s intention of putting the law, not the lawbreakers, at the center, but also the theme of the challenge of pursuit of these elusive figures.

There are liberties taken, as far as I can see. There’s no evidence that Bonnie Parker actually wielded a gun, and this movie has her almost taking the lead in some brutal gunplay – effectively dragging her foot because of an injury from a car accident. The time is compressed, as it is.

There are some good questions raised about justice, its pursuit and cost. Not in a deep way, but at least they’re raised – was it necessary or even just to take the pair out in that way?

By far the most arresting and powerful part of the film comes at the end, as the bullet-riddled car is towed into town, surrounded by gawkers and celebrity worshippers who immediately start tearing at the bodies, ripping hair and clothing for relics – while the lawmakers stand in a nearby shop window, already forgotten (and perhaps – if they were seen – villified – 20,000 attended Bonnie Parker’s funeral in Dallas.)

It’s a very powerful, damning, Ace in the Hole kind of moment.

Reading: Finished Miss Mole. Mostly liked it, will write about it tonight. Promise. 

Also reading these little books by the early 20th century American Jesuit Edward Garesche. I wrote about it here and here. 

Also movie son – on Jean de Florette and Manon in the Spring. And yeah, yeah…First Reformed. 

Graduating!  Not me – Daughter, Esq., JD. Now a summer of studying for the bar! One down, two to go (graduations for this month, that is. Four if you count grandson’s PreK graduation!)







Another excerpt from Life Lessons. No, it’s not earth shaking. But you (might) know me – always interested in historical artifacts that illuminate something about the present. So here we have the lament of an observer of life in the West almost a hundred years ago (the book was published in 1921) that we might still nod along with today.

It just goes to show – what? That our concerns about the present aren’t new, and they’re valid. We’re not alone in our concerns. Even dead people share them! Also, as per usual, you might be surprised by the past. So here we have a Catholic priest from the early 1920’s  – a past in which some might want us to believe Church ministers wanted nothing more than to impress ignorant laity into identical, compliant shapes – lamenting what modernity does to individuality, especially in terms of education.

(A caveat: His vision is more than a little idealistic. Traditional cultures tend to be highly conformist and what else is the flow of cultural history but the history of individuals becoming restless in the midst of the demand to conform and the threat of shunning – and making a break for it? And then yearning for the safety of the familiar? And then kicking the cycle into gear all over again? )

(Also a weird allusion to this standardization applying to people of the “white race” -although I wonder if by that he is simply saying that other ethnicities haven’t been impacted by this “progress” at this point….?)

We are a dreadfully standardized and conventionalized folk, we ultra- civilized peoples of the twentieth century. Fashions and customs have reduced us to a sad state of sameness. It would be a mercy if some convulsion of fashions, some cataclysm of conventionalities, would stir us all up and make us a bit less like one another. What is to blame for all this terrible similarity? How few of us rightly dare to be individual! We are as like one another in thoughts as we are in dress, and are apt to get our notions from the daily papers and the boiler-plate magazines as we do our styles of clothing from the tyrannous fashion- makers.

An observant wag has made great sport of the slavery of men to styles. Everyone must wear a collar and necktie, and a man would almost as soon forget his shoes as leave his house in the morning without those trite but indispensable articles. There is really no reason in the world why every civilized male should bind in his neck with a strip of starched linen, but custom will have it so, just as custom makes the natives of Tahiti tattoo their skin. This is all very funny, to be sure, but it is even more ludicrous to see men wearing opinions and ideas as slavishly as they do their collars. They get the one from the haberdasher and the other from cheap periodicals, but both are furnished them ready-made, and they must be worn so long as they stay in style.

What has put this tyrannous sway of conventionalism upon us? We need to take a hard look at ourselves and to see how unindividual and standardized we have become. Bless us! We are actually afraid to be individual, and we sink out of sight our personal and harmless idiosyncrasies, those individual traits which would make us interesting, from a positive fear of being in any way out of the ordinary. Eccentricity is a bogy to us. We dread to be singular or to be thought so, as though it were a sin. We pare down our tastes and stifle our preferences and make ourselves as humdrum as possible, so as not to be thought out of the ordinary.

Of course, there is a species of singularity which is objectionable and to be avoided. When one is out of order as well as out of the ordinary, that individuality is offensive. There is only too much of this disorderly individualism nowadays, and one fears that it is in part a reaction from the dreadfully standardized monotony of being so very much like everybody else.

But the sort of individuality and unusualness which we commend and desire is not this disorderly type. We plead for every¬ one’s being himself, his better self, but still his true and very self. We wish that each person could develop harmoniously those individual traits and personal goodnesses with which an all-wise Providence has endowed him, and would not so dully sink his pleasant little points of difference from other people into a drab and uniform hue of utter conventionality.

For is it not true that we are painfully like one another? As like as leaves on a tree, as peas in a pod. How unusual it is to meet anyone who is strikingly individual. In thoughts, in manners, in dress, in speech we are wearyingly similar. The thing is increasing. What with the ease of communication, the awful prevalence of standardized periodicals and amusements, the world-wide oligarchy of fashion-makers, the monotony of education, people are being pressed and squeezed into the same molds of thought, of feeling, of manners, of tastes, to a degree that is surprising and pathetic. There is a frantic need for more individuality.

What is to blame for all this conventionalism? To begin with, there are the systems of education. Was human nature ever intended to be set in rows on benches when very young and impressionable, and doctored with the same doses of predigested and carefully standardized thoughts? Take twenty lads or lasses, in their homes in the care-free days before they are sent to school. One discovers delightful little traits of budding individualities that burgeon pleasantly in their young natures. One is exceedingly merry, the very embodiment of roly-poly good humor. With proper encouragement he might develop into that rare, dear creature, a true humorist. Another is quite takingly pensive and inclines to introspection. With due surroundings he might write elegiacs in his maturer years. So here and there throughout all the twenty, one sees the quickenings of individual traits. But now put them in school. Line them up on benches. Feed them with a strictly standardized mental pabulum, without caring for or attending to their dewy differences. Give them a certain number of tasks suited to the average child (which never did exist). No wonder they grow monotonously similar. They can¬ not escape from the standardizing pressure of a cut and dried system of education.

Since this is a strictly philosophic treatise, we shall go one step farther backward to¬ ward the reasons of things, and discover that in the system of fixed examinations there may be found a still more radical cause of our sameness, one with the other. Into the maw of this Moloch of examinations, countless children are fed every year. Every study must afford appropriate and definite matter for the periodical examinations and there¬ fore it is cut and dried into little morsels and fed the pupils with precision. No wonder that students, whose chief aim in life is the passing of examinations, should tend to be¬ come in time monotonously similar. They all know the same thing. They all have to say the same thing. No wonder, if some special provision be not made for cultivating their individual traits, that they grow as alike as so many questions and answers.

Many characters are not strong enough ever to shake off this repressive influence of the examination system, which can so effectively clip off the corners of individual tastes and preferences. With such a start in life, encouraged to conform to the standard, dis¬ couraged from being original, it is hard for one to break away in after days from the habit of dull conformity. Since one has not been trained to develop one’s pleasing and laudable traits of personality, one is apt if one grows individual at all, to be so in un¬ pleasant ways and so to become obnoxiously singular without being really original and individual.

For, let us repeat, we have nothing to say in praise of mere singularity. What we plead for is the cultivation of the pleasant differences which exist in every character. We have certain talents. Let us use them, whether others have such talents or no. We like certain things; let us dwell on and clarify our likings provided they be right, whether others have similar likings or no. Granted that our individual traits are laudable and correct, let us develop and strengthen them. To take one’s tastes from the crowd, one’s thoughts from the papers, one’s amusements from cheap public show places, is to lose the fine edge of one’s proper originality.

Another source of dreadful sameness among civilized people, is the standardization of all creature comforts and wares of personal use, which the huge commercialized machinery of modern society has brought about. In the old days each family was its own manufactory; the mother of the house¬ hold wove and spun and cut and sewed for her flock, and so everyone’s clothing was just a bit different. The man of the house saw r ed and planed and hammered and made the furnishing of the home. There were home arts and home crafts; and if those households were cruder than ours, they were at least endlessly more individual. Now, from Kansas to Kamchatka, and from Korea to Kalamazoo, all people of the white race are oppressed with the same styles in dress, in furniture, in food, because these things are manufactured in huge quantities by machin¬ ery, and because mighty “sales forces” rush out from the great centers and pounce upon the helpless and unresisting retailer, who, in his turn, hands on the produce to the consumer.

There was a time when every shire had its own individualities. In those days customs savored of the soil. Even simple men and poor kept their characteristics, their tastes and ways of speech. But travel and inter communication have helped the crushing forces of convention to suppress this individuality. Now, a town must carefully cherish its old landmarks to lure the tourist thither. As for the people, they tend to become pretty much the same everywhere.

In our own country it is quite appalling how like we are to one another. One has a refreshing sense of surprise when one comes upon any real local color. Inside and out the folk are standardized. What fashions and styles of dress and furniture and food and lodging do for their bodies, the current periodicals and popular amusements do for their minds. Great powerful magazines and papers, keeping their presses whirling night and day, pour out on the defenseless populace such a flood of print as quite submerges the landmarks of literature for them. At a given time of the week, travel where you may, on street car or train, by the swift express or the jogging local, you shall see in men’s and women’s hands the self-same magazines. They do their part to deaden individual tastes and preferences. Where everyone reads the same thing, and that not of the best, everyone is shoved toward a more or less uniform mediocrity. Commercialized amusements tend, one need scarcely say, in the same direction.

Those who will not think deeply, may suspect these remarks of, being flippant and trivial, but there is more significance in them than may show on the surface. Let every man develop the best that is in him on his own lines and according to his own personality, and we shall be a wiser, happier, and certainly more interesting people. Not in vain has the Giver of good gifts bestowed on each of us quite definite talents, tastes and capacities. It is one of our life’s businesses to develop these personal gifts in a lovely and harmonious way. We lose them or at least the flower of them, when we descend to the dull level of a commonplace conventional¬ ism. We owe it to ourselves to cultivate our goodly differences betimes and to be wisely and prudently but preciously individual.

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