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States of Life

 

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John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest

Poverty, chastity, obedience.

The life of the child is the way of the counsels.

Poverty, chastity, obedience.

The way of the counsels is the life of a child.

The brothers and sisters know the trick,

They stay young real quick.

 

Father, mother, sister, brother,

They exchange one set for another.

A nursery becomes a cell.

An alarm clock and then a Matin’s bell.

But the ordered rhymes must end.

For the time of the Spirit must begin.

 

The wind blows where it will,

it does not explain.

A child does not question the wind,

but holds his arms wide

to be blown along.

Children don’t take the day off,

buy life insurance or retire.

Children own nothing.

They receive their daily bread,

and their clothes are laid out.

Children are told what to do,

and where to go.

The wind blows where it will,

it expects consent.

But children do get bored,

their feelings are hurt,

they get lonely.

Theirs but to pray and die.

They grow old,

but never grow up.

Poverty, chastity, obedience.

The kingdom of God is theirs.

Unless you become like them,

you will never enter the Kingdom.

But you will.

The dead know the way of the counsels.

 

 

 

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Going to the Margins with Georges Bernanos in Mouchette

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This installment in my ongoing review of Georges Bernanos bibliography is about his novel Mouchette, published in 1937. In the French publication it is titled as Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette. Bernanos decided to reuse the name of a female character from his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan, for the title of this book and its main character. Unlike much of the Bernanos bibliography, Mouchette is in print and available through bookstores.

I will introduce the review with following Bible passage:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1 John 3:20

One of the expressions that Pope Francis is known for is “Going to the margins” of society. That is, we must reach out and help the poor, the mentally ill, the imprisoned as part of our love of neighbor. Those most difficult to reach should deserve special attention. Another popular expression of the Pope’s is that the Church must “accompany” those in particularly difficult situations.

The story begins with Mouchette at school, and her discomfort  with singing along with the rest of her class. They are singing the lines from a French poem, Three Days of Christopher Columbus. The first two lines, translated to English:

“Hope! … No more Hope!”

Three Days, Columbus told them, and I give you a world.

The lines apparently describe a conversation with Columbus and his despairing crew. I think Bernanos was alluding to the three days in the tomb and the Resurrection.

Mouchette has no such attention or accompaniment in her life. She is a fourteen year old girl in rural France. She is poor, and the daughter of an alcoholic father and terminally ill mother. She wears her older brother’s oversized wooden clogs everywhere, and the clopping sound they make might as well be the nails going into her very own Cross. She has no friends, and really, by the end of the novel, no hope. She can’t wait three more days. Again, deliberately, I think Bernanos chose to break up this novel of 127 pages into only three chapters.

Overall, it is a meditation on the pity of God for those on the margins, those whom God does not seem to help out of respect for our free will in ordering the affairs of the world.  Bernanos deliberately gives the reader a God’s eye view, and invites us to accompany this person on the margin of society.

A brief except to give you a flavor of Bernanos’ style in this book:

Her attention was so absorbed and so tender that it seems to be an extension of her own life. It did not occur to her to find Arsene’s face handsome. It was simply that it was made for her, and seemed as easy and natural in her gaze as the handle of her old knife in her hand, the old knife which she had found on the road one evening, and had shown to no one, and which was the only thing in the world which she possessed. She would have liked to touch his face, but its golden color, as warm as that of bread, was enough to make her happy.

 

This is a particularly good book if you are (like I hope I am not anymore) a little too quick to judge people based on the worst day of their life or after the biggest mistake they might ever make.  We don’t really know how they got there. Only God does. My local newspaper has gone mostly electronic, and its home page is steadily updated throughout the day with an endless list of crimes, deaths and various misadventures.  The people who comment on these stories are often rather cruel, criticizing the person or their family for what happened. It is far better to say a prayer for these strangers you never knew in this life … you might be the only one who does.

So you can accompany those on the margins through prayer, if nothing else is possible.

The novel was adapted into a film by the highly regarded French director Robert Bresson in 1967. The screenplay is largely faithful to the plot, though the story has been shifted forward a few decades to post-WW2 France. Bresson uses his familiar, minimalist style and relied on locals and unknowns to fill out the cast. Most of the bad stuff is not directly shown, but still, it’s not for children. It is available with subtitles. I don’t believe it won any major awards, but it was well regarded enough that the Critetion Collection decided to restore and reissue it in 2007.

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Under Satan’s Sun by Georges Bernanos

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With this post I continue my reviews of stories written by non-English speaking Catholics which may be unfamiliar to an Anglophone audience. Here I review Georges Bernanos’ novel Sous le soleil de Satan, which was translated from French into English as Under Satan’s Sun (some translations use Under the Sun of Satan). It was Bernanos’ first novel, and published in 1926.

Most of the translated versions of Bernanos’ work are out of print, and will not be found at your local library or bookstore.  Unless you want to buy a used copy for $100 on Amazon, you may need to make use of the “interlibrary loan” process, in which you can ask your local lending library to request his books from a university library. This is a free service, and I have found it to work quite well.

I.

In Under Satan’s Sun, Bernanos explores what a real saint might think and experience. This is not a dry, matter of fact or even reverent biography of a saint we have probably all read at one time or another.  Rather, Bernanos tries to imagine the interior suffering and day to day experience of a saint, their flaws and even their mistakes. The role of the saint in the world and Church was an endlessly fascinating subject for Bernanos, and the topic of several long essays.

The protagonist of the book is Father Donissan, a priest living in the French countryside. No dates are given, but the events of the book roughly overlap the late 19th century and early 20th century. Donissan is of peasant background, and somewhat rough around the edges in appearance and personality. He struggled in the seminary, and is having difficulty in his first assignment.  Bernanos very loosely based him on John Vianney and, to a lesser extent, Therese of Lisieux, who along with  Joan of Arc, were probably Bernanos’ three favorite saints.

However, Donissan is not present in the book’s first act, which instead tells the story of Germaine Malorthy, later nicknamed “Mouchette” (meaning “little fly”). “Malorthy” appears to be a made-up last name, perhaps suggesting both “sick” (Mal in French) and “straight” (from the Greek Orth). Bernanos may have intended to allude to the concept of original sin with this name.

Mouchette is both antagonist and victim.  As antagonist, Bernanos illustrates the banality of evil, and how a series of mistakes, misunderstandings, and emotional turbulence can lead one to a very dark place. It is intended to be a compassionate portrait, and it is Bernanos speaking when he later has Donissan tell her  that her great crime was no sin in God’s eyes, because her freedom had been compromised by Satan.

But she is also a victim of Satan, the clown prince of the world, and a real presence in the book.  Bernanos accepted that the devil was real, and an omnipresent foe of humanity. The idea may seem strange to the contemporary reader, but the suffering of Donissan, much less the mystery of evil in the world, doesn’t make much sense without this. If I may borrow from the language of software, Satan is a bug, not a feature.  Bernanos’ Satan primarily manifests as a mental presence weighing the soul down at every turn. This is not The Exorcist, and Bernanos’ Satan wages a campaign of interior, spiritual warfare to lead his enemy, us, into doubt, despair and self-hate. Satan is eager to intervene during Mouchette’s confrontation with Donissan:

But then help – a help never sought in vain – came to her from a master who grows more attentive and harder with every day that passes; a dream she could scarcely distinguish from other dreams, a scarcely more bitter desire, a companion and tormentor now real and living, in turn plaintive and languid, the source of tears, more pressing, brutal, and eager to compel, and then, at the decisive moment, cruel and ferocious, fully present in a laugh full of pain, bitter, once a servant and now a master.

Mouchette is sixteen, and sort of an infernal version of the Virgin Mary. She is a savage child, striking out at everyone in her spiritual revolt. Bernanos describes her as a “bride of hell” in the making, and I will simply say it is a photo finish as to whether she consummated her nuptials with God or the Devil.

II.

But the key spiritual struggle is between Donissan and Satan, which is begun during the second act of the book, titled “The Temptation of Despair.”  The two have an encounter of sorts during a long walk Donissan makes on a cold and miserable night to a remote parish. If you have ever had one of those sleeps where you wake up ten or more times, and seem to drift from one dream fragment to the next in a night that does not end … well that’s what happens to Donissan in a way.

Donissan has been gifted with the supernatural charism known as cardiognosis, or the reading of people’s hearts. St. John Vianney apparently had this, and became a famed confessor because of it. Because of his gift, Donissan is subjected, or allows himself to be subjected, to a particular temptation: despair. The weight of seeing so many people’s sins and their lack of repentance torments him. He makes a wager of sorts, offering his happiness and even salvation in an effort to save souls.  Donissan is also overly scrupulous and prone to unnecessary acts of mortification and penance. His opponent plays on this and his combative nature to draw Donissan away from reliance on God’s mercy into a cycle of self-hate, despair and doubt. Thus an interior tug of war begins that will last his whole life:

What he was about to turn against so foolishly, however, was the mysterious joy still awake in his mind, a small, clear flame scarcely flickering in the wind. His arid soul, which had never known any other consolation than a mute and resigned sadness, was first astonished, then frightened, and finally irritated by the inexplicable sweetness. At the first stage of ascension, vertigo strikes, and the fledgling mystic struggles with all his might to break out of the passive contemplation and inner silence, disturbed by its apparent idleness … The Other, who had interposed himself between Donissan and God, concealed himself with utmost skill, advancing, withdrawing, advancing again, carefully, sagaciously, and attentively leading him on.

Donissan is not a follower of Therese’s “Little Way.” He chooses to meet his foe head on.

If you yourself have tendencies to scrupulousness, you might see yourself in him, and have a new insight as to where these feelings come from … not somewhere good.  For self-hate is really another form of pride, an unwillingness to humbly accept whatever flaws or limitations God has allowed us to endure. There was much of the young Bernanos in this book and character, and the older man later reflected on overcoming this in his usual, very quotable way:

The hard thing is not loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s loving yourself enough so that the literal observance of the precept will not do harm to your neighbor.

III.

The third act, titled “The Saint of Lumbres”, takes place some years after the conclusion of the second act. Donissan has been placed in charge of a small parish in a rural part of France, and is no longer a young man. Like John Vianney, he has acquired a reputation as a gifted confessor and miracle worker.  Bernanos uses this part to illustrate how a saint must walk much the same the same path that Jesus did while on earth.  Donissan is besieged by parishioners and visitors, like Jesus was surrounded by crowds.  He is looked at with skepticism and suspicion by the Church, much like Jesus was doubted and questioned by the religious authorities of the day. Donissan, tired and worn down by the unending demands and sins of others, undergoes one last, severe crisis of faith near the end of the book, like Christ on the Cross asking if God had abandoned him.

In terms of style, I find that Bernanos writes in a way very different from contemporary authors. There are long, discursive paragraphs of dialogue or a character’s thoughts. I think much of it is quite beautiful, but one may find him, justifiably, long-winded at times.

In later years, Bernanos referred to the novel as the “fireworks display” of a young man. While this book portrayed the saint as a hero, his later works presented the saint as a more ordinary sort of fellow who is fully cooperative with God’s grace. The confrontation between good and evil is less dramatic, and more in line with the normal day-to-day choices and temptations of the typical person.

IV.

The novel was adapted into a movie by Director Maurice Pialat, and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Gerard Depardieu played Father Donissan. It was well reviewed, but I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed with the film. But I usually am with adaptations of books I like. The director clearly had a respect for the source, and the adaptation is reasonably faithful to the plot. However, given that half the book or more is about what’s going on inside people’s heads, I found it somewhat fragmentary.  The actress who played Mouchette, who was 20, also seemed too old for the part of a sixteen year old girl.

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Donissan and Mouchette. Under the Sun of Satan (1987).

If you read it and like it, a far more insightful and in-depth of treatment of the book is given in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life, in which Hans Urs Von Balthasar reviews and analyzes the spiritual themes of his entire bibliography.

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Shusaku Endo’s Deep River

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This is a review and analysis of Shusaku Endos’s 1994 novel Deep River, his last. I started reading Endo recently, and reviewed his Kiku’s Prayer a few months ago. Endo’s controversial novel Silence has also been getting more attention lately due to the Martin Scorsese film adaptation currently playing in theaters.

Deep River may be interesting for those readers who read or saw Silence, and are looking for more from Endo, or are simply trying understand his point of view. Alternatively, it may be of interest to those who ponder why the faith seems to have flourished in some parts of the world, but not taken root in places like Japan. This is a longish review, and includes details that may spoil the story in case you prefer to read it first.

Deep River follows parts of the lives of five different people leading up to their meeting on a trip to India in 1984. Three of them are elderly Japanese men coming to terms with suffering.  The two main characters are a Japanese man and woman engaged in a spiritual duel of sorts lasting several decades.

The three older men, Numada, Kugachi and Isobe, are to some degree biographical sketches of Endo or the men of his generation. Numada, like Endo, is an author who never quite got over the divorce of his parents, and has suffered from significant health problems later in life. Isobe is a representative of the traditional Japanese salary man who realized he never fully appreciated or loved his recently deceased wife. Kugachi is a WW2 veteran still trying to make sense of his and his fellow veterans’ experiences.

The main characters are Otsu, a Japanese Catholic who becomes a priest, and Mitsuko, an acquaintance from college who wrestles with alternative impulses to destroy and understand him. Mitsuko is trying to find herself, while Otsu is trying more and more to submerge himself into the Man of Sorrows.

In terms of style and structure, this is very different from Kiku’s Prayer. That book was almost a documentary about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the late 19th century. Deep River is more an examination of the interior states of its characters as they confront modernity and their own suffering.

Endo almost seems to be asking here  whether any of the suffering explored in Silence and Kiku’s Prayer has been worth it, or why the sacrifice of so many martyrs has borne little obvious fruit. The Christians of mid to late 20th century Japan are considered odd by their compatriots, and Otsu is the butt of jokes and mockery by his fellow students. Endo tries to explore this issue, and offers his own thoughts through the words of Otsu and Mitsuke. Western Christians may not like the message.

Endo went to France as a young man to study French Literature. He alludes to this experience through Otsu’s time in a seminary in France. Endo appears to believe that the Scholastic, Aristotelian influenced mode of Catholic Christianity dominant since the Reformation simply does not work for many Asians. I am no theologian, but briefly, a key criticism of Scholasticism is that it is too rigid, too focused on using reason or logic to approach God. A more recent version of it, “Neo-Scholasticism” was the dominant mode of philosophy and theology within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th century. Some European theologians felt that this approach was limiting, and introduced ideas in the mid-20th century, often called Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”)  that relied more on the writings of the Platonic influenced Church Fathers to address the problems presented by Modernism. Please note that this philosophical debate does not neatly fall into “liberal” or “conservative” categories, and there are no good guys or bad guys in this dispute.

Otsu voices Endo’s criticisms of “European Christianity” in a number of passages in which he describes his difficult seminary experience:

For three years I’ve lived here, and I’ve tired of the way people here think. The ways of thinking that they’ve kneaded with their own hands and fashioned to meet the workings of their hearts … they’re ponderous to an Asian like me.

I can’t make the clear distinction that these people make between good and evil. I think that evil lurks within the good, and that good things can lie hidden within evil as well. That’s the very reason God can wield his magic. He made use of my sins and turned me towards salvation.

Again, its beyond my ability to well articulate Endo’s theological or philosophical view.  He is not a heretic, but I think he views the logic, argument based form of Christian evangelization or Christian apologetics as not suited to Asia, or perhaps modernity in general. I think this is why he focused on the “failure” of several Jesuit priests as a key point in Silence.  Rather, I think he is trying to encourage a focus on the more mystical, experience based approach of God’s mercy as often symbolized in devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was the main symbol of faith in Kiku’s Prayer.

Otsu manages to become ordained, but is viewed with deep suspicion by his colleagues.  He eventually winds up in India, where he ministers to dead and dying Hindus in a solo mission of mercy. He carries the bodies of the dying to the Ganges, the “deep river” of the book, which represents God’s deep and unending love for all people. The final wish of many Hindus is that their remains be placed in the Ganges, either whole or after cremation.  The poor that Otsu serve cannot afford cremation, so he carries them on his back, like Christ carrying the cross.

Earlier, I referenced the “duel” between Otsu and Mitsuko, the book’s sole point of view female character, and really a stand in for all of us. Mitsuko and Otsu meet in late 1960’s Japan, and she is a liberated college student who drinks, studies and sleeps around.  She is given the nickname “Moira” after a character in a French novel she has read. Moira is derived from an Irish version of Mary, and Mitsuko is a sort of “Mary Magdalene” figure.

She and her fellow students are amused by Otsu’s Christianity, and they egg her on to test and seduce him.  While watching him pray one day, she makes a bet against the ugly Jesus on the cross that she will steal Otsu away from him. She seduces him into a sexual relationship, and then dumps him after a few months. Otsu is devastated, but later says that he hears Jesus speaking to him to “come to him,” and he interprets this as a sign to become a priest.

Mitsuko goes on to marry, but finds no peace.  She tracks down Otsu to his seminary while on her honeymoon in France, and his determination to keep his faith she finds unsettling.  She eventually divorces and becomes a volunteer at hospital, where she cares for the sick and dying. Years later she joins the trip to India after learning that Otsu has moved to India.

This dual repulsion and attraction is symbolized by Mitsuko’s interest in the various Hindu goddesses she learns about on her trip, such as Kali

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The goddess Kali trampling her husband, as Mitsuko tramples Otsu, and we trample the Lord

In Endo’s view, we are all, like Mitsuko, Kali to an extent, wounded by original sin, and trampling Jesus with our resistance. The theme of a trampled Jesus was the key image at the conclusion of Silence.

Endo studied the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos while he was a student in France. I have also been reading Bernanos and reviewing some of his work at this blog.  Deep River reflects this influence in the struggle between Otsu and Mitsuko. Bernanos’ stories were ones of spiritual combat, often reflected in a confrontation between a priest and a female character. This was a deliberate pairing by Bernanos; not because of misogyny, but because all souls are feminine in relation to the first and second persons of the trinity. We are part of the Church, which is the Bride to Jesus’ Bridegroom. In his novels, the male priests, in a mystical way, often endure suffering to allow the female character to respond to God’s grace.

Otsu is trampled by Mitsuko in her original sin stained Kali form through her insults, her seduction, and eventual rejection of him. The modern hatred of priests was also a theme of Bernanos’ work, best described in his Diary of a County Priest. There a variety of women slander, mock, and tempt the unassuming, gentle protagonist, a character not too different from Otsu. And despite this almost instinctive revulsion, Mitsuko keeps circling around him, and thinking about her sterile life and the promise of the Christian God.  The duel comes to a head when they encounter each other on the banks of the Ganges at the end of the novel. Otsu offers himself as a sacrifice, and in my view, it leads to a spiritual breakthrough for Mitsuko. The ending is not clear, but my interpretation is that she has been given an opportunity to respond to God’s grace.

The positive feminine symbol that Endo offers in contrast to Kali is that of the Hindu goddess Chamunda, a mother goddess who as described by Endo symbolizing the suffering and abiding of India. Chamunda is not beautiful, and her image is worn down by pain and toil.  She is a Virgin Mary figure who shows the wounds of humanity’s suffering in her image. As Mitsuko thinks about Chamunda, she increasingly becomes drawn to the  river Ganges, which Otsu compares to the deep and all accepting love of Jesus.

In the end, I think Endo is making a plea to acknowledge the feminine, motherly side of God, which bears all suffering, and accepts everyone, regardless of their stated faith. As a member of a very small Christian minority in Japan, Endo had come to accept that God had ways of reaching people of all religions.  This feminine side of God is made present in the appearance of several nuns of the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the book, the order led by Mother Theresa. I think the reader is invited to speculate whether Mitsuko, a nurse by training, stays in India and joins the order.   I would also like to think that Endo would welcome some of the developments in Catholic devotion in recent decades, including a new focus on the mercy of God, as described by St. Faustina Kowalska (canonized in 2000), and Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation.

 

 

 

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A Review: Kiku’s Prayer

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This post is a review of the novel, Kiku’s Prayer, by Shusaku Endo. Mr. Endo was a Japanese Catholic writer whose novel, Silence, has been adapted for film several times in the past and in a soon to be released film by Martin Scorsese.

If you are planning to see Silence, and read the book, you might be interested in Kiku’s PrayerSilence is about the suppression of Christianity in 17th Century Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is Endo’s most famous work. The persecution, as measured by worldly metrics, was largely successful. Many Christians were killed and forced to renounce their faith, and the teaching of Christianity and public worship was outlawed for about two centuries.

Kiku’s Prayer is about the events that led to the end of the official persecution, which occurred during the late 19th century after the restoration of Imperial rule during the Meiji Restoration. It could be called a work of “historical fiction,”  in which real people and events are used as the basis of a novel.  Mr. Endo helpfully includes endnotes at the end of each chapter to better identify the real people, places and events referenced in the novel.

However, the main characters are not based on real people. Rather they are ordinary Japanese, Christian and non-Christian, who lived in the Nagasaki region of western Japan.  Kiku is a young woman from the small village of Urakami who moves to town for work, and falls in love with Seikichi, a young man, and secret Christian. So unlike Silence, the main characters are Japanese.

A secondary character is Father Bernard Petitjean, a young priest who has come to Japan to help build the first Catholic church in centuries (to serve foreigners), but who initiates a secret mission to make contact with the “Kakure Kirishitan“, or “hidden Christians”, who have practiced their faith in secret and passed on the traditions for two centuries.  He is successful in meeting them, and this sets in motion a chain of events that leads to their persecution but opens the door to the free exercise of religion in Japan.

I do not speak Japanese, and the book has been translated by Van C. Gessel. This is the same translator used for all English versions of Endo’s work. Accordingly, I cannot comment on the writing style or “literary” quality of Mr. Endo’s work.   The novel is very plot driven, and heavy on dialogue and brief descriptions of what the characters see and do. Mr. Gessel’s translation seems fairly straightforward to me (I am not a literary critic).  This is not a “post-modern” work of fiction, nor does it involve long descriptive paragraphs of what’s going on inside people’s heads or around them. It’s a brisk read.

If you are curious why Christianity had so much trouble making headway in Asia, Mr. Endo effectively uses the local government officials to voice a criticism of how European powers and their colonial predation, sometimes with Church assistance, tainted the faith in the minds of many peoples.

The title of the book is an intended irony, as Kiku is not a Christian, and her prayer is more in the nature of a complaint to the Blessed Mother statue she visits from time to time. In this book, as in books written by Georges Bernanos that I’ve reviewed, it is often the people with no faith, those who renounce the faith, or even persecute the faith, that have been given the greatest crosses to bear in life. If you are a Christian, it is largely an accident of birth whether you were baptized and raised in the faith. Imagine the cross you had to bear if you apostatized under torture or threat of torture. Those people probably felt a sense of despair and very distant from the Lord the rest of their life. But in fact He drew very close to them, and they were drawn into the mystery of the Cross in return.

In this vein, one of the more powerful scenes involves a confrontation between Father Petitjean and a Japanese official, Ito, responsible for persecuting the Japanese Christians:

““I’ll bet you don’t know the first thing about the pains of those who are beaten. And you know nothing of the torment of those who administer the torture!”

Then Petitjean said something completely unexpected. “No, I don’t know those pains. But I do know that God loves you more than he loves Lord Hondō.”

Itō looked up at Petitjean’s face in amazement. He thought perhaps he was being mocked, ridiculed. “You say this God of yours … loves me more than Hondō? A man who’s tortured and inflicted pain on you Kirishitans?”

“You are suffering. But Lord Hondō feels no anguish in his heart. His heart is filled with the dream of taking advantage of the mounting opportunities in this age of Meiji and making a success of himself.”

“And what … what’s so wrong with that? I’m … if anything, I’m jealous of the success Hondō is having.”

“But it’s your jaundiced, wounded heart that God is trying to penetrate, not Hondō’s. God has no interest in a man like Lord Hondō, who is inflamed right now with the lust for success. He is drawn instead to a heart like yours.”

Hatefully Itō said, “I really despise the kind of nonsense you people use to trick the hearts of men. You prey on a man’s weaknesses, but no matter how hard you try to charm me with your Kirishitan babble, I’m not falling for your lofty words and schemes. I see exactly what you’re up to.”

“You’re wrong.” Petitjean shook his head vigorously. “Someday you’ll understand. By inflicting pain on the Urakami Kirishitans, you’re splattering your own body with blood.””

In closing comments, Endo notes his thanks to the City of Nagasaki, which was the location of the last use of an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the intended target for the second bomb, but the primary target was obscured by smoke and clouds.  When the bomb was dropped it drifted somewhat away from the urban core and landed in the Urakami Valley, where the story of Kiku’s Prayer begins. The surrounding hills prevented higher casualties, but the Urakami Cathedral, the first built in Japan, was destroyed and all those attending mass for the Feast of the Assumption were killed.

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Field notes on the Jubilee Year of Mercy as Mediated by Han Solo

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The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy concluded on November 20, 2016.  I am certainly not qualified to give unsolicited advice, but if you wish to compare notes, or are seeking, what follows was my experience. This is longish.

The Han Solo theme is a reflection on what my older self could tell my younger self, or any young people looking for advice from someone who’s been on the journey a bit longer.  Though I have to admit I’ve been more a Kylo than Rey or Finn in my life. I had opportunities to break away from the path I was on at a younger age, as Finn did, but missed them. Fortunately God’s mercy is never-ending.

Why did I participate? What was this Extraordinary Jubilee Year anyway?

I was very excited when Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee last spring, as I had not participated, to my regret, in the Great Jubilee of 2000. There have only been 27 such years. Briefly, a Jubilee is a special year of prayer that a focuses on the forgiveness of sins and the associated punishment.

I have always been interested in “Last Things”, and for a Catholic, this inevitably involves the subject of Purgatory. Essentially, even though Jesus has redeemed us, Catholics believe that a final purification of the person will occur after death before one is admitted into Heaven and sees God face to face. The degree of purification is believed to correspond to how faithful you have been in following the path the Lord has set out for us. It involves some degree of suffering, and it is taught that you can do nothing to reduce this experience after you die. However, it is accepted that you can mitigate your purification by certain actions taken in this life.  A Jubilee Year provides an extra special opportunity of obtaining this mitigation, which is called an “indulgence.” By satisfying the conditions laid out, which involve pilgrimage to a Holy Door, prayer, confession, communion, and works of mercy, one can potentially obtain a partial or full remission of the punishment associated with your confessed sins.

I have sinned much, and accordingly I found this opportunity to be most welcome. I recognize that there is a fair amount of skepticism around this topic, even for Catholics, but, to be blunt, what did I have to lose?

My Preparation

I did not wait for the Jubilee Year to officially begin, and began going to Confession regularly before it started (Never put off what God’s grace might allow you to do today).  For me this was a hard step, as I had not been to confession in 20 years. However, God provided a special delivery of grace last July, and this gave me the courage to go back.  This involved a pretty detailed examination of conscience, and given the quantity of things I wanted to talk about, I forgot to mention a few things on my first trip. I went back the next day, same priest, to finish it properly.

This also involved avoidance of serious sin. For example, I took care to arrange my schedule to I could go to Mass every Sunday and the other Holy Days of Obligation, and to take Communion on each occasion when I was reasonably confident I was in a state of grace.  I also began to spend more time in prayer, and make an effort to pray the Rosary from time to time.

Fortunately for me, I live near a Cathedral that had Holy Door, and was able to participate in the diocese’s procession and ceremony when the Jubilee Year began in November of 2015.

What I learned: Main Points 

  • We must be Christocentric in our faith.  “No one sees the Father but through Me” as the Lord says. I think my early formation in faith suffered because I spent too much time thinking and pondering God the Father without developing a firm, more intimate friendship with his Son. The members of the Trinity are equal, and Our Lady, the angels and the Communion of Saints are important, but for me the establishment of bond with the Lord was a necessary foundation. In my first hour in Heaven, I would like nothing better than to rest my head on the Lord, like St. John at the Last Supper, and listen to the Metronome of the Universe that beats beneath His breast.

 

  • Follow The Rules. They work and are there for your benefit.

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While Baptism is the first Sacrament, Confession is the key that unlocks nearly everything else. Can you imagine going through a marriage without ever saying your sorry or apologizing to your spouse for anything? Nobody’s marriage would last.  But many of us rarely if ever go to Confession while still taking Communion regularly. Judas took Communion directly from the Lord’s hand, but he had not repented his treachery. It did him no good.  It gets easier the more you do it, and I go every 3-5 weeks now. I am now receiving showers of grace from making good Communions that I was not getting before

  • If you work or live in an urban area that has a nearby Catholic Church, going to an extra Mass or two during the work week is a great “low hanging fruit” to obtain.  I am lucky enough that my schedule has a regular lunch break, and can walk to a Cathedral in 10 minutes. Weekday masses are shorter, no more than 30 minutes I have found.  You can give praise  to God, obtain more grace for yourself (or ask God to donate it to someone else), and thus can better serve others. I have become acquainted with the General Roman Calendar, and am working to collect all the Feast Days, a la Pokémon Go. I find that the more I go to Mass, the more I appreciate and enjoy it.

 

  • The above is especially important, if like me, you often find yourself too tired for meaningful prayer time at the end of the day. I made many resolutions to say the Rosary on certain days, and often failed to do it because of the tyranny of schedule, family and professional obligations, etc. I have an extra Rosary at work now, and may try to fit this in over lunch. I am lucky enough to have an office with a door.

 

  • Prayer and Contemplation can be very effective when done in silence and darkness. Cardinal Sarah discusses this in God or Nothing. My prayer life up till recently had mostly been spoken, petitionary prayer. I have tried just before sleep, kneeling and emptying my mind, and just listening. I don’t hear anything, but according to Sarah and others, this provides the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in you. I often wake up in the middle of the night, and find it fruitful just to lie there and let the mind take in whatever God wants to impart. I think most of the best received stuff I have written came to me between 3 and 5 am during these interludes.

 

The Result

“Its true, all of it.” Han to Rey and Finn.

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Newton’s Third law provides that for “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” However, God is far more generous. For every movement we make to him, he advances much farther towards us, like the Father running to greet the returned prodigal son.

I think that the last 18 months has been the best “year” of my life. I had some significant personal, professional and health challenges, but God’s grace carried me through. I had my peaks and valleys, being subject to the “Law of Undulation” as C.S. Lewis describes in his The Screwtape Letters. However, I found myself much less bothered by things, less angry, more forgiving, and did not shoot anyone first, even bounty hunters!  And writing as a man, sexual temptation will always be a key struggle, but the grace I have received provided a measure of calm and peace to my carnal nature that I thought would be impossible to experience in this life.

I also found my interest in popular culture has waned dramatically. I am much less interested in watching TV, sports, movies, and listening to talk/sports radio. I am loyal to my sports teams as much as any guy, but no longer feel the compulsion to watch the games. I have also cut down on a lot of the casual fiction reading that I often did just to fill the time (“beach reads”). I was also able to tune out a lot of the election noise and political chatter over the past Spring and Summer, but did get sucked in too much in the past few months. And yes, I will see “Rogue One”, but I don’t have to go opening night.

Instead, I find that I like to do a lot of religious reading (e.g. scriptural commentaries, spiritual reflections, etc.).  I probably learned more about our faith in the last 18 months than in all the prior years. A surprising side effect is a new-found appreciation of Classical music. I do not play an instrument and have never seriously studied music, but I find that’s what my radio is set to in the car these days.

What’s Next

This blog was my attempt at performing “works of mercy” for the Jubilee Year.  It is sad to see how many people in the West have fallen away from the faith compared to prior times, and that a smaller percentage of the younger generations are being raised in the faith.  How can we communicate with people in humble way about what they are missing?

I think one way has to be stories. While the daytime soaps have faded, our imagination has been captured by cable series, Netflix, comic books, movies, music videos, novels, etc.  Even our sports and politics revolve around the story structure. There is a beginning, middle and end, with a cast of characters, various crises, and a conclusion.

I have tried my hand at short fiction over the last year or so as a means to convey my own experiences and thoughts in hopefully a humble and interesting way. This blog has a small following, but as I said in my very first post, if one person is helped, then its been worth it.

The creative well dried up over the summer, and I have gotten away from fiction and done some books reviews and spiritual reflections instead. I have tried not to force it, as most of the early stuff just came to me without a lot of conscious effort. So perhaps that’s all God intended for this effort. Also, one who tries to write for the Lord will often ask himself whether its just vanity, or really for the Glory of God. I certainly ask myself that question a lot.

So, perhaps this is the last post. If you have followed along this last year or so, thanks for your time. I will pray and reflect on this, and if it is in accord with God’s will, I may continue the blog. I would like to try more fiction, but if that’s not where the Spirit leads me, this blog may shift to doing book reviews, spiritual reflections, etc.

And no matter what happens, stay true, you will have your happy ending. This thing we call “life” is the Way of the Cross. But Time itself is subject to the Lord, and He makes all things new, and will give you true life to the fullest.

 

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Fabrice Hadjadj’s “Against the Microscope”

Earlier this year I became acquainted with the work of  Fabrice Hadjadj, a French Catholic writer of some renown in Europe. I reviewed his first book of scriptural reflections to be published in English, The Resurrection: Experience Life in the Risen Christ, on this blog a few months back. This post is a continuation of this effort to raise his profile in the English speaking world.

I recently came across an article he wrote in 2014 about two individuals, one fairly well known, one, not so much: Dr. Jerome Lejeune and Claire Fichefeux. Dr. Lejeune was a medical doctor and geneticist, and a discoverer of the chromosomal anomaly that causes Down Syndrome.  He later became an outspoken opponent of the use of prenatal screening to facilitate the abortion of children with chromosomal anomalies such as Trisomy 21.

Claire Fichefeux was a French woman with Down who died in 2014.  Professor Hadjadj had some acquaintance with her.  Claire was apparently adopted, and served in a civilian capacity in the French military, and may have been working towards becoming a lay member or consecrated religious of a French Catholic organization known as the Community of Emmanuel. She apparently was an eloquent witness for the faith and spoke at a few conferences, including one with Professor Hadjadj.

Hadjadj offered a tribute to Claire some months after her death, and the Lejeune Foundation posted an English translation at their website. The translation is a little awkward in parts, but Professor Hadjadj’s insights come through. The article is primarily a tribute to the then recently deceased Ms. Fichefeux, but also a reflection on the work of Dr. Lejeune.

In his usually creative way, Hadjadj critiques science for causing us to miss the forest for the trees.  In limiting our alphabet to G, A , T, C, and S, we cannot spell “human,” but we can build a prison like Gattaca. I will provide a few excerpts, but its best read in its entirety:

You have understood that focusing on the alphabet causes one to forget about the poem. One ends up seeing in a living being only a “physiological bag”, a “genetic sequence”. You no longer see the unique and interesting shape one doesn’t need glasses to see: the radiant daisy, the fascinating spider, the peacock, the ostrich, the rhinoceros, the orang-utan, etc.

Before we saw a person, now we see an error in a genetic sequence:

Before people used to say: “he is a Mongolian” and, yes, maybe it sounded a bit too anthropomorphic, as if people were being classified into races, making a very debatable and dangerous assimilation. At least they were called after a statement made from a visible appearance: we could still see a face. People marvelled at these little beings who looked like descendants of Gengis Khan suddenly appearing in a perfectly French family… Nowadays, they are named after a person who studied their disease: Down. We now only see an incorrect code, a bad move on a chess board, a typing error which, therefore, needs eliminating.

Hadjadj closes with a request that Dr. Lejeune and a child with Down be beatified by the Church.  All the more appropriate as Claire and those like are “not Down but, Up, up in Heaven.”

Having read much Bernanos lately, I completely agree. Our Church is the Church of the Saints, and the recognition of a Saint who had Down Syndrome is a worthy effort. What defense do we have against a world well armed with microscopes but the child like holiness of a forever child saint. Perhaps it is Claire?  I cannot speak French, but if you can, you may listen to a 30 minute homily given about her by the French Catholic monk Daniel-Ange.

So if you find yourself in a tight corner, a prayer for Claire’s intercession may be in order. It takes two miracles to be canonized, and maybe you can be her witness. It may even be your mission in life.

Read the whole testimonial here.

From Aleteia Media.

 

 

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For the Blue Lady on her Feast Day

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When you gaze long into Heaven,

Heaven gazes long into you.

For the one who contemplates

Is Contemplated by the One.

And when you go fishing,

It may be you that is caught

Do you remember it, my love?

That day you put the fish hook through my soul?

It did not hurt, that gentle but relentless tug.

Pulling me up into the boat.

The screen before me like a fisherman’s net,

Sifting me and leaving my sins behind.

I pass through and am even more now,

Though I have left much less than nothing behind.

It was the tears that drew you to me I know now.

Never are we more becoming than when we cry,

This life giving spring of water you gave us.

So if you find yourself wrestling with an angel…

Stop.

For if you don’t,

You may find yourself in the belly of a whale,

(or is it a well)

Calling on the Blue Lady to help you.

But its you there in the hot sun, with your back against it.

Will no one give you a drink?

You remember the day she got your proposal,

As she went to the well.

But another woman is coming to fetch water now.

She has had many lovers, none of them you.

But you see your Mother in her,

And somehow she sees you in us.

And you both grasp the rope,

Pulling us up

up

up

to you and her, in Heaven.

 

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Looking for Leslie Burke

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Adrienne, off to Terabithia (1918)

After writing about childhood and atheism the other day, I had a feeling it’s finally time for my Adrienne post. Specifically, Adrienne Von Speyr, the only subject I have in my blog roll. This is a very long and meandering post, as I am knitting together the threads of several different,  proto-posts that never went anywhere.

I.

I read Bridge to Terabithia when I was a boy.  I have not read it since, but it made an impression, as I could remember the story reasonably well years later. After I saw the film adaptation in 2007, fragments started coming back to me, about names that could go either way, and the feel of a sweater button pressed into your face. I would think about the book from time to time, and why I still remember it when so many other books from my youth have gone away.

In hindsight, I think it must have been the alien abduction quality of the friendship at the core of the story. Jesse Aarons, an artistic 11 year old boy, becomes best friends with … a girl, his classmate Leslie Burke.  Maybe things have changed, but based on my school experiences, I think on a subconscious level this required more suspension of disbelief by my eleven year old self than E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

It is not a casual friendship. She is the shy Jesse’s only friend, and they spend just about all their free time together. She is the more mature and developed personality. And an atheist of all things too, in contrast to Jesse’s church going family. I do not recall any sexual tension in the book, and Jesse’s budding romantic affections seem entirely channeled into a crush on his pretty art teacher, Miss Edmunds. But the friendship with Leslie, however brief, has a profound effect on Jesse. She teaches him how to love, and to live life despite its hardships.

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The book’s author, Katherine Paterson, was the daughter of Christian missionaries, and had intended to become a missionary herself before she turned to writing.In an interview she acknowledged that we live in a post-Christian culture, but that we write what we are, and so she writes stories that convey messages of grace and hope for the reading public that we have, and not the one that perhaps we would prefer.

Looking back, I feel a certain jealousy for Jesse, because I never had a Leslie Burke in my life at that age. And once a boy becomes a man, it is difficult to have a strong, platonic friendship with a woman. J.R.R. Tolkien put it very well in a letter to his son that’s worth reading if you can find it (#43). An excerpt:

This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life, when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may be accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by ‘falling in love’. But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does.”

Terabithia is Eden before the fall, when love was undimmed by lust or possession. There is no real sin in Terabithia, but Leslie suffers a fall at the end, and it means her death.  Jesse was on the precipice of puberty, and Leslie was alone at the end because Jesse chose to go on an outing with his crush. Is “growing up” a kind of death? And death a return to childhood?

 

II.

Contemporary imagination is haunted by women like Leslie Burke, impressive women who lived young, and died hard. A few examples: Bernadette Soubirous (St. Bernadette), Marie-Francoise Therese Martin (St. Therese of Lisieux), and Elisabeth Catez (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity). The Church calls them Saints, but for the Modern World they might as well be ghosts, because it does not believe in them.

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(Bernadette, Marie-Francois, and Elisabeth, before the convent life)

While there were a fair number of these young female saints in the Church of Antiquity (pre-500 A.D.) and Middle Ages (500 to 1500 A.D.), very little is known about most of them. The more famous female saints tended to be the longer lived scholars or founders and reformers of religious orders (Clare of Assisi, Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Scholastica, and Teresa of Avila).

One exception is Joan of Arc, who died at 19 in 1431. And in a way, I see her as almost a bridge from the young visionaries of the past to those of the present age. And we arguably need a bridge, because the world before Joan seems to have been more accepting of mystic possibilities.

The mystery of Joan has been on my mind the last few years. Why would God care about a dynastic conflict between two Catholic countries? There was no great religious question tied up in the 100 Years War.  And her death did not bring a swift end to the war or reconciliation between England and France.  The war continued for another twenty years, and England and France remained bitter rivals until the 20th century.

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From the French film, The Trial of Joan of Arc.

 

While I like the poster above, I think an even better portrayal of her situation is Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Jury.” I post it below to show how a contemporary image may better explain the question of Joan.

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The Jury, from Saturday Evening Post, February 14, 1959

 

The painting seems to illustrate her dilemma very well. She was pressed in on every side, with her accusers making appeals to reason, as well as appeals to authority. Today’s Christian must face the same appeals from the modern world. The reddish room and smoky air call to mind what she was threatened with in this life and the next if she did not recant. And is that the Devil on her left shoulder, all in red?

While Joan was charged with heresy, she was not executed for her visions. Technically, she was executed because she was a repeat offender against the Biblical clothing rule prohibiting cross-dressing, the only thing they could actually prove. Leslie the tomboy would smile at that.  But the major reason she was not spared was that she would not give in to the demands of her accusers. They wanted her to renounce her  visions of the saints. If she had, she would have been allowed to live. So, she was put to death for keeping faith with what Modern World thinks of as ghosts. Burnt to ashes, and cast in the river. Leslie’s sacrifice was the reverse, drowned and then cremated.

And which saints were they? None other than St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Margaret and St. Catherine, two virgin martyrs who died at 15 and 18, respectively. That’s our Church in the world’s view: Girl ghosts and invisible angels all the way down. All the way back to the Blessed Mother and the angel no one else ever saw.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

Joan’s conviction was set aside by the Church after a retrial a few decades later. Those who die for their faith are deemed to be saints, but she was not canonized until the 20th century.  But again, what was Joan’s mission?  She said it was to “Save France,” and many have puzzled over the years as to why God would care about this war. Some have theorized that by saving France, Joan preserved the Church through the struggles of the Reformation. If England had conquered France, it might have become a Protestant nation later on. Perhaps there would have been no Counter-Reformation, and none of the great French saints and theologians of the past few centuries would have come to be.

Let me suggest a set of additional or alternative missions for Joan: Perhaps Joan’s message to the world was her great “No” to secular authority, which was really a disguised “Yes” to God. Joan was trying to teach the Church how to say no to the comfortable position of political power it enjoyed at the time. The English influenced branch of the Church did not learn this lesson and killed her. Exactly one hundred years later the same branch was unable to say no to Henry the VIII (at the Convocation of 1531), and then it died.

On a personal level, she was the model for the mystics and visionaries of the Modern World, an age in which God has been declared to be dead, and even the Church rightly looks with caution on those who claim to talk to the saints. Perhaps Joan of Arc had to die so that the Church would always pause and take notice of the Maid of Lourdes, the Little Flower or a Sister Faustina before it made a decision.  Joan gave them room to breathe and be believed. Joan also gave our girl ghosts a model for courage, a pattern to follow. And hope, that even if they were killed, providence would take care of them in the end.  If Joan could do this, so can I.

 

III.

When Hans Urs von Balthasar died in 1988, his funeral eulogy was given by his friend and mentor, Cardinal De Lubac. The Cardinal, in his opening remarks, quoted theologian Ludwig Kaufman’s observation about the missing man of the Second Vatican Council:

… It is disconcerting that from the first summons of the Council by John XXIII, it did not seem to have occurred to anyone to invite Hans Urs von Balthasar to contribute to its preparatory work. Disconcerting, and – not to put a tooth in it- humiliating, but a fact that must by humbly accepted. Perhaps, al in all, it was better that he should be allowed to devote himself completely to his task, to the continuation of a work so immense in size and depth that the contemporary Church has seen nothing comparable.

Von Balthasar died two days before he was to be made a Cardinal . The theologian’s life long case of shyness had finally turned terminal. He had refused the honor before, but finally acceded out of obedience to his friend Pope John Paul II.

Who was Hans Urs Von Balthasar? Cardinal De Lubac also referred to in his eulogy as the man “most cultivated of his time.”

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An eternal child, and apparently his favorite picture of himself

He said he never planned on being a priest as a young man. His first love was music. But on a retreat in the Black Forest, the call came to him like lightning while standing under a tree. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1929 and was ordained in 1936.  He went on to become one of the most prolific Catholic theologians of the 20th century, and received many awards. He was appointed to the Church’s International Theological Commission in 1969, and founded the theological journal Communio with his friend and future Pope, Benedict XVI, in 1972.

So why wasn’t he at Vatican II?  Well, he left the Society of Jesus in 1950, and was without a job for six years. He had effectively given up what was likely to have been a very secure, comfortable and prestigious career in academia. And all over a woman.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

 

IV.

Adrienne von Speyr was born in 1902 in Basel, Switzerland into a Protestant family. Her father was a successful doctor, and she had three siblings. Her public life was very ordinary in many respects. Interesting, honorable, and marked by the kinds of hardship and setbacks that many of us face, but ordinary.

Her father died of a sudden illness when she sixteen, and the family had to adjust to a much reduced standard of living. Worn down by school and taking care of their home, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs in 1918. She spent the next three years in a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, and initially, was not expected to live. Her mother visited her one time in those three years. If you ever read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Adrienne lived that book in a way. She met a number of interesting people, and picked up Russian from the many Russian refugees in Switzerland.

After her recovery she decided to go to medical school, contrary to her mother’s wishes. She persevered, and worked her way through medical school and was admitted to the profession.  She was not supported by her family, and tutored many students to pay her way. She married a widower with two young sons in 1927, and started her own medical practice in 1931. She was a very busy, respectable physician, and much commended for her care of the poor. Unfortunately, her husband, who she had come to love very much, died in an accident in 1934. She married again in 1936. She never had any children of her own.

All this time she was searching for something, dissatisfied with her spiritual life. She had a significant interest in Catholicism, but could never find a bridge in her largely Protestant circle of friends and associates. She finally met Father Von Balthasar in 1940. She formally converted later that year under his guidance. This conversion was something of a shock to those around her, and resulted in alienation from her family and some friends. Father Von Balthasar became a good friend of Adrienne’s family, and they provided a room for him in their own home during his years in the wilderness.

Adrienne stayed very busy with her practice throughout the 1940s, but her health did not hold out. She had a severe heart attack, and then developed diabetes. By the mid-1950s, she was effectively housebound, and had to give up her medical practice. Her remaining years were marked by significant suffering. She was functionally blind by 1964, and died of colon cancer in 1967.

While her health had been declining, Adrienne had taken up the pen to write books of scriptural commentary and spiritual reflections, despite no formal training in theology or philosophy. Her first book, Handmaid of the Lord, was published in 1948 by a company, Johannes Verlag, that Von Balthasar had founded. Additional works about scripture, prayer or the sacraments were published every few years until her death. Adrienne’s published works garnered no great attention and were not widely available in English during her life. T.S. Elliott did provide a favorable jacket blurb for her Gospel of John commentary, which was published in 1949:

“Adrienne Von Speyr’s book does not lend itself to any classification I can think of…. there is nothing to do but submit oneself to it; if the reader emerges without having been crushed by it, he will find himself strengthened and exhilarated by a new sense of Christian sensibility.”

 

V.

The thing about giving your consent to God is that He will pay you the compliment of accepting and running away with it for the rest of your life. You will find yourself dragged along, no matter how tired you get.   You might find yourself, like Adrienne, writing pages and pages of a letter, and mailing it off to a friend, not realizing that the ink had run out because you were blind.

Blindness to hope can also lead a soul to a very dark place. You might find yourself, like Adrienne in her younger days, staring into the beckoning depths of Rhine River from a railway bridge at the darkest moments of your life.

Despite all this, she was described by Von Balthasar as a lively, cheerful and fearless woman:

She was marked by humour and enterprise. She was like the boy in the fairy tale who sets off to experience fear. At her mother’s instigation she had to leave high school but secretly studied Greek at night by the light of a candle, so she could keep up with the others. In Leysin she learned Russian. After her transfer to the high school in Basel, she quickly learned German and at the same time took a crash course in English to catch up with the rest of the class. As I said, she paid for her medical studies by tutoring. Then there is her courageous readiness to stand up for justice. When a teacher struck a boy in the face with a ruler, she rushed forward, turned the teacher to the face the class, and shouted: “Do you want to see a coward? Here’s one!”

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

After she died, Father Von Balthasar gradually revealed the mystery of his own career path for the prior twenty years, and the mystery of Adrienne’s life. What was learned was a great surprise to her family, friends and the larger world.

Adrienne wrote a partial biography of her life through her first 24 years, in which she revealed she had visions of the saints since she was a child. She had experienced significant emotional turmoil, and considered suicide twice, once over her family relationship, and the second time after the death of her first husband.

She had suffered stigmata on a regular basis after her conversion, and she had dictated about sixty works of scriptural commentary and spiritual reflection to Father Von Balthasar between 1945 and 1953. He had published only a small portion of her output during her life, and the ones that would be the least controversial.

Her mystical experiences had increased tremendously after her conversion in 1940, and Von Balthasar had attempted to have the Society of Jesus take over the mission of evaluating and caring for her mission. For reasons too complicated for me to explain, they refused, and he was given a choice of either staying in the Society or leaving to be her personal spiritual director. He felt that Adrienne had been called to a special mission by God, and left the SJ in 1950 to be her confessor and publisher for the next seventeen years.

After her books became better known, some in the Church were impressed enough that a scholarly conference was held in her honor in Rome in 1985, at which Pope John Paul II spoke approvingly of her work. But overall, there was no groundswell of acceptance for her work between her death and Balthasar’s in 1988.  However, he maintained to the end the importance of her influence on his own theological output in various statements:

“[O]n the whole, I received far more from her, theologically, than she from me.”

“Today, after her death, her work appears far more important than mine.”

He wrote his last book about her, Our Task: A Report and Plan, with one purpose: “… to prevent any attempt being made after my death to separate my work from that of Adrienne Von Speyr.”

While Von Balthasar received great praise in the last few decades of his life, and which has endured to the present day, he is not without his critics. His theology has offended and been subject to criticism from various points on the x, y, and z axis of the theological spectrum.  I am not a scholar or theologian, so I have no opinion worth mentioning on these issues.

Nor has his endorsement of Adrienne been widely accepted, at least publicly. I once read a 400+ page review of his theology that included eighteen different chapter commentaries by theologians of various denominations.  In the introduction, the editor warned that one must come to terms with Von Balthasar’s insistence that his theology was derived from hers. The vast majority of the contributors proceeded to ignore that guidance, and the few that mentioned her gave her only passing references.

There have been three books written about her, a number of Ph.D dissertations, and a large number of scholarly articles in various journals. Yet, for me at least, the silence speaks volumes.  With a handful of exceptions, you will not find any Cardinals, Bishops or famous theologians opining favorably about her work. Possibly its polite embarrassment. A number have openly said they have no idea what he saw in her work.  A more benign view is that the Church is, like Mary did once, keeping “all these things within her heart,” and watching to see whether any fruit ripens.

There are certainly very public negative criticisms of her work and her relationship with Von Balthasar, and they are easy to find. And in this age of scandal, it should not be a surprise that they are made against a man and woman who spend such a large quantity of time in each other’s company, even when there is no evidence of any impropriety.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

 

VI.

One of the benefits of being a sinner, layperson, mediocre Catholic and anonymous blogger is that you have no great reputation that needs regular care and maintenance. So I am free to offer my non-scholarly and uninformed endorsement. Adrienne has made a big difference in bringing me back to the Church, and if you are looking for something, perhaps she will help you too.

If you are curious, I would recommend The Passion from Within as a good starting point. Adrienne was relentlessly Christocentric, and you may find yourself developing a closer connection with the Lord after reading it.

You might even think about going to confession again (if you have not been), and even on a regular basis (not yearly, slacker!). Her book on this topic, Confession, is very insightful.

The magnum opus is the four volume commentary on the Gospel of John. This is a line by line exegesis, and her longest work. All the themes of her bibliography are touched  on in way one or another there.  Fair warning, it can be a heavy read, and you will want to take breaks regularly.

Lastly, I will mention the Book of All Saints.  This book is about the contemplation and prayer life of the saints, and Von Balthasar called it a “great gift to the Church.” I think it is the book that will ultimately make or break many people’s view of Adrienne.  I will quote from the section about Joan of Arc, as she was at the end:

She is soft and gentle and bears what is given to her to bear: before, she had borne things for the Christian king; now she understands that her mission is expanding and that she has to bear things for all believers. The end is not “heroic”, but completely pure, without blemish, as simple as only a childlike faith can be, and perfectly trusting. 

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

A veil is always drawn over a confessor and the sinner, and a spiritual director and his charge.  While there is some portion of her work that remains to be published, a large share of Adrienne’s mission will have to remain a mystery to us.

And there will always be doubt about its authenticity. If you listen, you can almost hear the sigh of disappointment from many of the learned and wise in the Church:

“Hans, Hans, why did you have to run off to Terabithia with that girl?  You were meant to be the great navigator for the Church between the bastions of the past and the shoals of modernity. And yet, like Odysseus, you seem to have tied yourself to the mast to listen to the siren call of some mystic. Why, why?”

And if you listen closely, you might hear the answer, however partial and incomplete:

“She was my friend.”

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Witness for the Prosecution

inherit-the-wind-original

From Inherit the Wind

 

One of the more interesting things to observe on social media, often not in a good way, is the interaction between believers, atheists and agnostics. There is certainly tension present. Some atheists and agnostics show great frustration with Followers of the Way*, and they do have good cause to be disappointed.

Georges Bernanos captured this dynamic very well in his essay, The Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese.  In this essay, written in 1938, Bernanos conveys the point of view of an imaginary agnostic who has been given the opportunity to deliver a sermon to a parish of self-satisfied and mediocre Catholics. Bernanos was a Catholic novelist and essayist, and it was considered a sign of his great integrity that he was far harder on the Church and his fellow Catholics than on anyone else.

From the outset, his narrator pulls no punches:

“Ladies and Gentlemen”, he would begin, “I don’t share your beliefs, but I probably know more about the history of the Church than you do, because I happen to have read it, and not many parishioners can say that.”

“… Who among you is capable of writing twenty lines about his or her patron saint?”

Lesson one, don’t BS or condescend to an atheist or agnostic. They have probably come by their position the hard way, either through formal education or long life experience.  Their common sense may exceed yours, and they may very well know philosophy, theology, the history of the Church or the Bible better than you.

Despite this, some will make time for us, even when we ignore them:

For though you’re not interested in unbelievers, unbelievers are extremely interested in you. There are a few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there  … the faintest chance of your being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch closely and try and fathom you.

Lesson two, you will have some opportunity to demonstrate or discuss your faith with them, whether you intend to or not. Be ready.

But we are often not:

“Yes, we were drawn to you. But now we’ve decided that you’re not very interesting after all, and it’s rather disappointing. And we hate to think what fools we were, ever to have hoped in you, and to have doubted ourselves, our own unbelief.”

Lesson three, we may be accountable to some degree for their lack of faith. Jesus says woe unto those who are a stumbling block to children. But is he just speaking of physiological age? What if its spiritual age as well? We will have to account for the atheists and agnostics we disappointed by our bad example.

For example, do we take the Sacraments seriously? Bernanos’ agnostic suggests we often don’t:

When you come out of the confessional, you’re in a ‘state of grace.’ A state of grace … are you sure? Can you blame us if we don’t believe it? We’re wondering what you do with the Grace of God. Should it not be shining out of you? Where the devil do you hide your joy?

Lesson four, as Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, save us from gloomy saints.” Behave like your faith matters more than the world

Instead, we seem to put too much faith in politics or money, not God:

But what surpasses the understanding is that you habitually reason about the affairs of the world in exactly the same way as we do. I mean, who’s forcing you? … But when your fathers profess the pitiless economics of Mr. Adam Smith, or when you give solemn honor to Machiavelli, allow me to say that you cause us no surprise – you simply strike us as odd, incomprehensible fellows.

Lesson five: If you make an idol out of your politics, possessions, or career, why should atheists take you seriously about the Good News?

Despite any frustration we have with atheists or agnostics, we must never judge them for their profession of faith. A scientist once calculated that about 150 billion humans beings have been born on planet Earth since homo sapiens came into existence (I have no issue with the concept of the evolution of human beings over many thousands of years, in a manner consistent with the will of the Father. Nor does the RC Church). Billions lived and died before the Incarnation, never knowing the Good News. Billions have lived and died since without being baptized or even being preached to.

For whatever reason, one of the mysteries of Salvation history is that only a vanishingly small number of human beings encountered Jesus in person, and a minority, even through today, have ever been formally inducted into the faith through baptism. Most of the people who have been born went to their deaths knowing nothing of the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Most people did not believe Jesus during his day, so perhaps it is appropriate that most of humanity not believe his followers.

Peter Kreeft has suggested that one of the purposes of the Communion of Saints is for those of us who are wealthy in life to share with those who were not in the next. When you lay up treasures in heaven, it may be for those who were never graced with any spiritual treasure in this life.

Does Bernanos’ narrator offer any advice for today’s Christians? His narrator prophesies our present,  and says we must become children again:

Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants terribles. Your only way out is to become children yourselves, to rediscover the heart of childhood. For the hour shall strike when questions hurled at you from all points of the earth shall be so direct, that you will not be able to answer except by yes or no.

Lesson six, social media places our Faith under the microscope like never before. And we will be questioned by the orphaned children of our age, who will not defer to us or accept the things we take for granted. They find much of the world rather absurd, and laugh at it. And Bernanos advises that we will never respond adequately to their laughter except through the childlike heroism of a Joan of Arc before her accusers.

Christians who listen to me – that is your peril! It is difficult to follow up a society that has foundered in laughter, because even the fragments will be useless. You will have to build it all up again. You will have to build it up under the eyes of children. Become as children yourselves. They have found the chink in your armor, and you will never disarm their irony save by simplicity, honesty and audacity.

You will never disarm them save by heroism.

Lesson 7, argument is of limited value. Apologetics has its place with those who are eager to believe, and need guidance or encouragement. Our Lord had little success with argument with those disinclined to believe him. Do we expect to do any better than Him? While we have a duty to be honest when the question is put to us, we will best persuade through our heroic example, which may include prayer and fasting, and all the ordinary or anonymous sacrifices we are called to make every day.

When I die, I want Jesus to call some of these formerly hard nosed atheists from the far reaches of eternity (Heaven) or temporality (Purgatory). They can be His prosecuting attorney against me in my final confession. Did I ever impress or convert a one by my example, or my prayers? Up to this point in my life, I cannot say with any confidence that I have. I would have to plead guilty to every charge they might make, a witness for the prosecution.

 

P.S. If you wish to read more Bernanos, many of his writings have been translated into English. Unfortunately, much of it is out of print and hard to come by at a reasonable price. The essay I have quoted from is available in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories by George Bernanos at a reasonable price in e-book form.

* As Christians were apparently known in their early years. The French writer Fabrice Hadjadj has suggested, half-seriously, that Christians go back to using that description, as it sounds far more mysterious and intriguing.

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