"Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Literature in the News: Flannery O’Connor and the Public Square

I came across this article in First Things on Flannery O’Connor and her relationship with the secular society.  The article starts with the recently commemorative stamp the US Post Office recently put out of O’Connor.  I posted on it a few weeks ago, here.  

The author of the article, Ralph C. Wood, notes there is a fair amount of irony in the stamp because he claims O’Connor refused to “assimilate her fiction to the national consensus” of the “American Project.”  There was a theory in the 1950s which continues to today that religion and the secular polis at large needed to remain separate, though respectful.  Wood claims that O’Connor rejected this theory on the basis it would lead to a society without religion, which would amount to idolatry.  From Wood’s article:

Flannery O’Connor resisted such idolatry. She would not be honored with a commemorative stamp if she had attuned her faith and her fiction to the national consensus. Her achievements would have been significant but not drastically important. Setting her loves in proper order, O’Connor gave her first and final loyalty, not to the United States of America, but to the incarnate and living God, the God under and to whom this nation putatively pledges its allegiance. She became the most important Christian author this nation has yet produced—T. S. Eliot the Christian poet being not an American but a British citizen—by becoming a radically unaccommodating Catholic writer.

For O’Connor, there was something ajar almost from the beginning of the American experiment. She famously complained that, in his 1832 refusal to celebrate communion at First Church Boston, without first removing the bread and wine, Emerson began the vaporization of religion in America. The anti-sacramental becomes the spiritual, the discarnate.

How interesting that this article came out a few weeks before this horrendous Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage for the entire country,  It is without question that the separation of religion from the polis has led to an idolatry of the secular.  But what makes this article particularly interesting is that it explores the rich integration of the sacred with society in O’Connor’s fiction. 

…she sought an alternative to the vaporizing spirituality of her age. She found it chiefly in her own region. She both loved and criticized her native South, praising its transcendent virtues while lamenting its temporal evils. Chief among the Southern virtues that made O’Connor the Roman Catholic thoroughly at home among the folk Christians of the Protestant South was their saturation in Scripture. She shared their conviction that the biblical Story of the world’s creation and salvation is meant to master us rather than for us to master it. We have engaged Scripture aright, O’Connor declared, when, “like Jacob, we are marked.”

O’Connor admired the backwoods believers of the American South because they were thus “mastered,” thus “marked.” She was drawn to their self-blinding street prophets and baptizing river preachers. Despite their awful failings, they spoke the language and declared the message of Scripture. These economically poor and educationally uncouth believers possessed no cultural standing or political power; indeed, polite society had passed them by on the other side. Yet she makes them the focus of her fiction, not in scorn but sympathy. Their fierce and sweated Faith enabled them to feel “the hand of God and its descent,” she confessed. “We have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

In O’Connor’s world view Wood finds a Christian response to what will certainly be the coming religious ostracism.

When God dies, as O’Connor learned from Nietzsche, “the last man” arrives. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” They blink because they no longer question or probe, because they refuse to take courageous risks or venture untrodden paths. The last men are shrunken creatures who make everything small, who live longest because they hop like fleas from one warm host to another, who no longer shoot the arrow of their longing beyond man, who want the same things as everyone else because everyone is the same. Unable even to despise themselves, they blink because they are satisfied with happiness as small-minded as themselves.

Wood sees O’Connor advocating courage, resistance, and fight instead of what some have called the Benedict option, a Christian retreat to a self-regulating society removed from the secular world.  (The Benedict option was first proposed by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative.)  Now to be fair to Mr. Dreher, I don’t think he means that the Benedict Option requires religious to be flee-like, but nonetheless it does suggest a lack of courage to stand for your beliefs.

Finally this is a must read article if you wish to have an insight into O’Connor’s work.  For instance,

O’Connor’s work answers these seemingly legitimate protests. Her characters learn to “see” by discerning the invisible realities that are both the cause and the cure of the world’s misery. They discover that, as O’Connor herself declared, evil is not a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be endured. Our great temptation, in an age of “antireligious religion,” is to believe that, because we can repair much of human pain by human measures, we can also mend the human soul. Thus do we also blink. We benignly yield to feelings that, at whatever cost, must not be “hurt.” We cancel our very humanity in conforming ourselves to a happiness that denies both our moral perversions and bodily limitations.

Flannery O’Connor’s characters do not blink. Like many biblical figures, her central characters are not good country people or just plain folks. They believe and they behave strangely. They often find what they are not looking for. They are put on the path toward something infinitely more important than social acceptance and cultural conformity. They are being burned clean and made whole—not by a soft-centered tenderness but by the purifying fire of divine mercy.


I found Wood’s article to be fascinating and rich on many levels, especially when you consider we are in our annual Fortnight for Freedom prayer.  If you’re interested in O’Connor’s work or just in religious liberty, you should read it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Word of the Day: Eucatastrophe

In the June 2015 edition of the Magnificat Magazine, a devotional monthly, the editorial from Editor-in-Chief Father Peter Cameron, O.P. starts with a J. R. R. Tolkien  coined word, “eucatastrophe.” From the editorial:  

What is “eucatastrophe”?

In one of his letters, Tolkien writes:

I coined the word “eucatastrophe”: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears….It produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.  It perceives…that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which nature is made.

That is quite fascinating, both as a theological argument (which I’m not going to get into here) but as an element of story craft.  Happenstance, a chance event that turns a plot, may if the author integrates it correctly be an integral part of worldview and not just a convenient way of turning a plot.  The happenstance carries meaning, Tolkien calling that eucatastrophe.  Fr. Cameron goes on to explain:

Just as the hero of a mythical tale is on the verge of a disastrous dead ends, with his demise looming before him, terrible and inevitable, the eucatastrophe happens:

The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”….this joy is a sudden and miraculous grace….It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy.  Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Tolkien considered the Incarnation as the eucatastrophe of human history, and the resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.

And then Fr. Cameron goes on to develop the theology. 

One can see how Tolkien employed this in his fiction.  But let’s explore the etymology of the coinage since Tolkien was a philologist by training.  The word can be broken down to eu, which comes from the Greek (through Latin) word for well or good, and catastrophe.  From the Online Etymology Dictionary:  

catastrophe (n.) 1530s, "reversal of what is expected" (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe "an overturning; a sudden end," from katastrephein "to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end," from kata "down" (see cata-) + strephein "turn" (see strophe). Extension to "sudden disaster" is first recorded 1748.


So there you have it, eucatastrophe, a good fatal turning point.  That is a great word to know and keep in mind as one reads stories.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Faith Filled Friday: Denzel Washington and the Bible

I’m always surprised when some celebrity reveals he’s a faithful Christian.  I don’t know why I should be.  They are human beings like the rest of us.  In this from CNS  Denzel Washington explains why he reads the Bible.  

In an interview about an audio Bible that Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta Pearson Washington, had worked on several years ago, CBS reporter Tracy Smith asked, "Why do you two think the Bible is the best seller year after year after year that it is?"
Denzel Washington said, "I think that because inside of every one of us, we have something tugging at us, telling us to believe in something, to have faith in something bigger than ourselves. I think that that -- that we're born with that. I think that's natural, that's the God in us."
"And some people get misguided as to what it is," he said,  "and they start believing in, you know, playing [Tarot] cards or whatever it is they're going to believe in."
"But that thing is gnawing at each and every one of us," said Washington. "We all have that. So we all search, hopefully, and this [the Bible] is a part of that."
"This is actually the answer people are looking for, they just don't know it," he said.  "Listen to it [audio Bible]. Give it a shot, is what I'm saying. Okay?"

The article goes on to say Washington and his wife are Pentecostal Christians.  Interesting.  I wouldn’t have guessed.

Two years ago I mentioned Mark Whalberg is a practicing Catholic, but I came across another article where he is very devout.  From an interview in Parade

How do you spend Sundays?
If the kids are good, I’ll have doughnuts for them at 6:30 in the morning, and I’ll say, “You guys gotta let Mommy sleep in!” I’ll go to church at 7:30 and everybody will be eating breakfast when I come home. Then we’ll go to church again at 10:30, if things aren’t too hectic. Or if one of the kids has a game we’ll watch them play. It’s a nice family day.

Faith is obviously a big part of your life.
It’s the most important part of my life. I don’t try to push it on anybody and I don’t try to hide it.


Twice on Sunday.  I wondered why at first and then realized.  Going to church with four kids makes it difficult to absorb the holiness.  I have one kid with me and there are too many distractions.  Completely understand.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Word of the Day: Progymnasmata

I just came across this word.  You won’t find it in a dictionary.  I’m not even sure on how to pronounce it. 

pro - gym - nas - ma - ta

It’s a Greek etymology and comes from the ancient world.  From Richard Nordquist at the About.Com’s Grammar and Composition site comes this definition: 

The progymnasmata are a series of exercises that introduce students to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies. Instructors looking for effective approaches to teaching composition or speech might find some fresh ideas in these assignments, even though they were developed over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome.

I had never heard of this, and so I looked it up in various dictionaries.  Nothing to be found, but have no fear Wikipedia had an entry on it.  (The people who put down Wikipedia are all wrong; it’s a great site, and unless you’re dealing with a very controversial issue it’s very accurate, even more so than standard encyclopedias.)  Here’s the history

Composition was not a primary subject taught in schools until the fifth century. In fact, the term “progymnasmata” first appeared in Chapter 28 of Rhetoric to Alexander, most likely written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus in the late fourth century. This work is preserved alongside those of Aristotle, yet he never mentions the use of preliminary exercises. But Aristotle does touch on the rhetorical forms, which became an aspect within the nature of progymnasmata. The use of preliminary rhetorical exercises is discussed briefly in some Greek and Roman dialogues, but all handbooks from that time remain lost today. There are only four known surviving handbooks of progymnasmata. The earliest one is that of Theon, written some time during the first century A.D. In his introduction, Theon addresses teachers rather than students and criticizes students who skip out on these preliminary exercises. The second handbook is attributed to one of the most influential rhetoricians of the second century, Hemogenes of Tarsus. But there is no preface to his work and the exercises are brief; therefore, many doubt its authenticity.[2] But the third handbook is attributed to Apthonius of Antioch, student of the great sophist Libanius during the second half of the fourth century. This is the most widely used and referenced handbook that became the standard on the practice of progymnasmata. His treatises were combined with rhetorical treatises of Hermogenes on stasis theory and style to create the “Hermogenic Corpus.” The final handbook is attributed to Nicolaus of Myra, who taught rhetoric in Constantinople during the late fifth century.

Now I find this fascinating.  I may be in a minority on this, but I believe the ancient and medieval world had better approaches to writing and rhetoric than we do in the modern world.  Progymnasmata is a process on which a student goes through a series of exercises to develop his writing and oratory skills.  Both Nordquist’s post (you can sign up for email delivery of Grammar and Composition links, and they are excellent) and Wikipedia’s entry describe the list of exercises.  Here is the list preserved from Aphthonius of Antioch book, per Nordquist.

1. Fable, or retelling of a folk tale.
2. Narrative, either fiction or nonfiction.
3. Chreia or anecdote, a story based on amplification of a famous statement or action.
4. Proverb, which asked students to amplify by arguing for or against some maxim or adage.
5. Refutation, which disproved the persuasive point of a narrative.
6. Confirmation, which proved the persuasive point of a narrative.
7. Commonplace, which amplified on the moral qualities of some virtue or vice, often as exemplified in some common phrase of advice.
8. Encomium or praise, which expanded on the virtues of some person or thing.
9. Invective, which censured some evil person or thing.
10. Comparison, which compared two people or things and explored their comparative merits and shortcomings.
11. Personification, the characterization of some fictional person by the use of appropriate language.
12. Description, which created intense and graphic depictions of a subject.
13. Argument, which created and supported a thesis or some general question, such as, "Is town life superior to country life?"
14. Legislation [or deliberation], in which the student argued for or against the goodness of a law.


I feel deprived not having had these exercises in school.  What the heck do they teach in High School to develop writers?  I don’t remember a single exercise, except once where we had to write a makeup news article.  I wrote a baseball article of a fictionalized game, and the teacher thought I had copied it out of a newspaper.  He accused me of plagiarizing.  Ultimately he retracted and gave me a good grade.  I have nothing but bad memories of pre-college writing.  We need to go back to classical writing!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Faith Filled Friday: Why I Remain a Catholic

There has been a meme around the Catholic blogosphere lately on stating why one remains a Roman Catholic.  It comes in response to what I think is an exaggerated Pew Poll showing a declining Christianity in the United States, an especially a shift of Catholics away from their cradle or chosen faith.  I’m not going to get into why I think the results of the poll has been exaggerated (too controversial for this blog and no one wants to filter through a statistical analysis), but I do want to contribute to the meme and state why I remain a Catholic.

First, if you want, the Anchoress on two posts from her blog states her reasons, and more importantly, provides links to a slew of Catholic blogs who take on the meme.  You can find those posts here and here.  It makes for great reading. 

Second, as some have pointed out, G. K. Chesterton—one of the most important converts to Roman Catholicism—actually took this meme up in an essay back in 1926.  You can read that essay from the American Chesterton Society (ACS) site here.   But it is worthy to quote that well known first sentence:

The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, “It is the only thing that…” As, for instance, (1) It is the only thing that really prevents a sin from being a secret. (2) It is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the sense of supercilious. (3) It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. (4) It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message. (5) It is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man. (6) It is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws; and so on.

I have to say, I’ve grown to love Chesterton since I’ve read a few of his works.  A couple of years ago I read his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, which I posted on my blog hereand after reading Orthodoxy earlier this year, and which I excerpted a passage here.  I hope to do a fuller post on Orthodoxy in the future; it’s truly the great dissent to the modern age and I need to explain that.  But though coming late in life to the man, I can now see why he’s regarded so highly by so many.

So why do I remain a Catholic?  As Chesterton says, there are ten thousand reasons which add up to the one, truth.  But I’ll elaborate with two short answers.  First through a list of Catholic attributes which you cannot find elsewhere.

1.      The true presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
2.      Real confession that is not a superficial mumbling to one’s self.
3.      The saints as guides and brothers and sisters on our journey.
4.      The mythic as part of our everyday life.
5.      The use of reason to understand the natural world as a scientific phenomenon without stripping it of faith.
6.      The Blessed Virgin as a go to advocate as the mother of Christ and the Queen of Heaven.
7.      It has a deep history having integrated the Classical world with the Judaic world, while developing the Christian world.  The superficial platitude that the Church caused the Dark Ages is all wrong; the Church saved civilization.
8.      The sheer beauty of it: the literature, the philosophy, the art, the music, the liturgy, all summing up to reflect the beauty of God.
9.      It is Apostolic and started by Christ handing the keys of His church to Peter.
10.  It doesn’t change with the times; there is a guiding Magisterium.  

The way I like it said is that Catholicism is the fullness of Christianity.  Only the Eastern Orthodox churches would have similar attributes, but then they wouldn’t have been started by Peter.


The second answer will be a paraphrase of a quote by St. Catherine of Siena my patroness: my Catholic faith is in me as a fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish. Of course it's true. I breath and swim in the truth that is Catholicism, and that truth is infused in me. You can't leave that.



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lines I Wished I’d Written: Jean Valjean Meets Cosette, from Les Misérables

I finished reading Volume Two ("Cosette") of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and I wanted to highlight a passage to show the brilliance of this work.  There are many to choose from.  I was especially struck by the scenes with Cosette at the Thenardier’s home.  Cosette was placed in their care by Fantine, her unwed mother, so Fantine could eke out a living.  Fantine died before Valjean could bring Cosette back (see my previous excerpt), and so he vowed to raise the girl himself.  Unfortunately he was imprisoned before he could get her, but he has now escaped and the authorities presume he’s dead.  The Thenardier’s are the scum of society, and treat Cosette, though she’s just eight year’s old, as a slave.  This is the scene where Jean Valjean meets her for the first time.  Actually he doesn’t even know it is Cosette, but surmises it as the scene develops through the conversation.  It is the wee hours of the morning, and Cosette has been awakened to fetch water for the horses.  She has to walk a quarter of an hour to reach the spring and then she has to carry back in a heavy bucket.  From lack of nutrition she is an underdeveloped eight year old, and even if she were totally healthy the weight of the bucket is extraordinary for a small child.  Vajean had no idea the Thenardier’s were abusing the child in this way.  He meets the little girl while on his way to the Thenardier’s.  He walks up to help this little girl in the dark.


Cosette, as we have said, was not frightened.

The man accosted her. He spoke in a voice that was grave and almost bass.

"My child, what you are carrying is very heavy for you."

Cosette raised her head and replied:--

"Yes, sir."

"Give it to me," said the man; "I will carry it for you."

Cosette let go of the bucket-handle. The man walked along beside her.

"It really is very heavy," he muttered between his teeth. Then he added:--

"How old are you, little one?"

"Eight, sir."

"And have you come from far like this?"

"From the spring in the forest."

"Are you going far?"

"A good quarter of an hour's walk from here."

The man said nothing for a moment; then he remarked abruptly:--

"So you have no mother."

"I don't know," answered the child.

Before the man had time to speak again, she added:--

"I don't think so. Other people have mothers. I have none."

And after a silence she went on:--

"I think that I never had any."

The man halted; he set the bucket on the ground, bent down and placed both hands on the child's shoulders, making an effort to look at her and to see her face in the dark.

Cosette's thin and sickly face was vaguely outlined by the livid light in the sky.

"What is your name?" said the man.

"Cosette."

The man seemed to have received an electric shock. He looked at her once more; then he removed his hands from Cosette's shoulders, seized the bucket, and set out again.

After a moment he inquired:--

"Where do you live, little one?"

"At Montfermeil, if you know where that is."

"That is where we are going?"

"Yes, sir."

He paused; then began again:--

"Who sent you at such an hour to get water in the forest?"

"It was Madame Thenardier."

The man resumed, in a voice which he strove to render indifferent, but in which there was, nevertheless, a singular tremor:--

"What does your Madame Thenardier do?"

"She is my mistress," said the child. "She keeps the inn."

"The inn?" said the man. "Well, I am going to lodge there to-night. Show me the way."

"We are on the way there," said the child.

The man walked tolerably fast. Cosette followed him without difficulty. She no longer felt any fatigue. From time to time she raised her eyes towards the man, with a sort of tranquillity and an indescribable confidence. She had never been taught to turn to Providence and to pray; nevertheless, she felt within her something which resembled hope and joy, and which mounted towards heaven.

Several minutes elapsed. The man resumed:--

"Is there no servant in Madame Thenardier's house?"

"No, sir."

"Are you alone there?"

"Yes, sir."
 
Another pause ensued. Cosette lifted up her voice:--

"That is to say, there are two little girls."

"What little girls?"

"Ponine and Zelma."

This was the way the child simplified the romantic names so dear to the female Thenardier.

"Who are Ponine and Zelma?"

"They are Madame Thenardier's young ladies; her daughters, as you would say."

"And what do those girls do?"

"Oh!" said the child, "they have beautiful dolls; things with gold in them, all full of affairs. They play; they amuse themselves."

"All day long?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you?"

"I? I work."

"All day long?"

The child raised her great eyes, in which hung a tear, which was not visible because of the darkness, and replied gently:--

"Yes, sir."

After an interval of silence she went on:--

"Sometimes, when I have finished my work and they let me, I amuse myself, too."

"How do you amuse yourself?"

"In the best way I can. They let me alone; but I have not many playthings. Ponine and Zelma will not let me play with their dolls. I have only a little lead sword, no longer than that."

The child held up her tiny finger.

"And it will not cut?"

"Yes, sir," said the child; "it cuts salad and the heads of flies."

They reached the village. Cosette guided the stranger through the streets. They passed the bakeshop, but Cosette did not think of the bread which she had been ordered to fetch. The man had ceased to ply her with questions, and now preserved a gloomy silence.

When they had left the church behind them, the man, on perceiving all the open-air booths, asked Cosette:--

"So there is a fair going on here?"

"No, sir; it is Christmas."

As they approached the tavern, Cosette timidly touched his arm:--

"Monsieur?"

"What, my child?"

"We are quite near the house."

"Well?"

"Will you let me take my bucket now?"

"Why?"

"If Madame sees that some one has carried it for me, she will beat me."

The man handed her the bucket. An instant later they were at the tavern door.


Excerpt taken from The Literature Network


Monday, June 15, 2015

Matthew Monday: Strange Bedfellows

Our adorable little kitten, Tiger, has taken to our home.  He loves exploring it all; that is, all he's allowed to explore.  He is, however, afraid of Matthew.  Matthew handles him a little too roughly and doesn’t exactly hold him in a secure and comfortable manner.  So Tiger runs from Matthew when he approaches.  At one point Matthew broke into tears crying that Tiger doesn’t love him. 

Well, Tiger proved him wrong.  First, the two of them share the same bedroom.  We keep Tiger in Matthew’s room, though he gets free roam of a good portion of the upstairs.  One night, past midnight, I went to check in on Matthew as I usually have done, and now have a quick play with the kitten.  To my surprise I found Tiger cuddled into Matthew.  And not just that one night.  Here are pictures from several nights.  These pictures are taken in the complete dark, and the light comes only from the flash.

These first are from  a sleeping bag type of thing that Matthew sometimes sleeps on the floor with.







Those are from the same night.  Here’s from another.




I thought when Matthew got back to sleeping on the bed, Tiger wouldn’t be able to get up there.  The bed height is still higher than his extended height on his rear legs.  But somehow he’s able to get up there and snuggle up.