Monday, October 25, 2004

More Catholic novels

Following my dearly beloved Rumer Godden, below, there is another writer fascinated with faith, and especially the Catholic faith: Taylor Caldwell. She wrote a billion novels, many of which are very thick, lots and lots of story there, and are of the more-or-less-historically-accurate genre: she seems awfully sure of the motivations of the actual people she writes about, but at least her Regency duchesses don't make telephone calls. Her best-known novel is probably Captains and the Kings, a saga that strongly resembles the Kennedy family.

She wrote a couple of books about St. Paul (which I just realize that I never read, oh, boy!) and Judas Iscariot, as well as one I loved as a teenager: Dear and Glorious Physician, about St. Luke. But the book that I've read until the covers have fallen off my paperback, as a dependable getter-to-sleep, is Grandmother and the Priests, written in 1963. (The link is for a bunch of amateur reviews of books and movies. Scroll down to find the one for this book. It's quite good.)

In the early 20th century, Irish and Scottish priests gather at the lavish dinner table and fireside of the narrator's grandmother, a demanding, independent, bejewelled pistol of a woman. She feeds and funds them, but won't hear of the state of her soul, and extends both generosity and snubs to her granddaughter as well. The narrator and her grandmother are not the meat of the novel, though; that's contained in the eleven stories of heroic priests, splendid and funny sagas of bravery large and small. These stories are set in an Ireland reeling after the Famine and deserted by her starving children for America, and in Scotland, suspicious of Catholics and also poverty-stricken. The Devil is met and bargained with, true lovers are united, dogs communicate their master's anguish and a murder mystery is solved. But these stories are not fanciful. They are completely believable. They are frankly and unabashedly legends. Fr. Benedict Groeschel says that a "legend is something that may or may not have happened, but is true anyway."

Miss Caldwell seems to have some real understanding of being touched by God in the middle of our everyday lives. In Dear and Glorious Physician, she writes a moving description of the pagan Roman Luke being drawn by love and awe to a temple of a god unknown to him, a temple with a cross. (Now that I think of it, the timing of his youth and his discovery of the truth of Jesus Christ might be a little off.) Likewise in Grandmother and the Priests, one chapter is about a priest who loses his faith right in the middle of Mass, and how he finds it again in the depths of his despair (I cry every darn time). She seems to understand how God reaches out and touches us, perhaps leading first with an earthly thing, but bringing the weight of His Love behind it to convince us of His Presence.

I love Miss Caldwell and Miss Godden's books. They are novels, nice non-challenging airport reads. You don't have to have a reference book handy. You aren't embarassed by what you don't know. It's a shame that you may have to find them in a library or on eBay, rather than in current print.

I'm a little afraid of Flannery O'Connor, her mysticism and I don't quite resonate, probably due to my own sinfulness. I'm more uncomfortable with Evelyn Waugh, who is tortured by his faith. God bless G. K. Chesterton, I read the Fr. Brown books and I'll read them again, but they can be a little arduous. I'll give all them a periodic retrial, but I'll regularly reach back and tip a Godden or a Caldwell off the shelf when I want to enjoy a nice, resounding, Catholic read.

Next: Theophilus North, by Thornton Wilder. Not deliberately Catholic, but that man was swishing more than one toe in the Tiber, at least in his view of the beautiful holiness and complexity of God's Creation and the holiness of our time spent in it, before Heaven.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

You're invited for a visit

This is Roz, who also posts at In Dwelling. I wrote a post about abortion on that blog rather than here because . . . well, I just felt like it. But you're welcome to stop by, read and comment if you like.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

There are other Catholic novels out there

besides those by G.K. Chesteron, Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh.

When I was in seventh grade, I was required to read a book called "The River." In true student fashion, because I had to read it, I loathed it. (The same goes for "A Tale of Two Cities" and "David Copperfield;" I'll have to re-read my way through my high school bibliography again someday....)

The author of "The River" is Rumer Godden (1907-1998), whose books were often peopled with nuns and priests. Several were explicitly about Anglican or Catholic themes, but nearly all were flavored with a yearning towards God. I was surprised that the author of my hated assignment was also the author of some of my favorite light-reading books.

Ms. Godden was fascinated primarily by holiness: in people, in history and in places. She edges around the holiness, at least her child characters do, expressing their desire to know God by concentrating on one piece of religious life: lighting a candle (A Candle for St. Jude), building a garden within sight of a statue of Mary seen through the wall of a bombed-out church (An Episode of Sparrows), making an icon without the slightest idea of what the devotion means (one dear to me, The Kitchen Madonna). One and all the characters have no religious training or example until the story ensues, which I think was symptomatic of England then (and now, sadly), but they learn something of God from these little gifts. Haven't we all been drawn a little closer by a hymn, or a picture, or a movie? Her adult characters seem to move towards God knowing they won't necessarily like the journey, but must undertake it to live.

The first time you read her books, with their characteristic between-wars Englishness, you will be struck by her reverence for religious life. She combines that with a prim, earnest, serious style, with wit and intellect however muted, recalling Barbara Pym and Josephine Tey. All her women are well-bred, well-shod and are genteelly broke. They all are longing starkly for something, and in Ms. Godden's novels, it's love and God.

In her most explicitly religious novel, In This House of Brede, a grown woman finds a vocation to the cloistered religious life and becomes a Benedictine nun. It is a touching and probably quite accurate struggle of a woman, alone after widowhood, rising in business, comfortable in life, growing into the silence and humility and charity necessary to be in community with others seeking to know God. It took me many reads over many years to realize that, superb as her characterization is, and intense as her storyline is (a great deal is revealed about the personal lives of each of the nuns in the convent), what Ms. Godden never seemed to know anything about was the experience of prayer and of receiving the Eucharist. Maybe it's because the nuns in the story are Anglican, which fact startled me because it all sounded so Roman Catholic. This doesn't weaken the book, or any of her books, but when you put one down with a satisfied sigh, you realize only after reflection that she shows no desire to be close to Jesus in prayer and sacrament. I'd be willing to bet that Ms. Godden herself didn't attend church, or if she did, she remained aloof, proper, a little afraid of intensity, too polite to offer her life to the Lord and accept His Life and Love in return. I'm sorry for that: she had the right equipment to write deeply of a deepening faith.

Two other novels are about nuns: Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy and The Black Narcissus. The first is an intense telling of the life of nuns who work with prostitutes and the entry into the convent of one of the prostitutes. The second is about a convent built in India, to help the poor, and its failure (that's revealed in the opening pages, I'm not giving anything away). The second book was made into a medium-lousy movie, if you've seen it, read the book anyway. It's much better.

Ms. Godden, and her sister Jon, are not out of print, but are largely out of mind these days, along with their English sisters. But consider them as an addition to your library pile.

I'll blog next on some of my other favorites: Grandmother and the Priests, by Taylor Caldwell, a book of joyful fables of Irish priests and their heroism in great matters and small, and Theophilus North, by Thornton Wilder, a book not at all about church or nuns or priests, but is a mesmerizing tale of a man who learns the sacredness of life, and the God-given dignity of every man, and the honor due to each person's walk on earth.

Can you suggest any neglected others?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

I found this delightful thing on Disputations.

The Lepers' Mass

The Penitential Rite
As Jesus ... was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices,
saying, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!"

Liturgy of the Word
And when he saw them, he said,
"Go show yourselves to the priests."

Liturgy of the Eucharist
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned,
glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of
Jesus and thanked him.

Ite, missa est.
Then he said to him, "Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you."

* * * * * * * * *

To visit the original, click here.

New tools

One of my friends is watching her mother-in-law die. Another underwent surgery on her eyes and may not have enough vision afterwards to work anymore. Two of my co-workers consistently irritate each other and get into spats. I can be driven out of my tiny mind in under 15 minutes by a member of my own family.

Nothing unusual for anybody, right? Nothing unusual for me, either. What HAS changed, since I have tried to walk my life in faith and love of Jesus is that I have a different set of tools to react to these. I don't mean just interior prayer, offering up suffering, being meek in the face of insult. I do mean offering to pray for people, telling them that they will be in my prayers. It depends a little on their own faith; I don't want to scare people by offering to remember them during daily Mass. Sometimes I use the euphemism that they will be "in my heart."

What a wonderful set of tools we have in His Love! Casseroles for the sick are all very well, but adding prayer gives them real value!

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Lady of ladies

At the retreat last week, the retreat mistress asked me if I had a relationship with Mary the Mother of God. I conceded that it was in the very beginning stages, so she recommended a book for me to read.* (Actually, I got that question from a number of the women, so I think God is trying to get something through my skull.)

So it's a treat that today celebrates Our Lady of the Rosary. I have recently returned to the Catholic Church. There are some aspects of the way Mary is regarded and revered in the Church that I am not yet completely comfortable with. (Grammarians, please forgive my trailing preposition.) But I think about the beloved Mother of Jesus, so intimately present at the birth, ministry, suffering and death of her Son, praying for me out of the love that a mother has for her child. I am touched, honored, and I want to thank her. I want her to pray for the people I love who are in need or hurting. I want to know the love that she knows. I want to know Jesus the way she knows Him.

Do I feel like I have a relationship with her? I don't know. It's a start. God's in charge - I'll let Him look after this too.

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* The book that was recommended to me is Introduction to Mary by Mark Miravalle. My good friends at Our Lady of Grace bookstore have ordered it for me. Thanks, Connie.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

May I have the honor of introducing you . . .?

I have never had the privilege of meeting Fr. David Hudgins (of my own Lansing diocese) in person. But his writings and his spirit have won me over. Besides, he's a Michigan fan, adding to his charm. Here's a recent post (actually an extract of something his brother wrote) from his blog The Great Commandment that is worth sharing with all of you:

Most of my life seems so ordinary to me, I don't think twice about it. Then from time to time I'm reminded how many people are fascinated by the priesthood, and want to know what it's really like to be on the inside looking out.

Today's subject is hearing confessions. Ever wondered what it's like to sit on the other side of the screen? Well step on over, and I'll tell you just a little bit. I could never summarize it all in the space of one little blog, but I'll try. If you could sit next to me and listen in, I think you'd discover...

--that most people are saying the exact same things. If you could hear someone else's confession, you'd think it was your own.--that you cannot recognize anyone's voice. With very very few exceptions, of people you know very well, you have no idea who is confessing to you. It really is anonymous.

--that in a very short amount of time, you would hear a sin against every commandment. Yep, all 10. You don't have to hear confessions for long before you feel you have heard it all. Which leads me to my next point...

--that for the life of you, you cannot remember what people say. After a few minutes in the "sin bin", it all sounds the same, and mushes together. In 6 years of hearing confessions, I can probably recall the specific sins of fewer than 10 people...and these were unforgettable, extreme, and very rarely committed sins.

--that you admire people more, not less, when they confess big sins. You think to yourself, "now here's someone who's honest, humble, and truthful. Here's someone who knows who they are, and wants to change." Believe it or not, big sins are beautiful to hear.

--finally, you would find it to be very tiring. Hearing confessions is an intense, emotionally draining experience, requiring constant, unflinching attention, and prudential judgement about what to say (and what not to say). After an hour, you're tired. After 2 hours, you're nerves are beginning to fray. After 3 hours, you can hardly remember your own name. St. John Vianney heard confessions for 18 hours a day. That's what we call "martyrdom on the installment plan.

Well there you have it. So don't be afraid to go to confession. Don't be afraid to say it all, and don't ever worry about what the priest thinks of you. When it comes to confession, the Nike commercials say it best, "just do it." You'll be glad you did.

Monday, October 04, 2004

More on Barack and Alan

In my post below, in which I complained that our local Benedictine university invited notably pro-death Barack Obama to speak without including his opponent, passionately Catholic Alan Keyes, I copied my email complaining that Mr. Keyes was not invited to speak on this "Catholic" campus.

Well, the media got it wrong. Alan Keyes WAS invited to speak, all along, if you can believe them. That's good, but look at the "let's invoke the sainted Cdl. Bernardin" fluff to be found on their website:

The Catholic Church is not a single issue Church. The United States Conference of Bishops reminded us of this official teaching in November, 2002, when they published Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Secretary for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently, also stated that the Catholic Church is not a single issue Church.

What this means is, that as a Catholic, we do not vote for a candidate simply on his/her position on only one issue, whether that issue is: abortion, the war in Iraq, capital punishment, poverty issues, homosexuality, etc.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago expressed this teaching with his beautiful analogy, "a seamless garment." There are many issues which we examine before choosing a candidate: Pro Life issues include, but are not limited to -abortion, capital punishment, stem-cell research, the war in Iraq, homosexual marriages, a living wage job, health care for all, respect for the environment, clean water for all God's children, political and economic policies which promote the common good with the needs of the poor first

In voting, the American Bishops and Cardinal Ratzinger want us to examine all these issues. Again, the Catholic Church is not a single issue Church. The pro-life issues are many.

In the words of Mad Magazine, bleaaagh.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Happy Name Day to Me!

Isn't it wonderful as a Catholic to have our very own personal heroes?

I didn't care for the Victorian sweetness of my patron saint, St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, for a good hunk of my life, but, by God's Grace, I've come to realize that it was my own worldly revulsion of the innocent, the deliberately helpless and pliant, the beautiful humility, that made me feel all over ooky when I read her biography.

I urge you to read The Story of a Soul, her autobiography. Normally, the autobiography of someone who died before she was thirty would be laughable (think Britney Spears). But Therese wrote it under obedience to her superior (her actual sister) and thank God we have it. If the first chapter of her childhood reminiscences is too sweet (and golly, it's sugary) for you, read parts two and three and then go back and read the first part. When you get a good grasp of her clear-headed, feminine, passionate love for Jesus and how she determined her "Little Way" of cheerful patience, enduring love in the face of pettiness and hurt, courage in illness and opposition, the first part falls into place very nicely.

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, thank you for causing my parents to name me after you! Help me to be simple, to take a straight path of love instead of detouring through hurt feelings or pride or irritation.


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We are grateful ladies with a point of view and a sense of humor. Like-hearted people are welcome. Others, too.

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"There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know."

Pres. Barack Obama, Feb 5, 2009