Commonplace Book: September 2003 Archives

A Short, Dickensian Note


Dickens describing Lady Dedlock in Bleak House:

" She is perfectly well-bred. If she could be translated to heaven to-morrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture. "

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On Miracles and Simplicity

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In this passage, Mr. Longenecker makes some incisive and interesting points:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

To speak plainly, the main problem for sophisticated people is not that miracles are incredible, but that they are an error in taste. To profess belief in miracles takes one perilously close to faith healers, the souvenir stalls of Lourdes, and lurid pictures of Jesus with googly eyes. There is a breed of spiritually minded people who reduce Christianity to the highest form of aesthetics. Beauty us to Truth, but beauty without truth is false, and that which is false and beautiful does not remain beautiful for very long. If the faith is no more than a pretty face, then the aesthetes are also atheists. Since miracles are an error in taste, it is far more subversive and therefore far more Christian to accept the miracles. It's also much more fun--rather like wearing a hideous hat on purpose.

If Benedict's biography gives the sophisticated soul miracles to stumble over, Thérèse's story gives tasteful grown-ups an even bigger obstacle. To find Thérèse, the modern soul has to climb over the stumbling block of her style. We modern-day pilgrims are presented with a nineteenth-century teenage nun with a pretty smile and schoolgirl enthusiasms. She speaks in language that seems archaic and sickly sweet. Among other sentimental touches she calls herself a little flower of Jesus and a little ball for the child Jesus to play with. She thinks God is her "Papa" and likens herself to a bowl of milk that kittens come to drink from. It's easy to turn away such greeting-card spirituality in distaste, but this is precisely the first test. Thérèse swamps tasteful people with sentimentality and sweetness, and only when they survive the taste test can they begin to appreciate her wisdom. She is one of the best examples of the secret Catholic truth that says the tasteful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. (p. 46-47)

There is so much more profound and interesting insight on these pages that I must encourage you all to get the book if you can. This passage continues and says many wonderful and remarkable things about the style and what Thérèse was and what she was trying to do.

I think style is the biggest complaint I hear about Thérèse; how people can't push themselves through the sticky images and the sweetness and light. And I sympathize--greatly. Up until the magisterial translation offered by the ICS, I had similar feelings. The Beevers translation and earlier works were just dreadful and incredibly off-putting. I couldn't find any spirituality for all the treacle. When the Carmelite Group proposed reading this piece of school-girl drivel I just about went mad (although, truth to tell, I was instrumental in proposing it.) But when I read it, and really searched it to find out what the Church saw here, I was truly astonished at the depths that opened up before me. What was school-girl drivel suddenly became something else entirely. I can't explain it. All I can say is that this person who prizes above much else elegance of language and expression, sophistication of writing and idea suddenly discovered the elegance of saying precisely what was right for the person who was writing. It opened a door to riches beyond imagination. From saccharine schoolgirl, my image of Thérèse transmuted into Great Saint, perhaps one of the very greatest of Saints--a true Doctor in the sense of conveying in language anyone who wished to could understand profound truths about prayer and our relationship with God.

And in fact, I think Longenecker has hit upon a key point. Entry to Thérèse means submitting with great humility to the fact that a teenaged "silly" schoolgirl has something profound and life-altering to teach those of us who have been in the world approaching twice as long. Surely this babe in the woods could not know anything we have not already learned. And the barrier that demonstrates approach with proper humility is the ability to get past the language and the image. Until then, you are not really permitted a glance at the profound wisdom and truth that is offered through the writings of this unlikely nun.

Thérèse presents more than anything else a challenge to our sensibilities and our aesthetics, a challenge that offers a small taste of the meaning of detachment. We must detach from our own preferences, our own sense of style, our own love of the high language and great art of many of the other saints, and accept a story-book saint--flat, wooden, and girlish. And as in some fairy-tale story, when we do so, she comes alive and tells us truths that will change our lives and our relationship with God.

(Oh--one additional tip for the hopelessly stymied--for whatever reason, all of this that is so off-putting in English, is greatly subdued if you read it in French--this discipline is finally what allowed me to enter the door and sit for a while at this great teacher's feet. Praise God!)

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Some remarkable insights and very strong points here:

from an Essay by David Warren

It is no conspiracy: prejudice against Catholics is as widespread today as it ever was; people want to hear bad things about this church, especially; and want to believe the worst about its celibate priests. My e-mail inbox sags under the e-weight of anti-Catholic e-spittle -- people making remarks quite casually which, if the word "Catholic" were replaced with the word "Muslim", or "Jew", might qualify for public prosecution. For many "liberal" people today, including many liberal Catholics, the traditional and faithful Catholics are a special tribe beneath human dignity.

This does not extenuate all those priests who did evil things, and hurt Christ in hurting his children. Human nature is darkly sinful, and in the proximity of Grace are found the greatest temptations.

This, after all, has been what the Catholic Church has taught, through 20 centuries. It is a church which can hardly be surprised by the presence of evil, both without and within its ranks. Yet it is a mark of the true Church, that when she fails she is singled out for special treatment. In that sense, even if they do it from the bad motive of anti-Catholic prejudice, people are right to hold the Catholic Church to higher standards. And we must take their spittle in good grace.

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From the Anchoresses Rule

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from Ordinary Graces
edited by Lorraine Kisly

The Anchoresses Rule--c. 1220, England

The swine of gluttony has piglets with these names. Too Early is the name of the first, the next Too Fastidiously, the third, Too Freely; the fourth is called Too Much, the fifth Too Often. These piglets are more often born through drink than food.

I talk about them only briefly, because I have no fear that you feed them.

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From St. John Climacus


The next couple of entries concern "the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

from Ordinary Graces
edited by Lorraine Kisly

St. John Climacus

When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another. He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again. He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it. He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry while he is taching it. Having come to his senses, he sighs and shaking his head embraces his passion once more. He denounces laughter and while lecturing on mourning is all smiles. In front of others he criticizes himself for being vainglorious, and in making the admission he is looking for glory.

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There are great insights within the book, so many it is impossible to share them all. I thought this excerpt regarding "ordinariness" was especially helpful for those seeking a way.

from St. Benedict and St Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

Benedict and Thérèse call ordinary Christians to extraordinary perfection--not by being extraordinarily perfect, but by being perfectly ordinary. Being ordinary means letting go every vestige of snobbery and learning that we are not special after all. Once we grasp this troublesome truth it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that "being ordinary" mean fitting in and becoming "one of the boys." While being ordinary had nothing to do with snobbery it also has nothing to do with being one of the crowd. Snobbery has destroyed many lives through its snooty pride, but the reverse snobbery that will do anything to "fit in" and be part of the hoi polloi is also destructive. It is just as artificial for the aristocrat to affect working-class manners as it is for the social climber to put on an upper-class accent. In that sense, being common is just as false as being uncommon. Being ordinary means being none other than who we are. As a result it is just as possible for a duchess to be as ordinary as a dustman.

Besides noting that Our Sunday Visitor needs a careful copyeditor--the insights to be gained from this passage are enormous. I particularly like the notion of being called to the extraordinary not by extraordinary endeavors but by the perfection of the ordinary. In other words, become who you REALLY are in Christ and you are more than halfway to your goal. Your responsibility is not to perfect the gifts given to others, but those given to you. While I might look on with admiration at some of my very favorites reasoners--John da Fiesole at Disputations, and Mark at Minute Particulars, or with a certain awe at Mothers who want to be and are extraordinary (as there tends to be a raft of blushing among this set, I will not venture names), or any number of other gifts I observe in all my blogland travels--humor, political insight, knowledge of the present state of the world, etc. --I am not called to perfect any of those remarkable talents or virtues. I am called only to recognize those gifts God gave me and to offer them back to Him, well cared for, polished, and in better condition than they came to me.

Too often we deride our own accomplishments and our own endeavors with some sort of apology--either looking for compliments or encouragement, or genuinely reflecting our puzzlement over our own unique constitution. We are, each of us, what we are and that is all we should be, in the sense that we are not called to be other than what we are in Christ. We are called to be perfected in Christ. Anything less does not honor God, it buries the talents He gave us to be returned without interest. However, when we follow our calling in constant prayer and devotion, seeking always to cleave to God's path and not our own, we will, through His grace, return a harvest of souls that we have not been privileged to see--saved and brought to God through our work. Nevertheless, the work of our own perfection must, of necessity affect those around us. In achieving perfection, we drag into the Torrent of His love countless souls whom we may simply have passed in a hallway and smiled at.

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Erik's Favorite Demonic Poet

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Categorizing posts from previous months, I came upon, this excerpt from Comus that I felt I would bring to your attention again, particularly as Erik has expressed such a fondness for Milton.

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"Who hates his neighbor has not the rights of a child." And not only has he no rights as a child, he has no "father". God is not my father in particular, or any man's father (horrible presumption and madness!); no, He is only father in the sense of father of all, and consequently only my father in so far as He is the father of all. When I hate someone or deny God is his father, it is not he who loses, but I: for then I have no father.

... Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

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Torgny Lindgren Revisited


I'm still reading Light. (I switch off books so often that I don't complete anything all that quickly. Keeps me on my toes and entertained juggling plotlines in my head.) And the more I read the more impressed I am. Lindgren has a near-obssession with the subject of incest as it makes up a main theme in both The Way of a Serpent and Light. I think it's a subset of a larger concern with internal family struggles which most interestingly develops full-blown into Sweetness the story of two brothers who have lived as long as they have because they are kept alive by wanting to see the other one dead. If Mr. Lindgren is an accurate chronicler, Sweden must be a most unpleasant place to live.

I purposefully do not set the context for the piece below, because I think it is what is said here that is important and I don't want to spoil the book for all of you who will rush out to get it because I've said it's a great read. (:-D)

That meant: He was a suicide and they used to bury them out in the forest. It was Borne who would have to do it.

"No one does anything entirely by himself," said Könik, "there's nothing so insignificant that you can do it solely by your own strength."

What that meant even he didn't know.

Nearly every sentence of this tightly constructed book resonates with meanings. Like a simple harmonic, each new iteration of the theme swells the progress of the whole. Remind me to tell you the sory of Boltzmann.

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More on St. Thérèse

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Regarding the difficulties many have with reading the work of the Little Flower

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

If the first-time reader has to struggle with the mundane minutiae of sixth-century monastic life in Benedict, then in Thérèse he has to struggle with an even more difficult dose of "ordinariness." At least there is some historical interest in reading about the sleeping arrangements of sixth-century monks, but Thérèse takes us into the detailed life of the nineteenth century French bourgeoisie. Her writings are full of spiritual points made through the events of ordinary days. So we are plunged into the details of visits to relatives, a first train ride, trips to the seaside, and the traumas of a little girl's school days. We are told about playtime with her sisters, quarrels with the maid, and the joy of cuddle with Mommy and Daddy. Those who are looking for a lofty spiritual treatise will find in both Benedict and Thérèse a hefty does of ordinary life instead.

And doesn't this just make perfect, natural sense. Ordinary life is where our spirituality plays out. Even if are advanced contemplatives, we are not transported bodily from where we spend time sweeping the floors and caring for children. God speaks to us in the trauma of our children, in the difficulty of getting a stain out of the carpet, in the trials of cleaning baked-on cheese and who knows what-all off of the casserole. He speaks to us in the commute to work and in the trials of the day (getting enough paperclips--getting rid of too many paperclips, the copier is skipping pages--the copier is making two copies of every other page). Spirituality is not divorced from life, it is reinforced by life. Our reactions and our actions of each day are what come out of our hearts. They are where we are most real, where we have the least time to don a mask and put on the "company face." And so they are the best mirror of our spiritual life. Exalted states of prayer are, for most of us, the exception rather than the rule. As Longenecker says elsewhere in the book, "The divine is in the details." And the details are ordinary.

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Words of ?Wisdom

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Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.

--George Orwell writing of Gandhi a few months before Orwell's death.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from September 2003.

Commonplace Book: July 2003 is the previous archive.

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