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Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 7

This is one of the few books I got around to reviewing this year, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of short stories, Flappers and Philosophers. This is certainly the surprise on the list for me. I wouldn’t have expected really to like anything Flappers and Philosophersregarding flappers. However, I felt like I jumped back into the roaring 20’s to reflect on its energy and it’s main faults both philosophical and moral. Fitzgerald’s characters were well developed and were either likeable or detestable depending on how he played it.

If you noticed, I’ve been reading more collections of stories. I’m doing that to learn more about the craft of the short story. This collection is a great group to see how to write a solid, well crafted short story.

If you are looking for a few short spurts of storytelling, this is a great group of stories to pick up. As an added incentive, they are in the public domain.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 8

Earlier this year, I had a brief stint as the DRE of the parish due to extenuating circumstances. My main work was with the confirmation candidates preparing them for reception of said sacrament. I saw in the few weeks I had an opportunity to teach them about the virtues, cardinal and theological. A noble and great task indeed, only I felt I needed to so some homework of my The Four Cardinal Virtuesown to prepare so I picked up Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtueswhich had been sitting on the shelf unread for three years.

Pieper, as always, writes brilliantly about the subject referencing Aquinas often. He is able to see and communicate clearly the truth that, for me is obfuscated due to my post-modern upbringing. From this work, I can see how great a virtue ethic is. It is built on man’s natural abilities of reason and will to point man away from evil and toward excellence.

This book is best taken with caffeine, pen, and paper because it definitely requires thoughtful participation by the reader.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 9

This year is a year if firsts, no Christie, honorable mentions, and for #9 we have a tie, of two very different books.

Mere AnarchyThe first is a series of short stories by Woody Allen entitled Mere Anarchy. I’ve always enjoyed Allen’s dry intellectually driven humor. I listen to this particular tome through a special Audible recording narrated by the author himself. No one story stands out to me now but as a whole I’ve never laughed so hard in my car os often. One or two times I contemplated pulling over for fear of being unable to pay attention to the road. I read tow of his other collections  but neither held the charm and wit of this one.

The second is a history book. Tom Standage looks at the history of the world through the lens of what was the  prevailing drink of an era, in A History of the World in 6 Glasses. This would be a great book if there was such a thing as a bar book club.

Standage sees the history of the world through six glasses: a pint glass of A History of the World in 6 Glassesfermented grains, a wine glass filled with fermented grape juice, a cup or mug filled with the brew of a roasted and ground up coffee bean, a glass bottle filled with distilled spirits, a tea cup filled with brewed tea leaves, and finally an aluminum can filled with flavored carbonated water. He deftly maneuvers through each liquid epoch making the argument that what we drink drives us. It is a fascinating read whether you have it with a pint of IPA, a glass of chianti, a cup of espresso, a snifter of brandy, a cup of tea, or a bottle of Coca-cola. Cheers.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 10

There have been many times when a film coming out has elicited my desire to read the book it is based on before I go see the film. This particular one, though, is unique because I have found it be the favorite novel of high school boys (of which I was at one time) and many men (because they haven’t read a novel since high school). Only at 28, did I pick this up via Audible. I’m Ender's Gamespeaking of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

After reading it, I can understand the attachment to it by pubescent boys. The title character, like many young men, is asked to step up beyond what he thinks he can do. He faces bullying. he has a mean older brother and a loving older sister, and the climax is a stroke of genius.

I must say that Card’s first title of this series sets up a world that is in serious need of faith. And he hints at that, Ender’s parents are secret Catholics. Ender’s best friend in battle-school is secretly a Muslim and the decisions mad by the adults (a second antagonist in the book) are decidedly de-personalized. Ender’s struggle is to see from a personalistic perspective while in a full milieu of utilitarian ethics.

As a kid, I would have emotionally connected to a well written novel about growing up in the midst of enormous pressure. As an adult, I see it as a  means to show teens the value of personhood.

Flappers and Philosophers

Flappers and PhilosophersA few years ago, I went on a downloading binge on librivox.com, the proud purveyor of out of copyright audiobooks. One of those books, oddly enough, was a series of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald called Flappers and Philosophers. I suppose I choose the title during binge because it intriguing. I certainly wasn’t because I was a fan of the Jazz Age writer. Back in high school I was forced to read his famous novel, The Great Gatsby, which I found so revolting that I didn’t finish it, which was, in itself, against my personal reading code at the time: finish what you start. I’m sure I had reasons for doing so but with the passage of time those reasons are left in the mists. All that lasts is the bad taste in my mouth when I hear those words.

With that illogical judgement in mind, I entered these stories with a bit of trepidation. What I found were eight clever little stories. From what I gathered on Goodreads, these were written early in his career. The writing, to me, doesn’t reveal that. They are in great prose and play off some fantastic ideas: how to outwit a girl who doesn’t care, what happens when a Southern girl goes North, what if a large cut glass bowl was the central plot turner in a story, what would be like to be the sister of a Jesuit, how did bobbed hair become so popular?, what is a face told a life story, and what happen to a soldier when he comes home from war. Some are downright comical others take on a more serious vein, but all are well written.

In the group, three stuck out to me. The first was “The Ice Palace” which played with the idea of what happens when a Southern girl goes north. Fitzgerald plays well with the cultural differences between North and South and how they are comparable to the respective weather: cold and distant (North) and warm and leisurely (South). I won’t tell you how the story ends but suffice it to say it is darkly comical.

On the whole the stories play with various flappers and only one story really toys with the idea of a philosopher and that is “Head and Shoulders.” It is the story of a philosophical prodigy who falls in love with a stage girl. I found it hilarious that he named his studying chairs Hume and Berkley and that relationship that drives the story begins with the female protagonist (and in a sense, antagonist) sitting in Hume. That is comical because the whole story is one of strange causation that end in the perceived role reversal. It’s ending too is darkly comical. I found myself laugh in public with earbuds on.

The third I feel deserves a whole other post so I will continue then .

Misérables Without Christ

I very rarely decry my public school education. I value the experiences it gave me, the lessons it taught me and the affection it showed me: and all that for free. But as I have grown more and more into the adult world, I am amazed at just how much it left out in leaving out God. And while it is true that I was never persecuted for my faith (as current public school students are beginning to be) it is an unfortunate fact that God was never invited to the party. Much of my post-compulsory education has been the gradual realization that God is indeed everywhere, even academically. Every great thinker spoke on Him, either to search for Him, embrace Him or deny Him. It is only our current age that chooses to ignore Him entirely.

The latest example in my own pilgrim’s progress has been the reading of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables . Growing up a theatre kid, I was well acquainted with the characters, the plot and the themes of Les Mis. I have heard the songs, seen the play and reflected on the show many times. Yet, even when enjoying the haunting Castle of Cosette or the On My Own of Eponine, it always seemed like there was something substantial missing from the stage rendition. The music made it emotional, the backdrop of the French Revolution made it epic, but still something was lacking. It felt like they had left out some important character or neglected some important plot point in the story arc. I cannot explain precisely why I felt this way: I only know that I had this sneaking suspicion that something significant had been abridged from the tale. When I read the novel recently, I found out that all of my suspicions were true. The Broadway version does indeed leave out an event, a character, a plot point and a moral. The politically correct script writers left out God.

Hugo’s original version is not the epic-melodrama that Americans are familiar with. It was, rather, an epic story of conversion. With chapters entitled things like “Christus nos liberavit” and a whole section of the book dedication to the Bishop of D— who grants absolution to Jean Valjean, Les Mis reads more like St. Augustine’s Confessions than it does The Phantom of the Opera, that other famous French melodrama. Yet, because of the watered down Broadway musical version, most people associate it with the latter rather than the former.

Here are just a few things I have learned:

1) The Bishop of D—, only a minor character in the musical, is actually a major character at the outset of the book. He is presented at the perfect, saintly Christian. Nearly 10% of the story is written with him as the guiding figure. When he dies, Jean Valjean goes into mourning much to the scandal of the town.

2) Jean Valjean is a devout Catholic. He attends Mass every Sunday and every funeral during the week. He employs nuns in his house. He prays for extended periods. In fact, when Fantine is rescued by him, she immediately falls for him because of his sanctity and prayer.

3) Christ is often referenced as the only true solution to “the miserableness.” Hugo returns again and again to the efficacy of the Gospel and Christian charity as the best and brightest hope for the poor.

4) In contrast, a character’s distance from the Christ usually works to indicate their level of enmity toward the heroes. For example, when Fantine is ratted out by a town gossip, Hugo goes out of his way to point out that this spinster was the widow of an apostate monk. He makes certain the his audience associates her distance from the church with her scheming and trouble making.

5) As any fan of the play would tell you, forgiveness and redemption are recurring themes in the plot. However, in Hugo’s original version, it is a specifically Christian forgiveness. Characters often frame their reconciliation with each other within the larger frame of their reconciliation with God. And before anyone argues that this is due to the cultural context, remember well that Christian reconciliation was NOT one of the priorities of Enlightenment-Era French society. Rather than imitating any popular movement of the time, Hugo was in fact making certain the both his contemporaries and all future readers should be surprised by the mention of Christ’s forgiving love.

Now that I have read the original Christ-inclusive version of Les Misérables , it has quickly become one of my favorite books. It’s wisdom and wit concerning institutionalized injustice and the plight of the poor is as valuable today as it was a century-and-a-half ago. Hugo’s point is clear: until men learn to love each other as God intended (and with the help of his grace), poverty will continue to be a blight upon our race, overshadowing all our supposed “progress” and “revolution.” As he said so well in his short Preface to the novel;

“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny…books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

Wonderland, Neverland or Oz?

It was with great trepidation that I first entered the blogging world some 4 years ago. I know what a risk it is to publish your work, to put your thoughts naked before the crowd on the blogosphere. The readers are usually either in a very distracted or very critical frame of mind. Knowing this, I wrote with fear and trembling on a subject about which I had the greatest confidence: the nature of fantasy. Namely, I compared the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Twilight.

Having grown in greater confidence, I now wish to try a similar experiment. I am in the middle of reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and it has lead to me wonder about Wonderland, Neverland, Oz and the like. To be honest, I have always enjoyed Peter Pan the most of all. Maybe it is because Oz and Wonderland are lacking a boyish hero. And pirates. And flying ships. And Indians. I do know that, as a child, I was never truly frightened of Captain Hook. I was, however, put out by both the Wicked Witch of the West and the Queen of Hearts. Perhaps there could be some Freudian explanation for the thing: that I had a strange aversion/attraction to loud and intimidating women while I felt psychologically neutral toward handicap males. Maybe its just that queens and witches are often disagreeable, whereas pirates always are, which is what makes them more reliable. As Capt. Jack Sparrow so eloquently put it; “Me! I’m dishonest, and you can always count on a dishonest man to be dishonest.” An evil male character is consistently ruthless. An evil female is fickle. You can form a consistent strategy against the male, whereas with the Wicked Witch and the Red Queen, you have to constantly be thinking on your feet.

Back to the experiment: I am curious about which of these fantasy world’s appealed to you most. Before taking your vote, however, I wish to remind my audience of the control, the dependant and the independent variables. First off, these three stories share these similarities: they were written by Victorian-era English-speaking intellectuals of the highest capabilities in order to entertain children born into that most progressive, stuffy and dingy era. In other words, their common trait is that all three tales seem encourage a young listener to rebel and escape against an overly constricting environment using a mixture of classical wisdom and modern imagination. The differences, as far as I can tell, are as follows:

1) In Wonderland, a child’s common sense and imagination prevail over nonsense and authoritarianism.

2) In Neverland, a child’s faithfulness and sense of adventure defeat lawless discipline (symbolized by the oxymoronic Pirate Captain).

3) In Oz, a child’s maturity into the classical virtues of Temperance (Tin Man) Wisdom (Scarecrow) and Courage (Lion) overcomes the tyranny of both the Witch and the Wizard.

So which story do you relate to most? Feel free to post your answer. If you don’t, however, do not fret. The purpose of this experiment, much like the purpose of the three books above, is to awaken your imagination. Getting you to respond isn’t nearly as important as getting you to ponder.

“Fran-ces-co! Fran-ces-co!” (Or, Our World Upside Down)

In his famous biography of St. Francis of Assisi, GKC’s on-going metaphor is that the founder of the mendicants was more like the virtuoso of an artistic movement than the father of a religious order. His central image is that of Francis coming out the cave after receiving the Stigmata like an artist looking at the world upside down. So striking was this visual that Mumford & Son’s decided to write a song about it. So striking was St. Francis’ “artistic vision” that pilgrims, provinces, peoples and now Popes are righting wrongs according to it.

And indeed, with the election of Pope Francis, it has felt like our world has turn upside down. The Catholic Church, which one week ago was the object of annoyance to the every-man and a subject of scorn in the press, is now led by the “freshest,” “simplest” and “warmest” of individuals. He asked Rome to pray over him. He spurs limos and greets parishioners at the door. He holds “story-time” in Paul VI Auditorium. He laughs at slightest provocation. He leaves flowers at side altars like “a pilgrim among pilgrims.” And all this before he has even been installed as Bishop of Rome. The media (for the time being) has had nothing but nice things to say, even going out of their way to exonerate him from accusations that he was complacent during the Dirty War. News reporters smile confidently talking about the “Franciscan Reform” that has already begun. In short, Catholics went from being troglodytes to trendy all thanks to their new Pope. It matters not however long or short lived this perception in the press will last. All media perceptions are short lived in the grand scheme of things. I merely wish to highlight the contrast from how things were just seven days ago.

I would like to get back to St. Francis & Chesterton, though, because there is another part of this story that you will not find in newspapers or on TV. The press, for all their virtues, is ignoring the most profound part of Francis’ papacy just as they always misunderstand the most profound heart of St. Francis of Assisi. For Francis did not “rebuild the Church” so as to appeal to the public forum. In fact, GKC dwells on this story in his biography because he believes that it is the key to understanding why St. Francis did what he did. When the son of Assisi rebuilt the church there, it angered the public forum greatly. Far from popularizing his cause, the outcry of the people almost ended it prematurely. Then, as legend has it, Francis stripped before the crowd, wrapped himself in the bishop’s cope and claimed to belong entirely to the Church. St. Francis never saw himself as some outside reformer sent to rebuild the Church. He pictured himself in the very heart of the Church, surrounded by its splendor and apostolic tradition, yet simple and naked underneath it all. He saw himself as a faithful son doing chores for his Heavenly Father. I am certain that, regardless of public opinion, this is exactly how our new Pope Francis sees himself as well.

This is why I am excited: Francis sees himself as our brother. I chant his name, “Fran-ces-co,” as if I were calling on a sibling. The Franciscans took the name “friar” from the Latin “Fray” for “brother” or “frater.” The Franciscans were the first fraternity. They were the first “bros.” Their strength came from inclusion and cohesion, not outside manipulation. When Pope Francis reforms the Curia (as he most certainly will) it will not be because it has become too fraternal. It is because, with its careerism & constriction  the Curia has not been fraternal enough. He will trim and prune the branches of our Church, both at the Vatican and the Church’s other cities, according to the truer fraternity that he referenced in his opening address last week. From the porch of St. Peter’s, our new Pope has called for a return to brotherly love. Rome is now a “philadelpia.” Perhaps all Christians might start calling each other “brother” and “sister” upon Papal authority, the way Franciscans titled Brother Moon and Sister Sky on the authority of their founder. In any event, Pope Francis has inaugurated a new era in our Catholic Faith. What that new era will look like particularly is still anybody’s guess. But, in general, it should be obvious that our new Pope has not come so much as to divide as to unite. He has seen that the rich comfortable Church, too close to the world and too intimidated by its voices, was a Church upside down. In calling for a poor, simple, fraternal Church, he has flipped us right-side up again.

In Defense of Womanizers

For Sarah, who heard this first many years ago…
There is a conversation that I have too often to leave it hanging alone in the air without putting it down on paper. Or computer screen. Or webpage. Or whatever. It involves the question of womanizers & their honesty. It is a subject that women have often asked me about because they assume that 1) I am not a womanizer 2) as a theologian, I should be somewhat an expert on morality. Now, in actuality, I do not speak in either capacity. It is true that I am not a womanizer and that I am also a theologian. But my chastity and intelligence have nothing to do with the answer that follows. The fact of the matter is that the women in question have always accused womanizers of the same charge: of insincerity. Now, from all the womanizing characters I’ve read about in literature and among all the womanizing characters that I know in real life, I can honestly say that they are honest. That is to say, womanizers tend to be the most sincere of men. When a womanizer tells Kelly that she is the most beautiful girl in the world on Monday, he means it most honestly. On Tuesday, when he proclaims that Courtney is the love of his life, he couldn’t be more sincere in that moment. And when on Wednesday he texts Michelle to tell her she is too gorgeous for words, he means exactly what he says. Womanizers are, in a certain sense, the most sincere of men. They possess the virtue of sincerity in its pure state, free from the complications of fidelity, courage, wisdom or patience.
One of the best examples of what I mean can be seen the characters of Tolstoy, especially Vronsky in Anna Karenina and Prince Anatol in War and Peace. Though very different men in career and personality, both find themselves in entirely sincere illicit relationships. Anatol, the far more incorrigible of the two, even has a whole monologue in which he justifies his ill-intentioned elopement with Natasha out of the sincere sport of the thing. He reasons that his aesthetic passions are honest enough. He truly likes Natasha as a flirtatious toy. He can’t help thinking about how much she truly arouses him sexually and emotionally. It is precisely because she has this effect on him that he feels justified planning to elope with her one day and then abandon her at the next convenient opportunity. After all, such a simple and delicate beauty demands to be ravishingly enjoyed…and then discarded. And while Vronsky isn’t nearly as pre-meditated in his estrangement from Anna, he knows full well, going into his affair with her, that their union is a tentative one at best. Still, he feels that he can do this in all sincerity because Anna is so very enticing.
Now, I use these two literary examples to prove a point. These men were not written as the shallow mustache twirling villains used to fill soap operas. They are complex characters created by the master of the romantic epic. Tolstoy made these men as true-to-life as possible. Women be forewarned: how Anatol and Vronsky think is how womanizers actually think. Tolstoy’s psychology is impeccable. A man who wishes to take advantage of a woman truly believes in her beauty. He cares little for her feelings. He thinks little for her honor or for the promises she has made to herself and others. But he knows that she is beautiful and he is fully confident in his ability to sincerely express these feelings of attraction.
His fault lies not in a lack of honesty or sincerity. It lies in a lack of courage and commitment. It is easy for a guy to buy a beautiful girl dinner, a drink or a flower on a single evening. The real test comes when he must decide whether or not to be there for every dinner, to buy her every drink, and to buy her a whole garden full of flowers by way of the house they will share. In short, only an act of commitment, true and faithful commitment, can reveal a man’s value. He might profess to recognize a woman’s value right away. He is probably telling the truth. But when it comes time to put his money where his mouth is, to commit in the flesh to what his words have professed, that is when you discover if he is the man to reveal your beauty to you day after day for the rest of your life.

The Exponential Power of Vocation (or, An Exegesis on Matthew 28)

What follows is a section of exegesis taken from a book that I am writing on Vocation Formation & Discernment. It discusses the nature of the Church’s vocation in light of the Ascension. Its brief enough to act as a momentary diversion.

Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

Notice three things:
1. This verse represents a vocation, a calling, a commissioning by Our Lord. It is an imperative AND a gift, an order and a grace.

2. Jesus associates all the power that He has with the communion of the Trinity. This is the only time in Matthew’s gospel that Christ explicitly mentions His place in the Threefold Godhead. It’s not because he was shy about. Its because He was saving the best for last. It’s because the Trinity’s own communication is the most powerful thing he can offer to his disciples! Christ is saying, “All power has been given to me. And from among all those powers, the one that is most important, the one that I give to you, is the power of Gods own communio personarum” Talk about setting priorities.

3. This power is meant for all “the nations,” a phrase that was the Jewish code word for Jews and Gentiles alike. In other words, this gift of the Trinity’s own unity, this love and prayer power that the disciples are given is meant to bring the Jews together with all those Gentile nations that had always given them so much trouble (the Egyptians, Babylonians, Philistines, Greeks, Romans, etc.) so that everybody in the world can have the opportunity to worship the one true God. That’s a mighty tall order and Jesus doesn’t give the disciples a clue as to how they’re going to get that power out there! After all, after finishing these words, He quite literally flies away.

If Adam awoke in the garden of Eden with his vocation lying right next to him, the Church awakes at the ascension to an even more stupendous vocation flying off into the sky. The surprise and shock of all this is caught up in the fact that our vocation is NOT about our selves and what we have to do. It isn’t even concerned just with the other! When Adam knew Eve, they begot Cain and Abel, who end up apart. When Jesus was fully known by his disciples, He left them standing on a mountaintop with the challenge of bringing two brothers together. Our communio is never simply between two parties because love can never be limited. It grows exponentially. Just as the communio of God overflows into creation, so also the communio of husband an wife overflows into their children, just as the love of Father and Son spirated another Divine person, the Holy Spirit, so also does our prayer and discernment necessarily extended beyond whatever limitations are imposed on it. We know not how this works, but we rest certain that it does work in this way because the very foundation of our Christianity, the sacrament and communio of baptism, overflows into the nations. And wherever unexplained exponential growth is involved, there is mystery. The reason why God doesn’t bother trying to get the details of our vocation into our heads is because vocation is never about trying to fit everything into yourself. It’s about abundance and rush and overflow and generosity. When God doesn’t respond when we ask Him to tell us directly about our vocations, it’s not because He doesn’t like telling us things. It’s not even because He doesn’t like telling us things directly. It’s because our vocation is not about us. His Eternal silence on this matter is the loudest reminder that vocation is about gift, that callings are about communio. His message is that, at the heart of the matter and at the center of God, is the strange and terrible mystery of the Other. And we must never objectify the Other by trying to fit him into our own pre-conceived notions about what vocation should be. If the the vocation given at the Ascension indicates anything, its that the sky’s the limit.