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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Matthew Monday: Graduation from Pre-K

On Friday Matthew had his graduation ceremony from Pre-K.  It was really cute; the kids sang songs, said the Pledge of Allegiance, and introduced themselves by spelling out their names.  They actually wore cap and gowns, though the caps were made of paper, boys in blue, girls in red.  It was held outdoors in front of a nearby gazebo.  Here are a few pictures. 

Walking down the pavement, cap and gown.


The graduating body consisted of two or three classes, which amounted to a baker’s dozen or so.  That’s Matthew’s teacher with her back to the camera and Matthew is in the back on the teacher’s right side.


Not sure what he’s thinking here, but definitely pensive.


Back in his classroom.


And next to his “girlfriend” Jane, who pulled Matthew aside and said, “Let’s play together.”  She had already taken off her cap and gown.  Hmm, awfully pretty.


After the picture they started jumping around playing Batman and Batgirl…lol.  Oh well, they won’t be going to the same school in September.  Now it’s off to big kids school, Kindergarten!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: “a rosary,” a Personal Essay by Brian Doyle

I’ve been reading Brian Doyle’s collection of personal essays: the thorny grace of it: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics.  This is the first time I’ve read Brian Doyle and he’s a really fine prose writer.   I just enjoy some of his sentences.  He writes on Catholic faith, life, and culture.  I’ll probably post more in the future, but just enjoy this essay, “a rosary.”  I’ll present the entire essay since it’s short, and it really moved me.  [By the way, Doyle seems to have a thing against capitalizing titles; both the title of the book and the essays are in lower case.]

If you wish to read a review of the book, read Julie Davis’ at Happy Catholic.

a rosary

I’ll tell you s story about one rosary and let it stand for so very many of these lovely silent haunting companions in our pockets and cars and purses and drawers and under pillows and wrapped in the hands of the dead.   

This rosary was made eighty years ago by a boy in the woods of Oregon.  He was a timber cutter working so deep in the woods that there were no roads and the men and boys rode into camp on mules.  He was seventeen years old that summer and very lonely and one evening he began to carve rosary beads from cedar splits otherwise destined for the fire.  He tried to carve a bead a night, sitting by the fire, and with each bead he would try to remember the story of the bead as his mother had told him.  There were the joyful mysteries of good news and visiting cousins and new babies and christenings and finding children whom you feared were utterly lost.  There were the sorrowful mysteries of men weeping in the dark and men beating men and men jeering and taunting men and men torturing men and men murdering men under the aegis of the law.  There were the glorious mysteries of life defeating death and light returning against epic darkness and epiphanies arriving when no doors or windows seemed open to admit them and love defeating death and the victory of that we know to be true against all evidence that it is not. 

When he had cut a bead for each of these stories he was finished, for there were at that time no luminous mysteries on which to ponder and pray. 

He threaded thin copper wire through each of the beads, setting the mysteries apart with larger beads cut from the yew, and he carved a cross from the shinbone of an elk, and he thought about trying to carve a Christ also, but the thought of carving Christ made him uncomfortable, and anyway he did not think he had the skill, and he did not want to ask one of the older men, some of whom were superb carvers, so he left the cross unadorned, as he said, and put the rosary in his pocket, and carried it with him every day the rest of his life. 

The rosary went with him through Italy and North Africa in the war, and into the wheat fields of Oregon, and back into the woods where he again cut timber for a while, and then all through his travels as a journalist on every blessed muddy road from Canada to California, as he said, and through his brief but very happy years in retirement by the sea, where his rosary acquired a patina of salt from the mother of all oceans, as he said. 

He had the rosary in his pocket the day he was on his knees in his garden and leaned forward and placed his face upon the earth and died, almost seventy years after he finished carving the rosary in the deep woods as a boy. 

His wife carried the rosary in her pocket for the next two years until the morning she died in her bed, smiling at the prospect of seeing her husband by evening, as she told her son. 

The son carried the rosary in his pocket for the next three days until the moment when he and I were walking out of the church laughing at one of his father’s thousand salty stories of life in the woods and in the war and in the fields and on the road and by the sea, at which point the son handed it to me, and said Dad wanted you to have it, and hustled away to attend to his wife and children, brothers and nieces and nephews. 

I wept.  Sure I did.  You would weep too.  Sure you would. 

I have the rosary in my pocket now.  I hope to carry it every day the rest of my life, and jingle it absentmindedly, and pray it here and there when I have a moment in the sun, and place it ever so carefully and gently on a shelf every night before I go to bed, touching the elk-bone cross with a smile in memory of my friend George, until the morning of my own death, when I pray for a last few moments of grace in which to hand it to my own son, and then close my eyes and go to see the One for whom it was made, who made us, amen.

Very short, very powerful.  I can show you how the distinct images, the combination of long and short sentences, the repetitions, and the forward movement of the narrative all work together to make this a powerful piece.  But set aside craft here.  That just fills me with faith.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Personal Essay: On Writing on Literature

In my review of Julie Davis’ book Happy Catholic the other week I started the post by saying, “I’m not very good at book reviews.”   

What you say, what exactly is the point of this blog?  Isn’t it to review books?  You’ve been writing for eighteen months on literature and you’re not good at reviewing books?  It’s true, I’m not good at reviewing books.  However, I don’t consider most of what I write here to be book reviews.  Occasionally yes, such as that post on Julie’s book.  Yes, some of my early posts on books were tagged “Reviews” but if you’ve noticed I’ve dropped that tag.  I did that after giving some thought as to what I actually do. 

On reflection, I guess there are at least three types of writing on literature.  Let me go through them. 

(1) You can give a review, which amounts to a subjective reaction to a work.  Most people who write about books in magazines and newspapers are writing book reviews.  Most people who write on the internet about books are also giving you a review.  There are reviews on Amazon and Barnes & Noble web sites, usually submitted by readers.  It is instinctual for people to give reviews.  That is what they read, and that is what they emulate.  The author of the review describes the work, highlights what is distinct about it, tells you what they liked about it, and might provide some sort of rating, similar to how movie critics in the newspapers rate movies.  The review rests on the reaction of the reviewer to the book. 

(2) You can provide analysis, which requires a more objective dissection of the work based on some level of knowledge.  Here the author identifies the structure of the work, how the themes are brought out, the character development and the contrasting characters.  He might bring out the historical context of the work, bring out how the author is relating to his society, contrast it with similar works, or place the work within the author’s other works.  Is there subjectivity?  Well, nothing is perfect, but if a critic is writing analysis he is trying to squeeze out every bit of subjectivity.   Literary analysis amounts to an undergraduate college paper.   

(3) Or finally you can do literary criticism, which is also analysis but set in the context of past criticism.  Literary criticism is what college professors and graduate students do.  When I was a graduate student my papers were literary criticism.  It builds on past criticism and either explores an idea about the work or author that hasn’t been thought before or it expands on some critics previous idea that didn’t go far enough.  Or, perhaps, some new biographical detail of the author’s life has reframed a previous idea, and so past criticism missed a particular theme.  But literary criticism requires a research library and a fair amount of time reading past criticism.  It requires footnoting and giving credit for any idea one picks up from another work of criticism.   

As I was thinking through these types of writing on books, I came across this feature in The New Criterion on literary essayist Joseph Epsteintitled, “On Joseph Epstein: A look at Joseph Epstein’s work, the importance of reading, and the role of the critic.”  Now there’s an essay that coordinates with my blog and especially this post: the importance of reading!  I think the feature essay brings out the differences between the three types of writing on books.  I don’t recall ever reading a Joseph Epstein essay, so I’m somewhat speculating here but let’s explore how the author of the feature, William Giraldi, defines Epstein’s essays.
For more than five decades as a critic and essayist, Joseph Epstein has been one of our most valuable and vociferous antidotes against puerile and invertebrate reviews, a smasher of hype and entrenched pieties among the literati, an arbiter with a bloodstained yardstick, a writer serious about his convictions and his comedy. With Ruskin and Arnold and Wilde, Epstein is a shining example of how essay writing and criticism aspire to equal footing with imaginative literature. The author of twenty-four books—his newest collection, A Literary Education, will be released in June—Epstein illustrates the necessary difference between disposition and argument and never confuses rhetoric with logic, or rationalization with reasoning. By turns cantankerous and comedic, traditional and irreverent, damning and praising, he writes sentences you want to remember. And that, in the last analysis, is the only measure of a writer. 

As I perused Joseph Epstein’s page on Amazon, he’s got an assortment of books: collections of his essays, collections of great essays in literary history in which he edited, biographies of authors, and a collection of his short stories.  He is a writer who has lived a life as a reader.  Giraldi in the paragraph above identifies Epstein as both a critic and an essayist.  As an essayist he associates Epstein’s work with John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde, quite prestigious company.  But when Giraldi says “essay” I think he means the personal essay, which is not what I’m writing about here.  But Giraldi also fleshes out Epstein’s ability as a critic: 

The average reviewer’s idea of literary comment is indistinguishable from a primary school book report: summary flanked by quotation, interspersed with how the book made him feel, as if his feelings have anything at all to do with the artistic success or failure of what he’s read. They do not. Where the novel is concerned, part of the problem is that many publications harness other novelists to do the reviewing. They must go this route for the obvious reason that our culture currently suffers from a dearth of Edmund Wilsons, H. L. Menckens, Elizabeth Hardwicks, and Lionel Trillings. But one can’t get around the fact that most creative writers don’t know the first thing about the critical mind. They can’t tell F. R. Leavis from R. P. Blackmur and they don’t much care to. They preside over literary comment much the way they preside over their MFA writing classes: either with saccharine equanimity, with a kind of artistic egalitarianism that scoffs at canonical standards, or with bromidic workshop lingo such as “I couldn’t sympathize with the narrator,” or “The plot feels unrealistic to me.” I’ve said this before but I hope you’ll agree that it bears repeating: Criticism is personal and passionate, the product of severe erudition, or it is impotent and dull, the product of mere opinion.

Here Giraldi places Epstein among five of the most renown critics of the 20th century, though H. L. Mencken was more of an essayist.  Where Mencken was scholarly was in writing on the nature and evolution of the English language.  When it came to books and writers, he was more of a reviewer.   

But what is Epstein?  Here Giraldi describes his essays on literature that I think is insightful.

The endemic illusion among many reviewers is that talking about imaginative literature is a lot like talking about life. Try not to believe that. To talk about imaginative literature is to talk about art—artifice and architecture, the liturgical and the linguistic—and Epstein writes about books not through the vista of someone who has lived fully, but rather as someone who has read fully. In other words, he doesn’t make the tyro’s error of confusing art for life, even though he understands that art enhances, enriches, enlarges life. His essays are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres. More important, the torque and pitch of his literary assertions can be muscular introductions to those writers you don’t know well and also a whole new sheen on those writers you do. 

Now Giraldi is not on the same wavelength as I am when it comes to the three divisions of writing on literature.  So there is a blur of distinction when he refers to Epstein as a “reviewer.”  But there are a couple of hints in the paragraph that suggest Epstein is more than a reviewer as I defined it.  Epstein doesn’t make the “error of confusing art for life.”  That’s a focus on the aesthetics and the subjective reaction to the work.  Also, Epstein’s essays “are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres.”  That’s an analysis of a work within the context of cultural history.  The essay is an interesting read, if you want to read its entirety.   

So what is it I do with my writing on literature?  Well, I don’t have a research library on hand and there is very little incentive for me to read three books of literary criticism for every work of fiction I wish to write on.  So I don’t do literary criticism.  Actually I have never seen literary criticism on the internet.  Perhaps one day I might post my Master’s Thesis.  It would have to be in five or six installments because of its length. 

I don’t do reviews well because I have been drilled to strive for a pursuit of objectivity, both from my graduate school papers and, perhaps, inherently because I am an engineer by profession.  I’m not claiming that all graduate school papers are objective, and I can assure you not all engineers are objective in their work.  But if you want to be good at both I’ve learned you need to strive for it.   

That is not to say that reviewers of books are in any way lesser.  If anything they might be greater.  Certainly people want an educated person’s opinion of a novel.  People who can project why they enjoyed a work do not produce the “stodgy, old intellectual blogs” such as this.  What I do is hopefully show the literary aesthetics of a work, highlight the creative sections, and link the aesthetics to what makes the work important. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Music Tuesday: Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys

Ran across this great studio video clip.  I assume this was from the actual recording.  On the YouTube clip it states, "The Beach Boys in the studio, recording Good Vibrations. Rare footage.”

One of my favorite all time songs.  Just had to share that.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Literature in the News: Inmates Perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest

I came across this article in an Ohio newspaper called, The Morning Journal, which caught my interest.  It’s about inmates at a correctional facility in Grafton, Ohio, apparently not far from Cleveland, performing Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.   

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” bears themes of justice and forgiveness amid creativity, and the inmates at Grafton Correctional Institution have spent several months creating their own rendition of the play.
 On June 5, the troupe debuted its performance before an audience of peers in preparation for a series of weekend performances for friends and family.
 Directed and adapted by retired Oberlin College professor Phyillis Gorfain, the production took about eight months to prepare. Gorfain, along with five Oberlin College students, worked with the 18 inmates three times a week to develop the play. 

Now the article says nothing as to why they are having inmates perform the play, or any play,, other than it seems to interest them.  I was hoping to read that this was a new method to reduce the recidivism rate or perhaps to readapt the prisoners into society, but it says nothing to its objectives.   

Damien Davis, who played several roles in the production, said the inmate theater group formed from mutual interest in theater and acting.
 “It was all word of mouth, really,” Davis said. “People who are interested in drama, they all coincided with one another. We had all these friends and they actually inspired us to go out and do this.” 

So it was just “mutual interest.”  Hmm, now that’s a rather brainy sort of jailbird.  As it turns out, GraftonCorrectional Institution is a minimal to medium security facility, so we’re not talking murderers and gangsters.   

Now The Tempest is a rather interesting play for inmates to perform.  It involves a shipwrecked magician, a past rape, an enslaved, dehumanized person, a murder attempt, some unsavory characters who are trying to usurp the magician’s leadership, and a love affair between the magician’s daughter and a young man.  I can see the how it would relate to prison life: crime, incarceration, discontent, uprising, innocence.  And the play ends with redemption, pardons, forgiveness, and a marriage unifying the different factions.  In aesthetic terms, it ends with wholeness.   

[Inmate] Peoples said the experience had a therapeutic effect on him. He said he feels people who become accustomed to living a certain way might lose their sense of humanity. Participating in the play made him feel human again, he said.
 “No matter what life is about, being in prison or not, we’re all human,” Davis said. “We all make mistakes, and we all grew from them.” 

And apparently this Grafton is not the only correctional facility to put on Shakespeare plays.  You can also read how Phyillis Gorfain started putting on these performances.  Perhaps they will have as beneficial effect to rehabilitation.  We can hope. 

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most popular play, but I have to say I have always felt it overrated.  Most agree that it is Shakespeare’s last play he wrote without collaboration, and the character of Prospero—the magician—pulling all the factions together into a harmonious conclusion is meant to represent Shakespeare’s farewell.  A playwright after all is a sort of magician.  Here are the play’s closing lines.
 Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
 And what strength I have's mine own,
 Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
 I must be here confined by you,
 Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
 Since I have my dukedom got
 And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
 In this bare island by your spell;
 But release me from my bands
 With the help of your good hands:
 Gentle breath of yours my sails
 Must fill, or else my project fails,
 Which was to please. Now I want
 Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
 And my ending is despair,
 Unless I be relieved by prayer,
 Which pierces so that it assaults
 Mercy itself and frees all faults.
 As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
 Let your indulgence set me free.

The charms are gone, the spell is broken, and he asks for your mercy and applause.  The characters are great, the conflicts engaging, and the setting of the play visually attractive.  The problem with the play for me is that the magic that resolves the conflicts seems rather artificial for me.  And while the conflicts are developed, the resolutions come rather quick, perhaps too quick.  I just got the impression that an old, tired Shakespeare wanted the finish off the work.   

But I have to say, I read the play as an undergraduate, which is ages ago.  Perhaps I’m being unfair.  I’ve been looking for a Shakespeare play to read this year, and while I wanted to read one I’ve never read before—one of my life’s missions is to read all of Shakespeare’s plays—I think The Tempest deserves another reading, this time from a matured man.  Perhaps my reaction to the play some thirty years ago was from a young man’s perspective, and to some degree The Tempest requires a more mature state of mind.  So add this to my list of reads for the summer.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lines I Wish I’d Written: Sylvia Tietjens from Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

I finished the first novel, Some Do Not…, of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, Parade’s End.  What a great work.  It’s high modernism, which usually means it’s complex, much of the action within the subconscious, and unconventional.  It’s as if one combined Henry James, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.  I’ll have a post where I’ll provide some thoughts, but for now I wanted to just share this finely written passage.  The central character of the novel is Christopher Tietjens, and his wife Sylvia is one of the most distinct characters in all of literature: unfaithful, cruel, stunningly beautiful, aristocratic, and utterly self-confident.  Here is a mostly expository description of her character. 

Sylvia Tietjens rose from her end of the lunch-table and swayed along it, carrying her plate.  She still wore her hair in bandeaux and her skirts as long as she possibly could; she didn’t, she said, with her height, intend to be taken for a girl guide.  She hadn’t, in complexion, in figure or in the languor of her gestures, aged by a minute.  You couldn’t discover in the skin of her face any deadness; in her eyes the shade more of fatigue than she intended to express, but she had purposely increased her air of scornful insolence.  That was because she felt that her hold on men increased to the measure of her coldness.  Someone, she knew, had once said of a dangerous woman, that when she entered the room every woman kept her husband on the leash.  It was Sylvia’s pleasure to think that, before she went out of the room, all the women in it realised with mortification—that they needn’t!  For if coolly and distinctly she had said on entering: ‘Nothing doing!’ as barmaids will to the enterprising, she couldn’t more plainly conveyed to the other women that she had no use for their treasured rubbish. 

Once, on the edge of a cliff in Yorkshire, where the moors come above the sea, during one of the tiresome shoots that are there the fashion, a man had bidden her observe the demeanor of the herring gulls below.  They were dashing from rock to rock on the cliff face, screaming, with none of the dignity of gulls.  Some of them even let fall the herrings that they had caught and she saw the pieces of silver dropping into the blue motion.  The man told her to look up; high, circling and continuing for a long time to circle; illuminated by the sunlight below, like a pale flame against the sky was a bird.  The man told her that that was some sort of fish-eagle or hawk.  Its normal habit was to chase the gulls which, in their terror, would drop their booty of herrings, whereupon the eagle would catch the fish before it struck the water.  At the moment the eagle was not on duty, but the gulls were just as terrified as if it had been.   

Sylvia stayed for a long time watching the convolutions of the eagle.  It pleased her to see that, though nothing threatened the gulls, they yet screamed and dropped their herrings…The whole affair reminded her of herself in her relationship to the ordinary women of the barnyard….Not that there was the breath of scandal against herself; that she very well knew, and it was her preoccupation just as turning down nice men—the ‘really nice men’ of commerce—was her hobby. 

She practiced every kind of ‘turning down’ on these creatures: the really nice ones, with the Kitchener moustaches, the seal’s brown eyes, the honest, thrilling voices, the clipped words, the straight backs and the admirable records—as long as you didn’t enquire too closely.  Once, in the early days of the Great Struggle, a young man—she had smiled at him in mistake for someone more trustable—had followed in a taxi, hard on the motor and flushed with wine, glory and the firm conviction that all women in that lurid carnival had become common property, had burst into her door from the public stairs…She had overtopped by the forehead and before a few minutes were up she seemed to him to have become ten foot high with a gift of words that scorched his backbone and the voice of a frozen marble statue: a chaud-froid effect.  He had come in like a stallion, red-eyed, and all his legs off the ground: he went down the stairs like a half-drowned rat, with dim eyes and really looking wet, for some reason or other. 

Yet she hadn’t really told him more than the way one should behave to the wives of one’s brother officers then actually in the line, a point of view that, with her intimates, she daily agreed was pure bosh.  But it must have seemed to him like the voice of his mother—when his mother had been much younger, of course—speaking from paradise, and his conscience had contrived the rest of his general wetness.  This, however, had been melodrama and war stuff at that: it hadn’t, therefore, interested her.  She preferred to inflict deeper and more quiet pains.

What a way to connect her with a hawk.  That is her subconscious identity brought to the fore.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Matthew Monday: Father’s Day 2014

Father’s Day for us since our first is to go on some sort of “adventure.”  So far that has meant getting on the Staten Island Ferry and heading off into Manhattan.  Two years ago it was a bus and ferry ride over and hanging around Battery Park; last year it was a ferry ride over to the new World Trade Center, the once dubbed "FreedomTower" that was in progress of being built.  No we didn’t sneak in and up like some kid did a few months ago.  This year we took the ferry over and headed uptown on the subway to Central Park and hiked around.  It was a beautiful day.  Actually all three years and even the one going back to Kazakhstan have all been beautiful days here on Father’s Day. 

Well, the day started interesting.  The little whippersnapper got me out of bed by singing:

Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.
And on his farm he had a daddy, E-I-E-I-O. 

With a snore, snore here,
 And a snore, snore there,
 Here a snore, there a snore,
 Everywhere a snore, snore. 

Then he gave me a drawing he made and a Father’s Day card.  Very nice.  We went to the earlier Mass to free up as much of the afternoon as possible.  And before we were off, my wife took this picture of us on our deck. 



If you can't make it out, Matthew is holding up a Captain America and Spiderman figues. 
On the ferry I was able to snap this while passing the Statue of Liberty.


Central park has these huge granite (I think they’re granite) boulders scattered around, and it was Matthew’s mission to climb them.  Here are a few of the pictures at the top of the rocks.  If you’ve never been to New York’s Central Park, you can see the park is huge and in the center of a very urban Manhattan.   There are these beautiful buildings that peek over from the perimeter of the park.



As you can see he wanted to wear his Batman tee shirt.  But here he is at the top of this huge stone thinking he’s Superman.



There are statues everywhere in Central Park, and here Matthew was able to climb up to one.



Oh there were too many pictures I could share, but here are just two more by the pond.  The park is just so beautiful.


Boy my feet were aching when we finally got home.  And all we covered was a small corner of the park.   

Here’s a funny side story.  I bought a map of the park just to get my bearings.  The map was advertised as “20 Things To Do In NYC For A Penny.”  Cost of the map, two dollars.  Hmm.  And it wasn’t even that good a map.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: Happy Catholic by Julie Davis

I’m not very good at book reviews, but a review of a non-fiction, devotional book requires I write a review.  There’s no analysis I can flesh out that makes for an interesting read.  Such a book requires I show you why it’s interesting and why I enjoyed it. 

Such a book is Happy Catholic: Glimpses of Godin Everyday Life by Julie Davis.  Now let me say I consider Julie an internet friend.  I’ve been a frequent visitor to her blog, also titled, “Happy Catholic”.  She’s even stopped to comment here on my blog once or twice.  She’s got a great eclectic blog on her reading interests, her faith, pop culture, cooking, art, music, film, and even an occasional joke.  It was her blog that gave me the concept for my blog, only I’m not as entertaining as she is.  A frequent visitor to my blog, Jan, called my blog a “stodgy old intellectual blog.”  (She said it in a nice way.)  LOL, well, Julie’s blog is none of those things.  It’s hip, fresh, and on contemporary culture from a Roman Catholic perspective.  Her motto which is right at the top of the blog and reflects her upbeat personality is, “Not always happy, but always happy to be Catholic.”  The blog’s got half a dozen tabs and couple of dozen cross links within the blog and makes for a time absorbing experience.  I wish I had half her blog skills…lol.  So check it out. 

I find Julie’s book hard to classify.  Like her blog it’s eclectic.  I would say it’s partly a Christian devotional and partly her perspective on cultural thoughts and memes.  And her perspective is of a Roman Catholic convert coming from an atheist family upbringing.  Yes, she grew up atheist, thinking that religion was nothing more than superstition.  Here’s her conversion story.  You can read it yourself.  The pattern of her book is to take an “echo of heaven,” as she calls it in her introduction which amounts to a penetrating cultural quote, and elaborate on why that echo points back to God’s truth, a sort of pulling back of a veil so that one can connect with God.  The echoes Julie hears come from everywhere, not just religious sources: TV, movies, Batman, actors, theologians, writers, novels, poetry, anecdotes, humor, prayer, scripture, rock stars, saints, and even Dr. Phil.  She makes the point that God’s grace comes from all over. 

I read Happy Catholic for Lent.  It makes for a great daily stop as one coordinates it with daily prayer and devotionals.  And so I place this review in a “Faith Filled Friday” entry.  Each “echo” and the illuminating commentary come in small chunks, a page or two, so that one can take in as much of the fresh air—and reading each bit feels like a cool breeze on a summer day—as one wants or has time for in each sitting.  I can only provide a few examples.  Each echo starts with a title, then followed by the penetrating quote, and then Julie’s commentary.  

Still Countercultural After All These Years 

Drinking beer is easy.  Trashing your hotel room is easy.  But being a Christian, that’s a tough call.  That’s rebellion.
                        -Alice Cooper 

If you care about what people think of you, then you should not have become Catholic.
                        -St. John Vianney

It is astounding that as far as we have advanced, there is still nothing more shocking to the world than a faithful Christian.  Jesus was radical in his time.  Following Christ makes us radical in turn.  We’re called on to slice through all those neat little boxes that people use to make things more understandable.  There is no political party we can trust.  There is no nation that gets it right.  There is no cultural group where we are going to completely feel at home.  We are the ultimate outsiders.  That’s OK, really.  If we’re doing it right, then we’re upsetting things because we won’t “settle” and we won’t conform.  We answer to a higher power. 

Take another look at the crucifix and remember that the only real original rebel, the one whose watchword of “Love one another” casts the world into confusion.  Then prepare to be fully yourselves in Christ and watch the confusion spread, along with the love.

There’s not much I can add to that.  We are the true radicals.  A rock star radical is nothing but a trite popinjay.  There is no sincerity; it’s all pretension.  To be a true Christian is really countercultural—certainly counter to today’s culture but probably always has been.  Here’s another. 

The Ultimate Recycling 

We all suffer.  Some suffer well, some poorly, some bitterly, some in union with Christ, some in union with our Lady and the Saints, some in union with God as they know Him, some only in union with the other people in the hospital and some all alone—but we suffer.  How much better it is to suffer even poorly and inconsistently in union with Christ.
                        -Fr. Benedict Groeshel

I watched my parents as their health worsened.  They thought God a myth.  They were angry and sad and hopeless and suffering.  To see their suffering going to waste broke my heart. 

It is good to remember that each instance of suffering, large and small, can be offered to Christ to use in helping break the cycle of suffering for us all.  Not only does Christ use it for others, but somehow it also makes my suffering less.  Is it all in my head?  I don’t think so.  Somehow, at the human level, it removes the resentment that suffering generates.  I feel my suffering isn’t wasted.  It serves a purpose. 

It is a strange economy, this Catholic coin of using our suffering to pay the way for others. 

In the end, my parents’ story brightened.  They realized that God was something more than mythology. 

They met him themselves in their midst of their suffering.  It made all the difference. 

We all suffer.  How much better indeed to suffer in union with Christ.

Now that is as good a homily as you will ever get at Mass.  So how about the one where Julie quotes Batman. 

Why do You Think They Call It Willpower, Old Chum? 

Robin: Self-control is sure tough sometimes, Batman.
Batman: All virtues are, old chum.  Indeed, that’s why they’re called virtues.
                        -Batman TV Series

We have a shaky understanding of the virtues these days, perhaps because they require self-control to practice, and self-control has gone out of style.  The great thing about the virtues, however, is that they are the perfect opportunity to instill habits so that we don’t have to fight temptation every single time.  Our will is like a muscle.  If it isn’t exercised, then it gets flabby and can’t do the job it is meant to do.  I like exercising willpower just as much as I like jogging, which is to say, not at all.  However, I have found that it doesn’t take much self-denial to notice a difference in how much easier it becomes to turn aside from temptation.  And that feels pretty good. 

What are the virtues?  Glad you asked.  As defined by the Church fathers they are prudence, justice, restraint (or temperance), courage (or fortitude) , faith, hope, and love (or charity).  I don’t have the room to talk about them here, but it is worth seeking out descriptions to consider how to work them into our lives more fully. 

I believe Batman, after all.  They’re tough.  But worth it.

Reading her book makes one try to search out these echoes in one’s life.  I don’t think I have the ear to notice them as Julie does.  Here’s one last one, perhaps my favorite.

Shining Like the Sun 

In the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers… There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun… It is so to speak his name written in us… It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…[T]he gate of heaven is everywhere.
                        -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander 

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.  The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.
                        -Revelation 21:22-23

The book of Revelation was written to bring light and hope during a dark time for Christianity.  Like all the rest of the Bible, of course, it also applies to our own journey though life.  John is talking about our lives, whether or not he knew it when he was writing.  That is part of the mystery with which the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Holy Scripture. 

What Thomas Merton saw was what John saw when he was writing Revelation.  Different times, different ways to express it.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, Emmanuel, God with us, is with us everywhere and always.  Giving us light, warming our souls. 

Kneeling, watching the halting parade of people coming for Communion, old couples clinging to each other shuffling by, tiny children waving over their parents’ shoulders at us in the pews, five little boys who came to Mass dressed for soccer, slouching teenagers in sweatshirts and jeans, I think of how we all shine like the sun.  I think of the city in Revelation with no temple, no need for light because God is everywhere. 

All of us called by God.  All responding in our own way.  All shining like the sun.  And I love them. 

Oh I love that Thomas Merton quote.  To see the light of God kindled in every human being is at the very heart of Christianity.  I love how Julie synthesized it with the Book of Revelation.  And I love her embrace of all of we who are made in the image of God.  That is special.