August 03, 2002

A Personal Favorite One

One last poem before I'm off to teach a class of Carmelites. Today we are studying the diagram of the Ascent as drawn and labelled by St. John of the Cross. This is all preliminary to a year or more study of the Ascent. Many regard it as a daunting work. I find it not-so-difficult at all to read, simply very difficult to implement.

The Silver Swan Orlando Gibbons

The silver swan, who living had no note.
When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:38 AM | Comments (0)

Father Augustine Baker: One of the Great English Martyrs

And a little known teacher of prayer. His works are still in the sometimes tortured prose of the seventeenth century, but what he has to say holds true now as then.

1. IT was only infinite goodness that moved Almighty God to create the world of nothing, and particularly in this inferior visible world, to create man after His own image and similitude, consisting of a frail earthly body, which is the prison of an immortal, intellectual spirit, to the end that by his understanding, which is capable of an unlimited knowledge, and by his will, which cannot be replenished with any object of goodness less than infinite, he might so govern and order himself, and all other visible creatures, as thereby to arrive unto the end for which he was made, to wit, eternal beatitude both in soul and body in heaven, the which consists in a returning to the divine principle front whom he flowed, and an inconceivably happy union with Him, both in mind, contemplating eternally His infinite perfections, and in will and affections eternally loving, admiring, and enjoying the said perfections.

2. Now to the end that man might not (except by his own free, and willful choice of misery) fail from attaining to the only universal end of his creation, God was pleased to the natural vast capacity of man's understanding and will to add a supernatural light, illustrating his mind to believe and know Him, and divine charity in the will, which was as it were a weight to incline and draw the soul, without any defect or interruption to love God, and Him only. So that by a continual presence of this light, and an uninterrupted exercise of this love, the soul of man would in time have attained to such a measure of perfection of union with God in this world, as without dying to merit a translation from hence to heaven, there eternally to enjoy a far more incomprehensibly perfect and beatifying union with God.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:29 AM | Comments (0)

William Law: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

A wonderful and little know book. Even Edward Gibbon, not known for his Christian sympathies, liked and admired William Law. So much so, in fact, that he made Law tutor to his children.

DEVOTION is neither private nor public prayer; but prayers, whether private or public, are particular parts or instances of devotion. Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God.

He, therefore, is the devout man, who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God, who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety, by doing everything in the Name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.

We readily acknowledge, that God alone is to be the rule and measure of our prayers; that in them we are to look wholly unto Him, and act wholly for Him; that we are only to pray in such a manner, for such things, and such ends, as are suitable to His glory.

For the full text go here.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:01 AM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2002

Flannery O'Connor Tribute

Flannery O'Connor Tribute

Chez Gerard Serafin,you will find a wonderful tribute to Flannery O'Connor, including:

Hers is a vision rooted in the Mysteries of Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Redemption. But she speaks of these in stories that can both stun and shine! This edition of her works is the best I know and the most beautiful to behold and touch. A treasure-house - and it has most of her letters too! These letters have had me both crying and laughing - what a noble soul radiates in these stories and letters! She once called herself a "hillbilly Thomist" and you will find in Flannery O'Connor - A GREAT ARTIST AND GREAT CATHOLIC!


Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:40 PM | Comments (0)

More about the Rosary

I must first say that I find much of what goes on at Disputations is well beyond my immediate ken. But I profoundly admire the spirituality and understanding that seems to come from the site. Continuing an extremely fruitful strain on the Rosary:

The goal of the Christian life is perfection in Christ. Praying the Rosary is a tremendously effective aid to achieving this goal, but it doesn't work by magic. If it is not helping you to become perfect in Christ -- although, as I've written before, it takes some time and effort to be sure about this -- then don't pray it.

Insight like this will keep me going back to Disputations even when posts like this make my head spin:

St. Thomas Aquinas, taking up the question of whether contemplation is the cause of devotion, considers this objection:

[I]f contemplation were the proper and essential cause of devotion, the higher objects of contemplation would arouse greater devotion. But the contrary is the case: since frequently we are urged to greater devotion by considering Christ's Passion and other mysteries of His humanity than by considering the greatness of His Godhead.

Yes, I know, it's merely a matter of applying myself. But I must confess a certain sympathy for the woman described in Chesterton's biography, St. Thomas Aquinas:

A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, "The Simplicity of God." She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, "Well, if that's His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like."
Posted by Steven Riddle at 06:39 PM | Comments (0)

Art and God

In a comment to a post on the Catholic Novel Dylan comments:

TS O'Rama has raised the question of whether loyalty to art & loyalty to God is a zero-sum game. We can't serve them both with equal fervour. Hmm. I know what he's getting at: we can't make art equal in valence to God, but I don't think it's a zero-sum game. Neither does (if we can judge from his Letter to Artists) Papa.

No, it isn't a zero-sum game because, if one approaches the whole thing correctly one serves God through one's art. It isn't as though one is loyal to one's art in opposition to God--after all, beauty comes from God. The properly aligned Christian artist regards his art as a gift given and returned to God. God expects artists to use their talents to better humankind. (I direct your attention to the parable of the three servants and the "talents"). Art can become an object of worship, but a proper orientation toward art views it as a means of expressing relationship with the Creator. I do not "worship" a Monet for the art, but I am brought a "momentary taste of being from the well amid the waste" in the medium of the Creator-inspired piece of art. Thus "Impression Sunrise" isn't about a canvas but about the supreme artistic vision given by God to one of his creatures to convey to the whole world.

I look at examples like C. S. Lewis and other writers who dedicated much of their writing to the exaltation of the Creator. This is what Art is about. Art is a medium, not an end. It's products are humanly made, often divinely infused creations. They are, at their best, participations with the Creator God in the act of creation.

As a result, works that are not overtly Christian can be read by Christians to their own great profit. For example, the Drayton Sonnet I placed here at the beginning of the day is not overtly Christian, but it can be read by Christians in a way that brings them closer to God. This is because Art is a good given by the Creator for the benefit of His creation. It is good inasmuch as it reveals Him to those who are looking. It is worthwhile inasmuch as it improves the devotional life of those who look upon it.

No, properly construed art is not an end, but it is a means of serving the Creator.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 06:22 PM | Comments (0)

The Language of Therese

A reader named Therese comments on St. Therese:

Also, St T de L wrote in Victorian times, with Victorian piety and it sounds a little (well, a lot) icky to our ears today. But read her and the truth wells up through all the "Jesus' toy" parts (which I find difficult, forgive me).

This is often then reaction when one encounters some of the older translations of the great "Story of a Soul." I noted first time through it that it was fairly overwrought. However, reading the ICS translation by John Clarke, I did not have that reaction. Also, perhaps because French is not my first language, these elements did not seem so out of place in the French. Further, in previous translations much of this was exacerbated by her sister Pauline's edits that cut away some of the more acerbic humor. I share this without knowing the expertise of the commentators. Also, it is far easier to overlook these sorts of things when you are reading in a group searching for signs of the "Little Way."

Therese did not spell out her doctrine in any clear way as did John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila (unless you count Manuscript B of Story of a Soul, published as chapter 9 of the ICS edition.) So finding the little way can be greatly deceptive if you do not have a good guide. Many are pulled off into the "small things with great fidelity" side road. While that is certainly PART of the Little Way, it in no way constitutes the core of it. Misinterpreted it leads people into strange pathways and convolutions. Our Lay Carmelite Group just finished a year-long study of Story of a Soul and I feel as though we might have cracked open the door a bit. Perhaps in the practice of some of the things Therese suggests, the door will open further.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 06:08 PM | Comments (0)

Intemperate Words

Intemperate Words
This blurb garnered from - Musings from Domenico Bettinelli is somewhat harsher than I would care to be. I should note that these words do not appear to be the views of Mr. Bettinelli.

More from the current issue of National Review:

p. 12 Some idiot who thought he was a composer copyrighted a "musical piece" in 1952 called "4:33" that consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

While I am no fan of the "music" of John Cage, I would hardly typify the man an "idiot." I disagree with his views on music. I dislike the vast majority of his opus. I detest his effect on much of the music that came after him. But I would see him as a wrong-headed individual who did some interesting experimentation. Most of his "music" was actually a nihilistic statement on the arts, and the arts suffered for it. I would expect, in fact, that his pointed attacks on the arts were the result of a keen, if philosophically misguided, intelligence.

But surely we can avoid the epithets and ad hominem attacks even as we excoriate the supposed art. I know, the point of the article is not art criticism. Nevertheless, intemperate language such as this example leads to people branding conservative views on a variety of issues as "intolerant," "grating," and "inhumane."

It must be possible to object to the art without denigrating the person who made it. After all, like it or not, that person is an image of Christ.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 05:02 PM | Comments (0)

On the Rosary

On the Rosary

Yes, an off-hand comment that I made started this, and I am pleased to see so many responding to it. There is this excellent post at Disputations in response to this equally cogent reflection at Goodform. The quote below is taken from Disputations:

The purpose of a devotion is to bring you closer to God, and if all the Rosary brings you close to is chucking the beads out of a window, then perhaps you should chuck the beads, not out of a window, but out of your prayer life. (Put the beads away some place; there may yet come a time when you'll need them.)

St. Therese wrote, "It's a terrible thing to admit, but saying the Rosary takes it out of me more than any hair shirt ... Try as I will, I cannot meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary. I just cannot fix my mind on them." (I'm told the early editions of her autobiography omitted such passages.) As a Carmelite, though, she had to pray the Rosary, and -- agreeing with Tom -- decided that the sheer effort of doing so would be at least as profitable as twenty minutes of easy meditation.

It used to be that I really disliked St. Therese. Then I studied her life and writings. What I discovered I dislike (as happens more often than not) is what popular piety makes of St. Therese. She is called "The Little Flower," but she is, in fact, "A Mighty Oak." And I share her difficulty with the Rosary. But I also recall the words of our St. Teresa of Avila (further reflected in Therese) that God prizes obedience above a multitude of actions. Teresa was so adamant about obedience, in fact, that she counseled that if you wished to do something that your superior denied you, then obey your superior. If it were in God's will that it were done, He would change the superior's heart, or change the Superior.

So, one Rosary said in obedience to my rule, is better than ten-thousand dedications, consecrations, and acts that I enjoy more. In fact, I know that God prizes daily morning prayer, evening prayer, Office, and lesser hours, but from me, He prizes more each Rosary I can choke out. And I know that He prizes those rosaries done with my four-year-old son. (Actually, doing them in this way, though he does not go through all five decades, removes some of the burden and gives me great cause for joy. Since I've made this parenthesis, I may as well continue to brag--how many other four year olds can recite Psalm 8 and Psalm 23 in toto?)

The Rosary can be a penance, and a very useful penance, but I know that it also serves to strengthen my prayer life by dint of obedience to the promises I have made. I also know a great many people whose lives have improved immeasurably as a result of adopting this wonderful devotion. However, as Mr. da Fiesole indicates, if it serves to move you away from God, then discard it. (See advice from St. Ignatius--here)

Posted by Steven Riddle at 01:27 PM | Comments (0)

Peggy Noonan on John Paul II

Dylan at Error 503 recommends this. I couldn't possibly agree more. A very moving, sensitive, and timely tribute to a very loving, concerned, and strong man. No matter what one might say about feminization of faith (page down to August 1, 1:07 pm) il Papa is not exemplary of the trend.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

Male Genius?

Male Genius?

I loved this post from Video meliora, partially because it gives me legitimate cause to mention Camille Paglia in a Catholic venue. (Unfortunately direct link isn't working, so you'll have to scroll down.)

Point 2: Genius as Masculine IQ tests have shown men to have a more extreme range of intelligence (or lack thereof) than women. The bell curve seems to include lots more points to the right side (i.e. geniuses) and more points to the left (dunces). And although women have not had nearly the opportunities men have in the arts, still the Joyces, Shakespeares, Dantes, Beethovens, Bachs are nearly universally male.

In Sexual Personae Ms. Paglia made a very similar argument, which, unjustly, earned her the ire of most of the feminist world. She referred to it, if I remember correctly as the Apollonian direction of the male. She seemed to imply that women held the real power--power of procreation, which was sufficient. I paraphrase here, but the ultimate conclusion was something like: "If women had been left on their own, they would still be living in grass houses." Now, she goes on to modify her point, but she essentially notes that men seem to be driven (largely as mating display and sexual impulse) to tremendous acts of creativity and destruction. To counter the genius, Ms. Paglia points out that the vast majority of serial killers, and nearly all war and incidents of mass destruction are also the property of males.

While most moments of genius appear to belong to men, feminist critics would (I think mostly rightly) attribute that to the fact that men actually had the leisure to create. (They wouldn't phrase it that way--there would probably be a great deal of bubbling diatribe about the Patriarchal Oppression). But genius is, in part, a function of leisure. To support such a claim, I would mention lady Murasaki's epic "Tale of Genji" is still regarded as one of the great novels of Japan and of Asian in general. It is, in its own way, a construction of genius by a court lady--a woman with time on her hands. Now, this is isolated and anecdotal, but it does suggest that if such leisure and education had been the universal norm in the west, we would probably see more works of genius from women. For a further discussion of this, see Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. (For that matter, see Virginia's Woolf's oeuvre, a vastly underrated, but I think highly influential body of work, only recently really brought to light. I see much more of The Waves in such proponents of stream-of-consciousness as William Faulkner than I do Ulysses).

(Let's face it, Ulysses was a one-off even for Joyce. From that point he moved into the realm of ultimate esoterica and inaccessibility--the strangely delightful and playful Finnegan's Wake. Well worth perusal in the presence of an accomplished guide. I believe Burgess produced A Shorter Finnegan's Wake and someone produced a guide called A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake. Then again, you might just content yourself with Philip Jose Farmer's playful riff "Winnegan's Fake." Not particularly up to his progenitor, but amusing nonetheless. Sorry for the digression, but recently have read too many who have not been able to scale the mountain, and while I'm not quite certain if it is truly worth scaling, it has provided an infinity of fun.)

Anyway--fascinating thread of discussion. I love literature, and I love particularly the qualities of literature that reflect the creator in the created. Works well constructed offer Glory to God whether or not their authors so intend.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:43 AM | Comments (0)


Technically a morning song, I offer this, a wonderful counterpoint to yesterday's (which none could read).

from Idea by Michael Drayton


SINCE here's no help, come, let us kiss and part,
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes.
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.

Idea is a remarkable cycle of sonnets from a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Perhaps not so accomplished as Shakespeare's sonnets, or perhaps simply less well known, Drayton's sonnets run the gamut of possibilities. Drayton was also know for his "Ode To the Virginian Voyage" one of the first English celebrations of the Age of Discovery. (Camoens The Lusiads is one of the earliest such celebrations). This sonnet is a delightfully on-target exposition of the undying nature of love. Even when we want it to go away we cannot make it simply leave. We say love draws its last breath, and yet, and yet, if there were only a chance, a possibility. Drayton's sonnet captures that moment that so many of us have experienced. It is a poem that often dances in my head as God speaking to me. Too often I seem to reduce everything to its bare bones, leaving my supposed love and fidelity to God gasping on its deathbed. But God, ever desiring my undesirable company, always enacts those last two lines, fanning to life again the failing spark and providing a new way to see and to love Him.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:01 AM | Comments (0)

August 01, 2002

On Walker Percy

On Walker Percy

In an e-mail, one writer had this to say about Walker Percy:

It's been a while since I read it, but I thought that The Second Coming was more cogently Catholic. One of the major themes in the book had to do with how we might expect God to work in our life when we are complacent and lacking in joy, and sprouting out of that, the role of tradition and traditional culture in our lives. I might be losing my mind, but I believe that this is the book in which the main character goes into a cave in order to commit suicide and is prompted to come out by a toothache (God works in not so mysterious ways). (I don't think it was Love in the Ruins.) On the whole, though, I don't think that Percy's books are going to "wear" particularly well, for reasons having to do more with his style than his subject or content.
Thanks to BR for permission to quote.

I find the impression interesting. I don't know that I disagree exactly, its just that I think several different kinds of Catholicism wend their way into Percy's writing. Love in the Ruins is a heady whiff of highly intellectual Catholicism dealing a lot with scholastic theory and practice. For example, the whole question of "angelism" and "bestialism" seems to partake of a deep understanding of Aquinas's theory. The Catholicism of Second Coming seems much more up-front and easier to notice. As to style, the writer may be correct--that's always difficult to tell. I wonder whether the same might not have been said of Flannery O'Connor at one time.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 09:10 PM | Comments (0)

Catholic Novel (cont.)

Catholic Novel (cont.)
A couple of people have commented on the question of the Catholic Novel. And we make some headway. Let's start with Dylan's question:

"One might ask, Why categorize? Why impose a denominational test?"

Indeed, we might ask the question, but it seems that scholars and critics from ages past (when they were still working with the writing at hand, rather than inventing something to write about and then writing about it. {If you think I joke see most of the work by Judith Butler and others, for example, ""The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies(Spring 1992), 4(1): 133-171."}) had identified something called "The Catholic Novel." They were able to point to examples of this creature. Evidently it had some definable morphology and, perhaps, spirituality.

In addition, I would like to separate the Catholic Novel from other "Christian Fiction," because in my reading there is a large sensibility gap between the two forms. There are many novels with a "generic Christian" sensibility, some of them great. But the Catholic Novel, that mysterious entity we seek to define, but into whose confines The Violent Bear it Away is always admitted, has a profoundly Catholic sensibility and understanding of the world. Or does it? Is any novel by a Catholic necessarily a Catholic Novel? Are those potboilers by Father Greeley truly "Catholic Novels?" Does it matter?

I think it does. I think there is a lineage of very reputable work which, while not expressly apologetical, does serve to advance the Catholic view of the world. At one point in our history (and perhaps the point hasn't passed) such works were necessary to counteract and just-short-of-virulent anti-Catholicism pervasive in our culture. There was a time when it was wondered whether a Catholic would be fit to serve in the government-- (until we got that wonderfully comforting reversal of the great St. Thomas More--"God's good servant, but America's first").

A post of digressions, a post we might never see live, yet I revel in writing in and urging us onward to consider the question at more than a superficial level. What is a Catholic Novel? What makes a novel a Catholic Novel? And then, what are the very best Catholic Novels that fall within our definition?

Posted by Steven Riddle at 05:30 PM | Comments (0)

Bonjour, Tristesse

Bonjour, Tristesse
Okay, so it's melodramatic, considering the cause, but nevertheless, I have amazing traffic flowthrough on a day when I cannot update anything. It's enough to make you cry. Wrote to Blogger, three times. They don't acknowledge or post that there's a problem, but I know others have reported to me glitchy operation of their sites. On the other hand some sites are operating without a hitch, and I haven't a clue why. Everything is reported as aOK, but it doesn't function.

Oh well, this is why St. John of the Cross recommends detachment. Do not get so bound up in something so that it upsets you not to have it. Human beings are notoriously unreliable, why should their mechanical servants be any better? The lesson--patience, gentleness, resignation, and courage. Keep blogging even if you can't blog. Perhaps that is really what is called in common circles, "Stupidity." Anyway, I've wanted to respond to a lot of stuff I've seen today, so I will continue to blog until even the transfer does not take.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 05:05 PM | Comments (0)

Welcoming Poem--"To My Dear and Loving Husband"

Even later at the computer today than yesterday, so I'm confined to a single poem and comment. Here we go:

To My Dear and Loving Husband
Anne Bradstreet

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Some poems speak from beauty of language. Some speak from the beauty of the thought. I love this poem because it surely captures what the Sacrament of Matrimony is about in the Earthly realm, and even provides a glimpse of its continuation. It also is very adept at quoting scripture without quoting. Finally, it certainly puts the lie to what many of us have misconstrued as the Puritan view of life.

But I am fortunate enough to say with Anne Bradstreet about my own lovely wife, 'If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were lov'd by wife, then me." It is my hope that I can make the rest of the poem true for her!

Good morning all, and God Bless.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:50 AM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2002

My, What a BlogDay But

But I still have several other issues to develop. More tomorrow, but the final word of the day is in response to a comment by TS regarding John Updike.

I find Updike's work exceedingly uneven. I believe he is critically overvalued (and I know Tom Wolfe would agree). And I have to admit to always having been mystified by his characterization as a "Christian Novelist." All I have been able to conclude is that perhaps Mr. Updike belongs to one of the more "progressive" branches of mainline protestant churches. However, I don't spend much time puzzling over it as my rule of life is "Remove the beam in your own eye before you go after the mote in your brother's." But I do admit to being somewhat puzzled.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:29 PM | Comments (0)

What Exactly is a "Catholic" Novel?"

Below, I quote with permission, a portion of an e-mail received from a reader. This will serve as a wonderful springboard to ask the essential questions.

I'm shocked that no one has yet mentioned James Joyce, not only the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th C, but, in my estimation, the greatest writer of the century, period. Despite Joyce's own ambivalent attitude toward the Church, his work, especially A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and Ulysses, are thoroughly saturated with the Irish Catholicism in which he was raised, and with the Jesuit scholarliness in which he was educated. If one were to excise everything Catholic from Joyce's books, there would be almost nothing left.

Certainly Joyce's novels are not "Catholic" in the sense that they are didactic or apologetic, but, as Anthony Burgess pointed out in his study of Joyce (entitled Rejoyce), no good and faithful Catholic ever lost his faith by reading Joyce. Thomas Merton even stated in his Seven Story Mountain that the sermon on Hell in A Portrait was among the influences that led him to Catholicism, though Joyce obviously did not intend that sort of response.

Sure Joyce is irreverent, joking, and sometimes even downright scathing in his attitude toward the Church. Some may find his humor regarding the Church and its beliefs and rituals as offensive, but as Joyce himself said, "The Church was built on a pun" (Tu es Petrus . . . etc.).

Despite his ambivalence and attempts by some critic to make him out to have been agnostic or even atheist, I always get the sense that Joyce, in his own odd way, loved and respected the Church more than he would ever have admitted. How can one not love a guy whose response to being asked whether he had become a Protestant was to say that he did not give up a
rational and coherent absurdity in order to embrace an irrational and incoherent absurdity, and that he had simply lost his faith, not his reason? As a Catholic, I certainly disagree with his describing the Faith as "an absurdity", but one must admit, the quote is delicious, and more scathing toward Protestantism than Catholicism. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Palestrina was Joyce's favorite composers, and that he used to walk the streets of Zurich humming the Missa Papa Marcelli.

The key problem here, I think, is that one must define more clearly what one means by "Catholic novel". Does the author have to be an orthodox, practising Catholic to qualify? What if the author is a lapsed Catholic, or went from being a lapsed Catholic to merely being a "bad Catholic"?

Does the novel itself have to be Catholic in a didactic, apologetic sense, i.e. does it have to seek consciously to promote the Faith, perhaps even at the expense of aesthetic and literary quality? Or does the novel just have to be "Catholic" in the sense that Catholicism is a prominent element of the cultural and religious milieu in which the action takes place? What if the author is, like Umberto Eco, a baptised Catholic who is now a self-described agnostic, but who wrote a fabulous Catholic book like The Name of the Rose?

Though certainly not an exercise in apologetics, reading The Name of The Rose will not lead one to embrace Eco's own agnosticism, and it provides a lot of interesting Mediaeval lacunae to boot. What about books by non-Catholic writers, who nonetheless depict the Faith and the Church in a sympathetic and intelligent manner?

Answering these questions will, I think, make it easier to compile a list of the "Greatest Catholic Novels of the 20th Century".

Profound thanks DW for permission to quote!

There's a ton of stuff to address here. Let me start by excerpting the note I return in re: Joyce (for whom I have the most profound respect as a writer--so much so that I have dared Finnegan's Wake three times, and plan several more sojourns, God willing, before I die.

On Joyce, I suppose that his placement on the now defunct Index may have been a key determinant in many not seeing him as a progenitor of the great Catholic novel. While he was grounded in Catholicism, his outlook was more that of Eliot in J. Alfred Prufrock. While perhaps not so nihilistic as his secretary (the redoubtable Samuel Beckett) I would argue that if one were to go through the Syllabus of Errors one would be likely to see that Joyce subscribed to a great many of them, and indeed probably helped in a literary sense to define some of them.

While I have enormous respect and affection for Joyce,
I would never place his novels in the ranks of great
Catholic novels. The themes are really quite
different from those that seem to define most Catholic
novels, and as you pointed out, he was and wore very
well the facade of Agnostic. The whole "Telemachus"
section of "Ulysses" is highly suggestive of a certain
contempt in which he held the church, and his somewhat
unusual (for the time) relationship with Nora tended
to underline that.

So I've addressed the Joyce issue (sort of). But the question remains, what defines a "catholic novel." Before I compose any more, I'd like to open the question up to thoughts and responses. Please tell me what you think defines the Catholic Novel.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:23 PM | Comments (0)

Evangelizing the Culture

Evangelizing the Culture

Once again Video Meliora provides food for thought. (Yes, I will get around to the promised post on the Catholic Novel, just be patient, I'm creeping up on it.--O wait, you will already have read it by the time you get to this point on the page--oops!)

Anyway, TS at Video says,

I suppose I am still thinking along the lines of Amy Welborn's question of how to evangelize the culture and how art could play a role.

And that's what I want to address. Art is art--sometimes it affects people, sometimes it does not. You could read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and not get any impression whatsoever of grace. In fact, my first several trips through Flannery O'Connor, I missed, as my good friend would say, "All the novelistic signposts." Art, it seems to me, is for preaching to the converted--something which must be done, but which makes more sense when you're on the inside.

If we are to evangelize the culture, it seems to me we must do so first and foremost by example. I have a young child at home. Those of you with young children know that you can talk until you turn blue in the face, but the child is going to do what he sees you do. Our culture is much the same. You can preach, you can yell, you can jump up and down until you turn blue in the face, but if you are not living a life of holiness, nothing you say will take root.

Seems to me that a wise Man once said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you." In other words, to evangelize we must first and foremost change our own lives. We must abandon the common recreations of the culture that detract from our thoughts of God, and we must live a life of such peace and beauty in the presence of God that everyone around us says, "I've gotta have that!"

Prayer and lifestyle are our primary evangelical tools. Unless and Until we turn around our own lives--the examples shown to others, we waste our time evangelizing. I always wondered what beet-faced bible thumpers thought they were doing. You may effect a conversion, but like the conversion experienced by Stephen Daedalus after the "fire and brimstone" sermon, it will be short lived. Conversions through anger, fear, or any of a myriad of emotions, are like the seed that lands in shallow soil. It is the soil of a moment and once the moment fades, the roots of the plant dry up and faith vanishes.

True conversion, true evangelization occurs when everyone can see the difference in your own life. When you are having fun with your wife and child so that you do not retreat to the questionable solace of "Sex in the City" or other programs I am appalled to discover many parishioners of St. Blogs seem to revel in. Oh well, perhaps I am missing out and I have too many of my own skeletons rattling about to cast stones.

St. John of the Cross tells us that the key to approaching God is detachment from all worldly things that keep us from Him. To my mind, this detachment is the beginning of evangelization. Through it we obtain a certain measure of peace and calm and become a center of quiet in a world full of disturbing eddies.

In honor of St. Ignatius Loyola, we should consider his instructions from the beginning of The Spiritual Exercises

The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.

Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him. (p. 12)

[Taken from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola ed. by Louis J. Puhl. Loyola University Press.]

After all of this, I guess part of my answer is that we evangelize the culture one person at a time through personal holiness, prayer, and example.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:01 PM | Comments (0)

In Honor of the

In Honor of the Good Lady Mentioned Below

Spoiler warning: yes, for those who have not read it nor heard Loreena McKennit's magnificent rendition, I'm giving away the climax of the poem:

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

There, now don't you want to go and read the whole thing? Try here. I send you to the top of the Tennyson portion so you can choose the 1832 OR the 1842 version--what excitement!

Posted by Steven Riddle at 06:29 PM | Comments (0)

Well, What Would You Expect. . .

from someone with the exquisite good taste to fashion herself "The Lady of Shalott?" This comes from
a very amusing and interesting post
at her site. Most particularly, please note the following:

I've always circulated freely among the right and the left, and except for a few unhappy months in a wretched Catholic homeschooling group that was as rigid as a Stalinist reading group, never received any flack from anyone about any of my "contradictory" activities.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 06:23 PM | Comments (0)

Not Subject to Disputation

To fall back on the language of my fundamentalist protestant days, I was profoundly moved and convicted by this wonderful post at the Disputations site.

I am convinced that what he says is probably true, but to expose a dark side of my prayer life, I regard the rosary as a onerous penance--doing a single decade is, for me, like trampling through a lake of liquid lead. Others I know have enormous transports of joy, or whiz through fifteen decades without even knowing they prayed. But for me I find no such "surcease of sorrow" in it. Nevertheless, it is good to do penance as well. I prefer other Marian devotions--the prayer of St. Louis de Montfort, and the Consecration to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But, as with all things, the Lord will work with me on this as well, and it will be as He wills. (Praise Him for that!)

Posted by Steven Riddle at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

Catholic or Not?

Before the opportunity slips by, I did want to comment on a notion presented in Video Meliora. The blogmaster there writes (TS, please pardon me quoting so much):

I recall a convert friend who read Percy's "Love in the Ruins" totally differently after he converted and "Love in the Ruins" had absolutely no part in the conversion. Percy was a sort of Christian existentialist, which seems to me almost a contradiction in terms. Don't get me wrong, I love reading Percy, and am deeply appreciative that someone so talented was also a believer - but I wonder how truly "Catholic" his novels can be considered when an agnostic sees them in sync with his/her worldview. I realize the purpose of art is not to proselytize. But this is sort of personal to me since I have agnostic friends who could seemingly be reached by art - they are hugely turned off by a more direct approach - but art that to me is transcendent to them, well...

Now, we'll get to some of this when we start talking about what makes a Catholic novel. For the moment, however, it serves simply to say that the merit of a work, or its Catholicity, cannot necessarily be judged by the misinterpretation, or valid interpretation outside of the author's intent applied by the reader. Percy's work is no less Catholic because it can be read and enjoyed by someone outside the fold than say the Bible is because atheists enjoy the poetry of Song of Songs or the Psalms. The interpretation of the work is not the work itself and because of the infinite mutability of the language someone can force any work into the procrustean bed of interpretation and make of it what they wish. This is not to say that we cannot communicate (as some deconstructionist critics would have it). It is to say that by participating in the act of creation,. we join with the creator and are stuck with the Creator's rules, which include such annoying things as free will and conscience. We do not create ex nihilo but out of our fallenness and so the work is not perfect and does not convey perfectly our sense of things. However, it does not interefere with the work being Catholic or non-Catholic, supporting Christian values or tearing them down.

It works also in the opposite way. For example the soaring poetry of Percy Shelley is penned by an atheist, and yet much of it can be read and interpreted in a Christian context, a point no doubt vexing to Shelley himself.

More on this later, as we discuss the Catholic Novel, but I think this makes a start. Thanks TS for the provocative thoughts.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:51 AM | Comments (0)

Coming Soon: What is a Catholic Novel?

Now it's time to go to work, so later, perhaps around lunchtime, I'll be addressing this question, which came up in some correspondence. I find the question provocative and profound.

Also, quote du jour, and perhaps a poem it there's time. You lose so much when you're up 15 minutes later than usual!

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:35 AM | Comments (0)

Rules of Engagement

I don't have much time this morning before work, so I shall be brief and hope I can return to other subjects later today.

I wanted to say something about communications to this site. I have decided not to follow the lead of many sites. Whatever is written to me in e-mail will remain private unless and until the author gives me permission to make such things public. My reasoning is as follows: I provide comment spaces here, where remarks meant for all can be made. People who wish to make remarks intended to foster discussion can use this mechanism. If they wish, they can remain anonymous in their comments. However, just as if someone sent a letter to me, unless they indicate that it can be shared with the world at large, to my mind it sets aside etiquette in the name of expedience. I do not fault the choices others have made, they have clearly indicated their preference and people responding to such sites know the rules beforehand. But I prefer to keep public and private worlds clearly separated. Therefore, if you send me a note, please indicate that you do not mind me sharing it with the world. If you do not do so, and I find something in it that all and sundry might profit from, I may paraphrase and attribute it to an anonymous source, but I will not use your words or your name.

I guess that's a long-winded way of saying--Comments are public, e-mails are private unless you indicate a willingness to share.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:33 AM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2002

Response to Chesterton

My comments have temporarily vanished as Haloscan is attending to their servers, but I did read a comment from someone this afternoon questioning me as to why I thought Chesterton's writing was flawed.

Part of it is subjective, but part, I think objective. Chesterton tends to hyperbole and overwriting at times to make his point. In some cases his metaphors and his language just don't seem to be under control. There are ocassionally lengthy passages of material that just pall. Also, some of what he writes is very heavy handed, seemingly without a strong sense of the language. I know this is not true because most of what he writes does reflect both control and moderation. I think sometimes the journalist with deadlines overtakes the inner writer and clubs him into silence.

As I am reading I will try to find bits that illustrate what I'm talking about. I suspect that I won't find them in Heretics but I know that I have read them both in the novels and some of the essays. I'll attempt to clarify. Thanks for bringing up the point.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 05:59 PM | Comments (0)

Prayers from Other Places I

I hesitate to call these prayers of the Eastern Church, but these wonderful treasures on Dylan Six-Eighteen's site here and here should provide days of reflection, meditation, and food for thought. A line I shall treasure

"Hail, O little space that held within it Him whom the world cannot contain! "

These two pieces are going into my personal prayer book. Thanks Dylan!

Posted by Steven Riddle at 05:41 PM | Comments (0)


It has taken me a long time to warm up to Chesterton. For me his writing flaws often got in the way of some of the really superb things he had to say. However, I am now going through Heretics for the umpteenth time, this time with some thought that I might actually make it through. In the course of reading I happened upon this wonderful little quote from Chapter 1.

The man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

Protestant Divines

Protestant Divines

I never fail to be amazed and amused at the various protestant divines and protestants themselves, who while railing at the Catholic Church, continually rediscover much of what had been in her treasury for millenia. I do not know that Richard Baxter did much, if any, railing. But, I share below some excerpts from a slightly modernized sermon-- "How to Spend the Day with God"

Do not let worthless recreations, television, idle talk, unprofitable company, or sleep rob you of your precious time.

Whatever you are doing, in company or alone, do it all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Otherwise, it is unacceptable to God.

Remember every day the special duties of various relationships: whether as husbands, wives, children, masters, servants, pastors, people, magistrates, subjects.

Remember every relationship has its special duty and its advantage for the doing of some good. God requires your faithfulness in this matter as well as in any other duty.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:42 AM | Comments (0)

Some Replies

Some Replies
Dylan writes in comments below, "Love in the Ruins rocks -- took me just a single 10-hour sitting to read it entirely for the first time." And I have to agree. But I need to say as well that it is apparently quite disorienting for a great many people. In my Catholic Book group the majority of people simply said, "Huh?" And that can be a reaction to it. However, approached properly and on Percy's grounds, it is a wryly amusing, sometimes outright funny story of an alcoholic psychiatrist and philanderer who develops a device to "measure the human soul." Solidly based in Aquinas, the story unfolds in a "world gone mad." Or is it in the head of the psychiatrist gone mad? You need to read it to find out.

In reaction to my summer reading list Dylan offered that he was reading Death on a Friday Afternoon I have read this over the past two years as a sort of lenten exercise. Neuhaus has been, I think unjustly, accused of being a universalist. He defends his arguments quiet ably here. For those intrigued by the sound of the book, and excerpt is available here.

I find the book stirring and moving and convicting. Because I tend to share Fr. Neuhaus's convictions in this matter, I saw little problem with the argument in question; however, I also acknowledge that I stand on the strength of convictions, of the arguments of others, and on hope--not necessarily on a grounded, reasoned argument.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:37 AM | Comments (0)

July 29, 2002

Ten of the Best Catholic Novels of the 20th Century?

Ten of the Best Catholic

An intrepid soul decided to set foot in that extraordinarily dangerous territory of "Best of" lists, and so, naturally opened himself up to the billions of us who wish to make adjustments, emendations, corrections, annotations, revisions, and generally mess the whole thing up. So here's at least my two cents.

Four of the books Diary of a Country Priest, Vipers Tangle (a.k.a. Knot of Vipers and Nest of Vipers), Silence(not "The Silence" as noted in the article) and The Violent Bear it Away can be endorsed without even a hint of demurral. The choices for the Graham Greene and the Walker Percy seem idiosyncratic . Why Brighton Rock, while admittedly quite good over the three greats ( End of the Affair, Heart of the Matter, Power and the Glory? And while The Moviegoer is indeed quite a good novel, I think I would be more inclined to suggest Love in the Ruins. I must pause to note that many in my Catholic Reading group were simply puzzled by Percy's book, wondering why so many thought it great.

I have not read and cannot comment upon Judith Hearne or The Accident. I have mixed feelings about Brideshead Revisited and perhaps I need to revisit it. The final choice, Memento Mori, while a very fine novel, strikes me as an odd choice for a best list. It is very difficult to pull much Catholic from the novel, and it does tend to stump most people who read it and try to figure out what makes it particularly "Catholic."

Had I been making the same list, I suppose it would like something like this:

Flannery O'Connor: Oh, why try to pick, just read her entire opus and count it as one. I mean it doesn't amount to the length of a single Tom Clancy novel and you get a lot more out of it.

Graham Greene: Probably The Heart of the Matter read it next to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River.

George Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest

Franz Werfel The Song of Bernadette I don't know if this really belongs, being by someone Jewish, but I think it powerful and influential.

Shusaku Endo Silence

Walker Percy Love in the Ruins

Torgny Lindgren The Way of a Serpent

Francois MauriacViper's Tangle (Although Woman of the Pharisees and Therese are also very fine.

Sigrid Undset Kristin Lavransdatter, though I must admit, this suffers from its present translation.

And the following two are books that have haunted me and suggested their way onto the list--whether they deserve it or not is difficult to say--I suppose only time will tell.

Ron Hansen Marriette in Ecstasy or Atticus.

Undoubtedly there are a great many others that must be neglected by perusing this list. For example, one might site the extraordinary and beautiful science fiction novels A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr.) and A Case of Conscience, Black Easter, and The Day after Judgment by James Blish.

Please feel free to wrangle, disagree, add, subtract, multiply, or divide. I look for works that I have not yet read! If you'd like more information about any, please ask, I'd be happy to write at greater length. (As if you couldn't tell!)

One thing I ask please--No Andrew Greeley books!

Posted by Steven Riddle at 05:10 PM | Comments (0)

For St. Martha's Day

A Kipling fan, I am not. I don't despise his stuff, but was never really interested in his poetry and most of his novels were colored by a political intelligence I do not share nor have much patience with. While the poem that follows suggests some of this, it does seem quite a nice bit for St. Martha's Day.

from "The Sons of Martha"
R. Kipling

The Sons of Mary seldom bother,
for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favor their Mother
of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once,
and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons,
world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages
to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages;
it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly;
it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly
the Sons of Mary by land and main.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 04:39 PM | Comments (0)

Poet for Today: Richard Crashaw

Richard Crashaw was a 17th century poet, who with George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, and John Donne produced some of the most splendid devotional poetry of their era. (I leave Milton out, because while he produced some devotional poetry, it is hardly his best work nor the work for which he is best known). Crashaw died at the age of 36 in 1649, leaving behind a volume of poetry that must include one of the earliest tributes in English to St. Teresa of Avila. But for today, here's a less formidable (but no less lovely) work:


On the Water of our Lord's Baptism.
EACH blest drop on each blest limb,
Is wash't itself, in washing Him :
'Tis a gem while it stays here ;
While it falls hence 'tis a tear.

What I find most appealing in this very short piece is the notion that through the Baptism of Jesus, water itself was purified. What a wonderful image you could have of a stream flowing out into the world, washing all clean, removing from it the stains of sin, cleansing nature itself. For more of Crashaw's poetry, you might wish to start by visiting The Luminarium

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:55 AM | Comments (0)

Dolan's Image:Jesus as a Baby

Dolan's Image:Jesus as a Baby

I Hope This Is Indicative of What We Can Expect from Milwaukee!"

The newly appointed Bishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan, delivered a catechesis on Reconciliation to the WYD crowd. Among the remarks quoted:

"God comes as a baby, because babies are irresistible," Dolan said. "And God wants us to take him up and welcome him into our arms like a baby."

While the image is an inverse of St. Therese of Lisieux's "Elevator to God," it is, nevertheless an extremely appealing image. And we should recall that St. Therese was St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.

At a shrine near where I live (Mary, Queen of the Universe) there are several statues that show the Child Jesus. One of the most touching is Jesus at age 3 or 4 running toward his Mother's open arms. How could you not pick up such a child and carry him with you? Is there anything more endearing than a child telling you, "I love you"? I suppose this is why the image appeals to me. Often enough we are told that Jesus loves each of us, and sometimes, particularly as a male in society, that is a difficult message to hear. But what father cannot hear that message from their own child? So if we take Jesus up as a baby, as a toddler, as a child, we still have the Son of God, we still have our Brother and our Lord. But perhaps we have an image that can help foster a greater intimacy.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:42 AM | Comments (0)

July 28, 2002

And Now My Meae Culpae

And Now My Meae Culpae
OR, why I don't often comment on events and people

Every time, every single time, I'm given some reminder. Here's today's--from St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love

62. Because the virtues you have in mind do not shine in your neighbor, do not think that your neighbor will not be precious in God's sight for reasons that you have not in mind.

69. You will without labor subject the nations and bring things to serve you if you forget them and yourself as well.

109. Wisdom enters through love, silence, and mortification. It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.

116. The entire world is not worthy of a human being's thought, for this belongs to God alone; any thought, therefore, not centered on God is stolen from him.

118. Ignoring the imperfections of others, preserving silence and a continual communion with God will eradicate great imperfections from the soul and make it the possessor of great virtues.

Oh well, caught and convicted again! It's a good thing I have a great attorney and advocate in Jesus Christ!

Posted by Steven Riddle at 11:24 AM | Comments (0)

Gary Wills Redux

Gary Wills Redux

I know that I am coming in late on this, but I normally don't like to comment much on controversy--I find it makes me exceedingly irritable and not particularly charitable. However, I happened on this article over at Emily Stimpson's blog and was so profoundly annoyed by some of Mr. Wills's comments that I needed to note at least one glaring stupidity. This quote, ". . . and it's also obvious that loyalty to the papacy has been made the test of what makes you a Catholic," must stand as the archicon of idiocy. Whether or not Mr. Wills cares for the point, loyalty to the Pope and to his teachings is, in fact, part of what distinguishes Catholics from every other faith. I will grant that it is not the entirety of the difference; however, if you have the entire doctrine of the Catholic Church without loyalty to the Pope, you are either Anglican of some variety or some other faith--you simply are not Catholic. The Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ upon the Rock (St. Peter) is defined by having a single head who speaks with authority for the whole body. Remove the head, and you don't have a church; you have a headless body. Now, how Wills, a purportedly intelligent man, can come up with such a profound piece of religious blinkered thinking, I don't care to speculate. But I do say, that without loyalty to Rome and to the Pope, you cannot be Catholic.

I will go further to say that surely in the course of your investigations, you may come upon things that don't fit right, that you have doubts about. I think doubts offer an opportunity for growth, if approached properly. Where there is doubt, it is best to approach with the idea of finding the truth, not supporting an agenda. Mr. Wills seems to have cast this aside. As with many supposedly informed and intelligent modernists, he has be blindsided by the world and secular society into believing that his vision of the Church is indeed the church. If you stop to consider (after you get over the aggravation) this is sad situation, one requiring more prayer than fury. People who belong to this distorted church miss the fullness of the faith. They have mixed their faith with water--or unfortunately as with Israel entering the land of Canaan, they have sullied their practice with the idols of the Land of Milk and Honey. They do enormous damage to themselves and to those around them without realizing what they wreak.

I trust God in His providential wisdom and great mercy will deal kindly with those who have so wandered. Jesus promised to leave the 99 and go off in search of the single strayed sheep. For those who have strayed, like Mr. Wills and others, I pray merely that he is one brought back into the fold by the great caring of Incarnate Love. I also pray for myself and others incidentally affected by Mr. Wills that our momentary irritation and annoyance does not stray off into judgment. I'm sure that it shall not, but my assurance comes (paradoxically) from my confidence in prayers being answered.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:59 AM | Comments (0)