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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, they are.

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

Same cry for a savior.


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

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

Expectans Expectavi

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

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

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

…that we don’t need a savior.

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

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

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

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

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

It’s July 31 – the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.

St. Ignatius was in my Loyola Kids Book of Saints, and you can read the entire chapter here:

Because he had spent all those months in his sickbed, Ignatius got bored. He asked for something to read. He was hoping for adventure books, tales that were popular back then: knights fighting for the hands of beautiful ladies, traveling to distant lands, and battling strange creatures.

But for some reason, two completely different books were brought to Ignatius. One was a book about the life of Christ, and the other was a collection of saints’ stories.

Ignatius read these books. He thought about them. He was struck by the great sacrifices that the saints had made for God. He was overwhelmed by their love of Jesus.

And Ignatius thought, “Why am I using my life just for myself? These people did so much good during their time on earth. Why can’t I?”

Ignatius decided that he would use the talents God had given him—his strength, his leadership ability, his bravery, and his intelligence—to serve God and God’s people.

While Ignatius continued to heal, he started praying very seriously. God’s peace filled his heart and assured him that he was on the right path.

When Ignatius was all healed and ready to walk and travel again, he left his home to prepare for his new life. It wasn’t easy. He was 30, which was considered old in those days, and he was getting a late start in his studies for the priesthood. In those days, the Mass was said only in Latin, and Latin was the language all educated people used to communicate with each other. Ignatius didn’t know a bit of Latin. So for his first Latin lessons, big, rough Ignatius had to sit in a classroom with a bunch of 10-year-old boys who were learning Latin for the first time too!

That takes a different kind of strength, doesn’t it?

saints

 

— 2 —

 

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

In The Words We Pray, I wrote about the Suscipe Prayer. That chapter is excerpted here:

The more you roll this prayer around in your soul, and the more you think about it, the more radical it is revealed to be.

One of the primary themes of the Spiritual Exercises is that of attachments and affections. Ignatius offers the account of “three classes of men” who have been given a sum of money, and who all want to rid themselves of it because they know their attachment to this worldly good impedes their salvation.

The first class would really like to rid themselves of the attachment, but the hour of death comes, and they haven’t even tried. The second class would also like to give up the attachment, but do so, conveniently, without actually giving anything up.

Is this sounding familiar at all?

The third class wants to get rid of the attachment to the money, which they, like the others, know is a burden standing in the way. But they make no stipulations as to how this attachment is relinquished; they are indifferent about the method. Whatever God wants, they want. In a word, they are the free ones.

The prayer “Take Lord, receive” is possible only because the retreatant has opened himself to the reality of who God is, what God’s purpose is for humanity, and what God has done for him in a particularly intense way.

A Response to God’s Love

The retreatant has seen that there is really no other response to life that does God justice. What love the Father has for us in letting us be called children of God, John says (1 John 3:1). What gift does our love prompt us to give?

In ages past, and probably in the minds of some of us still, that gift of self to God, putting oneself totally at God’s disposal, is possible only for people called to a vowed religious life. Well, God didn’t institute religious life in the second chapter of Genesis. He instituted marriage and family. I’m not a nun, but the Scriptures tell us repeatedly that all creation is groaning and being reborn and moving toward completion in God. Every speck of creation, everything that happens, every kid kicking a soccer ball down a road in Guatemala, each office worker in New Delhi, every ancient great-grandmother in a rest home in Boynton Beach, every baby swimming in utero at this moment around the world—all are beloved by God and are being constantly invited by him to love. And all can respond.

— 3 —

Depicting Dante’s heaven:

“Dante is often presented in a very secular way,” Schmalz said, noting the obsession that universities, artists and writers have had with the Inferno, ignoring the rest of poem.

According to Schmalz, limiting the poem’s scope to the Inferno means “not giving the proper representation of Dante and also the Christian ideas that are in the ‘Divine Comedy.’

“As a Catholic sculptor I have been very angry about this for many years,” he said.

An example of the fascination Dante’s Inferno has had on artists throughout history is the famous “Thinker” by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The popular image was originally meant to portray Dante as the “Poet,” and a miniature version of it can be found atop Rodin’s massive representation of “The Gates of Hell.”

“Because I am a Christian sculptor I will right this wrong,” Schmalz said. “I will do what has never been done before in the history of sculpture, which is to create a sculpture for each canto of the ‘Divine Comedy.’

 

 — 4 —

On a biography of Charles Peguy

In a way, Péguy preserved and cherished each of these influences: He would maintain an obsessive concern for the dispossessed, an ardent passion for France, and an unyielding faith in God all his life. But his intensity of belief did not prevent him for recognizing and pointing out the flaws in that which he loved. Péguy deplored the Catholic Church’s reactionary excesses and the Third Republic’s racialist conception of citizenship, and his unorthodox view of socialism rejected Marx’s enforced equality and anti-religious undertones. To him, solidarity — and politics itself — began with the “mystical,” that is, the set of myths and shared transcendent beliefs that underpin the construction of communities. Resolutely anti-cosmopolitan, he did not believe in the transnational alliance of workers that would become central to the Soviet project. For him, to reject the centrality of local attachments was to abstract away the suffering of people close-by; only cold-hearted bourgeois were rootless enough to live in multiple cities at once, to oscillate between cultures and languages, to detach themselves from the warmth of traditions and communities. The very small and the transcendent were the scales that mattered. Real change would not come through centralized Jacobin putsches, but through local micro-revolutions.

Péguy abhorred all attempts to demystify life’s mysteries. He rejected the scientism of his era, and laughed at the claim — seemingly blind to its own metaphysical assumptions — that empirical science would ever supersede the need for metaphysics. He thought that Adam Smith and Karl Marx had equally simplistic views of history, views that sacrificed transcendence on the altar of materialism. Yet he did not believe that the Bible had all the answers, either — or, at least, he did not believe that any human being could ever access all the answers. In fact, he fervently opposed what he saw as a conservative attempt to weaponize scripture. In a way, he thought, both sides emptied metaphysics of their significance; the Left reduced religion to “the opium of the masses,” and the Right relegated faith to a mere political tool. Like Dostoevsky, Péguy thought that in the absence of God, men would devolve into beasts; unlike Dostoevsky, he also believed that if God were too present in human affairs, the same degeneration would ensue.

— 5 

Watch out. This Sunday brings us the Miracle of Sharing….

6–

One of the newsletters I enjoy reading is The Convivial Society..about tech and life and such. This is from a recent edition – not from the author of the newsletter itself, but from a writer named Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981). See if you can relate.

Rather than creating communication, [information] exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. A gigantic process of simulation that is very familiar. The nondirective interview, speech, listeners who call in, participation at every level, blackmail through speech: ‘You are concerned, you are the event, etc.’ More and more information is invaded by this kind of phantom content, this homeopathic grafting, this awakening dream of communication. A circular arrangement through which one stages the desire of the audience, the antitheater of communication, which, as one knows, is never anything but the recycling in the negative of the traditional institution, the integrated circuit of the negative. Immense energies are deployed to hold this simulacrum at bay, to avoid the brutal desimulation that would confront us in the face of the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning.

 

 

— 7 —

Tomorrow is the memorial of St. Alphonsus Liguori, whom I wrote about here. Just a brief excerpt – related to the travails of writers, which he shared:

The letters reflect quite a bit on his concern to get this books out there to people who will read them – Naples is always out of copies, but that’s one of the few places he has an interested audience, and the priests, well….

I am glad that the History of the Heresies is finished. Once more, I remind you not to send me any copies for sale, as the priests of my diocese are not eager for such books; indeed, they have very little love for any reading whatsoever.

Besides, I am a poor cripple, who am Hearing my grave, and I do not know what I should do with these copies.

Rest assured, that I regard all your interests as though they were my own. If I could only visit Naples, I might be able to do something personally. But confined here in this poverty-stricken Arienzo, I write letters innumerable to people in Naples about the sale, but with very little result. I am much afflicted at this, but affliction seems to be all that I am to reap from these negotiations.

So, writers….you’re not alone!

 

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

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Sorry for the initial mis-dating. I started this yesterday…

Good morning. Of course lots has happened since we last met, all of which I spent much time following and thinking about, but for today I’ll stick mostly to my formula in this digest. Maybe another post in a bit on something else.

Watching: As I do every two years, I watched some cable news on election night. You Thursdayknow, when you only see a group of people once every 700 days or so, you can really track the aging process and note how everyone just gets….older and fatter. Except Wolf Blitzer, who hasn’t changed in decades. And Laura Ingraham? What is the deal there? If I had the sound turned off, I would have thought, Huh, another cable news blonde. I didn’t  recognized her at all until she started speaking. What has she had done with her face? I spent the whole time she was on camera, every time, trying to figure it out  – lips? Eyes? General facelift? We’re almost the same age…uh…amazing.

Listening: The Edith Wharton episode of In Our Time. An interesting discussion in which the fraught and shifting views on Wharton as a female writer – feminist or no? – were fairly covered.

The thread that was introduced but not really tied up, though, involved an aspect of her background I’d not known about. She was tutor and self-educated (coming from a wealthy family) and when asked about her reading, one of the panelists emphasized the importance of the works of evolutionists from Spencer to Darwin and others. A few minutes later, as they discussed her predominant themes, they sketched a picture of a changing world, yes, but also a deeply hierarchical world in which the “lower” classes and non-Europeans were given scant attention and that, mostly dismissive. That is to say – a world very reflective of social Darwinism, although no one ever explicitly made that link.

Someone dropped a comment during the discussion about Catholicism, though, that sent me on a rabbit trail, which transitions us to….

Reading:  Aside from the very hot stream of  Super Hot Takes on the election, a close read of the great J. F. Powers story, “The Lord’s Day” – this was about all I managed:

So, as I mentioned, one of the In Our Time scholars mentioned that the Church had condemned or at least criticized Wharton’s work. The impression I got from the discussion was that any Church criticism must have had to do with sexually-scandalous material.

Well, the rabbit trails indicated that was only partly so.

The main critique is related to a poem Wharton wrote on Margaret of Cortona. You can read it here, along with an accompanying Howard Pyle illustration.

Reminder: Margaret of Cortona lived with a man outside of wedlock for nine years and bore him a child. The man was murdered, and upon discovering his body, she converted to a life of penance and charity, eventually becoming a Franciscan tertiary.

In Wharton’s poem, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1901, we meet Margaret on her deathbed, confessing to a friar – is it her son? I don’t know.

The gist of the poem, and what got Catholic readers up in arms,  is that Margaret is torn between her love of Christ and her love of her dead lover – and perhaps even not so torn, since she makes it clear that what she had found with the earthly lover seemed pretty close to heaven. Here on her deathbed, she has prayed and prayed, but has been met with silence, while she knows that if her lover were alive, at least he would respond to her.

I have lain here, these many empty days
I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys
So close that not a fear should force the door –
But still, between the blessed syllables
That taper up like blazing angel heads,
Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,
Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,
As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,
My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes
Alive in their obliterated faces!…
I have tried the saints’ names and our blessed Mother’s
Fra Paolo, I have tried them o’er and o’er,
And like a blade bent backward at first thrust
They yield and fail me—and the questions stay.
And so I thought, into some human heart,
Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,
If only I might creep for sanctuary,
It might be that those eyes would let me rest…

You can see how this would make people unhappy. From an article on “The Catholic in Fiction” from a secular journal called The Reader:

It is incredible that a writer of Mrs. Wharton’s refinement and ability should have taken a canonized saint as the subject on which to exercise such an unseemly flight of fancy….Mrs. Wharton makes this holy woman, after years of repentance, avow on her death-bed a preference for her lover’s caresses and the comfort his impassioned ardor, to the divine love of the crucified Lord whom she had so diligently served for years. Mrs. Wharton is entitled to no consideration for this affront, unless on the ignoble ground of ignorance.

Of course, I understand this objection, but I did read the poem from a slightly different angle as well.  The contrast between Christ and the earthly lover is certainly the major theme – in which Christ comes out less favorably – but there’s also, it seems, some grappling with an irony of the spiritual life which must strike any thinking person: you might even call it the irony of conversion. She’s asking: if I hadn’t been living a sinful life, would I have met Christ?

As well as, in a general way, the questions all of us have about the direction our life has taken as we look back on it:

 

Ah, that black night he left me, that dead dawn 
I found him lying in the woods, alive 
To gasp my name out and his life-blood with it, 
As though the murderer’s knife had probed for me 
In his hacked breast and found me in each wound… 
Well, it was there Christ came to me, you know, 
And led me home—just as that other led me. 
(Just as that other? Father, bear with me!) 
My lover’s death, they tell me, saved my soul, 
And I have lived to be a light to men. 
And gather sinners to the knees of grace. 
All this, you say, the Bishop’s signet covers. 
But stay! Suppose my lover had not died? 
(At last my question! Father, help me face it.) 
I say: Suppose my lover had not died – 
Think you I ever would have left him living, 
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret? 
– We lived in sin? Why, to the sin I died to 
That other was as Paradise, when God 
Walks there at eventide, the air pure gold, 
And angels treading all the grass to flowers! 
He was my Christ—he led me out of hell – 
He died to save me (so your casuists say!) – 
Could Christ do more? Your Christ out-pity mine? 

No, the poem is not anything great, and I certainly understand the reaction against it, but still. There’s a glimmer of truth in there.

I just spent a lot of time on that, but, of course, it wasn’t my intention when I began writing this to go as much into the poem as into the reaction to her novel The Valley of Decision. This was Wharton’s first published novel: a historical novel of 18th century Italy that, it seems from plot summaries, positions free-thinkers against Church and tradition, etc. I have zero interest in reading it, but when I searched for “Edith Wharton” and Catholic Church condemned – this was, besides from the poem, what popped up.

So initially I thought, “Oh the early 20th century American church criticized this content for sexual-related content it deemed immoral, obviously.” But..maybe not?

What I found was, of course, no “official” condemnation, but a strong critique published in Catholic World, which, in turn, reprints a critique from the Chicago Chronicle.

And what’s the basis of the critique?

The answer will surprise you!

The focus is the treatment of the primary female character, Fulvia, and specifically the role of education in her life. The critique takes on Wharton for, the author claims, indicating that higher education corrupts a woman’s character.  I’m going to reproduce this section at length, because I want you to participate in one of my favorite activities: Dispel myths about the past.

In this case, the myths are: No one believed that women should be educated before 1970 or so. In particular, the Catholic Church was opposed to women’s intellectual development.

Not to mention that this contemporary critique adds to the discussion about Wharton. It may or may not be an accurate read of her character, but the fact is that in this case, her narrative was received as anti-woman’s education and moralistic. Interesting.

The severest blow dealt against the higher education of women has been delivered by one of themselves, the author of The Valley of Decision, a somewhat tedious two-volume novel of the spurious “historical” variety.

It has been claimed by the opponents of equal education for men and women that whatever the intellectual results of the attempt, the moral result would be injurious to the family and society. It has been specifically urged that the tendency of the higher education would be to draw women more and more toward the laxer social standards of men, and to make women impatient of those restraints which until now have constituted the bulwarks of the home.

The Valley of Decision supports this theory. The heroine around whom the sympathy of the story is concentrated enjoys from early youth the advantages which other women, at least in the United States, must acquire, if at all, by long years of labor through primary and secondary schools into colleges and universities. A name of evil omen, whether in Roman history or in Ben Jonson’s “Catiline,” Fulvia starts the heroine out on a path of aspiration, independence, erudition, and ruin.

Her learning fails to develop moral or spiritual growth. In full womanhood, having had abundant experience enabling her to see the evils of society in the fullest glare of their malignity, Fulvia voluntarily accepts an unlawful and immoral social status from which all right-minded women instinctively recoil. She becomes the willing victim of a profligate weakling on a petty ducal throne, and feels neither shame nor remorse in her degradation.

The malign influence of such a novel upon the aspirations of American women for university privileges is made by the author the more certain and the more emphatic because the scene of the sinister fiction is laid in the country which was the first to open university doors to women. The poet Alfieri is dragged into the story to heighten the proportions of its all-pervading moral squalor. Sneering at the idea of a woman taking the degree of doctor of philosophy, the poet is made to say: “Oh, she’s one of your prodigies of female learning, such as our topsy-turvy land produces; an incipient Laura Bassi or Gaetana Agnesi, to name the most distinguished of their tribe; though I believe that hitherto her father’s good sense or her own has kept her from aspiring to academic honors. The beautiful Fulvia is a good daughter and devotes herself, I am told, to helping Vivaldi in his work, a far more becoming employment for one of her age and sex than defending Latin theses before a crew of ribald students.”

But Fulvia’s father was a sympathizer with his daughter’s tastes, which he habitually promoted. To make the lesson of the moral failure of the higher education of women still more convincing, the author of The Valley of Decision reserves the bestowal of her final degree upon Fulvia until after the university and the whole town are familiar with her adoption of a shameless life and her open rejection of religious or conventional standards.

In Italy the universities were open to women soon after their foundation in the Middle Ages. At Bologna, which for centuries was one of the greatest universities in Europe, a number of women justly attained distinction as professors of the sciences, languages, and law. Laura Bassi was of a comparatively late time. So great was her reputation for learning, but also for virtue, that her doctorate was conferred under circumstances of civic and academic pomp. She married happily and became the mother of fourteen children.

Two sisters Agnesi were distinguished in Italian higher education. One, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, was an eminent professor and author in the exact sciences during the eighteenth century, and lived to be upward of eighty years of age. A younger sister was distinguished as a pianist and composer. Upon the entire array of the learned women of Italy whose careers have been historically noted there was never a breath of moral reproach.

The injury which The Valley of Decision inflicts upon the contemporary higher education of women is shrewdly designed in the contrast which this repulsive novel makes in its alienation of the higher education from religious and moral control.

The atmosphere which is created for the reader of The Valley of Decision is the most repulsive ever introduced into an American literary production. In the large company constituting the chief participants in a story projected along hackneyed guide-book information there is not from the first cover of the first volume to the last of the second one honest man or virtuous woman.

The moral squalor of J he Valley of Decision is the more surprising because the scene is laid in the land which has given to literature and life the paramount group of ideal womanhood, Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Michael Angelo’s Vittoria Colonna; and to Shakspere his two most engaging characters, blending in their mutual devotion of a noble womanhood erudition and chastity, Portia and Nerissa.

The womanhood of the United States may justly deplore that such a volume as The Valley of Decision should have its origin in the United States, in which the experiment of the higher education of women has thus far been courageously carried to an advancement which few of the universities have been able to withstand.

 

And if you’re interested, go to p. 596 in the same volume of the 1902 Catholic World and read an article about Bologna called “A City of Learned Women.”

The universal spread of knowledge and literary culture among women is no doubt one of the boasts of modern civilization. We point to it with pride as emphasizing the superiority of this age over its predecessors; exemplified by the thorough training of mind and body considered equally necessary nowadays for girls as well as boys. Nevertheless, if we go a little more deeply into the matter, we shall find once more at the bottom of all our researches the most discouraging but true old adage embodying the world-weariness of the wisest king of old: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It is a shock at first to realize that our progress is not so wonderful as we imagined; and that, instead of inventors, we are only “revivalists”; perfecting perhaps what has gone before, with the help of added centuries of experience and science; but still only reviving things dormant, or at best forgotten. In an atmosphere of self-congratulation upon Women’s Colleges and Universities and the Higher Education of Women, can it come as anything but a revelation to find one’s self face to face with a city of learned women of long centuries past, who spread the light of their knowledge through a land which bowed before their intellect while reverencing their true womanhood?

Such was the revelation which disturbed my new-world complacency one bright morning in the ancient city of Bologna, in this year of the twentieth century; wandering through stately halls of learning where for centuries women had held intellectual sway. No fair girl-graduates were these, drinking their first draught at the fountain of mighty knowledge; but women whose powers of intellect had placed them in the professorial chair, instructing on equal terms with the men-professors the students who flocked around them.

I keep saying it, in one way or another: My Hot Take on 20th century feminism is that it happened because the Protestant Reformation, secular intellectual currents and the industrial revolution pushed Western women into the confined, defining space of a domestic sphere that didn’t exist in a holistic Catholic context.

There. 

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Perhaps you know Muriel Spark from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thanks to the film for which Maggie Smith won a 1969 Academy Award, it’s her most well-known novel.

But not, certainly, her only novel. I had read several others, most memorably, to me at least Memento Mori. I recently picked up another, The Girls of Slender Means, read bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks, finished it last night, and will probably re-read it today.

It is a novella, really  – only 142 pages long in the edition I have – but it’s dense and complex, spiraling down, then back up. To me, it’s the ideal of a “religious” novel, more girls-of-slender-means-sparkthought-provoking and real than the dreck that squats comfortably in the reassuring “inspirational” section.

(Spark was a Catholic convert)

As such, it’s difficult to summarize. It also would not be fair to summarize the novel in full because much of its power comes from surprise and even shock. It’s quite powerful in that way.

But let’s just say this:

The novel is set in a residence for single women, the events occurring in 1945, between VE and VJ Days, with a few flashbacks and flash forwards, which can be confusing – it’s why I had to re-read the first twenty pages or so probably three times.

The women are, as the title indicates, of “slender means” – but, as Spark writes, in her distant, vaguely acerbic, perhaps ironic way in the opening paragraph, in 1945, “…all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”  Slender, though, has other meanings. During the climax of the novel, the size of the characters impacts their potential to survive. In addition, I think it has meaning related to personal character.

There are a few older, long-term residences, but most are young, in their twenties. They work, date, and generally look forward to post-war life, which has not quite arrived.

At the center are Jane Wright, who works in publishing and is not slender; Joanna Copeland, the daughter of an Anglican rector who teaches elocution; and Selina, a slim beauty. Jane brings a self-proclaimed anarchist poet, Nicholas Farringdon, into their lives.

Very quickly, in a flash-forward, we hear news about Nicholas, news that the now-journalist Jane is spreading through phone calls to her former housemates, now scattered far and wide: she has heard that he was killed in Haiti, and, most surprisingly to her, killed in his role as some sort of Catholic missionary.

I am not going to even attempt to summarize the remaining plot of the book, for I think it would spoil the effect if you do choose to read it.  Just know that if you begin reading this expecting a homely, cozy little slice-of-life easy read…that’s not what you find. Spark is cutting and direct in her observations of her mostly self-absorbed characters who, either because of wartime survival mode or simply human nature, lead lives mostly disengaged from their raison d’etre – a subject about which Jane Wright has settled on as a useful, sophisticated-sounding question for the authors put in her charge.

What I will say, though, is that if are going to read it, take a look at Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland before you do – or at some point in the reading. This webpage gives an apt, accessible analysis that is helpful in understanding Sparks’ novel, for the poem weaves in and out of the events of the story as Joanna is heard to recite and teach snippets of it throughout. In fact, I don’t think many reviewers understand how important Hopkins’ poem is to the book – upon reflection, it almost seems like a re-telling of the story of these nuns who were driven from their home by evil, then shipwrecked in a way that might rob them of physical life, but through which God shows his power to save, re-create and rescue in a cosmic way.  The fact that the climax of both novel and poem involve a small, barely accessible window and a woman of faith calling out to God for his presence in the midst of imminent collapse lead me to think it is quite intentional.

But here’s the thing that’s so fascinating.

The Girls of Slender Means is, in part – in great part –  a conversion story. Most conversion stories seem to hang on the converted witnessing good. That’s not the case here. Here, the turning point is a character’s witnessing a gesture that the world might see as odd or even quirky, but, in the context, is really expressive of profound darkness of spirit. Early in the book, before we know what happened, this, to the world, meaningless or even understandable gesture is described as an “action of savagery so extreme…” It’s a shock to the system, to see one you had idealized as the embodiment of earthly beauty, with surely the potential to be more, prove you wrong.

It’s a conversion confirmed by an even more shocking final scene, in which we see what the cheery among us might describe as Spark’s darkness, but which is really just realism. We can celebrate a moment of earthly peace as raucously and optimistically as we like, but even in the midst of these high hopes, original sin still lurks in the crowds, having its way, the ship is still sinking, the fires are still burning, and perhaps the most radical, powerful response to all of it is to stay in it, take it in, but now in a different way, in touch with a intuition of something else, something more for which we were made and are being gathered up for, an intuition that leads us, in the witnessing, without even understanding why and  despite ourselves, to give a sign that this is not all there is, that things are not what they seem. A sign, simply, of a cross.

 

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  • So, sorry about that, not that any of you are breathlessly waiting for these things.
  • I was trying to think what has thrown me off since late last week. Well, maybe it’s:
  • Friday: Stations of the Cross
  • Saturday: basketball semifinal (lost)
  • Sunday: serve Mass at convent; piano recital
  • Then, Monday. Monday is usually a full day at home, but the piano instructor had a conflict with the usual Thursday time, so we moved the hour-long lesson to Monday at 1.  So now the week was shaping up as:  Monday – piano at 1.  Tuesday – boxing at 1, zookeeper class at 4:30. Wednesday – brother out of school, so good luck with that.  Thursday: Cathedral class in the morning. (last one)
  • Plus, I have a writing project due in three weeks (hahahaha), plus I need to plan my talks for the National Catholic Library Association meeting in San Diego.
  • So, okay school. This won’t be a daily report, nor will it have all those interesting rabbit trails, because I forget them.
  • Prayer:  the daily Mass readings, as per usual.
  • Math. As I mentioned, we finished Beast Academy, with no hint as to when 5B is being released except for the vague promise of “spring.” Which could mean June 20, for all we know.  So since the last section in BA was on expressions and equations, we did a bit of reinforcement of that with discussions and problems from Becoming a Problem-Solving Genius.  Then it was on to fractions – specifically adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators – the usual 5th grade stuff, and new to him. But I don’t have a 5th grade book, only a 6th grade book leftover from my older son – the Pearson Envision program, hated by many, but not hated by me.  I didn’t love it, but I didn’t think it was terrible. I liked that it demonstrated different approaches to problems. My issue was requiring mastery of all of those approaches – I thought the idea of presenting a number of approaches was that you would then be able to use the one that made the most sense to you.
  • But anyway, I still have the book, and the CD with all the practice problems and solutions, so we are just going to do the fractions chapter in that, and then probably go back to more problem-solving stuff, maybe even start on the AOPS Pre-Algebra book. 
  • Also did some Khan Academy on fractions, which we’ll continue as we proceed through the chapter.
  • History. The chapter in the text is Lewis & Clark and War of 1812.  He covered L & C last week, but I think we will not continue with the Burns video – it was good, but it’s so long, and he’s not that fascinated with it. So just move on.  For the War of 1812, he has bounced between the text, A History of  US and some library books.  Today (Wednesday) and tomorrow, he’s reading sections from Primary Source Accounts of the War of 1812, which led to a discussion of the difference between primary. secondary and tertiary sources in historical research.
  • As he read, we discussed who the presidents were, and can recite them through Jackson. I know it’s impressive to be able to reel all their names off through Obama, but it strikes me as a lot easier and more meaningful to just learn their order as you’re learning the history – just as we have done with the books of the Old Testament.
  • Oh, copywork. Forgot. We got three days in, and that’s going to be it, probably. Monday was a Scripture passage from the day’s readings. Tuesday (literature) was this from East of Eden:  “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Discussed what that might mean.
  • Today (poetry) was “A Prayer in Spring” by Frost. He wrote the whole poem in his copybook, and in our discussion, we focused on the line: “Oh give us pleasure in the flowers/in the flowers today;/And give us not to think so far away / As the uncertain harvest; Keep us here/All simply in the springing of the year.”
  • We discussed what that meant, beginning with the literal sense – why the harvest is uncertain – and moving on to metaphor: you don’t know what is going to happen in the future, so take joy in the present and live in it.
  • No “school” novel or short stories this week. He has been reading literally hundreds of pages a day of the Seven Wonders series in anticipation of the release of the 5th volume in the series, which happened on Tuesday. Unfortunately, libraries do not instantly place books on shelves the day they are published, and this is not a book I’m going to buy, so, well, patience is a virtue.
  • Latin has been prepositions all the way, which works win with reviewing what prepositions are all about in English as well.
  • Today, I sent him outside to find signs of spring and then come back in and tell me about what he found: the almost instantaneous reappearance of bees and wasps, budding trees, flowers and, in his narrative, the coolness of clover.
  • Science was inspired by his zookeeper class on Tuesday – birds were the focus, so he talked a lot about what he had learned by feeding the various birds mealworms, oranges and dead rats (vultures). Most exciting, though was the cassowary sighting. He has never been able to spy it on any of our previous visits – I don’t know where it hides – but this time, well, that was the big news. “I FINALLY saw the cassowary and its feet are AWESOME. They’re like dinosaur feet!”
  • Lots and lots of drawing happening lately – illustrating stories in his head.
  • The snake shed, so there’s that science demonstration happening right in his room, as well.
  • Writing and Rhetoric: still working on that chapter introducing refutation.  The interesting exercise from today, which actually had nothing to do with refutation, was a lesson on not overusing adjectives. He was given a paragraph, told to cross out all the adjectives, and then replace the previously modified nouns – which were all pretty ordinary nouns – with stronger nouns. The point being, to try to communicate something interesting about the person, place or thing, simply depending on strong nouns rather than adjectives.
  • So, with the addition of an intense hour of Beethoven work, a boxing class and time outdoors, that’s it.
  • Things coming up: Holi celebration at the museum Saturday, which we will try to hit after a piano sonata competition in which he is playing. Pi Day at the science museum on Monday.  

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  • Monday. Late start. Which is too bad because I wanted him to wake up before the frost melted away, so we could talk about that. Maybe tomorrow.
  • Prayer: Reading of the day.  I introduced them by reminding him that now that it is Ordinary Time – for the next few weeks at least – the Mass readings will be focused on Jesus’ public ministry. The first readings for daily Mass are beginning with 1 Samuel. So first we read the Gospel and prayed the petitions for Morning Prayer, Lord’s Prayer, etc.
  • Then after prayer proper we talked about the Old Testament.  Reviewed the basic historical content up to Samuel, drilled a bit on listing the books up to 2 Kings. Talked about Pentateuch/Torah, about the scrolls in a synagogue. Then read the passage for the day (1 Sam 1:1-8) with a map open, talking about Shiloh, about how Jerusalem would not be a part of the story until David, etc. Also pivoted back and drilled on the names of the first four apostles.
  • 1 Samuel is my favorite book of the Bible, so even better.
  • When I say “drill” I don’t mean with a pointer in hand, barking out names. I mean just learning by going over it a few times. There.
  • Copywork was Mark 1:16-17 in cursive.
  • Math: workbook pages on multiplication of negative and positive integers in Beast Academy. Four pages of puzzles basically – it’s one of the things I love about BA – puzzles are an integral part of the learning and reinforcement. Like this one. 
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  • It can be frustrating. The puzzles get more difficult pretty quickly, but they are so cannily written that working through them results in clearly superior understanding.
  • History next, but a bit of a break from the politics. We dabbled a bit in art, music and literature of the Revolutionary period. Basically culled from what I pulled together while he was doing his math.  So yes, intense prep.
  • First, music – watched a bit of this video, focusing on “Yankee Doodle.”  It started interrupting and hesitating, so after Yankee Doodle was done, I declared it finished.
  • Then art – this video on Copley, part of a YouTube channel that I think is just great.  Probably do a bit more on this tomorrow.
  • Then Phillis Wheatly – quickly read/summarized some biographical material, snippets from a couple of poems, an account of her meeting with George Washington, and briefly discussed why she falls out of favor with some contemporary critics.
  • At some point, this was interrupted by the request to learn how to do a coin roll over the knuckles.  A video was watched, that was attempted, as well as videos on flicking cards and the “waterfall.”
  • Latin – workbook pages in chapter 19. 
  • We have been doing the Writing and Rhetoric series from Classical Academic Press, and I’ve liked it very much. Because it takes a particular angle, I thought it best to start below grade level to get used to the routine – so we did books 1 & 2 (grades 3-4. He’s 5th) last year . It started to get a little tiresome, so I peaked ahead at the grade 5 material – it’s fine, and not an unreasonable jump at all. So that arrived last week and we started today: Refutation and Confirmation.  He read the introductory material (defining the terms, using the legend of John Henry and Peter Pan as examples) and then we discussed it.  It fit in nicely with a discussion we had sometime last week about suspension of disbelief and how that works in the dramatic arts – and on what basis we can get immersed in a story about a talking pig, rat and a spider who knows how to write and read and then, at some point, come to a point in a story we can’t buy. (Not that I have one in Charlotte’s Web. It’s just something that fascinates me – how can I be watching an animated feature in which literally anything could be made to happen, and then mentally check out when something “unrealistic” happens.
  • So just reading and talking about that today. Writing tomorrow. Back to Johnny Tremain, as well.
  • Then some art – this came through my emailbox today, so we went for it. Chalk pastels are not his favorite, and I absolutely sympathize.  I don’t like the feel of chalk against paper – as is the case with say, dry paper towels rubbing against each other – it’s something I weirdly can’t even think about without a shiver. WHY????  
  • But he put that all aside and had fun, first experimenting and testing, then getting to the actual project. Simple, but good.

"amy welborn"

  • Oh, I was going to be all “let’s be cultural” during lunch, so I started playing audio of The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and after 73 seconds he just looked at me in total confusion. Yeah, he had never read it, and the beginning is hard to follow, especially if you’re only listening.
  • So we watched the Lego version. 
  • Timeframe, including prayer and lunch: 10-2.

Dissection stuff arrived over the weekend. Haven’t opened the box or told anyone it’s here yet. Give me a minute.

Reminder why I’m doing this – first as a record for myself.  Secondly, just to have it out there for anyone pondering homeschooling. This is one way to do it. 

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Perhaps when I type this out it will seem to add up to a bit more than it does right now…

  • Prayer: Mass readings. Our Father, Hail Mary, prayers of petition.
  • Instead of copywork, on Fridays, he illustrates on of his previous copyright passages.  Today he chose John 1:45-46 and drew a truly dystopic Nazareth.
  • That took a while.
  • Then math. Reviewed multiplying negative and positive integers by watching this Khan Academy video and doing these Beast Academy worksheets. 
  • A lot of history. He read about Bunker Hill in From Sea to Shining Sea and The Story of Us, and we watched the relevant section in the Liberty! series. It’s really good! 
  • Then, er, I made banana bread. So chemistry!
  • Not kidding. From me the Insufferable Teaching Moment Mom. I printed this sheet on baking chemistry.  We reviewed the difference between physical and chemical change. Then (mostly) he pulled the banana bread together while we went over the contribution of each ingredient to the process.  And now I, too, understand the difference between baking soda and baking powder.
  • Oh, he also took the lighter to a small pile of sugar and some marshmallows, observed the change and then looked at the results under the microscope. And wondered if he could observe a flame under a microscope. Hmmm.
  • (Basically waiting on the worms and other dissection specimens to arrive so we can start that….enterprise.)
  • I had printed this sheet on “How to Read a Poem” out some weeks ago, but cannot remember the source. Sorry. We read it, then read some poems  – first from this John Ciardi book I have, and then from this great little book of American history related poems by Stephen and Rosemary St. Vincent-Bene’t

"amy welborn"

  • Finally, thanks to Kelly, I discovered a previously-unknown-to-me version of Twelfth Night, which we had studied a lot a couple of years ago – made for British television, but with Alec Guinness as Malvolio.  He knows Guinness mostly from Star Wars of course, but we have also watched Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob.  We didn’t watch the whole thing, but I thought he would enjoy seeing Guinness in the part – a part they still quote all the time (I will SMILE…..), so we just watched his main scenes.
  • Lunch. More drawing of something. Some new kind of …Sith, maybe? Would that be a thing?
  • The zoo is between here and brother’s school, and we are members, so we spent an hour or so there, mostly interested in our friends the reptiles.

That’s it. Sorry no Virgil or fresco work today. Just acids & bases in banana bread, Caiman lizards and Godzilla In Nazareth.

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I haven’t done a school post in a while,so here’s a quick one:

  • Remember, 13-year old is back in “regular” school for 8th grade, so it’s me and the very self-directed 10 year old.
  • Who is busy.  This fall, on a weekly basis, he’s had: piano lesson, musicianship class, schola at the Cathedral, boxing, 1 2-hour art class, another 1-hour art class, and monthly science center classes.  Plus Cub Scouts. And outside play and herpetology. And Legos.
  • What we do at home is sort of directed by his interests and sort of by what I want him to learn.  It’s pretty loose, and also directed by current events, including those in our own family (so, for example, European and German history and geography dominated November.)
  • Every day begins with prayer (some mash-up of the daily Mass readings and Morning Prayer, along with discussion of the saint of the day); cursive practice and copywork.
  • Math is still Beast Academy.  He’s on 4B, and the chapter on Counting almost did us in, but we survived and even learned.
  • Almost done with the Greek alphabet book – he wants to continue with learning actual Greek and asked about Latin, so in January, we’ll start that, in a low-key fashion, using stuff we already have here – Visual Latin and some other easy curriculum I have sitting around here somewhere.  (To reinforce the Greek letters, we used a couple of apps and online games as well)
  • For English grammar mechanics, I use a variety of online resources as well as Scholastic and Evan-Moor workbooks, Language Mechanic and Editor-in-Chief.  For the record, I’m not thrilled with these last two resources(which had looked good to me online) – they can’t stand alone, although they are decent supplements. The copywork and exercises I make up myself based on whatever he’s reading reinforces all of these.
  • We do a lot of geography.  Again, I use the Scholastic and Evan-Moor resources, as well as various online games – the Sheppard Software site has a lot of good stuff, and we recently started with this – Mapping the World with Art – which is challenging for a just-10 year old, but excellent.
  • We do poetry all the time, but considering I know nothing about poetry, I’ve been thinking…we should be using resources from people who do know.  And then I found this – from Mensa For Kids, which sounds sort of revolting, but it’s an excellent resources…and free!  We’ve just started…so…no man is an island, you know?
    • Various science things …various art things…more on that next week, because I’m getting tired here.  Well, there’s these, which don’t look that impressive, but were instructive and enjoyable(and quick)  – all about negative space. (Projects here)

"amy welborn"

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We read this one today, and it was surprising how artfully Benet condenses the experience of settling the southern colonies.

And…we’ve seen two productions of Macbeth, a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, gone to a lecture on the use of satellite technology in archaeology….so, yes, life and education goes on, although I’m feeling that we need to get more intentional about some things…but then every time I feel that, he comes and stands in the kitchen and gives me a lecture about the Phoenicians, which I didn’t even know he knew anything about, so who knows….

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