Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back again the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as do we, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht

About these ads

Review of “Le Corbeau”: Why Shock Value Isn’t Enough

A film whose central character is a philandering abortionist would seem to be too hot a commodity for mainstream cinema to attempt, even today. Yet Henri-Georges Clozot did so in his controversial 1943 work “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”), which I screened over the weekend. While the film shows there really is nothing new under the sun, insofar as shocking audiences is concerned, I must confess that it left me rather underwhelmed: it is all crime and no punishment.

“Le Corbeau” is set in a small town in France, where all of the local residents have closely-guarded secrets. From the start, we are made very much aware that this is not a happy, peaceful town: long-standing hatreds are commonplace, and people are often very much less than kind to one another. The “hero” of the story, if we are to call him that, Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) works as a surgeon at the local hospital, and practices illegal abortions on the side. He is carrying on an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of one of his colleagues, and in the course of the film succumbs to the amorous advances of his landlady Denise (Ginette Leclerc).

As the story develops, a series of poison-pen letters signed by someone who calls himself “Le Corbeau” begin to circulate, accusing Dr. Germain and others of committing various crimes. The supposed mystery of the writer’s identity, as matters become more heated and turn to acts of violence, is what occupies us as the film gets going. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I realized who the author of the letters was almost immediately, and so the foregone conclusion turned the experience into something of a waiting game.

“Le Corbeau” is a film which is usually on the must-see list for those of us interested in the development of French cinema, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a something like a combination of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock – in the French taste, natch. Parts of it are superbly well-shot, particularly in using empty space/silence and unexpected camera angles to create a threatening atmosphere. And there are a number of good performances from the cast, though throughout the movie I kept thinking that the character of Denise would have been played more convincingly by the great Jeanne Moreau, a generation later. Most view it today as a kind of veiled criticism of the atmosphere of distrust brought about as a result of the Nazi occupation, when neighbors would turn in their neighbors to the Gestapo.

However the real notoriety of the picture stems from its scandalous public history. It was produced by a German-owned company, and seemed to offend almost everyone across the moral and political spectrum – from the Church to the French Resistance to the Vichy Regime. The film was banned for a time, and Clozot himself was barred from working in French cinema for two years after the war. As we all know, anytime something like a book or a movie is formally banned, it is going to attract an audience keen on examining it for themselves, and this is one reason why “Le Corbeau” continues to be studied today.

This did not have to become the only reason to see the film, however, even though that is now the case, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. The poison-pen letter used as a plot device by Clozot can be a useful tool for ripping open the painted scenery and showing us what lies just behind. He could have allowed the possibilities open to him through the implementation of this device to lead him to create a script and accompanying film which captures our universal desire to see crime being punished. He would not have been the first Frenchman so to be fascinated, or successful, in considering the subject through the use of this plot device.

Perhaps the most famous French example is the 18th century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, which has been treated by cinema many times on both sides of the pond. Two examples with which my American readers may be familiar are the now-classic Glenn Close/John Malkovich “Dangerous Liaisons” from 1988, and the Reese Whitherspoon/Ryan Philippe reinterpretation “Cruel Intentions” from a decade later. In these films, crime has consequences that not only result in death, but in actual punishment.

The spectacular performance by Glenn Close in the earlier film as her world crumbles around her is made particularly satisfying because her own methods are being turned against her. We enjoy her punishment because it is part of our fallen nature to enjoy revenge, but more importantly because we realize, as she does, that she will go on experiencing a living hell on earth. She has ruined the lives and reputations of others, and now her life and reputation are ruined: the punishment fits the crime.

By contrast, in “Le Corbeau” the writer of the letters is punished, vigilante-style, but we are left unsatisfied by the outcome, thinking, “That’s it?” The doer of the deed comes almost out of nowhere; the story has become so convoluted by this point that we have forgotten about them almost entirely. And despite some last-minute “what ifs?” by Clozot there is never any doubt as to the writer’s identity or fate.

Clozot leaves us with important, unanswered questions. Are the townspeople just going to go back to being mean to one another? Is Dr. Germain still going to be committing infanticide and fooling around? Is Denise still going to be playing Potiphar’s wife to all of her husband’s lodgers? In other words: has anyone actually learned anything? “Le Corbeau” fades out on a beautiful shot, but the story faded long before we got to this point – and this is ultimately its greatest problem.

Making something shocking is one sure-fire way to gain notoriety, or at the very least some attention. Yet the real power of a well-written play or novel that also happens to shock its audience at the time of its initial appearance is its staying power to continue to shock audiences a decade (or a century) or more later. Certainly, there is much to like about “Le Corbeau”, if you are interested in the history of cinema. Yet those interested in really getting into the meat of man’s inhumanity to man, in ways that can be just as shocking to us today as they were at the time their works appeared, would be better served by reading Balzac or Camus.

Review: The “Just William” Series by Richmal Crompton

Having received an early Christmas present from my British goddaughter, in the form of a new Kindle, I have been happily downloading and reading books from the Gutenberg Project website. This is a pleasant supplement to a practice I began some time ago, and about which I have written previously, of downloading audio books from the Librivox site for my iPod. In the case of both ventures, the books are in the public domain, as their copyrights have expired. Thus if you visit either site, you will not find free downloads from contemporary writers high and low – no Orhan Pamuk or Stephen King. However, you will find works from a host of authors in all genres, high-brow literature and philosophy to popular fiction and non-fiction, from Aristotle to Zola.

As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are settling into the chill of winter, with many afternoons and evenings spent indoors out of the weather, it is a wonderful time to read, and to explore works with which we may not be familiar. While normally I do tend to stay in the company of individuals usually considered serious authors, such as Balzac and Galsworthy, like anyone with a reasonably normal disposition I do need some light humor from time to time. Many times in the search for such material, I stumble across authors whose books, while popular in their day, are not often talked about now. For example, I suspect that most of my readers will not be aware of the works of E.M. Delafield; her “Provincial Lady” series from the 1930′s is an ongoing comedy of middle-class manners that often proves to be laugh-out-loud funny.

Such is the case with another collection of works, often known collectively as the “Just William” series after the title of the first book in the group, by Richmal Crompton. Though probably well-known to my British readers, American audiences of my generation are likely unfamiliar with the character of William Brown and his adventures. This terrible oversight must be remedied, dear reader, as soon as possible.

William is an eleven-year-old middle-class boy who lives with his parents and older brother and sister in a large house with well-tended gardens in an English country village during the 1920′s, and attends the village primary school. Though the setting is essentially rural, it has suburban overtones and we can glean that the location is within commuting distance of London. William’s father holds some sort of business executive or other white-collar position, while his mother stays at home and looks after the household. William’s girl-crazy brother Robert is in college, while his sister Ethel stays at home and is something of a popular socialite. The cook and the parlor maid complete the list of permanent residents at the Brown home, though there are frequently house guests in the form of relatives, as well as friends and neighbors, who round out the picture.

As boys of his age are wont to do, William is something of a mischief-maker, and it is in the combination of his activities as well as Crompton’s uncanny ability to get into the mind and thought process of a boy of William’s age that end up making this series. If William was merely a miscreant, the stories would lose their charm, as I must say I always found to be the case with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Yet even as he brings about random acts of destruction, William has flashes of genius, charity, and compassion that keep us from rejecting him as simply a badly-behaved little boy.

Last evening I found myself laughing lustily and long over a story in which William and his pals rig up a sideshow in his bedroom and charge admission to the other children in the village. The highlight of this involves William exhibiting his visiting Great Aunt Emily, a woman who is not only self-righteous but morbidly obese and of giant stature. Aunt Emily had come a month earlier, and was supposed to have stayed for a week; to the despair of William’s father, she had now been there a month, and shows every sign of intending to stay for several months more, claiming to be ill when in fact she is as healthy as an ox and is simply mooching off the Browns.

When Aunt Emily is napping, her snores are something so out of this world, that William decides he is going to put her on exhibit as a “Genuine Fat Wild Woman”; she becomes the highlight of the sideshow:

Those who came out simply went to the end again to wait another turn. Many returned home for more money, for Aunt Emily was 1d. extra and each visit after the first, 1/2d. The Sunday School bell pealed forth its summons, but no one left the show. The vicar was depressed that evening. The attendance at Sunday School had been the worst on record.

And still Aunt Emily slept and snored with a rapt, silent crowd around her. But William could never rest content. He possessed ambition that would have put many of his elders to shame. He cleared the room and re-opened it after a few minutes, during which his clients waited in breathless suspense.

When they re-entered there was a fresh exhibit. William’s keen eye had been searching out each detail of the room. On the table by her bed now stood a glass containing teeth, that William had discovered on the washstand, and a switch of hair and a toothless comb, that William had discovered on the dressing-table. These all bore notices:

FAT WILD WOMAN’S TEETHFAT WILD WOMAN’S HARE

FAT WILD WOMAN’S KOME

Were it not that the slightest noise meant instant expulsion from the show (some of their number had already suffered that bitter fate) there would have been no restraining the audience. As it was, they crept in, silent, expectant, thrilled, to watch and listen for the blissful two minutes. And Aunt Emily never failed them. Still she slept and snored.

They borrowed money recklessly from each other. The poor sold their dearest treasures to the rich, and still they came again and again. And still Aunt Emily slept and snored.

It would be interesting to know how long this would have gone on, had she not, on the top note of a peal that was a pure delight to her audience, awakened with a start and glanced around her. At first she thought that the cluster of small boys around her was a dream, especially as they turned and fled precipitately at once. Then she sat up and her eye fell upon the table by her bed, the notices, and finally upon the petrified horror-stricken showman.

She sprang up and, seizing him by the shoulders, shook him till his teeth chattered, the tinsel crown fell down, encircling ears and nose, and one of his moustaches fell limply at his feet.

“You wicked boy!” she said as she shook him, “you wicked, wicked, wicked boy!”

- Richmal Crompton, “Just William” Chapter V, “The Show”

This is just one example of what to expect in the series, which encompasses numerous books. The first two, “Just William” and “More William” are currently available on the Project Gutenberg site. The Librivox site at present only has a recording of the “More William” collection.

For a briefer introduction to William Brown, I highly recommend downloading the short story available on Librivox entitled “The Christmas Present”, which was my first introduction to the adventures of this unforgettable boy and his family. If you enjoy the book/film version of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story”, then you will certainly enjoy this tale of William’s Christmas disasters. Even with the mishaps and misunderstandings, it is ultimately a warm and – did I mention? – very funny book about family life, which I am sure all of my readers will be able to relate to.