"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Matthew Monday: Little League 2021 Opener

It’s a new year for Matthew’s little league baseball, and this year he is on the CCB Bombers, the team that won the championship last year.  I don’t know how he got on this team but he is fortunate.  Coach Charlie is excellent and he has already gotten the team playing cohesive and well.  They had their first game Saturday and it was against Matthew’s team from last year.  They won 12-2.  Matthew got his dream to be the starting pitcher.  He went two innings, struck out five, walked two (one in each separate inning), and did not give up a hit.  Here are a few pictures.

Matthew on the mound.

 


As good a picture as Matthew is, he’s really not a good hitter.  I think he’s afraid of the ball.  I’m not sure how many times he got up to bat.  I think five or six.  Walked four times and struck out once or twice.  He never made contact with the ball.  Here he is looking good at home.

 


Here on second base looking lost.

 


And on third base with a sloppy uniform. 

 


He did score there.  It was a lot of fun, both for Matthew and his parents.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Lines I Wish I'd Written: Waiting on the Tarmac from John Gardner’s Nimram

This is from a short story by John Gardner, titled “Nimram,” from his short story collection, The Art of Living: & Other Stories.  John Gardner is best known for his novel Grendel, the retelling of the Beowulf story from the perspective of the monster.  That is a superb novel, but I my favorite memories of reading John Gardner are from reading his books on fiction writing.  His book titled On Moral Fiction is his most well-known of his fiction writing, non-fiction books because it insisted that fiction could only operate with a moral center or it would fail as fiction, a highly controversial idea to modern writers.  But my favorite of his books on writing is The Art of Fiction, where he outlines not just the basics of fiction but the aesthetics of what constitutes fiction.  I still have it on my book shelf after thirty years!

“Nimram” is a short story of a middle aged man named Benjamin Nimram, a concert conductor, who sits next to a sixteen year old terminally ill girl.  I may do a short story analysis of “Nimram” but for now I want to highlight a lovely quote from the story.  Nimram is waiting in the plane for it to take off while the ground crew are working outside in the rain. 

 

The rain fell steadily, figures and dark square tractors hurrying toward the belly of the plane and then away again, occasionally glowing under blooms of silent lightning, in the aisle behind him passengers still moving with the infinite patience of Tolstoy peasants toward their second-class seats. With a part of his mind he watched their reflections in the window and wondered idly how many of them, if any, had seen him conduct, seen anyone conduct, cared at all for the shimmering ghost he had staked his life on. None of them, so far as he could tell, had even noticed the Muzak leaking cheerfully, mindlessly, from the plane’s invisible speakers. It would be turned off when the plane was safely airborne, for which he was grateful, needless to say. Yet it was touching, in a way, that the airline should offer this feeble little gesture of reassurance—All will be well! Listen to the Muzak! All will be well! They scarcely heard it, these children of accident, old and young, setting out across the country in the middle of the night; yet perhaps it was true that they were comforted, lulled.

Such a beautifully drawn image of the crew with their tractor like equipment pulling back and forth from the belly of the plane, and coupled with the non-first class passenger—“Tolstoy peasants”—moving to the back of the plane as he sits in first class.  The contrast of he being a conductor of great music while having to listen to Muzak is delicious.  And the expression of reassurance—“ All will be well! Listen to the Muzak! All will be well!”—will accentuate and counterpoint the story’s theme concerning the terminally ill girl.  It’s a wonderful passage.





Sunday, April 4, 2021

Sunday Meditation: The Empty Tomb

 

I love the opening line of Resurrection Sunday from the Gospel of John.

 

“On the first day of the week,
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,
while it was still dark, 
and saw the stone removed from the tomb.”

       -John 20:1

 

So simple and so powerful.




Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Photo Essay: My Mother’s Garden through 2020

Now that spring is here and many are working on our gardens, I wanted to share the pictures I took of my mother’s garden over the course of last year.  A good garden should try to create interest across the seasons.  As one plant recedes another blooms.  I was reviewing the snaps I took over last year and I took a fair amount of my mother’s garden.  I didn’t capture it all, but I did capture most across three seasons.  I missed winter. 

In the front of the house my mother has a Madonna statue where a number of flowering plants blossom throughout the season.  The most stunning is this Hibiscus planted to the left (in the picture) which blooms for a couple of weeks in May.



But if you step back you will see a gorgeous Lincoln rose growing behind. 



You’ll notice to the right (in the picture) and just behind is a black-eyed Susan and a day lily which have not bloom yet.  Here a close up of the rose.



Let’s move on to the summer time.  Here’s a picture of that same front, now with some zinnias (I think) in front of the Madonna.  You can start seeing the yellow day lilies in the back. 

On the side of the house she has an assortment of lilies.



Here is the entire side. 



Opposite the assorted lilies is a climbing pink rose.  But let me take you closer to the climbing rose.





When that climbing rose bursts out, it’s stunning.  Looking toward the back of the yard, you will see the grape arbor as a canopy.  Here is a picture of the grapes hanging down.



Unfortunately the last few years we’ve got some sort of grape disease that kills over three quarters of the grapes.  They grow beautifully but by August they blacken and shrivel up. 

The backyard opens up after the arbor. 



To the left is a fig tree and the tree toward the back on the right is a dwarf pear tree.  The pear tree is old and has now for a couple of years stopped producing.  You can see the various potted plants my mother still tends.  In her younger years this would be full of vegetables.  There she is.  She’s a lot thinner this year now.  She’s lost, not by choice, a lot of weight this year from last with her gastro problems.  But she’s been out there this spring already.



She had a magnificent potted petunia last year.  Back to the front of the house you can see the black-eyed Susan and day lilies in bloom.


 


Some more interest on the side of the house in the summer with tall flowers, potted plants, and more roses.


 



Let me finally show some fall photos, here from the backyard.  Here you see yellow chrysanthemums in bloom in front of the St. Francis statue.  The tree framing from above is a persimmons tree, with the most delicious persimmons I have ever tasted.  They were just about ready to get picked at the time of this picture.  The persimmons tree is just over from the grape arbor.

 


The weight of the ripened persimmons lowers the branches significantly.  Normally the branches are pointing upward.  Some more pictures from the fall. 


There was more.  I didn’t capture pictures of everything.  I missed the dwarf lilac in bloom, a hydrangea, begonias, and annuals.  I just didn’t take pictures of those last year. But not everything in 2020 was bad!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Meditation: Palm Branches to Meet Him

Today is Palm Sunday.

 

“When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard

that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,

they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:

    “Hosanna!

    “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,

        the king of Israel.””

 

       -John 12:12-13

 

Praise Him!




Thursday, March 25, 2021

Literature in the News: Pope Frances Releases, Candor Lucis Aeternae

Today Pope Francis released an apostolic letter, Candor Lucis Aeternae, celebrating the great poet Dante Aligheri and his work The Divine Comedy. This year, 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of Dante's death, and so be prepared for a number of events marking it. I haven't read the apostolic letter yet but I have seen several articles about it. Oddly, two articles come from the same writer (Inés San Martín) from the same magazine (Crux) released on the same day, today. That’s certainly unusual. One article focuses on the apostolic letter, “Pope Francis calls Dante a ‘prophet of hope.’”  

 

Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Pope Francis on Thursday released a document reflecting on the life and work of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, calling him a prophet of hope in a historic moment where inhumanity and lack of prospect loom large.

 

“At this particular moment in history, overclouded by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future, the figure of Dante, prophet of hope and witness to the human desire for happiness, can still provide us with words and examples that encourage us on our journey,” Francis wrote in the closing lines of Candor Lucis Aeternae (“Splendor of Light Eternal”).

 

Dante, Francis writes, has an important message to convey, one that is meant to touch the hearts and minds of all, and still in present time has the ability to inspire change and transformation. The message his tale tells should help appreciate “who we are and the meaning of our daily struggles to achieve happiness, fulfilment and our ultimate end, our true homeland, where we will be in full communion with God, infinite and eternal.”



The other article by Ms. San Martin, “700 years after his death, Dante still inspires popes,” focuses on Dante's relationships with various Popes.  Here is an excerpt:


Though often labeled as a “pope of firsts,” Francis’s Candor Lucis Aeternae is not the first reflection by a pontiff on the poet: Benedict XV published the encyclical titled In Praeclara Sumorum (“Among the many celebrated geniuses”) in 1921, which was dedicated to Dante’s memory and written for the occasion of the sixth centenary of his death. Pope St. Paul VI also wrote apostolic letter in 1965, Altissimi Cantus, to mark the seventh centenary of his birth.

 

“Someone might perhaps ask why the Catholic Church, by the will and work of its visible Head, takes it to heart to celebrate the memory of the Florentine poet and to honor him,” Paul VI wrote. “The answer is easy and immediate: Dante Alighieri is ours by a special right: Ours, that is, of the Catholic religion, because everything breathes love for Christ; ours, because he loved the Church very much, of which he sang honors; ours, because he recognized and venerated the Vicar of Christ on earth in the Roman Pontiff.”

 

In 2015, ahead of the inauguration of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Francis said that Dante “is a prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity.”

 

Both of Francis’s most recent predecessors also praised the poet.

 

At a reading of The Divine Comedy in 1997, Pope St. John Paul II noted that “almost seven centuries later, Dante’s art evokes lofty emotions and the greatest convictions, and still proves capable of instilling courage and hope, guiding contemporary man’s difficult existential quest for the Truth which knows no setting.”

 

Benedict XVI also voiced great admiration for the poet, and when he was still a priest and wrote his famous book Introduction to Christianity in 1968, he uses The Divine Comedy to explain the “scandal of Christianity.” 




Now if you want the actual apostolic letter, you can read it here: 

I haven't read it yet, but I hope to. I will certainly post on it when I do. 

Those who read my posts of The Divine Comedy several years ago you know my love for Dante and his work. A few weeks ago I compiled all the links to my blog posts on Dante into one post for easy access.  Now I am adding a link on my header above to that post on my Dante links.  I hope people find the link and ultimately my commentary on Dante useful.


Photo Credit: Marco Bucco/Reuters via CNS, A bust of Italian poet Dante Alighieri is seen next to an etching of him at the University of Bologna in Ravenna, Italy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, Post 2

This is my second post on Rumer Godden’s InThis House of Brede.  You can read my first here.  

The first post provided a chapter by chapter summary of the novel.  This second is more of a literary analysis of the novel, albeit a cursory one.

I have to say that the novel is a hodgepodge of elements held together by the central character, Philippa, the stability of the monastery, and the central theme of what I’ll call the theme of “becoming.”  I’ll flesh out that central theme in time, but let’s look at the plot first. 


The plot divides into two core narrative movements, bifurcating the novel, and as far as I can see unrelated to each other.  The first half of the novel revolves around the financial crises Abbess Hester has put the monastery in.  Her paralysis and death, the discovery of the debt caused by Sister Julian’s departure, the stone altar that needs to be paid, the decision to sacrifice to pay for it, the building of the altar, and the miraculous windfalls that covers the debt all take up the first ten chapters.  The second half of the book, chapters eleven through twenty, mostly revolves on the Japanese postulants who enter Brede, their entrance, their benefactor, their development as nuns, and the establishment of a new monastery in Japan.  I fail to see the relationship between the first main narrative and the second.  From an aesthetic point of view, it’s rather disjointed. 

Not only are the two narrative movements disjointed, but each come with some flaws.  In the first movement, the one concerning Abbess Hester and the financial crises, the narrative is fairly interesting and steadily developed.  The sin of Abbess Hester causes her death, creates instability to what should be above all else stability to the monastery, and puts the monastery into a crises.  The narrative of the building of the stone altar nicely accentuates the theme of “becoming,” providing a dramatic symbol at the heart of the novel, though perhaps a little heavy-handed.  The nuns are willing to go to severe ascetic measures in order to save money to pay the debt.  And they do initially.  But then a precious stone falls out of a broken crucifix and Philippa supplies a large dowry she was hiding, and the whole thing wraps up rather artificially. 

The thing that is puzzling is that Godden didn’t really need to do that.  If she had continued on the path of resolving the debt through asceticism, perhaps turned the screw a little tighter on the struggle, had the monastery do some extra work such as publishing, raising agricultural products, or dressmaking—all of which they already do, but now could be expanded—the resolution of the debt would have been both natural and aesthetically pleasing.  Godden could have even integrated the Japanese part of the plot as helping pay for the debt.  For example the extra dowries the Japanese brought and the wealth from Japan could have been brought to bear on the first part of the plot.  Why she chose the convenient, happenstance resolution escapes me, though perhaps there may be a reason I’m not seeing. 

The second narrative movement, the development of the Japanese postulants, is also unsatisfactory.  The postulants, though individualized characters, remain stereotypes.  Why have they been drawn to Christianity?  What tensions back home did they face?  What specifically about Christianity has captured their heart to leave a familiar life back home, move to another country far away, and then subject themselves to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience?  Godden drops little plums of suggestions, but nothing developed in a substantive way.  We do get the expected cultural distinctions, subsequent assimilations, and the overcoming of communication differences.  But from the initial hurdles we see the postulants being clothed, first profession, final profession, and off to Japan to start a new monastery all in cursory fashion.  It’s rather superficial.

So why read this novel?  Is it a bad read?  I still gave it four stars.  I think it’s a flawed work, but it still has positive attributes that overcome the flaws.  What I listed above are the two main plot lines but there are a variety and abundance of subplots that create a uniform work, despite the two disjointed main plots.  There is the Dame Veronica plot line that takes her as an accomplice to Abbess Hester, steals monastery money for her wayward brother, accidently poisons herself, nearly dies, but lives and provides restitution.  There is the Sister Julian theme of abandoning the monastery for a modern spirituality.  There is the Abbess Catherine plot line as she doesn’t want to become Abbess, is elected nonetheless, and slowly grows to her job.  There is the Dame Agnes plot line as a rigid and exacting nun but who maintains the monastery traditions.  There is the Penny and Donald plot line with its secular world issues and saved by Philippa’s monastic wisdom.  There is the Dame Maura plot line of playing and teaching music, her attraction to Cecily, her being sent away, and then years later returning.  There is the Sister Cecily plot line of coming in as a young novice, being pressured to return to secular life, her internal struggles with remaining a nun, her beautiful musical gifts, and finally overcoming and being professed.  And of course there is the Philippa plot line, taking us through her leaving the secular world, her internal psychological struggles with her past, her formation as a nun, her assistance with the Japanese, and her sacrifice in going to Japan.

Some have said that the monastery itself is the central theme.  I don’t know if I would phrase it quite that way.  I think the stability of the monastery set against the evolving and mutable secular world is one of the themes.  But is it the monastery that is the theme or perhaps the Benedictine Order?  Perhaps it isn’t even the order but this chapter in the order who maintain the stability and traditions.  It is hard to separate the monastery from the Order from the chapter.  They are interconnected.  The interwoven web of subplots from the lives of the individual nuns forms the theme.  The subplot of Philippa’s experience and development is the spine that runs through the novel and which is at the core of the central theme.



So what is this central theme?  It’s actually given to us by Godden through a quote from the medieval past articulated by the character who encapsulates the sole source of wisdom from the secular world in the novel, Pilippa’s ex-boss, Daniel McTurk.   The only secular person who understood why Philippa was entering monastic life, McTurk provides Phillipa a quote which then runs through Philippa’s mind as she wonders if she will sustain her vocation.  It’s in Chapter 2, and we get Philippa’s thoughts:


Even if I don’t succeed they honour me for trying, for coming, and words had come into Philippa’s mind: ‘Not what thou art, nor what thou hast been, beholdeth God with His merciful eyes, but what thou wouldst be.’ It was McTurk who had quoted that; McTurk who alone had understood. ‘What thou wouldst be.’ Philippa’s eyes had been suddenly blinded.

“Not what thou art, nor what thou hast been, beholdeth God with His merciful eyes, but what thou wouldst be” is a well-known quote from The Cloud of Unknowing (from chapter 75), an anonymous medieval work of mysticism, who’s central theme is that one needs to surrender one’s will to God in order to understand Him.  It is not important what you have been, nor what you are now.  The only thing that is important is what you will become, and that is the person that God made you to be.  And so we see not just in Phillipa’s progress but in the novel every nun’s process of development to be conforming to the will of God. 

We are told again of this theme later in chapter 2 when Dame Ursula provides guidance to her postulants, cautioning them on over striving to be useful.

 

‘And you needn’t worry about being useful,’ said Dame Ursula. ‘When you have become God’s in the measure He wants, He, Himself, will know how to bestow you on others.’ She was quoting St Basil. Then her face grew wistful, ‘“Unless He prefer, for thy greater advantage, to keep thee all to himself.” That does happen to a few people. Yet, paradoxically, they have the greatest influence.’

“When you have become God’s in the measure He wants, He, Himself, will know how to bestow you on others.” Again another quote from the depths of Christian spirituality that insists that God will shape you if you let Him.

In chapter three, we see Philippa explaining to Cecily why she came to Brede.

 

‘I haven’t even begun to catch up. You don’t understand,’ said Philippa more quietly. ‘All my grown life, it seems to me now I have been – acting in authority … yes, acting,’ said Philippa, ‘because I wasn’t a full person. I was so busy,’ said Philippa, ‘that I had no time for myself. Now, at last, at Brede I have a chance to be no one. That’s what I need because I must begin again; in all those years I hadn’t advanced one jot.’

“I wasn’t a full person.”  The process of the novel is the process of Philippa becoming a full person.  Duranski carving the statue is a metaphor for the nuns “becoming.”  As he works, in chapter eight, the nuns watch.


The statue seemed to emerge almost naturally from the stone though again, statue seemed the wrong word, it was so alive. ‘He’s uncovering it,’ said Dame Gertrude marveling. 

 

After the novitiate had watched him, Sister Constance had said, ‘It’s like us. We come as a rough piece of stone and have to be carved and shaped to have meaning.’

Through Philippa we see the woman God intended her to be emerge and take shape as she takes on different responsibilities and sacrifices her will for God’s will.  But Dame Philippa’s “becoming” is accentuated in the other nuns “becoming.”  Catherine becomes a wise abbess; Dames Veronica, Maura, and Agnes become balanced from their individual irregularities; Sister Cecily and the Japanese postulants become mature nuns.

All these subplots form a wonderful web of interest and overcome the disjointed plot line.  Through the varied subplots Godden creates life at a monastery in a way that one single plot could not accomplish.  It allows the reader to see, that is the primary function of literature, according to Joseph Conrad.  We see the life and complexity at a Benedictine monastery as the characters live their lives before us, spanning some fifteen years, and relating to an outside world that is increasingly secular.  We enter a different world, an unfamiliar world to us, and engage in lives that have fundamentally different objectives and routines and purposes than ours.  For the span of the novel, we live in the rhythm of their lives.

There was a British TV movie based on the novel.  It took great license with the plot but I think it captured the spirit of the novel.  Here is a sort of extended trailer.