Monday, December 27, 2010

Flannery's Fabulous Christian Realism


My husband gave me "Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings" for Christmas and I think I am in love. I have never really "gotten" Flannery O'Connor as a fiction writer. As with my feelings towards St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Flannery loved, I have respected and admired from afar without really understanding what all the fuss was about.

I must be getting wiser in my old age. Last month, for the first time ever, I read one of Aquinas' propositions all the way through; and, at the end, a stubborn door of perception in my mind blew off its hinges and light flooded in. What a magnificent insight into divine reality St. Thomas' mind managed to communicate through pure reason!

I am now finding Flannery a kindred spirit, a soul-mate in her view of the intricacy with which a Catholic writer treads the pathways of a society that does not see the Catholic Church in its beauty as the Mystical Body of Christ but instead views it as fascistic, repressive, and a totally human organization with only delusions of divine institution.

In a letter to Betty Hester (identified only as "A" in The Habit of Being), O'Connor writes:

"I can't concede that I'm a fascist," wrote Flannery. "I am wondering why you convict me of believing in the use of force? It must be because you connect the Church with a belief in the use of force; but the Church is a mystical body which cannot, does not, believe in the use of force (in the sense of forcing conscience, denying the rights of conscience, etc.). I know all her hair-raising history, of course, but principle must be separated from policy. Policy and politics generally go contrary to princple. I in principle do not believe in the use of force, but I might well find myself using it, in which case I would have to convict myself of sin."

The problem for Rae as for Flannery as for all strongly Catholic minds is that the Church we love is a supernatural entity created to carry and communicate the knowledge and grace of Christ's Redemption through time, administered and populated by sinners whose understanding and acceptance of Redemption can be seriously warped and even deliberately perverted.

One bad apple can spoil a whole barrel. Bad apples in the body of Christ can spoil whole batches of potential disciples.

"Of course I do not connect the Church exclusively with the Patriarchal Ideal. The death of such would not be a death of the Church, which is only now a seed and a Divine one. The things that you think she will be added to, will be added to her. In the end we visualize the same thing but I see it as happening through Christ and His Church."

The italics are mine. I think that this is a truth that I very much need to keep in mind as I tiptoe through the minefields of today's culture wars: In the end both sides visualize the same thing. Utopia, in a Platonic sense, or the new heavens and the new earth, in a Christian sense -- a society of endless freedom, bounty, love and creativity for all. I, like Flannery, see it happening through Christ and His Church. But others see it happening through the elimination of the Church and faith in Christ ("Imagine there's no heaven... and no religion too.")

It is not the bad apples that cause the biggest difficulty. Bad apples are easy to spot and to blame. And to use as an excuse for avoiding the larger difficulty, which is that of faith in "all that is, visible and invisible" (as we state in the Creed). The Incarnation is an obstacle greater than the Redemption. Here is where I find that Flannery is my true soul-mate. When Christ heard our pleas and healed my grandson Owen of severe brain injury, He worked the same kind of miracle in front of my eyes that He worked in Palestine during his own lifetime. And, as I have meditated on that healing, and as I compiled the Dossier on Owen that I sent to Rome, I gained an understanding of "miracle" that Flannery O'Connor expresses as I have never been able to express:

"To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature."

That is exactly how I have come to see Owen's healing -- as a suspension of the laws of death, decay and destruction that took my sons Simon and Eric to early graves. Jesus spoke to his disciples about the power of faith, "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him." Such faith existed, in the hearts of those who prayed for Owen, both those on earth and those in heaven. And the death, decay and destruction that are temporary effects of the Fall were suspended, and the true physical laws revealed in the Incarnation and Resurrection re-instated, when Christ in the power of Faith asked His Father to break into our world and heal Owen.

Flannery O'Connor describes herself as many things -- a "hillbilly Thomist" and a "hermit novelist", among others. My favorite of her self-labelings is that of "Christian realist." To the secular mind, the phrase itself is a conundrum if not a downright oxymoron. But Flannery O'Connor gets it in the same way that Frank Sheed did in "Theology and Sanity". A mind that sees the world as God has revealed it is realistic. A mind that does not is living in fantasy. And not in a good way. Flannery is providing much light to my questioning, questing mind this Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Moonstone - danged absorbing mystery fiction!


(Just finished The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and reviewed it on Amazon. Some of this review refers to other Amazon reviews. You can find them all at The Moonstone's listing in Amazon. )

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins: A pleasurable immersion in Victorian England, a romantic mystery

4.0 out of 5 stars
December 7, 2010

By Rae Stabosz "stabosz" (Newark, DE) - See all my reviews

A previous reviewer notes that he became a fan of Victorian literature in his 70's. I am in my 60's, and have become a fan of the same due to my recent purchase of a Kindle. I am a lifelong reader. I bought the Kindle so I could pack a single "book" for a recent trip to Rome, rather than loading down my luggage with 6 or 7 as is usual on a trip. Then, being frugal (and the trip to Rome costing a pretty penny), I started downloading free books to my new Kindle. The great majority of these are works that are in the public domain, many of them from the Victorian era. Using this method, I downloaded a bunch of them, and to date have read Dracula (excellent!), The Home Life of Poe (like an extended People magazine interview), and The Moonstone (see herein).

I read Wilkie Collins as a girl, but so long ago that I don't remember if it was Woman in White, or The Moonstone, or both which I read. The Moonstone, I must confess, is a thoroughly engaging piece of mystery writing.

Collins uses the device of having the narrative told by several different first person narrators. In this, the book is like Dracula, whose story is told completely in letters, diary/journal entries, and newspaper clippings. In The Moonstone, the narratives are written after the mystery has been solved, to fulfill a request that each person who had witnessed key moments having to do with the mystery put down in writing only what they witnessed and observed. The individuals of whom this request is made then consult not just their memories but also their own diaries and household records, to put together testimony written after the fact which maintains the urgency and freshness of the original sources, with a bit of reflection by each narrator which nevertheless never provides plot spoilers.

Other reviewers have written about Gabriel Betteridge, the valued and loyal major domo of the Verinder household, and about Miss Clack, the hilariously clueless spinster cousin who is a Peerless Evangelizer of the Christian Gospel in her own mind. These narrators are indeed wonderful. From Betteridge, we receive our best portrait of Sergeant Cuff -- "the mighty Cuff" -- the police detective hired to discover who stole the Moonstone after the local authorities botch the job badly. Althought Sergeant Cuff gets to narrate a very small part of the story himself, it is in Betteridge's chronicle that we get the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a detective who has the idiosyncrasies of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe et al, even though he is not as central to the story as those worthies.

Ezra Jennings is a melancholy character who enters the story in its later chapters. It was his narrative that I found most exceptionally stirring. Jennings is a physician's assistant with a checkered past and a foreign demeanor, treated as an outsider and trusted by few.

Rosanna Spears, a hunch-backed maid taken into the Verinder household after a stint in a woman's reformatory, is another melancholy character whose actions stem from motives that transcend class or station in life. I confess that in her story I found myself angriest at the rigid class distinctions that in every generation predispose some folks to fortune and some to misfortune - the Victorians had no monopoly on this any more than do we. Rosanna suffered the double whammy of poverty and feminine ugliness. If Rachel Verinder has been a servant but retained all of her beauty, her fate would have gone better than Rosanna's, just as Rosanna would have had a better (if not happier) life if she had been an heiress with a humb-back.

The Moonstone has all the ingredients of a delicious mystery tale -- adventure, romance, a MacGuffin that is the priceless jewel of a centuries-long-worshiped idol, murder, theft, passion, coincidence misinterpreted, and Robinson Crusoe. What more could a mystery lover want?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Investment stuff

I wrote about this Catholic Investor blog last year, but want to recommend it again:
http://catholicinvestor.blogspot.com/

The author has started analyzing stocks in detail, which is very helpful to an investor like me who reads the theories but has a hard time applying them in my own efforts at analyzing a company.

Another hint for any investors out there in the audience: Google "yahoo finance" and "longtimefollower" regularly, a couple of times a week at least. longtimefollower is an investor of many years experience and excellent integrity. He practices value investing. I have made a bit of money following his insights, and so have others (as evidenced in the Yahoo finance forums). I know him personally and can vouch that he's a good guy and a socially conscious investor. He isn't a practicing Catholic so there won't be a one to one correspondence with Catholic social issues (for instance, I don't know how he feels about companies that do embryonic stem cell research). But by and large his ethics are in sync with the Church's. He's a shrewd investor. Shout out to him and thanks, if he reads my blog.

Many folks think that there's going to be a massive dip in the market December 15, if the question of the Bush tax cuts isn't resolved. Anybody want to venture an opinion? I hate to lose all the gains of recent months.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

I'm with Alberione, and so is my Kindle!

Sr. Wendy Beckett in front of portrait of Bl. Alberione

Sr. Margaret Charles mentioned obliquely, on the bus one day in Rome, that some of the Italian sisters were working on a digital database of Father Alberione's writings. She wasn't sure where to find them. So I went hunting today and found a treasure!

Check out http://www.alberione.org/operaomnia/operaomnia_opere.php . It will blow your mind!! Alberione texts in Italian, Spanish, Brasilian and English!

Most of the texts put online so far are in Italian. It is clear by the unlinked listings that this is an ongoing work that will see more and more of the Founder's writings available to one and all.

Here is what's up now in English:

ABUNDANTES DIVITIAE GRATIAE SUAE, 1953 (Charismatic history of the Pauline Family)

DONEC FORMETUR CHRISTUS IN VOBIS, 1932 (Until Christ Be Formed in You)

UT PERFECTUS SIT HOMO DEI (Instructions from a month-long retreat given by Blessed Alberione to senior SSP members in Ariccia, Rome in 1960)

The whole site, http://www.alberione.org/ is a wonderful resource. Most of it is in Italian, but you can throw text into an Italian to English translator like the one at http://babelfish.yahoo.com/ to see approximate translations of things like the FAQ.

The text files are offered in PDF and Word format. PDF can be downloaded and read on a Kindle, according to the Kindle manual, although I've not tried that yet.

At any rate, I say: Go, Go, Alberione! I love the Founder's writings and am elated to have discovered this.

(Now, it could very well be that this is old news for everybody, and that Sister Margaret or one of the other sisters sent word out about this project long ago. If so, please just indulge or excuse my enthusiasm, as I plead information overload.)

Rachel's Contrition: The Divine Passive in Fiction


My trip to Rome (pilgrimage that is! very Alberionian!) left me way behind on blogging and other fun endeavors, so I'm playing catch-up.

If you're looking to contribute to the care and feeding of those new writers who are part of the Catholic renaissance of letters, here's a book you could get. Perfect Christmas gift or indulgence for yourself. I reviewed this for the Catholic fiction list but since some of you don't read that, here's my review:

Rachel's Contrition tackles the grim topic of the death of a child. Knowing this
beforehand, I came to the book with a sense of dread. Not only is this every
mother’s nightmare, but it is one that I have personally experienced. An author
would have to be exceptionally skilled to get me to enjoy reading about another
mother’s grief. And yes, I do mean enjoy. There is a mystery to both the reading
and writing of fiction, before which we can only stand amazed and grateful. How
can the imaginative rendering of other people’s pain release the powerful
pleasures of fiction?

Michelle Buckman manages the trick. As I write
this review in November of 2010, Rachel's Contrition is #6 on the top 10 list of
Amazon's Women's Literature & Fiction category, & #1 in Women's Fiction
> Mothers & Children . This is a novel that has excellent reviews and
wide appeal. It features a Catholic understanding of the moral universe. I found
it marvelously entertaining and original.

Rachel Winters has scratched
her way up from a childhood of poverty and neglect to revel in an ideal life --
marriage to doctor Joseph Sinclair Winters, Jr. (Sinclair), a privileged life of
family and rank, and mother to toddler Seth and beautiful baby Caroline. Then,
in the snap of a finger, Rachel's world is shattered by tragedy. She finds
herself shut out of Sinclair's life, able to see Seth only on carefully arranged
visits, and teetering on the brink of madness by the loss of her daughter
Caroline. Worst of all, she cannot forgive Sinclair for his part in Caroline’s
death.

Rachel lives out her new, numb life in a pool house she rents
from Colette, the only one of her wealthy friends who will have anything to do
with her in her altered situation. Her other former friends, wives of Sinclair’s
business associates, all seem to shrink from Rachel and to take Sinclair's side
against her. The only person who does not snub Rachel is Lilly, Colette’s
troubled teenaged stepdaughter. Lilly harbors her own secret pain, and comes and
goes in the pool house like a sardonic wraith. She leaves little things for
Rachel to find, like a book by St. Therese of Lisieux. Despite her annoyance at
Lilly, Rachel stirs herself from lethargy to try and understand the motivations
of her disdainful, cryptic, uninvited guest.

A murder thickens the plot,
but also provides a bit of a misstep, nudging the narrative into the mystery
genre, where convention dictates that the murder itself move front and center.
This does not happen. It is as if the author was afraid that she could not hold
her audience with the story of Rachel’s unraveling alone. But a murder whose
solving is only a sub-plot undermines the conventions of mystery writing, and is
a distraction here. The main event is Rachel’s contrition, and the noun itself
intrigues us. For what is she contrite? Fate has dealt her one blow after
another. Is she not more sinned against than sinning?

It is here that
Buckman shines, in the narrating of Rachel’s journeying in the realms of human
pain and the discovery of what – or rather Who – lies at the heart of that
darkness. God has His own story arc in Rachel’s Contrition, but it plays out so
subtly that the reader is barely aware that another actor has taken the stage.

Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias once described a verbal structure
found in the gospels and virtually nowhere else in ancient writings. It is known
as the divine passive. This is a way that Jesus, when he speaks, uses the
passive voice to describe an action whose subject would be God if it were put
into the active voice. The best-known examples are in the beatitudes. If you
were to reconstruct the beatitudes in active voice, the subject would be God and
the direct object the persons acted on. Thus, "Blessed are they who mourn, for
they will be comforted" becomes "Blessed are they who mourn, for [there is One
Who] will comfort them." “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they will be filled" becomes "Blessed are those that hunger
and thirst for righteousness, for [there is One Who] will fill them."

Learning about the divine passive has given me an appreciation for
Jesus' delicacy and reserve in describing the activity of God. Writers of
Christian fiction sometimes show less discretion in describing how God works in
the human soul. Efforts to depict the details of God’s wooing of human
protagonists can fail in ways that range from overly florid descriptions of
mystical experience to exaggerated scenes of religious conversion .

Rachel’s Contrition works an intriguing variation on the divine passive.
Every journey of the spirit requires a guide or a guidebook, and St. Therese’s
Story of a Soul provides Rachel with hers. When she picks up the book that Lilly
has left for her, Rachel is not drawn to the joyful side of the saint. The pain,
loss and darkness of spirit that characterize so much of Therese Martin’s short
life resonate with Rachel. Rachel has hungered for love, and finds an echoing
hunger in Therese Martin’s experience of life. She reads the saint’s
autobiography in bits and pieces, finding herself attracted to the strategies
St. Therese devises for handling the disturbances, slights, and anguish of her
everyday life. In St. Therese, Rachel finds a kindred spirit, but with a
difference. Therese, unlike Rachel, does not shrink from other people because of
her own pain but engages herself fully in the world around her.

The
reader doesn’t need to be Catholic or even Christian to share Rachel’s curiosity
about St. Therese’s “little way.” As with the divine passive in the gospels,
Rachel’s discovery of the practice of mindfully offering up of the events of
everyday life for the sake of love leads to knowledge of the unnamed God.

There is much to love in this book. Buckman does a good job fleshing out
Sinclair, Seth, and even Caroline, who barely appears but whose fleeting
materializations in Rachel’s memory evoke a lively presence. Also, the Catholic
priesthood shines, in a rare look into how priests really minister to persons
who come to their churches with inchoate needs.

This is an engaging,
solid entry from the new Chisel and Cross imprint of the Sophia Institute Press.
Chisel and Cross seeks to offer contemporary fiction that will help readers
discover how to be Catholics in the modern world. As their website notes, “We
are aiming to build up the pool of good Catholic fiction books… Contemporary
Catholics have been treated to a few good stories in modern culture, but most of
those stories are not about people like themselves, just people who happen to
have a passing resemblance to them because of accidental morality. We want to
give Catholics, particularly young Catholics, stories featuring characters they
can relate to and love.”

Rachel’s Contrition fits the bill.