Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Boyagoda: Original Prin

July 14, 2019

Original-Prin.jpgOriginal Prin
Randy Boyagoda
(Biblioasis, 2018)
224 p.

Prin is an academic at a small university in Toronto which, by a series of mischances, has come to be called the University of the Family Universal, or UFU. (One can imagine the mixed-message banner hung in a prominent place: “Welcome to UFU!”) Even in this small pond Prin is a small fish, for his particular expertise — on the symbolism of marine life, and especially seahorses, in Canadian fiction — lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

His professional fortunes, however, are far from being Prin’s main concern as the novel opens, for Prin has cancer, and is looking, with a generous measure of hesitation and indecision, for a way to tell his beautiful young daughters about his condition.

Yet his professional fortunes won’t let him be after all, for he learns that his school faces bankruptcy, and he unemployment (and, one surmises, unemployability) unless something is done, and quickly. Thus is Prin recruited by his academic dean to travel to the Middle East to deliver a lecture (on Kafka, male genitalia as symbols of seahorses, and The English Patient, naturally) as part of a complicated scheme to save the university. The catch: he must travel with a former girlfriend from his graduate school days, a beauty for whom he harbours, against his will, a smouldering charcoal briquette that he fears might erupt into flame if provoked.

Thus far we have a setup for a promising comic send-up of academic life, and I laughed heartily as the pieces fell into place, but Boyagoda is still more ambitious, for in addition to contending against serious illness, the end of his academic career, and his own deceitful heart, Prin is also beset by a religious crisis. He is a Catholic, basically a happy and contented Catholic, who prays his rosary, goes to Mass and confession, and teaches his children to do the same. Yet, for nearly the first time in his life, Prin believes God has spoken directly to him, telling him to do something specific — something he’d much rather not do, and thinks is imprudent or worse — and he can’t understand why.

Now, comic Catholic novels are not thick on the ground — not as thick as they ought to be, if Chesterton’s claim be true that the test of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a single other: Waugh wrote both comic and Catholic, but not generally in the same book, and while Miss Flannery’s stories have in some cases a comic thread, it is usually a dark thread, whereas Boyagoda’s tone is closer to winking and grinning satire. It’s a fascinating experiment.

The novel makes an audacious swerve in its final act into tense dramatic territory — almost thriller territory, as unlikely as that sounds. I’m not quite convinced that this works, but the book leaves enough questions hanging in the air — it is, apparently, just the first volume in a planned trilogy — that I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In the meantime, I recommend this book to Catholic readers, to readers who enjoy a good laugh, to connoisseurs of opening sentences, and (of course) to those with a special interest in seahorses in Canadian fiction.

Here and there

July 11, 2019
  • One doesn’t expect to find sound medieval metaphysics expounded in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, but the world is full of marvels.
  • We use a good deal of chalk at home, but our days of buying it at the Dollar Store are over. Hagoromo or bust!
  • Nearly a sesquicentury into construction, and La Sagrada Familia finally got a building permit.
  • My archbishop, Thomas Cardinal Collins, will be speaking this year at the annual Chesterton Conference in the US. The story of how it came about is quite amusing. As a bonus, Word on Fire has also published a good short interview in which the Cardinal explains just what he likes about GKC. (Incidentally, G.K. Weekly, our modest contribution to Chestertoniana, is running on fumes at present. We are seeking an archivist and typist to help generate a queue of scintillating or provocative excerpts from the great man’s oeuvre. Apply within. No pay or benefits.)
  • If you’ve ever had to cover your eyes to protect your soul from beholding an architectural monstrosity churned up by the modernist schools — and who among us has not? — James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism might be a heartening jeremiad. Theodore Dalrymple reviews.
  • Almost twenty year ago (!) I spent a week on retreat at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is in New Mexico, a bit north of Sante Fe, at the base of a splendid red-rock cliff, at the end of a long and sometimes-impassable sand road. At that time there were, I would estimate, twenty or thirty monks. I am delighted to learn this week that the community now has 60 monks, with an average age of just 34. A very healthy young monastery! How I would like to go back someday…

For an envoi, let’s watch an ad for Hagoromo chalk:

Corpus Christi, 2019

June 23, 2019

O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
Alleluia.

O sacred feast!
wherein Christ is received:
the memory of His Passion is renewed in us:
our souls are filled with grace:
and the pledge of everlasting glory is given to us.
Alleluia.

Regina caeli

May 5, 2019

For Eastertide, a two-voiced riff on Regina caeli, by Jacob Obrecht, and played on the organ. The video shows how fifteenth-century performers would have read their parts, and is, on that account, both fascinating and instructive.

Happy Easter to all!

After the fire

April 24, 2019

A week on from the fire, I can uncover my eyes and see what happened. What a joy to see this:

Notre-Dame was my first Gothic cathedral. I went to Paris when an undergraduate, on my first trip to Europe. I arrived in the early morning hours, before I could check-in at my lodgings, so I walked to Notre-Dame. I remember arriving in the plaza before the church, and gazing up at her in wonder, hardly believing that she was real, and that I was really seeing her with my own eyes. I threw my backpack down on a bench and sat, simply taking in that beautiful facade. I remember that I glanced along the bench at another traveller, also toting a backpack, and roughly my age. He said to me, in English, “I had to see her again before leaving”. I simply nodded in understanding. When I heard about the fire, among the many thoughts that crowded my mind were these: where is he now, and what is he feeling this day?

The damage, thanks be to God, seems to be not as devastating as was originally feared. The firefighters of Paris are genuine heroes in this affair. The north tower was apparently threatened most nearly — threatened by the bells, which, if their wooden supports had burned, would have plunged down the length of the tower and collapsed it. The firefighters mobilized to rescue the many treasures, sacred and artistic, which the church housed. I was most touched by the story of the chaplain to the Paris firefighters, Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, who rescued the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle and the crown of thorns reliquary. I was also amused to learn that the Parisian fire brigade deployed a secret weapon against the fire: Colossus, a fire-fighting robot.

One of the treasures of the church, after its relics, rose windows, and facade, is its organ. I attended an organ recital there some years ago, and remember it fondly. Here is a short documentary featuring it:

Much has been written about the church, about what it means to Parisians and to the French nation, and about its significance for Catholics around the world. Quite a few writers have been tempted by the metaphorical potency of a burning cathedral in the center of secularized Europe. Without denying that they have a point, such reactions seem to me tactless at this point. The church burned, and that is more than enough to reckon with, without having it turned into a lecture illustration or commandeered for partisan gain.

Having said that, I admit I cannot help taking heart, under the circumstances, from images like this, which are like an Easter homily in themselves:

Macron has committed to rebuilding what was damaged, and there have been a number of absurdly large donations from absurdly rich French citizens, along with a stream of modest donations from lovers of the cathedral around the world. I made a small donation myself. We hear rumours of our cultured despisers wanting to turn this monument honouring Our Lady into a monument honouring Ourselves. I hope and pray that they are thwarted. May the beautiful church of Notre-Dame de Paris be protected from the hands of Daniel Libeskind, I.M. Pei, and all like-minded vandals. Let us love her even in her infirmity.

Easter Sunday, 2019

April 21, 2019

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

Notre Dame

April 15, 2019

There could be some dispute about what is the greatest church in the world. In my heart, though, Notre Dame de Paris is first. A heartbreaking day.

 

O’Connor: The Presence of Grace

April 15, 2019

The Presence of Grace
And Other Book Reviews
Flannery O’Connor
Edited by Carter W. Martin
(University of Georgia, 1983)
189 p.

Flannery O’Connor didn’t leave us many books, and to find another, even if minor, is a joy. This volume gathers together over 100 short book reviews which she did for Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia between 1956-64. I believe the existence of the book is not very well known, even among her admirers.

Many of the books she reviewed were ephemeral; indeed, it is a little dispiriting to think that she invested so much time in reading books which nobody reads anymore. An occupational hazard, perhaps, for book reviewers, but who among us, in all soberness, does much better? Yet part of the attraction of this book is that she does, every so often, write about an enduring book — novels by J.F. Powers, Evelyn Waugh, or François Mauriac, for instance. It is here that one leans forward to hear what she had to say.

Most of the books were non-fiction, and, given the publications for which she was writing, it was natural that they had mostly to do with Catholicism. Among the “big names” whom she reviewed were Louis Bouyer and Romano Guardini; she knew quality when she saw it. I was a little surprised, I admit, at the praise which she lavished on Tielhard de Chardin, whom I know was making waves at the time, but one hardly expects Flannery to be susceptible to hype. Nonetheless, she considered him “a great and saintly man” whose mind “dealt in immensities” and whose books would “probably have the effect of giving a new face to Christian spirituality”. Following his censure by the Holy Office in 1962 she conceded that his books were “incomplete and dangerous,” but her admiration for his person seemed undimmed. I don’t know much about de Chardin, I admit, his star having faded in the meantime, and quite possibly her assessment of his personal merits was just.

A salutary feature of the book is that it can disabuse us of fond imaginings that Catholic life before Vatican II was sunshine and roses. Her general view of American Catholicism in relation to the wider culture was that it was narrow and fearful, and not particularly distinguished, “having compromised with the secular in everything from doctrine to decoration”. One is tempted to say, as a rejoinder, “Miss Flannery, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, but, still, the point she makes is worth hearing.

Much of the fun of the book is in the jibes and barbed praise which she bestowed on books and readers. Of one book she writes that

This book is well worth reading for its virtues and we have its faults to thank for its being read so widely.

And of best-sellers in general she muses that

The best seller list is a standard of mediocrity through which occasionally a work of merit will slip for reasons unconnected with its quality.

A review of a biography of St Catherine of Siena begins in this way:

The signs and wonders that increased the faith of the 14th century will very generally have the opposite effect on that of the 20th, and this biography of St Catherine, written by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, can very well have the effect of inspiring the reader with a genuine repulsion for the saint.

or, commenting on the jargon in a book about education, she writes that

…the reader, unless he is a student of education and thus habituated to such, will quit the book half way through, with the thought: if they do this to the language, what do they do to the child?

*

Most of the reviews are brief; just a paragraph or two, though occasionally we get a page or two. I could learn something from her about the soul of wit. They are arranged chronologically, and are interspersed with letters between Flannery and the diocesan papers’ editors on book-related matters; her personal voice comes through more clearly in the letters, and one can’t help missing her.

***

[On a wordy volume of unadulterated wisdom]
The ideal form for unadulterated wisdom is the aphorism.

[On Catholic imagery]
The images absorbed in childhood are retained by the soul throughout life. In medieval times, the child viewed the same images as his elders, and these were images adequate to the realities they stood for. He formed his images of the Lord from, for example, the stern and majestic Pantacrator [sic], not from the smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart. When childhood was over, the image was still valid and was able to hold up under the assults given to belief. Today the idea of religion of large numbers of Catholics remains trapped at the magical stage by static and superficial images which neither mind nor stomach can any longer take.

Topping: Renewing the Mind

March 17, 2019

Renewing the Mind
A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
Ryan N.S. Topping (Ed.)
(CUA, 2015)
xvi + 397 p.

Where I live we have a government-funded system of Catholic schools which educates roughly half of the children in the province. The curriculum is set by the government, with approval from the bishops. Every school has a priest-chaplain, and the school body attends Mass together a few times each year. Sometimes the Rosary Apostolate comes to visit. Students can, and most do, attend these schools for twelve years and graduate knowing next to nothing about Catholic history, Catholic art and literature, Catholic theology, or Catholic ethics, and without any conspicuous adoption of Catholic spirituality or devotion. If the aim is to graduate students with a robust understanding of Catholicism and a strong personal commitment to Christ, these schools are a dismal failure. If the aim is more modest, if it is just that students graduate with a tenacious personal attachment to Catholicism, that the Catholic tradition, broadly considered and roughly speaking, is inherited and appropriated by the next generation, much the same conclusion follows. Clearly, something is amiss deep down.

The problems are multifarious. One, of course, is that the schools have largely surrendered their ability to hire teachers on the basis of religious commitment; teachers who are strongly committed to their faith — and there are some! — must be weighed against those who are wishy-washy or worse, and students can be pardoned for getting a mixed message. Another, no doubt, is the decision to adopt, or allow to be foisted, the self-same curriculum as is taught in the non-Catholic public schools; immediately whatever Catholicism is to be found in the Catholic schools is reduced to a patina. And this is tolerated, I believe, because we have largely lost sight of what a Catholic education should be: not just what it should teach, but why it should teach it, and how, and what it is supposed to achieve.

Into this amnesiac reverie comes this hefty, small-print reader on the philosophy of Catholic education. It is the sort of book about which one writes two paragraphs or twenty pages; my notes on it are the latter, but in this space I’ll steer toward the former.

It consists of a judicious selection of readings from the long tradition of Catholic thinking about education. The texts are grouped broadly into four categories: first, on the aims of education; second, on the subject matter of a Catholic education; third, reflections on effective methods of teaching; and, finally, a lengthy collection of essays and articles on our contemporary situation and signs of renewal in modern Catholic education. The selections are almost uniformly from the top shelf: starting with Plato and Aristotle — yes, they too are part of the Catholic tradition! — up through Augustine and Basil, Bonaventure and Aquinas, to Erasmus, Montaigne, Newman, and Clive Staples Lewis. Among those modern writers who make the cut are Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Sayers (with her Lost Tools of Learning, of course), John Senior, Maria Montessori, Jacques Maritain, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some authors appear more than once; Plato and Aquinas, at thrice, share the honours at the top of the heap. There are 39 selections in all.

It is impossible to summarize this wide range of sources in a brief space, but let me mention a few highlights. I had never before seen the Ratio Studiorum written in the 16th century to guide the huge network of Jesuit schools; I cannot say I was greatly inspired by it, but it has been very influential and I was happy to read it. I relished the section from Newman’s The Idea of a University in which he discusses the challenges the Protestant tradition in English literature poses for English-speaking Catholics; I really must find time to read that great book in its entirety. And I was fascinated by Pope John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia, a 1962 encyclical in which he commended to all Catholic schools the importance of teaching and learning Latin! I wasn’t sure whether to be sad that a papal document of such authority could be such a thoroughly dead letter, or, given subsequent developments, encouraged for the same reason.

A more ambitious person than I would draw on this wonderful collection to synthesize the consistent and foundational principles of Catholic thinking about education through the centuries. It could be that the editor of this volume, Ryan Topping, has done just that in his book The Case for Catholic Education; I’d like to find out. The barest, briefest summation would be something like this: we are made to know and love God, and love of God, the highest Good, should guide and shape our study; the human mind desires to know and love truth, and this desire is not in vain; education has intellectual, moral, and aesthetic dimensions; and, finally, Rousseau was a flap-eared knave.

Facetiousness aside, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers with an interest in Catholic education. It is a rich feast.

Epiphany 2019

January 6, 2019

adoration-magi-giotto

Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent,
reges Arabum et Saba dona (Domino Deo) adducent.
Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae,
omnes gentes servient ei.

The kings of Tarshish and the islands will offer tribute,
the Kings of Arabia will bring gifts to the Lord God;
And all kings will adore him,
and all nations will serve Him.