Recently in Catholic Novel/Literature Category

An Evocative Passage--Anne Rice


Anne Rice has published the second book in her extended novelistic meditation on the Life of Christ. The first, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt was an unalloyed success at conveying some of the complexities of the childhood of a man who "was like us in all things but sin." The second promises to be more of the same. I haven't read much of it, wishing to savor it in between passages of Gothic Americana (The Sound and the Fury). But I wanted to share a short excerpt from very early on that exemplifies the style that Ms. Rice has chosen for these works.

from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Anne Rice

I looked at them, the two, lying there as if they were children asleep, amid the heap of stones, and not enough blood between them, really, not enough blood for the Angel of Death even to stop and turn and take notice of them.

Rolling, spare, simple, evocative, lush, and lovely. Trimmed down, to the point and carefully crafted. The story rolls on in sentence after sentence that exhibit this same quality.

I think one of the things that astounds me is this Anderson-like simplicity after the baroque excesses of the Witches novels, the Lestat sequence, and the Ramses book. Ms. Rice has taken care here to produce prose that seeks to evoke its inspiration--straightforward and still poetic, like many of the parables Jesus told.

While it isn't the Passion narrative (one is to hope that that is at least two books away) this will make for fine end-of-Lent reading.

I have said before, and will say again, undoubtedly, in a world full of Sam Harrises , Richard Dawkinses, and Philip Pullmans, it is a pleasure and a relief to come across a novelist who is trying to write something worthwhile and powerful for the reader seeking substance. This series is a departure from all of her previous material and as such, it represents a risk to her. Not much of one, as her other books remain in print and sell well and will support her for some time to come, but she risks her huge fan base and her continued profitability and ability to hand on to a publisher. Like Mel Gibson, she is fashioning a work that is demanded by heart and soul, and it is up to readers like us to support this work. I ardently pray that Ms. Rice's work affects the hearts and minds of some of the fans of the previous books and moves them to explore the beauty of Jesus Christ, Lord, Savior, Friend and Companion. If it is possible for you to do so, you might think of buying this book and sharing it with the next person you see reading Kim Harrison, Anne's previous novels, or other books which, while occasionally fun and entertaining, have as an end escape into unreality. What Ms. Rice is trying to create is an escape into ultimate reality.

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The first person we have speak to us from the realm of the Inconstant (the lowest and slowest sphere of heaven) is a woman named Piccarda. She is consigned to this realm because of her "inconstancy" to her holy vows of a religious. However:

from Paradiso
notes by John Ciardi

Piccarda was already a nun and living in her convent when her brother Corso, needing to establish a political alliance, forced her to marry Rossellino della Tossa of Florence. Various commentators report that Piccarda sickened and soon died as aconsequence of having been so forced against her will and vows.

It is this kind of reasoning that throughout time has bred atheists. Circumstances that we do not will nor do we consent to force us to actions that we would not take for which God, who created and allowed these very circumstances, then punishes or demotes us.

Piccarda had no choice in this matter. For much of medieval time in many places women were just a step (and a very small step) above chattel. A few extraordinary women did rise above these circumstances--but for the most part your lot in life as a woman was to do what the men around you told you to.

But in Dante's mind, a woman who against her will is forced to marry and is basically raped, is inconstant to her vow. I'm surprised she isn't in The Inferno for being false to her vow. Instead God in his infinite love and mercy says--"you were trapped by circumstance and by the situations my will allows, and couldn't puzzle your way out of it--so off to the lowest circle of beatitude and be glad I don't kick you downstairs."

Yuck! This is what I constantly run up against in Paradise. A strange sort of paradise it makes it.

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Beatrice--Snide and Smug

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Here's an example of what I spoke of before. Beatrice speaks to Dante:

from Paradiso
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"Are you surprised that I smile at this childish act
of reasoning?" she said, "since even now
you dare not trust your sense of the true fact,

but turn, as usual back to vacancy?

Charming. Simply charming. There's nothing to inspire love and admiration like some smug, self-righteous, overly informed combatant smiling at your stupidity and then telling you so. I'm supposd to be enchanted/enthralled by this? Color me appalled.

Fortunately Dante's goal was not entirely to make me love Beatrice as he did. If so, his cause is utterly lost. Unfortunately, I perceive that this guide to the celestial realms will not be nearly so convivial as our guide through the other two. We can expect to be laughed at, lectured sternly, and variously assaulted and accosted as we try to enjoy the scenery.

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The Divine Comedy Act III


As often as I have read the Divine Comedy, I have found profound difficulty with the third part--the part that should be so compelling. It seems that all forward motion stops and Dante enters into a realm of airy speculation (mostly wrong) and cosmology that is both weird and vaguely uninteresting. The people in paradise maunder on and on about abstruse theological theories and oddities of the medieval sort. In short, it is the "most dated" and least "useful" of the three acts. And yet, I am sure that I am missing something in the reading. I am sure that as often as I have been through it, I have been left out of paradise through my own fault.

So I try again. And once again I am treated so some odd explanation of the spheres of the cosmos and to Beatrice (who if you ask me isn't some Divine avatar but a relentless and self-righteous harridan--see the end of Purgatorio. One is left to ponder what in the world Dante saw in this woman.

Not that the rest of the comedy isn't riddled with similar lectures, cosmologies, and oddities, but somehow amid the grotesques and the "poetic justice" they seem to fit in. If the realm of perfection is nothing other than an endless lecture series on the Divine glories, unless I become a completely different person (by which I do not mean simply abandoning sin and growing closer to God, but having something approaching a spiritual lobotomy) I think that the suffering there would be akin to the suffering of some of the souls in Dante's Inferno.

But then, why might Dante think that this endless lecture circuit is Divine? Perhaps because knowledge was so highly valued a commodity in a time when its dissemination was so difficult? Perhaps it was just that particular poet's mind? I don't know, but perhaps that is a focus to pay attention to as I try to ignore the lectures that get in the way of a tourists view of paradise.

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Reflections on Purgatorio


I feel obliged to start this discussion with the customary disclaimers. I don't claim to be a deep reader, one filled with wisdom and overflowing with information about Dante. I am, like most of you who read this, a reader--one who enjoys reading things that challenge me and provoke me. I find most readings of critiques to be highly worked up and overwrought--often I find myself doubting that any author would have so contrived and twisted the work they were completing to meet the gyrations of the critics. A critic lays a layer atop a work even though the seeming effort is to explore the labyrinth laid before them.

On the other hand, a reader sees the work from within the labyrinth. There may not be a complete sense of its design, nor may we see clearly all the elements that make up the patterns; however, we see clearly what is clearly spoken and we appreciate the work for that.

That said, let me start these reflections by sharing one line that really struck me. Bear in mind that the translation I am using, for a great many reasons, is the one by John Ciardi:

". . . the blessed wormwood of my agony."

It is strictly out of context, but it started the other chain of thought I wanted to share. This line is spoken by one in purgatory. Speaking of his wife's ardent prayers on his behalf, he notes that her prayers have lifted him already so high in purgatory, setting aside years and years of suffering that would otherwise be required for purgation.

But notice the way he refers to this suffering--"the blessed wormwood of my agony." The suffering is real--it is as real as the suffering in Hell, and yet it is not torment. Over and over again Dante makes the point that this suffering is gladly engaged in, indeed embraced by the souls themselves as they know the end of it in time. The Lustful souls in conversation with Dante stay strictly within their sheets of flame, and so it is throughout the Purgatory. The souls know that this suffering cleanses, this suffering purifies, this suffering leads to heaven.

Extend that a bit--human suffering, properly viewed and with a heart set on God's will is purgative. And that suffering be it "Nella's tears" (the wife referred to above) for the loss of her husband and for the sympathy with his suffering, or our own physical pain borne with the expectation of seeing God, is purgative not only for ourselves but for others as well. In the Christian context, suffering has meaning. But so too does the beatific vision. Those in purgatory do not needless extend their stay, reveling in their suffering and purgation. Rather, they move on to the beatific vision and to the enjoyment of the presence of God. This is where I part company with many of the Saints. While suffering is purgative, life is filled with enough--we needn't add to it through our own contrived mortifications that have as their end release from attachment. Properly lived, life has quite enough that should provoke us to give up the things we are attached to--the celice and the discipline are neither required, nor, it seems to me, within God's ordained will for us. He hands out the suffering we require--we need not add to it. And indeed, adding to it is contradictory to His will, it is clinging to purgatory when He has decided we need bliss.

Purgation happens. Life carries with it enough of heaviness. Little things like denying ourselves too much food or food of a certain kind--that isn't really suffering, or if it is it is suffering borne of our own selfishness and self-centeredness. People in India live very well without a Hershey's bar a day. Real suffering--not having enough to eat, losing someone we love, living through a terrible wasting disease with Death hanging over us--is not something we choose. It is something that with the grace of God we live through and by living through it contribute both to our own purgation and to the purgation of those around us. We are not saved singly, although salvation is individual and singular for each person. Rather, we are saved within the community, the entire Body of Christ is resurrected, not merely a cell on the big toe. Our own bliss in salvation comes in part from the knowledge that salvation is for all and we have worked for it through our many small works of spiritual and corporeal mercy.

Thus purgation can begin here as we abide in God's will, accept what life brings us, and relish God's perfect plan expressed through it. That doesn't mean we do not mourn or hurt. But it does mean that our pain has meaning both for us and for those around us. When we live through a time of suffering, we are in sympathy with those in Purgatory and we are spending a little of our own time there as we head for heaven. Suffering isn't to be sought out--it will find us soon enough. But once we have been found, bearing with the suffering through the strength of the One who saves us strengthens both us and those around us even though we do not necessarily see this effect.

One last point on Purgatorio comes from a provocative note by the translator in the endnotes. I will let it stand without further comment:

from "How to Read Dante"
John Ciardi

The Seven Deadly Sin for which souls suffer in Purgatory are--in ascending order--Pride, Envy, Wrath, Adedia, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. Acedia is the central one, and it may well be the sin the twentieth centruy lost track of. Acedia is generally translated as Sloth. But that term in English tends to connote not much more than laziness and physical slovenliness. For Dante, Acedia was a central spiritual failure. It was the failure to be sufficiently active in the pursuit of the recognized Good. It was to acknowledge Good, but without fervor.

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Memento Mori

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Another powerful and beautiful reflection from Fr. Beck's book:

from Soul Provider
Fr. Edward L. Beck

Is it true that death gives meaning to life or, at least, informs life? Saint John Climacus writes, "Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. . . The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it b the hour is surely a saint." The knowledge of our mortality is therefore an incitement to live more fully. When we realize that we have a limited time to revel in the gift of human life, we are infused with an urgency that an endless life might not offer. There is only so much time to climb that beautiful mountain, or swim in that pristine ocean, or appreciate the sound to that bird calling to its mate. More significantly, our time with those whom we love is limited. Why waste the time with the nonessentials: family feuds that last for years, long-held grudges, opportunities at loving never taken?

The absolute certainty of death is something most of us look at (if at all) with a sidelong glance--perhaps detecting it most of the time in our peripheral vision. It would be better for all that if be faced squarely and clearly.

We know this--we don't face it. However, it is expressed beautifully in this song:

"Live Like You Were Dying"
Tim McGraw

He said I was in my early forties, with a lot of life before me
And one moment came that stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays
Talking bout' the options and talking bout' sweet times.
I asked him when it sank in, that this might really be the real end
How's it hit 'cha when you get that kind of news?
Man what did ya do?
He said

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

He said I was finally the husband, that most the time I wasn't
And I became a friend, a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden goin' fishin, wasn't such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
Well I finally read the good book, and I took a good long hard look
At what I'd do if I could do it all again
And then

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Shu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

Like tomorrow was the end
And ya got eternity to think about what to do with it
What should you do with it
What can I do with it
What would I do with it

I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And man I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I watched an eagle as it was flyin'
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'

To live like you were dyin'

Another way of asking the same thing is, "Why wait for judgment to try to do what you know you ought? Then is too late." Our time is now. It can be intolerably brief, or it can seem like an eternity of waiting. Either way, if we live it knowing that it will end, perhaps it will serve to make us a little more patient, a little more tender, a little more willing to risk vulnerability, a little more inclined to take risks to help others. Think of how those we love could blossom, those with whom we work could grow into new possibility. What if I took my position as a manager seriously and used that position to truly serve others? Because our leaders, ideally, are in fact our servants. They blaze the trails for us and point the direction. They don't do all of the work, but they help clear the way for work to be done. Or, perhaps they would, if they lived in the shadow and foreknowledge of Eternity--knowing that this ends and afterwards comes Judgment. And perfect love casteth out fear--particularly fear of judgment because we do what we do not for hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, but solely for the love of God.

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How What is Divided Grows


I post two separate entries on Dante because while they abut one another in the poetry, they seem to go separate directions in thought. And this particular point is one that a lot of people have difficulty remembering because this world is so limited.

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"How can each one of many who divide
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?" He replied:

"Because within the habit of mankind
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

As much light as it finds there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so above,
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.

If you visit colonial houses, you will often find on the wall sconces with convex mirrors or polished surfaces behind them. The purpose was to capture the light from a single candle and use it more efficiently. And so Dante's metaphor. Love that falls on a surface ready to receive it both lights that surface to the degree that it is prepared to be lit, and is "multiplied" to reflect from other such surfaces. Love, as we are well aware, does not diminish in the division, but paradoxically, multiplies. The metaphor of reflection is a clear and perfect trope for the activity of love.

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From Dante: The Remedy for Envy


Here, Virgil explains to Dante how to remedy the evil of envy:

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"It is because you focus on the prize
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for your sighs.

But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere,
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;

for the more there are there who say 'ours'--not 'mine'--
by that much is each richer and brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine."

In Heaven, as we will discover in continuing our reading, there is no zero-sum game--no, you do better so I do worse. St. Therese expressed it in a metaphor of flowers--some are lilies, some are roses, and some are the little buttercups that grace the feet of the most high, but all are loved equally and all are pleased to be what the Lord has ordained that they be. Our place in Heaven, whatever it is ordained to be, like our crosses, are uniquely made for us--no other person will fit into them. Nor will we be able to fit into that place designed for another. This is the economy of salvation and blessedness. We may not stand with Dominic or Francis, or John of the Cross. We may be rubbing elbows with people who we would disdain here on Earth. But there, we are exactly what God fashioned, corrected of all fault and flaw through the suffering of purgatory and placed exactly where we will do the most good for all.

Envy has no place on heaven; hence, it should have no place on Earth. Our object, in so much as aided by the Holy Spirit we can, is to make this world a true reflection of the kingdom of Heaven.

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