Books and Book Reviews: August 2007 Archives

The Monk Downstairs


In this novel by Tim Farrington, a monk, Michael Christopher, comes to live with Rebecca and her daughter Mary Martha in an in-law apartment that Rebecca has just refurbished.

The novel is beautifully written and seems to have moments of real insight into deep prayer. I've noted some of the here.

Alas, for those strengths, I'm afraid that what I expected did happen all too readily. Being a novel for larger public consumption, it catered to that whim. Mr. Farrington falls into the all-too-male habit of confusing satisfied lust with love and the couple no sooner brush hands with one another than they are entangled in bed.

If Michael is exemplary of the modern Catholic conscience, it is little wonder that we are facing the crisis we are in the Church today. He performs a baptism that does little more than mock the sacrament (a point he acknowledges later when he is reluctant to perform a more somber sacrament).

Rebecca, on the other hand is nearly schizophrenic in back-and-forthing regarding religion and faith. We're told she's lukewarm and seeking, and then she turns maniacal with Michael takes her daughter to a church to pray. And then she's back again asking him to perform a sacrament, although he claims to have no ability to do so (even though there is no indication that leaving the monastery has deprived him of his faculties as Priest).

Add to this various subtle errors regarding Catholicism that should not come from the mind and pen of a monk--for example, at one point, Michael speaks of "leaving celibacy" when, in fact, he has left chastity. Leaving celibacy is not a sin in itself, if the vow has been lifted; however, leaving chastity is always a sin. But then Mike isn't too clear on the notion of sin.

One is led to wonder whether Michael's dark night of prayer might not be more a result of his sinful and overweening pride and self-assurance rather than deep immersion in the life of prayer. All indications seem to point that way. I don't think it's possible to experience a dark night of deep prayer while one is in the midst of major sins. Although St. John of the Cross points out that we can't know and that God's grace is mysterious and makes all things possible.

At any rate, the writing is fine, many of the points about prayer are good, and the story was interesting if more than a little off-putting. It does show me that many male writers seem to have no notion of romance that does not center on the genitalia. A shame, this could have been a superb witness. As it stands, it is possible that someone who is not aware of Christianity or the power of prayer or the depths to which prayer can go may pick this up and derive from it an impetus to move further into prayer. Others will have a greater acquaintance with some good aspects of Christianity from it--so it is possible to have a good effect. Unfortunately, from point of view of faith, the novel is gravely flawed and so I can only give a half-hearted recommendation to it.

What a shame--it was building up to a superb novel--and had our main characters one iota of restraint, one moment of holding back, this novel could easily have flowed into the next in which the two get married. I've started reading that one and I only hope that it is better in matters of morals than this one.

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The Emptiness of Prayer


We have long known that Blessed Mother Teresa went through a long dark night of the soul. I don't know that anyone knew its extent or depth, and shortly we should all be privileged to be able to find out. Privileged, I say, because such things are the substance of the life of faith and if we ignore them, we do so at our peril. More importantly, they are things that any person of deep faith is likely to experience. Likewise, they are things that ordinary sinners experience all the time. The two have different causes and sources, but the end result is similar. In the case of the sinner, the darkness is troublesome and not peaceful--something fought against, struggled against. In the case of the Saint--well, I wouldn't know that yet.

All of this in preface to a marvelous little passage that says it quite succinctly.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

My mind is a stretch of barren country and swirling dust; my heart has shriveled to the size of a dried pea. But this is all my private comedy. The emptiness of prayer is deeper than mere despair. Preparing us for a love we cannot conceive, God takes our lesser notions of love from us one by one.

Have you really never seen it, Brother James, somewhere in the grim efficiency of your industrial meditation? Have you never once seen all your goodness turn to dust? I tell you that until you do, all your prayer is worse than useless. It is gears of greed, grinding. Love is not fuel for the usual machinery.

What is remarkable is that this is in a work of "light" fiction-- something little more than a romance--what is it doing there? How did the author get it there without sounding preachy and overbearing? What is his point?

I suppose if I sustain my reading, I shall find out the answer and I hope I'll be pleased with it. Either way, I'll let you know.

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More Crossover Wisdom


More derived from reading Buddhist books. I should note a caution here--Buddhism is not something that everyone should approach or that the person young in his or her Christian vocation should look into extensively. There is a seductiveness to doctrine and idea, and particularly to the very appealing notions in Buddhism that allow us to overlook certain intrinsic difficulties with the dogmatic side of the religion.

I present here parallels in Buddhism. They are parallels. Buddhists and Christians do not share the same faith structure nor even, in any meaningful sense, the same cosmology. Nevertheless, we are adjured to take what is good among all the good things in the world, and Buddhism has much in it that could strengthen a Christian vocation. For example:

from Cultivating Compassion
Jeffrey Hopkins

In order to value the time we have--to cherish it--it is important to reflect on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when death will be. In meditation, contemplate: "I will definitely die--as will all of us--but I don't know when I'm going to die. It could be at any time!" Such reflection puts a value--a premium--on the present, on the time you have.

Be prepared and aware of death which comes as the end. An awareness (though not a constant fear) of the end can inform the entire life in ways that bring forth the potential for sanctity. St. Therese of Lisieux has a passage that parallels the above, though not in its memento mori aspects. She notes that all our sorrows are in the past which cannot be rectified or in the future, which we have not seen, but the authentic Christian life is lived mindful of the present, which is all that we have. That is the "premium" of focusing on the end--a realization that every moment is precious, valuable, and important. God blesses us with time--we don't know how much--so it is better to count all the time in the moment and not to look into far futures that may not exist. Not to worry oneself over things that cannot be controlled, but to focus attention on those things which are within our control.

Before continuing to a final point, it is useful to reflect for a moment on a passage immediately preceding the one quoted above.

The actuarial tables say that males as a whole will live so many years and females as a whole will live so many more years, but such figures are irrelevant with respect to any specific individual; if you're going to die next week, it's a hundred percent chance you're going to die then. It's not a such and such percentage that you might live to be seventy-eight. If you are to die on the road today, it's a hundred percent certain you'll die on the road today.

Having quoted the first passage, in which there is nothing objectionable to Christianity, I deftly ignored the sentence that begins an exposition immediately following. I will note it below:

"Since it is obvious that the body and possessions are left behind, on need to put more emphasis on consciousness."

I'm intrigued by this statement as it seems to imply that consciousness does not pass away and if consciousness is the Buddhist equivalent of a soul, that goes without saying. But nothing I've read suggests this to be true. Consciousness is incredibly important in Buddhist thought because of karma. Every conscious act is at once the ripening of one of the potentialities of karma and the setting of new potentialities. And again, we can draw parallels, but this emphasis on what we would lightly read as aspects of the self can be misleading.

Now, to do justice, we must recognize that Buddhists do not think that Mind (consciousness) is equivalent to "self." And so to assume that what is meant by the common usage of the word consciousness is what is meant when discussing Buddhism is an error. However, it is an easy error that can easily lead astray. Hence my recommendation that Buddhist texts are not for everyone. There's too much there when read with the literalist, rational, western mind can be misread or mistaken for something other than what is actually meant. Better, if one is likely to stumble into this trap, to stay out of that forest entirely.

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Another Moment


Another quotation from a book I continue to enjoy.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

Rory, at least, had faith in UFOs. What sort of spiritual sustenance was she offering her daughter? What cosmic certainties? The tepid Catholicism of her own childhood was more like a lingering headache than a source of strength. She had picked for years at the smorgasbord of Californian spirituality and come away hungry. She felt her frustrated need for ardor as a burden and her longing for depth as a kind of dull pain.

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I hope the rest of this novel continues to be as inspiring and lovely.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

We expect God's presence to be thunderous, spectacular, monumental; but it is our need that is so large. The real presence slips past our demands for spectacle. It slips past our despair. Not just like a child--sometimes it is a child. She walks down the blistered steps to where you kneel and says the simplest things. She is entertained by butterflies. She has opinions about unicorns. She does not seem to care that you are ruined and lost. She does not even seem to notice. Find an earthworm in the neglected loam and she will make you feel for a moment that your life has not been wasted. Name a flower and she will make you feel that you have begun to learn to speak.

I don't know why I'm so bowled over by this, but I am. It is gorgeous and it is true and it is something I suppose I need at this moment--something that we all may need from time to time--indication as to where to listen to hear the still, small voice.

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The Seventeen Traditions


Previously, I posted a brief excerpt from the book. Those who have followed the career of Ralph Nader from consumer advocate to presidential candidate will probably relish much of what is here; it gives clear insight into the political thought of Ralph Nader and by extension the Green Party he nurtured and which in true schismatic fashion rejected him.

I'm not keen on some of Mr. Nader's political thought. I think he has an acute eye for the plight of the weak, except for the weakest among us and then he falls into the trap that all too many seem to accept: compassionate tyranny of the visible.

Now that I've made something of full disclosure, I can say more about the book. I loved it. There is a warmth, a humanity, a passionate and compassionate interest in people and in things that informs the whole books. Above all there is a sense of a strong and loving family, a tightly knit family that allowed for solid structure and complete freedom within the structure. Parent encouraged the children to reasonable disagreement and argumentation on major issues of the day. Ideas were proposed, discussed and debated, and children were asked to think and consider not only their opinions but the consequences of their actions and the effect of their actions on others.

In this autobiographical advice book, Ralph Nader exposes seventeen traditions that informed him as a person and kept his family functioning as a family. These range from "The Tradition of Listening" to "The Tradition of Scarcity" through to "The Tradition of Civics." In each section the involved reader can learn from the experiences of Mr. Nader within his family life and perhaps adapt some of these laudable traditions into his or her own family life.

What I derive from this is a picture of parents that loved and respected their children and their society enough to conscientiously and deliberately raise those children to be thoughtful, considerate, kind, and well-meaning people. They raised children of strong opinions with strong wills to stand behind those opinions and a no-nonsense approach to politics, society, and life. Respect and love, love and respect: these abound in the book, and the warmth that exudes from these moments is considerable, deep, and full of abiding compassion.

In other words, I enjoyed the book, a quick but memorable read and a thought provoking work for any person who is raising a child. While I often disagree with Mr. Nader, I respect him and I respect the thought he has put into his opinions. I think there is a strain of unalloyed idealism that is probably errant--the neo-rousseauian affliction of the modern liberal climate, but sometimes that can be a breath of fresh air. Erroneous, but not any more so that the Calvinist condemnation of humanity that is sometimes the legacy of the cultural right. We are neither nobel savages nor "utterly depraved," but beautiful, broken children of God--capable of tremendous good and horrendous evil--sometimes in the same person.

Highly recommended for all audiences.

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True Humanity


from The Seventeen Traditions
Ralph Nader

"What is the true value of ethnic identity?" I remember him observing once. "Culture, humor, variety and a common sociability facing life. And, of course, the pleasure of having one's own cuisine. When it come to politics, though, a broader humanity should replace ethnicity."

When it comes to politics do we allow a broader humanity to replace ethnicity, or do we rather focus on the differences, the exclusions, the us v. them syndrome? Loving people is the first requirement of those who would serve God, loving them as they are, where they are, in their present circumstances without regard as to how they came by these circumstances. Loving without judgment, without intent to place ourselves over them by our love. Loving them with Christ's love, not the feeble thing we humans sometimes put in place of it.

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Compassion and Christianity


One of my frequent frustration with Christianity (although not especially with the Catholic Church, which as a teaching body does much better than the Body of Christ tends to do) is the lack of focus on the duty of love and on compassion in general. Too often different Christian groups are so busy arguing the merits or faults of their doctrines that they tend not to put those doctrines into practice. Try finding a Christian book about compassion and compassionate treatment of others. This tends to be left to the Buddhists, and so, for refuge, I sometime find myself turning there to learn what their great teachers taught.

Reading Cultivating Compassion by Jeffrey Hopkins, I stumbled across this "daily exercise" in compassion. The following prayer, mantra, reminder (call it what you will) is to be brought to mind six times a day:

I go for refuge to Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community until I am enlightened. Through the merit of my charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.

This has few parallels in Christian prayer--although the Prayer of St. Francis comes to mind. And because I don't find myself taking refuge in Buddha, I would need to change the prayer:

I go for refuge to Jesus, his doctrine, and the mystical body until I am made holy. Through the merits of charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve holiness (Saintliness) for the sake of all beings.

What good is personal sanctity if it does not better the lives of those with whom we have the closest relationships?

The Church hits this theme time and time again, but because we are the people we are we tend to regard these teachings with suspicion. Mention Social Justice and see how many good and faithful Catholics look at you askance. If you hear talk about a preferential option for the poor, it is likely to remain just that--talk. How often have we been stirred by understanding these teachings to actually make the lives of some other person better? Often the preferential option for the poor is left at the foot of the altar as the congregation goes out to play parking lot derby. Not only do we not internalize the teachings, much of our behavior suggests that we reject them entirely.

I was musing this morning as I drove my car in to work how much better things might be if every car was equipped as mine is. I have a hybrid civic, and one of the ways you can configure the instrument panel is to give you feedback on your driving to see how certain behaviors help to conserve gasoline and increase milage. As a result of these readouts, I have seen large changes in my behaviors behind the wheel, and coming with those changes, I have experienced a completely different attitude most of the time when I drive. Other drivers don't become obstacles or problems, but people in their cars, just like me, just as scatter-brained as I sometimes am, just as courteous as I can sometimes be. When I see a person driving foolishly, sudden starts, screeching stops, I think about how they might be different if they understood the effects of their actions.

Compassion, understanding that all people at heart want the same things we want for themselves and for their children. Compassion is one of the roots of charity--when we look at people in all their strengths and weaknesses and see ourselves.

Jesus taught compassion through His words and works. The Church extols and sets up institutions and groups to cultivate compassion. Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers are one such group, but far less radical and far quieter are the innumerable Martin de Porres or Vincent de Paul societies that are part and parcel of our Church.

But compassion isn't just for the church or just for a meeting--it is part of a way of life--living in Christ's love, being Christ's heart for the salvation and redemption of a world gone astray. That is part of the imitation of Christ to which we all are called. That is the root and source of sustenance for Christian compassion.

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Some time back I reviewed Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia and remember being put off by some of her idiosyncratic choices for modern poetry. Perhaps I focused too much attention on that.

Ms. Paglia has a distinct voice, self-assured, self-assertive, urbane, and elegant. Her personal opinions have the solidity of the throne of God and she expresses them as though they were edicts passed down from the time of Moses. She triumphs the artistry of Stevie Nix while decrying the depredations of the European post-structuralists.

What she says deserves attention, not because she says it does, but because her voice has an authority that comes from deep engagement with the materials she studies. Agree or disagree as you will, one thing will be certain--you will be perfectly clear on what you are agreeing or disagreeing with. Ms. Paglia's prose is bereft of the academic apparatus of most critics. And for good reason, "Good writing comes from good reading. Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing." And so the criticism she tenders in this book fits that pattern she assumes for criticism in general.

One might argue with some of the re-creations--for example, the excessive rhapsodic waxings on William Carlos Williams and on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," can strike one as overwrought and grasping at straws. But then, her passionate enthusiasm for these works deserves our attention. Perhaps we overlook something that might well be worth consideration. Perhaps there is something here that we must learn from an enthusiast disguised as a critic.

But I picked up the book , once again charmed into reading by the beautifully fashioned introduction in which Ms. Paglia sets herself up as pedant and tour-guide in a whirlwind cruise through English poetry from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. And her first stop is what gave me pause and begged for a more gentle reconsideration of the book:

Sonnet 73
William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Of the great bard's sonnets, one of the more melancholy and searching--bleak as a desert and therefore refreshing in a way that only truth and emptiness can be.

Ms. Paglia goes on to point out matters structural: The three quatrains are single sentence-metaphors each applied to is subject and accumulating into the final couplet. Matters linguistic: you can identify each by the presence of the phrase "in me." And matters symbolic--"bare ruined choirs" being both the life of the poet and the destruction of Henry VIII. Here, perhaps because of her own attempt at making a secular scripture, she may not have as full a reading as might be possible were she to plumb the depths of Shakespeare's faith. She asserts that, "There is no reference to God or an afterlife. Consciousness itself is elemental, an effect of light and heat that dissipates when our bodies are reabsorbed by nature." Here she follows the fatal flaw of her mentor Harold Bloom, who cannot seem to see that Shakespeare, far from being a secularist, was deeply spiritual, and the threads of this poem speak both to the fate of the human person, but also to the fate of that subject to the human person. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," is indeed the work of man--the attempt to drive out God and replace Him with what man hath wrought--the Reformation religion.

But enough. The point here was two-fold--to present a kind of apology for the first review and to present this lovely sonnet. And it was slanted more to the second. When I opened the book and saw it there I read it. Then I read it again. Then I read it aloud. Then I read it again. Then I read Ms. Paglia's enlightening gloss of it. And then I read it again, recognize the partial truth of Ms. Paglia's interpretation. But also realizing that in three pages she could hardly do justice to the tight compression of this gem of the English language.

So do yourself a favor. Go back up to the poem and read it. Really read it. Don't let your eyes cascade down it. Stop at each word. Say it out loud. Say it slowly. Then read it quickly. Then force it into it's iambic pentameter and see where the stresses fall (this indeed is part of the amazing genius of Shakespeare--not only did he use Iambic pentameter, he also used the meter to undercut or enhance the message and meaning of the words resting upon that base. And if you don't think this is any big deal, try it yourself.)

Shakespeare is a place to start. But as I thought about it, what if one were to approach scripture in the same way. Read it, read it again. Read it out loud. If it's poetry try singing it, or letting it roll in a rhythm of poetry. Try rephrasing it. Listen to it in all those ways and you will be astonished at what may come through for you. Words you've heard more times than you can count come alive--they breathe and make new strong-fashioned art. No wonder Shakespeare so easily confuses atheist academics who wish to make of him a secular scripture. He had himself internalized these rhythms of the language and used them in a way that at that crossroads of time and art turned him into an archetype. No wonder George Bernard Shaw spent all of his time despising Shakespeare, always concerned that he would never escape the Bard's long shadow. And indeed, he did not.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from August 2007.

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