31 March, 2007

Our Dog...

So, I haven't been really up to posting for the last week or so, because our dog just died on Wednesday. We had him for nearly 10 years, and it's amazing how much like a part of the family he became. I'm not much of a dog person myself, but I have to say, somehow or other dogs do end up seeming almost human when you've had them for a while.

William is especially devastated - he becomes attatched to an animal almost as soon as he sees it.

For now, St. Thomas Aquinas's proofs to the contrary aside, our whole family is rather convinced that animals do go to at least some sort of heaven. It really is a natural thing to believe, I think. It would be hard to picture any of God's creation just snuffing out of existence once it has died.

23 March, 2007

10 Facts about Shakespeare

10 facts about William Shakespeare.

1. William Shakespeare was born and died on the same date (different years, of course)- April 23.

2. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets.

3. If you will search on Google exactly “William Shakespeare” - you'll come up with over 2 million pages.

4. Many well-known authors don’t believe that Shakespeare wrote his plays.

5. Fact about Shakespeare’s family: Williams parents: John and Mary Arden Shakespeare and they were all illiterate.Before William was born, two sisters died, Joan and Margaret. William married Anne Hathaway when he was 18.

6. W.Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford.

7. W.Shakespeare made over 600 references to birds in all of his works.

8. William was left handed.

9. Shakespeare never published any of his plays.

10. William was very likely a Roman Catholic, although not openly.

Credit to 10facts.com, although I did edit the list a bit for those infamous internet inaccuracies and grammatical errors. My grammar-o-phile mother has trained me well.

20 March, 2007

New Poster

Jolly ho! Just wanted to point out that we've got a new poster here, who first wrote for this blog a few days ago. Her first post is "Les Choristes", as you may see. Her screen name is goldbug, and as only a select few know what that name refers to, I should mention that goldbug happens to be my sister.

18 March, 2007

Les Choristes

Les Choristes. One might read the back of the movie cover and think: “Naughty, rather troubled children…kind teacher…the teacher comes and shows them kindness…the kids grow to love him…Yeah. The typical trite, sappy story that we have all heard a million times.” The Golden Globe-nominated, French-language drama, directed by Christophe Barratier, is truly a movie we have all seen before, but this time the setting is different, the characters are well drawn and it delivers its uplifting message with sincerity and skill.

At the beginning of the movie, the date is 1949, and the Fond de l’Etang - a state-run boarding school for young boys in the post-war France - is being operated by the principal, Rachin. Rachin is a self-important, cruel man whose philosophy is what he calls "action-reaction," a.k.a., severely punishing every one of the boys for the slightest infraction of an individual.

In the opening of the story, along comes Clement Mathieu, a failed professor of music, to become the new prefect of the school. He immediately notes the bad behavior of the boys and way the school is run. In his own classroom he starts reform the boys, which slowly but surely changes the tone of the school. From observing Mr. Mathieu in his classroom on the first day you can see that he is a man who believes in hope and the future of these troubled children. It is that hope that he brings to light through music. He teaches the boys how to sing, and they make a beautiful choir.

The story was very well supported by a strong cast. The performances of the actors, even the child actors, are not overdone, but instead poignant and believable.

I was also very attracted by the music sung by Mr. Mathieu’s choir. (The original music used in the film and sung by the boy's choir is composed by Bruno Coulais and Barratier.) The songs were really very beautiful.

The movie has all one needs to be a charming, touching film: a well written script, top-notch performances, a beautiful score, and excellent cinematography. In all, Les Choristes is truly a work of art.

Clement Mathieu - Gerard Jugnot
Pierre Morhange- Jean-Baptiste Maunier
Pepinot - Maxence Perrin
Rachin - Francois Berleand

16 March, 2007

The Fáed Fíada

The Lorica is also known as the "Deer's Cry" or the Fáed Fíada in Irish Gaelic (a much prettier name, no?). This name comes from an old tradition about the prayer's origin. St. Patrick, they say, along with a few companions, was on his way to preach at the court of the an Irish king, Laoghhaire. God knew that a converted Ireland would be the salvation of the Western World during the Dark Ages, so He wasn't about to allow it's chief converter to become a martyr, however much St. Patrick may have wished to be one. So God let Patrick know in a dream that Druids were hiding by the roadside, waiting to beat the travellers to a convenient pulp (Druids and many other ancient pagans seemed to be able to stomach Christians more easily in liquid form). Patrick, being both holy and clever, chanted the Lorica with his followers. As they passed by the Druids, the bewildered would-be murderers saw only a doe and twenty fawns passing down the road. Fortunately, the aforesaid ambushers must have already had a good lunch, considering that they obviously weren't in a mood for venison.

15 March, 2007

St. Patrick's Spirituality

Lorica of Saint Patrick

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation

St. Patrick (ca. 377)

Many scholars now believe that this prayer wasn't written by St. Patrick at all. I don't really care whether he was the one to actually put his pen to paper and write down the prayer or not. It reflects the same spirituality that pervades his Confessions - the same emphasis on the Trinity, the same deep faith in God's protection, and the same view of all creation as being sanctified by God's power. So it is a deeply "St. Patrick-ian" prayer whether or not it proceded from his own "little gray cells".

It's in a profoundly poetic and rhythmic form, recalling the psalms and the ancient poetry of Ireland. I personally love Irish prayers for this very reason. The poetry is like genuflecting before the Eucharist or running a rosary through your fingers while praying the Hail Marys. It's not so much that the poetry, any more than genuflecting or moving a beaded circle of string, is intrinsically holy - the form of poetry is simply another external way to bring our attention (and hearts) closer to God.

14 March, 2007


“They shall look on Him
whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37)

"Dear Brothers and Sisters!

"They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn 19: 37). This is the biblical theme that this year guides our Lenten reflection. Lent is a favourable time to learn to stay with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, close to him who on the Cross, consummated for all mankind the sacrifice of his life (cf. Jn 19: 25). With a more fervent participation let us direct our gaze, therefore, in this time of penance and prayer, at Christ Crucified who, dying on Calvary, revealed fully for us the love of God....

The Cross reveals the fullness of God's love

It is in the mystery of the Cross that the overwhelming power of the Heavenly Father's mercy is revealed in all of its fullness. In order to win back the love of his creature, he accepted to pay a very high price: the Blood of his Only Begotten Son. Death, which for the first Adam was an extreme sign of loneliness and powerlessness, was thus transformed in the supreme act of love and freedom of the new Adam. One could very well assert, therefore, together with St Maximus the Confessor, that Christ "died, if one could say so, divinely, because he died freely" (Ambigua, 91, 1056). On the Cross, God's eros for us is made manifest. Eros is indeed, as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses it, that force which "does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved" (De Divinis Nominibus, IV, 13: PG 3, 712). Is there more "mad eros" (N. Cabasilas, Vita in Cristo, 648) than that which led the Son of God to make himself one with us even to the point of suffering as his own the consequences of our offences?

"Him whom they have pierced"

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. The Apostle Thomas recognized Jesus as "Lord and God" when he put his hand into the wound of his side. Not surprisingly, many of the saints found in the Heart of Jesus the deepest expression of this mystery of love. One could rightly say that the revelation of God's eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of his agape. In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of oneself with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instils a joy which eases the heaviest of burdens. Jesus said: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself" (Jn 12: 32). The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him. Accepting his love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ "draws me to himself" in order to unite himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with his own love."

This is edited, because the original version was too long to post. The original version can be found here: Vatican Website

So much for the predictions of those who thought he would be a stiff, stern, unforgiving pope. Almost everything he's written since his election has focused on the meaning of love at a depth rarely seen elsewhere. And (so much for accusations of extreme dogmatism) some of the points he makes - for example, that God's love for us is also a form of eros (which, "denotes the love of one who desires to possess what he or she lacks and yearns for union with the beloved") - are almost revolutionary in their profound and unique look at God's relationship with humanity.

12 March, 2007


I just found out that one of my good friends won the Bangor Symphony Concerto Competition (Which is a big deal in this state) the other day! She plays the piano and the violin, the first very well, and the second brilliantly. She travels all the way to Boston for violin lessons. I'm so happy all of her work is starting to be generally recognized! She played Glazunov's "Violin Concerto in A minor", has been interviewed repeatedly since then, and has some live television performances lined up. Très génial!

09 March, 2007

And Then There Were None....

So, I've just finished listening to Agatha Christie's mystery And Then There Were None on cd. Quite an experience.

For one thing, it's fascinating to discover what an incredibly different "feel" AC's books have when you listen to them. The narrator was great (he's the guy who plays Captain Hastings on the Masterpiece Theater Christie adaptions). Although he gave a wonderful rendition, the story didn't seem nearly as chilling as I knew it would have if I'd been reading it myself. I don't know whether it was his matter-of-fact English voice which made the entire thing seem more grounded, or if it was simply the fact that my imagination wasn't as free to "go wild" - as, I admit, it usually does with AC.

The story itself is masterfully written. The atmosphere is well laid, and the characters, especially Judge Wargrave, are entirely convincing. The mystery itself was baffling. I suspected Judge Wargrave, and I'm usually good at guessing the real criminal in AC's books, simply because of the way she writes them. I'm dreadful at figuring out how
that person was able to commit the crime. But something happens in this book that for a while clears the Judge of all suspicion.

The solution - when it finally comes - almost seems unfair at first, the red herring is so unlikely. But looking back at the story, I should have noticed one thing in particular.......

Spoiler ahead, be warned!!!!


I should have known something was wrong when Dr. Armstrong examined Judge Wargrave's body, but wouldn't let anyone else do so.

AC gives these clues to justify the ending:

1. Edward Seton's death was justified because the police knew that he was guilty. Therefore, Wargrave was the only guest who did not murder anyone (that is, before coming to the island).
2. The "red herring" line in the poem suggests the fact that Armstrong was tricked into his death.
3. The bullet would leave a red mark in Wargrave's forehead similar to the mark of Cain, the first murderer in the Old Testament.


So, I really should have been more on top of such fine details in the mystery. It wasn't quite an unfair solution after all.

Hats off to Agatha Christie, Queen of Mystery!

(Yes, of course I had to put that corny rhyme in there... who could resist?)

06 March, 2007

World Book Day

Apparently, March 1 has been designated World Book Day. I missed it, because it's only 10 years old - another product of the recent mania for day/week/month dedicating (did you know that September's "National Chicken Month"?)- and thus not particularly widely-known. I wonder if the obsession with dedicating days to worthy causes (usually with silly results, I've observed) has anything to do with a deep-rooted cultural void felt since Western civilization left Catholicism and its many feast days.....

Anyway, such absurd speculation aside, I found the World Book Day survey's results almost uniformly satisfying.

The top ten are as follows:

1) Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen 20%
2) Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien 17%
3) Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 14%
4) Harry Potter books – J K Rowling 12%
5) To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee 9.5%
6) The Bible 9%
7) Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte 8.5%
8) 1984 – George Orwell 6%
= His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman 6%
10) Great Expectations – Charles Dickens .55%

I love them all except Harry Potter and "His Dark Materials", the latter of which I don't love because I haven't read it. Actually, I'm not a great fan of 1984 either, but I respect it for its "well-writtenness", certainly. (Yes, I made up the word "well-writtenness")

Further Comment from the World Book Day Website:

"Results reveal that Pride and Prejudice tops the list"

Hip, hip, huzzah!!!

"with Tolkein’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, in second place."

Jolly good show, what?

"Two of the Bronte sisters appear alongside Charles Dickens, showing that classics are still the most essential reads."

Haven't sensible people said this all along?

"The Bible is also still relevant to many, coming in sixth in the poll."

*guffaw* ---- I'm afraid I can't comment here... the inferences in that sentence are far too uncontrovertible.

A Very Wonderful Essay on Tolkien by Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is da man! I love his books!!!!

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the world's best-seller The Lord of the Rings, qualifies, technically, as a "literary convert" because of his reception into the Church as an eight-year-old following his mother's conversion to the faith. It could be said, therefore, that he joins the ranks of the literary converts by creeping in through the back door or, perhaps more correctly, through the nursery door. With beguiling ambiguity he is neither a cradle Catholic nor a full-blown convert, but a charming mixture of the two — a cradle convert.
Wordsworth reminds us, "the child is father of the man," and since in Tolkien's case this is particularly true, the eight-year-old's "cradle conversion" was destined to shape the remainder of his life in a profound manner. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Tolkien's conversion was crucial to both the making of the man and the shaping of the myth he created.

Following the death of her husband in February 1896, a few weeks after her son's fourth birthday, Mabel Tolkien began a new love affair that would soon estrange her from her family. She became passionately devoted to Christianity, taking her two sons every Sunday on a long walk to a "high" Anglican church. Then one Sunday they were taken by strange roads to a different place of worship. This was St Anne's, a Roman Catholic church amidst the slums of Birmingham. Mabel Tolkien had been considering conversion for some time, and during the spring of 1900 she received instruction and was received in June of the same year.

Her conversion incurred the immediate wrath of her family. Her father, who had been brought up Methodist but had since lapsed further from orthodoxy into Unitarianism, was outraged. Her brother-in-law withdrew the little financial help that he had provided since she had become a widow, plunging her and her children into poverty. She also met with considerable opposition from her late husband's family, many of whom were Baptists with strong anti-Catholic prejudices. The emotional strain affected her health adversely but, undaunted, she began to instruct her sons in the faith.

Tolkien made his First Communion at Christmas, 1903. The joy, however, was soon followed by tragedy. Less than a year later his mother died after lapsing into a diabetes-induced coma. In her will, Mabel Tolkien had appointed her friend, Fr. Francis Morgan, to be the guardian of her two orphaned sons. He arranged for them to live with their Aunt Beatrice, not far from the Birmingham Oratory, but she showed them little attention and the brothers soon began to consider the Oratory their real home. Each morning they served Mass for Fr. Morgan at his favorite side altar in the Oratory church. Afterward they would eat breakfast in the refectory before setting off for school. Tolkien remained forever grateful for all that Fr. Morgan did for him and his brother. "I first learned charity and forgiveness from him . . ." The Oratory was a "good Catholic home," which contained "many learned fathers (largely 'converts')" and where "observance of religion was strict."

The virtues of charity and forgiveness that Tolkien learned from Fr. Morgan in the years after his mother's death offset the pain and sorrow that her death engendered. The pain remained throughout his life, and 60 years later he compared his mother's sacrifices for her faith with the complacency of some of his own children toward the faith they had inherited from her:

"When I think of my mother's death . . . worn out with persecution, poverty, and, largely consequent, disease, in the effort to hand on to us small boys the faith, and remember the tiny bedroom she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman's cottage at Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it very hard and bitter, when my children stray away."
Tolkien always considered his mother a martyr for the faith. Nine years after her death he wrote: "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it was not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labor and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith."

Tolkien preserved his mother's legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien's encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the "magic" of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.

Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."

"No," Tolkien replied. "They are not lies." Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic "progress" leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

"In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion." It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, "Mythopoeia," is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their "mythopoeia" to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.

Such a revelation changed Lewis' whole conception of Christianity, precipitating his conversion.

Lewis was one of the select group of friends, known collectively as the Inklings, who read the manuscript of Tolkien's timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings, as it was being written. This work, which has been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a succession of polls, was described by its author as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

Space does not permit a full exposition of the depths of Christian orthodoxy in The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or Tolkien's other work. Those wishing to discover more are referred to my books, Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration, in which the relationship between Tolkien's faith and the myth he created are examined at greater length.

In brief, however, the power of Tolkien lies in the way that he succeeds, through myth, in making the unseen hand of providence felt by the reader. In his mythical creations, or sub-creations as he would call them, he shows how the unseen hand of God is felt far more forcefully in myth than it is ever felt in fiction. Paradoxically, fiction works with facts, albeit invented facts, whereas myth works with truth, albeit truth dressed in fancy disguises. Furthermore, since facts are physical and truth is metaphysical, myth, being metaphysical, is spiritual.

The writer and poet Charles A. Coulombe concluded his essay, "The Lord of the Rings: A Catholic View," with the following incisive assessment of Tolkien's importance. It was a fitting conclusion to his essay on the subject. It is also a fitting conclusion to mine:

"It has been said that the dominant note of the traditional Catholic liturgy was intense longing. This is also true of her art, her literature, her whole life. It is a longing for things that cannot be in this world: unearthly truth, unearthly purity, unearthly justice, unearthly beauty. By all these earmarks, Lord of the Rings is indeed a Catholic work, as its author believed: But it is more. It is this age's great Catholic epic, fit to stand beside the Grail legends, Le Morte d'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales. It is at once a great comfort to the individual Catholic, and a tribute to the enduring power and greatness of the Catholic tradition, that JRRT created this work. In an age which has seen an almost total rejection of the faith on the part of the Civilization she created . . . Lord of the Rings assures us, both by its existence and its message, that the darkness cannot triumph forever."

Joseph Pearce. "J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth." Lay Witness (September 2001).

05 March, 2007

Fr. Brown

Once it passes 9:00 p.m., I consider the school day over. Any reading I do past that time is strictly extra-curricular. That is how I've had time in the past two weeks to finish an anthology of every Fr. Brown mystery written. (I really haven't been procrastinating on schoolwork - I swear!)

The "Father Brown" mysteries are some of GK Chesterton's most popular and well-known works of fiction. None of the stories are novel length. They all are short stories originally published as collections under such titles as "The Innocence of Father Brown" or "The Incredulity of Father Brown."

Father Brown is an interesting character. In my opinion he takes his rank right alongside classic detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes. Although I don't want to overstate the obvious, I'd better mention that he's different from each of the three in a very interesting sense. He's a priest. A priest, that is, who hears confessions daily; who is good and close to God, and so has an acute sense both of what is holy and what is unholy. He can see the emptiness of the most convincing guise of innocence and can see innocence where no one else will.

This is an advantage Lord Peter, Poirot, and Holmes must make up for with intuition,deduction, observation, and shrewd guessing as their relative styles require. Fr. Brown is clever in all of these ways as well. His intellect is described as one that "could once paraphrase an entire page of Aquinas in two or three sentences." A big difference is that all three of these secular detectives are also arrogant to one degree or another (not to disrespect any of those detectives, two of whom I genuinely like). But Fr. Brown's cleverness is humble, hidden beneath an almost "foolish" innocence and charity. In this respect he reminds me of another character - St. Thomas Aquinas - whom Chesterton admired and wrote about.

Fr. Brown is a perfect image for Pope Paul VI's description of the Church as "an expert in humanity". As a priest, his business is ministering to humans through acting in the person of Christ, who knows each person better than they know themselves. Of course, it helps that Fr. Brown as himself is fairly brilliant.

03 March, 2007

The Extraordinary Ordinary

Thomas Howard's Hallowed Be This House (now printed as Splendor in the Ordinary, I believe) is one of the few books (along with The Lamb's Supper, Story of a Soul, etc) that has really altered my entire point of view and helped me to view life in general from a more Catholic perspective. He talks of the home, of finding the sacred - as he calls it, the "hallowed" - in the circumstances of everyday life. It reminds me in fact, of The Story of a Soul. But whereas St. Therese brought out the fact that God loves even the "smallest" souls in an extraordinary way, and that spiritual extraordinariness is most found in humility, Thomas Howard focuses on the ramifications of the Incarnation in the everyday stuff of life. St. Therese's point of view is largely spiritual; Thomas Howard's, largely physical.

Hallowed Be This House is a response to the modern idea that life, and everything encountered over its course, ultimately means nothing. The Catholic Church points to the Incarnation in answer to this. All "stuff" of this world has been hallowed by God becoming man. God "mixed" with matter at the moment of the Incarnation, and so sanctified it, and gave it meaning beyond imagination.

This meaning is almost uniformly overlooked in modern culture, but to forget it is fatal for any Catholic. So where do we look to find it? In what aspect of our lives is it easiest to see the "splendor of the ordinary"? Thomas Howard suggests that the answer is the home. The home is where we are first trained in the Christian way of living - trained in humility, in love, in the spirit of self sacrifice - "my life for yours" as Dr. Howard is fond of saying. And how? Through the "mundane" work of cooking and cleaning we are participating directly in a sort of Christ-like self-sacrifice. Through eating together as a family, we recall the sacramental reality of the Eucharist (which is, in a very important way, a meal, although not merely a meal). Thomas Howard goes through every room of the typical house and shows how the grace of God is displayed in these ordinary places and in the activities which take place in them.

I don't mean at all to imply that it is easy to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Dr. Howard would also agree that the culture of modernism, our own concupisence, and our lack of practice make even seeing the extraordinary in the home rather difficult. Nevertheless, my life is constantly being filled with glimpses of the glory of everyday existence, which I can see even more clearly thanks to his book. And I think that a clearer awareness of the great meaning behind everything that is in any way good is crucial today in order to combat some of the most dangerous tendencies of modern nihilism.

02 March, 2007

Hilaire-ious poems (ok, ok, bad pun)

In Victorian times, especially in England, most of the children's books published were horrid moralising poems or works of short fiction. They alternately featured angelic children who were rewarded with nauseating abundance for their perfection, or evil monster children who suffered unspeakable consequences for being bad. As you can see by these writings' complete neglect of the Catholic attitude toward suffering ("Remember my word that I said to you: The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you." --- anyone? ) these were usually written either by those with strict Puritanical views on life or by those people (prevalent in the late 1800s) who advocated a sort of "religion-less morality."

Here's a Catholic take (specifically a Hilaire Belloc-ian take) on morality poems.

Guess which type kids prefer?

"THE Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
'There is no Cure for this Disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.'
His parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his Untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
Cried 'Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch, and Tea
Are all the Human Frame requires...'
With that, the Wretched Child expires."

01 March, 2007

Split Personalities and all that

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, like the typical Russian novel, is primarily driven by the mental and spiritual conflicts of its characters. Unlike most other Russian novels, Crime and Punishment features a main character who behaves in a strange manner. Rodion Raskolnikov is a literary “split personality” – that is, he has two diametrically opposed aspects to his character which struggle for primacy throughout the book.

Many critics of the book are eager to discuss Dostoevsky’s keen observational psychology, and analyze Raskolnikov as though his character is merely a clinical study on split personalities. However, such an interpretation of Raskolnikov’s conflicted character does not, in my opinion, do justice to the fact that the author was not a scientist impartially examining a medical disorder. Dostoevsky was a writer of a strong philosophical bent, concerned with the conflict between good and evil which Christians believe is present in all of mankind. Thus, Raskolnikov’s “psychological” conflict is more truthfully described as a moral conflict.

This moral conflict takes the less abstract form of a conflict between a destructive theory, and the naturally good temperament and eventually the guilt of the young student who adopts it. In the course of the book, Dostoevsky reveals that Raskolnikov, while a student at a university in St. Petersburg, had developed a theory which supposes that certain men in this world are above the rest of humanity, either by destiny or by talent. Such men are not bound by morality or other “social constraints” but are allowed, even obligated, to break out of these in some cases in order to achieve a greater end. These men must be individualistic in the most extreme connotation of the word: proud, alone, needing and accepting no help from any lesser men. It is unfortunate but not unexpected, considering Raskolnikov’s proud and curious intellect, that having worked out such an idea, he becomes obsessed with a desire to know whether he himself is one of these “extraordinary men.” He decides to commit a murder – killing none but the most useless specimen of humanity he can find: one of the world’s “louses” – in order to know once and for all. An extraordinary man commits no crime in ridding the earth of “scum,” he believes. In such an action, he simply promotes the cause of justice.

As it is this theory which incites Raskolnikov to commit the crime, so it is this theory which, wrestling with his better side and his remorse, causes his personality to become more and more contradicted as the story progresses. At one point, his old friend, Razumihin, describes Raskolnikov’s character to the protagonist’s worried mother and sister. “He is morose, gloomy, proud, and haughty of late…He has a noble nature and a kind heart. He does not like showing his feelings and would rather do a cruel thing than open his heart freely.” Each characteristic as listed seems to contradict the last. And indeed, Razumihin goes on to say, “it’s as though he were alternating between two characters.” Next comes the description of Raskolnikov’s imitation of the solitary ubermensch, or superman, which is the root of the entire conflict. “Sometimes he is fearfully reserved! … He doesn’t laugh at things, not because he doesn’t have the wit, but as though he hadn’t the time to waste on such trifles. He never listens to what is said to him… He thinks very highly of himself, and perhaps he is right.” (Crime and Punishment, p.194 -all of the above)

Razumihin’s analysis is supported by nearly everything Raskolnikov does. At one moment, his compassion moves him to give away his last rubles to help a poor young girl he finds drugged on the street. Within minutes, however, he leaves the entire affair in the hands of a passing policeman, chiding himself for becoming involved in such nonsense. When he receives a letter from his mother, he opens it with an extraordinary display of sentimentality, kissing it repeatedly. But no sooner than he opens it, he becomes furious at finding that he cares at all to hear from his family. He meets a drunkard who is very much on a social and moral par with the miserly pawnbroker he targets for his murder, yet instead of considering this man a “louse,” he befriends him and does his best to assist the man’s family throughout the novel. An uncharacteristic qualm of doubt in his theory which arises hours before he commits the murder expresses this conflict the best. “What if man is not a scoundrel?” he wavers, “Then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors.” (p.25)

Raskolnikov holds onto his ubermensch masquerade so tenaciously because he must. His “noble nature and kind heart” can be overridden by his haughty intellectual characteristics only as long as he has a theory to support this calculating side. If this collapses, he will no longer be able to keep up his pretence that the murder he committed was justified. He knows this instinctively, but a fusion of guilt and pride will not allow him to admit the fact until all is resolved by his true repentance.

It is the nature of Raskolnikov’s theory, trying as it does to place certain people above the rest of humankind and the laws of morality, which produces his split personality. Essentially, what we see in Crime and Punishment is evil wrestling with good in the human mind and soul. Dostoevsky’s shows us that Raskolnikov finds no fulfillment or peace as a “superman,” but only contradiction and turmoil, as must be the case whenever evil enters the soul.