Tag Archives: literature

Celebrating Catholicism in American Culture

Following on from yesterday’s post, we move to a more positive topic, which is what you can do to shake up people’s misconceptions about Catholicism.  Standing up and defending the Church is critical at this time, when the Church seems to be attacked in the press and on social media every five minutes.  Yet admittedly, some of us are better at fighting these kinds of fights than others.

Truthfully what all Catholics ought to be doing is not looking to plunge into great battles in the world of public opinion, but rather engaging in what we are supposed to be doing, which is evangelizing to those around us.  It is far easier to get into often-anonymous fights on social media, or even publish scurrilous blog posts such as the one which U.S. News had the misfortune to give the go-ahead, than it is to calmly and respectfully discuss Catholicism with one’s friends and neighbors.  And even though there is unquestionably a time for arguing, even strident arguing, more often it is through a self-confident witness that we will change minds and hearts.

A few years ago for example, I was rather surprised to be informed by a Protestant friend that Catholics do not believe in the Holy Spirit. I pointed out that the whole Trinitarian “thing” was our idea.  His counter was, that even if Catholics did believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit, we did not believe that He was God.

After wondering for a moment why therefore I had bothered about being Confirmed, or celebrated the Feast of Pentecost for decades, I realized that mere argument was not going to be enough.  I challenged my friend to attend Mass with me the following Sunday, so that he could see and hear for himself what Catholics actually believe about the Holy Spirit. To his credit, being a very smart and good fellow, he agreed.

I did not look at the readings for that Sunday in advance of our visit, but I do recall that before we left for church I prayed to the Holy Spirit, asking him to let us have a good Mass, and one that would open my friend’s eyes a little regarding what he misunderstood about Catholicism.  I was rather pleased to discover when we got there that it just so happened all of the Scripture readings at Mass that particular Sunday – and the hymns, to boot – were about the Holy Spirit. That, in combination with the set prayers and blessings which we regularly pray such as the Nicene Creed, persuaded my friend that he had indeed been misinformed.

Inviting your non-Catholic friends to come to Mass with you can be a good thing, particularly if you have a generally solid parish, but what about reaching those who are not interested in darkening the door of the Church at all? This is why cultural literacy has always been such an important issue for Catholics in this country, and something which we need to encourage more Catholics to take on as a virtue.  The study of history, literature, science, and the arts reveals a wealth of material stemming from Catholic spirituality, philosophy, and creativity, which all too often non-Catholics and even many Catholics themselves are completely unaware of.

For example, the Nativity scenes which everyone just finished packing away until next year, can all trace their origins to the first such scene, which was put up by St. Francis of Assisi.  The celebration of Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”) which, hard to believe, is just over a month away, is a Catholic tradition that arose from the practice of having a last celebration of feasting on rich food and drink, before the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  You know those little raised bumps called “braille”, which help the blind to read and to get around on things like elevators and trains?  They were invented by a deeply devout, blind Catholic named Louis Braille, who played the organ at Mass every day and received Holy Communion on his deathbed.  And even those who are fans of sports teams at the large, secular state universities like Alabama and Oregon owe the very existence of those schools to Catholics, who founded the original universities in places like Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, and Oxford on which all subsequent universities are modeled.

So much of what Catholicism has given to the world is all around us, and yet we never take the time to point it out to others.  I suspect this is often because those of us who are inside the Church could do with some more curiosity about the Faith, but also because we often have no idea what those outside the Church have actually been taught about us.  And when we do find out what is being said behind our collective backs, as it were, we are so shocked at what others think that we do or believe, that we are at a loss to know how to respond.

Fortunately, Americans today live in an age of terrific resources, available to all for the price of a monthly internet connection.  From websites and forums, to videocasts and podcasts, to blogs and online publications, if you want to take an active interest in learning about your Church, so that you can then turn around and share that knowledge with others, you can do so at any time.  And what’s more, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, at your leisure, in a way which your Catholic ancestors could not even have imagined.

The responsibility of what you do with that information of course, is yours.  While you may use it to try to win an argument on Reddit or Twitter, in the end it may be even more productive for you to try using it to persuade someone you actually know in real life, around the water cooler or over the back fence, that perhaps Catholicism really isn’t what organizations like the (alleged) mainstream media keep saying that it is.  A Catholic who is interested in his Faith can serve as a reputable resource for not only defending the Church in the public square, but perhaps more importantly in bringing to others a sense of appreciation for the many good things which Catholicism has brought to America, and indeed to all of Western Civilization.

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Giusto di Giovanni de' Menabuoi (c. 1360-70) Baptistery, Padua

Detail of “Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Giusto di Giovanni de’ Menabuoi (c. 1360-70)
Baptistery, Padua

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Blurred Underlines

There is a certain logic in the movement to eliminate the printed word in favor of the electronic one.  People spend good money to buy a printed, bound, and glued collection of pulp which, in the vast majority of cases, loses its value as soon as one starts to use it.  And we are all very much aware of the fact that previously read books are one of those categories of household effects which people tend to get rid of when they move.

Not me.

When I moved back to the U.S. from London over a decade ago, I was confronted with the fact that I had bought so many books during the couple of years I lived in the UK, and that there was no conceivable way in which I could possibly take all of these volumes with me on the plane.  I ended up leaving quite a number of them behind temporarily, and it took some dear friends with a spacious attic in Swiss Cottage, and two subsequent trips back with an empty suitcase, to bring them all home.  I know, in retrospect I probably should have shipped them, but then again I would have been more anxious about their safety crossing the Atlantic, but whenever I visit any city I find myself coming home heavily laden with more books to read, so this is not something new.

Last evening I was going through “No Man Is An Island”, a book by Thomas Merton which I had bought many years ago at the Notre Dame bookstore, and which had gone with me to London and back.  As with many of the books I purchased during that time in my life, it has quite a bit of underlining.  For those of you who have not been to law school, you cannot appreciate how much you must underline and make notes in the margins of your books as a first-year law student just to keep up with your nightly reading assignments of 200-300 pages, any of which you might be called upon to explain in class the next day.  You overcome the sense of wanton destruction rather quickly under such circumstances, even if you are, like I was, the sort of person who was always loath to write in a clean, printed book.

What I found particularly interesting, not having cracked open this particular volume of Merton in quite a number of years, was seeing what I had underlined when I was younger. The lined sections were either key elements of Merton’s arguments, or passages which spoke to me in a particularly personal way at the time I originally read them.  Looking back and seeing myself in what I had chosen to underline taught me just as much as re-visiting the content of the book itself did.  In fact, had I not underlined it in blurry, smudgy ballpoint many years ago, reopening that volume would probably have made less of an impact.  I was able to see who I was as a younger man, pushing my way through graduate school, rather overly-educated, naive, and not having much of a clue, and compared him to the older man, now long-since finished with formal education and considerably less naive, but oftentimes still not having much of a clue.

While there are a number of books which one ought not to write in – first editions, folios, exhibition catalogues, and so on – it does fall to me then to endorse the  habit of making handwritten notations on books at least in some cases, particularly where you do in fact stand a decent chance of going back to revisit a particular volume later in life.  That does not mean every work of fiction or non-fiction which comes through your hands needs to have your own personal gloss put on the margins.  Moreover if you are still in Catholic school when you read this, do not show Sister Mary Library my blog post and tell her that I told you it was okay to write in your textbooks – you have to return those books at the end of the school year, remember, and the last thing I need right now are angry phone calls from vicars of diocesan education .

Yet I would ask you to consider that even with the technology to make notes on your Kindle or other reader device, typing is still is not the same as drawing those lines yourself around words that strike you as meaningful, in much the same way that receiving an email, however heartening the details, is never quite the same as receiving a handwritten card or letter, however brief.  Even in our supposedly technologically enlightened age, that piece of paper is still just a tiny bit more special than something which arrives electronically.  Indeed, perhaps its comparative rarity nowadays makes it even more special, just like finding some old lines in an old book.

Parm

“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Parmigianino (c. 1530)
York Art Gallery, England

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Read For Yourself

Recently I was watching C-Span Book TV ‘s coverage of author Robert Richardson at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.  As I was suffering from a rather potent bout of insomnia, the thought of listening to some old hippies rattle on about how they do not like the mess they have made of our society seemed to be the best way to put me to sleep under the circumstances.  Much of Mr. Richardson’s presentation was what one would expect., in that  we were condemned to a random rattling off of quotations from other writers, with a single adjective attached to each indicating his approval.  This sort of presentation is of course designed not so much to enlighten, as to impress the audience with the amount of books the lecturer has read.

During his presentation, Mr. Richardson recounted the passage in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which one of the brothers justifies his quasi-atheistic views, doubtless as a foil for the author himself or at least some of his thought process, since if you have read other works by Dostoevsky you know that he was something of a mixed bag when it comes to his opinions on religion.  A story is recounted about an 8-year-old boy who is quite literally hounded to death, with a gruesome punishment for a minor misdeed, before the eyes of his own mother.  If God allows such things to happen, the story concludes, then the recounter of the tale was not interested in having anything to do with him.

That attitude, according to Mr. Richardson, aptly reflects his own views on the subject as well.  The rather obvious rejoinder to this of course, at least for the Christian, is that Mr. Richardson’s argument is something of a cop-out, since God Himself was brutally and unjustly killed before the eyes of His Mother on Calvary.  It also assumes that the concept of free will is something which must be imposed or lifted at will, as if God is playing a chess match with human playing pieces.  Be that as it may, such a simplistic and rather narcissistic understanding of the Divine is regrettably not uncommon among the so-called intelligentsia who dominate our universities, publishing houses, and media outlets.

For forty years or so we have witnessed the build-up of an intellectual establishment built not on universal truths, let alone intellect, but rather on relative opinions, and Mr. Richardson is merely one cog in that infernal machine.  We have seen the effect of the worship of Priapus instead of God, for example, in the enormous amount of sexually transmitted disease that runs rampant through our society which, as a very wise theology teacher of my acquaintance pointed out the other evening, no one seems to talk about.  The supposed freedom granted by the Sexual Revolution has in fact enslaved us to, among other things, the pharmaceutical industry.  This chasing after temporary personal pleasure in lieu of preparing for eternity, following millennia of human intellectual endeavors to instill virtues of self-control and self-sacrifice, has had a devastating impact on our world.

Yet there is something to be said for the example of those like Mr. Richardson, who stand at podiums and preach their gospels of nothingness, and that is the fact that they do actually read.  They may largely be reading a lot of garbage bound between two covers and presented as books, but nevertheless they do undertake the effort to continue to work on the exercise of their minds  through the exploration of writing.  Of course, part of the reason many otherwise educated younger people do not read today, is precisely because they had professors like Mr. Richardson in college.  If you are burdened with a teacher who turns you off to the world of literature by insisting that everything is about oppression and sex, there can be no better barrier to raise to the concept of reading as a form of ongoing education and the formation of ideas.

Fortunately, there are remedies to the situation.  I have always found that one of the best ways to critically evaluate a work of fiction, biography, and so on which you cannot bring yourself to agree with, is to always keep in mind the question of whether the author actually understands the truth he is rejecting.  I do not have to agree with a writer’s point of view in order to be able to find merit or even truth in his work.  This is not an easy task, of course, yet if you know what you believe, then you can be at the ready when you perceive that a scrivener or a professor is trying to convince you that they are right, and you are merely ignorant.  (How one establishes what is right and what is wrong when everything is supposedly relative is another matter entirely.)

By no means am I suggesting that you go off and read the collected works of Engels and Marx, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment, or for that matter wish to fully know thy enemy.  After all, without having at least some idea of what the devil looks like, when he tells you there is no such thing as personal accountability for example, you will be hard-pressed to recognize him when he presents himself in one of his countless guises.  Just as the lawyer in the courtroom needs to be able to anticipate his opponent’s argument in order to be able to successfully defeat it, it is insufficient to say that simply because part of what an author believes or concludes is incorrect, that it is therefore impossible to gain anything from his work.’

It is often unpleasant to read the work of those who are still fighting the culture wars that led our society into the morass in which it wallows in at present.  However to back away and give those digging us in, ever deeper, into such muck is not helpful either.  One may be able to refute Mr. Richardson – and indeed Dostoevsky – without having read any of their work, but it would be a difficult endeavor to sustain over a long period.

Thus while it is certainly inadvisable to take your views on the question of eternal life from those who write novels, or indeed biographies of existentialists, it is important to at least be somewhat familiar with such thinkers, however misguided they may be.  It is through a systematic emphasis on the dumbing down of Western society, paradoxically as access to higher education has never been more widespread, that we have found ourselves in a culture that is rather shallow, materialistic, and interested largely in the seeking of personal pleasure, much like the ancient pagan societies we emerged out of.  The fight to make us into a fat, lazy, and ignorant society which can be easily controlled and placated has very nearly been achieved.

In order to take back this battle then,  you cannot rely solely on your wits: you must work. And by work, I mean you must read.  Read all of the writers you love and admire, yes, but also take the time to read those whom you are suspicious of, and do so with a critical eye as to why you find them so untrustworthy.  It is entirely possible to examine what the world is trying to sell you as truth, without actually buying into its message in the process.  And unlike Mr. Richardson, I would posit that reading someone like Emerson does not require that you actually throw yourself head-first into Walden Pond.

3ages (800x600)
“The Three Ages of Man” by Giorgione (c. 1500-1501)
Pitti, Florence

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In Defense of Peter Jackson: The Value of Interpretation

freshly-pressed-rectangle

This blog post will no doubt annoy a number of my closest friends, and particularly infuriate those who are the Middle Earth equivalent of the SSPX – i.e., more Tolkien-than-thou.  However my intent is not to make pleasantries, but rather to challenge perceptions and preconceptions in our culture.  To paraphrase Addison DeWitt, my native habitat is the blogosphere: in it I toil not, neither do I spin – I am simply a critic and commentator.

That being said, I will now freely admit that I am looking forward to catching Part One of Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” this weekend, if I can manage to snag a ticket at my local multiplex.  Rather than review a film which I have not yet seen, I want to address two points which all of us ought to keep in mind, and not just with respect to Jackson’s work.  The first and most important is to remind the reader of the value of variation and interpretation, in expression of the artistic imagination.  The second, which flows naturally from it, is to consider Jackson’s work within that context, as well as to judge it on its own merits.

Our cultural history is replete with examples of theme and repetition, not only because human beings enjoy variety, but also because the human imagination takes new pieces of insight from each reinterpretation of something which is already known to us.  We see this idea all the time, in literature, music, architecture, and so on.  If we look at art, for example, let us consider the subject of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who became the King of Israel.

Were I to ask you to imagine a work of art representing David, the first image to come into your mind would likely be that of Michelangelo’s giant statue which stands in the Accademia in Florence.  This image of the shepherd-king has been famous since it was completed, an iconic and influential piece of sculpture known all over the world.  The serenity and confidence, the strong determination of this “ruddy youth”, as he is described in the Book of Samuel, who is growing into a man’s body and will soon become a great military leader, may have been intended as an allegory of Florence, but over time has come to represent the very idea of the Italian Renaissance for many.

Yet there are other images of David, created both before and after this particular work, which can bring about other levels of understanding.  Take Bernini’s David in the Borghese in Rome, for example, which was created during the Counter-Reformation as the Catholic Church fought back against Protestantism.  In this image, the young shepherd boy is shown about to slay Goliath with his slingshot.  He is wound up like a professional baseball pitcher, chewing on his lower lip with a look of keen concentration on his unseen target, narrowing his eyes to see exactly where to aim his weapon in order to do the most damage.

Whereas Michelangelo’s colossal David is rather static, Bernini’s is about action.  They are each a product of their time.  The former represents the newly-found confidence of a culture which believed that it was reviving the lost arts and knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, and expressed that confidence in the way it presented saints like King David.  The latter is that of an institution under attack from all sides, which is not going to roll over and play dead, but rather will fight back against those who would see it fail.

Ever since Peter Jackson released the first installment of his film version of “Lord of the Rings” ten years ago this month, there has been a mass of criticism that he has not done proper justice to the books.  Despite the total length of the three films extending to many hours, the refrain from Tolkien fans then was that Jackson had cut too much.  While some of this is made up for in the Extended Editions of the films on DVD, which are even better than the theatrical versions, Jackson admittedly had to make editorial decisions about what to put in, what to leave out, and so on, in bringing the story to the screen.  Similarly, now it seems that a common complaint among the commentariat is that turning “The Hobbit”, a much shorter book – comparatively – than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of novels, into three films is making it too long.  In other words, Mr. Jackson is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

Let us take what we have considered above with respect to the image of David, and apply it to what we are seeing here, with these films.  What Jackson himself has said in the past about his work, and it is a point with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that we need to keep in mind that these are HIS interpretations of the stories, using his talents and the resources available to him as best he can.  Moreover, he fully anticipates that at some point, another director will come along and make his own film version of Tolkien’s books.

It is a bit unfair – and frankly rather illogical – to expect one artistic medium to be able to express itself in the way that another does.  King David, after all, was a real person, who lived a long time ago, and his deeds are described in the Bible.  That, in itself, is an interpretation of his life through the inspired Scriptures.  Do we complain that Michelangelo or Bernini’s statues are unfair representations of David, because they do not actually move?  Do we whine because paintings of David by artists like Castagno or Caravaggio do not speak?

Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, we look at these works of art, and value them based on their own merits, but also in how they bring us back to the person of David and the stories about him in the Bible.  If Mr. Jackson tells an otherwise good story in a way which is unwatchable, then his film will fail; if he tells that story in a way which draws audiences in and makes them interested, then he will succeed.  And in so doing, then perhaps his work will cause people who have never heard of Tolkien or read his work, to go read the books for themselves.

The value of cultural reinterpretations of our values and virtues is that they constantly remind us to reflect on great topics, which with all of our everyday cares and concerns we so often do not get to do.  Tolkien himself was a novelist, not a filmmaker – and neither were Count Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, or any of the other writers whose works are coming to the big screen this season.  While some may not like Jackson’s particular interpretation of Tolkien’s writing, the real question to be asked is not whether it is a complete representation of Tolkien’s work on screen, but whether there is enough virtue in what appears in the film to reflect favorably on at least some of the author’s concerns.

In the spirit of cultural maturity, we need to give Mr. Jackson the chance to tell his version of Tolkien’s story, and enjoy the good parts of it even as we acknowledge those portions which we may not like.  For the next cinematic interpretation of these novels will no doubt be just as different from Jackson’s version, as Bernini’s David is from Michelangelo’s.

Hobbit

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The Courtier Pays a Call

Last evening I visited some good friends after work for a couple of hours, having a drink outside on their balcony and enjoying both the conversation and summer-like weather.  One of the benefits of getting older is realizing how often such evenings are infinitely more pleasurable, memorable, and even educational than ones spent either surrounded by a great deal of noise and activity, or entirely on one’s own.  The reason I suspect this is the case is something that Count Castiglione himself understood very well, for in fact it forms the framework for his “Book of the Courtier”, from which this blog takes its inspiration, and that is the importance of actual conversation between human beings, and what that conversation does to examine and to build up our society.

Back before the Western world turned in on itself in selfishness and the worship of fleeting images projected onto flat screens, people of all social classes used to engage in what was collectively referred to as “paying calls.”  This involved physically going to visit a neighbor, friend, or relative, in order to discuss how everyone was doing, the news and events of the day, and so on.  The manner and timing of the visit would vary according both to personal desire and local practice.  In one part of the world for example, it might be customary to pay calls after church on Sunday; in another, it might be that one visited one’s neighbor only in the cool of the evening after chores were finished for the day.

When calling upon others was considered standard practice, the “people from the manor” visited their neighbors and friends, and received visitors in turn, just as the farm laborers working in their fields did in their own cottages.  The merchants in the towns and cities engaged in it, as did their customers.  Please note that in observing this fact, I am not making reference to some dreamy fantasy of what life might have been like in the days before television and the internet: it was simply a fact of life that unless you were desperately poor – and even the poor would visit one another to bring comfort and solace in their commiseration - you had a duty to behave this way if you were to be considered civilized. Ask your grandparents about what life was like when they were younger, and chances are they will tell you about paying calls, or whatever the practice may have been referred to where they lived, where the adults relished the opportunity to sit and talk with other adults.

We can see just how essential this practice was, for paying calls takes place among all classes of society throughout the canon of Western literature.  It is recounted throughout centuries of fiction: without even having to go look up the actual passages, I can think of such scenes in the work of writers such as Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, Eudora Welty, James Boswell, Bailey White, Arnold Bennett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Joyce, and countless others.  It was such a common practice, with so many local varieties, that sometimes the rules surrounding this practice could become quite rigid – even comically so.

Take the beautiful BBC miniseries “Cranford”, for example, based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell.  The spinster sisters Miss Deborah and Miss Mattie Jenkins inform their recently-arrived houseguest from the metropolis of Manchester, Miss Mary Smith, of all the multiple protocols adopted locally over the years, as to when and where and how such visits are to take place.  These unwritten commandments on paying calls provide a seemingly endless source of amusement for the  viewer, as the maid repeatedly errs in how she announces visitors, or the visitors themselves stay too long, or raise subjects that are not supposed to be addressed during such get-togethers.

Yet comedy aside, the important thing to note from the practice of visiting and holding conversation on a regular basis in the home, was that it held families and communities together.  When we started building Western civilization through working together, these practices helped to both create and give life to society, and to thereafter keep that society going.  And this marvelous feat of not actually slaughtering each other in the street was accomplished by bringing people face to face within a framework of behaving with respect in someone else’s home, however grand or humble that home might be.

As I wrote about earlier this week, with the coming of shorter days and colder temperatures, many of us are going to become more isolated, turning to television and the internet for company, and we need to make an effort to reach out to those who might be isolated because of the change of seasons.  However I would also suggest that regardless of the time of year, for the larger health of our society, paying calls on a regular basis with those in our community is something we ought to consider reviving.  Perhaps not in as formal a way as it was practiced previously, but we can use technology to make such meetings easier to arrange.  And once we do meet, then the technology can be switched off or ignored, and the type of conversations which led to the building up of Western civilization can once again take place.


“Rev. Thomson paying a call on Mr. and Mrs. Harris in their home”
Life Magazine

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