My God, I do not want to be a Saint by halves.
I am not afraid to suffer for Your sake.
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Dear Father, hear and bless thy beasts and singing birds,
and guard with tenderness small things that have no words.
~ Margaret Wise Brown
Who doesn’t love Goodnight Moon, right? Has there ever been a more gentle, rhythmic narrative? Its cadence is so lovely and lilting – so soothing to both reader and child.
Our board book edition wore out many years ago because it was a ready stand-by at bedtime and went through countless readings. Sandra Boynton was another favorite, of course, but her stuff was problematic at that time of day because her comic rhymes lent themselves so well to farcical voices and gestures, which in turn led to giggles and squiggles and kids not falling asleep.
Not so Goodnight Moon – the literary equivalent of an Ambien. It draws you into that neat, safe bedroom, and you’re fighting sleep like the tucked-in bunny, yet you know it’s a losing battle – for both of you. Each goodbye, each fond farewell to moon and mittens and everything else is one more shift in the direction of the inevitable: restful, peaceful – aah…
The pictures are hard to separate from the text, and it might be that you’ll recall the illustrator’s name, Clement Hurd, before you’d remember the author. Hurd’s bunnies and bedroom are hard to forget, but the text came from Margaret Wise Brown – know much about her? She was a highly successful editor and children’s book author, and she penned about 100 books, including another you might know: The Runaway Bunny, also illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Here’s one by Brown you might not know about: The Sailor Dog, published posthumously in 1953. It stars Scuppers, a dog with wanderlust who can’t contain his urge to return to the sea – the place of his shipboard birth. Who knows how he ended up landlocked on a farm – who cares? Readers are thrown into the midst of a quest, and we materialize alongside our determined oceanbound hero – a car overland or a submarine undersea will not do. In terms of adventure, it’s the wildness of the waves or nothing. “Scuppers was a sailor,” Brown writes. “He wanted to go to sea.”
And he manages to get there – taking possession of a shabby, but apparently seaworthy vessel, and launching into the deep. All goes well at first, but a nighttime storm leads to shipwreck, and Scuppers ends up on a deserted isle. He survives by his wits, and, inspired by a dream, makes the requisite repairs on his boat in order to continue his journey.
Eventually, he puts into port at an exotic locale, where he replenishes his supplies, replaces his tattered outfit with some new duds, and heads out to sea again. “I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog,” he sings in the end. “I can sail in a gale right over a whale under full sail in a fog.”
Delightful – and so comforting to young readers, and so encouraging. The hero, Scuppers, sets out on his own to follow his lights and his passions, and persists despite obstacles and misfortunes. Indeed, the obstacles and misfortunes make the tale – there wouldn’t be any “Sailor Dog” story without the disruptions to Scupper’s plans.
It’s like the first reading at Mass today: “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord,” writes St. James. “Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.” James tells us to motor forward, press on, keep going – like Job, enduring and making do. “You have seen the purpose of the Lord,” he goes on, “because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
What James describes, and what Scuppers ably demonstrates, is the cardinal virtue of fortitude, “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good,” in the words of the Catechism. “The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions” (#1808). And like the other cardinal virtues, fortitude can be cultivated by everyone, including those with no faith – and, in fact, they prepare us for faith. “The moral virtues are acquired by human effort,” the Catechism teaches us. “They dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” (#1804).
I believe that was true of Margaret Wise Brown herself. She did have a grandmother who was pious and “whose conversation was laced with quotations from Scripture,” in the words of biographer Leonard Marcus. Also, Grandma Naylor would see to it that Margaret and her siblings got to Sunday school whenever she came to visit. Other than that, Brown had little exposure to religion and apparently practiced none as an adult. Plus, her parents’ unhappy marriage made for a troubled childhood, and she herself suffered a string of tumultuous affairs and frustrated engagements before dying suddenly at the age of 42.
Yet Brown bravely faced down adversity throughout her life, and did so with considerable aplomb. She went to college over the objections of her father and excelled. Although she never had children of her own, Brown developed a keen insight into how they navigated the world, and through her books became the confidant of countless youngsters. It seems clear that Brown’s human efforts really were touchpoints for grace, and certainly grace manages to sidle through her writing – something highlighted in an especially poignant way in Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, particularly in its 2001 HBO iteration.
Emma Thompson stars as the ailing scholar Vivian Bearing, and Eileen Atkins plays Vivian’s former mentor, Professor Evelyn Ashford. Toward the end of the play, when Vivian is bereft of all hope, racked with tumor pain and spiritual distress, Ashford comes to visit her in the hospital.
Hoping to comfort her anguished former student, Ashford decides to read from The Runaway Bunny which she’d just purchased as a birthday gift for a nephew.
‘lf you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.’
‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman, and I will fish for you.’
As Ashford calmly reads, Vivian gains her composure and a measure of peace. “Look at that,” Professor Ashford comments. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.”
The soul of Margaret Wit Brown, the unsettled seeker behind that little allegory, would’ve been no exception.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.
The whole life of the Church is indeed the imitation of the life of Jesus Christ, but it is not a copy of that life.
~ Louis Bouyer, The Paschal Mystery
It is a science to know how to regard a model; it is an art to be able to reproduce it.
~ Albin de Cigala, The Imitation of Mary
Spring semester is always more stressful for me than fall. For one thing, “spring” semester begins in January, and January ‘round these parts (namely South Bend) is no treat. Plus, spring is when I transition with my sophomore nursing students from their previous semester’s clinical experiences in a nursing home to much more advanced clinicals in a hospital – where the pace is often frantic and the student nurse learning curve significantly steeper.
That being the case, it’s spring semester that often prompts me to pick up P.G. Wodehouse for respite and refreshment – and he’s never failed me yet. Wodehouse’s fluid prose and arresting images draw me into his idyllic Victorian cosmos, and his humorous plots and sympathetic characters are like a literary balm. In fact, I keep a copy of Wodehouse’s The World of Jeeves permanently reserved at my bedside – the very copy my mom gave me decades ago as a Christmas gift. When I return home from a rough night at the medical center – weary and worn out, but too frazzled to sleep – I’ll frequently turn to that volume for solace. It works like a charm, and within a story or two, I’m snoozing – much better (and safer) than Benadryl or booze.
At some point this past January as I stumbled late into bed, I grabbed the volume and settled on “Scoring Off Jeeves.” I won’t try to summarize the entire convoluted plot for you, but it involves Bertie Wooster’s attempt to avoid marriage to Honoria Glossop by re-directing her attentions to love-struck Bingo Little. Normally, he’d depend on the ingenious Jeeves, his valet, to solve such conundrums, but in this story, Bertie tries to go it alone. Here’s how Bertie put it to his hapless friend:
‘Bingo,’ I said, ‘what would Jeeves have done?’
‘How do you mean, what would Jeeves have done?’
‘I mean what would he have advised in a case like yours?’
Then, it dawned on me: Here is the original WWJD! Of course, Wodehouse used a slightly different form of the conditional tense, but it’s the same idea, and it predated the “What Would Jesus Do” craze by several decades. I’m thinking Wodehouse could’ve made a killing selling “WWJHD” wrist bands and t-shirts!
Note the similarity in philosophy as well. Both forms are grounded in two assumptions: First, that one can predict how a superior being would act under a variety of circumstances, and, second, that one both could and ought to do likewise. Yet, in Bertie Wooster’s case, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did he fail to anticipate how Jeeves would’ve handled the Honoria Glossop/Bingo Little predicament, Bertie’s own solution resulted in a huge mess that Jeeves ended up having to disentangle anyway.
Why? For Wodehouse fans, it’s painfully obvious: Bertie Wooster is no Jeeves, and he never will be. There’s no question Bertie has good will and generosity in spades, and his loyalty and forbearance are legendary, but he’s not exactly a front runner when it comes to mental acuity and finesse (much to the delight of Wodehouse’s readers, I assure you). The bottom line though is that, despite his best efforts, there simply wasn’t a high degree of likelihood that Bertie could ever know “What Jeeves Would Have Done,” and, even if he could, he was even less likely to have pulled off the same course of action himself.
That’s how I always felt about the more recent WWJD movement: Given my own mental and moral limitations, how was I to figure out “what Jesus would do” in the conflicts and problems I confront every day? It’s the same sentiment that I heard my friend Fr. Rich Simon express on his Relevant Radio broadcast around the same time I read the Wodehouse story. “All those bracelets that say ‘What would Jesus do?’ I don’t care what Jesus would do,” Fr. Simon flatly stated. “He was the only begotten Son of God by nature. I will never be that.”
Louis Bouyer said as much in his book, The Paschal Mystery:
Rightly understood, the imitation of Jesus Christ is the very essence of the Christian life…. This, of course, does not meant that we fallen human beings are to copy clumsily the God-Man. The whole matter is a mystery signifying that we are to be grafted upon Him so that the same life which was in Him and which He has come to give us may develop in us as in Him and produce in us the same fruits of sanctity and love that it produced in Him.
Still, we could use some guidance – and that’s where the saints come in, particularly Mary. Here’s Fr. Simon again: “Mary is what I can be,” he explained. “Mary is just a human being. Her holiness is the holiness to which you and I aspire.” Yes, she was conceived immaculately and born without any trace of original sin, sure enough, but she’s still human, with a totally and exclusively human nature like yours and mine, so she is the Christian template par excellence!
Even Thomas à Kempis, author of the WWJD-esque Imitation of Christ, arguably the most popular work of Christian piety ever, might’ve been inclined to agree – at least if we trust the word of Albin de Cigala who assembled The Imitation of Mary from Thomas’s voluminous writings. Kempis died in 1471 before completing The Imitation of Christ, and later editors were content to publish just the four chapters he’d put together. Cigala detected in Kempis’s other writings that a final, fifth chapter on Mary might’ve been in the works, and his Imitation of Mary fills the bill. Rooted in Thomas’s vision, Cigala wrote that the “Christian soul” who encounters Mary “exalts itself to the practice of the virtues which it admires in her who is, at the same time, a sublime model and an admirable mistress, an example and a mother.” A direct imitation of Christ might be too daunting or even forbidding for most of us, as Fr. Simon suggested, but imitating Him indirectly by imitating Mary seems right up our alley.
It comes down to this then: WWMD – What Would Mary Do? That seems like a much more reasonable and even achievable goal for us to “clumsily copy,” in Bouyer’s words. And just what does Mary do? We’ll let St. Luke and St. John be our guides.
So, WWMD? She’d give voice to truth when required, embody that truth in action without hesitation, and yet withdraw into hidden places with the Lord whenever possible. It’s the pattern the early church followed after the Pentecost Paraclete infusion: preaching boldly, traveling and ministering everywhere, even pondering from time to time – like in Acts 15 where the Apostles gather for the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.
It’s this last point that is especially important for us moderns to consider – we who presume that “to be” is “to do.” Mary’s example should serve to remind us that the best thing we can do sometimes is stop talking and doing, and just listen…and wait on God.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.