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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Art: Our Lady of Fatima, the Thomas McGlynn Statue, Part 1

In my last post I mentioned the Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads was reading Vision of Fatima by Thomas McGlynn O.P. which detailed his trip to Portugal to discuss with Lúcia de Jesus dos Santos, otherwise known as Irmã Dores and the last living child that had witnessed the Fatima apparitions, the creation of a statue of Our lady of Fatima based on Lucia's vision.  As it turns out one of the one of the first marble productions of Mcglynn's Our Lady of Fatima statue that came out of his consultation with Lucia is at St. Vincent Ferrer church in uptown Manhattan.  A shrine dedicated to St. John Paul II at the church has been united with the McGlynn statue since the Holy Father credit Our Lady of Fatima in saving his life when he was shot on her feast day.  You can read about the shrine at Catholic New York, my diocese newspaper. From the article:

On the 100th anniversary of the first Marian apparition at Fatima, a shrine was dedicated in Manhattan May 13 to the memory of St. John Paul II, who credited Mary with saving his life after an assassination attempt in Rome on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981.


Father McGlynn was commissioned by a distributor of religious goods to make the statue shortly after the Second World War, when devotion to Our Lady of Fatima began to spread beyond Portugal. Although he was confident his representation of Mary was accurate, based on his research, he determined to show a small model of it to Sister Lucia, the only surviving seer, for confirmation.

Carrying a letter of introduction from Cardinal Francis Spellman to the bishop of Lisbon, Portugal, he got permission to visit Sister Lucia at her convent. When he finally met Sister Lucia, Father McGlynn was surprised and disappointed when she politely told him his statue was inaccurate.

He remained at the convent and under Sister Lucia’s direction, produced an entirely new statue. In his memoir, Father McGlynn said Sister Lucia corrected his ideas of the appearance of Our Lady of Fatima and also explained to him the spiritual vision of Fatima and encouraged him to make it better known.

The sculptor came home for the dedication at St. Vincent Ferrer of the redesigned statue on Mother’s Day, 1947. By cruel coincidence, his mother, who planned to attend the event, died while he was en route home, and lay in a funeral parlor across from the church as he preached at the dedication. Father Devaney said from that day, Father McGlynn looked at Mary as his mother, in much the way St. John Paul did.

So this version by Fr. McGlynn was based on Sister Lucia’s vision of Our Lady and was created in close collaboration with the future saint.

So I decided Saturday to trek up to St. Vincent Ferrer's church to examine the statue, and this post and the following is an examination of the statue and the creative process in developing the statue as written in the book.  

First, St. Vincent Ferrer was a lovely church.  There was a plaque that said it was in the English Gothic style.  It is run by the Dominican Friars, St. Vincent Ferrer being a Dominican, one of the many Dominican saints.  Here’s a picture inside the church looking toward the apse.

And here toward the rear, a beautiful rose window.

I loved this little chapel with a painting of St. Dominic receiving the rosary from Our Lady.  Those are little statues of Dominican saints around the painting.  You may have to click the picture to bring it into a large image.

Here is the façade of the church and a close up.

It really is a beautiful church.

The McGlynn statue with the St. John Paul shrine was located along the left wall in what might have been a transept, but if it was a transept it wasn’t very pronounced.  It was not in a chapel but a niche that was formed from the side wall jutting out as you walked toward the alter.  Here is the entire shrine in one view.

Fr. McGlynn Our Lady of Fatima Statue at St. Vincent Ferrer Church

And here are the shrine with the focus to the right.

Our Lady of Fatima Statue at St. Pope John Paul Shrine

And with a focus to the left.

Our Lady of Fatima, Fr. McGlynn Statue

I asked one of the priests in the church, an older Dominican Friar, if this was an original and he said yes but wasn't sure if it was the first. Later someone that worked at the church said this was the first of the statues Fr. McGlynn made from the plaster prototype he brought back from Portugal. So this was certainly a thrill. Here is a close up.

Our Lady of Fatima Statue, St. Vincent Ferrer Church

And from the waist up.

Fr. McGlynn, Our Lady of Fatima

Personally I think this statue is breath taking and far superior to the traditional Our Lady of Fatima that you commonly see.  I don’t have the time to go into detail in this post.  I will continue with zoomed in pictures in my next post and excerpts from the book on how the various parts of the statue came to be.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Trip to the Chapel of the Apparitions, from Vision of Fatima by Fr. Thomas McGlynn, O.P.

I’ve mentioned I participate at the Catholic Thought book club on Goodreads.  For those that don’t know, Goodreads is a “social catalogue” website for books. It’s a place to catalogue the books you’ve read, provide a rating or review for others to read, and discuss books.  I didn’t know it was owned by Amazon until now, but that makes sense.  In addition people can gather themselves into book clubs of whatever shared interest you may have.  There are all sorts of classics book clubs, history book clubs, romance novel book clubs, and whatever book genre you can imagine, and some you’ve never imagined.  There are several Catholic oriented book clubs and for the last few years I’ve belonged to Catholic Thought.  It’s really the only book club I participate in, and now I’ve become one of the moderators. 

Goodreads is free to participate in, and I’m always looking for new members for the Catholic Thought club.  Some of the books we have recently read (and I have not participated in all the reads) are “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola,” The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis, Treatise on the Love of God by St. Francis de Sales, The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church by John Allen, Silence by Shūsaku Endō, and Learning the Virtues: That Lead You to God by Romano Guardini.  If you want to build an intellectual basis for your faith, then come join us.  Here’s our book club mission statement:

This group is dedicated to the great enjoyment derived from Catholic theological and spiritual reading when combined with the outlooks and opinions of many friends. We are not an apologetics group. Our goal is to find comfort in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Currently we are reading Vision of Fatima by Fr. Thomas McGlynn, O.P.   Fr. McGlynn (1906-77) was a Dominican priest, sculptor, professor at Providence College, and writer.  /  He sculpted many saints and Popes, and in 1947 was commissioned to make a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.  After building a prototype, he decided he would bring it to the one remaining, living child of the famed Fatima Apparitions of 1917, Lúcia de Jesus dos Santos, at the time a Carmelite nun, to get her approval and possible revisal for the large scale sculpture he intends to create.  This book recounts his journey to Lucy, as he refers to her at the beginning of the book (later he refers to her as Irmã Dores, her name at the convent), Lucy’s rejection of the prototype statue, and the recreation of the new statue based on her vision.  To be clear, this is not the more renown Our Lady of Fatima statue carved by José Thedim that is more familiar.  Sister Lucy did not approve of that statue either; it did not fit the apparition.  Fr. McGlynn intended to make a statue to correspond with Lucy’s perspective, her vision.  And that is what this book is about, as well as filling in the complex messages of the apparition as Fr. McGlynn learns about them.

As it turns out, EWTN’s show Bookmarks with Doug Keck recently broadcast an episode discussing this very book.  Typically Doug on his show discusses the book with the author, but in this case he will not be calling Fr. McGlynn back from the dead. ;) He discusses the book with Fr. Gabriel Gillen O.P.  Fr. Gillen had researched the history of how Fr. McGlynn had sculpted the various statues that he discusses in the book.  You can watch this episode on youtube, here.  

The lines from Vision of Fatima I wish to highlight come from Chapter 4, simply titled, “Fatima.”  Fr. McGlynn and his interpreter and traveling companion in Portugal, Fr. Gardiner, here drive out from Lisbon to the town of Fatima for the first time.  Along the journey they stop at the Dominican Monastery in Batlahla, and then to the shrine at the south rim of the Cova, which is the actual location of the apparitions.  They settle in at a near-by hostel, all the while trying to understand the perplexing details of the Fatima apparitions, and the directives that were given by the Blessed Mother.  Finally they reach their goal, the Chapel of the Apparitions. 

We stopped at a green wooden building near the edge of the village, an inn called Pousada de Nossa Senhora do Rosário da Fátima.  Mr. Petracchi, the proprietor, welcomed us.  I tried speaking to him in Italian, but learned that despite his name and appearance he was English and about as familiar with Italian as I was with Gaelic.  He showed us through the dining room, which occupied the front of the building, to our rooms, off the narrow hall that divided the remainder of the one-story structure.  There was no heating.  The cold, the unpainted woodwork, and the springless beds confirmed the reputation of severe simplicity that visitors remark of Fatima.  There were no luxuries and few comforts at this shrine of penance. 

The few peasants along the road, as others I had seen on the way from Leiria, were short and sturdy of stature, with firm, regular features.  They were poorly and somberly clothed.  Women wore black dresses and veils, and, along with their children, were generally barefoot; the men had well-worn suits, usually brown or grey, collarless shirts, and nearly always the bone, a long, black stocking cap that falls to the shoulder. 

Gathering impressions of the people in the vicinity of Fatima, I found that curiosity was unilateral.  This might have been because they were accustomed to visitors from many lands; but my feeling, bourne out of future contacts, was that, beyond their black eyes, there are self-assured and independent personalities.  They have wrested a living from the stubborn soil of the Serra, and in the process they seemed to have acquired a strange likeness to their surroundings: austere, solid, and uncommunicative.  They were always courteous but never obsequious; friendly, but reserved. 

The panorama of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima fans out to the north at the west end of the village.  It is dominated by the graceful spire of the basilica, which rises more than two hundred feet on the hill, about a quarter of a mile from the road.  The church is made of cream-colored stone, lighter than the other buildings, and stands as on a pedestal on a great stairway that leads down to the saucer-shaped hallow.  Beneath the cross, a dark-green bronze crown tops the mounting movement of the tower.  There is an empty niche over the doorway.  Scaffoldings made of rough logs were leaning against the sides of the huge nave.  The tower was standing against a magnificent billowing cloud that had been turned a red-gold in the light of the setting sun.

We went through the gateway, down a wide gravel walk, toward the fountain, which is the hub of the Cova.  To the right and left of the walk, retaining walls drop down to irregular depressions, which are sprinkled with small trees and rough rock formations.  These quarter segments of the circle are the only unaltered remains of the original Cova. 

The fountain in the center is a gray circular stone structure, surrounded by arches, from whose roof a column rises to sustain a gilded statue of the Sacred Heart.  Between the fountain and the basilica is the expansive semicircle of sandy, graded fill, where the hundred thousands gather on the days of pilgrimage. 

On the right, the shell of a new hospital was rising; the old hospital is on the ridge to the left.  Beyond it, and not seen from the Cova, is the hospice, which is used for retreatants and for the offices of the Sanctuary.

However, I took note of the hospital, at first, only as the yellow background for a deep-red tile roof of a small structure about twenty yards up the slope of the fountain.  The roof, at the far end, covers a tiny white-walled chapel with room enough for only the celebrant and a few worshippers; but most of the roof is over a porch of rough cement.  This is the goal of every pilgrim’s journey—the Chapel of the Apparitions.  Outside and a little to the left of the doorway of the chapel, a stone column, seven feet high, marks the spot where the Blessed Virgin appeared to the children.

As we arrived at the steps in front of the chapel the great bells of the basilica were ringing out the Angelus.

I find that such an engaging passage.  Even though this is from personal experience, and therefore non-fiction, Fr. McGlynn has a keen creative and organizing eye as he brings the reader to the climatic monument—the Chapel of the Apparitions—to the end of chapter.  And then he provides the lovely touch of the ringing bells of the Angelus, the mid-day prayer to the Blessed Virgin.

Here’s how the Chapel looks in more recent times. 

And here is the basilica:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Poem: Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost

I’m not the only one that analyzes poems on the internet.  I came across an analysis by Anna O’Neil at the website Aleteia of this nice little Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nothing Gold Can Stay
 By Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

You could look at this poem from several angles.  Wikipedia mentions the analyses from a sound perspective, especially the alliteration within the poem.  Notice how the second and seventh lines both are loaded with alliterated words, and so have a mirror effect to the poem.  Notice how each of the lines have six syllables except the last, which has five.  Notice how each line, short as they are, is a sentence.  The sixth and seventh lines are separated by a comma, but they are each self-contained clauses. 

You could also look at the poem from its structural design.  The poem seems to divide in two.  The first four lines form an exposition, and the last four a narrative.   

Anna O’Neil focuses on the poem’s meaning, especially as the poem jumps from leaf to Eden to dawn.  She has a really good understanding of the line, “So dawn goes down to day.”  The poem’s meaning rests on it, and I’m not going to steal her brilliance.  You’ll have to go over to read it.  

 In prose writing those unprepared jumps (leaf to Eden to dawn) would be considered “choppy” writing, and therefore bad prose, but in poetry those leaps are called compression, and provide a charge to the poem, and therefore good poetry. 

One thing that isn’t mentioned that I noticed is how much power the word “so” has in the poem.  The entire poem is sixty words and “so” turns up three times, twice at the beginning of a line, lines that are sequential: “So Eden sank to grief,/So dawn goes down to day.”  Those two lines that begin with so, the only two that have a comma between them and so form a compound sentence are the two lines that compress the narrative and enlarge the poem’s meaning.  They are the most important lines of the poem.  But also the two so’s there establishes sequential links.  “So” is an adverb that means “for this or that reason; hence; therefore.”  “Then” in the preceding line acts in the same way.  Causal links are established that form the basis of a mythic concept, and indirectly alluding to the causal links from Edenic fall.

But now look at the other line with “so.”  “But only so an hour.”  At first I thought that was a typo.  The natural way to phrase that line would be, “but only for an hour.”  I searched around and all the postings of the poem have it, and in a recorded version (which I embed below) of Frost reading the poem himself, he does use so.  That is how Frost wrote it.  Why “so” as a word choice there?  Well, it does echo the word that will come in the important sixth and seventh lines.  But “so” here is an adjective, meaning “true as stated or reported; conforming with reality or the fact.”  It emphasizes the transient nature of the situation.  It’s only true for that moment.  It most certainly is the better word choice.

It’s a lovely little poem and like so many of Frost’s poems the simplicity is only on the surface; there is much depth within.  Here is Frost himself reading the poem.

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 1918 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.