Thought Pourri: What’s In Edition

Rather pressed for time today, so let’s just head to some of the headlines that I’ve picked out for your perusal:

Picasso in Provence

The really BIG news in the art world this week is that the south of France is about to score what will no doubt become a major destination for art aficionados and tourists alike. Catherine Hutin-Blay, the stepdaughter of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and his 2nd wife, Jacqueline Roque (1927-1986), has purchased a former Dominican convent in the town of Aix-en-Provence, which will become the home of a new museum dedicated to the artist and his muse, whom he painted over 400 times during their marriage. Mme. Hutin-Blay owns the largest number of Picassos still in private hands; the new museum will house well over 1,000 paintings, as well as sculptures, drawings, and ceramics by her famous stepfather, who is buried alongside her mother at the nearby Château of Vauvenargues. To give you some sense of the size of this institution, the new museum will have more Picasso paintings in its collection than the four extant Picasso Museums in Barcelona, Paris, Antibes, and Málaga.

As to the building itself, the Dominicans first arrived in Aix in 1272. The first convent was completed in the 14th century; this burned down and was rebuilt, but a century later it had to be demolished. The convent and the attached church of La Madeleine – dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, patroness of the Dominican Order, were completed in the 17th century. The convent served the Order until the 18th century, when it was taken over by the provincial government. After that it became a courthouse, a barracks, a training college for teachers, a conservatory of music, and finally an all-girls high school, until it closed in June 2015.

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Saint-Gaudens in New Hampshire

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was one of the greatest sculptors in American art history; while his rather grand name may not be familiar to you, a number of his works probably are. Among his most famous sculptures are the “Standing Lincoln” located in Lincoln Park, Chicago, the “Shaw Memorial” on Boston Common, and possibly my favorite, the “Adams Memorial” in Rock Creek Park Cemetery here in DC (a copy of which, shown below, is located in the American Art Museum.) The Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, New Hampshire, will be hosting a major exhibition of Saint-Gaudens’ work – not an easy task, given the size of much of it – including his iconic “Diana”, a gigantic gilded statue of the goddess of the hunt which once stood atop the 2nd (and far superior) version of Madison Square Garden in New York, designed by Saint-Gaudens’ frequent collaborator, architect Stanford White. “The Sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens” opens at the Currier on Saturday, February 10th, and runs through May 20th.

Adams

Voynich in Hebrew (?)

One of the most enigmatic objects to survive from the Middle Ages is the “Voynich Manuscript”, an illuminated manuscript currently in the collection of Yale University, which has fascinated collectors, cryptologists, and scientists for centuries. So far, no one has been able to read it or make any sense of it, although theories (some of them rather crackpot) abound. It is first documented in the middle of the 16th century, even though the book itself has been carbon-dated to show that it was probably created sometime in the early 1400’s. Now, scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, using analytic software tools, have announced that they may have cracked this seemingly indecipherable document at last, concluding that it is written in a somewhat badly spelled and slightly ungrammatical form of Hebrew. More work needs to be done, but perhaps this ancient book will finally be able to share its secrets.

Voynich

 

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Blog Tour: Saints Who Battled Satan by Paul Thigpen

I’m honored to be a part of the blog tour for author Paul Thigpen’s latest, “Saints Who Battled Satan”, published by TAN Books. In this compendium, Thigpen looks at the lives of seventeen saints who took the devil by the horns, and won. In the process, he also provides examples and teaching moments, not only about coming to terms with the existence of evil, personified, but also about how men and women throughout the centuries have dealt with that reality in ways that kept them close to God.

As one might expect, if one is a regular reader of these pages, I wanted the chance to review the chapter on St. Dominic, being the Dominican fanboy that I am. Despite the enormous impact that he had, not only on the Church but on world history, St. Dominic is someone who is not as well-known as his friend and contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi. Most Catholics can recall stories about St. Francis preaching to the birds, receiving the stigmata, or setting up the first Christmas crèche, yet if they know anything about St. Dominic at all, it is that he gave us the rosary. Not a bad thing of course, as attributes ago, but as Thigpen points out in his chapter on the saint, St. Dominic became a personal target for the devil as soon as he set foot in Albigensian territory.

As a form of neo-Manicheanism, the Albigensian heresy in 13th century France was well-suited to Satan’s purposes. Believing, inter alia, that there was a good god or spirit who created the spiritual world, and a bad one who created the material world, and that the material world was therefore subject to the whims of the bad fellow, the Albigensians in their puritanism almost paradoxically invited satan in to take things over. Thigpen selects several accounts of how, in his work against this heresy, St. Dominic was not only able to perceive, but easily cast out the devil, even when those around him were enthralled to the enemy. The stories of how he did so strike the modern reader as being somewhat fantastical in nature, I admit. However, as neither you nor I were there at the time, I think we can try to remain humble, recognize that God can do what He wants, and leave the details to the ages.

Interestingly, in some of the instances recounted by Thigpen, St. Dominic does not immediately perceive the devil at work, realizing later what is going on. At other times, the saint actually engages the demon, one on one, and fearlessly. Thigpen is quick to point out, lest the reader begin holding ideas above his station, that St. Dominic was somehow uniquely protected from infernal attacks in a way that most of us are not. Thus, when he realizes the devil is prowling around his priory like a lion, St. Dominic is able to take the beast on a walk around the building, so he can get a satan’s-eye-view of what is going on there, and how the devil takes advantage of opportunities to distract the friars from prayer and good living. It is only the chapter room, where the friars go for confession, that the devil refuses to enter.

One comes away with the impression that St. Dominic was someone keenly aware of the fact that the devil is all around, but who more importantly recognized that in the end it is God alone who triumphs: he believed in the power of God’s Word, not in physical manifestations of the power of evil, an evil which will ultimately be subjugated. St. Dominic’s unflappability provides a great source of encouragement and strength, even when, as happened to St. Dominic himself in the stories recounted by Thigpen, we are set upon by those who would seek to do us harm. We should come through those trying times, as St. Dominic did in one instance, through trust and confidence in what is above, by singing joyfully to God.

As a final note, the reader is encouraged to make use of the appendices in Thigpen’s book. Most of the time, these sections are of little use to anyone other than the specialist reader. Here, however, the author collects a number of brief stories about various saints, and their own encounters with the devil. He also gives a number of quotes and passages written by the saints, on how best to deal with temptations and attacks that may come from below. Even after one has read the entire book, these sections in the back will be a wonderful source of inspiration not only for the average Catholic, but also for writers, homilists, and speakers to use as jumping-off points for further exploration and discussion.

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The Gospel of Happiness

Today I’m very pleased and honored to once again be part of Image Books’ latest blog tour. This time we’re going to be looking at “The Gospel of Happiness”, a new book by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton, and professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.  My thoughts appear below, but to read what other bloggers have thought of it, be sure to visit the Image website, and click through the Blog tour links to see what other writers – including my friend Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos – are saying about this helpful addition to your bookshelf.

We begin, as we must, with an overview of what the author is trying to tell us with respect to living a happier life. I’m going to ask you to bear with me through this more formalized part of this post, since I think it only fair that I try to give you some general idea of what we’re talking about here. After which, I hope you’ll stick around since, while I don’t often share personal details on these pages, I do intend to share a little bit about my personal reaction to this book, in particular its final chapter, which I found it extremely helpful.

In “The Gospel of Happiness”, Christopher Kaczor outlines positive psychology, a concept which has gained significant traction in the field of psychology over the last few decades. Instead of taking a pathological – and these days ultimately pharmaceutical – approach to the study, understanding, and treatment of mental illness, positive psychology looks at ways in which people can bring about self-improvement through the adoption of more positive attitudes and reactions to the circumstances of their lives. Dr. Kaczor certainly does not suggest that *all* people suffering from depression, addiction, and other maladies can be helped through non-clinical intervention. Rather, if I may paraphrase his work, he advocates what the ancient Romans understood, which my Catholic readers will recognize immediately as the motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola (and himself a significant influence on Dr. Kaczor’s own spirituality), of striving for the one-two combination of a sound mind in a sound body.

Positive psychology does not suggest that one must burst into a chorus of “Everything Is Awesome” whenever one is faced with difficult circumstances. Instead, it recognizes that in many cases, people can change their circumstances, or at least their reactions to them, by trying to focus on good things: those benefits they do possess despite their problems, ways they may be able to help others less fortunate than themselves, and so on. Dr. Kaczor takes pains to point out that positive psychology is not the 1950’s Norman Vincent Peale notion of “the power of positive thinking”, nor the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mantra of the Baby Boom generation, as transmogrified by the cult of Oprah Winfrey and her prophets. Rather, positive psychology has its roots in scientific, clinical studies conducted over many years, which show that “[c]ultivating positive emotions can aid us in making wise decisions because when we are in a positive frame of mind, we can take a broader view of what is going on, and can be more open to building healthy relationships.”

Interestingly, as part of that analysis, Dr. Kaczor points out that many of the positive reinforcement ideas and methods advocated by this field of psychology are directly compatible with living the Christian life. While he acknowledges the influence of atheism and immorality in a number of psychological methods and theories, he also shows how, through the words of Christ and the examples of the saints, Christians can lead lives with the goal of more positive treatment of the self and others, and ultimately greater intimacy with God. Studies quoted throughout this volume have shown that people who are not just believers, but active in their faith, on the whole suffer far fewer incidents of clinical depression and other psychological issues, or recover more quickly from such problems, than those who have no faith or who are lackadaisical in the practices.

Here endeth our formal presentation.

On a personal level, I’m going to drop the veil – er, cape – a bit, and confess something: I need to have a good clear-out. There have been quite a number of things going on in my life over the last couple of years, and in particular over the past few months, that have left me in the position of recognizing that I need to do this. I look at where things stand and realize that while certain things are going extremely well, other things most definitely are in need of a shake-up.

Let me put it to you in a more visible way, by providing a single example: my desk at home is an absolute disaster. It is littered with the detritus of a disordered, reactionary, mostly sensual life. New books I haven’t started, unopened and unread copies of magazines, ticket stubs from long-completed travels, restaurant receipts from long-forgotten dinners, junk mail from every Catholic charity known to man, and many other such things are piled in teetering towers, just ready for The Cat to knock over. My desk has become emblematic of many aspects of both my spiritual life and my interpersonal relationships.

What Dr. Kaczor explains extremely well, in the final chapter of “The Gospel of Happiness”, is that when things get to this point, we need to take measured steps, without expecting perfection, and learn from our mistakes. An example he gives concerns gluttony, something which I’m sure even those with the most frugal appetites among us will recognize. He asks us to take a step back from giving in to the short-term pleasure of eating that candy bar at lunch, today, promising ourselves that we will give it up tomorrow. Are we willing to live with the consequences of eating a candy bar at lunch, every day, for 30 days in a row, while promising ourselves that “one day” we’ll give it up? He argues that it’s when we step back and see the whole picture, putting temporary emotions and desires in their place and recognizing as he puts it that tomorrow must be today, that we can learn to master ourselves better.

While all of Dr. Kaczor’s book is very much worth your time, it is in this final chapter, on strengthening the will, that I find he really hits the high notes, both in terms of practicality and spiritual counsel. When he looks into how and why we fail, and allow our feelings to overwhelm us, we can see that he is making a great deal of sense. It’s not enough simply to want to change certain negative behaviors or patterns in our lives, but rather understanding on a practical level what we can do about it, that Dr. Kaczor tackles brilliantly. With the help of prayer, spiritual direction, and not beating ourselves up all the time, he gives many examples and an outstanding summary of ways to move forward in your own internal life, as well as in your external relationships, so that God, neighbor, and self are all in balance.

So many books of popular psychology start out well but then fizzle out by the end. So many more simply overlook the experiences of people of faith as being irrelevant, at best, or antipathetic, at worst, to the practice of psychology. Neither of these characterizations apply to this book. For me personally, Dr. Kaczor has provided a bit of a way forward, for me to start cleaning things out and start moving rather than reacting again. Perhaps this work can do the same for you, or for someone you care about.

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