Steven Riddle: May 2006 Archives

Medieval Texts with Glosses



An excellent resource with a great many medieval texts and a large number of Arthur and Merlin resources. The texts are nicely glossed to help with the more difficult words and the more impenetrable syntax. Now, if I could just figure out how to carry them around with me.

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There are really two points to this post. The second is that radionics still exists and is practiced as medicine in some parts of the world. Most interesting. The first follows:

from A Far Cry From Kensington
Muriel Spark

At the time Abigail showed me her Box I was somewhat relieved to find it futile, because, as I pointed out, if the Box could do good it could also do evil. 'It stands to reason,'I said.

'Oh,' said Abigail de Mordell Staines-Knight, "how right you are. But don't let Ian hear you say so. To him it's impossible to do anything wrong with the Box. And in fact, it does nobody harm, let's face it.'

She was a really nice girl in spite of her name. I, too, didn't think you could do wrong with the Box, nor right with it, nor anything.

What I find interesting and worthy of further consideration here is that the ability to do good comes coupled with the ability to do evil. Moral neutrality is moral invisibility and perfect inviability. The only way something can have no moral content is if it is incapable of being used at all, and hence has no content period.

This is interesting to think about. The only object that is outside of moral questioning is the object that is utterly useless to anyone. That is not to say the objects themselves possess morality, but the morality stems from the use of them. If an object can be used and cause good, it stands to reason that it can be misused and cause evil. If an object has no use whatsoever, then it is truly neutral ground. For our present purposes the planet Venus is most likely a morally neutral object. The idea of Venus, however, may not be.

What is remarkable in the passage above is the way that Muriel Spark finds to put a very coherent, difficult, and perplexing question into an amusing scene. This trait, introducing moral complexity, is a key feature of Spark's novels and is one of the things that makes for such compelling reading. One is instructed or persuaded beyond the power of the events in the book alone. In a sense, it is the better part of art to be didactic. Once art has lost its ability to teach, it has lost its ability to mean and it becomes one more useless object. That isn't to say that art is completely encompassed by its didactic nature, but that the teaching element of art is ever-present in any true work of art. If nothing else, art teaches us to see anew. And in that sense Spark's novels are art.

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For one thing, you're probably tired of hearing about her and until I raise a great tide of readership, I shall simply have to continue to regale you with excerpts of her fine works. But for another, there's this:

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

I had some savings and a small pension, so I had no need to find another job immediately. In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York's arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.

'Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest.'But no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest. About the time that the Ullswater Press folded up I recall reading a book about one of the martyred Elizabethan recusant priests. The author wrote, 'He was accused of lying, stealing, and even immorality.' I noted the quaint statement because although by immorality he meant sex as many people do, I had always thought that lying and stealing, no less, constituted immorality.

I think this character would have looked upon TSO's blog (at very least the title) with some great approval.

What is interesting here is that Spark has done something unusual for her works. The book is narrated in first person by a (so far) very likable narrator. This does not allow her the enormous distance she tends to keep from her characters. Nevertheless, this main character is cool, ironic, and sardonic--looking upon things as from a distance. She is among the more engaging characters in the opera so far.

I'll let you know how she gets on as the story continues. At very least expect a review within a week or so.

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More on Burgess


In an intense desire to practice the discipline of responding only to what is asked and to staying on topic, I excised from a response below a number of comments that I wanted to make public any way. The joy of owning a blog is the ability to do so at will.

In the review of the book 99 Novels I should have added one of Burgess's books to the list he presented. Indeed, the one most people would consider--A Clockwork Orange. Burgess himself, no mean self-promoter, actually suggests this possibility in his foreword, but it is certainly deserving. I think he learned an extremely valuable lesson from Finnegans Wake which he put to good use in the creation of Alex and his droogs.

In addition to his fiction, the literary world owes him a great deal for many works attempting to explain one of the twentieth Century Masters. He undertook A Shorter Finnegans Wake as well as the remarkable Joysprick which is a guide to the language of Finnegans Wake nearly completely encompassed in the title which can be parsed to a German version of Joyce Talk, or Joy talk, or the more priapic connotations that can clearly be discerned in Finnegans Wake.

I haven't read a lot of Burgess's fiction, but his contribution and promotion of Joyce's cryptic, comic, cosmic, nightmare of a novel are useful to anyone interested in trying it on for size. And his creation of the cultural icons of Alex and his droogs with their regressive amorality brought to the screen by Stanley Kubrick has added immeasurably to our vista of sociopathy and its discontents.

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Some Quotations

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On parents, found during research for the last post.

Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go. (Fred Rogers--Mr. Rogers)

Parents ... are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don’t fulfil the promise of their early years. (Anthony Powell)

Parents don’t make mistakes because they don’t care, but because they care so deeply. (T. Berry Brazleton)

Parents were invented to make children happy by giving them something to ignore. (Ogden Nash)

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Analysis might suggest that society has undergone an ontogeny in faith similar to the development of the individual with respect to his or her relationship with a parent. More succinctly stated, the relationship of God the Father to humanity has changed through time, not because God has changed, but because humankind has undergone a maturation which leaves us, at the present time somewhere in the stage of middle adolescence.

The ontogeny of society with respect to faith began in the infancy of the spread of the Gospel through Israel and to parts beyond. As with most infants, growth was rapid, indeed prodigious, and resulted in a few growing pains--commonly known as heresies.

Through the post-apostolic period, up through the reformation, we can see the development of faith in the stages of childhood--a rocky toddler, learning to stand and walk, gradually coming into his or her own and exercising a kind of power. But all through this time, a dead-level certainty in the wisdom, power, and deep love of our Father. Never any doubt as to His love for us, but rather some questions about what form that takes and what exactly obedience to that might entail.

With the Reformation, we begin the outright rebellion correlative to the teen years. There is a questioning and a refutation of all power figures, because indeed the flaws in the figures are exposed for all to see. Simony, the selling of indulgences, and other figures of a Church gone awry in parts, are all too present blemishes on the facade. So rather than rejecting the blemishes, humankind rejects the entire authority figure, and with it, the idea of God that was implicit in the figure.

With the Reformation, doubt about God's abiding love surfaces. First it makes its appearance in the puritan's fear of the world, then with Quietism, Jansenism, and Deism. (That's probably out of chronological sequence, but you get the drift.)

Present day, it seems we're in the height of the teen rebellion years when the Father (God) and Mother (Church) figures are so stupid as to cause astonishment that they have survived at all to this point. Everything they have said or have to say is immediately suspect because they have said it. There is every possible infraction of every possible rule. We've moved from the Divine Chain of Being to the autonomy of the individual. In this stage humanity shows its indestructibility and arrogance as it stumbles from one disaster or near-miss to another.

This gives cause for hope. There is a saying (I can't find the attribution at the moment) regarding the fact that at 15 I couldn't believe how stupid my parents were, by the time I was twenty-one it was amazing to me how intelligent they had become. So one can hope with respect to the maturation of society. Surely there are no signs of it as yet, but then, when do the "signs" of the maturation of a teenager actually "set-in." Is it not the case that the teen gradually moves out of rebellion and into accord with the manner of his or her upbringing (assuming that it was not abusive) almost completely silently? One day you turn around and discover that this child who had spent ten years making life sheer hell has suddenly agreed with you. (I know it was true for me as a teenager and young adult.)

There may be no signs and symptoms that are readily recognizable. But we have the absolute certainty, the perfect assurance that "The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

What does this mean to the Catholic practicing today? Do not abandon hope! Live as example of one faithful to the Father and to the goodness of the Church. Don't preach, don't rail, don't despair, don't fret. All of these things make for ugly siblings. Rather, live in the joy of the Lord, thank God daily for things as they are and pray that they may become ever more as He would have them be, and then live to make it so. Remember the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing; God never changes.

Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

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Anthony Burgess's idiosyncratic selection of the best works in English since 1939 was written in 1984-1985 and its perspective may well represent the thought of that time. However, what can one say of a book that includes the remarkable (though hardly best-in-show) Keith Roberts Pavane alongside Len Deighton's Bomber and Ian Fleming's Goldfinger. Add to that the fact that one suspects given Burgess's bent that he started the countdown in 1939 simply to include James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and you have about all the information you need regarding the book.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for something to read and want the opinion of an expert--an eccentric expert, an eclectic expert to be sure, but an expert nonetheless--this is the book for you. Fans of Catholic fiction would be pleased to hear that Burgess includes several Catholic Novelists--some represented multiples times: Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honor trilogy; Graham Green with The Power and the Glory and the theologically flawed, but moving Heart of the Matter; Muriel Spark with The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate; Brian Moore with The Doctor's Wife; David Lodge with How Far Can You Go?; Flannery O'Connor with Wise Blood and Walker Percy with The Last Gentleman. Once again, this list says much. Why The Mandelbaum Gate rather than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; why Wise Blood (admittedly wonderful) rather than The Violent Bear it Away (a much more powerful if more extended exercise in the same direction); why The Doctor's Wife rather than The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or Black Robe; why The Last Gentleman rather than The Moviegoer or Love in the Ruins? Each decision could so be questioned, but Burgess rarely deals with weighing out why he chose which book, rather he boldly chooses and then gives a brief summary and analysis of the particular choice. It makes for a short punchy book and for an audience that wants to know more about why these works rather than some others.


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Chesterton Cont.


And then you come upon passages like this :

from The Victorian Age in Literature

G.K. Chesterton

What the Brontës really brought into fiction was exactly what Carlyle brought into history; the blast of the mysticism of the North. They were of Irish blood settled on the windy heights of Yorkshire; in that country where Catholicism lingered latest, but in a superstitious form; where modern industrialism came earliest and was more superstitious still. The strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers, has made and left that country a land of barbarians.

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Chestertonian Works On-Line


G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web

I have to admit having not the least trace of enthusiasm for G.K. Chesterton--that gene was simply left out of my makeup. But what nature doesn't provide, perhaps nurture will, so I press on nevertheless.

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First an apology: this theme has probably been beaten into the ground at this blog; however, it is so important and such a help to stability of faithfulness.

When a faith-life enters the doldrums, or even when it is humming along on an even if unenthusiastic keel, one thing which can be very helpful in ratcheting it up a notch is gratitude. Too often I am so self-centered that I forget to give thanks for the myriad of small things that make every day so wonderful and beautiful. Caught up in the tide of what needs to be done next and how do we manage this, that, and the other thing, and where is my next hour of entertainment coming from, and such like petty desires and thoughts, I forget the importance of being thankful and thus lose a certain graciousness, a connectedness that might otherwise blossom and grow more perfect.

Gratitude for small things inclines the heart to God, or at least so it seems. At very last gratitude for small things inclines the heart away from self and directs thoughts to another. Thankfulness for the courtesy of a held-open door or elevator; thankfulness for the smile on a small child's face, brought about by some trifling attention or by nothing at all; thankfulness for one's faithful and loving spouse, who while showing no great act of self-sacrifice or giving, shows constant self-denial and self-giving in the daily acts of living; thankfulness for gainful employment; thankfulness for sun when it's sunny, for rain when it's raining; thankfulness for the birds, the trees, the clear sky full of high white clouds, traffic lights, hibiscus in bloom, sundials, gardens, giant squids, and living fossils.

Thankfulness helps reignite a tepid faith life. Gratitude moves us from the central, fibrous core of self into the realm of God who grants all of these good things.

Gratitude. Thankfulness. Two indispensable words for one essential reality--recognition that everything I have comes to me as a gift from the fullness of the love of God. Even the words I read and write come to me from Another--One whose love completes me by helping to eradicate me and replace me, still myself, and yet now more Him.

Gratitude. Thankfulness. These too are gifts which may be had merely by thinking about them and inclining oneself to feel them. Grace makes this possible.

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Christmas with the Kranks


Ugh. Tedious beyond the ability of words to express. And sad.

Highly NOT recommended.

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More Geekiness--Living Fossils


French Scientists Find 'Living Fossil' - Yahoo! News

Today Neoglyphea tomorrow, who knows? Burgessia bella? Hallucigenia, Tullymonstrum gregarium, Dunkelosteus, Helicoplacus, Anomalocaris, or cornute and mitrate carpoids? Who can tell? The world is such an exciting place with news like this coming in every day.

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Rickaby et al.

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General Metaphysics

Just one of the new batch at the Maritain Center of Notre Dame.


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Image Display

Cephalopods are the coolest. This critter really could be the Kraken of Legend and that's cooler yet. And the photo is purely creepy. I love it. I also love the sheer mystery of it--that this creature has been known mostly from washed up carcasses and remains and here it is on film. Not clearly, but on film nevertheless. Long live the giant squid!

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What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? - New York Times

The list is above.

And here's the essay.

I'm ambivalent about such lists and honestly don't know what to make of some of the works appearing on it. I've tried hard to read and appreciate anything by Don deLillo, and unfortunately, it seems beyond me. So too with Blood Meridian and both Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. I may try them again, but the first venture wasn't fruitful.

I can state without ambivalence that of the books I have read on the list, I have not enjoyed any of them. I may have admired them, liked them, or appreciated them; however, frankly I don't think the Rabbit books are Updike's strongest work. I do hold out hope for Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping which I bought at the same time as Gilead but have not yet read.

What do you all think was the best work of serious fiction in the last twenty-five years? Name a title and give a reason. I'd love to have some suggestions as to what to take up after my Muriel Spark streak fades.

Let me start the ball rolling by suggesting that the Tom More duet Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome would certainly hover near the top of my list--and not necessarily for all the reasons that might normally accompany this judgment coming from a Catholic. Rather, Percy managed the apotheosis of the Southern Gothic remaining completely true to the very roots of the tradition, while still making relevant comment to the world at large on any number of issues. I include both in the same way that Updike's four novels are included as one. They are part and parcel, completing and complementing one another. I think I like Love in the Ruins better than The Thanatos Syndrome, but I do know that the book group I read it with hated it with a passion. That was my first indication that what was present was powerful. Anyway, there's one suggestion to get the ball rolling. I'd love to hear from others.

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First Communion Day


I've thought a bit about what to report, and there really isn't too much. It was a first communion day like all have experienced and like all who have children will experience again.

However there are a few moments worth sharing. For example, Samuel did the second reading. "A reading from the First Letter of St. John" he intones solemnly after turning the page in the book and adjusting the microphone. Hardly necessary because the night before he had recited the entire reading to me.

He starts the reading, and then comes the portentous, "for GOD. . . IS. . . LOVE." Except for the fact that God was only one syllable rather than the requisite three, Sam could have been a Baptist preacher in full flower. At this point the DRE turned around with the broadest grin imaginable. She'd heard this in the rehearsals; however, she thought that when the actual event occurred he'd be too nervous to pull it off. A little later in the reading we got another slowing down and portentous, "For THIS IS LOVE." Earlier, at one of the practices, when asked to provide a summary of his reading, Samuel responded--"God is love." This summary he came up with himself--I was frankly astounded.

Later Father was asking children about manna in the desert. He said, "What do you think that white stuff was?" And Samuel raised his hand. Father asked, "What is your name?"

Sam gave him the full four name mouthful. When the Priest messed up the third name Samuel said quietly but firmly, "No, it's _______" The priest repeated it and same assured him that he was correct. "Yes."

"What was that white stuff in the desert?"

"The Body and Blood of Jesus."

The Priest laughed and said, "Not yet, you hold onto that thought."

A few minutes later he came back to same who provided the correct answer at the proper point in the homily.

Commenting on this later everyone remarked on his lack of fear in addressing and correcting the priest. One person said, "Yep. Seems the only think he's afraid of is not being noticed."

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The Abbess of Crewe


I had somewhat more difficult a time with this that with the other Muriel Spark I have read and enjoyed. Ultimately, I did enjoy this one, but I was thankful for its brevity. Both Satire and Allegory become tiresome at great length--they are best sustained over a short duration, and this was both forms, which requires even greater condensation.

The Abbey of Crewe is in trouble, someone has stolen Sister Felicity's silver thimble in the course of pilfering a stash of love letters in the false bottom of her sewing box. The Newly-elected Abbess of Crewe has her Nuns read from the Bible at the refectory. And after the usual scripture passages, she supplements their meditations with a reading from The Book of Electronics. Cameras, microphones, and bugs are to be found in every nook and cranny of the Abbey, including the poplar-lined lane down which the Nuns stroll in their recreational time. The traditional money-maker for the Abbey, sewing, has been abandoned for the new money maker--the devising and building of electronic devices, principally surveillance devices. One of the nuns is sneaking out at night and spending her time in a dalliance with a Jesuit novice and she comes back to the Abbey to spread the gospel of the love of freedom and the freedom of love. And Sister Gertrude spans the globe ecumenically crushing any practice she doesn't care for--at one point admitting a Cannibal tribe, with dietary dispensations, while crushing a vegetarian heretic sect--one suspects with the aid of said Cannibal cult. All of this right before en election. Sound familiar? Possibly because it is written from the political events of the time (another aspect that can just bore me silly, although it did not do so this time.)

Witty, sharp, satirical, even biting at times--Muriel did not look lovingly upon the characters of her Abbey and she shares them in all of their "splendor"--backbiting, petty, scandalous, scandal-mongering, lustful, disobedient, self-righteous. All of these flower bloom in the garden of the Abbey of Crewe.

Once again the prose is a delight, and I've shared one or two brief excerpts with you. Sister Winifrede comes in for the most biting of the jabs Ms. Spark makes at the characters.The dawn sun shone briefly in the troubled weather of her intellect. (It's a paraphrase, but it gets at the essence of the author's approach.)

The Abbess-to-be of Crewe gives a marvelous speech before the election which encourages the Nuns to be ladies and not the petite bourgeoisie that threaten the very foundations of the monastic order by their insistence on doing things by the book and their indulgence in petty crime and gross immorality.

In short, a magnificent short biting satire, still relevant today, although the figures and meanings need to be transposed a bit--nevertheless, as with any good work, the satire can remain effective even after the inspiring event is in the distant past.

Recommended particularly to people with an interest in politics and satire.

Next up A Far Cry from Kensington.

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First Communion Homily

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Yesterday, in his effort to equate symbol and reality, our Priest contributed to a misunderstanding of the Eucharist that I used to have in the before times. He asked the children what the bread became, and he received the answer, "The Body of Christ" He then asked the children what the wine became. He received no answer because the Catechist who gave them these lessons never separated the two. She said that the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus. She said that when you took the bread you took the body and blood of Jesus and that when you took the wine, you were reminded of the tremendous cost of this body and blood. Thus, she tried to make sense of the two species, but not to separate them in kind. The Priest, seeking to simplify, infinitely complicated matters for those of us who homeschool our children in religious education.

It is also one of the reasons that I am not very keen on reception under both species. In some cases the Catechises of adults is so poor that the misconception has remained that one MUST partake of both in order to receive both. This is not a reason for discontinuing the usage of both species, but it is a very strong reason for additional Catechesis in any parish where this will be the ongoing habit. Adults and children alike need to understand what the meaning of the species is and that reception of either one is still reception of the totality of the what the Lord offers us in the banquet of the Eucharist.

I'm not faulting the Priest who gave a very fine homily--merely pointing out the dangers of simplification. There reaches a point at which simplification is the delivery of incorrect information.

(In another realm--I have tried countless times to make clear that it is improper to convert from pounds to kilograms: one is a measure of force, the other a measure of mass. While it can be done at Earth's surface because the mass will be subject to the constant acceleration of gravity, that same 2 kg mass will have little or no-weight in free fall where forces act to cancel one another out.)

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Sacramental Love


from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

"Listen, Otto, if I don't get back home to my wife and if you should see her again, then tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here."

Magnificent--that the love of a man for his wife can outweigh the terrors of years in a concentration camp. (This was said toward the end of his time in Auschwitz.) That is the sacrament of matrimony--that everything takes on meaning and all that we face diminishes in the face of the love one person has for another in the presence of the Holy Spirit and of Christ.


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First Communion Day

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Today is Samuel's First Communion day, please join family and friends in celebrations and prayers for Samuel's continued growth in the life of faith, and in his parents' ability to foster that growth.

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About my own faith-life I have reached a conclusion that emphatically will not apply to all, but which may apply to others.

The more I worry about such important things as justification and the mechanics and details of atonement and salvation, the less capable I am of living anything like a life of faith and belief.

While there is no certainty as to the origins of the problem, it would seem to stem from an inability to atomize, to dissect, as it were, and to regard the object under the microscope as the living fabric of faith that it is. More simply stated, I cannot at once concern myself with these things that strike me as the mechanics and mechanisms of salvation and with the Person through whom redemption and salvation have come. The analytic intellect clicks in and all that looms large is the meticulous reality of the great machine that whirs and clicks away.

It's a shame, but the personal, in this small case in my life, means far more than the theoretical. And it's strange because in most other aspects, the exact opposite holds true. Calculus and higher mathematics were always a breeze so long as they were theory along, once they became "practical," they were a sheer muddle.

Not so in the encounter with the Savior. The Person of Christ looms large, and in that Person all that appertains; they are part and parcel and I need not try to fathom how one works within the Other. I need merely accept that the Person of my salvation cares about me with a love that transcends time and death.

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Dante Online | Indice delle Opere

An elegant site present a range of Dante's works in the original Italian or Latin and with English translations for many. Much to explore here.

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A View of Suffering and Joy


from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.

It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys. Take as an example something that happened on our journey from Auschwitz to the camp affiliated with Dachau. We had all been afraid that our transport was heading for the Mauthausen camp. We became more and more tense as we approached a certain bridge over the Danube which the train would have to cross to reach Mauthausen, according to the statement of experience traveling companions. Those who have never seen anything similar cannot possibly imagine the dance of joy performed in the carriage by the prisoners when they saw that our transport was not crossing the bridge and was instead heading "only" for Dachau.

Suffering fills the available space. Nearly everyone has had that experience. Whatever cold we have now is the worst cold we have ever had. Whatever sorrow we are experiencing now is the worst sorrow we have ever or can ever endure.

What had never occurred to be is that joy is similar. The joy I feel at this moment is the greatest joy possible and so it is with all possible joy.

God lavishes His gifts in the extreme, not in the middle ground. God does not care for the lukewarm (witness His statement to Laodicea). So rejoice or suffer, but do it all in the fullness of what it is to God, for each is His will and gift for the moment.

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An Abbey in Its Time

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from The Abbess of Crewe
Muriel Spark

"In these days," the Abbess had said to her closest nuns, "we must form new monastic combines. The ages of the Father and of the Son are past. We have entered the age of the Holy Ghost. The wind bloweth where it listeth and it listeth most certainly on the Abbey of Crewe. I am a Benedictine with the Benedictines, a Jesuit with the Jesuits. I was elected Abbess and I stay the Abbess and I move as the Spirit moves me."

One wonders about what she might be talking. Surely we haven't ever encountered anyone who might declare to know more than revealed truth, one who insists that one's own way has been marked out specially by the Spirit so that what one wishes to do is exactly what the Spirit would have one do?

This is Muriel Spark at her most oblique and most perfect. And I will have to absorb the rest of the context to remark upon it with any acumen. But given this early off-the-blocks passage, I have high hopes for a most interesting novel.

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Current Reading List


Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl (Yes, still)
The Abbess of Crewe Muriel Spark
Descent into Hell Charles Williams

On the horizon

Symposium, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Hothouse by the East River, and about six others by Murial Spark. Really a favorite among the non-mystery non-SF set.

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Nietzsche Quotation


I am no big fan of Nietzsche, but I stumbled across this as I was checking out the FLICKR site (believe it or not for work purposes--aggregated hierarchal schema). And I thought it insightful.

The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.

Possibly why moderation and temperance are Christian virtues. Or are they values? Either way, moderation and temperance tend to be important in Christian circles.

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I did something stupid to my settings this morning or yesterday evening and made everything vanish from my site. Sorry. Hopefully by the time I publish this it will all be restored.

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New Commenting Policy

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Because of the enormous flood of spam comments of recent date, I am chaning my commenting policy. There will now be a short (or perhaps lengthy) delay (all depends on when I can get to it) before any comment will be published. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I am spending more time editing out spam than I would do approving the few comments I get.

If you make a comment and it doesn't show up here, simply fire off an e-mail and I'll get to it.

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The Girls of Slender Means


Kensington between VE and VJ day. Days of rationing and loose living, days of saints and sinners. Meet Nicholas, who when one first encounters him is dead in a foreign land, to all eyes apparently a martyr. Meet Jane who works for a publisher and makes much of her money through forging hard-luck letters to get the signatures of famous people which she sells to a local book-dealer. Her great disappointment in life, a typed note card from GBS who says that because she asks for no money, he will not sign the note, his signature being sometimes worth a few shillings. Meet Selina, a woman of not terribly proper conduct who chants the great chant of self esteem even when everything around her is going up in flames. Meet Joanna who gives elocution lessons, much of her initial work centered around The Wreck of the Deutschland. This is only a small circle of the cast of characters that populates this wonderful, insightful, and incisive novel. If Miss Jean Brodie represents perfection and if perfection must be granted only to one novel, then this one so closely approaches it as it makes for a hard time to distinguish the two in quality. Here is the same large cast and the same message of faith and salvation couched in a new way.

The reader cannot fail to be amazed at the many, many different faces of Ms. Spark as she marches relentlessly toward one goal--a life of meaning, meaning found only in the proper worship of God and the proper service of God--meaning that is without substance outside of the eternal verities.

Highly recommended. If you must read only two Muriel Spark novels, this must be one of them. (Of course Miss Jean Brodie is the other.

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Coupled with the thoughts that provoked the piece below, this really spoke to me this evening:

from a hymn by Fred Pratt Green

In the just reward of labor
God's will is done;
In the help we give our neighbor,
God's will is done;
In our world-wide task of caring
For the hungry and despairing,
In the harvests men are sharing,
God's will is done.

I don't know the proper attribution. If anyone does and will leave it for me, I'll correct this post. Thanks.

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On the Immigration Issue


I have little useful to say, and am reluctant for fear of the controversy it will engender to say it. Nevertheless: consider the people as people, individuals, first. What best demonstrates love and charity in our present situation and what will best demonstrate it as we move forward. Let charity be our standard for anything that might be written into law, in material fact or in our hearts.

There. Perhaps I've avoided controversy. It's the most I can say and the least. Let God's will be done in how I demonstrate love to my neighbor.

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Muriel Spark on Faith


or is it?

from The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark

Jane was suddenly overcome by a deep envy of Joanna, the source of which she could not locate exactly at that hour of her youth. The feeling was connected with an inner knowledge of Joanna's disinterestedness, her ability, a gift, to forget herself and her personality. Jane felt suddenly miserable, as one who has been cast out of Eden before realising that it had in fact been Eden. She recalled two ideas about Joanna that she had gathered from various observations made by Nicholas: that Joanna's enthusiasm for poetry was limited to one kind, and that Joanna was the slightest bit melancholy on the religious side; these thoughts failed to comfort Jane.

The Girls of Slender Means really does play to an ensemble class. While Jane and Nicholas do occupy a large portion of our attention, there are interludes of Joanna, Selina, Greggie, and others, so that no one voice seems to dominate the novel. And what Ms. Spark has to say about the life of faith comes through crystal clear in the persons of Joanna and Collie and in the excerpts of poetry included.

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John Drinkwater

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An Edwardian poet quoted in The Girls of Slender Means. This appealed to me.

Moonlit Apples
John Drinkwater

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn light.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no souund at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon,and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

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The Secular Scripture

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from The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark

This became certain as Selina began to repeat, slowly and solemnly, the Two Sentences.

The Two Sentences were a simple morning and evening exercise prescribed by the Chief Instructress of the Poise Course which Selina had recently taken by correspondence, in twelve lessons for five guineas. The Poise Course believed strongly in auto-suggestion and had advised, for the maintenance of poise in the working woman, a repetition of the following two sentences twice a day:

Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.

Even Dorothy Markham stopped her chatter for a few seconds every morning at eight-thirty and evening at six-thirty, in respect for Selina's Sentences. All the top floor was respectful. It had cost five guineas.

Where faith and prayer are absent, something will rush in to fill the gap. Here, it is the seemingly innocent chant of self-confidence/self-esteem, that replaces, say, morning and evening prayer. But it isn't innocent because it is a prayer said to oneself, a chant designed to praise and adore the person within.

This is the form that all worship not outwardly directed takes. In fact, it seems to be the form that much outwardly directed worship takes as well. When one allows oneself to be carried away by distractions of one's own making: constant monitoring of the flow of Mass to be certain that no technical errors are made in the performance of the rubric, analysis of the lyrics of hymns to determine whether or not they are worthy of singing or truly give God praise, concern about the gestures or lack thereof made by one's neighbor, analysis of the homily to be certain that nothing heterodox has crept in, critiquing the voices of the readers as they perform their functions, and so forth, one is concerned primarily with oneself. This concern is expressed in the way of outward things, but the real message from all of this is, "I don't like the way things are going--they are not being done to my taste."

Self-worship creeps in in so many ways--the likes and dislikes that drive one this way or that, the little, seemingly meaningless "preferences" that fill up the worship service, flipping through the prayer book to find a new or different invitatory because one has prayed the old one to death, looking for a new song, a new psalm, a new translation, a new commentary. . . all things that relate to sensation and appetite transform the proper outward focus into a deliberate inner focus. One may as well be praying or chanting the Two Sentences.

Self-worship enters every time the attention is deflected from God to anything not God. And as with temptation, the mere deflection of thought is insufficient, it is the embrace of the distraction that marks self-worship.

I heard tell once of a priest in a parish who upon hearing an infant cry in the back of the Church stopped his homily and said, "Will you take that squalling infant out of here!" The person who told me the story had not been back to Church in twenty years. Nursing that offense is one form of self-worship. The offense itself was a form of self-worship. The error made being always to allow anything to come between oneself and God, and more particularly to allow anything not of charity to do so.

The possibilities of self-worship are endless and endlessly misleading. The reality of true worship, a single fine thread. Truly, "strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, wide is that path that leads to destruction." And each person chooses the way he or she will go.

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One More on Muriel

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You may be sick to death of hearing about her, so let it suffice to say that I have at least two more that I expect to read and report on (although, depending upon my endurance, I may pursue the rest of the available opus.) Those two shall be a "pair" even if not invested with the same characters (about this latter I do not know)--they are: The Girls of Slender Means and A Far Cry from Kensington I regret I have not looked into Ms. Spark's writing extensively before now.

What is intriguing about Ms. Spark is, like many great writers of the recent past, she takes questions of faith quite seriously. They may not be spelled out word for word on the written page, but every book deals with the themes of morality and religion to a greater or lesser extent. In some, i.e. Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and (so far at least) The Girls of Slender Means it is to some extent the driving force of the narrative. In others, Aiding and Abetting, Not to Disturb, and The Finishing School religion isn't overtly the theme, but it certainly is a powerful element in the overall structure.

We'll see how it plays out in the next couple of books. Regardless of how morality and religion saturated they might be, the crystal-clear clarity and concise, powerful prose of her novels makes her a compelling and serious novelists, even though most of her novels are not dead-pan serious.

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Not to Disturb


Muriel Spark's novel is a perfect compliment to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie because it represents a near-perfect antithesis of everything in that book. Indeed, the title is the antithesis of the entire aim of the novel, from the very first sentence to the last line.

Almost a play, told almost entirely in dialogue, a story is gradually pieced together as one progresses through the books. A distinctly unsavory and unscrupulous "downstairs" staff waits as the masters of the house descend into a destructive spiral. As the action progresses elements are moved one by one into place for the finale and for the future success of the downstairs staff.

Disconcerting, occasionally humorous, bold, and striking. This is a book to blitz through once and savor on the repeat trip. Recommended for fans of Muriel Spark and fans of dark (very dark indeed) comedy.

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A Must Read

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A short and lovely discussion of Christian charity. Now, how to move from cistern to fountain. . . ah, Grace. . .

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


One of the blurbs on the back of the book raves that Muriel Spark's novel, "Is the perfect novel." And it isn't far from the truth. In that statement it shares praise with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which has also been called the perfect novel. It also shares a great deal of the atmosphere of the former novel, though not of the content.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is ostensibly about a very "liberal" and "progressive" school teacher of the 1930s who takes under her wing a group of girls called "The Brodie Set." This group is marked by their inability to blend in with the other girls in the upper form.

While the story is largely linear and appears to be the work of an anonymous Omniscient narrator, it is in fact a "limited" omniscient narrator, as the story careens along mostly from one point of view, with bits and pieces out of sequence and time from the other characters. It sounds as though this might create a confusing patchwork, but it does not. Instead we have a robust, multi-layered, amusing, sad, and powerful story of friendship, betrayal, conversion, and transformation.

The book, like most of Muriel Spark's works, is very short, and it is peppered through with delightful absurdities and contradictions of character. For example, while Miss Brodie teaches her girls that "team spirit blurs individuality," she starts the year by posting a picture of Mussolini and his "fascisti" and extols their impeccable timing marching together and working together, almost machine-like.

While the story is named for Miss Jean Brodie, and certainly pervaded by her influence, Miss Brodie is a strangely distant character. We get much closer to one of the girls and learn a great deal about Miss Brodie through her eyes. Interestingly, the author's descriptions of this character lead us to be somewhat ambivalent about her.

It isn't possible to recommend this book highly enough. Spark's observations of Brodie's opinions about religion and about Catholicism in particular, are brilliant and thought-provoking. Her observations of Jean Brodie, who, despite her intentions is actually quite an unpleasant sort of person--unpleasant to the point even of evil, give us pause as we consider the small, unadorned packages in which evil is contained. Those packages, the human heart, are the true territory of the novel, and it is for that reason, among others, that this is "the perfect novel." I plan to read it several more times in the near future because I feel my cursory second acquaintance with the work hardly does it justice.

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In the Discard Pile

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Looking through books that we had multiple copies of, I chanced upon this delightful passage. If I've read the complete book, I have forgotten at this point, but it certainly seems worth reading. I propose a little game. Can anyone name the book from which the passage is taken? While it wasn't a bestseller, it certainly isn't completely obscure, and it is by a writer who has produced a number of quite notable books. This author also wrote some of my favorite books.

In the first place, I suppose, it was my parents' fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta. It is a pretty enough name in itself, but it conjures up pictures of delectable and slightly overblown ladies in Titian's less respectable canvases, and, though I admit I have the sort of coloring that might have interested that Venetian master, I happen to be the rather inhibited product of an English country rectory. And if there is anything further removed than that from the bagnio Venuses of Titian's middle period, I don't know what it is.

If you're inclined to, answer in the comment box.

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A True Gem


Here were no gaunt mistresses like Miss Gaunt, those many who had stalked past Miss Brodie in the corridors saying "good morning" with predestination in their smiles

--from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark.

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The Prime of The Prime


There is really no point in trying to excerpt anything from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; as truly wonderful as the film was, the book, as is often the case, excels it in every way. There is a tautness to the prose of the book, a tension that does not permit mere excerpting. As I was sharing a passage with my wife, I found what I wanted to share going on and on and on to the point where it would probably make for an excellent read-aloud for the two of us.

What is wonderful is both the sharp satire and the incisive view of the characters--the penetrating depth of observation that allows the writer to make a conclusion and carry the reader along without ever stating the conclusion. What is even more wonderful is that it is about the small-scale battles on the moral front that are fought every day--it is about the small choices and the little things that make a difference in a person and in destiny.

What is remarkable are the simple castoffs:

from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark

Rose Stanley believed her, but this was because she was indifferent. She was the least of all the Brodies set to be excited by Miss Brodie's love affairs, or by anyone else's sex. And it was always to be the same. Later, when she was famous for sex, her magnificently appealing qualities lay in the fact that she had no curiosity about sex at all. She never reflected upon it. As Miss Brodie was to say, she had instinct.

And yet these quick castoffs build into a picture of a character and of Miss Brodie herself.

The novel is narrated in and out of time and while the view seems to be omniscient, we gradually devolve upon one viewpoint character whose transformation from the Brodie days is quite significant in the impact of the story.

I'll write a bit more when I've finished the book, but I can see clearly why this book was a substantial advance in the reputation of Muriel Spark as a novelist. I had forgotten how well-formed it really is, how compelling, and how hilarious and serious.

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Charles Williams Quotation


from Descent into Hell

He went softly up, as the Jesuit priest had gone up those centuries earlier paying for a loftier cause by a longer catastrophe.

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in a paragraph. . .

from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark

Then suddenly Sandy wanted to be kind to Mary Macgregor, and thought of the possibilities of feeling nice from being nice to Mary instead of blaming her. Miss Brodie's voice from behind was saying to Rose Stanley, "You are all heroines in the making. Britain must be a fit country for heroines to live in. The league of Nations. . . " The sound of Miss Brodie's presence, just when it was on the tip of Sandy's tongue to be nice to Mary Macgregor, arrested the urge. Sandy looked back at her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose.

She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and blamable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was a least inside Miss Brodie's' category of heroines in the making. So, for good fellowship's sake, Sand said to Mary, "I would be walking with you if Jenny was here." And Mary said, "I know."

The novelist says nearly nothing at all about Miss Jean Brodie and yet reveals everything in the course of this. In a very real sense, Miss Jean Brodie is an antichrist because she usurps the place at the head of the body, and this usurpation is accompanied by all the features of any coup--cold-bloodedness, cruelty, and a sense of superiority.

With short deft strokes we are given a clear image of the lay of the land and of the reign of Miss Jean Brodie. And it isn't a comfortable picture because it is very easy to place ourselves in the picture are Miss Brodie, Sandy, or Mary. Like Sandy, we aspire to good but never make it there because one voice or another draws us back to the ultimately self-centered reality we've fabricated, and so the cycle of cruelty continues.

Amazing the way in which the truths of Christ are explored and spelled out in fiction, is it not?

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Aiding and Abetting


Muriel Spark's second to last opus is a bit of a disappointment compared with the sparkling and incisive The Finishing School. I wonder if part of the difficulty was that this book was based on two true stories, welded together to give us the narrative of the novel.

And the narrative itself is a bit disappointing--Lucky Lucan, a wealthy member of British Minor Nobility twenty years ago (or more) killed his nanny and attempted to murder his wife. That's the backdrop, and the story concerns Lucan visiting a psychiatrist who used to be a false stigmatic, and Lucan who is not Lucan posing, and Lucan running away from two people tracking down Lucan, and so forth. There were some amusing moments, but little in the way of insight into character or meaning. There was a long chain of obsession with blood that led absolutely nowhere.

[Note: if you intend to read the novel and are already familiar with the works of Evelyn Waugh, the following paragraph contains a spoiler.]

Finally, the end comes abruptly, as is de rigeur for Spark's novels and when it comes it is essentially cribbed from her friend and mentor Evelyn Waugh (see Black Mischief.)

Overall, because of the relatively plodding place, the lack of the usual Spark charm, and the lack of any character of interest, I would recommend the work to Spark completists only. If you are first dipping into Spark, you would be better off with Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or The Finishing School.

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Reading List

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark

Man's Search for Meaning Viktor E. Frankl

Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer Thomas Dubay

Descent into Hell Charles Williams

Coming up:

Throne of Jade Naomi Novik

Map of Bones James Rollins (Unfortunately attempting to ride the DVC popularity wave, which is a shame because Rollins is so much more accomplished a writer)

Not to Disturb, Girls of Slender Means, Loitering with Intent, and A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark

The Essence of the Thing Madeleine St. John

Overall, I'm trying to be more cognizant of and careful regarding my choices in reading. While it may be entertaining, I would also like a goodly portion of it to be somewhat more edifying than my usual reading list. Not all of these books qualify; however, many do and the ones that do not provide a sort of "palate cleanser" before the next course. Too much weighty stuff tends to shift the balance.

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Look For God


And you will assuredly find Him. Or rather, you will finally notice that He has been finding us. Recounting his concentration camp experience, Viktor Frankl writes:

from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth--that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way--an honorable way--in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

His parents named him Viktor, and indeed, he was. He survived the camps, and not only did he survive them, but he came out of them with a more intimate knowledge of God and of human nature.

For humanity, there is no higher goal, nor anything more sustaining that contemplating the image of the Beloved. Yes, there is much good in remembering the lesser goods, all of our beloved family and friends. But the highest form of contemplation, the form that breeds intimacy and speaks to salvation is contemplation of the Beloved. In this is salvation even in the worst of circumstances. One cannot even begin to imagine what life was like in the long haul of survival in the camps; however, in those same infinitely horrible, infinitely blasphemous camps, one man at least, survived and came to the rest of humanity with the message he received. He redeemed a science by acknowledging that our greatest good does not lie in ordering what is within, but in giving all to that in which we live and move and have our being. One moment of love of this Beloved is better than a thousand years of the bliss of love on Earth, as excellent as that is.

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A most profound and powerful book, perhaps the most important book by a psychologist in the twentieth Century (yes, I'm including Fraud, uh Freud.)

I was reminded of my desire to take it up again and at the end of his Preface, Rabbi Kushner gives me cause:

from Man's Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl

We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

And even though Frankl quotes Nietzsche approvingly, he earned the right, and by quoting, in some small part redeemed much of Nietzsche's awful thought--thus turning a cause of the Reich against the Reich.

This journey is harrowing, and it is even more harrowing because it could have been avoided and the author could have left and gone to America. But, to quote his own preface:

The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie?. . . this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for "a hint from Heaven," as the phrase goes.

It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that the letter stood for one of the Commandments. I asked, "Which one is it?" He answered, "Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land. " At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land and to let the American Visa lapse.

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Cinco de Mayo


In the midst of all of this immigration brouhaha and opinionating, I take time out to celebrate my favorite cuisine. (In case the beginning of my spiritual Autobiography did not make this clear, food is clearly designed by God to speak to the heart!) So, what precisely is Cinco de Mayo?

Well here's the explanation according the Encyclopedia Brittanica's This Day in History

1862: Mexican victory in the Battle of Puebla
On this day in 1862, Mexico repelled the French forces of Napoleon III at the Battle of Puebla, a victory that became a symbol of resistance to foreign domination and is now celebrated as a national holiday, Cinco de Mayo.

So, what exactly is the proper greeting for Cinco de Mayo? Vivo Mexico! Vivo Zaragoza?

The famous El Grito is associated (incorrectly) with this date, but given that it is a staple of some celebrations, perhaps a word of explanation is in order:

from the publication of the Consul General in Austin

The next day, September 16, [1810] the peasants from the surrounding area responded to the ringing of the church bell. They gathered in the courtyard of the church, were Father Hidalgo inspired them with a fiery cry: "Long live religion!, Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Long live the Americas and death to the corrupt government!". This was the famous GRITO which triggered the long struggle for independence. The Cry of independence is repeated again and again, every year, in Mexico City from the balcony of the National Place in Mexico by the President of Mexico, and it is echoed by the governor of each state throughout the country.

One more rabble-rousing priest--will there be no end of them?

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from the beginning of Tristram Shandy
Laurence Sterne

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—— Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,——I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and mis-carriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into; so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter, - - away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

There's a lot here beneath the comic bombast.

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Every choice matters.

Any time there is a choice to be made, the way one decides determines to some extent the choices that become available thereafter.

In many cases choices are between two equally legitimate goods. In some cases the choices are between two goods, one of which is a greater good. In some cases the choices are between a good and an evil.

When this last is the case one must take a lesson from Church Teaching and from Harry Potter, one must always choose what is right not necessarily what is easy. The remarkable thing is that when one is trained in such choices, what is right becomes what is easy.

And each choice is a training in choices. That is why each one matters.

Now it is possible to read this too strictly and become paralyzed, uncertain of which way to go--doing the Christian equivalent of consulting the auguries over whether to have the baked potato or the sweet potato. That choice does matter, but it is so small a choice and the relative differences between the two so small that the "wrong choice" whichever it might be does not carry the weighty consequences of an incorrect moral choice. However, to dismiss it as an insignificant choice is to miss the point. Every opportunity to choose is an opportunity to learn. Every chance one has to select one thing over another is a chance to see what the consequences of a choice may be.

Some choices are enormous, thoroughly life altering. For example, on the mundane level, the choice to take a job near family and present friends or to move to a distant place to take a job. This choice does, in effect, shut down a lot of other choices that could be made. Either way, certain avenues are closed off.

So, too, when one is faced with a moral choice, but in an even more profound way. A choice to abuse recreational drugs may start out as a choice and may wind up as a necessity as the body becomes dependent upon them. The choice to cheat "just a little" on income tax, expense reports, petty cash vouchers, makes the next time just a little easier.

Every choice matters. Probably the place where this is most often overlooked is in our entertainment. There are a great many good, licit, and helpful choices that can be made regarding which types of entertainment we indulge in. However, for every good choice there are any number of bad choices. These bad choices, either because of lack of quality or lack of morality, move us downward, ever so slightly. Suddenly, from a life of enjoying Shakespeare and the western classics, one is watching Daisy Duke and reading "Classics Illustrated" comics. These are not things that happen with just a single choice, but a series of choices lead us down roads from which it is hard to turn away.

If beauty leads to God, lack of beauty, lack of goodness, must perforce lead away.

So many things seem not to matter. Watching this film, reading this book, going to this store, all are minor in themselves, but rich in their influence on future choice. When one deliberately lowers standards in order to "fit in" or "get along" or even "take it easy" or "chill out," the compromise has ramifications. It is impossible to guess where they might lead.

Now, all of this would be very dire if there were not recourse to God. Everything matters to God, even the smallest things done. It doesn't matter in the sense that salvation hangs upon every action, but it matters in the way that any good parent is concerned with everything his or her child does. God wants what is best for each person. God wants the proper choices to be made and He wants for each person to approach Him more closely. The choices one makes affect how closely one can approach God, therefore, God cares about those choices. Because He cares, He stands ready to help. Prayer is a constant help. Dedicating meals to God allow the participants to eat and enjoy the food prepared in a proper and balanced way. Prayer at other times helps prevent erroneous choices or redeem poor choices already made.

Prayer is the proper tool, the correct "weapon" in the war of choice. Prayer will guard and protect, advise and inform, and ultimately, the door opened to God and the Holy Spirit through prayer will allow the light to shine needed to see in the darkness of this present world. Whenever a choice is before us, a moment with God will suffice to help ensure the best choice is made. "Who has God lacks nothing."

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The genesis of quietism seems to be very easily explained because it is a paradox any Christian of good faith will butt up against in the course of living out a vocation.

If one accepts that there is no good action that does not begin with grace, continue sustained by grace, and end in grace, one is presented immediately with a problem--How do I know that I have the grace to proceed? If proceeding without grace is presumptuous and fruitless, how can one tell precisely when to begin? Telephone calls, post cards, and billet-doux (of a personal nature) from God are rare. How does one know when one is following God's will in a matter as subtle as moving on in prayer?

To this question, there does not appear to be a ready answer. One cannot assume that one has the grace and the go-ahead to proceed, but the desire to move on could probably be taken as a strong indicator that that is the direction one is called.

So what if one starts out on this road and fails? Or what if other things interfere? How do we sort out our presumption from interference by infernal agents?

Again, there seems to be no ready answer. However, this is one reason a person to discuss the spiritual life with is so important. Such a person should have broad knowledge and experience of the life he or she is trying to guide others to; he or she should be aware of the barriers to progress and the nature of these barriers. Is the barrier such that one should return to discursive meditation or vocal prayer, or is it one that requires persistence in the realm of mental prayer.

Quietism is one danger of an extreme interpretation of the doctrine of grace. It is one that is hard to avoid and very easy to give way to; however, we have as one indicator our own knowledge of the possibility. It would be relatively easy to identify extremes of behavior or attitude that suggest quietism--it's just the earlier stages that might present the pray-er with some difficulty.

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Muriel Spark Strikes Again


While I don't find Aiding and Abetting as out-and-out funny as The Finishing School, there are moments.

from Aiding and Abetting
Muriel Spark

A young bespectacled lay brother bade them to wait a minute. Joe had telephoned in advance. Sure enough, Father Ambrose appeared as if by magic with his black habit floating wide around him. You could not see if he was thin or fat. He had the shape of a billowing pyramid with his small white-haired head at the apex as if some enemy had hoisted it there as a trophy of war. From under his habit protruded an enormous pair of dark-blue track shoes on which he lumbered towards them. As he careered along the cold cloister he read what was evidently his Office of the day; his lips moved; plainly, he didn't believe in wasting time and did believe in letting the world know it. When he came abreast of Lacey and Joe he snapped shut his book and beamed at them.

The story of Lord Lucan, a man who killed his nanny and attempted to murder his wife, who fled the scene and was reported being seen in various corners of the world thereafter, Aiding and Abetting is based on two true stories. The second is the story of a false stigmatic turned psychiatrist to whom Lucan comes to talk. Then there's the chase sequence. I'll fill you in when I've completed the entire work in the next day or so. Then it's on to a large number of Spark's books obtained from the local library. They're all VERY short, so they shouldn't take long to read at all.

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Dove Descending

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How is the Holy Spirit like a German Luftwaffe Bomber? What exactly is "Little Gidding" or "The Dry Salvages?" What does that Greek stuff at the beginning of Four Quartets mean and how does it relate to the rest of the poem?

Thomas Howard has produced a superb introductory commentary to one of the great poems of one of the most difficult poets of the 20th Century. As an introductory commentary there is much that is missing here, much knowledge that is presupposed, things not explained that might well help more, and as though in a math book many , "proofs left to the student." Which is not to suggest that there is anything lacking here. In fact, these seeming drawbacks encourage the reader to think through the poem and to consider the aspects of the poem on their own. In conversation with Dr. Howard, one pulls out of oneself the ability to interact with the poetry. Where Dr. Howard is silent on a point, the reader can fill in the blanks.

For example, throughout the entire commentary very little is made of the symbol of the rose that recurs. Now, the author might argue that this is because Eliot did not use symbols in that way; however, Eliot was well aware of the multiple symbolism of the rose, and most particularly aware of this in the poetry of his near contemporary William Butler Yeats. However, Howard makes mention of the rose without pointing out that the rose has been a symbol from the beginning of the Christian era for Jesus Christ. Only when the reader realizes this does the end of "Little Gidding" begin to really shine--

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.
When the tongue of flame are in-=folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
and the fire and the rose are one.

These are lines that would take pages upon pages to really unpack. But one clear sense of them is to point toward the trinity. The Crowned knot of fire/the fire/and the rose could easily be seen as the three persons of the trinity, for when the flame is in-folded and the fire and the rose are one, we become aware of the unity in trinity. Eliot is also referring to other things happening through the poem, through time, and in the human spirit.

Eliot's Four Quartets is one of the last masterpieces of modern poetry. It is crammed full of meaning, and freighted with thought that is far beyond most of us. This commentary serves to help open up the compressed language and introduce the timid reader of poetry to one of the great Catholic works of the century. I can truly say that this work stands up to those more accessible, and exceeds them in many ways when the reader allows it to unfold in a leisurely fashion and considers all of its aspects.

Too often we see the short span of a poem and think that we can sit down and read it as we read a novel. But the reality of poetry is that it is condensed beyond any measure of the prose in a novel or short story. Eliot's relatively short poem is the equivalent of reading a moderately long novel; and yet because it seems so short, we're tempted to rush through to the meaning, as though it would be standing, naked and lithe at the finish of the poem. But meaning is constructed throughout, and the only meaning at the end of the poem is that derived from the proper reading of it. Dr. Howard's book gives every reader the opportunity to open up one of the great works of modern literature and to spend time dwelling on and in the meaning of it. For this alone, Howard deserves accolades. But add to that the charms of Dr. Howard's own prose and his reticence in spelling out every single possible variant reading and meaning, and you have a restrained, sustained reading of the poem that is enough and not too much. Dr. Howard gives us a springboard--the reader must execute what dive he or she will in the course of reading.

I cannot encourage everyone enough to give the book a try. But it, get Eliot's poem and read them together--reading through a section of the poem, and then a section of the commentary, and then rereading the section of the poem with the information gleaned from the commentary. It might take as long to read as a novel of moderate length (as I implied above), but one would finally be doing justice to the complexity and beauty that Eliot has wrought in this magnificent poem.

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from Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

There are two kinds of human excellence, the first of which is on the level of natural talents, gifts, accomplishments. . . . The second and higher type lies on the level of personal goodness, integrity, virtue, sanctity. . . .

It is immediately obvious that someone can be eminent n the first area of talent and accomplishments and a moral wretch in the second. There are thew few who excel on both levels: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila. It should be obvious to a consistent theist that to be a saint is immeasurably more important than to be a world class scholar, violinist or an Olympic gold medalist. . . .

This last sentence is the show-stopper. It should be immediately obvious to a consistent theist--first, is it immediately obvious? Do our actions, our choices, our outlooks, our interests, the direction we take on things show that this is our consistent outlook? Or do we rather tend to laud those who write well or speak well or play football well. Am I more interested in the poet laureate than in the saint down the street?

Second, I think we can read this to mean that a consistent theist's life should make this obvious. Do the things we are concerned about, fret about, talk about, lavish time and energy on, all reflect to the unbiased observer our knowledge that moral excellence is the superior excellence? Or do I have to go up to that observer and over the din of my book and television reviews, comments about this and that social agenda, remarks about other Christians and followers of other faith, inform him or her that I value above all else moral excellence.

If I am any measure (and I admit that I am at best a poor measure), our lives are not representative of the truths we claim to hold most dear. Most of us are more interested in the quality of our brew or smoke or dinner or literary circle.

The truth is that there is no harm in enjoying the simple pleasures of life on Earth. But our enjoyment of them should be secondary to our pursuit of excellence. Unfortunately, I know that it is not so for me. I pursue excellence half-heartedly as it seems to recede from me far too quickly.

Nevertheless, there is s remedy. I cannot change myself by myself. But "with God all things are possible." With God's grace and strength, I can begin to live the life that gives witness to the world of His strength and glory. When I can come to terms with my own emptiness and smallness, when those concepts are more than words stolen from other writers, I will have made some progress. When I can pray as consistently and as frequently as I should like to, when I can regulate my entertainments as well as I can my diet, when I can surrender to Beauty and make it known--then I will have made progress. All of these things are possible. Not only are they merely possible, the are potential. That is, a slight tipping of the scales, a moment of exerted will, a dollop of grace, and what could be becomes a reality.

This is true of everyone who has faith in a God who saves. It is true of everyone who wants to make the attempt. It is true of all the saints of St. Blogs. And we are all His saints, now, if we could but live our lives after the fashion of those raised to the honors of the Altar, how much better would our world and all those around us be for it?

As a great spiritual guide once said, "All is gift, All is grace." And All is for all people at all times. Gods grace, like potential energy stored within us, simply awaits our attention to be made active, simply calls for the movement of will that we need to shed our slothfulness to make. And in making that movement, grace begins the transformation of self. All we need do is get out of the way--cooperate to the extent we are able, and move forward in His light.

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Reading Howard's wonderful Dove Descending, I am reminded of how much goes into the art of poetry--every ounce of the life of a poet, and all of the skill that goes into summoning words into living, meaningful, vibrant representations of what is in the poet's head. Eliot was one of the last to write truly meaningful "exterior" poetry. After him a seemingly endless parade of posturing, grinning, self-aggrandizing, self-destructive confessional poets who have as their wares only themselves and their numbingly wearing and wearying dreary dull lives. (Any life lived where the sole object of attention is that person in the mirror who hates me is not worthy of the word "life.") Eliot is one of the few with something important to say. And this is what I both love and hate about Eliot. Unfortunately, there are times when he is all too aware that he has something to say. And sometimes it shows.

But putting that aside for the moment. This morning opening up Howard I tripped over a passage that sent me back to the poem leading me to share with you this marvelous sentence.

"Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter."

It is literally dropped in from nowhere at the end of East Coker, and it is a magnificent and true observation. Love is only love when the self is out of the equation. That can only happen when here and now cease to matter. Howard makes the point a different way:

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

But what is this about love being most nearly itself when her and now cease to matter? Just that. The man in whom love has been perfected is at home in any place (here or there) and in any time (now or then). He has gone beyond the futility of nostalgia and wistfulness. He is as fully at peace under the lamplight as he was under the stars with his new beloved. No lamenting a lost youth for him. There is a time for this. It is appointed. The wise man of Ecclesiasitcus has already told us so.

(With that last sentence, I'm a little confused, perhaps because I don't know Ecclesiasticus the way I ought, but isn't it the wise man of Ecclesiastes who told us that "there was a time for every purpose under heaven?")

Selflessness allows the person to range freely and comfortably through time and space. No Billy Pilgrim here with the vertiginous careening through Trafalmadorian interference. Even unstuck in time, the person in whom love is perfected is not disoriented by where or when. Because the where and when is eternal. When love is perfected on participates fully in the life of God and thus partakes of eternity while here on Earth.

So once again, I encourage you all--all you fans of Flannery, you champions of Walker, you admirers of Waugh and friends of Spark; in short, all you who love and support Catholic literature--seek out Eliot's poem (you can find it on the web, if you don't care to embarrass yourself with pretentiousness in a library) and read it. And if it makes no sense, read it again. And if there still isn't an inkling, do Ignatius Press and Mr. Howard a favor and buy the book. You really will be glad you did.

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Sam will be receiving first communion near the end of May. He wanted to be a reader for the Mass that day. He tried out and received the second reading from the First Letter of St. John.

Last night, we went to practice for the second time. The DRE said, "Now, last week before you left here, I gave you some homework. Does anyone remember what that homework was?" Of course no one did. The DRE continued and said, "I wanted you to understand the readings. So, let's start with the second reading because it is easier. What does the second reading mean."

Sam whispered to me, "God is love." I told him to raise his hand and tell the DRE. She was ecstatic. She was equally pleased when she heard his analysis of the first reading. "God shows no partiality--that means he doesn't have any favorites."

Well, we've practiced and practiced and practiced his reading to glow it down from Warp to merely supersonic. Last night he slowed in Waaaaaaaaaaaaaay down. With the result that he sounded a lot like a Baptist minister. The great moment was when he did this line:

"Whoever does not love does not know God, because," and here there was a short pause followed by a ponderous, thudding, emphatic all caps delivery it a beat between each word, "GOD IS LOVE." The DRE let out a little snicker and afterwards said to us, "The boy is surely headed for Broadway." But it was, in all, a magnificent delivery, and you couldn't be seated in the congregation, understand English, and not get the point of the reading.

God is love. And boy does He show us that everyday in this precious child.

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I wrote what follows to someone who had asked me to talk a bit about my faith journey. I don't know if it will serve much purpose for all here, but it may give some insight into the oddities you find from time to time. And it needs supplementation both anteriorly and posteriorly--which may happen in time.

I think I may have told you that I was raised Baptist up to a certain age when my parents stopped going to Church. They may have stopped going, but I longed to go. I continued to believe in God. In the woods behind the houses in our Neighborhood there was a Church. I often thought about sneaking out of the house on a Sunday morning and going there--but I never did so. I don't know why--perhaps because I considered my own parent's lack of activity in the matter an indication of how life was to be. I often wonder what might have happened if I had expressed this hidden interest. Unfortunately I did not.

I have several other things I could tell you about the earliest period, but I suspect it is the secondary period you are more interested in. When I started to go to college, I had a freedom to explore that was not possible to me at home. Curiously, unlike those around me, my freedom took the form of exploring faith and options in faith. I lived, at that time, near the city of Washington D.C., and the diversity around me was astounding. I started by going to a Methodist Church. The first time I went I found it locked and I thought that was rather odd, but it was what it was and I eventually spoke to the pastor. Mysteriously, the locked door of the church said to me enough about the view of faith that I determined not to go there again. It seemed to me that one should never be locked away from God. In my naive conception of faith and God, I equated the building, in some ways, with the presence of God. Obviously, there is some truth to this, but not the substantive truth of the reality of God. Nevertheless, I look back upon this episode and see in it the working of the Holy Spirit. This was not the place to which I was called.

About this time I began to look at Buddhism as a possibility. It had a certain appeal both from point of view of exotic and that it was "always" open. One needn't go to a temple to pray (and so I found it was for Christianity and other faiths as well.) My chief difficulty with Buddhism is that everything depended upon me, and I am so weak and so disinclined to act upon anything myself that I knew if samadhi and nirvana depended upon my own efforts, I simply would never make it there. Nevertheless, I learned some important things from Buddhism; things that stay with me to this day and aid from time to time in prayer.

Next I looked at Judaism. I had always loved the Jewish people because I was raised in my early school-years in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. From my earliest years I remember marking the year with the High Holy Days in September and October, the Passover in the spring, Purim, and other holidays. Because I am the way I am, I had determined that were I to become Jewish nothing less than strict orthodoxy would suffice. There is no point in going half-way to the stars. You end up in the middle of nowhere. If I were to observe the faith, it would be the faith of Abraham and the fathers in its fullness to the best of my ability to live it out.

Once again, it simply proved too difficult. I could not manage it myself. The halacha, to which I was introduced by a very kind Rabbi as a sort of preliminary was made up of 617 separate and individual regulations which were to be observed in their fullness. The difficulty with this is that those individual laws were amplified, explained and examined in literally hundreds and hundreds of tractates and midrash. In addition, much of the instruction required learning a new language. So despite the beauty and magnificence of the old Faith, I was simply not cut out for observing it. Once again, in retrospect, I see this as the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I dabbled for a while in other things. I dropped by a Hindu temple a few times. And while the art and ceremony were intriguing, I simply didn't get it. I couldn't understand where everything was coming from.

Finally, I wound up meeting for a while with a group of Baha'i. I loved them dearly. Their home-church was a magnificent thing. In addition, the foods they ate after a fast were wonderful--dolmades, and couscous-like stuff, stuffed dates and fresh figs, baklava, and all sorts of good things (in the initial writing of this I forgot hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganoush). And I liked the syncretism of the faith--all revelations are true and equal. But as I explored it more, while all faiths were true and equal, it repeatedly came to me that this was not, in fact, what they lived. If all were true and equal, then there would be no need to live the Baha'i way. It turns out that in this true and equal, some are more equal than others; and the Baha'i, which recognized the validity of all, was in fact, higher than all the rest, the final revelation, adding to what the Prophet had had revealed to him.

Thus endeth part one and if popular acclaim requires it, it may be continued. Don't count on it though.

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Catholic E-Books


Free Ebooks

Thanks to Catholic Fire for this link to resources on the Web.

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from Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

An accurate synonym for conversion, as we are using the word here, would be transformation. Put simply conversion is a basic and marked improvement on the willing level of the human person. Even more pointedly, it is a fundamental change in our willed activities from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best. Anyone who is fully alive will find this a stimulating set of ideas. We can put the matter in still another way. Conversion is a change from vice to virtue: from deceit and lying to honesty and truth. . .gluttony to temperance. . . vanity to humility. . . lust to love. . . avarice to generosity. . . rage to patience. . . laziness to zeal. . . ugliness to beauty.

From the point of view of attention to and intimacy with God, supreme Beauty, supreme Delight, conversion includes a change from little or no prayer to a determined practice of christic meditation leading eventually to contemplative intimacy, "pondering the word day and night", lending to a sublime "gazing on the beauty of the Lord" with all its varying depths and intensities (PS 1:1-2; 27:4).

I love the works of Fr. Thomas Dubay. I have read most of them. Some take a good deal longer than others to internalize. It took me over a year to read and understand The Fire Within. I still have not completed, or even fully started The Evidentiary Power of Beauty. His writing is dense, sometimes difficult, but always fulfilling. So, too, it appears with this book. The passage noted above is one that I've read every day for the last week or so, trying to encompass all that is said here. The surface of it is clear enough. Conversion is the willing change of life for a better, more intimate relationship with God. But the real depths lie in the comparisons and in the things Dubay indicates may happen and in the underlying assumption that an increased intimacy with God will connect us with both with God and with a sense of beauty and wonder at His magnificence.

Significant to me is the last of the list of transformations--from ugliness to beauty. Now, this is an interesting point. By growing closer to God, ugliness will be transformed into beauty. Obviously Fr. Dubay is speaking of something other than mere physical appearance, because we know that God's intimates run the spectrum from the exquisite beauty of Rose of Lima and Elizabeth of the Trinity or Edith Stein, to St. Margaret of Castello. Physical beauty, while surely a gift from God, is not what Fr. Dubay is talking about here. So one assumes that he is speaking of a life imbued with beauty--with the ability to perceive the beauty that is God underlying all created things, and with a life that is lived beautifully--in union with Him. When we look objectively at the life of someone like Mother Teresa, we don't immediately say, "Oh, what a beautiful life." Our initial reactions may be more along the lines of, "What a heroic life," or "What a difficult life." But when we delve a little deeper, we break in upon sheer loveliness, a loveliness that was reflected in the person of this diminutive friend of the poor. She was not beautiful to look at in strictly aesthetic terms, but her loveliness was greater than that of her near contemporary in death, Princess Diana. Her life was a beautiful jewel in the slums of India.

As I continue to read this book, I shall probably return to this passage from time to time. It ignites all sorts of thoughts, and provokes all sorts of inspirations and influences. It serves as a road map and a clear sign marking out the territory. And Fr. Dubay has clearly made growth in sanctity a beautiful and desirable thing. While this is always a vague desire in the background, I sometimes think that it really a pretty boring preoccupation alongside, say, surfing or diving or parasailing. But the interesting point is that none of these things are in conflict with sanctity--only seemingly so. One can live a life completely devoted to God and still partake of the good things of the world--certainly not to excess and not to the point where it intrudes upon ministry; however, the licit goods are good for all. St. John of the Cross went for long walks through the country, enjoying the beauty that gave ample evidence of the glory and presence of God. Pursuit of holiness does not mean that the world is tossed away. Indeed, as the great saints show us, it often means a more authentic and more realistic involvement with all the goods of creation--a proper use, a proper ordering, and a proper caring for the things God has given to us.

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Present Reading


Aiding and Abetting Muriel Spark

Dove Descending Thomas Howard AND
Four Quartets T.S. Eliot

Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer Father Thomas Dubay

Descent into Hell Charles Williams

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You Ask, I Answer

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One who stops by on occasion wants to know, "Why do you insist on posting those incredibly obtuse and needlessly complicated bits from poets no one really cares about anyway?" (I paraphrase.)

I answer: Why, if I were to wait to post about a poet some one did care about, I'd have a sum total of zero posts. And by definition aren't most poets incredibly obtuse and needlessly complicated compared to the purveyors of flaccid and rank prose who grace our local news media?

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from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

[Writing about "East Coker-IV"

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.]

Readers may get lost there [refering to the last three lines noted above]. Can we put it like this:"Die", by this time in the lyric , is our dath to sin and death and hence our birth into Everlasting Life; and it is God who embraces us with his paternal care, never leaving us, but rather going before us all the way ("prevent" is an archaic ususage, meaning precedes").

Now, "prevents" may well mean precedes, and that is a useful help here. However, "precedes" is just as useful and has both the same number of syllables and same emphasis. So why use prevents rather than precedes here? Do we cherish deiberate obscurity? Is Eliot being precious?

Because Mr. Howard is producing a short commentary to ease people into reading the poem, there simply isn't time and space to note every interesting term and every fascinating poetic choice. Therefore, if you're inclined to indulge, some speculations will be recorded here.

Perhaps Eliot is suggesting that as we grow more aware of God's strength through our own weakness and death, we also become more aware of how we are hedged around by love. That is, His will prevents us everywhere from straying over the cliff into the unredeemable. Indeed, within His mercy there is no unredeemable, and so within His grace those who know Him are "prevented" everywhere from wholly falling out of touch with Him.

There are, perhaps other intricacies involved with this word choice. It seems important because it is more than merely delbierately obscure, and by the rules of poetic diction and analysis, that implies a meaning that is not necessarily transparent, nor so easily arrived at as might be for other lines.

Perhaps it goes without saying how much I am enjoying Mr. Howards reintroduction to the great T.S. Eliot. It's been a while since I've spent so much fruitful time with this, or any, great poet.

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Wow, The Blogging Experience


. . .in a nutshell.

from Four Quartets: East Coker V
T.S. Eliot

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

It was the underlined section that first led me to post, but reading more carefully and more closely, it seemed that the remainder might also serve as comment on the blogosphere.

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from Four Quartets: "East Coker" III
T.S. Eliot

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

from Ascent of Mount Carmel I.13.11

St. John of the Cross

To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
You cease to cast yourself upon the all,
For to go from the all to the all
You must possess it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing
nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down,
because it stands in the centre of its humility.

In the third division of East Coker, T.S. Eliot embarks upon the journey into dark. At first this journey is equated with death, "O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark," is the first line of the section. He then goes through a litany of who "they all" are and the fact that they all go into the dark. He seems to make the point that the dark comes upon everyone whether or not they are prepared to enter it. Then, at the end of the section, Eliot segues to a different dark, another kind of death--the death, while yet willing, of the self and selfishness, which can only proceed along the dark way, the via negativa the "dark night of the soul." It is a dark night because cherished false images of self must die in the light of God Himself. Indeed, the light of God Himself is so light that it appear dark to those ill-equipped to receive it.

Death to self is not death of self. To travel to God in this life, one must die to self, to selfishness, to self-involvement, to all the illusions and images of oneself that have become so cherished. One must consent to being stripped down to the barest nothingness and reconstructed in God's image. This is terrifying, at least in the abstract. But when one stops to consider that nearly everyone experiences this to one degree or another without tremendous instantaneous repercussions, it becomes less terrifying and more inviting. Children are taught by the parents from very early on not to be selfish and self centered. They are constantly reminded "please, thank you, excuse me." They are constantly told, although not in so many words, to die to self.

When a person behaves in "conventional" ways, following the rules of courtesy or etiquette, that person dies to self a little. It isn't a major, earth-shaking trauma, but a small turning away from serving oneself and toward serving another. When one gives place, willingly or unwillingly to another, one dies to self--sometimes reluctantly and bitterly, engendering rage and a desire for vengeance. Sometimes willingly, engendering love and charity.

The death to self must be complete to continue on the path to God. These many small things add up, but each person is asked for more. Each person is asked, in fact, for everything. But most of the time they are not asked for every at once. It is a slow growth, a gentle path, as yet winding through the foothills that lead up to Mount Carmel. The steep ascent is another matter entirely, and there must be a certain amount of shedding of self that occurs before one can set foot on the mountain proper.

But everyone is called, and in this life or the next, all will Ascend through the darkness of the weight of self into the light of the Father. This is what purgatory and heaven are all about--shedding self to become God while remaining distinctly who one is in Him. Salvation--to be who one is without shame; to shine always with His light. But the path of salvation is dark because people tend to love themselves almost to the exclusion of everything else. So it is through darkness that we arrive at light, although as we travel, God's light is all around--so brilliant one calls it darkness.

Later: One is lead to wonder as well whether the first lines of this section of East Coker are not meant to hearken back to a previous poet. Tennyson seems to be referred to, particularly with reference to this poem:

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

But following the rule of three, one would have to find other correspondences before anything so bold could be asserted. Notes for a future consideration of the two.

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