Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Bible Study’

We’ll start with the more confusing one – James. As is the case with (in English) “Mary” – there are a lot of “James” in the New Testament narratives, so sorting them out is a challenge. And perhaps not even really possible.

Today’s feast celebrates James “the Lesser” – as opposed to James the Greater, brother of John, one of the first four apostles called by Jesus, present at the Transfiguration, feast June 25, etc.

This James, son of Alphaeus, is often identified with the James who was head of the Church in Jerusalem and the author of the New Testament letter.  That’s what Pope Benedict went with in his 2007 General Audience talk: 

Thus, St James’ Letter shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity. Faith must be fulfilled in life, above all, in love of neighbour and especially in dedication to the poor. It is against this background that the famous sentence must be read: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2: 26).

"amy welborn"

At times, this declaration by St James has been considered as opposed to the affirmations of Paul, who claims that we are justified by God not by virtue of our actions but through our faith (cf. Gal 2: 16; Rom 3: 28). However, if the two apparently contradictory sentences with their different perspectives are correctly interpreted, they actually complete each other.

St Paul is opposed to the pride of man who thinks he does not need the love of God that precedes us; he is opposed to the pride of self-justification without grace, simply given and undeserved.

St James, instead, talks about works as the normal fruit of faith: “Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit”, the Lord says (Mt 7: 17). And St James repeats it and says it to us.

Lastly, the Letter of James urges us to abandon ourselves in the hands of God in all that we do: “If the Lord wills” (Jas 4: 15). Thus, he teaches us not to presume to plan our lives autonomously and with self interest, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows what is truly good for us.

Now, Philip. I think this GA talk really highlight’s B16’s catechetical skills. We don’t know that much about Philip, but Benedict takes what we do know, and hones it down in the most practical…pastoral way:

The Fourth Gospel recounts that after being called by Jesus, Philip meets Nathanael and tells him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1: 45). Philip does not give way to Nathanael’s somewhat sceptical answer (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) and firmly retorts: “Come and see!” (Jn 1: 46).

In his dry but clear response, Philip displays the characteristics of a true witness: he is not satisfied with presenting the proclamation theoretically, but directly challenges the person addressing him by suggesting he have a personal experience of what he has been told.

The same two verbs are used by Jesus when two disciples of John the Baptist approach him to ask him where he is staying. Jesus answers: “Come and see” (cf. Jn 1: 38-39).

We can imagine that Philip is also addressing us with those two verbs that imply personal involvement. He is also saying to us what he said to Nathanael: “Come and see”. The Apostle engages us to become closely acquainted with Jesus.

In fact, friendship, true knowledge of the other person, needs closeness and indeed, to a certain extent, lives on it. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that according to what Mark writes, Jesus chose the Twelve primarily “to be with him” (Mk 3: 14); that is, to share in his life and learn directly from him not only the style of his behaviour, but above all who he really was.

"amy welborn"

Indeed, only in this way, taking part in his life, could they get to know him and subsequently, proclaim him.

Later, in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, one would read that what is important is to “learn Christ” (4: 20): therefore, not only and not so much to listen to his teachings and words as rather to know him in person, that is, his humanity and his divinity, his mystery and his beauty. In fact, he is not only a Teacher but a Friend, indeed, a Brother.

How will we be able to get to know him properly by being distant? Closeness, familiarity and habit make us discover the true identity of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Philip reminds us precisely of this. And thus he invites us to “come” and “see”, that is, to enter into contact by listening, responding and communion of life with Jesus, day by day.

Then, on the occasion of the multiplication of the loaves, he received a request from Jesus as precise as it was surprising: that is, where could they buy bread to satisfy the hunger of all the people who were following him (cf. Jn 6: 5). Then Philip very realistically answered: “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (Jn 6: 7).

Here one can see the practicality and realism of the Apostle who can judge the effective implications of a situation.

We then know how things went. We know that Jesus took the loaves and after giving thanks, distributed them. Thus, he brought about the multiplication of the loaves.

It is interesting, however, that it was to Philip himself that Jesus turned for some preliminary help with solving the problem: this is an obvious sign that he belonged to the close group that surrounded Jesus.

On another occasion very important for future history, before the Passion some Greeks who had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover “came to Philip… and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus” (cf. Jn 12: 20-22).

Once again, we have an indication of his special prestige within the Apostolic College. In this case, Philip acts above all as an intermediary between the request of some Greeks – he probably spoke Greek and could serve as an interpreter – and Jesus; even if he joined Andrew, the other Apostle with a Greek name, he was in any case the one whom the foreigners addressed.

This teaches us always to be ready to accept questions and requests, wherever they come from, and to direct them to the Lord, the only one who can fully satisfy them. Indeed, it is important to know that the prayers of those who approach us are not ultimately addressed to us, but to the Lord: it is to him that we must direct anyone in need. So it is that each one of us must be an open road towards him!

There is then another very particular occasion when Philip makes his entrance. During the Last Supper, after Jesus affirmed that to know him was also to know the Father (cf. Jn 14: 7), Philip quite ingenuously asks him: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (Jn 14: 8). Jesus answered with a gentle rebuke: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father: how can you say, “Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?… Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn 14: 9-11).

These words are among the most exalted in John’s Gospel. They contain a true and proper revelation. At the end of the Prologue to his Gospel, John says: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1: 18).

Well, that declaration which is made by the Evangelist is taken up and confirmed by Jesus himself, but with a fresh nuance. In fact, whereas John’s Prologue speaks of an explanatory intervention by Jesus through the words of his teaching, in his answer to Philip Jesus refers to his own Person as such, letting it be understood that it is possible to understand him not only through his words but rather, simply through what he is.

To express ourselves in accordance with the paradox of the Incarnation we can certainly say that God gave himself a human face, the Face of Jesus, and consequently, from now on, if we truly want to know the Face of God, all we have to do is to contemplate the Face of Jesus! In his Face we truly see who God is and what he looks like!

The Evangelist does not tell us whether Philip grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ sentence. There is no doubt that he dedicated his whole life entirely to him. According to certain later accounts (Acts of Philip and others), our Apostle is said to have evangelized first Greece and then Frisia, where he is supposed to have died, in Hierapolis, by a torture described variously as crucifixion or stoning.

Let us conclude our reflection by recalling the aim to which our whole life must aspire: to encounter Jesus as Philip encountered him, seeking to perceive in him God himself, the heavenly Father. If this commitment were lacking, we would be reflected back to ourselves as in a mirror and become more and more lonely! Philip teaches us instead to let ourselves be won over by Jesus, to be with him and also to invite others to share in this indispensable company; and in seeing, finding God, to find true life.

Many years ago, I wrote a study guide for B16’s collected General Audience talks on the Apostles and other early Church figures. The study guide is available online in pdf form – so if you have a church discussion group and would like to use it, or even just for yourself  – there it is. 

Below are the pages from the unit which include St. James the Lesser. You can find the rest at the link, and feel free to use as you wish. 

Both images from St. John Lateran in Rome. 

Read Full Post »

As we all know, Advent begins next Sunday, November 28/ Below are some of the Advent resources I’ve written over the years.

First, remember that my Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is organized according to the liturgical year. The stories retold for Advent include “Prophets Say That a Messiah is Coming,” “Prophets Describe the Messiah,” “Zechariah Meets the Angel Gabriel” and so on.

The first reading on the First Sunday of Advent refers to the “just shoot” God will raise from the House of David.  In The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols, I cover the Jesse Tree – the traditional artistic rendering of this concept.

Note how it’s organized – and this the organization of the entire book. On the left side for every entry is a short, simple explanation for younger children. On the right is a more in-depth entry for older students.

Moving on…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is advent-resources.jpg

(BTW – I don’t make any $$ from the sales of these booklets. The way it works is that these kinds of materials are, for the most part, written as works-for-hire. You write it, you get paid a flat fee, and that’s it. No subsequent royalties. I just …think what I’ve written is not terrible and hope my words might be helpful to someone out there…so I continue to spread the word!)

First, is the family devotional I wrote for Creative Communications for the Parish.

The entries are not dated – they are “First Sunday of Advent” – “Monday, first week of Advent” – and so on, so it is still useable.

There’s a digital version available here.  So if you’d like it for your own use in that format – go for it! 

Wonders Of His Love
amy-welborn

More samples – pdf 

Several years ago, I wrote another Advent family devotional. It’s no longer available in a print version, but the digital version can still be had here.  Only .99!

In 2016, Liguori published daily devotions I wrote for both Lent and Easter. They publish new booklets by different authors every year, but mine are still available, both through Liguori and Amazon.

Liguori – English

(pdf sample)

Liguori  – Spanish

(pdf sample)

A daily Advent meditation book I pulled together from reflections my late husband had posted on his blog:

Unfortunately, the booklet I wrote on St. Nicholas for Creative Communications is now officially out of print. You can still access the pdf of the sample – about half of the text – here. If you’re interested. 

Nicholas-Of-Myra

For more about St. Nicholas, visit the invaluable St. Nicholas Center.

Years ago, I wrote a few pamphlets for OSV, among them these two:

How to Celebrate Advent. Also available in Spanish. 

PDF review copy of English version here.

PDF review copy of Spanish version here. 

How to Celebrate Christmas as a Catholic. 

PDF available for review here. 

PDF of the Spanish version available for review here.

And then….Bambinelli Sunday!

Read Full Post »

As the calendar year draws to a close and Advent begins, it seems a proper moment for stock-taking and pondering. What do all of these disruptions, changes and challenges we’re constantly experiencing mean? What is this new world and how do we live in it?

Well, when you take time to sit with the Scriptures of Advent, you might be struck, most of all by the old news, once again, that all this supposedly unprecedented disruption, change and challenge is not new at all.

For most of human history, most people, even the wealthy, have lived on the edge of earthly existence, with very little sense of control. Life was precarious. High maternal mortality, high childhood mortality, high mortality, period. Populations subject to the vagaries of climate and natural disaster, without benefit of satellite or radar to know what’s coming. Famine, floods and pestilence always on the horizon of possibility, which meant, not that you’d have to put off a trip to the store and consider a week or month-long disruption of the supply chain, but that you, your children and maybe your whole village would  starve.  Brutal rulers, punishments and restrictions, pogroms and genocide.

And you don’t even have to reach back to the Middle Ages to find it.

In such a context, it is not difficult to remember that you yourself are not God, or even a god, that you don’t create your own destiny. With that understanding, it’s not so much of a challenge to live in the knowledge that any joy or contentment you can grab from life on earth will not – and cannot – be tied to material prosperity and peak physical health, for neither of those things will probably ever come to you at all.

For most of human history, it hasn’t been the full, satisfied college degree holder looking to scratch a vague itch of existential despair who’s been hearing the Good News. It’s been the peasant nursing constantly aching teeth, squinting to see through weakened eyes, middle-aged at thirty, working hard from dawn to dusk, remember dead children, hearing rumors of war, studying the skies, waiting and praying for rain, subject to the whims of human authorities.

If they could see us, reeling from our present-day troubles, they might well ask us, “Well…what did you expect?”

Consider one of the traditional Advent Scriptures: Isaiah 63-64. It’s an astonishing outcry of a people in exile, a wild mix of all that every person feels in time of loss and crisis: What did we do to do deserve this? Why are we suffering so? Have we done wrong? Are we suffering consequences of that wrong? God is so harsh with us! God seems to be silent, hidden and absent? But….you know what? He’s our Father. We trust him. He’s like a potter, we’re clay. Go ahead, Shape us.

The voices come to us from 2700 years ago – 2700 years – questioning, railing and ultimately trusting – and it’s as if they could be speaking today

Well, they are.

Same human race, same struggle, same veil we yearn to lift, same ache in our hearts for peace, wholeness, life and love.

Same cry for a savior.


I’ve attached this poem to another Advent post in the past, but it seemed fitting here. Written at the end of World War II, the poet says of it:

This poem, ‘Expectans Expectavi’, which is the title of a psalm, “I waited patiently for the Lord”, is about waiting, written at the end of the last war when the whole world, really, seemed to be holding its breath for the return of ordinary life, and all the soldiers from overseas, and I thought of it in the wintertime, at Christmas, with the carols and the children’s faces, recalling the refugees of the time. The poem happened to be chosen to be posted up on the underground, so although I never saw it myself, several of my friends have been surprised by it in the middle of a crowd of people standing up in the tube train.

Expectans Expectavi

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children’s faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit’s exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

Advent is a reset, yes, but if we listen carefully to God’s Word and the lives of others beyond our own bubble of time and space, it can be a reset that anchors us more deeply in communion with the reality of the ebb, flow and crashing and burning of human experience, an experience that our privileged houses of sand manage to hide from us – those houses of sand Jesus warned us about for just that reason: they trick us, the rich man of the Gospel, into thinking we don’t need God.

That we don’t need a savior.

And so we listen to the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass and in the Church’s prayer, we listen to the saints whose words are given to us during this season, and we’re reminded that none of this is about hoping and dreaming that someday life will get “back to normal” or that this particular type of suffering and difficulty will end and then peace on earth will reign right now, in its fullness.

It’s about acknowledging the mess – the mess that’s now and the mess that came before the present mess – and lifting up that mess to God, trusting that he will take it and somehow make good come out of it, a type of rescue, if you will. It doesn’t diminish a bit of our current suffering. It simply situates it and puts us into communion with others who have suffered – which is everyone.

And then, as the weeks of Advent pass, we listen to the cries and questions asked and answered over centuries past in the context of Word, prayer, song and art – it becomes clearer and clearer: Yesterday and today, the human family speaks from the same broken, suffering heart – and yes, He hears us. And look right here in the mess, just look: here he is.

Others have found him. Keep looking. So can you.

Read Full Post »

It’s that time of year again – tomorrow’s Gospel reading.

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 

I wrote this column years ago – maybe twenty or more – and it’s on my actual website, but the formatting is wonky, and I don’t feel like reviving my html skills right now to fix it. So I’ll just toss it here. Remember – at least twenty years ago, and also it was a column for newspaper – so I was limited to 700-800 words. So not quite enough room to explore the subtleties of Scriptural interpretation. And I believe this interpretation precedes Barclay and may even go back to Enlightenment-era thinking. So it’s by no means comprehensive or in-depth. It’s just a column, so calm down. I added a bit from a 2008 post I wrote riffing off it, as well.

Also – this used to be a very common way of preaching on this Gospel narrative. I don’t think it’s heard so frequently any more, but in case you do….


An acquaintance of mine recently wrote to share an unpleasant Mass-going experience.

The priest in his small hometown parish was preaching on the Gospel, this week, the account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from Matthew. His interpretation of the event was not exactly comforting to this acquaintance, for the priest suggested that perhaps what really happened had nothing to do with miracles as we know them. Perhaps Jesus so moved his listeners that they took out the food they had hidden in their cloaks and shared it with those around them.

The miracle, therefore, is not any magical multiplication, but the miracle of the previously selfish being moved to generosity.

Who knows how the rest of the congregation received this interesting news, but one of them (my correspondent) couldn’t just walk away without questioning the priest. After Mass, he asked him to clarify. The priest explained that no, he wasn’t denying the miracle, but that the miracle was yes the generosity of the people. He said he didn’t have time to go into it further.

The teller of this tale was justifiably appalled by what he’d heard. But, as I wrote back, as disappointing as it was, I couldn’t be surprised.

For I’d heard it myself, a couple of times from different pulpits. I suspected it was a fairly common interpretation, so I checked around and found that I was right.

Numerous folks who contacted me about this said that they’d heard it too in both Catholic and Protestant churches in exactly the same words. I couldn’t help but wonder where all of these preachers were picking this up, and it didn’t take me long to find out.

It’s in one of the most venerable Scripture commentaries out there – those written by Scottish scholar William Barclay in the 1950’s. Most people who’ve studied religion at the college level have been exposed to Barclay, and many own sets of his commentaries. He’s generally very middle-of-the road and moderate in his views. But in his commentary on this story, he offers an interpretation, which he doesn’t says is his own, but is held ‘by “some.”

Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all. If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.

So there you have it, neatly packaged for the lazy preacher who will use it to sound clever, no matter how many problems the explanation holds:

If everyone brought some food, who, exactly, was left to be hungry?

This interpretation also implies that these first-century Jews were naturally averse to sharing, which is not only offensive, but historically and culturally inaccurate. It may be a miracle for 21st century Americans to share, but sharing and hospitality were sacred obligations for Jesus’ listeners.

Yes, there are layers of meaning to this event. It is of little use as a bare fact as it is as a fabrication. Miracles are offered as complex signs of God’s presence and activity among us, working through and even with us at times, open to rich interpretation in infinite application. Generosity and plenty of course is at the core of the narrative, but it’s God’s generosity which will reach its summit in the Eucharist.

The Barclayian interpretation is illogical,  and frankly – not surprising given the era and the emphasis of Biblical studies of the late 19th and early 20th century, which, for example, saw the most “authentic” elements of the Jesus story as those that were the least Jewish  – tinged with more than a bit of anti-Semitism. Think about stereotypes. Once I did – I couldn’t not see that in Barclay’s interpretation, perhaps unfairly.

So to presume that the Gospel writers couldn’t have meant what they wrote implies that they were either stupid or dishonest. The Scripture is a collection of diverse works, meant to be understood within the specific literary forms God used to communicate truth. But as the Gospel writers themselves make clear, they are not about anything but historical truth about an historical figure named Jesus. Anything less wouldn’t have been worth their time.

Or their lives.

Or ours, come to think of it, don’t you think?

Read Full Post »

Some related images from my books.

 

More on the root of Jesse here. 

More on the books here. 

Read Full Post »

He’s dead, she’s dead, they’re dead, so now what?

I’ve experienced some loss and grief, and so have you. This past year Netflix has brought us a couple of high-profile short series that, you might have noticed, have death and its aftermath at the center: the unlikely-friends-comedy-mystery Dead to Me and the Ricky Gervais comedy After Life.

I’ve watched them both – Dead to Me when it came out in the spring, and After Life just Related imagethis past weekend. Neither was entirely satisfying, and I’ll say that Dead to Me was especially disappointing considering the cast and that I was predisposed to dislike After Life anyway.

This won’t be a full-scale review, but more of a (brief) reflection on what interested me in both shows: the particular aspects of grief and loss they evoked.

Dead to Me stars Christina Applegate as Jen, a woman whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident while out jogging. At a grief retreat, she’s befriended by Judy, played by the wonderful Linda Cardellini (you may know her from Mad Men). There are all kinds of plot twists and the show lurches between dark comedy and more than one mystery – not only who killed Jen’s husband, but who exactly Judy is and why she’s latched on to Jen. I eventually lost interest in the plot machinations. Less convolution would have served the story well.

But there was a truth at the core of Dead to Me that went beyond female bonding.

What gets everything going is Jen’s obsessive, driving need to know what happened. How did her husband die? Why was in that place at that time? Who did this? What could she have done differently? Was she herself at all responsible?

It’s a natural series of questions for this character, given the very real mystery and crime that caused her husband’s death. Nonetheless, it highlights, rather effectively, similar questions that any less dramatic death tends to raise in the hearts of the living: How did this happen? Whose fault is it? Could we have done anything differently?

And whether the death in question was sudden or expected, accidental, natural or criminal, whether our initial reaction is acceptance, relief or shock, eventually the questions and doubts hit, and depending on the specifics and who we are, we might spend some time wondering about it all and even obsessing about our own mysteries. We run scenarios in our head, we ponder the chain of choices that got the dead to the point at which death found them and wonder if there could have been different choices made that would have cleared a different path.

And – as Jen discovers – sometimes the answers we uncover can make us, at the very least, uncomfortable, or even rock our world. When death irrupts into life, the living suddenly find themselves with access to the dead’s secrets – as we go through our parents’ houses and papers, our spouses’ and friends’ records and letters. Some questions are answered, but more will probably be raised – with no one around to answer them any more. We thought we knew them, we thought we understood, we were confident that past events told one story, but in fact the real story might have been something quite different all along.

The thing is, this is true all the time, even apart from death. How well do we know others? Not very well. We live in a narrative that’s only a sliver of reality. That doesn’t make it unreal, necessarily – although then again, it might be.  Death has the power to force the question – what really happened here? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? Did I understand anything at all?

That’s the real, essential question of Dead to Me, and I just wish that it had more of a place in the show than wacky hijinks and mystery for its own sake.

After Life is also dark, also a comedy, none of that unexpected as it comes from the mind and pen of Ricky Gervais. I’m not a huge fan of Gervais, especially in his self-important Professional Atheist guise, although I did like The Office and Extras and very much – very much –  appreciate his firm dismissal of transgender activism and other aspects of Cancel Culture. He’s one of the few consistent public figures out there on this score: Yes, I have the right to express my views, no matter how noxious they’re judged to be – and that means others do as well.

Gervais plays Tony, a man whose wife died of cancer some months before we get rolling. They were together for twenty-five years, and childless. Tony works at a small-town newspaper and spends his days having foul-tempered run-ins with various townspeople and co-workers. Episodes are peppered with Tony watching videos left by his wife when she was in the hospital, as well as videos he made of their life together.

The bottom line of the plot here is: Tony has lost his world, and doesn’t see a reason to Image result for after life gervaiskeep existing. Suicide is continually on his mind, even when he chooses against it – that choice gives him, as he puts it, a “superpower” – to keep on living life exactly as he pleases, saying and doing what he wants, knowing that at any point he can just end it.

After a few episodes of this jerk behavior, we have a shift – a decision Tony makes results in a tragedy (although he never really takes ownership of it), which results in him rethinking things – along with a few other encounters, he comes to understand that, yes, he has a “superpower”  – to impact the lives of others for good.

So…(again, spoiler alert) – the last episode gives us the equivalent of a Hallmark/Lifetime movie or It’s a Wonderful Life as Tony opens up to life again, finally realizes that he’s not the only person in the world who’s suffering and sprinkles the fairy dust of good deeds over his surroundings. It’s almost shockingly sentimental.

There’s truth about grief and loss in After Life. Dead to Me brings out the questions a death can prompt. After Life centers on the wrenching world-shifting of loss, the question of what is the world now if my world as I knew and loved it is gone? As well as the possible answer of – it’s whatever and it doesn’t matter and so what.

Probably the truest statement in After Life is Tony’s account of his feelings – he’s an atheist remember – that  “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.” As I’ve written before, one of the flashes of empathy I experienced in the aftermath of my husband’s death was just that kind of feeling – being drawn to where ever the deceased was. I wasn’t tempted myself – honestly, I wasn’t – but I understood, in a way that I never had before, how someone, completely lost and thrown out of their world by this kind of loss, could attempt to follow.

The other very true big thing in After Life is the role of others in pulling us out of a loss-centered existence back into life. For Tony, it’s his dog – every time he’s seriously tempted to kill himself, the presence and needs of the dog pulls him back.

The dog plays another interesting role that I’ve not seen commented on – perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

Tony is a person with some warmth, but he’s also got (not surprisingly) that Gervais cruel humor thing going on, even with those he loves. Besides the videos left by his wife, Tony watches old videos that he’d made of moments with her – and up to a point, most of these moments involve him surprising her in a borderline cruel way – dumping water on her, and so on. But then, as events start to turn and some light begins to dawn to break through Tony’s nihilism, the clip he watches has a different tone – it’s the moment when he awakens his wife, not with a loud noise or water, but with this brand new puppy, a ribbon tied around its neck. A sign of the goodness of which he’s capable – a reminder.

Back to the bigger truth – it’s what I found over and over again. In the face of loss, I had to ask a question, and the question centered around my kids. How do I want them to live? They lost their dad at a young age. Devasting. Life-changing. Potentially disastrous. How do I want them to live with that? If I choose to live my life defined by loss and who’s not there any more, that’s one thing – bad enough – but to raise kids to be centered on the hole, the shadow, the absence – instead of on the joy that life promises – well, that’s just cruel and even a little sick, isn’t it?

And what follows from that?

If I want this for my kids – why not want it for myself as well?  If it’s good enough for them – to move on and embrace reality, which includes joy as well as pain – it’s good enough for me, too. Live the way you hope those you love will live.

So there’s the truth bombs of After Life: Death rips your world apart, and healing happens when you recognize that you’re not the center of the world.

Life goes on is one way to say it – but in a bigger, more generous sense: Life goes on, and life is full of hurting people – and despite your pain and loss – or maybe even because of it – you can do something to help.

That’s the superpower of loss, when we are honest about it and ourselves – empathy.

There are a few more things to like about After Life and some that turned me off.

  • The vulgarity is that off-the-charts British mode which makes frequent use of a word that starts with c that even I can’t stand to hear. Hate. It.
  • Gervais is, of course, an argumentative, proud atheist, and gives his characters a couple of opportunities to show off against weak theist strawmen. These are boring. The show is Gervais’ and comes from his worldview, fine. But what makes it less interesting in the end, is the underlying assumption that the theist’s answer to loss and grief is of course simplistic and easy and less “realistic” than the atheist’s. Because no believers ever grapple with mystery and shadow and questions,
  • What’s ironic about this is that the conclusion of After Life is certainly heartwarming, but also…simplistic.
  • I’m not big on demanding things of a piece of art – saying, for example, that a character shouldn’t have done something or said something. But I’m going to go ahead an violate that rule here. Gervais’ character is, indeed a selfish, self-centered jerk, but I still found his reaction to his wife’s death wanting – even in that context. He doesn’t, for example, articulate any resentment or questions about her suffering. I mean – she had cancer. So I guess she suffered? And she certainly suffered in the mental and emotional challenge of confronting death. Most people would bring this into their expressions of loss, atheists and theists both.
  • Nor do we have any sense at all of who she – Lisa – was as a person. The “loss” is all about Tony – about his life and his loss and the hole in his world. Yes, it fits in a way, and simplifies the dramatic trajectory, but it’s almost too simplistic. A big part of recovery in loss, I discovered, is being able to live with the dead in a healthy way – not as ghosts, not as dead and buried, but as a presence whose existence had – and has – meaning. You know you are turning the corner when “thank you that this person existed” begins to outweigh “dammit, this person’s gone” in your thinking.
  • And that’s a thought that’s echoed in a broader context by another character in the series – a woman that Tony encounters in the cemetery. He goes to visit his wife’s grave, she’s there visiting her husband’s of 49 years: I wouldn’t change anything. If I went back and changed one thing I didn’t take, I might lose something that that bad thing eventually took me to. You shouldn’t regret anything or think: “Well, if I went back, I might do this or I might do that”

 

All fine. But in the end After Life falls way short because, ironically, the atheist worldview that critiques Christianity for being all simplistic-pie-in-the-sky-easy-answers offers…easy answers. Why? Because mystery and meaning essentially have no place. Tony learns to live better and move on because he finally listens to the people who are constantly telling him he’s good and funny and “lovely.” And his dog needs him. That’s really….it.

This Baptist blogger puts it very well, I think: 

 Far from portraying grief in grey or gritty terms, the series’ world is permanently sun-lit and serene. Tony lives in a fictional town which is lightly populated, he works a dead-end job but is obviously affluent, giving the whole sequence of events a dream-like, heavenly feel. This is undoubtedly intentional, but one has to question the creative ambition behind this. Are we being consoled that grieving without God and without future hope is hard but ultimately enlightened? Are we really probing the pain of personal loss by using utopia as a backdrop?

The conclusions of the drama are as sunny as the summer bleached pavements on which it unfolds. At the opening of After Life Tony is at war with the world, standing up to opportunist thieves, feeling irked by other people’s eating habits, threatening a school bully with being bludgeoned to death with a hammer, starkly rejecting a date, showing impatience with his elderly father, and knowingly helping someone else to commit suicide. So far, so fearless. But the gradual turn around in Tony’s life is hard to quantify against these earlier behaviours, his empathy for others seeming to be restored through conversations with an elderly widow and a feckless psychotherapist. The resolution to the drama is vacuously redemptive with Tony’s goodness turning around the lives of all who are in his orbit. He resolves to treat others well as a means of grace, reserving his ire only for those who deserve to be handled with contempt.

This is all too easy. It is such a shame that a programme which purports to probe grief, which interrogates God, which heralds humanism, is so lacking in self-awareness and auto-critique. Gervais writes as though Beckett never had, as though existential angst is a thing of the past, as though creation simply awaits its redemption through human good. This is desperately naive, and utterly insufficient to face the true realities of living in the rough stuff of a broken world. Gervais does not want God but he longs for good, he does not want absolutes but he does want altruism, he wants to talk about grief but only as a vehicle for humanistic grace. There are depths to loss which are not plumbed here, there are anxieties and contradictions and cross-pressures which plague our existence as human beings, there are deep wounds which cannot be healed lightly, and After Life does little to address or grapple with any of this.

Read Full Post »

As I’ve mentioned several times, the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Storiespublished in 2017, presents Scripture to children and families in the way most Catholics encounter the Bible: through their placement in the liturgical year.

Generally. 

Because, as you know, there are going to be exceptions. But in general – for example – we hear the messianic prophecies of Isaiah during Advent. We hear account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert on the first Sunday of Lent. And somewhere in the beginning of Ordinary Time, we’ll hear this:

After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats
so that the boats were in danger of sinking.

So this narrative is in the section – surprise – “Ordinary Time.”

I’ve included the first and the last page, so you can also get a sense of how I wrote each story. (Click on the images for larger versions)

 

The bulk of it, of course, is just a retelling of the Scripture.

And then, after the narrative, I tie the Scripture into some aspect of Catholic faith and life – as you can see here, the role of the apostles in the Church, as well as the call to all of us to follow Christ. And each entry ends with a suggestion for thinking and conversation, as well as a prayer.

Presenting the Bible to children is not a simple task. I really think that in this – as is the case with so much catechesis – it’s a good idea to trust the experience and presence of the Spirit in the Church and organize our Scriptural catechesis according in line with that experience: putting the Psalms at the center of our daily prayer life with children – instead of constantly inviting them to make up their own prayers, or offering them our weak, pedantic efforts – as well as letting our Scripture reading be guided by how the Church lives with God’s Word. Yes, the contemporary lectionary has flaws – including selective editing of passages that make modern people uncomfortable – so, yes, it’s good to start with what’s in the lectionary, but then turn right to the Bible itself to get the whole picture. But even with that weakness, it’s far more sensible to use Scripture  – especially in catechesis and formation – according to the experience of the Body of Christ instead of presenting it as a handy personal guidebook to be cherry-picked according to my Feelings of the Day.

Go here for more information on the Loyola series, including this book.

 

 

Read Full Post »

A quick reminder:

"amy welborn"

 

besaints2

 

amy_welborn2

Read Full Post »

Repost from last year, but Newman is always worth revisiting. 

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Scripture readings speak to us of what God promises his faithful ones, and of the need to prepare, for that is what we do during this season: prepare for his coming.

There is no lack of resources for keeping ourselves spiritually grounded during this season, even if we are having to battle all sorts of distractions, ranging from early-onset-Christmas settling in all around us to  the temptation to obsessively follow the news, which seems to never stop, never leave us alone.

Begin with the Church. Begin and end with the Church, if you like. Starting and ending your day with what Catholics around the world are praying during this season: the Scripture readings from Mass, and whatever aspects of daily prayer you can manage – that’s the best place to begin and is sufficient.

I found this wonderful, even moving homily from Newman, centered on worship as preparation for the Advent of God. The spiritual and concrete landscape that is his setting is particular to England in the early winter and might not resonate with those of us living, say, in the Sun Belt or in Australia, but nonetheless, perhaps the end-of-the-year weariness he describes might seem familiar, even if the dreary weather does not. I’ll quote from it copiously here, but it deserves a slow, meditative read. 

YEAR after year, as it passes, brings us the same warnings again and again, and none perhaps more impressive than those with which it comes to us at this season. The very frost and cold, rain and gloom, which now befall us, forebode the last dreary days of the world, and in religious hearts raise the thought of them. The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have {2} come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.

And such, too, are the feelings with which we now come before Him in prayer day by day. The season is chill and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and worshippers are few, but all this befits those who are by profession penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims. More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them. True faith does not covet comforts. It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel, when it reclines upon cushions, is protected by curtains, and encompassed by warmth. Its only hardship is to be hindered, or to be ridiculed, when it would place itself as a sinner before its Judge. They who realize that awful Day when they shall see Him face to face, whose {3} eyes are as a flame of fire, will as little bargain to pray pleasantly now, as they will think of doing so then….

….We cannot have fitter reflections at this Season than those which I have entered upon. What may be the destiny of other orders of beings we know not;—but this we know to be our own fearful lot, that before us lies a time when we must have the sight of our Maker and Lord face to face. We know not what is reserved for other beings; there may be some, which, knowing nothing of their Maker, are never to be brought before Him. For what we can tell, this may be the case with the brute creation. It may be the law of their nature that they should live and die, or live on an indefinite period, upon the very outskirts of His government, sustained by Him, but never permitted to know or approach Him. But this is not our case. We are destined to come before Him; nay, and to come before Him in judgment; and that on our first meeting; and that suddenly. We are not merely to be rewarded or {4} punished, we are to be judged. Recompense is to come upon our actions, not by a mere general provision or course of nature, as it does at present, but from the Lawgiver Himself in person. We have to stand before His righteous Presence, and that one by one. One by one we shall have to endure His holy and searching eye. At present we are in a world of shadows. What we see is not substantial. Suddenly it will be rent in twain and vanish away, and our Maker will appear. And then, I say, that first appearance will be nothing less than a personal intercourse between the Creator and every creature. He will look on us, while we look on Him.

….Men sometimes ask, Why need they profess religion? Why need they go to church? Why need they observe certain rites and ceremonies? Why need they watch, pray, fast, and meditate? Why is it not enough to be just, honest, sober, benevolent, and otherwise virtuous? Is not this the true and real worship of God? Is not activity in mind and conduct the most acceptable way of approaching Him? How can they please Him by submitting to certain religious forms, and taking part in certain religious acts? Or if they must do so, why may they not choose their own? Why must they come to church for them? Why must they be partakers in what the Church calls Sacraments? I answer, they must do so, first of all and especially, because God tells them so to do. But besides this, I observe that we see this plain reason {8} why, that they are one day to change their state of being. They are not to be here for ever. Direct intercourse with God on their part now, prayer and the like, may be necessary to their meeting Him suitably hereafter: and direct intercourse on His part with them, or what we call sacramental communion, may be necessary in some incomprehensible way, even for preparing their very nature to bear the sight of Him.

Let us then take this view of religious service; it is “going out to meet the Bridegroom,” who, if not seen “in His beauty,” will appear in consuming fire. Besides its other momentous reasons, it is a preparation for an awful event, which shall one day be. What it would be to meet Christ at once without preparation, we may learn from what happened even to the Apostles when His glory was suddenly manifested to them. St. Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And St. John, “when he saw Him, fell at His feet as dead.” [Luke v. 8. Rev. i. 17.]….

…. It is my desire and hope one day to take possession of my inheritance: and I come to make myself ready for it, and I would not see heaven yet, for I could not bear to see it. I am allowed to be in it without seeing it, that I may learn to see it. And by psalm and sacred song, by confession and by praise, I learn my part.

And what is true of the ordinary services of religion, public and private, holds in a still higher or rather in a special way, as regards the sacramental ordinances of the Church. In these is manifested in greater or less degree, according to the measure of each, that Incarnate Saviour, who is one day to be our Judge, and who is enabling us to bear His presence then, by imparting it to us in measure now. A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next. We mortal men range up and down it, to and fro, and see nothing. There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed; it remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. {11} Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave. Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged,—He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready….

…And what I have said concerning Ordinances, applies still more fully to Holy Seasons, which include in them the celebration of many Ordinances. They are times {12} when we may humbly expect a larger grace, because they invite us especially to the means of grace. This in particular is a time for purification of every kind. When Almighty God was to descend upon Mount Sinai, Moses was told to “sanctify the people,” and bid them “wash their clothes,” and to “set bounds to them round about:” much more is this a season for “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God;” [Exod. xix. 10-12. 2 Cor. xii. 1.] a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be. Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts; and though He delays His coming, let us watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end. Attend His summons we must, at any rate, when He strips us of the body; let us anticipate, by a voluntary act, what will one day come on us of necessity. Let us wait for Him solemnly, fearfully, hopefully, patiently, obediently; let us be resigned to His will, while active in good works. Let us pray Him ever, to “remember us when He cometh in His kingdom;” to remember all our friends; to remember our enemies; and to visit us according to His mercy here, that He may reward us according to His righteousness hereafter.

From a 1945 9th grade religion textbook, Our Quest for Happiness: the Story of Divine Love

 

Expectation or waiting is a dimension that flows through our whole personal, family and social existence. Expectation is present in thousands of situations, from the smallest and most banal to the most important that involve us completely and in our depths. Among these, let us think of waiting for a child, on the part of a husband and wife; of waiting for a relative or friend who is coming from far away to visit us; let us think, for a young person, of waiting to know his results in a crucially important examination or of the outcome of a job interview; in emotional relationships, of waiting to meet the beloved, of waiting for the answer to a letter, or for the acceptance of forgiveness…. One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for.           -B16, 2010

 

 

 

Expectans Expectavi

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children’s faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit’s exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

-Anne Ridler (1912-2001) , who introduces the poem: 

This poem, ‘Expectans Expectavi’, which is the title of a psalm, “I waited patiently for the Lord”, is about waiting, written at the end of the last war when the whole world, really, seemed to be holding its breath for the return of ordinary life, and all the soldiers from overseas, and I thought of it in the wintertime, at Christmas, with the carols and the children’s faces, recalling the refugees of the time. The poem happened to be chosen to be posted up on the underground, so although I never saw it myself, several of my friends have been surprised by it in the middle of a crowd of people standing up in the tube train.

Links to good commentaries on the readings of Advent are at the blog called The Dim Bulb. Excellent. 

Read Full Post »

— 1 —

As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available. Amazon doesn’t have it shipping until next week (and by next week, it will probably be…the next week) But you can certainly order it from Loyola, request it from your local bookstore, or, if you like, from me – I have limited quantities available. Go here for that.

— 2 —

Bible stories? For kids? Aren’t there plenty of books like that out there already? Well, yes and no.

Here’s the niche I want to fill with my book:

When do most Catholics, adult and children, encounter Scripture? During Sunday Mass. So it made sense to me to offer a book that would reflect that reality and build on it.

So the stories in the book – written for a 5-11 age reading/read aloud level – are arranged according to the liturgical season during which you would most likely hear them in the context of Sunday  or a feastday Mass. That means, of course, that it’s not comprehensive – if you don’t hear it at Sunday Mass, it is most likely not in the book, although I did make a couple of exceptions for readings that are strongly associated with a particular season and might be heard during a weekday Mass.

The stories are retold, faithful to Scripture – I am a stickler about that. Some re-tellings of Scripture impose, for example, emotions or thoughts on figures in the narrative that aren’t actually explicitly in Scripture. I don’t do that.

Following the narrative of each story are thoughts relating the story to either the particular feast or liturgical season or some other spiritual or theological point (sacraments prayer, virtues, and so on), and then finally, a question for reflection and a very short prayer.

— 3 —

The book includes lovely maps as endpapers, a basic liturgical calendar, wonderful illustrations, of course, and an introduction that will hopefully help families and catechists use the book in meaningful ways.

What I hoped to do was to bring children and families more deeply into the dynamic of reading the Scriptures as a Catholic– that is, in unity with the Church. We hear the Scriptures in a liturgical context, we apply them to our own lives, we return to the liturgy with new insights – and we’re always part of that weOf course reading Scripture as an act of individual devotion and study is good and important, but even that must be in the context of our awareness of Revelation as a reality that’s for and about the cosmos, not just our little microcosm in one corner of it, and so to situate our hearing of the Word in the Church, the Body of Christ.

— 4 —

Speaking of books, I am finally getting around to “publishing” some of my out-of-print books for Amazon Kindle. There are other means of epublication, of course, but I can only handle one formatting effort at a time. You can find it here:

I’ll be doing Mary and the Christian Life next. Just as soon as I finish some actual other work this coming weekend.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this, I have taken the free version of Mary Magdalene down for the moment – just until I give it some time on Amazon. Then the free pdf will be back up at my website. I’ll do the same with Mary and the Christian life and the others: remove the free version for the first few weeks it’s on Amazon, and then offer it free again as well.

— 5 —

So how’s the homeschooling going? Thanks for asking! Well, if a bit scattered. I am not sure how the “unschooling” part is coming – we’ll see at the end of September – at that point, we’ll take a look at all of the daily and weekly record sheets (which are being maintained) – look at topics read about, books read, trips taken, and see what that looks like. What I keep telling him is that he needs to think about nine months from now – what does he want and hope to see when he looks back over the whole year?

Decent advice for the rest of life, I think.

— 6 —

So no big changes from what I’d said we’d be doing: Komen Pre-Algebra math review pages every day (fractions and decimals so far), Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra – finished chapter 1 and are beginning chapter 2. He’s been reading various magazines (National Geographic, National Geographic History, Archaeology) and non-fiction books on topics that interest him. He’s currently memorizing the list of US Presidents as a framework for History Bee prep. We do our daily liturgical prayer/Saint of the Day/poem reading. The Spanish curriculum arrived yesterday, so he’ll start that next week (his choice).  He had some heavy duty music theory this week – learning about the different kinds of minor keys/scales, which is all new to me, too. We had to do some supplementary video-watching for that. He’s watched various science/nature related videos – this on Daddy Long-Legs, for example.   Various videos from The Kids Should See ThisWe went to the zoo.  The homeschool boxing class got underway.  Piano lesson.

Another trip to Moss Rock Preserve. He climbed, made the acquaintance of a stick bug:

 

September will be very busy. His science center classes will be on Tuesday mornings. Photography class Thursday mornings. Boxing Tuesday afternoons. Piano Thursday afternoons. Getting two teeth pulled. Piano recital in mid-September. Our zoo does a “Zookeeper for a day” thing – really half a day, and of course, it ain’t free, but I justify the cost by saying…well, I’m not paying $600/month tuition any more, so I think I can swing this.  He’ll be doing that – in the reptile house – one afternoon in September, as well.  I thought they only allowed his age group to do this zookeeper for a day thing in either the children’s zoo (farm animals) or with birds, but when I contacted them, they said they’d just added the reptile house as an option – which is of course, our favorite. Although he likes birds quite a bit, too. But given the chance to hang out with the big snakes and lizards for an afternoon? Much more exciting.

— 7 —

I have taken some reins from the unschooler, though…you knew that would happen, didn’t you?

He reads a lot, but it’s very much leisure reading, which is just fine, but I did think…well, maybe I should be a bit more directive on this….so we agreed that he’d always have a “school-type” book going as well, of either his or my choice. So we’re starting with Animal Farm – which will be a good way for him to dive into various areas of history as well.

Then I read this article – “Memorize That Poem!” which is very, very good. 

It’s so good, I’d invite you to share it with any educators in your life or circle. We have done quite a bit of poetry memorization around here over the years, but it really fell by the wayside last school year with both of them in school. This was the nudge I needed for revival.

By the 1920s, educators increasingly questioned such poetry’s “relevance” to students’ lives. They began to abandon memorization in favor of teaching methods that emphasized self-expression, although the practice remained popular until about 1960 — and still endures in some foreign language classes (to pass a college Russian course, I had to memorize some Pushkin).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four).

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samara Huggins, 18, the winner of the 2017 national Poetry Out Loud contest, in which high school students recite poems before a panel of judges. She performed “Novel,” by the avant-garde 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud — not an author who, at first glance, has much in common with Ms. Huggins, a teenager from the Atlanta area.

Yet every good poem grapples with some essential piece of human experience. “Rimbaud wrote that poem when he was young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.

Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”

Of course, this writer’s evangelizing on behalf of poetry brought to mind all of my own evangelizing about the role of literature – and sacred literature, prayer, liturgy and yes, faith – in bringing us out of our own small narrow worlds and situating us in reality – which is much bigger than we are, and bigger than we  know.

So yes, poetry. We’ll be back at it –  next week. One good poem a month, that’s all. Now to figure out which one…

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: