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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

In Memoriam: Sister Wendy Beckett

I don’t know how many people knew of her, Sr. Wendy Beckett was probably the most unlikely TV personality of my generation.  She was the art historian who explained art for a number of years on the BBC but if you’re from the United States you probably caught her program on PBS.  At least I did.  She passed away on the 26th of December.  She was 88 years old.

The Daily Mail had a great obituary, from which I’ll quote but I do think there was one error in there which I’ll get to.  First let’s outline her television career.  From the Daily Mail:

Her world-famous alter ego was a cult figure with a high voice, huge glasses and very large teeth who presented series such as Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (1992), Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (1994) and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996) which often drew a 25 per cent share of the British viewing audience and saw her hailed by critics as the best talking head on art since Kenneth Clark.

Because as well as being exceptionally clever and perceptive, she was a natural broadcaster — needing neither script nor autocue, she became known as ‘One-Take-Wendy’ — and made art fun, inspirational and, for a nun who has sworn a vow of chastity, surprisingly accessible.

Her two front teeth definitely altered her speech, but I have to say it gave a certain charm to her.  She grew up having those teeth and what she considered a plain face.

Wendy Beckett was born in Johannesburg on February 25, 1930, the daughter of Aubrey Beckett, a banker-turned-doctor and his wife Dorothy.

The 12th-century saint and martyr, Thomas a Becket, was an ancestor and Samuel Beckett the playwright and author a distant cousin. She spent her early childhood in South Africa, before the family moved to Edinburgh to further Aubrey’s medical training.

Wendy was a solitary, sickly child with a weak heart, a plain face — ‘I was an extremely unattractive child’ she said — and a name created for the character in Peter Pan that she hated because it sounded too ‘trivial’. She was anything but.

Being related to both Thomas a Becket and Samuel Beckett was startling to me, but I guess it makes perfect sense.  If religious faith and literary interests are genetic, then she was true to her distant relatives.  Her faith was deep and it started at an incredibly early age.

Her connection with God started when she was barely three and eating her Sunday sausages to the strains of a military band in the Meadows area of Edinburgh.

‘I realised then that God was there and life was going to be wonderful,’ she said.

Her parents were not overtly religious, but the nuns at school inspired her. ‘It was clear to me that this was what people did who wanted to belong completely to God,’ she said.

Her faith never wavered and, aged 16, and with her parents blessing (‘It’s just as well you look good in black,’ said her mum ), joined the Sisters of Notre Dame in East Sussex. She took the name Sister Michael and didn’t see her family again for three years.

‘After six months, I was given the habit — oh glorious day!’ she said.

She went on to teach, but that wasn’t conducive to her skills and her health.  She suffered from epilepsy and a heart attack, and decided that she couldn’t handle the stress of teaching. 

It was only in 1970, when she started suffering stress-induced epileptic fits that she was allowed to return to England as a Reverend Mother to live a contemplative life of prayer in the teeny second-hand caravan she bought for £50 and parked in the grounds of the Carmelite monastery.

There, on top of her meditation and hours of prayers, she started translating Medieval Latin to make a contribution towards the monastery’s overheads.

She completed five full volumes before suffering a heart attack. When she recovered she was given permission to write spiritual meditations on contemporary art — her great passion.

Some were circulated among a small circle of acquaintances and came to the attention of Delia Smith, a Catholic who became a great friend. Delia took her to art galleries and was so impressed by Wendy’s writing that, in the late Eighties, persuaded the Catholic Herald to publish them.

And that is how she got her start in television, all the while living as a hermit.  But while the Daily Mail article provides a wonderful retrospective, I think there’s an error in there. It claims Sister Wendy was a Carmelite, and that was what I had always thought. But the Los Angeles Times obituary, another fine read, claims she lived at a Carmelite monastery but was in fact technically a hermit. Yes, there are actually hermits in this day and age. She lived apart and by herself.  From the Los Angeles Times:

In the early 1970s, she was released from her vows as a Sister of Notre Dame and changed her religious status to “consecrated virgin,” with the blessing of the Vatican. From then on, she was not a member of any religious order but continued to wear a homemade black habit, a variation on the one she wore as a Sister of Notre Dame.

Asked once to explain her choice, she said, “I am a nun. I will always be a nun.” She had spent more than 20 years in a convent, perfecting the ways of religious life. As a hermit, she did not feel the need to belong to any particular order.

The Carmelites offered her a home on their property and took care of her for the rest of her life. They delivered her meals to the unheated trailer where she slept on the floor, surrounded by towers of art books. She in turn contributed most of her income to the convent.

She really had a charm to her presentations. I kind of blushed sometimes when a nude was in front of her but really my concern for her sensitivity was unnecessary. The LAT obituary has this little anecdote.

For all of her unique features as a commentator, it was Beckett’s ease in describing nude paintings that most confounded her viewers. Standing before a double nude portrait by modern British painter Stanley Spencer, she observed, “I love all those glistening strands of his hair. And her pubic hair is so soft and fluffy.”

I didn’t mean to titillate with that, and I apologize if it offends anyone, but I thought that captured her personality to a tee!

Here is a fragment of an episode.  Sister Wendy on “Grand Tour,” here in Rome.  Do watch to the end where she captures Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Wasn’t that marvelous.  I’ve spent a few hours on YouTube going through some of her episodes.  She was a great communicator, passionate in her love of art, and charming to watch.

Eternal rest grant unto Sister Wendy, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. We thank you for the blessing of her time here on earth.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Gospel of Luke: Comments and Observations, Part II

Last week I posted my first entry on the Gospel of Luke.  You can find it here.  Allow me to continue.  Susan commented that many of the historians date the three Gospels after 70 AD, after the destruction of the temple.  But that has not always been the understanding, and Susan mentions how theologian Brad Pitre thinks otherwise.  I agreed with her and Pitre.

Manny Comment:
I completely agree Susan. The whole argument of the Gospels being written as late as recent scholars claim is solely based on the belief that they had to have been written after the temple's destruction. (1) Of course if Christ is God He could predict it. I can understand secular scholars relying on that argument, but you get the same nonsense from believing Catholic scholars. They have all bought into that argument. Before recent times, the Catholic Church did not support this argument, as I posted during the Gospel of Mark discussion last year. Thank God for a new generation of scholars like Pitre challenging the conventional wisdom. I think in time, sanity will prevail. (2) If you look at the actual Gospel readings, Jesus isn't even specific in what is being destroyed. He's talking about a general destruction of Jerusalem, an apocalyptic vision. Here are the passages side by side.  

Yes, the Temple is included in the destruction but frankly he's talking almost about an end of times scenario, or perhaps more of an end of the current status quo. If this was written in hindsight as a prophecy, the Gospel writers would have had him be way more specific.

Manny Comment:
I could highlight so many things in these first eight chapters. But they are probably things you might get from a homily at Mass. Here's something interesting that caught my eye for the first time. In chapter seven, Jesus is speaking about John the Baptist.

24 When the messengers of John had left, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. "What did you go out to the desert to see-a reed swayed by the wind?
25 Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces.
26 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
27 This is the one about whom scripture says: 'Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you.'
28 I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
29 l (All the people who listened, including the tax collectors, and who were baptized with the baptism of John, acknowledged the righteousness of God;
30 but the Pharisees and scholars of the law, who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves.)
31 "Then to what shall I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?
32 They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, 'We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.'
33 For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, 'He is possessed by a demon.'
34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, 'Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'
35 But wisdom is vindicated by all her children."

It's interesting that John the Baptist doesn't eat bread nor drink wine, while Jesus does. Some Christian denominations make the claim you're not supposed to drink alcohol, and if you went strictly by John the Baptist, I could understand. But Jesus does eat and drink. Of course bread and wine become extremely important as Christ transforms them into His body and blood. But why does John refrain from them all? I don't have a good answer, other than to say that in preparation for Christ, John represents the strict asceticism as a preparation to holiness.

One other thing, I really like how Christ ends it with saying, "But wisdom is vindicated by all her children." Meaning that wisdom requires asceticism and enjoyment as a achieving the fullness of life. There is a time and place for both.

Manny Comment:
It's quite amazing how many scenes are in each of Luke's chapters.  Chapter Nine contains (1) Sending the Apostles out to preach and heal, (2) Herod being perplexed about Jesus, (3) the feeding of the five thousand, (4) Peter declaring that Jesus is the Christ, (5) Jesus stating that to follow Him requires denying oneself, (6) the Transfiguration scene, (7) Jesus heals a boy with a demon, (8) Jesus predicts His death, (9) Jesus resolves who is great, (10) Jesus rebukes John for forbidding a man for casting out demons in Jesus' name, (11) a Samaritan village rejects Jesus, (12) Jesus rebukes several men who make excuses about following Him.  A montage of twelve scenes in one chapter, and this is typical of the other chapters.  I put forth this again: does this not appear to be a collation of scenes that were individually documented and dispersed among the Christian communities?  No one puts narrative together in this way from his own understanding of a story, especially not a skilled writer such as Luke.

The transfiguration scene is worth looking at.  Luke's version is probably the most cursory of the three but Luke too chooses to repeat a key bit of language.

34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him."

Now turn back to the Annunciation scene (Chapter 1) and let me repeat this:

35 And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

"A cloud appeared and covered them" and "The power of the Most High will overshadow you."  Cloud covering and overshadowing are nearly the same thing.  I put to you Mary is undergoing her own transfiguration.  Now where does this notion of shadow and cloud covering come from?  Turn to Exodus Chapter 40.  In this chapter the Lord instructs Moses to create a tabernacle.  Once Moses follows the instructions, God enters the tabernacle.

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
35Moses could not enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
36 Whenever the cloud rose from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their journey.
37 But if the cloud did not lift, they would not go forward; only when it lifted did they go forward.
38 The cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire in the cloud at night, in the sight of the whole house of Israel in all the stages of their journey.

Remember, the tabernacle is the Holiest of Holies.  Only the holiest priest could enter and under the pain of death if he did not maintain his holiness.  Mary is overshadowed just like at the tabernacle because the Blessed Mother is the new tabernacle, the holiest of holies, which will house Christ.  Is there a distinction between cloud and shadow?  Yes, the cloud causes the shadow.  The cloud is associated with God, and it has cast its shadow over the Blessed Virgin.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Music Tuesday: All Is Calm (Musical)

Have you ever heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914 during WWI?  I think last year was the first year I had ever heard of it.  During that Christmas the soldiers of both sides put down their arms, came out of their trenches, and met in the middle of “No Man’s Land” in a peaceful embrace, a singing of Christmas carols, and even playing a game of soccer. 

When I learned of it, I told Matthew about it.  He was fascinated with war as all boys and he loves Christmas carols.  I thought he would enjoy that kind of a charming and life affirming story, and he did.  He loved the story and remembered when I mentioned it again a few months ago.  I mentioned it because I found out there was a musical made of the story and that musical was being played at the Sheen Theater here in NYC.  So I asked him if he wanted to go, and he resoundingly said yes.  So I got tickets for the Saturday before Christmas.

Going into the week, Matthew had gotten the flu, and I was worried he wouldn’t be able to go.  But he got well and gave me the flu!  Luckily my fever broke the morning of the play, so I filled up on decongestant and we made our way to the city.  My wife had not wanted to go, so it had become a boy’s night out.  We scorned a fancy restaurant for dinner and opted for pizza and chocolate bars…lol. 

The play was great.  Here is a website of this particular tour. This was the playbill for our show.  It was really quite a moving play, capturing the bitterness of war, the camaraderie of men, and the charity of Christmas.  The narrative moved through excerpts of soldier’s letters.  It was an all-male cast with precise accents.  And the singing was heavenly, from male alto to deep base, from solo to harmony.  You can find many of the songs on YouTube if you search “Cantus_All Is Calm.”  Cantus I think was the original singing group that put on the original performance.

Here is an excerpt performing “O Tennenbaum.”

And here is “Silent Night” sung at the most dramatic moment of the drama.

If a show is ever put on in a theater near you, I highly recommend it.  It’s beautiful and captures the best of humanity. 

I found a trailer from the writer and director, Peter Rothstein, on how the musical came about and was put together.  It shows you clips of the stage drama. 

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Matthew Monday: Matthew’s Nativity Play

Matthew got well just in time for his Nativity play at school and he gave Daddy his flu.  But I made it to the play and sat in the back—so way in the back that I didn’t get great pictures.  But let me share what I was able to get.

Now the school Nativity play is put on every year by the fourth grade class.  It’s a silent play, except for the singing and the drama is narrated by the eighth graders.  Matthew had the role of St. Joseph.  He is the boy with the blue head covering.  Here he is taking Virgin Mary as wife.

As you can see, I’m way back there in the audience.  Here is a clip of Joseph taking Mary to the various innkeepers to find a room.  Obviously they all say there is no room.

That’s not the original girl who was supposed to play Mary.  That girl got sick the day before the performance, so they had the girl in fifth grade who had played Mary last year return to her role.  She’s a good deal taller than Matthew.

Here’s a clip of the cast signing one of the carols, “O Holy Night.”

Here’s a picture of the complete cast.


And finally I got a picture of Matthew up close in costume.

May your Christmas contain the same innocence as these children’s.  Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Gospel of Luke: Comments and Observations, Part I

Last year the Catholic Thought Book Club read the Gospel of Mark.  It was the liturgical year B, so we thought it would help with the year’s Gospel readings if we read the entire Gospel in one stretch.  And it was great and learned a lot and I posted three times in this blog from my part of the discussion.  There is something to be said for reading entire chapters rather than listening to short segments.

This year we decided to read the Gospel of Luke, since we are in liturgical year C.  I’m going to post what I said here as well.  Let’s start with the very first chapter.

Manny Comment:
I am so fascinated by the introduction.  It's one sentence stretched to four verses. 

(1) Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, (2) just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, (3) I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, (4) so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

Let's parse this, because unless you read closely a lot will fly right by.  What does he mean "many have undertaken"?  How many?  There are three other Gospels and as far as I know everyone agrees that John's was the last to be written.  So there are at least two, Mark and Matthew, and we disputed which came first when we discussed Mark.  Setting that aside, I think most agree that Mark and Matthew came before Luke.  All the non-canonical Gospels I believe are all dated into at least the second century with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, but most also think that's a second century document.  There are speculations of "proto-Gospels," but how many?  Many in Luke's sentence to me implies a dozen perhaps, or certainly more than half a dozen.

In the discussion last year on Mark's Gospel I suggested there weren't many full Gospels but fragments of stories about Jesus and the events of His life all across the Roman Empire, perhaps hundreds of fragments.  Notice what Luke further says: "I too have decided...to write it down in an orderly sequence for you."  Putting it into an orderly sequence implies that the stories floated around haphazardly, uncoordinated.  If Luke was basing the gist of his work on Mark's Gospel, would he have considered Mark's Gospel not "orderly"?  I maintain that the Gospel writers did not copy off each other but collated all the different fragments that were handed about.  Sorry if I'm being controversial again.

Another interesting thing in that introduction is that Luke is writing for the "most excellent, Theophilus."  Was Theophilus a real person or was Luke just employing a rhetorical device?  Here I'm torn because there's logic to both arguments.  It would seem unlikely that someone would write twenty-four chapters on scrolls just to convince a single person.  But if that single person was a benefactor paying someone to write it, then that's more likely.  And if the intention of writing for the benefactor has the possibility that the written work will be open to the community at large, then the writer has a real motivation for a detailed work of considerable length and craft.  And that's essentially where I fall, though not as strongly as I tend to be on controversial topics.  ;) 

Wikipedia has an interesting entry under "Theophilus (biblical)."  It goes through the possibility that it's a generic title or a specific person.  It lists three possibilities for that person: St. Paul's lawyer in Rome, A Jewish priest, Theophilus ben Ananus, in Jerusalem, and Roman convert, Titus Flavius Sabinus.  It seems unlikely to me that a high priest of the Temple would be receiving this and distributing it around, but who knows.  I think it would also support that the Gospels were written before the Temple collapse as the Catholic Church historically holds, and which I hold. 

Another observation I can make from that first sentence is how balanced and syntactically complex it is.  I don't read the original Greek, but if it's a good translation then it reflects a skilled writer.  The stylistic textures of all the books in the Bible is something that gets glossed over.  That's one of the reason I don't like the Kings James Version.  It's one harmonious style throughout and yet there are many authors, each with their own style.  That initial sentence by Luke reveals to me a writer of considerable skill, someone who has written extensively beforehand.  This is not his first attempt at writing.  So if he's written beforehand, what did he write?  Unfortunately whatever it may have been, it's been lost to history.

The Magnificat

Manny Comment:
The Gospel of Luke has the fullest delineation of the Nativity events, and unlike Matthew's version, it's more centered from the perspective of the Blessed Mother. I find her acceptance of God's request to be so moving. Remember, as an unwed mother or even just an unwed pregnant girl, she faces potential stoning to death, and yet when God asks, she accepts.

31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.
32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
34 But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"
35 And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

And then possibly the greatest words ever uttered by a creature, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

I get so moved every time I read that. And I also get moved by the Beatles' song, "Let it Be," and yes despite what Paul says it most definitely is about Blessed Mary.

I also get moved further down in chapter 1 when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth blesses Mary for acceptance of her divine impregnation, I just love Mary's response, what has been called The Canticle of Mary, or The Magnificat:

46 "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
47 my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
48 For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
49 The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
51 He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.b
52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
53 The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
55 according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Those that pray the Evening Prayer of the Divine Office pray that every night. If you don't, I recommend you keep it in your list of prayers, and pray it every so often. It is an honor to the blessed mother. Notice also in line 48, that from now on they will call her "blessed." I try to always refer to her as "blessed" in whatever title or name I choose for her. The Bible tells us so! 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Music Tuesday: “Great Things (Mary’s Song)” by Melanie Penn

I have never heard of Melanie Penn, but apparently she’s a Contemporary Christian singer.  Somehow I was pointed to one of her Christmas songs.  The song was “Great Things (Mary’s Song).”

Matthew, who I think has a great ear for music, thought she was so good, we decided to look up what other music she has recorded, and we found her Christmas album with “Great Things” on it.  The album is called Immanuel and we thought it so good we bought it.  I have to share a couple of more songs.  Here’s the title song officially called “Immanuel (Shepherd).” 

She’s a lovely lady as well as having a great voice.  All the songs on the album are original except for one cover, “Joy to the World.”  So if you want some Christmas songs that are not the usual overplayed standards, then that’s another reason to get this.  I’ll leave you with one more that just knocks me off my feet, “Love's Coming Down (Isaiah's Song).”

All the original songs have a tag from an element of the Christmas story, such as Mary, or Shepherd, or Isaiah.  Interesting.  What a wonderful singer and song writer.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Matthew Monday: Autumn Photos and Christmas Events

We are about a week from Christmas and Matthew has the flu and  running a fever for a few days now.  He’s got to get well soon.  Friday he will in the School’s living Nativity and he has the role of St. Joseph.  Saturday I have tickets to an Off-Broadway musical, All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.  It’s just the two of us, father and son.  And then there is Christmas Eve and Day where he will be playing drums for the Church choir on “Little Drummer Boy” again this year.  And there will be Christmas at my mother’s where his cousins will be coming in.  It’s going to be busy and tiresome week, so he better get healthy fast.

I took some pictures of Matthew a few weeks ago before the leaves came down from the trees.  We were kicking a soccer ball around and I thought the setting made for some lovely photos.

I think that was early November.  While I was at it, I took snapped a couple of general Autumn photos as well.  I caught the evening sun against the colored trees.

Lovely, don’t you think?

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Chain Gang, from Les Misérables

I’m finally getting back to reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  As I’ve mentioned in past years, I’m treating each Volume of the opus as a novel.  There are five volumes and I’m up to the fourth, titled, “Eponine.”  Most readers here have heard of the Les Misérables story line, either from the Broadway play, the various movies, or from the novel itself.  So I won’t summarize in any way.  In Volume Four, Jean Valjean has taken Cossette out of her education with the Nuns and secretly moved to a remote part of Paris.  Cossette is now nearly an adult and Valjean has aged.  They do go on walks together, and on an early morning walk the two come upon a chain gang being driven through.  Recall that Jean Valjean was once a criminal himself and part of this very chain gang many years before when he was a very young man.  Hugo’s writing here is spellbinding.  I’m going to quote the entire chapter, Chapter VIII (“The Chain Gang”) of Book III.

Jean Valjean was the more unhappy of the two. Youth, even in its sorrows, always possesses its own peculiar radiance.

At times, Jean Valjean suffered so greatly that he became puerile. It is the property of grief to cause the childish side of man to reappear. He had an unconquerable conviction that Cosette was escaping from him. He would have liked to resist, to retain her, to arouse her enthusiasm by some external and brilliant matter. These ideas, puerile, as we have just said, and at the same time senile, conveyed to him, by their very childishness, a tolerably just notion of the influence of gold lace on the imaginations of young girls. He once chanced to see a general on horseback, in full uniform, pass along the street, Comte Coutard, the commandant of Paris. He envied that gilded man; what happiness it would be, he said to himself, if he could put on that suit which was an incontestable thing; and if Cosette could behold him thus, she would be dazzled, and when he had Cosette on his arm and passed the gates of the Tuileries, the guard would present arms to him, and that would suffice for Cosette, and would dispel her idea of looking at young men.

An unforeseen shock was added to these sad reflections.

In the isolated life which they led, and since they had come to dwell in the Rue Plumet, they had contracted one habit. They sometimes took a pleasure trip to see the sun rise, a mild species of enjoyment which befits those who are entering life and those who are quitting it.

For those who love solitude, a walk in the early morning is equivalent to a stroll by night, with the cheerfulness of nature added. The streets are deserted and the birds are singing. Cosette, a bird herself, liked to rise early. These matutinal excursions were planned on the preceding evening. He proposed, and she agreed. It was arranged like a plot, they set out before daybreak, and these trips were so many small delights for Cosette. These innocent eccentricities please young people.

Jean Valjean's inclination led him, as we have seen, to the least frequented spots, to solitary nooks, to forgotten places. There then existed, in the vicinity of the barriers of Paris, a sort of poor meadows, which were almost confounded with the city, where grew in summer sickly grain, and which, in autumn, after the harvest had been gathered, presented the appearance, not of having been reaped, but peeled. Jean Valjean loved to haunt these fields. Cosette was not bored there. It meant solitude to him and liberty to her. There, she became a little girl once more, she could run and almost play; she took off her hat, laid it on Jean Valjean's knees, and gathered bunches of flowers. She gazed at the butterflies on the flowers, but did not catch them; gentleness and tenderness are born with love, and the young girl who cherishes within her breast a trembling and fragile ideal has mercy on the wing of a butterfly. She wove garlands of poppies, which she placed on her head, and which, crossed and penetrated with sunlight, glowing until they flamed, formed for her rosy face a crown of burning embers.

Even after their life had grown sad, they kept up their custom of early strolls.

One morning in October, therefore, tempted by the serene perfection of the autumn of 1831, they set out, and found themselves at break of day near the Barriere du Maine. It was not dawn, it was daybreak; a delightful and stern moment. A few constellations here and there in the deep, pale azure, the earth all black, the heavens all white, a quiver amid the blades of grass, everywhere the mysterious chill of twilight. A lark, which seemed mingled with the stars, was carolling at a prodigious height, and one would have declared that that hymn of pettiness calmed immensity. In the East, the Valde-Grace projected its dark mass on the clear horizon with the sharpness of steel; Venus dazzlingly brilliant was rising behind that dome and had the air of a soul making its escape from a gloomy edifice.

All was peace and silence; there was no one on the road; a few stray laborers, of whom they caught barely a glimpse, were on their way to their work along the side-paths.

Jean Valjean was sitting in a cross-walk on some planks deposited at the gate of a timber-yard. His face was turned towards the highway, his back towards the light; he had forgotten the sun which was on the point of rising; he had sunk into one of those profound absorptions in which the mind becomes concentrated, which imprison even the eye, and which are equivalent to four walls. There are meditations which may be called vertical; when one is at the bottom of them, time is required to return to earth. Jean Valjean had plunged into one of these reveries. He was thinking of Cosette, of the happiness that was possible if nothing came between him and her, of the light with which she filled his life, a light which was but the emanation of her soul. He was almost happy in his revery. Cosette, who was standing beside him, was gazing at the clouds as they turned rosy.

All at once Cosette exclaimed: "Father, I should think some one was coming yonder." Jean Valjean raised his eyes.

Cosette was right. The causeway which leads to the ancient Barriere du Maine is a prolongation, as the reader knows, of the Rue de Sevres, and is cut at right angles by the inner boulevard. At the elbow of the causeway and the boulevard, at the spot where it branches, they heard a noise which it was difficult to account for at that hour, and a sort of confused pile made its appearance. Some shapeless thing which was coming from the boulevard was turning into the road.

It grew larger, it seemed to move in an orderly manner, though it was bristling and quivering; it seemed to be a vehicle, but its load could not be distinctly made out. There were horses, wheels, shouts; whips were cracking. By degrees the outlines became fixed, although bathed in shadows. It was a vehicle, in fact, which had just turned from the boulevard into the highway, and which was directing its course towards the barrier near which sat Jean Valjean; a second, of the same aspect, followed, then a third, then a fourth; seven chariots made their appearance in succession, the heads of the horses touching the rear of the wagon in front. Figures were moving on these vehicles, flashes were visible through the dusk as though there were naked swords there, a clanking became audible which resembled the rattling of chains, and as this something advanced, the sound of voices waxed louder, and it turned into a terrible thing such as emerges from the cave of dreams.

As it drew nearer, it assumed a form, and was outlined behind the trees with the pallid hue of an apparition; the mass grew white; the day, which was slowly dawning, cast a wan light on this swarming heap which was at once both sepulchral and living, the heads of the figures turned into the faces of corpses, and this is what it proved to be:--

Seven wagons were driving in a file along the road. The first six were singularly constructed. They resembled coopers' drays; they consisted of long ladders placed on two wheels and forming barrows at their rear extremities. Each dray, or rather let us say, each ladder, was attached to four horses harnessed tandem. On these ladders strange clusters of men were being drawn. In the faint light, these men were to be divined rather than seen. Twenty-four on each vehicle, twelve on a side, back to back, facing the passers-by, their legs dangling in the air,--this was the manner in which these men were travelling, and behind their backs they had something which clanked, and which was a chain, and on their necks something which shone, and which was an iron collar. Each man had his collar, but the chain was for all; so that if these four and twenty men had occasion to alight from the dray and walk, they were seized with a sort of inexorable unity, and were obliged to wind over the ground with the chain for a backbone, somewhat after the fashion of millepeds. In the back and front of each vehicle, two men armed with muskets stood erect, each holding one end of the chain under his foot. The iron necklets were square. The seventh vehicle, a huge rack-sided baggage wagon, without a hood, had four wheels and six horses, and carried a sonorous pile of iron boilers, cast-iron pots, braziers, and chains, among which were mingled several men who were pinioned and stretched at full length, and who seemed to be ill. This wagon, all lattice-work, was garnished with dilapidated hurdles which appeared to have served for former punishments. These vehicles kept to the middle of the road. On each side marched a double hedge of guards of infamous aspect, wearing three-cornered hats, like the soldiers under the Directory, shabby, covered with spots and holes, muffled in uniforms of veterans and the trousers of undertakers' men, half gray, half blue, which were almost hanging in rags, with red epaulets, yellow shoulder belts, short sabres, muskets, and cudgels; they were a species of soldier-blackguards. These myrmidons seemed composed of the abjectness of the beggar and the authority of the executioner. The one who appeared to be their chief held a postilion's whip in his hand. All these details, blurred by the dimness of dawn, became more and more clearly outlined as the light increased. At the head and in the rear of the convoy rode mounted gendarmes, serious and with sword in fist.

This procession was so long that when the first vehicle reached the barrier, the last was barely debauching from the boulevard. A throng, sprung, it is impossible to say whence, and formed in a twinkling, as is frequently the case in Paris, pressed forward from both sides of the road and looked on. In the neighboring lanes the shouts of people calling to each other and the wooden shoes of market-gardeners hastening up to gaze were audible.

The men massed upon the drays allowed themselves to be jolted along in silence. They were livid with the chill of morning. They all wore linen trousers, and their bare feet were thrust into wooden shoes. The rest of their costume was a fantasy of wretchedness. Their accoutrements were horribly incongruous; nothing is more funereal than the harlequin in rags. Battered felt hats, tarpaulin caps, hideous woollen nightcaps, and, side by side with a short blouse, a black coat broken at the elbow; many wore women's headgear, others had baskets on their heads; hairy breasts were visible, and through the rent in their garments tattooed designs could be descried; temples of Love, flaming hearts, Cupids; eruptions and unhealthy red blotches could also be seen. Two or three had a straw rope attached to the cross-bar of the dray, and suspended under them like a stirrup, which supported their feet. One of them held in his hand and raised to his mouth something which had the appearance of a black stone and which he seemed to be gnawing; it was bread which he was eating. There were no eyes there which were not either dry, dulled, or flaming with an evil light. The escort troop cursed, the men in chains did not utter a syllable; from time to time the sound of a blow became audible as the cudgels descended on shoulder-blades or skulls; some of these men were yawning; their rags were terrible; their feet hung down, their shoulders oscillated, their heads clashed together, their fetters clanked, their eyes glared ferociously, their fists clenched or fell open inertly like the hands of corpses; in the rear of the convoy ran a band of children screaming with laughter.

This file of vehicles, whatever its nature was, was mournful. It was evident that to-morrow, that an hour hence, a pouring rain might descend, that it might be followed by another and another, and that their dilapidated garments would be drenched, that once soaked, these men would not get dry again, that once chilled, they would not again get warm, that their linen trousers would be glued to their bones by the downpour, that the water would fill their shoes, that no lashes from the whips would be able to prevent their jaws from chattering, that the chain would continue to bind them by the neck, that their legs would continue to dangle, and it was impossible not to shudder at the sight of these human beings thus bound and passive beneath the cold clouds of autumn, and delivered over to the rain, to the blast, to all the furies of the air, like trees and stones.

Blows from the cudgel were not omitted even in the case of the sick men, who lay there knotted with ropes and motionless on the seventh wagon, and who appeared to have been tossed there like sacks filled with misery.

Suddenly, the sun made its appearance; the immense light of the Orient burst forth, and one would have said that it had set fire to all those ferocious heads. Their tongues were unloosed; a conflagration of grins, oaths, and songs exploded. The broad horizontal sheet of light severed the file in two parts, illuminating heads and bodies, leaving feet and wheels in the obscurity. Thoughts made their appearance on these faces; it was a terrible moment; visible demons with their masks removed, fierce souls laid bare. Though lighted up, this wild throng remained in gloom. Some, who were gay, had in their mouths quills through which they blew vermin over the crowd, picking out the women; the dawn accentuated these lamentable profiles with the blackness of its shadows; there was not one of these creatures who was not deformed by reason of wretchedness; and the whole was so monstrous that one would have said that the sun's brilliancy had been changed into the glare of the lightning. The wagon-load which headed the line had struck up a song, and were shouting at the top of their voices with a haggard joviality, a potpourri by Desaugiers, then famous, called The Vestal; the trees shivered mournfully; in the cross-lanes, countenances of bourgeois listened in an idiotic delight to these coarse strains droned by spectres.

All sorts of distress met in this procession as in chaos; here were to be found the facial angles of every sort of beast, old men, youths, bald heads, gray beards, cynical monstrosities, sour resignation, savage grins, senseless attitudes, snouts surmounted by caps, heads like those of young girls with corkscrew curls on the temples, infantile visages, and by reason of that, horrible thin skeleton faces, to which death alone was lacking. On the first cart was a negro, who had been a slave, in all probability, and who could make a comparison of his chains. The frightful leveller from below, shame, had passed over these brows; at that degree of abasement, the last transformations were suffered by all in their extremest depths, and ignorance, converted into dulness, was the equal of intelligence converted into despair. There was no choice possible between these men who appeared to the eye as the flower of the mud. It was evident that the person who had had the ordering of that unclean procession had not classified them. These beings had been fettered and coupled pell-mell, in alphabetical disorder, probably, and loaded hap-hazard on those carts. Nevertheless, horrors, when grouped together, always end by evolving a result; all additions of wretched men give a sum total, each chain exhaled a common soul, and each dray-load had its own physiognomy. By the side of the one where they were singing, there was one where they were howling; a third where they were begging; one could be seen in which they were gnashing their teeth; another load menaced the spectators, another blasphemed God; the last was as silent as the tomb. Dante would have thought that he beheld his seven circles of hell on the march. The march of the damned to their tortures, performed in sinister wise, not on the formidable and flaming chariot of the Apocalypse, but, what was more mournful than that, on the gibbet cart.

One of the guards, who had a hook on the end of his cudgel, made a pretence from time to time, of stirring up this mass of human filth. An old woman in the crowd pointed them out to her little boy five years old, and said to him: "Rascal, let that be a warning to you!"

As the songs and blasphemies increased, the man who appeared to be the captain of the escort cracked his whip, and at that signal a fearful dull and blind flogging, which produced the sound of hail, fell upon the seven dray-loads; many roared and foamed at the mouth; which redoubled the delight of the street urchins who had hastened up, a swarm of flies on these wounds.

Jean Valjean's eyes had assumed a frightful expression. They were no longer eyes; they were those deep and glassy objects which replace the glance in the case of certain wretched men, which seem unconscious of reality, and in which flames the reflection of terrors and of catastrophes. He was not looking at a spectacle, he was seeing a vision. He tried to rise, to flee, to make his escape; he could not move his feet. Sometimes, the things that you see seize upon you and hold you fast. He remained nailed to the spot, petrified, stupid, asking himself, athwart confused and inexpressible anguish, what this sepulchral persecution signified, and whence had come that pandemonium which was pursuing him. All at once, he raised his hand to his brow, a gesture habitual to those whose memory suddenly returns; he remembered that this was, in fact, the usual itinerary, that it was customary to make this detour in order to avoid all possibility of encountering royalty on the road to Fontainebleau, and that, five and thirty years before, he had himself passed through that barrier.

Cosette was no less terrified, but in a different way. She did not understand; what she beheld did not seem to her to be possible; at length she cried:--

"Father! What are those men in those carts?"

Jean Valjean replied: "Convicts."

"Whither are they going?"

"To the galleys."

At that moment, the cudgelling, multiplied by a hundred hands, became zealous, blows with the flat of the sword were mingled with it, it was a perfect storm of whips and clubs; the convicts bent before it, a hideous obedience was evoked by the torture, and all held their peace, darting glances like chained wolves.

Cosette trembled in every limb; she resumed:--

"Father, are they still men?"

"Sometimes," answered the unhappy man.

It was the chain-gang, in fact, which had set out before daybreak from Bicetre, and had taken the road to Mans in order to avoid Fontainebleau, where the King then was. This caused the horrible journey to last three or four days longer; but torture may surely be prolonged with the object of sparing the royal personage a sight of it.

Jean Valjean returned home utterly overwhelmed. Such encounters are shocks, and the memory that they leave behind them resembles a thorough shaking up.

Nevertheless, Jean Valjean did not observe that, on his way back to the Rue de Babylone with Cosette, the latter was plying him with other questions on the subject of what they had just seen; perhaps he was too much absorbed in his own dejection to notice her words and reply to them. But when Cosette was leaving him in the evening, to betake herself to bed, he heard her say in a low voice, and as though talking to herself: "It seems to me, that if I were to find one of those men in my pathway, oh, my God, I should die merely from the sight of him close at hand."

Fortunately, chance ordained that on the morrow of that tragic day, there was some official solemnity apropos of I know not what,-- fetes in Paris, a review in the Champ de Mars, jousts on the Seine, theatrical performances in the Champs-Elysees, fireworks at the Arc de l'Etoile, illuminations everywhere. Jean Valjean did violence to his habits, and took Cosette to see these rejoicings, for the purpose of diverting her from the memory of the day before, and of effacing, beneath the smiling tumult of all Paris, the abominable thing which had passed before her. The review with which the festival was spiced made the presence of uniforms perfectly natural; Jean Valjean donned his uniform of a national guard with the vague inward feeling of a man who is betaking himself to shelter. However, this trip seemed to attain its object. Cosette, who made it her law to please her father, and to whom, moreover, all spectacles were a novelty, accepted this diversion with the light and easy good grace of youth, and did not pout too disdainfully at that flutter of enjoyment called a public fete; so that Jean Valjean was able to believe that he had succeeded, and that no trace of that hideous vision remained.

Some days later, one morning, when the sun was shining brightly, and they were both on the steps leading to the garden, another infraction of the rules which Jean Valjean seemed to have imposed upon himself, and to the custom of remaining in her chamber which melancholy had caused Cosette to adopt, Cosette, in a wrapper, was standing erect in that negligent attire of early morning which envelops young girls in an adorable way and which produces the effect of a cloud drawn over a star; and, with her head bathed in light, rosy after a good sleep, submitting to the gentle glances of the tender old man, she was picking a daisy to pieces. Cosette did not know the delightful legend, I love a little, passionately, etc.--who was there who could have taught her? She was handling the flower instinctively, innocently, without a suspicion that to pluck a daisy apart is to do the same by a heart. If there were a fourth, and smiling Grace called Melancholy, she would have worn the air of that Grace. Jean Valjean was fascinated by the contemplation of those tiny fingers on that flower, and forgetful of everything in the radiance emitted by that child. A red-breast was warbling in the thicket, on one side. White cloudlets floated across the sky, so gayly, that one would have said that they had just been set at liberty. Cosette went on attentively tearing the leaves from her flower; she seemed to be thinking about something; but whatever it was, it must be something charming; all at once she turned her head over her shoulder with the delicate languor of a swan, and said to Jean Valjean: "Father, what are the galleys like?"

Excerpt taken from The Literature Network.