"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, May 29, 2017

Poem: Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

Today is Memorial Day, a holiday to honor the war dead from our history.  This is a perfect opportunity to continue with my poetry read, Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew by Max Ergremont.  I gave a quick little introduction on the book last year when I first discussed it.  Here’s what I said:

My poetry read for this year is a collection poems from poets of WWI, titled Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, written and edited by Max Egremont.  It’s written by Egremont because it’s more than just a collection of poetry.  The poetry is integrated with the history and poet’s lives.  The book is organized around the year by year history and what the poets were up to in that year, and it provides a sampling of that year’s poetic output.

I’ve been tracking the book by posting a poem from each year of the war.  I am now up to 1917 and the poem I want to highlight is Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”   I keep making the mistake that the poem is about ‘a doomed youth,” singular, but it’s for “doomed youth,” general and plural.  So when you read the poem, don’t make the mistake I’ve been making.

Some consider Wilfred Owen to be the best of the First World War poets.    He seemed to have grown up from a struggling family, though reasonably well educated.  He began writing poetry at a young age, so when he enlisted in 1915 at the age of twenty-two, he had built up some skill.  He was severely injured in 1917 and went back to home country where he met one of the other great poets of the war Siegfried Sassoon at hospital in Edinburgh.  They built up a friendship and a correspondence.  Owen returned the front in the summer of 1918, and would be killed in action on the 4th of November, exactly one week before Armistice. 

Here is some background from Some Desperate Glory:

In January 1917, Wilfred Owen was with the 2nd Battalion, the Manchester Regiment in the transit camp of Etaples.  Here he was hit, during bombing practice, by a fragment which grazed his thumb, letting him coax out one drop of blood, a glimpse of what it was to be a warrior.  ‘There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France,’ Owen told his mother on New Year’s Day, ‘and I am in perfect spirits.  A tinge of excitement is about me, but excitement is always necessary to my happiness.’  He wrote again ten days later, ‘Have no anxiety.  I cannot do a better thing or be in a righter place…’

He’d been under shellfire in the snow at Bertrancourt by 4 February.  The ugliness of the trenches cut into the crimson aestheticism, nurtured by Tailhade and the reading of Wilde.  ‘I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and face-to-face death, as well as another, but extra for me there is the universal perversion of Ugliness,’ he told his mother.  ‘Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devilridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth.’  Owen claimed that he’d been too busy to be frightened: ‘I cannot say I felt any fear.’  That day he arrived at Abbeville to take a transport course.  Another offensive was only two months away. 

That offensive was the Battle of Arras, and it would alter Owen’s life significantly and effect his poetry.   

Arras brought humiliation for Wilfred Owen.  He returned to his company in March and, when with a working party, fell into a hole which brought mild concussion and a visit to a casualty clearing station in Gailly on the Somme canal where he passed his twenty-fourth birthday.  Here Owen thought of his future; perhaps after the war he might live in a cottage in southern England with an orchard, or so he told his brother Colin, 'and give my afternoons to the care of pigs.  The hired labour would be very cheap, 2 boys could tend 50 pigs.  And it would be the abruptest change' from the writing that would be 'my moruning work.'

He came into the front line again near Saint Quentin on 3 April where there was still snow, and lay four days and four nights without relief in the open, kept going by brandy and the fear of death.  On 14 April, Owen led his section in an attack on the German trenches under fire and shelling, later telling his brother Colin that 'going over the top' was 'about as exhilarating as going over a precipice', that he'd wish'd for a bugle and drum and had kept chanting 'Keep the line straight!  Not so fast on the left!  Steady on the left' before the 'tornado' of shells. 

The imagery of the 1018 poems goes back to this, and to the horror of a few days later, indelibly marking the literature of war.  Owen's battalion stayed in the line around Savy, lying again in holes where 'for twelve days I did not was my face, nor take off my boots nor sleep a deep sleep...'.  A shell hit a bank , just two yards from his head, and he was blown into the air, ending up in a hole just big enough to shelter him, with the dead body of a comrade near by, covered with earth.  There followed a collapse, then possible imputations of cowardice from his commanding officer who judged that Owen was no longer fit to lead men and ordered him back to the casualty clearing station.  The diagnosis was 'neurasthenia', or shell shock, although he assured his mother that he hadn't had a breakdown.  A medical report stated that on 1 May he was found to be 'shaky and tremulous and his conduct and manner were peculiar and his memory confused.'  By the end of June Owen was in Craiglockhart, a hospital housed in a dark, converted Victorian hydro in Slateford, a suburb of Edinburgh.

It was at Craiglockhart he met Sassoon, and the two discussed the art of poetry.  Nothing like discussion to focus one’s mind and skill. 


Owen had been transformed by Craiglockhart.  Early in November, his poem 'Miners' was accepted by the Nation; later that month he visited his cousin and former literary confidant Leslie Gunston, displaying a new confidence by writing mockingly to Siegfried Sassoon about Gunston's tame verses and sexual innocence.  In November, he rejoined the 5th Battalion, the Manchester Regiment, at Scarborough, still thought capable of light duty. 

Now let’s get to the poem.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(September - October, 1917)

The first thing that should be mention is that the form is of a sonnet, and despite the break after the eighth line and the grouping of the last six lines together, the sonnet is not an Italian sonnet but a Shakespearean, or sometimes called an English sonnet.  An Italian sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFGEFG.  The way those last six lines are intertwined in the rhyme scheme creates a bulk of lines that if handled properly consolidate into a contrasting thought to the opening eight lines.  Sometimes an Italian sonnet is arranged with the two quatrains grouped together with a line break before the sestet to emphasize the change in thought in that sestet. 

A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, has three quatrains ABAB CDCD EFEF and a closing couplet GG, and is almost never displayed with any line breaks.  The internal logic of a Shakespearean works differently than an Italian.  Typically a Shakespearean builds to a climax within the three different quatrains and then delivers the climatic thrust in the couplet.  So Owen shapes the poem like an Italian sonnet, though it’s actually a Shakespearean, and he varies the rhyme scheme of third quatrain to EFFE

Why does he group the last six into a sort of Italian sonnet sestet?    In the Italian sonnet there is that turn in thought, referred to as the “volta,” going from the octave (the two quatrains) to the sestet.  In Owens poem there isn’t so much a turn in thought but a change in imagery.  I’ll get to that.

The poem is built on a grotesque metaphor that the elements of battle are like that of a funeral.  And so in the octave we get artillery fire described as church bells and the prattle of guns as orisons or prayers.  The sound of whistling shells are choir song and military bugles are local voices.  Bells, bombs, prattle, choirs, and so on are a merging of sounds from two disparate environments, a church and a battle field.  For me the octave is the strongest part of the poem.  Its internal logic is clear.

The turn in the sestet is a shift from sound imagery to visual imagery.  Now we have candles, eyes that shine, glimmers, and the pallor of brows.  I’m confused as to what “speed them all” refers to in the ninth line.  Speed toward death?  Toward their grave?  Toward heaven?  Whatever that is supposed to mean, it doesn’t seem to shift the conceit; it’s still a funeral and a battle field. 

The closing couplet brings in the funeral flowers, and a closing of blinds to indicate a closing of eyes and therefore sight.  I don’t know what Owen means by flowers being “the tenderness of patient minds”—why patient minds?—but intuitively I can understand how we’ve come to flowers. 

So what Owens tried to do is create a hybrid between the Italian and Shakespearean sonnet forms, keeping the Shakespearean three quatrains but grouping the last quatrain and couplet into a sestet-like unit.  Is he successful?  Personally I would say no.  As a sonnet it lacks the intellectual sophistication of an Italian and the power of a Shakespearean.  He’s lost what makes each sonnet work best for no apparent gain.  There are reasons why each sonnet form are the way they are, arrived at through trial and error.  He should have written a clean Italian sonnet, where the last six lines are interlocked in rhyme.

So why did Owen choose to write it this way?  I think the poem came to him in this form, and instead of editing into an Italian sonnet, he felt compelled to keep it this way.  It’s still a good poem, and I can understand how a young poet is reluctant to rejigger what seems adequate. 

The other thing that’s usually mentioned with this poem is the disconnect between the poem being called an “anthem,” which is a celebratory song and the subject of the poem, which is “doomed youth.”  No one celebrates dead youths.  That’s verbal irony and accentuates the irony of the central conceit.

Of course a poem should be listened to as well as read.  Here is Kenneth Branagh reading the poem.



The poem sounds lovely to listen to. It’s a good poem, despite what I think are some internal flaws.  Still, on Memorial Day, keep all those poor doomed youth that have died in the service of our nation in your thoughts, hearts, and prayers.  




Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Imam’s Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom by Hannah Shah, Part 2

It’s been a few months since I wrote Part 1 on The Imam's Daughter, a coming of age memoir by Hannah Shah.  She was raised in an Islamic family who were Pakistani immigrants to England; she was abused by her father, who was the local Imam, and she  broke free when she found her family was arranging a marriage to someone she did not know or want.  I mentioned it was an intense story, a story I consumed in a handful of days.  I want to finish my thoughts on this non-fiction work because I found it disturbing and because I connected with poor Hannah on a visceral level.



I had just brought the reader up to where the father repeatedly raped his daughter, ostensibly because he wanted to punish her for what to him was sinful rebellion toward him and the family structure, and, though one can’t attribute raping one’s daughter to Islam, the father’s logic justified his actions through his religion.  Hannah compares the rapes to the lies her father used to get social benefits.

My dad’s decision to lie to the English government wasn’t dishonorable in our community, although being caught would have been. Honor wasn’t about what you did as much as what you were seen doing. If Dad had been caught, even then he might well have argued that taking what he could from the immoral land of goray was justified. And who in the community would have gone against him? Dad was unassailably honorable.
Indeed, in my father’s mind, there may have been nothing wrong with locking his young daughter in the cellar and beating and raping her. As long as no one outside the family knew about it, it would not dishonor the family, the community, or the mosque.

Slowly the child, struggling with the abuse, began to formulate a conception of God, and where else could she turn but to an image of her father.

When I read the Qur’an, I prayed for my life to get better, but it never did. So I began praying for my father to die. I knew it was sinful, but that didn’t stop me. Everything painful in my life flowed from him. If he was dead, life was bound to get better.
So I prayed to Allah to take Dad’s life. I didn’t really think it would happen, but it helped me deal with my anger. In any case, my prayers were never answered. I began to think that God—my father’s God—wasn’t listening. I began to think that my father’s God, Allah, was cruel and avenging, his heart devoid of love or happiness. Increasingly, I saw Allah in the image of my father. Allah threw people into the fires of hell and hung them up by their hair—at least according to my father. I lived in fear of Allah and his earthly agents: my mother and my father. I was aware, from the stories I had been told by the vicar in junior school, that Christians believed in a God who was loving and caring, and I thought the Christian God must be different from Allah. I was confused about the character of God, which was the beginning of my search for understanding and my questions about Islam.
This led Hannah on a lifelong search for an understanding of God.

I began searching for answers to my questions about Islam—questions that I wouldn’t have answered until years after. In the school library I saw an English translation of the Qur’an but knew Dad wouldn’t allow me to read it. Dad insisted the Qur’an, as rendered in Arabic, was the exact recording of Allah’s words. Translation was corruption, and the Qur’an lacked spiritual truth in other languages. The fact that none of us—Dad included—understood Arabic didn’t seem to concern him. Dad had learned all of what he assumed to be in the Qur’an at the madrassa in Pakistan when he was growing up. He had learned this without questioning his imam and from the way people in his village had practiced Islam.
The result was that I—like everyone on my street—had little idea what the scriptures actually said. All we knew were the teachings of Dad and a handful of other religious leaders. None of us questioned this teaching at the time.

And that is an interesting point she makes.  Most Muslims—actually most people irrespective of religion—don’t know firsthand account of their religion’s scriptures.  Most people gather their religious orientation from oral transmission, not from careful learning.  Not only did Hannah try to learn about Islam, but she tried to learn about a broad range of religions.

I found myself interested in what these other religions had to say about the relationship believers had with God. In my upbringing, Islam was about submission—blind, painful submission—yet many of these other faiths seemed to be truly enlightening. Adherents sought a personal, uplifting relationship with God, one based upon understanding God’s holy message. I was full of confusion. Why did we Muslims pray five times a day in Arabic when we didn’t understand a word of those prayers? My entire spiritual life felt like a memorized prayer: mumbled and incomprehensible.

Did this lead to confusion?  I would imagine so, even if she weren’t a child.  There is this notion that all religions are essentially alike, only mythos overlaid onto that supposed essence.  That is fundamentally wrong.  All religions are not alike.  I think it was G. K. Chesterton who pointed out that religions are superficially similar but inherently different.  The understanding of the nature of Allah is very different than the nature of the Christian God, and man’s relationship to Allah is very different than man’s relationship to the Judeo-Christian God.  This understanding is what formulates Hannah intellectual development.  Once Hannah escaped her family because of the forced marriage, one of her teachers, Felicity Jones, took her in and exposed her to their Christian faith.

Here was this person letting me stay in her house, in spite of the potential risks. I wanted to know more about her and her family—including their belief system. The idea of my parents inviting a fugitive stranger of another race and faith into their home was a total impossibility. Was Mrs. Jones’s religion one difference that helped explain such incredible generosity of spirit?
It had been drilled into me that I was a useless, godless child destined for hell, and I believed it. I knew I would never be good enough for my parents’ God. When Felicity had told me her God loved me, all those months ago at college, I had scoffed. How could there be a loving God? I was intrigued by Felicity’s idea of God, even while I didn’t believe it could be true.
The church was built of aged, gray stones.  It was Methodist, Felicity said, a term that meant nothing to me. Entering by the front steps, I saw row after row of wooden pews already packed tightly with churchgoers.

And the pastor at the church was as different from an Imam as possible.

The pastor was simply referred to as Bob. He was in his mid-fifties, and I was immediately struck by how human and intimate his sermon seemed. He started off by telling a story about something quite ridiculous that had happened to him over the weekend. I glanced around furtively, amazed as everyone laughed at Bob’s mishaps. No one would dare to laugh at a Muslim holy man like my father—and he would never deign to tell such a self-deprecating, human story.

And then she started comparing her experiences between the two religions.

I left feeling happy and intrigued. I was fascinated to know how the pastor could be so relaxed, even to the extent of mocking himself in a public house of God. Bob seemed excited by his faith, and by the life of Jesus in particular. I had been told by my father never to mention Jesus’ name in our house—what about him was so compelling to Bob and others?
The following Saturday I asked Felicity if I could go again. That Sunday there was a whole new sermon from Bob, “Amazing Grace” to finish again, and more funny stories in between. There was more excited talk about Jesus, too. For the first time in my life, I found myself enjoying being at a place of worship.
Since the sermons and readings were in English, I could understand everything. The prayers, especially, made sense to me. People prayed for those who were ill, and even for people from other countries and religions who were poor or unfortunate. They prayed for whatever misfortune had happened that week—an earthquake in South America or flooding in Bangladesh. There seemed to be a concern for the wider world, regardless of whether the people in question were Christian or otherwise. Our prayers at the mosque were always set verses from the Qur’an that never seemed to vary.

And then at a Christmas Eve service, she had a moment of intense spirituality.

On Christmas Eve we went to church for midnight service. As people arrived, there was a sense of expectancy in the air, of love being shared, and of Bob telling the Christmas story. I had seen the nativity plays at primary school, but this was the first time I really understood. Bob repeated the phrase “God became man”—which echoed inside my heart. I was amazed that God could become something as humble as a normal man, simply so he could be in relationship with human beings. I had expected God to rant and rave about how bad we humans were, not emphasize the love Bob kept talking about. God’s love made him come to earth as a man to communicate with us and care for us. Bob stressed the word over and over: Love. Love. God’s love. I felt my heart racing as Bob spoke, and I wanted to know Jesus. I wanted to be a Christian.

That night she had a full conversion.

I returned to the Jones house and went to bed, hoping to dream about the piles of presents under the tree. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Bob’s words and what Julie said to me. So I prayed and, for the first time in my life, I prayed to a Christian God: “God, if you are real, if you exist and you are a loving God, then I want to know you, and I want you to come into my heart.” I never knew it was possible to have a relationship with God before the moment I prayed this prayer, and it really felt like a two-way communication. I sensed God say, “Yes, I am here. I do exist, and I love you.”
In that quiet moment I converted from Islam to Christianity!
The impossible had been made possible. I didn’t really think about it like that at the time. I didn’t think about the past—the last sixteen years of being a Muslim. I didn’t think about the faith of my birth. I was just lost in the emotion of the moment. I didn’t even consider what my changing faith might mean. I was ecstatic that there was a God who loved me and wanted a relationship with me. Me! I wanted to shout it to everyone, but I decided to keep it to myself for now and secretly enjoy the start of my new reason for living: my relationship with God.

I think that is the intellectual climax of her story, and I’ll stop there.  The events do continue.  Her family finds her and they attempt to kill her but she escapes, and she falls in love with a Christian, who asks her to marry and, in contrast to the arranged marriage her family was forcing her into, she accepts out of her free will.  It makes for great reading.  

Hannah's story is a window into a different world. Certainly not all Islamic families are this way, but there is no question that Islam played a part in the situation and how the events unfolded. Certainly not all Islamic fathers are abusive, controlling, and rapists, but Islam was certainly used to justify his behavior and, more importantly, allow the family and community to excuse it. Certainly not all Islamic families will attempt to kill their daughters over rebellion to a forced marriage, over family "honor," and apostasy, but one hears way too many that do, and many are not as lucky as Hannah. While the events of Hannah's story are at the extreme, the author lets us see the underlying logic and foundations of her community.


I grew to love Hannah. No child should ever be subject to such abuse, starting at the age of six. No woman should be subject to such control and what amounts to enslavement. It's a tribute to Hannah's shrewdness, desire for freedom, and survival instincts that she broke free of her repression. It's a credit to her that she now works to help other women in such circumstances. It's a credit to her that she has forgiven all, including her father, and come to a better understanding of Islam, which she finds in the ideal to be not as constraining as how her community practices it, though I wasn't exactly convinced. It was such a relief to find that in the end she found love, happiness, and a religion that believes in a loving God.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Literature in the News: Seeds from Reading

Well, this isn’t really in the news but in the blogs.  This comes from one of the best devotional blogs on the internet, Dominicana, a blog put out by “the Dominican student brothers of the St. Joseph Province of the Order of Preachers.” You can read more about them here.  The blog is dedicated to what Dominican Friars do best, preach the Word of God.  I think it’s worth signing up for email delivery of their posts.

Each post is written by one of the brothers, and this one titled “Seeds from Reading” is written by  Br. Isidore Rice, O.P. fits perfectly with the gist of my blog.  


“Pick up and read, pick up and read.”

While in a garden, St. Augustine heard these words spoken by a child and was inspired to pick up Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Reading, he received the grace of conversion which spurred him to entrust himself to Christ and seek baptism.

Brother Isadore then goes on to point out how St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis Xavier all went through religious experiences as a result or through reading. 

Reading, especially reading the revealed word of God in the Sacred Scriptures, is indispensable for putting us into conversation with God Himself. As St. Isidore of Seville tells us, “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us.” One can see why St. Isidore of Seville would make another bold claim: “All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.”


That is a bold claim but it is probably correct.  That is why half of the Mass is devoted to the Liturgy of the Word.  Read the rest of his post but next time you are at Mass, listen intently to the readings.  I try to visualize the action being narrated.  So if you want to deepen your faith, read the scriptures, read devotionals, and read books on religious subjects.  


Friday, May 12, 2017

Faith Filled Friday: Fatima, the 100th Anniversary, and Beauty

May 13th—tomorrow—marks the one hundredth anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, first to three children, and then later to numerous adults, over the course of five months at the Cova da Iria, in Fátima, Portugal.  You can read the events on the link and elsewhere, but I want to point out one thing Lucia, one of the three children said in describing the woman.  


"A young Lady of dazzling beauty seems to be overshadowed by sadness; her hands are joined over her breast in an attitude of prayer; her dress, white as snow, reaches to her feet and is fastened at the neck by a golden cord, the ends of which fall to her waist. A white mantle, edged with gold, covers her head and falls to her feet; in her hands she holds a Rosary of shining pearls with a silver cross."




“A young Lady of dazzling beauty,” indeed.  Of all the Marian apparitions in history, I have never seen one where the woman in question was not described as beautiful.  Our Blessed Mother is beauty itself, and with her brings beauty into the world. 

Which brings me to a quote by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and other works, who not only was Catholic, but a devout Catholic.

“All my perception of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity, is founded founded upon our Lady.”  (Quote found in May 2017 edition of Magnificat magazine, p.4)

So this weekend say at least a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, or better yet, a whole rosary, or find a book on the Fatima story.  It’s a wonderful and beautiful story.



Monday, May 8, 2017

Matthew Monday: Matthew’s First Holy Communion

This past Saturday, May 6th, Matthew had his first holy communion.  He was so excited.  He would come up, arms crossed to receive a blessing, with me when I received, and he has longed for the day he could receive.  Now he can.  Here are some pictures from his special day.

First each child made a banner and had it pinned up along the walls of the church.  Here’s is Matthew’s.




He was given a speaking part, the introductory proclamation. After the children walked in in the opening procession, Matthew went straight to the podium where the priest normally gives his homily, and, I assume standing on a step stool, he gave the opening remarks.  This was his speech, which he executed flawlessly:

Good morning.  Welcome to our First Holy Communion Celebration.

We come here today filled with joy and happiness.

We are ready to receive Jesus, the Bread of Life.  We believe his words : "He who eats my body and drinks my blood will live forever."

We pray that we will always receive Jesus with love and devotion.

We pray that Jesus will make us all one in his love.

We were all so proud of him.  I couldn’t get a great picture of him up there, but here he is up at the podium.





Here are some pictures inside and outside the church.  As you can see he wore an all-white suit, which he amazingly kept clean.










And then we had a nice little party for him at a local restaurant with family and friends. 





He's the joy of my life.

Monday, May 1, 2017

2017 Reads, Update #1

Completed First Quarter:

The Book of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament, KJV Translation.
The Book of Song of Songs, a book of the Old Testament, KJV Translation.
The Iman’s Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom, a confessional memoir by Hannah Shah.
The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, a non-fiction book by John L. Allen Jr.
The Book of Proverbs, a book of the Old Testament, KJV Translation.
Compassionate Blood: Catherine of Siena on the Passion, a non-fiction devotional by Romanus Cessario, O.P.
What Jesus Saw from the Cross, a non-fiction devotional by Antonin Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P.
The Wife of Pilate, a short novel by Gertrude von Le Fort

Currently Reading:

Julius Caesar: Life of a Colossus, a biography by Adrian Goldsworthy.
Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, a book of history and collected poetry by Max Egremont.
The Hunger Angel, a novel by Herta Müller.
The Virgin and the Gipsy, a short novel by D. H. Lawrence.
A Room with a View, a novel by E. M. Forster.

Upcoming Plans:

“The Secret Sharer,” a short story by Joseph Conrad.
“Gods,” a short story by Vladimir Nabokov.
 “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“The Light of the World,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“Marius,” Volume III of Les Misérables, a novel by Victor Hugo.

I posted my plans for 2017 a month late and so I guess it shouldn’t surprise that my first quarter update is a month late.  But I have to say I have read quite a bit these past three or four months, perhaps one of the most productive quarters of reading in a long time.  Some of those books were not planned up front.  John Allen’s The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church was a Goodreads Catholic Thought book club group read.  It was nearly five hundred pages of recent trends in Catholicism, and projection of what they may mean.  I never posted on the book.  It wasn’t exactly my type of reading.  John Allen is a prominent American journalist who reports on Catholic news.  The trends were interesting; some of the prognostications are already out of date.  It felt like it was journalism, and so it read fast.  On the positive side, John Allen is really connected to the church issues, and I put value in his thoughts and opinions. 

The Imam’s Daughter was an impulsive purchase which caught my eye and I read the nearly three hundred pages in five days.  That’s super-fast for me.  It was such an intense read that I was glued to it.  Several nights I stayed up late reading through it.  It’s a non-fiction memoir of a Muslim girl living in north England.  I posted once on it, but it was not complete.  I will shortly complete with a second post.

For Lent I actually completed three books, two non-fiction books, both by Dominican friars: Compassionate Blood by Romanus Cessario and What Jesus Saw from the Cross by A. G. Sertillanges—and one work of fiction, The Wife of Pilate by Gertrude von Le Fort.  It was a busy and holy Lent.  I’ve posted several times on the two non-fiction works.  You can find them in my March and April postings.  Le Fort’s novella, The Wife of Pilate, is a fictional rendering of Claudia Procula—the wife of Pontius Pilate—who had that dream of Christ before the crucifixion (Matt 27:19) and tried to dissuade her husband from prosecuting Jesus.  It’s a really well told story and I do intend to make a post on it.  So stay tune.

Finally I completed three Old Testament books toward my annual Biblical reads. 

Before Lent had started I was in the process of reading several secular works.  I am a good sixty percent through Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a good twenty percent through D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Virgin and the Gipsy, and a good twenty-five percent through E. F. Forster’s novel A Room with a View.  I will now pick up on those works.  It has really been a really busy and fun reading time these past few months.

Now here’s an oddity.  I did not read a single short story this quarter.  That’s really unusual for me.  If I’m going to read my goal of 24 for the year, I’ll have to really focus on it. 


Happy reading.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Compassionate Blood by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.

I mentioned back at Ash Wednesday that one of my Lenten reads was Compassionate Blood, a meditation on the Christ's Passion from the words of the patron saint of this blog, St. Catherine of Siena.  I wanted to go through one of the chapters to give you a feel for the book, but also to once again to show the sparkling thoughts of this wonderful little lady on her feast day, April 29th.  This comes from the book’s chapter titled “The Cross.”  Cessario here takes Catherine’s exegesis on a well-known verse from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18).

Catherine once wrote to a certain woman, Nella Buonoconti, a wife and mother who lived with her family in Pisa and whose son had extended hospitality to Catherine and her “family” during their stay in that northern Italian city.  Here is what she said: “The sufferings of this life are not worth comparing with the future glory that God has prepared for those who reverenced him and who with good patience endured the holy discipline imposed on them by divine Goodness.  In their patience, these people are experiencing even in this life the earnest of eternal life” (Letters II, 459).  Her words introduce an especially comforting word that Jesus spoke from the cross: “Then [the good thief] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into the kingdom.’  He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Lk 23:42-43)…What, however, explains that only one of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus received this remarkable grace to turn to him and seek an “earnest of eternal life”?

The answer to that question lies in why the good thief, traditionally known as Dismas, makes his plea to Christ.

To discover how an everyday thief became a good thief, we must consider two themes: first, the immensity of divine grace and, second, the efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross…These themes dominate the spiritual doctrine of St. Catherine of Siena…

Those two themes reach to the heart of Christianity.  If you have to remember two elements of Christianity, remember divine grace and the transformation of the world by Christ’s crucifixion. 

To another woman, one moreover who enjoyed a reputation for indulging worldly desires, Catherine felt compelled to explain the dynamics of divine law.  “But you will say to me,” she wrote to Regina della Scala, “’Since I have no such love, and without it I am powerless, how can I get it?’ I will tell you,” Catherine continues.  Her reply seems too simple for the theologically sophisticated to take seriously, but Catherine’s authority trumps such a phony demurral.  “Love,” explains Catherine, “is had only by loving.  If you want to love, you must begin by loving.” (Letters I, 73)

Love is integrally connected to grace.

God never abandons us.  The divine goodness remains present to us, always there to fill up what is empty and vacant in our lives.  This assurance explains why Catherine instructs Regina della Scala that she should become accustomed to reflecting on her own nothingness.  “And once you see that of yourself you do not even exist,” Catherine explains, “you will recognize and appreciate that God is the source of your existence and of every favor above and beyond that existence—God’s graces and gifts both temporal and spiritual.” (Letters I, 73)  Instead of emphasizing the disjunctive conjunctive either/or, Catherine prefers what Hans Urs von Balthasar later called “the catholic and.”  (The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, Ignatius Press, 1974, pp. 301-7)  Divine premonition and human freedom. Divine grace and human nature.  God and the cross of God’s only son.  “For without existence, we would not be able to receive any grace at all,” Catherine writes to Regina.  “So everything we have, everything we discover within ourselves, is indeed is indeed the gift of God’s boundless goodness and charity.

And the crucifixion is actually God’s greatest grace, his deepest expression of love.  Love and grace meet—buckle—at the cross.

“When we see ourselves loved we love in return,” she assures us.  (Letters I, 73)  On the cross, Christ exhibits the greatest possible love, so says Saint Thomas Aquinas.  (Summa Theologiae IIIa q. 48, a.2)  Catherine calls the cross “love’s fire”; fed in this fire, “we realize how loved we are when we see that we ourselves were the soil and the rock that held the standard of the most holy cross.” (Letters I, 73)  In other words, in order to appreciate the place we poor sinners hold in the drama of Christ’s Passion, we need first to find comfort from “love’s fire,” from the holy cross of sweet Jesus crucified.  Like a little moth that can only find itself drawn to the fire that will consume it, the soul finds itself drawn to the cross.  And what do we find when we land close to “love’s fire”?  “That neither earth nor rock could have held the cross, nor could the cross or nails have held God’s only-begotten Son, had not love held him fast.”  (Letters I, 73)  Catherine’s catechesis reaches its completion.  What moved the good thief?  Love.  God’s love.  God’s love shining through the human face of the Savior.

Not bad from an uneducated woman from the Middle Ages.  Compassionate Blood is a nice little devotional.


St. Catherine of Siena, on your feast day, pray for us.