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When You Have Less Than a Day at an Abbey

27 Jun

“And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.”
~ Van Morrison

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Of Down Syndrome, Anne of Green Gables, and Van

3 May

“‘Dear old world,’ she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.’”
~ L.M. Montgomery

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What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means

14 Dec


“First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony.”
~ Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii

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A Celebration of Katharine and Geriatric Pregnancy

13 Oct


“Now they were both old, and far advanced in years, and it had ceased to be with Sara after the manner of women” (Gn 11.18).

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A Family Tour of Notre Dame’s Basilica

5 Sep


“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight…” (Heb. 12.1).

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Always Something to Read: On the Pleasures of Bibliochaos

5 Jun


There is no book so bad but it has something good in it.
~ Cervantes

When I moved from Oregon to Chicago, I went to my death – or so I supposed. Raised in the burbs and sheltered from anything resembling real urban life, I absorbed gritty city images from movies and TV (especially “Hill Street Blues”) as if they were gospel, and I was sure I wouldn’t survive my first subway ride.

Nonetheless, I still went, intent on finding out what I could, especially about the Catholic Worker – to glimpse first-hand its traditions of hospitality, selfless service, and the corporal works of mercy. Given all that, and in order to travel as light as possible, I decided to divest myself of all “non-essentials.” I gave away my futon and bike, a bunch of clothes and assorted knickknacks, and books – plenty of books.Cavallucci_-_San_Benedetto_Giuseppe_Labre

It wasn’t easy to whittle down the piles, but in the end, I arrived in Chicago with only one suitcase and one box – although the box was, to tell the truth, mainly books. Still, not a bad job paring down the personal library. Plus, I came to find out that none other than Benedict Joseph Labre, the homeless saint, tramped about 18th-century Europe with more than just the rags on his back. “In a small wallet he carried a Testament,” writes Joseph Delaney, “a breviary, which it was his wont to recite daily, a copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ and some other pious books.”

Note: “Non-essential” is a relative term for bibliophiles.

This is all the more pertinent when two bibliophiles marry each other and the process of entwining two lives includes interweaving two libraries. Nancy and I never have come to full agreement on how to do that – which, if any, volumes to jettison; how to organize those remaining – but it little matters any more. Almost a quarter-century of marriage has steadily swelled our holdings beyond any reasonable limit, and with the blessing of seven kids rummaging around those holdings over the years, bookshelf organization is now a forgotten dream.

That happens to be the way I like it anyway: the more messy, the better. The best used bookstores are the same – Smith Family Books in Eugene, for example, and Pandora’s right here in South Bend. Another is Omaha’s Antiquarium – now defunct, unfortunately. It’s a book lover’s mecca, and I used to visit with Tom, my father-in-law, whenever I was in town.

To get an idea of the appeal of these places, recall Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when Michael Caine is stalking Barbara Hershey and they wind up in a Manhattan bookshop. It’s a beguiling scene of seduction that ends with the discovery of an e.e. cummings anthology, but the best part is seeing the wild menagerie of tomes piled willy-nilly throughout the store. You could find anything there, you see, especially something you weren’t looking for – adventures abound!

hannahandhersisters08 Such is the scheme of our own family collection that now sprawls through every level of the house. From basement to bedrooms, most shelves double-stacked, and there are haphazard mountains of volumes leaning in this corner and that. When the kids were younger, we at least attempted to parse out the massive assembly by diverting picture books, board books, and children’s literature to the family room, while the living room was reserved for more serious, grown-up fare – the Catholic Encyclopedia, for instance, along with our uniform G.K. Chesterton Collected Works and a set of the Great Books of the Western World that we inherited from Tom.

These days? Forget it. Pick out any random shelf in the family room – the so-called “kids’ library” – and you’ll find a slapdash muddle of genres and age appropriateness. Just now I went there and glanced at the eye-level shelves next to the fireplace: Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar next to Sherlock Holmes; an Audubon guide (North American Trees: Eastern Region) adjacent to Encyclopedia Brown. There was Sophocles and a life of Edmund Campion, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and the Hardy Boys, and finally (my favorite pairing), Mark Twain’s bleak Letters From the Earth abutting Who Is Coming to Our House, a delightful Christmas board book.

It’s all jumbled, and there are too many (according to my kids), but I enjoy having plenty of books around I haven’t read, and I like encountering books I might not otherwise seek out. Plus, I’m convinced it’s been a good situation for my children as well. Say someone’s looking for a Harry Potter or a Calvin and Hobbes – lo and behold, what’s this? A history of Russia? A novel by Jules Verne or Michael Crichton? How about the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle? Even if these are merely picked up, flipped through, and replaced, that’s at least some exposure to ideas and images, writers and writing, they wouldn’t have had otherwise.timemachine

If pressed, I imagine I’d trace my quirky passion for wall-to-wall books to “The Time Machine,” a 1960 film based on the novel by H.G. Wells. I saw the movie with my dad when I was a child, and it haunted me for years – less for the scary parts about subterranean monsters feeding on docile humans than for the concluding scene in Victorian England. The story’s hero, George, stops back in 1900 for a brief stopover after a variety of time-traveling adventures. Then, after certain preparations, he returns to the distant future to help restore humane civilization.

After he’s gone, George’s housekeeper notes that he apparently didn’t take any provisions except for three volumes that appear to be missing from a bookcase. Filby, George’s friend, asks, “Which three books?”

“I don’t know,” replies the housekeeper. “Is it important?”

“I suppose not…only, which three books would you have taken?”

Seriously? Three books? To rebuild a world? Why not five? Fifty? Why not make several trips to establish a futuristic depository? You’ve got a time machine, man!

But that’s beside the point. What really bugged me was trying to figure out George’s “THREE” – the Bible, sure, but what else? And that would still wrangle no matter what the number. I wanted to know what those three books were because I wanted to make sure I read them!

wfbIn the end, I decided it didn’t matter which books were transported, but only that they were transported – the more the better. And as far as selection, I’ve settled on: indiscriminate – grab an armful and run. Think of it as a survivalist literary equivalent of William F. Buckley’s famous dictum, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”

After all, the rummaging can be as much an education as the reading, and I’d take a disheveled Antiquarium over three select volumes any day. Wouldn’t you?

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Scuppers, Grace, and Making Do

20 May


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.

GoodnightmoonOur 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” stoScuppers_(book)ry 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.

ashfordvivianYet 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.

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