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Frost In May is a very  Catholic book, and I am really wondering how I’d never heard of it or its author before a couple of weeks ago, me being the self-styled pseudo-“expert” in Catholic Lit that I fancy I am.

Humility is always just around the corner, it seems.

I won’t leave you in suspense: it’s an excellent little novel, terse, painful, ironic and complicated.

People have various views on how much the biography of an artist should weigh on our evaluation or understanding of the art. I tend to land on the “let the piece stand on its own” side most of the time, even though there’s usually one significant biographical fact that helps illumine a work and is good to know before you go on: Walker Percy’s grandfather and father both committed suicide. Flannery O’Connor’s father died young from lupus, and she knew she’d die young from it too after a certain point. And so on.

I think with Frost in May¸ knowing a bit about Antonia White is helpful. I hasten to say, though – not too much, for there’s an event in her young life that makes its way into the novel and is a definite, sad twist – and it’s good not to know what it is going in.  So don’t do exhaustive research, and don’t read the introductions to modern editions before you read the novel.

(This is a pet peeve of mine – I have found this time and time again that these introductions to older novels, usually penned by popular contemporary authors, tend to give a lot of the plot away – so I’ve started skipping them. Perhaps it would be better for them to be supplementary essays in an appendix?)

But I will say that this incident – what happened to White and what happens to her protagonist – is an almost perfect distillation of the Plight of the Catholic Artist….

What’s helpful to know is this – Antonia White’s fiction is mostly autobiographical, pulling from her own life as the young Catholic convert only child of a Catholic convert father/schoolteacher, and then, as she got older, from her experience of mental illness and terrible relationships.

(Side note: when I was first running across mentions of this book and this writer, I thought I was reading about Antonia Fraser – and was a little confused. Not the same person.)

Her personal life was very, very difficult, and her own children weren’t spared from this difficultly – both daughters wrote negative books about their mother.

There’s an autobiographical entry from White at the Catholic Authors website – but be warned, it does relate this incident I’m talking about that figures in Frost in May – but I’ll quote here White’s assessment at the time she wrote the entry, of her own faith journey, as we say:

Though bad reviews can wound a lot, good ones do not always inflate one as much as they might. So often the flattering remarks seem to bear no relation to the novel one has actually written’ so that one feels rather like a cat that has been awarded a prize in a dog-show. What is far more heartening than even the kindest review is the letter from the stranger who has read the book and taken the trouble to write a personal appreciation. Best of all is the stranger who finds something in what one has written that corresponds to their own experience of life or even illuminates it. One such letter from a stranger in New Jersey (she is now a friend of many years’ standing) gave me courage to tackle a difficult theme . . . that of insanity. It is to this Catholic woman doctor that I dedicated my last novel, Beyond the Glass.

My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other. The fact that I lapsed from both faith and practice for fifteen years is naturally something I bitterly regret. Nevertheless, I think that it has given me a real understanding of those outside of the Church and of problems for Catholics themselves which those who have been spared ‘doubts’ do not always appreciate. Since I was fortunate enough to recover my faith in 1940, every year has given me a deeper conviction of its truth. If anything I have written or may write one day could reduce some of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholics, I would be more than rewarded for all the qualms and miseries I have every time I embark on the seemingly impossible task of writing another novel.

Frost in May is a novel about a young girl’s time in a Catholic boarding school at the Convent of the Five Wounds. We meet Nanda at the age of nine as she is on her way, with her father, to the school, and we say farewell to her at the end, when she is leaving – having been sent away – a few years later.

During those years, she encounters the sisters, strong women, one verging on the sociopathic, it seems, but the others, while strict and focused on their perceived mission, never really actually cruel. She makes friends – the girls do not come from a terribly varied background, given that this is a school that mainly caters to elite Catholic families, both British and Continental – but their personalities range in the ways you would expect, from the deeply pious to the scandalously skeptical, and, as is often the case in this genre (see The Trouble with Angels)  – those most deeply affected by life with the Sisters are never those you might expect from their external affect. Emotions run high and heated in such an atmosphere, as well.

The spirituality of the order is harsh and even a little nutty by modern standards. But what I appreciate is that White always presents these practices and traditions in a full human and spiritual context, so that while we, from a distance, can say..well, perhaps that goes a little far and isn’t necessary – we can also see that the rationale is rooted in a sincere desire to help these young women be faithful followers of Christ in all that life will be handing them.

We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.

It’s harsh:

Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.

The intention was always to teach the virtue of humility before God and other human beings – but this worthy goal can easily be perverted into a system of humiliation administered by flawed and sinful human beings in systems that ossify and lose sight of their original charism.

I think that Frost in May dramatizes that tension very well, and does so in a way that takes the root positive motivations seriously, and thereby avoids cheap shots or easy, cynical black-and-white post-mortems that don’t so much clarify the truth as heighten the pride of those of us who have the luxury of hindsight.

I’d also say that from the perspective of 2017 – almost a hundred years after the fictional Nanda is taken to the Convent of the Five Wounds – we can look at the fruit of that swinging pendulum with clear eyes. Yes, perhaps it was too much for the little old sister to correct Nanda’s sleeping posture on her first night:

“Now, lie down,” said the nun kindly, “you were not, by any chance, crying when I came in?”

“No, mother,” said Nanda decidedly.

“That is good. But you were lying in such a strange way. Did your mother never tell you at home to lie upon your back?”

“No, mother.”

“But it is more becoming that you should.”

Nanda straightened herself out from her comfortable ball, turned her back and thrust her feet bravely down into the cold sheets.

“So, it is better,” said the nun gently, “and now the hands.”

She took Nanda’s hands and crossed them over her breast.

“Now, ma petite,” she said, “if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night, you would be ready to meet him as a Catholic should. Good night, little one, and remember to let the holy Name of Jesus be the last word on your lips.”

She passed silently out of the cubicle.

Nanda retained her new position rigidly for a few minutes.

“I shall never get to sleep,” she thought miserably as she heard the outdoor clock strike eight. But even as she thought it her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus” before she was fast asleep.

But…you know what? There’s that tension I’m talking about – at first glance, the sister’s insistence of proper Catholic sleeping posture sounds crazy and definitely over the top. God meets us where we are! But then….Nanda falls asleep and yes, Jesus is the word that takes her there.

Hindsight. We can look back, and hear witnesses attest to how this spirituality harmed or helped them – but then we can also look back, not so far, at our own recent history and see that perhaps the externals are irrelevant…do what’s in your heart…has its own less-than-perfect fruit as well.

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Weekend:

The older one worked a lot – Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon into the evening. After working almost every afternoon last week as well, it’s good that he has somewhat of a break this week – not working again until Friday. He seems to be managing it well, though. He’s certainly learning to value free time and not take it for granted.

On Saturday morning, I had a very enjoyable time speaking to women of the diocese of Birmingham at Our Lady of the Valley parish.  I used some stories from the Guatemala trip in the talk, and as I did so, some points really clicked in my brain, so hopefully as the busy-ness of the early part of the week abates, I can move forward on that project with clarity.

"amy welborn"

After a summer break, they were back serving at the Casa Maria retreat house yesterday:

(Again – sorry it’s huge. I wish you could resize videos on WordPress…but you can’t. I don’t think.)

Afternoon: reptiles.

 

This week:  Eclipse Day today – we are staying right here and will just see what we can see (with our glasses!). I was pretty convinced that if I attempted to travel to full totality – even though we had added incentive because Charleston, where my son, daughter-in-law and grandson live is in the path of full totality – what would happen was this: The spot to which I traveled would experience heavy cloud cover and it would end up being clear back in Birmingham.

So we’re here today. Eclipse Education, Eclipse, then a piano lesson. Tomorrow, M is back at the convent, serving for a Final Profession Mass, then to the orthodontist and then on Wednesday I’m thinking “school” will be a little more focused.

All right, let me try to do this: offer some thoughts on some of the books I’ve read over the past ten days.

First was – as I mentioned and posted about – Ride the Pink Horse.  Such an interesting, surprising read.

Then I turned a bit and traveled to somewhere in Illinois in 1918 for They Came Like Swallows.

 William Maxwell is well-known as an editor, but he was a fine writer himself. They Came Like Swallows was the first novel of his that I’d read.

It’s a short, intense book about childhood, the passing of time and grief. In some respects, it reminded me of Paul Horgan’s Things as They Are

I hate to say too much about  the important plot points because while it is clear something is going to happen, the precise nature of the incident is somewhat of a surprise and perhaps shouldn’t be spoiled for future readers.

So what shall I say?

It’s a short novel told, in three sections, from the perspective of three characters (all in the third person) – a young boy, his older, young teen-aged brother, and their father.

The time, as I mentioned, is 1918. The Great War ends during the novel, but something else is brewing, something called influenza. The family at the center is a comfortable, middle class family living in Illinois. The younger boy has an intense relationship with his mother and lives, it seems to him, primarily in reference to her.  Through his eyes, as well, his older brother is a rough figure who cares little for anyone, but when his turn comes around, we see that things are not always as they appear.

They Came Like Swallows is a lovely book with as authentic a representation of the feeling of grief as I have ever read in literature.

A note on the edition I read. Most of you know about the Internet Archive – you may not know that one of the features of the site is a book borrowing service – that is, of books that are still in print. That’s how I read They Came Like Swallows  What I didn’t like was that copyright limitations prevented it being downloaded as an actual Kindle book, ,so it had to be read online, which meant that I couldn’t highlight or make notes. But at least I was able to read it, and for that I’m grateful. It’s very good, beautifully written, sad and true.

Coming attractions:

Frost in May

The Tortoise and the Hare

 So Long, See You Tomorrow

 Time Will Darken It

 The Lost Traveler

 

 

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I’m sharing with you here the chapter on the Assumption from my book Mary and the Christian Life. You can click on each image for a larger, clearer version, or you can just make your life easier by downloading a pdf version of the book here. 

 

 

Interested in more free books? The following are all links to pdf versions of books of mine that our now out of print. Feel free to download and share and even use in the parish book groups.

De-Coding Mary Magdalene

Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI

The Power of the Cross

 

 

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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Back-Cover

What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

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Pope Emeritus Benedict’s birthday is this coming Sunday..if you’d like an simple, free introduction to his thought, take a look at the book I wrote a few years ago, now out of print, but available in a pdf version at no cost. Did I mention, “free?”

Here. 

Pope Benedict 90th birthday

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The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, books which are primarily focused on the clergy and their families of the fictional town.

The plot is simple. From Goodreads, because I hate summarizing plots. I must have had a traumatic experience in fourth grade or something.

“The Warden” centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

Reading Trollope, first of all, will disabuse a reader of the notion that in past eras, clergymen and church affairs were considered off-limits for satire, mocking and criticism. Of course this is not the case, and has never been, but Trollope’s treatment of religion is "amy welborn"particularly instructive because he is so straightforward in presenting the humanity and politics of the world of the church (of England in this case, of course).

The Warden is much shorter than most of Trollope’s other work, and more focused, although the political and journalistic world of London comes under scrutiny as Mr. Harding travels there to make his case. I earlier highlighted Trollope’s evisceration of the press in his chapter “Mount Olympus.” 

I want to highlight just a few quotes from The Warden, passages which I particularly appreciated either because of their insight into human behavior or high satirical quotient. In the first, “the doctor” is the Archdeacon of the Cathedral, who is also Mr. Harding’s son-in-law. He is determined that the threat against Harding’s position is no less than a threat against the privileges of the entire Church of England, and must be stopped.

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, the doctor stepped down to the hospital, to learn how matters were going on there; and as he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.

And who has not felt the same? We believe that Mr Horseman himself would relent, and the spirit of Sir Benjamin Hall give way, were those great reformers to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

I love this passage, in which Trollope is taking the language usually used to express how beautiful and orderly church architecture leads the mind to consider the glory and nature of God and turns it around.

A minor character, Sir Abraham Haphazard, will be the defender of the Church’s privilege in the House of Lords, but he is also busy with another cause:

Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers, or jesuitical symbols: and as there were to be a hundred and thirty-seven clauses in the bill, each clause containing a separate thorn for the side of the papist, and as it was known the bill would be fought inch by inch, by fifty maddened Irishmen, the due construction and adequate dovetailing of it did consume much of Sir Abraham’s time. The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for compelling all men to drink Irish whisky, and all women to wear Irish poplins, that for the remainder of the session the Great Poplin and Whisky League was utterly harmless.

Again, great, (if heavy-handed!) satire, not only on British anti-Catholicism, but on the ways of politics, so often centered not on direct discussion of policy, but on misdirection and throwing up false flags for distraction and disturbance of enemy forces.

Having gone through this Mr Harding got into another omnibus, and again returned to the House. Yes, Sir Abraham was there, and was that moment on his legs, fighting eagerly for the hundred and seventh clause of the Convent Custody Bill. Mr Harding’s note had been delivered to him; and if Mr Harding would wait some two or three hours, Sir Abraham could be asked whether there was any answer. The House was not full, and perhaps Mr Harding might get admittance into the Strangers’ Gallery, which admission, with the help of five shillings, Mr Harding was able to effect.

This bill of Sir Abraham’s had been read a second time and passed into committee. A hundred and six clauses had already been discussed and had occupied only four mornings and five evening sittings; nine of the hundred and six clauses were passed, fifty-five were withdrawn by consent, fourteen had been altered so as to mean the reverse of the original proposition, eleven had been postponed for further consideration, and seventeen had been directly negatived. The hundred and seventh ordered the bodily searching of nuns for jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen, and was considered to be the real mainstay of the whole bill. No intention had ever existed to pass such a law as that proposed, but the government did not intend to abandon it till their object was fully attained by the discussion of this clause. It was known that it would be insisted on with terrible vehemence by Protestant Irish members, and as vehemently denounced by the Roman Catholic; and it was justly considered that no further union between the parties would be possible after such a battle. The innocent Irish fell into the trap as they always do, and whiskey and poplins became a drug in the market.

Ending on a far simpler note, I love this tight observation of John Bold, who is pursuing this suit about the hospital, for no particular reason except, as we might say today, “Because Reasons” and with no real thinking through of the consequences to those he is professing to help:

And the Barchester Brutus went out to fortify his own resolution by meditations on his own virtue.

I think that’s a good nudge for a penitential Lenten Friday, myself….

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I had intended to get this up this morning, but that didn’t happen. It’s still Ash Wednesday, though, so it still applies.

How did I happen up on this? In the usual, wandering way. I went to archive.org and typed in “ash wednesday” in the search box, and after wading through a bunch of sermons and pamphlets (including one had written!), I happened upon this, and stumbled into a huge rabbit hole.

In that rabbit hole I was introduceed to one Baron Ferdinand de Geramb, (probably) born in Lyons, but of Hungarian descent. An adventurer, a soldier, a prisoner of Napoleon, and eventually…a Trappist. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In 1808 he fell into the hands of Napoleon, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Vincennes until 1814, the time when the allied powers entered Paris. After bidding farewell to the Tsar and Emperor of Austria, he resolved to leave the world. It was at this time that he providentially met the Rev. Father Eugene, Abbot of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval (France), of whom he begged to be admitted as a novice in the community. He pronounced his vows in 1817.

After having rendered great services to that monastery, he was sent, in 1827, to the monastery of Mt. Olivet (Alsace). During the Revolution of 1830 de Géramb displayed great courage in the face of a troop of insurgents that had come to pillage the monastery; though the religious had been dispersed, the abbey was at least, by his heroic action, spared the horrors of pillage. It was at this time that Brother Mary Joseph made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return in 1833, he went to Rome, where he held the office of procurator-general of La Trappe. He soon gerambgained the esteem and affection of Gregory XVI, who, though he was not a priest, named him titular abbot with the insignia of the ring and pectoral cross, a privilege without any precedent.

Abbot de Géramb is the author of many works, the principal of which are: “Letters to Eugene on the Eucharist”; “Eternity is approaching”; “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”; “A Journey from La Trappe to Rome”, besides many others of less importance and of an exclusively ascetical character. They were often reprinted and translated. His style is easy and without affectation. The customs, manners, and incidents of the journey which he describes, all are vividly and attractively given, and the topographical descriptions are of an irreproachable accuracy. Even under the monk’s cowl the great nobleman could occasionally be seen distributing in alms considerable sums of money which he had received from his family to defray his expenses.

I spent a good deal of time skimming through the book to which the search took me: A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria.  It is quite evocative, as this excerpt about Ash Wednesday shows:

 On the 20th I was awake long before dawn. I went
out of my tent, and seated myself at the entrance. My
Bedouins, at a little distance, were sleeping around some
half-extinct embers. At the slight noise which I made
their camels raised their heads, but laid them down
again immediately on the sand. Silence reigned around
me. It was Ash- Wednesday, a day specially set apart
by the Church, to remind its members of the curse pro-
nounced against the first man after his fall, and in which
his whole posterity is involved. I picked up a handful
of the dust of the desert, marked my brow with it, and,
giving myself the salutary warning which it was not pos-
sible for me to receive at the foot of the altars of Christ,
from the lips of one of his ministers, I pronounced these
words : — ” Recollect, O man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”

Then, joining in spirit and in heart the Christian
people, who, on this day more especially, beseech the
Lord ” to have pity upon them according to his great
mercy’ I waited for sunrise, meditating upon that
awful sentence of death pronounced upon the human
race, the execution of which none can escape, and which
it will by and by be my turn to undergo. It has often
been the case, my dear Charles, that I have felt deeply
moved and violently torn from the things of this world,
while listening to the powerful words demonstrating
their nothingness, issuing from the pulpit amidst the
doleful solemnities with which the holy season of penance
commences ; but I declare to you that this desert, where
the plant itself cannot live ; this soil, which is but dust,
and from which the blast sweeps away in the twinkling
of an eye all traces of the footsteps of man, telling him
that thus shall he be swept away by the blast of death;
this universal silence, not even interrupted like that of
the grave by the voice of grief or the song of mourning;
those ruins, and those empty sepulchers ; those carcasses
of kingdoms and of cities, which had just passed before
my eyes ; and that holy Bible, which related to me the
crimes of generations upon the spot where they were
committed, explained to me the transitory nature, the
paltriness, and the term of human life, and showed to
me, as still dwelling in the heavens, Him who will have
man know that he is the Lord, and that He infallibly
overtakes by his justice the presumptuous mortal who
disdains his mercy — all this spake to my soul in much
stronger language, in a language the energy of which
no words can express.

 

 

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