James Casper’s novel Everywhere in Chains is reviewed by Lady Rachel Billington OBE, daughter of the famed reformer Lord Longford:
When I finished reading Everywhere in Chains, I realised why James Casper had felt indebted to my father’s ideas. It is a book with an unusually strong message and, although I can’t pretend my father read many novels, I know he would have admired Casper’s ambitious spirit.
Michael Nicholas Richard is the author of the Ignatius Press novel Tobit’s Dog. He has also written another novel, Bogfoke, and a few published short stories, one of which can be found in the anthology Heroic Visions II. Michael also enjoys writing for his blog. Michael lives near New Bern, NC with his wife and two dogs. Ignatius Press Novels interviewed him via email.
From where did the inspiration for Tobit’s Dog originate?
Richard: I have always been a dog person. When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents had a dog, Sam, of which they were very fond. He was a peculiar dog and my paternal grandmother thought they treated him too much like a human being. She warned, “You’re going to mark that baby.” Her suspicions were evidently confirmed when as a toddler I developed the habit of hiding raw carrots and then later bringing them out, shriveled, to chew on.
So my credentials as a dog person go back to the beginning of my personhood. Sometime in 2012 the notion that became Tobit’s Dog was stirred by the very presence of a dog in the Book of Tobit. The presence of a dog was one of the factors that led to canonicity of the Book of Tobit being challenged, since dogs were seen as “unclean” in Semitic cultures. It is only mentioned twice, once when Tobias leaves, and when he returns home. That unexpected element of the story got this dog person to pondering.
The pondering grew, until I realized I had to write it out. Originally I intended to set the story in Persia and to keep it closer to the Biblical story, but it occurred to me that there were some parallels between the plight of exiled Jews in the Biblical story, and the plight of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. From there it just took off. I set aside the novel I was working on (it was about ready for a cool down period anyway) and started working on Tobit’s Dog. Making Tobit and his family African-American Catholics in the Jim Crow era added another layer of prejudice and isolation as well as offering a platform for Catholic themes.
I sent the manuscript for Tobit’s Dog to Ignatius Press the Monday before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The following Sunday one of our deacons, Rick Fisher, himself an African-American, gave a brief talk and reading concerning Dr. King before Mass. It was not lost on me, of course, that having mailed off the manuscript earlier that week, here I was listening to an African-American Catholic speaking on the plight of African-Americans during the Civil Rights era.
It became down right “spooky” for me as in the six months that followed the Book of Tobit became featured in the readings at Mass. I attend Mass on a near daily basis and it was a reading from the Book of Tobit or of the Canticle of Tobit nearly every day until the time I received an email from Ignatius Press expressing a desire to publish Tobit’s Dog.
I often read of strange “coincidences” in the lives of converts and reverts and people in spiritual struggle, and have thought, “Well, yeah, it’s easy to believe if God gives you all those signs!” Well, there it was for me. Not that the Father of Lies doesn’t still try to whisper into the back of my mind so that I might squirm out of that revelation—because, as Ace Redbone says to Lenny Morris in Tobit’s Dog, “To whom much is given, much is expected”—but it’s like Deacon Fisher said to me only a few days ago, “There are no coincidences with God.”
Is this your first novel?
Richard: Tobit’s Dog is my first professionally published novel. I did self-publish a fantasy novel, Bogfoke, through Amazon’s Create Space and Kindle Direct services. A portion of the first chapter of Bogfoke had been published in the magazine Fantasy Macabre way back in the late eighties, but the novel itself just did not sit well with me, especially the ending. It was only after returning to the Church many years later that I realized that the problem with the novel was that in my agnosticism I had a nearly nihilistic denouement in a novel that otherwise was threaded through and through with subtle Catholic themes. I corrected that, and was ready to attempt publication.
What I found was that the publication world had changed greatly between the mid-eighties and 2011, in the end, I decided to self-publish, which was almost certainly a disservice to Bogfoke, but in the process I learned much that probably served to make publication of Tobit’s Dog possible.
Who are your favorite authors or novelists?
Richard: I tend to not have favorite authors so much as favorite individual books. I would say that J.R.R. Tolkien is my favorite author. I greatly enjoy the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz, a master of pacing. I enjoyed the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell until the point where they seemed to have a repetitive plot template. I should become possessed of a disordered pride if I could be a modern day G.K. Chesterton. Paradox fascinates me. I have also greatly enjoyed and learned much from the novels of Michael D. O’Brien. Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, of course, have served as influences.
In non-fiction, the Hinges of History series by Thomas Cahill is a favorite. As a huge history nerd, my brain just works that way. I have also read much of the work of Peter Kreeft, which of course made his wonderful review of Tobit’s Dog all the more rewarding for me.
Are your published short stories also based in the South?
Richard: Most of my writing up to Bogfoke was set in imaginary world fantasies and/or science fiction. The South always haunts the imagination of a writer from the South, but none were based in the South. Bogfoke was set, much like Tobit’s Dog, in a re-imagined North Carolina, specifically around the New Bern, NC area. New Bern is just one of those places where there is just some kind of geo-psychic, organic charm that is difficult to explain. In Bogfoke I expressed it as the “City of Dreams” guided by a kind of angelic spirit that collects and projects the dreams of humankind.
The high point of those early stories probably came with my story,” The Lion of Elirhom’s Anger”, being selected as the cover story for the paperback anthology, Heroic Visions II. Jessica Amanda Salmonson was the editor of the anthology and later published more of my work. She was a tough but fair editor, and I learned much from her.
Most of my stories are in some sense unlike one another. I was working on Tobit’s Dog, however, when I realized that the denouement of two of my most successful efforts, “Lion of Elirhom’s Anger” and Bogfoke involved a confrontation with a demon. Of course, what is the denouement of the Book of Tobit? The confrontation with a demon. Nothing else I had ever written was like that, and I didn’t want it to be seen as some sort of repetitive theme or plot device in my work. So it created a challenge for me to create a bit of distance from that concept. I hope I have successfully met the challenge in Tobit’s Dog.
You have lived most of your life in the South, so did you witness the kind of racial prejudice described in Tobit’s Dog?
Richard: Born in 1955, I was a child of the sixties and lived through the late Civil Rights era. The prejudice existed in a more muted form by then, but exist it did. I was a child when the “Negro” parish of Saint Joseph in New Bern was merged with the “White” Saint Paul parish and Father Thomas P. Hadden became the first African-American pastor of a predominately White parish in North Carolina.
The character of Tobit, and his mule, Joe-boy, have their origin in my memory of an old black man who used to drive his mule and cart past my grandparent’s farm (which, in fact, served as the model for Tobit’s farm).
There was also a lot of anti-Catholic bias in North Carolina in those days, and still is really, and yet the New Bern area wasn’t as bad as much of the rest of North Carolina, and especially not as bad as the deeper South.
Each of the characters in your novel seems to struggle with the stark contrast between the beauties and blessings of life and the evils often thrust suddenly upon us. Is this a reflection of your own struggles with faith? What lesson are you trying to teach your readers?
Richard: I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the concept of me teaching a lesson, so much as offering an observation and a way of considering such things. I have, and always will, struggle with the problems of suffering and sorrow, but to paraphrase Ace, once again, not understanding a thing doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As a man, I like to add to that observation, “Otherwise, there would be no women.” I have been married for over 35 year and have two now grown daughters. I don’t understand women to this day, and yet there they are.
My faith is rather like courage. It is said that courage is to act in the face of fear. For me, faith is to act in the face of doubt. I think it irrational to not have doubt, no matter if you are an atheist doubting your atheism, or a theist doubting your theism, but when the two “isms” are pared down to their essence, only one offers any real hope. I choose hope, and I work to “be not afraid”.
I love this Walker Percy quote:
This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Do you have any advice for Catholic authors?
Richard: Don’t preach. Nobody likes being lectured. Be bravely Catholic, but paraphrase the essence of the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach always the Gospel, if necessary use words.” Try to make your story a good story, because the Catholicism of your story is wasted otherwise. Work on your characters, plagiarize God by giving your characters as much Free Will as your imagination can manage. We are, after all, sub-creators.
Criticism is not much fun, but if an editor takes the time to even bother to critique your work, it means they see some possibility in it. They are rarely critical just to be mean, and if something is worthless in their estimation, a simple form reply is a whole lot easier for them.
When I decided to once again begin tackling writing for publication, I dusted off my large stack of rejection letters, and my much smaller stack of acceptance letters. Going through them it struck the older, and presumably wiser, me that I had been much, much closer to a complete “breakthrough” than I had ever realized. I had let uncertainty and a blossoming business career undermine my becoming, as my wife Sherri says, who I was meant to be. So I would say, be not afraid, work at it, work at it. Besides, if you are meant to be a writer, there is really no way you’re going to completely stop. It’s quite simply a part of who you are so you may as well try to do it well.
What do you think the role of the Catholic novelist is today?
Richard: Language and our perception of reality are ever evolving and changing things. Even great truths can become stale in expression. We should always be seeking ways to express these truths in new ways. Again, as sub-creators we are charged, in a sense, with a Christ-like mission of making all things new again. We are evangelizers of the imagination.
I should very much love for Tobit’s Dog to be a huge success, but at the very least, if it plants seeds that spring to life in the minds of only a very few, I will be gratified and thankful to the Creator who is the essence of all that ever was and ever will be.
Are you currently working on anything? Can we expect more novels from you?
Richard: I have returned to working on the novel that Tobit and company interrupted. It is titled, The Scent of a Widening World. The title is a reference to how the main protagonist associates the scent of books in a library with introducing him to a greater knowledge, the scent of incense in a church to a great spiritual understanding, and the scent of a woman’s hair to a greater unfolding of love, all increasing his understanding of reality, of widening his world.
The quote from Walker Percy I used earlier will serve as a kind of preface for the novel.
As to expecting more novels from me, I have another already waiting impatiently behind The Scent of a Widening World. So, if I’m up to the challenge and editors are willing, yes more can be expected. Until the ending of my days there will probably be stories and characters trying to coalesce in my mind.
My husband is a convert from Anglo-Catholicism, that tendency in Anglicanism towards Catholic theology and worship, to the Roman Catholic Church, and he retains fond memories of the religious practices of his youth. He was rejected for the Anglican seminary by no less a personage than the wife of a now-famous Anglican bishop, and after reading A.N. Wilson’s 1978 novel Unguarded Hours, I am happier than ever about that.
A.N. Wilson is a prolific writer, celebrated in England for his scholarship and wit. He is also an on-again, off-again Christian; I believe he is currently “on.” Born in 1950, he entered an Anglican seminary during the early 1970s and discovered that most of his fellow ordinands were engaging in sexual relations with each other.
He exploits the homo-erotic atmosphere of his seminary in his comedy Unguarded Hours, and I do not recommend this book to the sensitive or the very young. Indeed, I felt rather old as I read its most shocking scenes, for I suddenly remembered that there was a time I would have felt dirtied by reading such stuff. And yet the book is a comedy, and Wilson succeeds in being very funny in a style that recalls the early novels of Evelyn Waugh.
That said, godless modern society, not the Church of England, was the object of Waugh’s satire. Wilson skewers both the “ritualists”, whom he depicts as being entirely homo-social even when not actively homosexual, and the “progressives”, whom he depicts as functional atheists interested only in socialist dogma and self-promotion. His hero, who is ordained by accident, seems to have no Christian belief, and goes to the seminary only because he can think of no other career path.
“Had the Dean’s daughter worn a bra that afternoon, Norman Shotover might never have found out about the Church of England; still less about how to fly”, begins the novel, and the breezy, irreverent tone continues to the end of the book.
The only hint that English religious practices might have anything to do with true faith in God, as opposed to dressing up in finery or possessing curious titles or singing stirring songs that remind one of one’s Old School, occurs in the very Anglo-Catholic St. Willibrord’s Church. The hero, who is terrified of drifting into an aimless life like his father’s, is there touched by a sermon beginning “One day in thy courts is better than a thousand. So we sang in our introit, brethern and so we devoutly believe. For one day in the holy and Catholic church, one day in the presence of Our Lord in the most holy sacrament, one day in the sacramental life of prayer and penance which holy church enjoins, is better than a thousand faithless days committed to nothingness and despair in a faithless world.”
As the novel’s characters go, Father Crisp is the best of the bunch although his ultra-Catholic language, like his upper middle-class assumptions, is played for laughs. Neither Waugh nor Roman Catholics would find Father Crisp’s devotion to Our Lady and the saints particularly funny, though I can easily imagine former members of the Church of England roaring with laughter.
The Roman Catholic Church has not been spared satire, of course; I seem to recall reading about a mean little nun-hating play from the 1970s called “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.” And I shudder to think how a talented Catholic might exploit any homo-eroticism in his own seminary days for laughs. Come to think of it, for Ceremony of Innocence I wrote a rather damning scene about liturgical dance.
“I wrote about sexual sins, too, but at least my character is ashamed of hers,” I complained to my husband. As you might guess from the opening line of the novel, much of the humour revolves around sexual sin and the hero’s descent from innocence to decadence.
Having read this novel, I’m not sure A.N.Wilson was as ashamed of the mortal sins of his fellow seminarians as he was amused by them. And he certainly did the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England no favours. “What a pack of outrageous hypocrites and weirdos,” would be the natural reaction of anyone reading this book.
This is not the assumption I would want anyone to make of Roman Catholics after reading a novel about Roman Catholics. Or, even if he did, I would not want him to think that Roman Catholic Christianity itself was a crock. Even if all the Roman Catholic characters were sinful or vague or silly, I would want the Bride of Christ herself to be acknowledged as above mockery. But Wilson does not spare the Anglican Church, softening his barbs only for the sincere faith of a few elderly people.
I would not characterize A N Wilson’s Unguarded Hours as an Anglican novel. It is an agnostic’s novel about Anglicans. Indeed, I wonder how much the youthful author identified with the hero’s sense that he must grab onto something—the Church of England, ordained ministry, anything–lest he drift into nothingness and despair. Clearly he had been disappointed, and the Anglican seminary having handed him lemons, he attempted literary lemonade.
Working at a small publisher means wearing many hats. When asked by others what I do for a living I usually say, “I’m a graphic designer”. If I’m asked for a job description when filling out forms I usually put “catalog manager.” The reality is that I design book and DVD covers, lay out our catalogs, help edit this blog, assist with writing promotional copy, admin our Facebook page, design ads, and assist with customer service.
Modern authors are often put into this position. (See James Casper’s post on this subject here, and Dorothy Cummings McLean here.) They can’t merely write a book, send it to the publisher, and then sit back and reap the rewards. Even high-profile authors these days are involved in multifaceted promotional efforts. Top flight authors, of course, get the backing of huge promotional campaigns. But they are the exception, not the rule.
So we know where the authors are stuck. But what about readers?
According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of readers decide what to read next based on word of mouth, not advertising:
But when it comes to books, at least, the majority of Americans turn to their friends and family to decide what they’ll read next. According to last year’s e-borrowing report, the majority (64%) of Americans ages 16 and older said they get book recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers. Another 28% get them from online bookstores or other websites, 23% hear about books from bookstore staff, and 19% get recommendations from librarians or library websites.
I know I have a number of scribbled notes around my house from the many times I’ve jotted down information when friends of mine have mentioned authors or books that I might like. When I end up reading a book I really love, it more often than not often ends up being loaned out. There have been a few occasions where I’ve bought multiple copies of a book so I can loan it out to more friends.
This is also how I’ve discovered a number of books: being recommended them by others. On my own, I doubt I would have discovered some of my favorite authors. And then there was the occasion when a stranger approached me at a bus stop and aggressively (almost threateningly) insisted that I “needed” to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I promptly took the bus to the used book store and picked up a copy of what is now a favorite read.
And that’s how to promote literature: share your passion for a book. It’s easier to do it now than it has been before. For example, provide a review on Amazon or Goodreads (authors will thank you!), post favorite passages on Facebook (I do this a lot), write a blog post about an author or book. And there are the traditional ways: request that your local library obtains a copy of a favorite book, tell friends about it, host a book club or reading group, plug it at work or among family and friends.
So the next time you read a good book, don’t just tuck it back on the shelf when you are through. Share about it. Your friends will thank you!
If you made a list of writers who are masters at storytelling, masters of humor, and masters of English prose, it would be a short list. One who belongs on this list is Evelyn Waugh.
British novelist and journalist, Evelyn Waugh, had three books listed among the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th century, but he doesn’t seem to be read by many today, even those in literary circles. Nonetheless, he is a masterful writer, able to evoke a broad spectrum of ideas and feelings with subtlety, poignancy, and humor.
I’m not an Evelyn Waugh scholar, expert, biographer, or anything of the sort, but I have read many of his novels, including those considered to be his best efforts: Brideshead Revisited, Scoop, Vile Bodies, and Handful of Dust, for both enjoyment and instruction in the art of writing, if such genius can be imparted.
One of the reasons for Waugh’s relative obscurity today, apart from the British society and events of his books belonging to another era, is his implicit rejection of nihilism, the lodestar for most “serious” authors since the 1960s. In other words, literature is now filtered through a nihilistic/materialistic prism. If it doesn’t pass this test, it may be rousing, interesting, and even masterfully composed, but it isn’t “serious” literature.
Waugh, by no means, told his readers what to believe or demonstrated “right behavior” with clumsy storytelling. On the contrary, Waugh’s stories are demanding, often undressing both characters’ and readers’ beliefs, in essence forcing them to go deeper into the walled gardens they have created for themselves. I enjoy a good mystery story and have read the Philo Vance mysteries by S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright). Philo Vance, an early 20th century aesthete and materialist, wraps himself in a cocoon of pretense and self-assuredness. Waugh’s characters, on the other hand, are stripped of their cocoons, whether they realize it or not, some unfolding translucent wings and beginning to fly, others veering into a self-destructive flame.
Via satire, irony, parody, humor, and lost-ness, Waugh depicts the absurdity and narrowness of materialism, of dependence on wealth, status, prestige, and intellectual chauvinism. Nihilistic literature satirizes these things too, but in nihilistic literature there is no way out, while Waugh’s stories suggest a way out, even if characters ignore, reject, or ridicule it. Nonetheless, Waugh was conscious of, and careful about, overt moralizing, saying, “…a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. He can shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill or he can pace about, dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day. The recluse at his desk has a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others; the publicist has none at all.”
Some have charged Waugh with anti-Semitism and racism. First of all, who among us (not me!) wants every word we have ever written and every word we have ever spoken scrubbed for evidence of bias? Those, like Waugh, with millions of words recorded in the public arena are particularly vulnerable to the PC inquisitors. We need to remember that Waugh was a masterful satirist, parodist, and humorist. How much of the bias reflected in his works reflects the satire and parody that embellish stories like Scoop, rather than his own beliefs?
Evelyn Waugh was a bold and honestly provocative writer, one of the best. He deserves to be read, today as in his heyday.
As this is my first post, I wanted to introduce myself by way of the novels I read. I enjoy the classic authors, some less well known, as well as some more mainstream/pop culture authors. I hope our readers will enjoy these as much as I do. Feel free to discuss and add your own favorites in the comments!
Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life
This is by far, one of my all time favorites. It was required reading in high school and I’m pretty sure I’ve reread it at least 3 times. A Boy’s Life is exactly what the title says it is: it’s the adventures of a young boy in a small town, his dreams, his mishaps, and his accidental solving of a mystery! I’ve read some other McCammon novels, but have not been impressed. In my opinion, this is his best work.
Edward Rutherfurd’s London
Another required reading that I ended up falling in love with. It’s a clever historical fiction novel depicting the basic history of London by following several families who are more connected than they realize. It’s the most exciting historical read you can have! I have not had the chance to read any of his other books, but if they are as good as this one, they’re worth reading.
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, and Bleak House
Dickens is probably my favorite author. His depiction of humanity is awe inspiring, terrifying, and humorous. Not enough can be said for his contribution to literature. Bleak House is one of his less popular works, which I will never understand. Esther is one of the most morally good characters in literary history, and her story, I think, is a wonderful example of of quiet saintly suffering and enduring patience.
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey
I was blessed to take a class on Austen at Ave Maria University. I enjoyed her before, but I enjoy her much more now. Northanger Abbey is a shorter novel that does not follow the typical ‘Austen formula’. I highly recommend it if you enjoy a bit of mystery and atypical romance.
Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas series
In general, I do not read a lot of horror. Most of Koontz’ works are dark and gruesome, which is not my cup of tea. However, the Odd Thomas books are on the lighter side of the horror genre, and I personally believe they deserve more attention. Odd Thomas is a twenty-something fry cook who can see dead people, and his adventures often have me laughing out loud. These books are also a testament to Koontz’ Catholic background and his extraordinary imagination.
Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World (available in paperback, e-book, and audio book at www.ignatius.com)
This is my favorite of O’Brien’s works, and according to the author himself, also his own favorite! As I so often tell anyone who will listen, there are only two authors who have made me cry: Tolkien and O’Brien. Island of the World is the story of Josip Lasta, a young boy thrown into the horrors of war torn former Yugoslavia. It is both a painful and beautiful read, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Chaim Potok’s The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, and The Gift of Asher Lev
I love the Jewish culture and Jewish literature, and Chaim Potok has been one of my favorite authors for a good 15 years. His stories typically depict the struggles of Jewish Americans during the World War II era. Although our American Jewish brothers and sisters may not have suffered the same fate as their relatives in Europe, they still faced many challenges and changes to their culture. Potok does a beautiful job of bringing the Jewish tradition and culture to life through various lovable and relatable characters. The three works mentioned above are my favorites, but I recommend anything he has written.
A few weeks ago, I took two of my children to the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco. My oldest, age six, is on the autism spectrum. We’d been to the museum before. Last time he had been so quickly overwhelmed that we had had to leave after twenty minutes. I was hoping that this time he would fare better.
The museum has a large collection of Rodin’s sculpture. His towering, roughly hewn figures are almost overpowering, and I was wondering how my son would take it. In the entry to the Rodin gallery are side displays showing his small plaster mock-ups and models that would serve to guide the large works.
Since it was a weekday, artists and art students were all around the museum, setting up easels and sketching with pen, pencils, and pastels. In the Rodin gallery a woman had already begun her sketched copy of a bust.
My son took it all in. At each sculpture he stopped and looked intently. He looked again at the plaster models. To my embarrassment (he doesn’t really understand the concept of “personal space”) he began to lean against the artist making her copy and peered at her sketch pad. She was good humored about it, as most people are with him.
My daughter, age five, was more interested in the paintings, especially the still life paintings of fruit and flowers. We went downstairs for a snack, and then back up to see more. At my son’s request, we ended up in the Rodin gallery again.
Later I realized that one of the things that attracted him to the sculptures was that he had been able to place them in context. We saw the models, and then the large works. I had explained that many sculptors made sketches first, just like the artist had been doing. This was connected to that. He spent the next week talking excitedly about the museum he would make someday, with sculptures like the ones he had seen.
My son loves things that have multiple sets of information. He loves Ray Harryhausen’s movies and will pore over the behind-the-scenes images. He loves Doctor Who and Star Wars and Godzilla, all franchises with lots of details to obsess over. He knows the names of all the actors who have played the Doctor, and can tell you who created Godzilla: Eiji Tsubaraya, the Japanese special-effects genius. But unless something is placed in context for him, he cannot figure it out. For example, he saw someone perform a magic trick where they placed a handkerchief over a toy, tapped it with a wand, and presto! there was a bird. He decided to try it for himself and burst into tears when the toy car didn’t turn into a pineapple as he had planned.
Hans Urs von Balthasar said that “truth is symphonic”. This is how to understand art: does it fit into the symphony of truth? You have to be able to grasp the context to understand the truth of a piece of art, and to see where it fits into the symphony. I think this is also where the attempts to separate Catholic art from art in general fall down: if Catholic art is catholic (i.e. universal), then all true art is Catholic. But it also requires that we first are able to grasp what the truth is, so that we are able to recognize it when we see it. It requires that we try to shed ideological assumptions and superfluous conventions and go deeper when we look at art.
With my oldest son, with his bright mind whirring away at all times, helping him understand the symphony of truth is different than how my wife and I as parents teach our other two children, whose minds intuit and can leap the gaps in information. With him we have to go back to a blank slate ourselves and try to see with him how to bridge the gaps and build structures for understanding complex arrangements like social situations, religious truths, and outside realities. He didn’t grasp the Eucharist until I drew a timeline chart showing the crucifixion, the ensuing years in between then and now, and then a science-fiction style wormhole portal demonstrating how the Eucharist at Mass connects with and is the same sacrifice at Calvary. In other words, we have to be creative.
When my son is uneasy or worried, he will ask questions that he knows the answer to already. “Who made Godzilla?” He likes the reassurance that the information hasn’t changed—it’s still there. As Catholics, we do this at every Mass, every time we pray a Rosary. What do we believe? We recite the Creed. Is this the Body of Christ? Yes—Amen. Who is our Father? The Father who art in Heaven.
“All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator”, says Joseph Ratzinger in his masterwork Spirit of the Liturgy. God is creative and so must we be as creatures made in his image and likeness. Creativity allows us to show the context for truths that must be communicated. Though not all of us think and process information like my son, we also need to know what our context is here in this world. Much of modern life seems to tell us that we are placed here in isolation and each of us has to figure out our place in the world. As Catholics, we say “no” to that isolation and tune our ears to the symphony that places us in context as sons and daughters of God, making our way through a fallen world in hope of eternal joy. We need to know our Creator. And art can be a powerful method of showing that truth to us.
I spend the day in the grip of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Isn’t that terrible? My father once gave me a lecture on wasting good working hours on reading light fiction, but I couldn’t put my tablet down. I was utterly wrapped up in the mystery–in Hastings’ impatience, Poirot’s pronouncements and the movements of the mysterious Mr. Cust.
It is the sort of book I should have saved for a trip across the Atlantic–the sort of book that makes the hours flash by without the reader noticing. I read rather quickly, so I need two airplane books to get me across the ocean. I open the first in Glasgow, and I shut the second upon our approach to Toronto. Here so soon?
Agatha Christie is not only the “Queen of Crime”, she’s the queen of airplane books. Although her vast output was slightly uneven, I never get tired of her world of bronzed colonels, stately homes, private secretaries, dashing young “modern” women, quiet secretaries of both sexes and American millionaires. Was Britain ever really like that, I wonder. The mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers seem a little more workaday: fewer millionaires, more women academics, rather more sympathy for bohemians and champagne socialists.
I first gobbled up Agatha Christie novels as a thirteen year old, but later decided they were formulaic and dull. I rebelled against the Tory politics and the limitless sympathy for the British upper classes. But I have gone back to them and rediscovered their brilliance as thrillers. I keep meaning to pull them apart to see how she does it, but I keep forgetting in the excitement of the tale.
I finished The ABC Murders today; I finished Murder in Mesopotamia on Monday evening. The former is better than the latter. I correctly guessed the murderer in Mesopotamia, something I very rarely do, and didn’t find him/her convincing. But The ABC Murders was terrific, right up there with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
These are both Hercule Poirot mysteries, and thus I feel they fit in with this blog, for Poirot is Britain’s most famous Catholic detective. Yes, I am sure you are very fond of Father Brown, but today he is a Catholic niche interest whereas Poirot is… Well, Poirot.
He is a masterful invention, beautifully drawn: brilliant but fussy, kindly but vain, sentimental but chaste, zealous for justice, and practicing Catholic, as befit a Belgian of his generation. (Can you imagine what Poirot would say about the new Belgian law permitting the killing of disabled children? “Non, non and, again, non!”) As Christie was not a Catholic herself, she could never be accused of propagandizing for Catholicism–nor does she seem to have been tempted to do so.*
I met a fan last October for coffee. She had flown over to Scotland on holiday, bringing my book with her for me to sign. I expected to see the American edition of my first book, Seraphic Singles, but to my amazement, she lay Ceremony of Innocence before me. It had just been released, so I had never seen a reader’s copy.
“I read it on the airplane,” she explained.
“Did it make a good airplane book?” I asked.
She said it had, and I was delighted. If a book can shrink the hours of an transatlantic flight, then that is a book that has truly gripped the reader.
What kind of books do you like to read on airplanes?
*An amusing liturgical side note about “The Agatha Christie Indult” here.
by Ignatius Press Novels
April 1, 2014 1:25 pm 6 Comments
A few weeks ago at lunch Fr. Joseph Fessio announced that he was planning to start an “anti-blog”. It would feature poetry. Of course, we were all intrigued, especially after Father recited some of the poems, first in German, then in translation. This “anti-blog” has now launched at www.AngelicPilgrim.com and features the poems of Angelus Silesius. Each poem is posted in German and English and includes audio of Fr. Fessio reading the poem in German.
Who was Angelus Silesius?
That is the literary name for Johann Scheffler, a 17th century convert from Lutheranism to the Catholic Church. He was born in Silesia in Germany and wanted to be a messenger (Latin: angelus) of God’s love. So he used that name Angelus (messenger) Silesius (from Silesia). He became very well known as a priest, poet, and mystic.
What was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s role in bringing these poems to your attention?
One of Fr. von Balthasar’s great contributions to ressourcement—retrieving the great works of the rich Catholic tradition—was to take selections from the works of important, mainly patristic, Catholic authors and arrange them in a way that showed the inner structure of the author’s thought. He did this, for instance, with St. Ireneus, St. Augustine, and Origen, producing books which were published in the publishing house he established, Johannesverlag. As part of this undertaking, he made a selection from the almost 1700 two-line poems of Angelus Silesius, whom he called “one of the greatest poets in the West” and published them originally as Sich auftun wie eine Rose (open oneself up [to God] like a rose). I read the book years ago and was very inspired by it. But I lent it to someone and it never came back. Somehow my interest was recently renewed and I obtained another copy, now published with the title Cherubinischer Wandersmann (Angelic Messenger, which is the same title as the original complete collection).
It seems that unlike prose, poetry is really still part of an oral tradition; poems don’t really come alive unless they are vocalized. Is that why you are posting these in audio format as well as text?
Yes. I included audio for the German (or as close to German as I could come) because I knew I couldn’t translate the poems into English poetry—and I’m not sure anyone can. My intent was to provide a very literal German interlinear translation, along with the audio clip, so readers would be able to experience the rythym, rhyme, and the beauty of the original. They might even learn a little German while they’re at it! (But there are a number of archaisms and poetic contractions, so if one were to try to say something with this vocabulary, German listeners might scratch their heads.)
Do you have a favorite of the poems of Angelus Silesius?
Almost everyone I read becomes my favorite at that moment. Here’s one that so impressed me that I have remembered it from the first time I read it:
Den engeln geht es wohl;
To the angels goes it well;
noch besser uns auf erden,
even better to us on earth,
Denn keiner ihrs Geshlechts
For none of their race
kann Gotts Gemahlin werden.
Can God’s spouse become.
Why are you calling this site an “anti-blog”?
For two reasons. Many blogs are very personal; they contain a lot of information about the author. This blog is entirely about someone else, not me. And blogs in general tend to provide an immediate and steady stream of comment on current events. This blog consists of texts over 300 years old—that are about eternity.
When can we expect to see these poems in book form?
I’m hoping to post one a day, and there are about a year’s worth in the book. God willing, we’ll have a book in a couple of years.
Visit Fr. Fessio’s “anti-blog” Angelic Pilgrim at www.AngelicPilgrim.com.
Here’s a roundup of links for your Friday!
First up, Dorothy Cummings McLean reviews Rumer Godden’s classic, In This House of Brede:
Novels are what we read when we should be reading something else—or are they? Currently I should be reading Henri Nouwen’s “modern spiritual classic,” The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but in fact I have just finished Rumer Godden’s novel, In This House of Brede. And I feel no embarrassment in saying that the laywoman’s novel taught me far more about the way of the heart than the priest’s meditations. After decades of preaching the virtues of a low fat diet, nutritionists now tell us our dietary culprit isn’t fat. Apparently we have always needed good fat in our diet. Godden’s novel runs with rich oils; Nouwen’s book strikes me as sugary… Read more
Also at Catholic World Report, T.M. Doran says that we are all time travelers:
The perception of time is affected by historical and cultural settings. Consider a medieval farmer, for whom time was linked to the flow of seasons and capricious weather; or to a street urchin in 18th century Paris, living from moment to moment without the luxury of pondering the past or the future; or modern man, whose day consists of connecting to one “cloud” or another. How different these perceptions of time were, and are…. Read more
Over at First Things, there’s a piece by Albert Shepherd V marking the 150th anniversary of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess:
One-hundred and fifty years later, The Light Princess remains one of MacDonald’s most beloved works. In it, a young, unnamed princess is cursed by a witch, with the result that the princess has no gravity. The effect is both physical and spiritual. If not tethered to the ground or leashed to her royal attendants, the princess is at risk of simply floating away into the air, never to be seen again. At the same time, she is unable to take her peril (or anything for that matter) seriously. Even the distress of her parents over her plight provokes her laughter… Read more
And don’t forget the two pieces published here this week, “How to Get Published” (full of invaluable advice from Dorothy Cummings McLean) and “Books and Grounded Transcendence”: will printed books ever disappear in favor of eBooks?