Literary: August 2007 Archives

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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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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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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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 Literary category from August 2007.

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