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Posts Tagged ‘books’

—1 —

Well, here we are. Just a few days until the Return. The Return to College. For a few months, we hope, and not just for a few weeks, as College Guy pessimistically predicts. As I keep saying, I’m optimistic.

We’ll see.

School for the other one is slowly picking up speed – to be interrupted by travel next week, to be sure, but getting a little more organized nonetheless. This week has seen meetings with Algebra 2 and Latin tutors as well as a piano lesson. We talked over plans for literature and history study. Looked at photos posted by the private high school most of his friends attend, saw all the images of people in single file in masks looking at each other from behind plexiglass in the lunchroom, and if there were any lingering questions, they were answered. “We’re good. Thanks.”

— 2 —

There’s been a bit of blogging this past week. Here’s a review of a novel called Followers and another of a novel, which I liked quite a bit, called Nothing to See Here. 

All done on a new laptop. I have a desktop, which is my preference for working, but I needed a new laptop – for a couple of years I’d been depending on a Chromebook we’d had to buy for Son #4’s high school career – and I hate Chromebooks. I mean, just hate. I love small laptops – that’s not the issue. The issue is the dependence on the cloud and the Internet and Google and all of that. And the fact that if you forget your passwords, it just might wipe the device of all local data on it – which happened to me last summer in Spain after I’d written a short piece for the Catholic Herald, but before I’d sent it in.  Cue new scene with me sitting on the floor in a hotel room in Caceres, Spain at 6 am, fuming (and worse) attempting to reconstruct and rewrite.

Plus, we needed a better, more dependable machine for Kid #5’s academics, such as they are. We don’t do a lot of screen stuff, and no remote classes of any sort, but you never know. Might as well have something decent, just in case.

Anyway, new computers are sweet.

— 3 —

I mentioned before that my book sales, like everyone else’s, have been impacted by this virus and responses to it – namely, no big gift-giving binges around Easter and the Spring Sacramental Season. But, as I noted, since mid-May, sales have been slowly but steadily edging back up. It’s really interesting. I’m still behind last year, but every week since mid-May, sales this year have topped the equivalent week last year, sometimes more than doubling the number of units sold.  The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes is now even with total sales from the same period last year (by the measure I have access to through Amazon Author portal – which doesn’t record all sales.). I think parishes that didn’t have big First Communion or Confirmation celebrations when they normally do have been having them in smaller batches through the summer, and people have purchased gifts for that – and then you throw in the increase in people doing homeschooling, and there you go.

So, yeah, if you know anyone who’s interested or in need of good titles for homeschooling catechism for children or young people, do consider pointing them my way –here’s a link to the Loyola Kids Books and here’s a link to the Prove It titles for teens. 

Today: St. Maximilian Kolbe. In the Loyola Kids Book of Saints.

"amy welborn"

 

— 4 —

From William Newton:

One of the most famous works of art rescued from the Nazis by the Monuments Men is, of course, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, more commonly known as “The Ghent Altarpiece”, a 15th-century masterpiece by the Van Eyck brothers that resides in St. Bravo’s Cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent. Readers will recall that recently, a number of ill-informed commentators and meme-makers criticized the recent cleaning and restoration of the piece, because the face of the Lamb came out looking more humanoid and less lamb-like. After an exhaustive review, experts from the University of Antwerp and the National Gallery of Art have concluded that the Van Eycks did, in fact, intend to have the Lamb – who symbolizes Christ Himself – display the (to modern eyes) slightly disturbing face that we see gazing out at us now. It may be a late Medieval convention with respect to how to portray animals, since similar faces appear among the horses in one of the other panels of the altarpiece, or it may be that one or both of the Van Eycks intentionally wanted to have the viewer thrown a bit off-balance when praying or meditating before the image.

— 5 –

I meant, but forgot to mention last week, that the Cathedral parish held a celebration on August 2, bringing the traditional way of celebrating Our Lady of the Snows from St. Mary Major in Rome down here to Birmingham. That is – letting white rose petals fall from the ceiling.

More here.

 

(And yes, the Cathedral has been having Mass with full ceremony since April/May – no congregational singing, every other pew roped off, etc., but a full music program – you can see the orders of worship here.)

This next Sunday’s Mass, for example– Viadana’s Missa l’Hora Passa. 

— 6 —

From the New Yorker, on two new biographies of Poulenc:

Both accounts undermine the popular image of Poulenc—carefully cultivated by the man himself—as the epitome of Parisian suavity and ebullience. He was, in fact, a turbulent, even tortured character: sometimes arrogant, sometimes self-castigating, sometimes lovable, sometimes impossible. That complexity only adds to the interest of the music. The critic Claude Rostand famously commented that Poulenc was a combination of “moine et voyou”—monk and rogue. Many of the composer’s works fall cleanly into one category or the other, but some of the strongest fuse the two personalities in one. The Organ Concerto (1938) interlaces brimstone dissonances with rollicking fairground strains. The Gloria (1959-60) exudes an almost scandalous joy, as if a crowd of drunken angels were dancing down the boulevards.

— 7 —

My son watched all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. All of them. Here’s his ranking. 

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

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I read two novels this week – in print! Thank you, libraries!

The first, Blackwood , by Michael Farris Smith, is a Southern Gothic type novel that didn’t quite work for me.  The central, driving tension did: how we cope with what we have done and what we have failed to do – and what has been done to us. Basically (and I’ll say it outright, since it’s the opening scene of the book) – a man, who, as a boy, witnessed his father’s last moments of life, a suicide. (But I’ll hold something back here, since its reveal is a good, jolting shock) – He spends his life wondering about his own role and bearing wounds of childhood trauma that even precedes his father’s death.

And I’ll say, that the way in which all of this circles around at the end is, indeed, grace-filled and redemptive, and even surprisingly so.

But the other part of the story is gothic, haunted, creepy, with kudzu as the metaphor and strange, damaged, damaging people doing strange deeds under the vines. Life is being choked out, the doings are hidden, and, it seems, nothing short of burning it all down will rid the world of the evil.

I mean, okay. And it was pretty readable, albeit sad, but the Gothic-ness was a little labored for me.

So let’s move on to Followers, which was more interesting, but flawed as well.

amy_welbornHere, we jump between time zones, so to speak: the recent past (2015/6) and the future (2051). In the recent past, we focus on Orla and Floss – one aspiring writer, stuck on a celebrity blog who believes she can and will do better and more, and the other an aspiring celebrity with all of the self-regard and conniving that aspiring celebrities generally have. And so, they join forces in order to reach those planets of fame and fortune.

In the future, we have Marlow, who has been raised in a place called Constellation, which is essentially a 24-hour Land of Social Media, where everyone’s lives are lived online, so to speak, in front of millions of followers.

Somewhere in between the two eras was a mysterious (for most of the book) disaster referred to as “The Spill” – which seemed to have wiped out the internet and the means of communication and information sharing that we know today, and the reaction to which scared everyone off the Internet,  which then allowed the government to step in and take control of it all. The Spill and the aftermath also made devices as we know them today, obsolete – replacing them with “Devices” that are implanted in the wrist and feed everything – thoughts, information, images – directly to the brain, confusing the individual as to what he or she is generating and what’s coming from outside.

Pretty complicated, but it mostly works, although I felt it was a bit long. Author Megan Angelo casts a healthy critical eye over the power of social media and the Internet, and what it does to us as individuals and the kind of culture it builds and supports.

Ellis thought so, too. “Hold on!” he said, waving his hands. “Save it, Mar. This is your authentic reaction to becoming a mother. You’ve gotta share it with your followers.” He opened the bathroom door and prodded her out, to where she could be seen. 

It’s about the hunger to influence, to matter in a big way, to feel important, and to do so by getting people interested in you or your narrative. I think the novel does a good job of exploring this in an imaginative way, skewering what highly merits being skewered, but there’s a missing piece. The focus is on characters who hunger for the influence –  but just as interesting to me is what makes that possible: the hunger to be influenced. What drives, not just those who want followers, but the followers themselves. That’s the other part of the dynamic and it could use some skewering, too.

But for the most part, Followers is a pretty entertaining, sharp look at the power of the Internet and social media, and how stupid it all is, and how, in the end, it distances us from the Real – as in this really quite beautiful and true passage:

Where could Marlow possibly be, besides, where she’d been told to go?

Here. Here, cutting through choppy, silt-filled water, away from all of them and closer to the truth. Marlow had been taught that being watched put food on the table, that there wasn’t a better way to live. But she had seen, on the sidewalks of New York, all the happy nobodies — people whose days weren’t built around lengthening the trail of attention spans floating behind them. They were paunchy and muttering and somehow more alive, and they made Marlow feel sorry for Floss and Ellis, with their endless performing, and Honey, with her army of dark-hearted disciples. They might have had all the followers, but they were never finished chasing.

Marlow was done being looked at. Now she was doing the looking, and finally seeing things differently. She found, in the sunrise, all the colors the pills had kept from her for years: a shade of orange she loved. A yellow that reminded her of when it was her favorite. A pink that might have been fine after all. She was hearing something, too, in the space her device used to fill: a brand-new voice inside her head, telling her to keep going. 

She leaned over the boat’s railing, into the spray, and listened to the voice. She was almost positive it sounded like herself. 

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—1 —

An interesting few days.

The two fellows who still live here are gone for a bit to visit family elsewhere. They’ll be back early next week, but for the moment, I’m alone for the first time since Christmas.

I was talking to my son who lives in NYC, where they’re opening things up, slowly but surely. The past week, he’s finally had some consistent social, face-to-face interaction with friends again – for the first time in months.

Each of experiencing welcome change, for opposite, but related reasons.

I add – quickly – that it will also be a welcome change when the guys return!

But everyone needs a break now and then, yes?

— 2 —

So what am I doing? Working. I have a project due on June 20, and I’m trying to get it halfway finished by Monday. Then I can coast, working on it for probably an hour or so a day until it’s due.

For me, the part of a project like this that requires the most focus is the framing and thinking through the shape and emphasis of it. And that kind of focus is hard for me to grab in small chunks. I need to have a large expanse of time in which I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything. It didn’t used to be that way, but you know, guys, I’ll be sixty in a few weeks, and so something like concentration is harder to come by.

Today (Thursday) was a framing/get in the groove day. That done, I can work on it for a couple of hours a day till Monday, and then put my mind to the next fiction project.

Still getting chapters of Nothing Else Occurs to Me up on Wattpad. Slowly but surely. (Backstory: here)

— 3 —

So….we have a new bishop here in Birmingham. Bishop Steven Raica, formerly of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.

I’ve not met him yet, don’t know a thing about him.

If you’re interested, you can watch the Vespers and Installation Mass that were broadcast on EWTN. If you do, you’ll get to hear the voices of our Cathedral’s core schola, which has been singing Cathedral Masses even through much of the lockdown, when Masses were streaming-only, not public.

 

 

 

As I’ve said before, it’s an approach that makes sense. If you’re not going to have congregational singing, consider the liturgical history of the Church, consider what developed during the centuries when congregational singing in the West was not the norm – and use that. 

It’s far preferable than having to listen to someone gamely warbling Praise and Worship music up there all by themselves.

— 4 —

Okay, I’ve not only been working the past couple of days. I’ve tried to walk a couple of hours a day – which means listening to my BBC radio podcasts – and I’ve read quite a bit as well as (gasp) watched a few movies – films that wouldn’t interest my housemates. So let’s do a quick survey.

First, reading – I finally finished Trevor’s The Boarding-House. That was a tough slog. I was most interested in the structure of it, which switched between points of view very quickly without transitions, as well as the historical detail revealed about London in the early ’60’s. The switching was confusing at first (I read it on Kindle and thought there was something wrong with the formatting), but once I got accustomed to it, I didn’t mind. My problem with the book is that I didn’t care about any of the characters and couldn’t figure out why I should spend time with them.

Anyway, I have a couple more short novels that I checked out via Hoopla that I will try to knock off over the next couple of days, then I think I’m going to plunge back into some Wilkie Collins. I need an absorbing, crazy read like No Name (reviewed here) in my life. I’d started Poor Miss Finch a couple of weeks ago, and will probably return to that. 

— 5 –

Now, movies.

I started watching Rocketman. I did like a few Elton John songs as a teen, but am definitely not a fan, but I was curious about the structure of the film and wanted to see the sections about his early life. Ended up watching the whole thing, not because it was great, but simply because of inertia, I suppose.

I did like the structure – I mean, why not tell a sketchy biographical tale of a living musician by making it a musical of sorts? I actually liked most of the musical set-pieces quite a lot. I think they worked. But the psychological trajectory and personal motivation offered was superficial – to be expected when the piece is produced by intimates and is about a living figure – and formulaic.

Bernie Taupin emerges as the one person you wouldn’t mind spending time with, to be sure.

— 6 —

Il Posto via the Kanopy platform. I gather you’re not supposed to say this is Italian Neorealism, since it’s not immediately postwar, but, well, you could have fooled me. It’s slow and observant, and I liked it quite a bit.

It’s the story of a young man from a village outside Milan who travels to the great city to test for a job, gets the job and begins working at the job. That’s it. It offers us a fascinating look at Italian life in the period and a rather trenchant, mostly wordless critique of white-collar work in large companies.

Except he won’t, and that’s what is so crushing about Il Posto. Antonietta comes to represent the youthful dreams that stagnate in an office building and the drudgery a job enforces. Once Domenico accepts his position as a messenger, Olmi breaks away from his lead for the first time. He takes us on an evening tour of the off-the-clock activities of the accounting staff that Domenico will eventually join. Some have very common, uninspired existences, others harbor their youthful folly as if it were rare treasure. There is the older man who goes to the pub and sings a song that is intended for someone not so advanced in years, and the would-be novelist who scribbles out his book in secret, hiding his light under a towel. Domenico tells his new boss that he may still go to night school to pursue the vocation he wants, but Olmi is showing us the true likelihood of that happening. Domenico’s father told his son that a job like this one is for life, and as the boy will learn, these positions tend to only open up when somebody dies.

Much of Olmi’s framing is intentionally expressionistic. The corporate world alternates between imposing, with the workers appearing small next to the business structure, and claustrophobic, cramped into their own little spaces. On the other hand, though Ermanno Olmi and cameraman Lamberto Caimi shot Il Posto in such a way to show life as it was, hoping to render the dreary gray of an average day, the black-and-white photography has taken on a nostalgic beauty over the years. Domenico and his peers just look more stylish, with their clean haircuts and their suits and ties, than we expect our youths to look today. Looking at Il Posto is like looking at photographs in a vintage magazine back issue: by being frozen in time, the images seem simpler, more desirable, than the busy world we’re used to today. Maybe that was by design. Maybe Olmi wanted it all to look hopeful and modern if only to add to the impact of the crushing blows to come.

The subverted ending of Il Posto sneaks up on the audience. We’ve been trained to expect something more, just like Domenico. We realize that there is nothing else mere moments before he does, and we can only brace ourselves for the heartbreak that is coming.

— 7 —

The Virgin Spring (1960) | The Criterion Collection

Finally, in a move that will please Son #2, I finally watched The Virgin Spring – his pick for his #1 Bergman. Here’s his review, and here’s his list. 

(He’s currently working his way through Hitchcock)

Okay, okay. I agree. It’s a great film, and I’m glad I finally watched it. I’m not an afficiando of Bergman’s films, but I have come to understand a bit about his spiritual-wrestling throughreading my son’s reviews. 

The standouts of that violence made the contemporary New York Times critic say that the movie was a thin morality tale below Bergman’s talents, but there’s actually so much more. What is there just isn’t spoken about, but it lingers in the background of everything. The conflict between the paganism of Odin and the monotheism of the new Christianity isn’t a stand-in for a simplistic good vs. evil battle. Instead, there are interesting shades within each character that drive the ideas even further. The father, Tore, obviously clings to his old pagan ways and has been dragged into the new Christianity by his wife Mareta. Their daughter, Karin, is beautiful and eager to look her best for her mission to deliver candles to the church, but she is also haughty, entitled, and manipulates her parents with ease. Ingeri, the pregnant Odin worshiper the family has taken in as a ward, prays for Karin’s defilement but confesses to Tore after the crime and begs for the punishment Tore will mete out to the perpetrators.

Where this movie stands out in Bergman’s filmography most for me is the thematic thrust of the film. The Virgin Spring came out in 1960, just a few years after the existential The Seventh Seal and right before the Silence Trilogy, and yet the thematic point isn’t a form of rejection of religion. In fact, the titular spring is an embrace of the idea that man’s concept of God, as manifested by the Church, is correct. It’s a natural extension of the story he was trying to tell, but also an artifact of the fact that he didn’t actually write the movie. God is still silent in the face of the violence placed upon the innocent Karin, but the existence of the spring that shoots from where her lifeless head had laid for a day, opening up immediately after Tore had promised to build a church of mortar and stone on the spot, is God’s communication. He speaks more in that than in anything else Bergman made.

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

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Had a very strange, unusual experience yesterday. Encapsulated in this Instagram story:

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No, I’m not going anywhere, except to Atlanta to take people to the airport. But it does mean a few days of (I hope) great productivity. What it doesn’t mean is a trip to Ikea on that Atlanta journey, since the hints I’ve read online indicate that there’s a considerable wait just to get into the store, which just reopened about ten days ago. Forget that. Let’s digest:

Writing: I have something due on July 20. Haven’t started writing it yet. Hopefully over the next week I’ll get it about half done as well as get myself in a sort of groove, so that once people return, the hard part of framing and envisioning will be done and I can just write a few hundred words in between music practices and food prep and other shenanigans.

I am putting up a chapter a day to the novel I wrote about here. Two up so far, one more coming later today.

I’ll be in Living Faith on Sunday. You’ll be able to see it here. 

A lot of my book sales are seasonal, specifically– Christmas and then Easter/First Communion/Confirmation related. I don’t have access to book sales from the various publishers that publish my books, but I do have some metric that Amazon provides authors. I don’t think it’s just Amazon sales, but I’m not sure. Anyway, not surprisingly, compared to previous years, this spring’s sales have been laughably miniscule. Totally expected. Shrug. The interesting thing, though, is that over the past two weeks, there’s been a rather dramatic uptick. Not at the typical height of April/May, but about four times as high as a normal June.

First Communions are back, baby!

Listening:  As reported, we have moved on from Brahms, Haydn and Prokofiev(you can listen here to the entire playlist – it’s public now – and he got “Excellents” from all three judges in the competition) to Gershwin (the big three Preludes plus Novelette in Fourths and Debussy’s First Arabesque. That’s the summer playlist, with him beginning to tackle the entire Moonlight Sonata as his big project for next year. Plus, I think the teacher is wanting him to do some Chopin Etude.

Watching: A bit of a blip in movie watching, as work schedules, hanging out with friends The Man in the White Suit (1951) - IMDband a new video game have interfered. After Hobson’s Choice, we stayed in England and took in the Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit

A low-key satire about human beings’ response to innovation and change. Alec Guinness portrays an unassuming yet committed young scientist who is trying to invent an indestructible fabric. He seems to succeed, but the initially-welcomed development is soon understood to have repercussions for almost everyone – from the big business tycoons to labor. It’s a movie about persistence, creativity, resistance to change and yes, my favorite theme, unintended consequences. Not as hilarious as The Lavender Hill Mob or quite as dark as Kind Hearts and Coronets,  but a gem of a film.

A Nanoscale Perspective on The Man in the White Suit - 2020 Science

We watched in on the Kanopy platform via the library, and followed it withthis Buster Keaton short,also on Kanopy.

Reading:  Wandering about the internet, searching through book blogging and reading sites, I happened upon this entry focusing on a mid-century novelist who apparently penned relatively short, sharp and dark books. I’m sold. I picked up The Girl on the Via Flaminia  – reviewed here, and read it in an evening.

(My main go-to for books like this, the Internet Archive, has been hit with legal action restricting what books it can make available for borrowing – books that you could borrow for a week or more are now only available for an hour. Hopefully they can get that straightened out soon. I discovered that this was available via Hoopla from my local library. It seems to me that Hoopla’s holdings have greatly expanded since the last time I checked, before Covid.)

I enjoyed it very much, although, you know, it wasn’t a laugh riot or anything. Set in Rome during the last stages of the Second World War, it’s about an American soldier who attempts an arrangement with a young Italian woman. A step above prostitution, in his mind, but is it really? Aside from the interesting landscape of wartime Rome, it confronts us with important questions about victory, defeat and occupation – and the impact of these Important Events on ordinary people, who simply want to live their lives.

I’ll be reading more of him.

Now I’m reading The Boarding House by William Trevor, which I also borrowed digitally from Hoopla. It’s quite a strange book. I started it last week and gave up after twenty pages, but then returned to last night. I’ll stick with it this time.

Cooking: Three major recent successes:

Madeleines. They were Son #4’s favorite bakery good from France years ago, and it just wp-1592919871186.jpgoccurred to me a couple of weeks ago that I should try to make them. Ordered a pan for the purpose, and followed this recipe – success! The recipe is correct though – these are not items that keep. They really are only good the first day.

These ribs. I ended up marinating them for almost three days (kept meaning to cook them, but life interfered). Delicious. Excellent. And yes, the Chinese cooking wine does make a difference. (Obtained, along with the ribs, from our local mega-Asian grocery store. $2.99 a bottle.)

A bone-in ribeye cooked via this method – the reverse sear.This is the second time I’ve done this, and I’m sold. Yes, I splurged on a higher cut of steak (when you’re only buying one, and you do it once a month….go ahead), so that makes a difference, but this method really does produce a wonderfully juicy steak, no resting required.

Now…no cooking for a week!

 

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—1 —

Well, that was interesting. Somehow, this post went viral, as we say, yesterday, with thousands more hits than I usually get around here. Very odd. I still don’t know why or how.

This also got a big bump, mostly because Ross Douthat retweeted a reference to it. Just glad to get the message out there!

Click back for other posts – on how 9th grade homeschooling ended up and on season 2 of Fargo. 

The other “extended reach” story of the week involved musician son-in-law, who had a song featured at the end of Tony Kornheiser’s podcast. 

— 2 —

The Real Lord of the Flies. A fascinating piece.

 

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

Much more hopeful turn of events than in the novel.

— 3 —

America ran a very nice piece on Wyoming Catholic College:

The first class every student takes is an introduction to the Experiential Leadership Program, ELP 101. In the summer before the start of the new school year, freshmen take a wilderness first aid course, then embark on a 21-day backpacking trip in the Wyoming backcountry. Like most everything at W.C.C., the course is grounded in Western philosophy. “The term ‘gymnastic,’” the Philosophical Vision Statement of the college reads, “comes from the Greek gymnos, meaning ‘naked.’ Gymnastics, broadly speaking, refers to the naked or direct experience of reality.” Through their direct encounter with the grandeur of nature, the founders believed, students would grow in virtue.

Students continue their outdoor education all four years at W.C.C.: a week of winter camping after the first Christmas break; week-long hiking, rafting or rock-climbing excursions once a semester; and a required course in horsemanship. But it is the 21-day trip that forms the foundation of what will follow in and out of the classroom.

“There’s nothing more empowering than when those students can go backpacking in wolf country and grizzly bear country by themselves without an instructor,” Mr. Zimmer says. “And that allows them to know that [when they take] the final they’re going to have in humanities or Euclid or Latin, they’re going to be fine. Just like their 21-day trip, they have to put effort and energy and time into their training.”

Ms. Stypa agrees. “There are so many nights out there where you’re freezing or it’s raining, and your sleeping bag got wet and someone has a blister that needs to get taken care of. And it’s 11 p.m. and you’re supposed to get up at 6 a.m., and it’s just hard,” she says. “That toughness that it gives you sticks with you when you come back into the semester when you’re slammed by paper after paper.”

She also described a more subtle connection to the classroom. “You’re just thrust into the wilderness, into the mountains and these mountain lakes, snow and wildlife and lightning storms. It’s terrifying, and it’s beautiful,” she says. “And then we come back, and we study poetry, and we talk about ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And I think you really draw on your experience and fill your imagination as you’re reading the Great Books.”
Jason Baxter, an associate professor of fine arts and humanities, also finds a deep resonance between the freshmen expedition and the Great Books curriculum. “There’s something severely beautiful about ancient texts, which are not trying to accommodate us in any way,” he tells me over tea at Crux, the corner coffee shop staffed by students and frequented by faculty and local residents alike. “And there’s something fascinatingly analogous to the Wyoming landscape, which is severely beautiful but does not exist in order to accommodate human beings. Without railroads or now interstates, we would not be here.”

 

— 4 —

You know the tune Tuxedo Junction? 

Well….Tuxedo Junction is actually here in Birmingham, Alabama. I did not know that until this week.

The second floor of the Belcher-Nixon building located in Ensley was the dance hall and center of all The Junction happenings. Many talented performers hailing from Birmingham got their beginnings by entertaining there.

Among these was the acclaimed musician and performer Erskine Hawkins. In 1939, Hawkins released the Birmingham favorite “Tuxedo Junction” in honor of his hometown. He writes about the magical place that he can count on to raise his spirits, where he can lose himself by dancing the jive all night to his favorite jazz.

 

— 5 –

A really, really good piece on fear and faith, taking off from Cyprian or Carthage’s work On Mortality – written in a time of plague. 

The paradoxical nature of a Christian view of life and death shows up remarkably in Cyprian of Carthage’s treatise On Mortality. Written only a few years after he became bishop in 248, in the midst of a ravenous plague that nearly destroyed the Roman Empire, Cyprian reflects on what it means for Christians to be alive to God, and so not to fear death.

The plague broke out in Egypt around 249 (the “exotic” East for a Roman) and had reached Carthage by 250 or 251. Historian Kyle Harper suggests either pandemic influenza (like the Spanish Flu) or a viral hemorrhagic fever (like Ebola). Ancient sources say that it could have carried away 5,000 persons a day, decimating the population by as much as 60% in some cities. Another source says that it seemed to spread through contact with clothing or even simply by eyesight. It is often called “The Plague of Cyprian” because it is the Carthaginian bishop who provides one of the most graphic accounts of its effects: severe diarrhea (“As the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow”), fever (“a fire that begins in the inmost depths, in the marrow, burns up into wounds in the throat”), and incessant, “intestine-rattling” vomiting (§14). In some cases, a person’s hands or feet were putrefied to the point of falling off, resulting in disfigurement or a loss of hearing and sight.

It was not a physical loss of sight, however, that worried Cyprian most. It was rather a loss of spiritual sight. 

 

— 6 —

Cyprian invites his hearers to see the plague as revelatory for how we view our life in reference to God. As an occasion for Christian sanctification, a time of plague reveals what we really care about, what we really love. The plague, in other words, makes visible what normally remains hidden in our ordinary lives of comfort and distraction. 

What a significance, beloved brethren, all this has! How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race—whether those who are well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help, whether the violent repress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice, whether the proud bend their necks, whether the shameless soften their affrontery, whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something!

Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God: that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown. (§16)

The plague is a test, a spiritual exercise, not a death. 

 

— 7 —

"amy welborn"Here’s a short story for you. It was a finalist for the Dappled Things J. F. Powers competition, but not the winner. So here it is – I wanted to put it on a platform that was not my blog, and Wattpad was the quickest way to go. It undoubtedly does not quite fit the site, but it was easy and let me keep my italics, so it won.

It may not be there forever, as I’ll still keep looking.

And here’s a novel  –     from Son #2! (Check out his other writings here)

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Coming to you from this morning’s office:

Sorry, not a coffee drinker, and a helpful young man in the convenience store dug behind all the regular bottles to find me a couple of Sabor Ligero – Coca-Cola Light, which is what you find outside the US instead of Diet Coke. You can also find Coke Zero, but I prefer the non-sweetness of this – which is not as perversely satisfying as the metallic mouth feel of Diet Coke, but hey. #GratitudeNovember or whatever.

Today’s the second day of Spanish school. I stayed at the school all morning yesterday, but there’s no need – so here I am back at our B & B, watching French tourists come and go.

All right – let’s do Monday:

Refresher: Kid #5, about to turn 15 next week has a long-standing interest in MesoAmerican civilizations, especially the Maya. It inspired past trips to the Yucatan and Guatemala. He is homeschooled, studied Spanish in 8th grade in school, has been doing his best on his own at home (mostly via this Great Courses and other random videos and reading, at the moment, El Hobbit.) But of course he needs more, and it seemed to be a good idea to combine the two interests – see a set of ruins he’s long wanted to visit and take a week of intensive Spanish study.

I had originally looked into Antigua, Guatemala, simply because I wanted to go there, but after thinking about it and considering options, it seemed as if the setting of Copan would give us more opportunities for after-school activities in the afternoons. There is a IMG_20191111_084415.jpglot to do around Antigua (not so much archaeological sites, but natural and cultural), but most of them seem to call for more than an afternoon. So, I was thinking, “We can do a week in Antigua, and then go to Copan”…I thought…why not just go to Copan for the week? As it turns out, there are a couple of well-regarded and reviewed Spanish language schools here, and so far – on day 2 – it seems to be working out well.

Monday morning, we rose, ate the typically well-prepared breakfast here at the B & B, then walked the six blocks or so to the school, located off the central square. It’s on the rooftop of a building housing a restaurant, a dental practice and some other businesses. He was introduced to a teacher, took a placement test, and then spent the next few hours learning how much he had to learn!

Humbling…

We then dropped our stuff off at the B & B, and ate lunch at a place recommended to us by our Copan guide – Cafe San Rafael – a lovely space centered on locally-made cheeses, as well as coffees (of course). It was more expensive than the typical local fare (full meal, for example, the previous night, for  both of us for 135 Lempira – about $5.50 USD), but worth it.

Then we took a mototaxi – what you’d know, more generally, as a “tuk-tuk” – they don’t Screenshot 2019-11-12 at 10.36.09 AMcall them that here – the prevalent mode of transportation in these parts – up  about 2 km to Macaw Mountain, a nature reserve originally started for birds that had served their usefulness to their owners as pets. You can read about it here. It was a good break from the hustle and bustle of town – we’d seen the flock of Macaws that fly freely at the ruins (and will see them again today) – and these guys are mostly in cages because they are being bred and trained to fly (those hatched in captivity), but still, it was a pleasant afternoon.

Back to town in a mototaxi, a rest, then out to get tickets for a Saturday excursion (we were originally going to leave Saturday, but decided this day-long excursion would be worth it), then dinner here – it was good – I had chicken, son had beef, with typical accompaniments. Monday Night Football en espanol on television, a cat wandering about. I prefer the more street-food stuff – the dishes cooked under tents in nooks and crannies  throughout town – and we have and will have plenty of that – but it’s nice to have a break from that to eat an actual enclosed space, as well!

Then a stroll into the center where we saw the pernicious influence of the USA in…Christmas decorations! On November 11! Ah, well…then to this small archaeological museum to fill out our Copan knowledge. Across the way, the church doors were open, so we went over to peek in and saw a man speaking to a fairly large group of folks – some sort of educational or mission activity I suppose. Children were racing around outside and since we obviously do not look native to these parts, were shouting, “Hello!” to us – one little boy (and I mean little – he was probably no more than 6 or 7) – was especially determined, so we took a few minutes for him to practice his English  – of which he was very proud – with us –  he could count to twelve, he knew all the greetings, and could tell me, when I asked him – gato? CAT! perro? DOG!

Back to the room…homework time for one of us, and me, reading John Lloyd Stephens on Copan. I have at home, for some reason, just the second volume of his great work – I think I got it when we first started on this path, and it’s the second volume that deals with the Yucatan. What I hadn’t realized was that Copan was actually the first ruins he encountered, the first place that revealed to him that maybe everything we thought we knew about this part of the world is wrong….It’s absolutely fascinating reading. 

Off-topic – Older Son is working his way through Billy Wilder’s oeuvre. Check it out here. 

Later!

(Don’t forget Instagram!) 

 

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A friend from Red Mountain Park on Sunday.

Just a bit of blogging this past week – scroll back for that. Some homeschooling thoughts, some El Camino thoughts. Important, big stuff.

I’ll be in Living Faith on Tuesday – go here for that.

And per usual, check out my son’s writings on film and his fiction!

— 2 —

After flailing away for months, trying to find thinkers and thoughts that in some way echo my own chaotic thoughts on the Present Moment, particularly in regard to mass and social media, the self and spirituality, I’ve stumbled upon a couple of works that I think might help – one I should have read decades ago, the other new to me:

The Culture of Narcissism – duh. It’s one of those books that for years I’ve just thought, yeah, I get it – as I’ve read other authors referencing it. But then I thought – yeah, I should probably just read it.

and then Society of the Spectacle by Frenchman Guy Debord, referenced by Catholic thinkers here and  here and available here. 

So perhaps at some point, you can return for any insights gained from that.

— 3 —

Debord wrote from the position of a cultural Marxist, and before you get all frazzled by that, consider:

It goes without saying that Western culture is saturated with images. They are on our billboards, on sides of vehicles, buildings, clothing and phones. We cannot even answer nature’s call without the walls of toilets calling to us with the latest offer we cannot refuse. The explosion of smartphone technology means that users have round-the-clock screen time. Our world is awash with signs and symbols that flood every corner of our social space and fill our collective imaginations.

But what is the cultural effect this image-saturation? This is where Kulturkritik comes in. The heart of Kulturkritik is the well-known Marxist analysis of the process of commodification ― the conversion of things into units of exchange. In brief, Marx saw commodities not merely as things but also carriers of meaning acquired through the process of industrial manufacture and commercial distribution. This cultural meaning accrues in the form of a series of images that surround the commodity, the most important of which is the conceit that the commodity possesses self-contained value ― and it is this value that facilitates commodity-exchange. The upshot of this is that, for Marx, a commodity is a thing with an image fused to it. And through these images, the commodity acquires a symbolic power over its creator, shaping ― and clouding ― the creator’s perceptions of the world around him. This was described by Marx not only as an illusion, but also as a “religious fog.”

But Marx was talking about tables and chairs. What happens when non-physical goods like images become commodities in themselves? This is where Baudrillard and Debord make their singular contributions. In 1967, Guy Debord published his landmark work Society of the Spectacle, in which he argued that images have the mobilising power they have now because “the commodity has succeeded in totally colonising social life … we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” Images are not distractions from the real world, they have become the means by which we apprehend the real world. They, moreover, give a certain consistency to the world; as Debord writes, images are “a means of unification … the focal point of all vision and consciousness.”

That’s from Matthew Tan, who blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian – a spot I will be exploring with great interest. 

— 4 —

This is the Debord reference that piqued my interest:

This debris, the culture of late-modern industrial society – as has been realized at both ends of the political spectrum – is really little more than a spectacle designed to reproduce and inculcate a secular, consumerist ethos and order of production, which itself is essentially a theatre. This partly lies in the fact that the gratuitous consumption fundamental to our society is driven not by need, but by wants related to the construction and maintenance of “identities” and “lifestyles” paraded about in a collective charade with little connection to authentic human realities. Thus, to paraphrase Guy Debord, cultural Marxist par excellence, spiritually lifeless mass culture in late-modern capitalism is just a spectacle for the sake of maintaining a spectacle. 

It’s from Catholic Insight – another online publication, this one Canadian, that is also worth your time. 

— 5 –

Today’s the feastday of St. Vincent de Paul:

He’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

 

An account of his life:

Thus, although he had no advantages of birth, fortune, or handsome appearance, or any showy gifts at all, Vincent de Paul’s later years became one long record of accomplishment. In the midst of great affairs, his soul never strayed from God; always when he heard the clock strike, he made the sign of the cross as an act of divine love. Under setbacks, calumnies, and frustrations, and there were many, he preserved his serenity of mind. He looked on all events as manifestations of the Divine will, to which he was perfectly resigned. Yet by nature, he once wrote of himself, he was “of a bilious temperament and very subject to anger.” Without divine grace, he declared, he would have been “in temper hard and repellent, rough and crabbed.” With grace, he became tenderhearted to the point of looking on the troubles of all mankind as his own. His tranquillity seemed to lift him above petty disturbances. Self-denial, humility, and an earnest spirit of prayer were the means by which he attained to this degree of perfection. Once when two men of exceptional learning and ability asked to be admitted to his congregation, Vincent courteously refused them, saying: “Your abilities raise you above our low state. Your talents may be of good service in some other place. As for us, our highest ambition is to instruct the ignorant, to bring sinners to a spirit of penitence, and to plant the Gospel spirit of charity, humility, and simplicity in the hearts of all Christians.” One of his rules was that, so far as possible, a man ought not to speak of himself or his own concerns, since such discourse usually proceeds from and strengthens pride and self-love.

From his own words, in today’s Office of Readings:

Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to understand the poor and weak. We sympathise with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men. Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbours’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.

 

— 6 —

The writings that St. Vincent left behind are mostly in the form of correspondence and conferences, which are in print today and easy to find. Some of these thoughts were collected in a small volume of “Counsels” which you can access via archive.org. For example, here.

I find reading works like this instructive for a number of reasons. First, naturally, because they are the thoughts and advice of a great saint, and that’s always good to put in your brain and fill your time with.

But secondly – what a contrast. What a contrast to the contemporary spiritual gestalt and yes, I’m talking about Catholic gestalt, too. Perhaps especially.

I am ever intrigued by popular spirituality, no matter what era, and in particular by the give and take, ebb and flow between Catholicism and secular thought and culture. When does the latter help illuminate the former? When does it obscure, distract and point us away from Christ? When we tease it apart, what should be retained, and what should be tossed?

When you read these Counsels of St. Vincent de Paul, you might start suspecting that much of what you’re encountering in contemporary Catholic spiritual and pastoral efforts falls into that latter category.

Harsh!

But why?

Because traditional Catholic spirituality, from St. Paul on, has been about humility and emptying the self and allowing Christ to fill you. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. 

Consider what you’re being sold these days, even from Catholics. In every way, in every corner, it seems to be about you and your self. We are constantly told that the core of spiritual seeking is to discover who you really are, with gifts ‘n’ talents at the ready, accept who you really are, accept that God accepts you as you really are, arrange your life around the self you have accepted, be passionate about that self and its potential for greatness, find a church community that accepts you as you really are, and then get upset if you feel that you’re not being accepted as you really are. Lather, rinse, repeat.

 

There’s that concept of being stuck in perpetual adolescence, and this seems to me to be one manifestation of it – that unrelenting focus on and anxiety about the self and how well we are understood and accepted. As well as a spirituality formed in a context of relative material prosperity and social segregation. Does it nudge us in the proper direction, open us to the fullness of the Gospel? Sometimes, perhaps. God can work through anything, no matter how weird and odd and even bad, and does. But really, this moralistic therapeutic deism, as it’s commonly called in this, yes, culture of narcissism –  and what St. Vincent is preaching – to not speak of oneself and one’s own concerns –  are…different.  It’s good to pay attention and question your spiritual paradigm, not just once in a while, but every day.

— 7 —

Here’s my tonic for that temptation. From the Counsels:

The methods by which God chooses to work are not in accordance with our ideas and our wishes. We must content ourselves with using those small powers which He has given us, and not be distressed because they are not higher or more far-reaching. If we are faithful in a little, He will give much into our charge ; but that is His province, and does not depend on efforts of ours. We must leave it to Him, and try and fill our own niche.

The spirit of the world is restless, and desires to be active in all things. Let it alone. We must not choose our paths, but follow those into which it is God’s pleasure to direct us. So long as we know ourselves unworthy to be used by Him, or to be esteemed by other men, we are safe. Let us offer ourselves to Him to do or to suffer anything that may be for His glory or for the strengthening of His Church. That is all He asks. If He requires results, that is in His hands and not in ours ; let us spread out heart and will in His presence, having no choice of this or that until God has spoken. And, -‘meanwhile, pray we may have grace to copy our Lord in those virtues that belonged to His hidden life.

Remember always that the Son of God remained unrecognised. That is  our aim, and that is what He asks of us now, for the future and for always, unless He shows us, by some method of His which we cannot mistake, that He wants something else of us. Pay homage to the everyday life led by our Lord on earth, to His humility, His self-surrender, and His practice of  the virtues such a life requires. But chiefly pay homage to the limitations our Divine Master set on His own achievements. He did not choose to do all He might have done, and He teaches us to be content to refrain from undertakings which might be within our power, and to fulfill only what charity demands and His will requires.

I rejoice at this generous resolve of yours to imitate our Lord in the hiddenness of His life. The idea of it seems as if it must have come from God, because it is so opposed to the ordinary point of view of flesh and blood. You may be quite sure that that certainly is the state befitting children of God. Therefore be steadfast, and have the courage to resist all  the suggestions that are against it. You have found the means by which you may become what God asks you to be and learn to do His holy will continually, and that is the goal for which we are striving and for which all the saints have striven.

Another way to think of this, traditionally, is in terms of will. One of St. Benedict’s rules is “to hate one’s own will.” Again – harsh! Isn’t happiness about fulfilling our deepest yearnings?

Well, yes and no, and of course it all comes down to definitions.

We all suffer because we believe that happiness lies in fulfilling our will. But if we have the gift to reflect on our past, we quickly come to the realization that much of what we “will” does not bring us happiness and in fact is quite fleeting and arbitrary–changing with the wind.

To fight “our will” does not mean going off into another direction but rather facing reality. Our “will” often pulls us away from what most needs our attention. We often will to be somewhere other than where we are, to be doing something other than what needs to be done and to be with someone other than the one we are with at the present moment. These are exactly the moments when we are to “hate” our own will and seek to do the will of God.

 


 

Coming Monday: St. Jerome’s feastday:

 

 

From The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

 

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

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

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

Ask you local Catholic bookstore to order it!

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

For more on the series, go here. 

amy-welborn3

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Well, it’s been a few days since we digested, so let’s go for it:

amy_welbornWriting:  I was in Living Faith last Sunday. Next appearance won’t be until the beginning of May.

Several blog posts – just scroll back for those. Lots of travel blathering to assuage my guilt about privilege and such. Dug up an old piece I wrote on St. Benedict the Black (Moor), posted that and discovered that I’ve been annoyed by the same things for a long time.

Lots of sitting around, staring and jotting notes.

Oh! The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols is a finalist for an “Excellence in Publishing Award” from the Association of Catholic Publishers. 

Listening:   Much Liszt and Ginastera still, but not as much Beethoven – we may be almost done with this particular piece for the year after last Saturday. Hopefully not img_20190409_200229completely done – that would mean he didn’t do well enough to advance to the state level – but we’ll see. Waiting for those results.

As that area of piano winds down, the jazz and organ levels up. Lots of listening to this this week – and for the next few weeks. 

Reading: All right, here we go. First, let’s do what’s in progress.

Rare for me, I purchased a brand new book, simply on the basis on a recommendation. I don’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but since it involved the Gospel of Mark – along with John, one of my two favorites – and seemed to take on some of my concerns, I was in: The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel of Mark. 

Simply reading the introduction was a revelation and prompted me to regret, once again, the thrust of Biblical studies in the era in which I came of age – the 80’s and 90’s – rooted in the historical-critical method, aka – as it panned out for most of us –  skepticism. I suppose what we are seeing now needed that stage to exist. Perhaps this moment couldn’t have come to life without both the shaking of old pietistic assumptions as well as the hard contextual work of the historical-critical scholars, but still. What time wasted, what distance created between the reader and Christ by fixating us – even the lay reader via Bible studies and homiletics – on what Matthew is saying to his Jewish readers here and how it differs from what Luke is saying to his Gentile readers there. 

More as I go along.

I’ve read two novels since last we spoke on these matters:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Why this and how? The typical rabbit-trail route. Browsing the “new releases” I came upon her TranscriptionIt looked mildly interesting, which led me to go to the “A’s” in the fiction section and see what else she’d written – a lot, as it turned out – so I plucked out a couple to try. I ended up starting with this one rather than the newest. It was..okay.

She writes well, and that’s why it wasn’t time wasted for me. I learned some things from reading her. But the novel wasn’t ultimately satisfying for me and led me to decide to just return the others I’d checked out and move on.

There are three mysteries introduced in the story, which end up being…sort of connected. I think what put me off was, first, I figured things out pretty early, and I never figure mysteries out. Maybe I’m just getting smarter, but I doubt that.

Secondly, there is a theme of abuse within a family which is treated rather lightly by surviving family members when it comes to light. The abuse was terrible, and I found the reaction of characters both unbelievable and – hate to use the word, but this is it – offensive.

My only other comment on the book is that once again  – Catholic themes and imagery pop up, and I wasn’t even looking for them – again. A family member ends up in a convent and while the treatment of this tumbles a little bit into caricature, and I honestly don’t think this person would have actually been accepted into religious life considering her issues and weirdness, still – there was a theme of contrition and doing penance for one’s sins that required a working out, and where do you go when you need to make that happen? Catholic Land, of course!

Now, for a much better, more serious book – The Blood of the Lamb by Peter de Vries. 

(The link goes to an archive.org version that you can “borrow.” The book is still in print, though and easy to find. )

As I mentioned the other day, de Vries was a favorite of my father’s and was quite popular in the 60’s. I’d never read anything by him, and this novel is a departure from his usual humorous work – although it has its moments as well.

I rarely, if ever suggest to you “You should read this book” –  simply because life is short, people’s tastes vary, and who am I?

But I’m going to make an exception here. I think you should read this book – if you’re interested in faith, period, but particularly faith and art.

Here’s an excellent essay from Image introducing de Vries, and particularly this book:

IT WAS AN ORDINARY autumn night in suburban Chicago when I received the most disturbing book I have ever read. I was seventeen, slouching in my bedroom making a half-hearted attempt at homework, my sweaty cross-country clothes festering on the floor. My father appeared at the doorway and handed me a yellowed paperback that looked at least a few decades old.

“You might like this,” he said.

It was The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries. I had heard De Vries’s name for the first time only a few days earlier. It came up at the family dinner table, and as I learned about him, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him sooner. He was once a well-known satirist who published twenty-six novels, most of them commercially successful. He spent forty-three years as an editor at TheNew Yorker, his short stories appearing regularly in its pages. He enjoyed a privileged perch in the cultural landscape, friends with J.D. Salinger and James Thurber.

And he came from our people—the Dutch Calvinists of Chicago. He attended my religious high school and college. He grew up in the same South Side neighborhood as my grandmother, worshipping at the same church, Second Christian Reformed on Seventy-Second Street. According to a family story, he had dated her, or tried to date her. Or they shared a hymnal at a Sunday evening church service. By Dutch Calvinist standards, that’s practically second base.

A short synopsis:

Don Wanderhope is , as the essay above says, from Dutch Calvinist stock, living in Chicago, when we first meet him, in the late 1920’s. His father runs a refuse company (common among Dutch Calvinists, according to this essay), and he grows to adulthood listening in on theological arguments, helping his father, going to school, discovering girls, and yearning for a different, more refined life.

Image result for blood of the lam de vriesHe gets into a bit of trouble with one girl (a hilarious scene – I mean, who can blame them for not anticipating the model home being shown on a Sunday evening?) but is spared from marrying her by a TB diagnosis. He goes to Colorado sanatorium (I always enjoy fictional sanatorium scenes because my mother had TB and spent time in one in New Hampshire in her youth – and remembered the time, in a way, as the best time of her life.) where he meets another girl, falls in love, but that ends and he heads back to Chicago, mostly healed (if he was ever really that ill at all) discovers his father in the beginning stages of dementia, goes to college, marries, moves to New York, works in advertising, has a daughter who eventually dies of leukemia.

I won’t say spoiler alert because everyone knows that the illness, suffering and death of the character’s daughter is the center of the novel – because it’s autobiographical. The novel was published a year after de Vries’ own 10-year old daughter died of leukemia, and oh, it is raw and painful and sorrowful.

So, no – if subject matter like that would be difficult for you to handle, you shouldn’t read it.

But if you can handle it, and you want to be immersed in a very honest, challenging exploration of faith and theodicy – pick it up.

Before I read it, I was under the impression that the book was the cry of an atheist soul, but it’s really not. It’s the cry of a suffering, loving soul who just doesn’t understand. It’s a dramatization of the question: You, a human parent, would do everything you could to alleviate your child’s suffering – why doesn’t God do the same for his own suffering children? This. Makes. No. Sense.

Jeffrey Frank, writing in The New Yorker in 2004 about De Vries’s legacy, calls the following hospital scenes “as unbearable as anything in modern literature.” I can’t say that he’s exaggerating. Don and Carol make a series of visits to a New York hospital, each time receiving assurances from her oncologist, Dr. Scoville, about his progress researching cures. De Vries charts the development of her leukemia in excruciating detail, tracking the cycles of remission and broken hopes, with each medication more desperate than the last.

Don joins the other parents in trying to preserve a sense of normalcy. They throw birthday parties and speak of returning to school in the fall. He watches a dying infant crawl the hallway “wearing a turban of surgical gauze, whom a passing nurse snatched up and returned to its crib.”

He describes these incidents as if laying out evidence against a heartless God. Here the book’s title becomes clear. It refers not to the blood of Jesus, the lamb of scripture, but to the young girl. Don’s innocent lamb is poisoned by her own blood.

When I read the book at seventeen, it was De Vries’s intensity that rattled me so deeply. The Blood of the Lamb attacked my community’s faith, furiously, from within. That’s something that Hitchens and the so-called New Atheists couldn’t do. We were taught to expect “the world” to mock our faith. But here was one of our own doing the same, and he struck me as funny, sophisticated, and intelligent in doing so. I felt an uncomfortable shiver of recognition, because I knew, even if it went unspoken, that our faith clashed with modern science, that our scriptures carried contradictions, and that religion often fueled as much bigotry as good in the world. I couldn’t defend the reasons for my faith against De Vries.

Returning to the book as an adult, I realize I misremembered two things. First, De Vries reserves as much rage for medical authorities as religious ones. When Dr. Scoville glibly tells him about the “exciting chase” of developing chemotherapy drugs, Wanderhope responds, “Do you believe in God as well as play at him?”

Second, I remembered Wanderhope as a settled unbeliever from his university days onward. Yet it’s clear that he keeps searching for divine guidance until the very end of his daughter’s life, even carrying a crucifix and medal of Saint Christopher. His retort to Dr. Scoville is a bitter joke, yet it’s also the question he can’t stop asking.

I’m going to close with a few quotes from the novel, but I want to point out something alluded to in what the essayist says here, something that is so interesting to me. De Vries’ background was solid Dutch Calvinist, and the theological discussions at the beginning take on faith in that context – predestination, and so on. But as the novel moves to New York, the religious context and imagery become very, very Catholic. The practical reason is that there’s a Catholic church on the way to the hospital. Wanderhope is always passing it and even stopping in. The crucifix outside the church becomes the focus of a final, enraged gesture.

Partly, I suppose because this reflects de Vries’ own actual experience, partly because well, Calvinists don’t have a lot of imagery that lends itself to dramatization of inner faith turmoil.

Once again. 

He resented such questions as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and slipshod have ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization. The vanity (if not outrage) of trying to cage this dance of atoms in a single definition may give the weariness of age with the cry of youth for answers the appearance of boredom.

 

I made a tentative conclusion. It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.

 

The greatest experience open to man then is the recovery of the commonplace. Coffee in the morning and whiskeys in the evening again without fear. Books to read without that shadow falling across the page.

Dead drunk and cold-sober, he wandered out into the garden in the cool of the evening, awaiting the coming of the Lord.

There is a point when life, having showered us with jewels for nothing, begins to exact our life’s blood for paste.

And then, on a light note, this – reflecting the mid-1930’s. The content is more explicit now, but really, has anything changed? The pride in putting something stupid out there and selling it as a manifestation of some sort of artistic progress?

One summer when Carol was attending day camp, Greta had an affair with a man named Mel Carter. He was an Eastern publicity representative for a film studio, and often instructed dinner parties to which we went in those days with accounts of the movies’ coming of age. ‘We have a picture coming up,’ he said once, ‘in which a character says “son of a bitch.” Lots of exciting things are happening. Still, it’s only a beginning. Much remains to be done.’

 

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john baptist de la salle

Today is the feastday of St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, the 17th-18th century French priest, founder of the Christian Brothers, who revolutionized education.

In brief:

Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) is one of the most important figures in the history of education. As the founder of the Institute for the Brothers of the Christian Schools – not to be confused with the Irish Christian Brothers – he showed a revolutionary fervour for the education of the poor.

In teaching techniques, too, he was an innovator, insisting on grouping pupils together by ability rather than by age. Against the traditional emphasis on Latin, he stressed that reading and writing in the vernacular should be the basis of all learning.

Equally, Catholic dogma should lie at the root of all ethics. Yet de la Salle also introduced modern languages, arts, science and technology into the curriculum. Of his writings on education, Matthew Arnold remarked: “Later works on the same subject have little improved the precepts, while they entirely lack the unction.”

From a LaSallian page:

John Baptist"john baptist de la salle" de La Salle was a pioneer in founding training colleges for teachers, reform schools for delinquents, technical schools, and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences. His work quickly spread through France and, after his death, continued to spread across the globe. In 1900 John Baptist de La Salle was declared a Saint. In 1950, because of his life and inspirational writings, he was made Patron Saint of all those who work in the field of education. John Baptist de La Salle inspired others how to teach and care for young people, how to meet failure and frailty with compassion, how to affirm, strengthen and heal. At the present time there are De La Salle schools in 80 different countries around the globe.

An excellent summary of the life of the saint can be found at a webpage dedicated to a set of beautiful stained-glass windows portraying the main events.

Not surprisingly, de la Salle left many writings behind. Many, if not all, are available for download at no cost here. 

All are of great interest. De la Salle wrote on education, of course, but since his vision of education was holistic, he is concerned with far more than the transmission of abstract knowledge or skills.

You might be interested in reading his Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility.

It is incredibly detailed. Some might find the detail off-putting or amusing. I see it as a fascinating window into the past and a reminder, really, of the incarnational element of everyday life. The introduction to the modern edition notes:

De La Salle sought, instead, to limit the impact of rationalism on the Christian School, and he believed that a code of decorum and civility could be an excellent aid to the Christian educator involved in the work of preserving and fostering faith and morals in youth. He believed that although good manners were not always the expression of good morals, they could contribute strongly to building them. While he envisioned acts of decorum and civility as observing the established customs and thereby protecting the established social order, he envisioned them more profoundly as expressions of sincere charity. In this way the refinement of the gentleman would become a restraint on and an antidote to self-centeredness, the root of individual moral transgressions as well as the collective evil in human society.

Perhaps we can see a key difference here – the difference between educating with a goal of prioritizing self-expression and self-acceptance and that of prioritizing love of others and self-forgetfulness.

Huh.

 

A sample:

Decorum requires you to refrain from yawning when with others, especially when with people to whom you owe respect. Yawning is a sign that you are bored either with the compabruegel-yawning-man.jpg!Largeny or with the talk of your companions or that you have very little esteem for them. If, however, you find that you cannot help yawning, stop talking entirely, hold your hand or your handkerchief in front of your mouth, and turn slightly aside, so that those present cannot notice what you are doing. Above all, take care when yawning not to do anything unbecoming and not to yawn too much. It is very unseemly to make noise while yawning and much worse to yawn while stretching or sprawling out.

You need not refrain entirely from spitting. It is a very disgusting thing to swallow what you ought to spit out; it can make you nauseated. Do not, however, make a habit of spitting often and without necessity. This is not only uncouth but also disgusting and disagreeable to everyone. Take care that you rarely need to do this in company, especially with people to whom special respect is due

Also of interest might be two books on religious formation, gathered here into a single volume. The first centers on the Mass, and the second on the prayer life of a school.  The first was intended, not just for students, but for parents and the general public as well, and once again, offers a helpful and important piece of counter evidence against the ahistorical claim that the laity were not encouraged to “participate” in the Mass before the Second Vatican Council.

Of all our daily actions, the principal and most excellent one is attending Mass, the most important activity for a Christian who wishes to draw down God’s graces and blessings on himself and on all the actions he must perform during the day. jeanbaptistedelasalleNevertheless, few people attend Mass with piety, and fewer still have been taught how to do so well. This is what led to the composing of these Instructions and Prayers to instruct the faithful in everything relating to the holy Sacrifice and to give them a means of occupying themselves in a useful and holy manner when they attend Mass.

To begin with, we explain the excellence of holy Mass, as well as the benefits derived from attending it. Next, we point out the interior dispositions that should animate our external behavior at Mass. Finally, readers learn the means of focusing their attention fully during the time of Mass.

Following this presentation, we explain all the ceremonies of holy Mass. Finally, this book suggests two sets of prayers, one based on the Ordinary of the Mass, the other on the sacred actions performed by the celebrant during Mass. Thus the faithful can alternate between both sets of prayers without growing overly accustomed to either one. Those who prefer can select the one set they like best or that inspires them with greater devotion

 

 

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