Commonplace Book: October 2006 Archives

Prayer: The Beginner's Trials


Those interested in deepening their prayer life might benefit from picking up Hammer and Fire by Fr. Raphael Simon. In addition to the normal tips and hints one might receive in the course of reading about prayer, there is a depth of understanding about the various trials and tribulations of the person beginning to walk in the way of deeper prayer:

from Hammer and Fire
Father Raphael Simon, O.C.S.O., M.D.

Trials are to be expected by anyone who undertakes seriously to make a half-hour of mental prayer, or two periods of prayer, daily, particularly the trials of distraction and discouragement. The human mind has a capacity to wander without realizing that it is off the point. Thus during mental prayer it may happen that we have spent several minutes thinking about some happening of the previous day or even counting the panes of glass in the church where we are making our meditation, before we realize that we are off on a distraction. As in the cases of temptations to impurity and for the same reason, responsibility only begins when we realize with what our mind is occupied, and that, in this case, it is a distraction. Consequently our prayer has not been interrupted at all, since our intention to pray has remained. Without irritation, gently and peacefully, we should bring the mind back to the subject of our meditation, and as often as necessary. . . .Sometimes we may spend the entire time of prayer in returning to the subject. But we need have no misgivings or feel discouragement; our time has been well spent in the sight of the Father, we have been exercising our will to pray all the time and hence have, indeed, obtained the merit of prayer, if not its refreshment. . . .

[I]ndeliberate distractions are of no consequence, and should not be a source of concern or disquiet. . . . They not impair the value of our prayer. . . .

We do not have to have beautiful thoughts and sentiments in order to pray well, nor do we need to keep up the pace set by an infrequent excellent and "fruitful" half-hour.

From time to time I need these sane reminders that what may seem to be distraction may in fact be the purpose of that evening's conversation. In any conversation, we start a one point and end up winding endlessly (if we are engaged with a good conversationalist) to come to a completely unexpected endpoint. As we start to talk to God, the overfullness of the conversation and the desire to say everything and include everything tumbles out of us and jumbles up the deliberate "purpose" we have established for our conversation. The car needs repair, the house needs repair, one of the children is having trouble at school, there are groceries to buy and errands to run. . . and while these are not necessarily the matter for meditation, they are the facts of a straightforward conversation with God. These are concerns that we can bring to Him, and so this early stage of our conversation will be akin to an adult conversing with a five-year-old--there will be unexpected pause, odd turns in the exchange and sometimes complete flustration. On the other hand, it is all in the desire to talk with God and God will give us the strength to return to the conversation if we do not discourage ourselves.

So, distraction can be a problem, or it can be merely another route to where God would have us go--because He is Lord even of distractions--He knows who we are and what deeply concerns us--and He knows what He wants to touch and give us peace about. So accept the distraction, offer it to the Lord and attempt to return to the point. And if not, then engage God about what is driving you to distraction. Whatever you do, remain faithful to the time of prayer and the rewards will be very great indeed.

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How to Study

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Via Sirus a translation by Brother Kenney of a letter of St. Thomas Aquinas to Brother John on how to study.

One point that keeps surfacing for me, and one that is so very difficult to gauge:

Do not spend time on things beyond your grasp.

How do you know if it is beyond your grasp until you've tried to grasp it, and by then you've already spent so much time on it that it seems a shame to give it up.

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Middlemarch Revisited

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This is the woman that George Eliot wants us to sympathize with, or at least accept as the heroine of our novel:

from Middlemarch Chapter 4
George Eliot

Dorothea laughed. "O Kitty, you are a wonderful creature!" She pinched
Celia's chin, being in the mood now to think her very winning and
lovely--fit hereafter to be an eternal cherub, and if it were not
doctrinally wrong to say so, hardly more in need of salvation than a squirrel.
"Of course people need not be always talking well. Only one tells the
quality of their minds when they try to talk well."

. . . .

"_Fad_ to draw plans! Do you think I only care about my
fellow-creatures' houses in that childish way? I may well make mistakes. How can
one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty

No more was said; Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper
and behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was
disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind
conscience of the society around her: and Celia was no longer the
eternal cherub, but a thorn in her spirit, a pink-and-white nullifidian,
worse than any discouraging presence in the "Pilgrim's Progress." The _fad_
of drawing plans! What was life worth--what great faith was possible
when the whole effect of one's actions could be withered up into such
parched rubbish as that? When she got out of the carriage, her cheeks
were pale and her eyelids red. She was an image of sorrow, and her uncle
who met her in the hall would have been alarmed, if Celia had not been
close to her looking so pretty and composed, that he at once concluded
Dorothea's tears to have their origin in her excessive religiousness.
He had returned, during their absence, from a journey to the county
town, about a petition for the pardon of some criminal.

What a dreadful, supercilious woman--unfortunately, from all signs, she has her comeuppance shortly, and it is like to be as dreadful as a woman who thinks of her sister as a squirrel.

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A Beautiful Prayer


For whatever reason, I was attracted to this Middle English version of The Cloud of Unknowing and found therein a really beautiful prayer for all those who seek to live the will of God.

Goostly freende in God, I preie thee and I beseche thee that thou wilt have a besi [earnest] beholding to the cours and the maner of thi cleeping [calling]. And thank God hertely, so that thou maist thorow [through] help of His grace stonde stifly agens alle the sotil assailinges of thi bodily and goostly enemyes, and winne to the coroun [crown] of liif that evermore lasteth.

I don't know why I find it so moving, except to think--in the communion of the Saints, I am blessed by the prayer of a person who so long ago wrote these words and who lives now in this world through them even as he pleads before the throne of God for all those who read them. One of the great mysteries revealed by God and constantly spoken of by the Church stands open to me here in a way that it does not when I read some other things. Odd--but perhaps it is the touch of that which is almost foreign, but still remains within the grasp of those who wish to understand it. The language is not my language and yet, it is close enough to know and alien enough to suggest another time, another world, another way of being.

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Did I Write This Book?

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from The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
Lewis Buzbee

Many years later, a stray memory helped me find another childhood root of my passion for bookselling. One of the true pleasures of my elementary school life was Scholastic's Weekly Reader, a newspaper distributed free to classrooms around the country. It featured brief articles on current events, sports, and nature, along with jokes, puzzles, and cartoons. The Weekly Reader was a wholly satisfying reading experience, who joy was, in part, the unexpected ownership of the publication; I was stunned to be allowed such a privilege. The ultimate delight of the Weekly Reader, however, lay in ordering and receiving my very own books from a catalogue appended to the newspaper. This catalogue, as I remember it, was four pages on newspaper stock, two-color printing with black-and-wite photographs of the books' covers. On Weekly Reader days I'd spend a good deal of our reading hour--languorous late afternoons of twenty-two buzzy, dreamy heads bend over words, the teacher nearly asleep--scanning the catalogue, looking for standout cover art, titles that promised magic, mystery, sometimes war. When I finished my first go-through, ritual dictated I return to the first page and slowly read each synopsis, weighing the many possibilities.

By dinner that evening, I would have made my choices, the three or four books I was allowed at twenty-five or thirty-five cents each, the latter more expensive because thicker. I'd mark the order form with the thickest of X's, so there'd be no mistakes, cut along the dotted line, and put it in an envelope with the coins my parents helped me count out. The next day I'd clank the order on the teacher's desk, then wait for the books to arrive. And wait. Four to six weeks is several eternities for a nine-year-old.

Precisely: accurate in every detail.

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More Middle English


Just a sampling from the relatively easy to read Stanzaic Life of Katherine:

Incipit vita sancte Katerine virginis.

He that made bothe sunne and mone
In hevene and erthe for to schyne,
Brynge us to Hevene with Hym to wone
And schylde us from helle pyne!
Lystnys and I schal yow telle
The lyf of an holy virgyne
That trewely Jhesu lovede wel -
Here name was callyd Katerine.

I undyrstonde, it betydde soo:
In Grece ther was an emperour;
He was kyng of landes moo,
Of casteles grete and many a tour.
The ryche men of that land
They servyd hym with mekyl honour.
Maxenceus was his name hotand,
A man he was ful sterne and stour.

The actual text which can be reached through the site referenced below has glosses on the difficult words to get you started.

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A Salutary Notion of Religion

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Once again, George displays her brittle but piercing humor:

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

Why did he not pay attention to Celia, and leave her to listen
to Mr. Casaubon?--if that learned man would only talk, instead of
allowing himself to be talked to by Mr. Brooke, who was just then informing
him that the Reformation either meant something or it did not, that he
himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact;
and as to refusing an acre of your ground for a Romanist chapel, all
men needed the bridle of religion, which, properly speaking, was the
dread of a Hereafter.

What a remarkably draconian view of the role of religion--to instill dread--that's certainly the road to relentless charity.

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Wisely Shown--George Eliot


As George Eliot demonstrates succinctly, even detachment can become an attachment:

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

"I think she is," said Celia, feeling afraid lest she should say
something that would not please her sister, and blushing as prettily as
possible above her necklace. "She likes giving up."

"If that were true, Celia, my giving-up would be self-indulgence, not
self-mortification. But there may be good reasons for choosing not to do
what is very agreeable," said Dorothea.

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Humor in Middlemarch

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One doesn't often see comment on the vein of rich and ironic humor that pervades much of the early part of Middlemarch, just as, again, humor is not much of a discussion in the work of Hawthorne. And that is a shame, because while this humor, in both cases, is not of the laugh-out-loud variety, it provides a certain warmth and atmosphere that makes reading the books pleasurable.

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

And how should Dorothea not marry?--a girl so handsome and with such
prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her
insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a
wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her
at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune,
who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer
and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the
Apostles--who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of
sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken
you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her
income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of
saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself
in such fellowship.

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of
society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane
people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at
large, one might know and avoid them.

The last sentences of each of these two paragraphs have a certain humor, admittedly somewhat bitter, but not actually biting, that can engage the reader fortunate enough to find the strain and continue.

Humor, and a sense that an author has some knowledge of the matter, are prerequisites in fiction. No work of fiction can be entirely successful without some sense of humor. Even Dante showed it, although maliciously, in some of the people and punishments in Hell and Purgatory. In fact, it is the absence of this strain that tends to make Heaven such a ghastly bore in comparison to the other two works. The author is so overwhelmed by his experiences that, while he continues to compose amazing poetry, he simply isn't engaging at the same level as he is in the other parts of his masterpiece.

Humor stems from a sense of displacement, it is, in a sense, an ultimately Christian virtue. Humor often results from the juxtaposition of impossible events, from the use of a word in two or more ways, from the sudden and unexpected. These are the deep seams of humor, the understanding that things are not as they seem, that we are not what we seem, and that ultimately we are not really where we belong. The recognition that where we belong is infinitely better gives rise to deep strains of humor.

It may also give rise to deep strains of sadness or despair of the human condition. By far a less "likeable" result of the realization. And sometimes, to the untrained eye, they are nearly indistinguishable. I think particularly here of the works of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy--both fundamentally humorous and joyous, but if one were to read only "The River" for instance, one might be left wondering whether or not Flannery O'Connor had any faith whatsoever. And I am witness to the fact that the hilarity of Love in the Ruins bypasses the majority of readers, who see instead the darkness that the humor masks. The inability to apprehend an author's humor can make of reading an unbearable toil. Probably the reason I find most nonfiction reading neither illuminating nor particularly informative. Most political books inspire me the way Chilton's manuals do. Most works of science are long, dry treatises with nothing of appeal to anyone seeking the imagination behind them. This is the particular skill of the popularizers, and the particular pitfall. They bring into sharp life and relief the humanity and the reality behind the discoveries. For a prime example of their effectiveness compare Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science with the prose of Peitgen and Richter's The Beauty of Fractals . (I just looked that one up on Amazon and was astounded at its price-tag--$84.00--I'm certain I paid nothing like that for it--I bought it as a grad student and wouldn't think of spending that kind of money on a book at the time.)

Humor then, a Christian virtue stemming from the recognition of the anomalies resulting from our pilgrim status, is one essential for readable fiction. In the case of Eliot, it is subdued and distinctly bitter. In Hawthorne's case, similarly, subdued, but more ironic than bitter, and sometime laugh-out-loud funny if you are paying attention. Like the "clown scenes" in Shakespeare's tragedies, the humor need not be pervasive, merely present. It is ultimately inviting and welcoming to the reader.

Humor, in literature, as in life, is an essential ingredient for success.

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Views of Books


I'm only about 30 pages into Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale and know that it is one of those books wherein I will want to call in sick and nestle down in bed all day to finish it. Probably won't do that, but will definitely spend some time this evening, perhaps a lot of time this evening, enjoying the book. The prose is clean and clear and the voice just right. More than that it is already a little eerie and it is a lot respectful of those whose lives are deeply and marvelously enriched by books and reading.

I'll report more when I finish, but I expect this to be one of those books that simply wows me, leaving me nothing to say except--get it, read it.

Just an enticing sample:

from The Thirteenth Tale
Diane Setterfield

Miss Winter's house lay between two slow rises in the darkness, almost-hills that seemed to merge into each other and that revealed the presence of a valley and a house only at the last turn of the drive. The sky by now was blooming shades of purple, indigo and gunpowder, and the house beneath it crouched long and low and very dark. The driver opened the car door for me, and I stepped out to see that he had already unloaded my case and was ready to pull away, leaving me alone in front of an unlit porch. Barred shutters blacked out the windows and there was not a single sign of human habitation. Closed in upon itself, the place seemed to shun visitors.

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St Teresa and Middlemarch

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Yesterday, being a Sunday, one of the great Carmelite Saints rightfully surrendered her place at the table to her big Brother and Lord and so got mere mention within the Eucharistic Prayer. And I'm certain she was delighted at the honor of being able to surrender place to the One Whom she loved more than all else.

But one other great Teresa is celebrated this month, and I've long meant to comment upon this introductory passage to Middlemarch. I am reminded because I chose Middlemarch as my Daily LIt selection. Thanks to MamaT and TSO for bring it to my attention and then reinforcing the marvelous idea. To sink for five or ten minute a day into a classic--everyone can do it, and, in the case of lengthy books, it may be the only way to get completely through them.

from Middlemarch "Introduction"
George Eliot

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious
mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt,
at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some
gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning
hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom
in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila,
wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already
beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape
of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That
child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning.

Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were
many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant
girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed
from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which
would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with
the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in
the reform of a religious order.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from October 2006.

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