Catholic Novel/Literature: May 2006 Archives

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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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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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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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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This page is a archive of entries in the Catholic Novel/Literature category from May 2006.

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