Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 6

We are on vacation, so I've scheduled the novena to post until Saturday. I'm still praying it, even on the road, but this way I don't have to type it up while traveling.

Come, then, my beloved souls, let us run and fly to that love which calls us. Why are we waiting? Let us set out at once, lose ourselves in the very heart of God and become intoxicated with his love. Let us snatch from his heart the key to all the treasures of heaven and then start out right away on the road to heaven. There is no need to fear that anything will be locked against us. Our key will open every door. There is no room we cannot enter. We can make ourselves free of the garden, the cellar and the vineyard. If we want to explore the countryside, no one will hinder us. We can come and go, enter and leave anyplace we want to because we have the key of David (Rev. 3:7), the key of knowledge (Luke 11:52), the key of the abyss (Rev. 9:1), in which are all the hidden treasures of the divine wisdom (Wis. 8:14). It is this key which opens the doors of mystical death and its sacred darkness. By it we can enter the deepest dungeons and emerge safe and sound. It gives us entrance into that blessed spot where the light of knowledge shines and the bridegroom takes his noonday rest (Song of Songs 1:7). There we quickly learn how to win his kiss (Song of Songs 1:1) and ascend with confidence the steps of the nuptial couch and learn there the secrets of love -- divine secrets which must not be revealed and which no human tongue can describe.
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Riding Shotgun

Heading out across country today in the name of education: we're going eclipse-viewing, like most of the country. We're going to spend long hours in the car with teens, tweens, youngsters, and a newborn. I expect to spend a good portion of the drive holding Shotgun Court.

Don't blow up the internet while we're gone, please.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 5

A pure heart and perfect abandonment bring us all the treasures of grace. 

If we wish to enjoy an abundance of blessings we have only one thing to do: purify our hearts by emptying them of all desire for creating things and surrender ourselves wholly to God. By doing this we shall get all we want. Let others, Lord, ask you for all sorts of gifts. Let them increase their prayers and entreaties. But I, my Lord, ask for one thing only and have only a single prayer -- give me a pure heart! How happy we are if our hearts are pure! Through the ardor of our faith we see God as he is. We see him in everything and at every moment working within and around us. And in all things we are both his subject and his instrument. He guides us everywhere and leads us to everything. Very often we do not think about it, but he thinks for us. It is enough that we have desired what is happening to us and must happen to us by his will. He understands our readiness. We are bewildered and seek to find this desire within ourselves, but we cannot. He, though, sees it very clearly. How silly we are! Surely we know what a well-disposed heart is: one where God is found. He sees all the good intentions there and consequently knows that this heart will always be submissive to his will. He is also aware that we do not know what is useful for us, so he makes it his business to give it to us. He cares nothing about thwarting us. If we are going eastward, he makes us turn to the west. If we are about to run onto the rocks, he takes the helm and brings us into port. We have neither map nor compass, know nothing of winds or tides, yet we always make a prosperous voyage. If pirates try to board us, and unexpected gust of wind sweeps us beyond their reach. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8. 
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 4

Everyone is called to enjoy the infinite benefits of this state. 
This is why I preach self-abandonment and not any particular way of life. I love whatever is the state in which your grace places souls and have no liking for one more than another. I teach all souls a general method by which they can attain that state you have designed for them. I ask of them nothing but an eagerness to abandon themselves completely to your guidance, for you will lead them very surely to what is best for them. It is faith I preach to them: abandonment, confidence and faith. They must long to be subject to and the tool of God's action, believe that at every moment and through all things this action is at work for them according to the measure of their good will. This is the faith I preach. It is not a special state of faith and pure love, but a general one by which all souls can find God in whatever guise he assumes and can take that form which his grace has ready for them. I am speaking to all kinds of souls. My deepest instinct is to belong to everyone, to proclaim to all the secret of the Gospel, and to be "all things to all men" (I Cor. 9:22). 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 7.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Nazis: Left or Right?

Self described Nazis are, sadly, in the news at the moment. When people who actively identify as neo-Nazis (or their close kin among white supremacists who don't quite want to own that title) make the news, there's a sort of guilt by association blame game that goes on. Commentators on the left make sure to identify neo-Nazis as "right wing" and thus suggest that this means that the neo-Nazis have simply taken the beliefs of the Christian Coalition or the Chamber of Commerce to their logical conclusion. Then someone on the right inevitably replies, "Ah, but the Nazis were actually a party of the left. After all, it was called 'National Socialism'." Since knowing that Nazi was a shorthand for "Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei" (National Socialist German Workers Party) is already displaying more knowledge about them than the average bear, this tends to cause conversation to trail off. Is this a fair claim, however? Were the Nazis a party of the left or the right?

As is so often the case with historical questions, the answer is a bit complicated. I recently read Ian Kershaw's massive two volume biography of Hitler, which goes into a lot of detail not only about the dictator's personal history but the development of his party. Since I think the more detailed history of the rise of the Nazis is interesting not just as a matter of past events but in order to understand how it might (and might now) serve in analyzing current events, I'll provide a quick overview here. If you want the more detailed version, I definitely recommend Kershaw.

Often, you hear people say that they wish we had more options than the two tired old parties. Germany between the wars had a huge number of options, and understanding how they related to one another can be difficult for modern Americans.

The true Left in German politics was split between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which had been the largest party during the initial formation of the Weimar Republic after Germany's defeat in World War One and which continued to be one of the major parties throughout the inter-war period, and the Communist Party (KPD) which was aligned with the Soviet Union. These two parties did not get along. In the immediate aftermath of World War One, communists had staged violent revolutions and tried to institute soviet style people's republics in several cities around Germany. With the help of the army and of paramilitary nationalist militias, the new government of the republic, whose president from 1919-1925 was SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, put down these communist uprisings after brutal fighting that at times saw machine guns and artillery being used in city streets. The relations between the communists and socialists did not improve, as Moscow directed its satellite parties not to align with "social fascists" as they labeled the social democrats. (Shortly after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Stalin would come to regret this approach and instead encouraged communist parties to form "popular front" coalitions with other left wing parties and then try to co-opt the coalitions from the inside.)

The socialists and communists came in second and third respectively to the Nazis in the July 1932 German federal election.

The political center was inhabited by the Catholic Centre Party, a sort of Catholic unity party which dated back to efforts under the German Empire to fight back against Bismark's Kulturkampf. The Centre party supported specifically Catholic concerns such as protecting the existence of religious schools and seeking a concordat between the German Republican and the Vatican, but also was one of the parties most committed to the stable government of the republic. In this regard, it allied often with the Social Democrats and the German Democratic Party (a secular centrist party which in a sign of how badly things were trending had nearly faded from existence by the 1932 election.) It supported paying off the reparations imposed in the Versailles Treaty and Germany continuing on as a republic (rather than reverting to a monarchy or authoritarian state as the more extreme right desired or undergoing a people's revolution as the communists advocated.)

The largest party of the German right was the German National People's Party. This party drew support from large land owners and industrialists, but also a broad array of nationalists and those with pan-German sentiments. It opposed paying the reparations in the Versailles treaty. Significant factions opposed the Republic as a whole and wanted a return of the German monarchy. The party also had a significant anti-Semitic element. Jews were, from its foundation in 1918, forbidden from joining that party.

So how did the Nazi party fit into the mix of parties?

When first formed in 1919-1920, the Nazi Party combined the anti-Semitism and German nationalism of the right with anti-business and pro-welfare state policies of the left. It also opposed both the democratic state that Germany currently had, but also the old monarchy, supporting instead a new authoritarian form of government. As time went on, some of the anti-business elements of the Nazi platform were downplayed or converted into anti-Semitic rhetoric, as Hitler consistently identified banking and big big business with Jews. Thus, the Nazi party did combine elements of ideology from the German interwar Left and Right.

However, when we look at where the Nazis drew their electoral support in their sudden rise to popularity from 1928 to 1932, we see that parties of the left (Socialists and Communists) lost 11% of their voters to the Nazis. The Center parties (Catholic Centre, Bavarian People's Party, German State Party, and German Democratic Party) lost 22% of their voters to the Nazis. Small and regional parties (of which there were many) lost 45% of their voters to the Nazis. While the parties of the right (German National People's Party, German People's Party, Reich Party of the German Middle Class, and Christian-National Peasants' and Farmers' Party) lost a whopping 78% of their voters to the Nazis over those four years.

So were the Nazis a party of the right? In the context of the Weimar Republic, yes. However, it's important when saying that to realize how different the Weimar Republic's political spectrum war from our own. It ranged from communists who favored a violent revolution to establish a worker's state to nationalists who favored overthrowing the republic and replacing it with a monarchy or dictatorship. Our political spectrum in the modern United States is arguably not much wider than the spectrum of views within the Center parties of the Weimar Republic.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Novena for Order, Day 3

I thought today's first reading was apt for the novena.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
"Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by."
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
(1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a)
The point of abandonment to Divine Providence is not that the earthquakes and the storms and the fire will not come. They will come, and they shake and damage and terrify. But God is not in them.

God does come accompanied by signs and wonders. Moses finds the burning bush a remarkable sight, and later on the mountain of the Lord, God's presence is accompanied by smoke, thunder, lightning, and loud blasts. But Moses doesn't interact with the bush. The voice of God is much more personal: cajoling, soothing, commanding, revealing his name. On the mountain of the Lord, when Moses asks to see God's glory, God tucks him safely away in the darkness of a cleft in the rock, sheltering Moses with the divine hand so that he may not die. God speaks in the silence of our hearts, and if there is nothing in our hearts but the earthquake and the storm and the fire, his voice may not be heard.

"The LORD says to you: Do not fear or be dismayed at the sight of this vast multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s. ...You will not have to fight in this encounter. Take your places, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD". (2 Chron. 20:15,17)

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely, by Thomas Aquinas

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 2

Sometimes we live in God and sometimes God lives in us. These are very different states. When God lives in us, we should abandon ourselves completely to him, but when we live in him, we have to take care to employ every possible means to achieve a complete surrender to him. These mean are clear enough: courses of reading, self-analysis, regular examination of our progress -- everything is done by rule. Even the hours for conversation are fixed, and a spiritual director is always available. But when God lives in us, we have nothing to help us beyond what he gives us moment by moment. Nothing else is provided and no road is marked out. We are like a child who can be led about wherever one wishes and who is ignorant of everything except what is put in front of it. We are given no books with carefully marked passages, and very often we have no regular director, for God leaves us without any support except himself. We are abandoned and live in darkness. We are forgotten. Death and nothingness are our portion. We are aware of our needs and of our wretchedness, but we do not know from where or if any help will come. Meanwhile we do not worry and we wait quietly for someone to come and help us, and we keep our thoughts fixed on heaven. 
God sees nothing better in us that this total resignation of ourselves, and he himself provides us with books, gives us insight into our souls, together with advice and examples from the lives of the good and wise. Other people have great difficulty in discovering spiritual truths, but we, who have given ourselves to God, have no trouble. These others hold on to their spiritual discoveries, keep coming back and brooding over them, but we in whom God lives seize what each moment brings and then forget it, eager only to be alert to respond to God and live for him alone. They who live in God perform countless good works for his glory, but those in whom God lives are often flung into a corner like a useless bit of broken pottery. There they lie, forsaken by everyone, but yet enjoying God's very real and active love and knowing they have to do nothing but stay in his hands and be used as he wishes. Often they have no idea how they will be used, but he knows. The world thinks them useless and it seems as if they are. Yet is quite certain that by various means and through hidden channels they pour out spiritual help on people who are often quite unaware of it and of whom they themselves never think. For those who have surrendered themselves completely to God, all they are and do has power. Their lives are sermons. They are apostles. God gives a special force to all they say and do, even to their silence, their tranquillity and their detachment, which, quite unknown to them, profoundly influences other people. They themselves are influenced by others who by grace unknowingly benefit them; and in turn, they are used to guide and support other people who have no direct connection with them. God works through them by unexpected and hidden impulses. In this respect, they are like Jesus, who produced a secret healing power. The difference between him and them is that they are often unaware of this discharge of power and so do not co-operate with it. It is like a hidden scent which gives off its sweetness unknowingly and is quite ignorant of its strength. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 1
Paul, six weeks old today, has not yet developed the ability to anticipate. One reason I have to watch him constantly is that he has no way to defend himself against the loving predations of his brother. The baby doesn't know to protect his head or cry out when he sees the three-year-old approaching. Even when he does get whapped, he doesn't see it coming in advance to worry about, and, if I comfort him quickly enough, he doesn't remember the pain past the moment he was hit. Although he doesn't know it, he is abandoned to my will. Not totally, of course -- he knows when he is hungry or when his diaper is uncomfortable, and his instincts lead him to anticipate being fed whenever something brushes his cheek. But he is the quintessential innocent child of the gospels, completely trusting, yet unaware that he trusts. He has no idea of the harms he's sheltered from, or the good that is coming to him. All his needs are provided for, past his expectations of comfort and safety and full tummy. Most of what I provide him he can't see, and won't understand until he's older, perhaps not even until he has a child himself.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely

Friday, August 11, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 1

The school year is getting ready to begin, so it's time for a novena.

I've prayed a Novena for Order on and off since 2009. I love the prayer for ordering a life wisely by Thomas Aquinas, and I'll post it here and link back to it each day. This year, I'm going to post excerpts from Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751). Say the prayer with me, or read the excerpt, or use the posts as a reminder for your own devotion, but pray with me.

(Chapter 2, 12) The marvels of God's activity which delight us when we read about them only serve to make us bored with the small happenings around us. Yet it is these trivialities, as we consider them, which would do marvels for us if only we did not despise them. We are so stupid! We are astonished by and glorify God's activities when we read about them, yet when he wishes to continue writing about them on our hearts we become restive and prevent him from doing so by our curiosity to see what he is doing in and around us. Forgive me, divine Love, for I am setting down here those faults which are mine, and I cannot yet understand how to let you act freely on me. I have not yet myself been cast in the mold designed for me. I have visited all your studios and admired all your creations, but I have not yet become abandoned enough to accept the strokes of your brush. Yet I have found in you a beloved master, a teacher, a father and a most dear friend. I will be your disciple and go to no other school that yours. Like the prodigal son, I will come home hungry for your bread. I will abandon all ideas and books about spiritual matters and have nothing to do with them unless they work together with your will. All I want to do is love you and devote myself to the duties of each moment, and so allow you to act on me as you wish.

I cannot yet understand how to let you act freely on me. This is my meditation for the day.

For Ordering a Life Wisely
St. Thomas Aquinas

O merciful God, grant that I may
desire ardently,
search prudently,
recognize truly,
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in good order, O my God

Grant that I may know
what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me
the power to accomplish your will,
as is necessary and fitting
for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times
of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former,
nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything
unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything
unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one,
nor fear to displease anyone,
but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord,
be worthless to me
and may all things eternal
be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You
be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else
besides You.

May all work, O Lord
delight me when done for Your sake.
and may all repose not centered in You
be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures
I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,

patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me
fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
and -- without hypocrisy --
strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God,
a watchful heart,
which no capricious thought
can lure away from You.

Give to me,
a noble heart,
which no unworthy desire can debase.

Give to me
a resolute heart,
which no evil intention can divert.

Give to me
a stalwart heart,
which no tribulation can overcome.

Give to me
a temperate heart,
which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me, O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.

that with Your hardships
I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits
I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys
I may delight by glorifying You
in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Who live and reign,
God, world without end.


translation by Robert Anderson and Johann Moser
from The Aquinas Prayer Book

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

That Old, Royal Road of our Fathers

(9) The present moment is an ever-flowing source of holiness. 
Are we thirsty? Then we have not far to go to find the fountain of living water. It bubbles up near us at every moment. How foolish it is to tire ourselves by searching for tiny rivulets which can never quench our thirst. Only the fountain can satisfy us. It is inexhaustible. Do you want to think, write and live like prophets, apostles and saints? Then you must surrender, as they did, to the inspirations of God. 
O unknown Love! It would seem that all your wonders are over and done with and that there is nothing left to do but copy your old works and repeat your utterances of the past. We do not see that your activity can ever be exhausted and that it is an endless source of fresh thoughts, new sufferings, new deeds, a source of new patriarchs, prophets, apostles and saints who have no need to copy anything written and done before their time but simply spend their lives in continual abandonment of themselves to your hidden guidance. We are always hearing of "the early centuries" and "the days of the saints." What a way to speak! Surely we must realize that in every age including this one, God's will works through every moment, making each one holy and giving it a supernatural quality. Cn we imagine that in the days of old there was a secret method of abandoning oneself to the divine will that is now out of date? And had the saints of those early times any other secret apart from that of obeying God's will from moment to moment? And will not God continue until the end of the world to pour out his grace upon all the souls who utterly abandon themselves to him?  
O adorable Love, eternal, ever fruitful and ever marvelous! You give me all the knowledge and learning I need. You embrace all I think, say, do and suffer. I shall not become what you want me to be by studying your earlier works, but only by welcoming you in all things. By following that old, royal road of our fathers, I shall be enlightened and shall think and speak as they did. That is the way I want to imitate, quote and copy all of them. 
--Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Too often it seem like when I'm engaged in some important work, or spiritual practice, or just trying to get through my daily life, some trial or obstacle is dropped in the middle of my path. And I get frustrated and feel like I've been wronged. I was doing so well until this thing came along! Why can't I just get anything done? And I miss the point -- the goal is not that I should have an unbroken path to success in my projects or my daily routine. The goal is that I do the will of God at each moment, which means accepting the trial or roadblock as God's will for that moment. It's true that things need to get done, but I don't have a God-given right to do things the easiest way possible, or the way I think would be best. What I see as a nuisance or an actively destructive situation is God's will for me at that moment, and my only path to holiness.

How I deal with that may vary. The problem I face may demand that I adjust my own will, that I accept the roadblock, that I confront an injustice, that I take a stand, that I embrace suffering, that I turn in some new direction. The only thing I may not do is sin.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Venn Diagram Ideology

The last presidential election has left a lot of Catholics in America doing some self examination on where, if anywhere, they fit within American electoral politics. One particularly strong trend (in the small pond which constitutes online Catholicism) has been towards seeking a new "whole life" coalition which splits off protection of the unborn from its traditional place over the last thirty years within Republican Party politics, and seeks to instead join anti-abortion politics with other issues such as universal health care, environmentalism, and a higher minimum wage or universal basic income. This sort of approach is more congenial for people who, fifty years ago, would have felt themselves a good fit with the Democratic Party (which once upon a time drew much of its support from Catholic immigrant communities), but in recent decades have felt forced to support the GOP because of the abortion issue.

However, the argument made in favor of this blending of issues is not just that its supporters would prefer to a center-left party that was pro-life, the argument is rather that you can't be truly "pro-life" (as opposed to "pro-birth") unless you support a number of other issues which are conducive to the overall thriving of the vulnerable among us. This fits with one of the buzzwords of the moment: intersectionality. While the term is used a lot, there seems to be some disagreement as to its meaning. Perhaps that's because the meaning is still evolving. However, here are the two basic explanations of intersectionality that I've found:

1) "Your oppression is connected to my oppression." In this view there is an overall "system" which oppresses many different victim groups: women, homosexuals, immigrants, etc. Since the same overall system is oppressing all of them, it makes sense for them to bend together to fight back against the system.

2) Another formulation looks at the ways that different types of bias overlap and reinforce. By this view, someone who is a Black trans-woman is triply oppressed, because there are three forms of bias against them: racism, sexism, and anti-trans bias. However, these biases are not simply additive. The person suffering oppression because of these three factors experiences oppression which is more than the sum of the parts because the prejudices are reinforcing. Thus, to help this person it's necessary to fight against all these prejudices simultaneously. Fighting against just one would not relieve the problem much.

(As you can see from the example, intersectionality is a phenomenon of the left.)

When it comes to getting people mobilized to advocate on specific political causes, whether this approach is useful depends a lot on what the patterns of agreement are. Looking at the above examples which I drew from explanations of intersectionality that I found, it might well be that within the wider left there are a lot of people who are passionate about one of the issues mentioned (say fighting racism) but also quietly in agreement on advocating against what they see as sexism and trans-phobia. In that case, telling those people that these issues are all connected and that they need to advocate for all of them is probably going to be effective.

However, that effectiveness relies entirely on the fact that those people happen to agree with all the issues listed. And that's the issue faced by people who want to take a intersectional approach to fighting abortion. Rightly or wrongly, issues like environmentalism and universal health care primarily live on the political left in American politics, while issues like restricting abortion live on the political right. This means that if you insist that a truly pro-life advocacy must combine all these issues, you'll only get the small group of people who already agree on all of them. Throw even more issues into the mix (universal basic income, religious freedom, traditional marriage) and you're only going to narrow the potential support even further. Because most people don't hold this particular group of views, rather than activating people who already basically agree with you but aren't loud about some of the issues, you're telling a lot of people who agree with you on one issue (abortion) that they can take a hike if they don't agree with you on all the others.

It would be wise for pro-life groups to focus tightly on their mission of fighting abortion and not allow themselves to get sucked into supporting a broader Republican agenda, because that too will end up making some people who oppose abortion less likely to support those groups. However, I don't think it's wise for the pro-life movement as a whole to adopt a sort of Venn Diagram ideology in which only those who agree on a wide range of topics are considered "truly pro-life". It's entirely healthy to have a wide variety of pro-life viewpoints. Feminists For Life is already a well known group. Many have also heard of Atheists For Life. Why not have Social Democrats For Life or Greens For Life? But what is not a good idea is to spend lots of energy attacking other pro-life groups as "not truly pro-life" because they don't hold a set collection of view on issues other than abortion. Given the wide distribution of views on other issues among people who agree on wanting to reduce abortion, any attempt at intersectionality in the pro-life movement will end up being exclusionary rather than coalition building.

Monday, August 07, 2017

This Book of Life

(5) God continues to write his work in our hearts, but the characters will not be seen until the day of judgment. 

...We are now living in a time of faith. The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel of the Holy Spirit. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and our actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel; but it will never be read until that last day of glory when it leaves the printing press of this life. 
And what a splendid book it will be - the book the Holy Spirit is still writing! The book is on press and never a day passes when type is not set, ink applied and pages pulled. But we remain in the light of faith. The paper is blacker than the ink and the type is pied; the language is not of this world and we understand nothing. We shall be able to read it only in heaven. We could understand something of the complexity of God's activity if we could see our fellow humans not just as they appear superficially but in their very essence and see, too, how God is working on and within them. Yet there are difficulties. How can we read this book when its letters are unknown, of infinite variety and upside down, and its pages smeared with ink? Just think what an infinite number of different and worthwhile books are produced by the mixing up of twenty-six letters. We cannot understand this wonder, so how can we comprehend what God is doing in the universe? How can we read and understand so vast a book, one in which every single letter has its own special meaning and, within its tiny shape, contains the most profound mysteries? We can neither see nor feel these mysteries. Only by faith can they be known.  
And it is by their origin that faith judges how true and good they are, for in themselves these mysteries are so obscure that our mere reason can understand nothing of them.
So teach me, Holy Spirit, to read in this book of life! I long to become your disciple and, like a little child, to believe in what I cannot see. It is enough for me that my master speaks. He talks and explains, arranges the letters of the book and makes it comprehensible. That is all I need. I am convinced that everything is just as he says, although I cannot see why. But I know he is truth itself and he says nothing but the truth. He puts letters together to make a word, assembles more to form another. There are perhaps only three or six. But they are exactly right. Any different number would make nonsense. After all, he alone knows the thoughts of men, and so he alone can put them into words. Everything is significant and everything makes perfect sense. A line ends because he wants it to. There is not a single comma missing, or one full stop too many. Although I believe now, when the day of glory dawns the secrets of so many mysteries will be shown during my earthly life. What now seems to me so confused, so incoherent, so foolish and so fanciful will then delight and entrance me by its order, its beauty, its wisdom and the incomprehensible wonders I shall explore for all eternity. 
--Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
This is a lovely little book that I borrowed from my brother's shelf last week. It is imperative for my spiritual life that I always have a devotional book going lest I grow weary. As some need the rosary, I need words and images to direct my prayers and meditations. "Drug of choice" jokes are cliché, but I really do see a change in the structure and quality of my spiritual life when I leave off reading, or when I'm between books and haven't settled on the next thing. "Know thyself" -- myself must read, or perish.

Abandonment to Divine Providence is a word in season. The measure of a devotional book is whether it takes root past the moment of reading to bear fruit in the moment of action. This book, this week, has turned me away many times from unproductive or actively sinful courses of thought and redirected me toward Jesus.

(3) Every moment is crammed with infinite riches which are given us according to the extent of our faith and love.
 Once we can grasp that each moment contains some sign of the will of God, we shall find in it all we can possibly desire, for there is nothing more reasonable, more excellent, more holy that his will. Can any variations of time, place or circumstance add anything to its infinite value? If you are taught the secret of finding its presence in every moment of our lives, then you possess all that is most precious and supremely worthwhile. What is it that you want - those of you seeking perfection? Give your desires free reign, setting absolutely no limits, no boundaries to them. Listen to me: let your hearts demand the infinite, for I can tell you how to fill them. There is never one moment in which I cannot show you how to find whatever you can desire. The present moment is always overflowing with immeasurable riches, far more than you are able to hold. Your faith will measure it out to you: as you believe, so you will receive. Love, too, is also a measure. The more you love the more you will want and the more you will get. Every moment the will of God is stretched out before us like a vast ocean which the desires of our hearts can never empty, but more and more of it will be ours as our souls grow in in faith in trust and in love. The entire universe cannot fill and satisfy our hearts, for they are greater than all apart from God. Mountains which overawe us are but tiny grains to our hearts. We must draw upon that will veiled and hidden beneath every little detail of our lives and shall find there a fullness, an amplitude infinitely more vast than all our longings. Fawn upon on one and have no illusions. They can do nothing for us. The will of God alone can satisfy us. That is what we must adore and drive direct toward it, casting aside all superficialities. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Becoming Flesh

Some days I think it's preposterous to call myself a writer any more, as the one thing I'm not doing is writing. I compose all the time -- snippets of posts, sentences that I polish up and down, descriptions, analysis, repartee, little lapidary phrases. I arrange my days in words. But those words live in my head. They gestate and are never born. No one interacts with them, interprets them, lets them come to fruition in their own minds. 

This is the opposite of the Rhapsodic Theater championed by Karol Wojytła, later to be Pope John Paul II. In the rhapsodic style, a problem is posed through the spoken word, and that spoken word takes root in the hearer's heart and starts him or her meditating on a solution along with the actors. It's a theatrical version of God's own creative powers: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

None of my words are becoming flesh, but I've been co-creating in other ways, of course. Writing may be comparable to labor, but it's not actually anything like; giving birth is sui generis for pain and reward. It also consumes all other forms of creativity. At first I was sustaining life in my body. Now I'm sustaining life with my body, dispensing milk every hour or two to a grunting, squishy infant. 

(Here I pause to nurse.)

 I wrote about William's birth three days afterwards, because I needed to put it into words to process it. I haven't written about Paul's birth three weeks afterwards, because I haven't needed to. If art is born from suffering, this was a lot less artistic than last time.

For twenty-four hours before birth, I'd been having mild contractions on and off, nothing strong enough or close enough to count on. I was definitely miserable. At one point on Saturday afternoon, I laid my head on the table and told my older daughters, "Girls, if you're ever tempted to have sex before marriage, remember this day." They nodded solemnly, though I can't say whether that was because they were impressed or because Mom was just being weird and needed to be humored. 

At 3:15, I thought I'd try to lay down during a contraction. Then I thought I wouldn't lay down. Then, as I was struggling painfully to sit up, or change position, or something, my water broke. "That's it for the water," I said somewhat incoherently to Darwin, who was reading a book in bed. Ten minutes later we were out the door, headed for the hospital. When my water breaks, I'm on the clock -- 90 minutes left.

And may I never ride in a car in labor again. Amen.

We'd never actually been in the hospital before, so we had to ask the lady at the desk where Labor and Delivery was. 

"Is she in labor?" the lady asked.

Understand that I was bent over, gasping, twisting, clutching Darwin's arm. I was in about the same state at the check-in desk up in L&D, except by now I was crying. The lady at that desk was unfazed after she'd ascertained that I didn't have to push.

Fortunately the nurses, who are not worried about the prospect of catching a sudden baby, were all attention and kindness. I was admitted at 4:00 at 6 cm. ("Only 6?" I groaned.) 

"Will you want an epidural?" the nurse asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Probably not. Maybe. I don't know."

"Okay, we'll just see," she said. 

There were plenty of distractions with the monitoring and the IV -- how I hate an IV! But the contractions were getting worse, and I was running out of strategies. I'd gone from my timing stand-by of an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and Glory Be to simply talking myself through them. Somewhere I'd read that a laboring mother should tell herself that she is strong, so I tried it. "I'm strong," I whispered. "I'm strong, I'm strong, I'M STRONG." That lasted for two contractions. I tried piety. "I am weak, but he is strong." That too was discarded. Finally I was reduced to, "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay..."

And then, as I was up on my tiptoes riding it out, the pressure changed, and it was time to push. I looked at the clock -- 4:40 -- and told myself, "Done by 5. Done by 5." At this point, you don't just say a thing and be done with it. You go on saying it and saying it until you're knocked out of the groove and have to say something else instead.

I hate pushing. You can't ever tell where you are. You think that the baby must surely be out, because how can it get any worse, and they tell you, "Oh, look, there's his head! Just one more push!" And how can he not be out? My coping strategy here, on my hands and knees in a hospital bed, was sheer protest. "I don't want to have a baby!" I insisted. "I don't want to have a baby!"

These are the strange things one says under extreme duress, even as one knows how ridiculous it sounds. I mean, I wanted the baby. I just didn't want to have the baby. And I knew it was silly as I was saying it, and I said it anyway because it was the only thing I had any power over at the moment. Darwin tells me that I threw up on him, but I don't remember that. All I remember is stupidly protesting against this labor, and then the door opened and the doctor and everyone finally arrived at the very moment I pushed the baby out. 4:47.

And then it was done! That's what I said: "I'm done!" And "I'm not pregnant anymore!" And someone maneuvered me off the drenched pad and put a dry one underneath, and someone helped me lay down without pulling the cord (the feeling of the cord between your legs is the weirdest thing), and someone handed me a warm, wet, slithery, purple baby. And I was done! And there was a baby boy! And I wasn't pregnant anymore!

The nurses were very sweet and said I'd been so strong, so I guess people say odder things in labor, and they got us all set up in a room, and Darwin brought me tacos. Overall, the hospital experience was a good one, and I have to give lots of credit to all the nurses and doctors. You guys are great! Keep being awesome! Sure, even in the hospital I was fashioning a narrative, this eventual post, but by and by I left off, content to lay in bed with baby and watch the second hand of the clock tick by. 

I spent the next week in bed feeling pretty good, and the next week not in bed feeling not so good, but young Paul is pretty fine. We've been feeling around for the right nickname for him, since Paul doesn't sound like a baby name to me -- probably because it's my dear father's name. So baby has been Polliwog, and Wog, and Pog, and sometimes Podge (P. Hodge, you know), but mostly we've called him William. He doesn't seem to mind. He is loved, and held, and warm and safe unless the real William tries to squeeze his head. He nurses on one side until he falls off, and then he can't latch on again, so he must be burped and fed on the other side. He's not of those babies who saves up his poop for a week -- after almost every feeding thar he blows, and sometimes while he's on the changing table all opened up, too. His hair is dark and velvety, and his cheeks are filling out. He grunts most amiably. His gaze is vague and milky, but he turns his head to hear Daddy. He is only fussy when he wants to eat, which is much of the time.

I've gone from feeling like a supermodel because I have ankles again, to sighing because my stomach sits on my lap -- no, really! My stomach can actually sit on my lap if it's not held in. The human body is odder than advertised, and the shape of a three-week-postpartum woman has nothing to do with anything you've ever seen in a movie or photo. Sometimes I wish we had more honest images of people, but to be honest, I don't even want to see my own stomach sitting on my lap, nor my soft upper arms, nor my developing double chin. I hope all these things will eventually be ameliorated as I lose baby weight. Am I contributing to the problematic public image of the mostly glossy human body? I want to be real, but I want to leave the house in something other than the black sweatpants I've worn for three weeks. 

I also want to write, but a new baby demands all the time, even when you have a house full of people to love him and squeeze him and call him William. At night I'm tired and want to lay down. During the day I'm distracted and slow, and when I have free time I have to think about things like schoolwork and vacations and the confirmation class I'm teaching this year and what is that on the floor and who's going to unload this dishwasher and can we not leave the fridge open? When I sit down to write the words come slowly, as if I've forgotten how this works. When I stand up, my hips move slowly, as if they've forgotten how they work. Every part of me is learning a new way of moving. For now I'm listening to the sounds of my rusty gears turning, and his brand new bottom rumbling. We're quite the symphony.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2 Chapter 3-3

This concludes Chapter 3. Sorry to be a bit slow about it, but baby arrived the day after I posted the last installment, and somehow even with time off work the first couple weeks after a baby's arrival are not ideal writing time.

Chapter 4 will return to Jozef with the Austro-Hungarian cavalry.

Near Trzeszczany, Galicia. June 22nd, 1915. At normal times, with one surgeon handing off responsibility to another, the transition would have been accomplished away from the nurses’ view, between the two men. These were not normal times, and so Doctor Kalyagin arrived in the middle of the morning routine, escorted by Lieutenant Popov. The two men stood awkwardly in the middle of the ward as the nurses moved from bed to bed, checking dressings and temperatures. The orderlies carried away bedpans and dirty dressings. The housekeeping sisters brought food and changed sheets.

The doctor cut a rather unmilitary appearance next to the infantry lieutenant. His uniform tunic was clearly standard issue rather than the more expensive tailored versions most of the regimental officers wore. Its loose fit only served to accentuate a stomach which bulged above his belt. A rather thin mustache gave no military bearing to his broad, round face, which was boyish in its smoothness, though a receding hairline suggested he was no longer young.

Natalie broke off from her tasks and approached the two men.

“Doctor? We’re very glad to have you here.”

He started to extent a hand, as he would have to a colleague, then stopped himself, withdrew it, and gave a bow instead. Lieutenant Popov made introductions.

“I understand that you’ve been working without a surgeon for several weeks now,” Doctor Kalyagin said. “That must have been difficult.”

“It has. Particularly yesterday, when the fighting became heavy and we received a lot of casualties. There are some cases you’ll want to examine for surgery as soon as you’re settled. The most we could do was trim, stitch, and bandage.”

“Trim and stitch? Who was doing making incisions and performing sutures without a surgeon?”

Perhaps it was reasonable enough that the doctor would be against nurses going beyond their training, but she would at least make sure that any consequences were not unfairly focused on Sister Gorka, who had only been obeying her orders.

“We had casualties pouring in and no idea that we would have a doctor so soon. I gave directions that the minimum be done -- cutting away ruined tissue and suturing wounds before bandaging -- so that the patients would be able to survive the train journey to a regional hospital and receive better care. None of us have any desire to go beyond our training now that you are here.”

She met his gaze and held it. It had been the right thing to do. If he couldn’t see that, well, put that aside. He would have to see it.

He nodded. “Of course. Well, now that the hospital is staffed again, our first priority will be to set procedures and abide by them.”

“Yes, sir.” He was right, of course, but the words stung like a rebuke.

The flatness of her tone brought Doctor Kalyagin up short. He licked his lips. “With no trained staff, I can acknowledge that having nurses perform simple surgeries was the course most likely to save the most lives. Now, perhaps you can take me round the wards?”

The other two nurses joined them as Natalie guided Doctor Kalyagin through the stately rooms which they had so rapidly turned into a hospital. The two operating tables. The gas rings with their kettles for boiling instruments. There were no beds or cots -- the hospital’s had been abandoned along with the patients when they were forced to evacuate their previous field hospital on mere minutes of notice -- but the patients were laid out in neat rows on army blankets.

They finished back where they had started in the main ward. Doctor Kalyagin faced his three nurses, knowing they were waiting for some words -- about their work, about his plans for the hospital. It was these human moments which were so much more complicated than an operation. The clear necessities of saving lives and repairing bodies, works of skill and science, were more rational than the vicissitudes of human interaction.

[continue reading]

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Paul Post

Friends, we are alive and we are well, and we are consumed by baby. And since baby consumes so much of our time (literally, he consumes me much of the time), we are not writing so much. But we are taking pictures. Here, have some photos.

Paul is suspicious of the world and does not generally open his eyes. You might not either, if you were soft and small as a dolly, and your three-year-old brother longed to beat you about the head.

Big brother is suffering from a bit of sibling jealousy. He doesn't want to be a baby himself, but he doesn't know how to be gentle. This is what happens when you've been the youngest in a big family: you play up, not down. Also, he's totally nuts.

Last Sunday Paul was baptized, and so is no longer a little heathen child.

He put off the old man...

...and put on the new.

He was much happier as the old man.

Soon, we will start writing again. Darwin is still plugging away at his novel, and saw Dunkirk this week, so that's two posts. One day I'll write up a birth story. (You can tell everything went well because I haven't had to process it by writing about it.) But right now, while we're still relearning how to pack a diaper bag (that's true), it's baby all the time. And I can't imagine a better way to be.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Catholic Literature and the "Trying To Say God" Conference

It's been several weeks and one baby since we sent the kids off to stay with Grandma, piled into the car with my real-novelist sister, and drove out to Notre Dame to attend the Trying to Say God conference on Catholic literature. MrsDarwin and I have each already written posts inspired by one particular panel (on Jane Austen's heroines and on Women's writing), but there was a lot more to the conference than just that one panel. It was a full schedule and MrsD and I made it to 13 talks and panels as well as an amazing concert of sacred music by the Notre Dame Vocale.

We also had a chance to catch up with people we hadn't seen in some time (including Elizabeth Duffy, Eve Tushnet, and several members of the Korrectiv) and to meet people we'd known online but never met in person before, such as John Farrell and Leticia Adams. I was also excited to meet and get a chance to talk several times with novelist Tim Powers, whose books I've long enjoyed. Eating and drinking and talking with a wide variety of other people interested in both writing and Catholicism was a really enjoyable experience. Writing is a very solitary process, and even at a conference you're still only talking about writing and about reading which is not at all the same thing as actually writing, but it is still a wonderful experience to spend some time with at least some overlapping interests and experiences.

It's hard to cover such a wide ranging three days, so I'm going to give it my best shot by writing a post in several sections, which I hope will capture something of the nature of the conference.


If I can get you to read one book based on my experiences at the conference, it's Suzanne Wolfe's novel Confessions of X. It's a novel about St. Augustine's concubine, the woman he lived with for seventeen years, had a son with, and was heartbroken to leave (initially to seek a marriage to a woman of high social standing) not long before his conversion to Christianity. Augustine does not give her name in Confessions, and Ms. Wolfe maintains that anonymity in this lushly stylistic first-person novel. We attended a session in which she read two excerpts from the book and talked about her process of writing it. I proceeded to buy a copy and MrsDarwin and I both read it with great enjoyment. I plan to write a full post with a review and excerpt later, but really, it's good. Tolle lege.

Frustratingly, another book which I heard a reading of, Randy Boyagoda's forthcoming novel Original Prin, is not yet out. The selection he read was clever and well-written. I'll be keeping an eye out for it when it does release, but in the meantime I ordered a copy of his debut novel Governor of the Northern Province, in which an African warlord retires to small town Canada. (I haven't had the opportunity to read it yet, so I can't tell you more than that I bought it and enjoyed the selections of his next novel.

Mary Karr gave a very good long distance keynote, which made me curious to read her memoirs Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit.

Heather King also gave an outstanding keynote address about writing as a vocation. I read her first two memoirs Parched and Redeemed. They're both outstanding, honestly written books.

Finally, one of the big draws for me was getting to meet Tim Powers. He writes fantasy novels in which the supernatural bubbles below our world's surface and breaks through in surprising ways. To my mind, his best two (the ones which I brought my copies of to have signed) are Last Call, which mingles the Fisher King and archetypes summoned up by tarot cards with Bugsy Siegel and Las Vegas, and Declare which deals with Djinn, cold war espionage, the Middle East, and the murky history of Cold War turncoat Kim Philby. Tim Powers' style is best summed up by something he said in his talk about Catholicism and the Rules of Fantasy: [roughly paraphrasing from memory and notes] Sometimes people ask him why he doesn't write a realistic novel, but if he wrote an ordinary novel about, say, a kid growing up in Brooklyn, by the third chapter the kid would be getting telephone calls from his dead grandfather. It just comes up.

Why Are We Here?

One of the things that struck me over the course of the conference is the variety of reasons that people found the question of Catholic literature interesting:

Will a Catholic magazine or publisher want to print what I write or will they think it's too edgy?
Will a mainstream press want to publish my work, or will they think it's too religious?
Who are the good Catholic writers out there today?
What does it even mean to be a Catholic writer?
How should I, as a Catholic, write?

Some of these various strands came together in an interesting way in the Future of Catholic Publishing, where a couple of professionals who'd spend many years in Catholic publishing had to tell a room full of would be fiction and memoir writers: You need to understand that where we make money by selling hundreds of thousands of copies every years is putting out catechesis texts used by parishes all over the country. The next highest selling type of book is popular apologetics/theology books by writers like Matthew Kelly.

This latter name lead to some groans. I haven't read any Matthew Kelly and can't speak to whether he is groan-inducing. But I think what was pretty clear was that a lot of those present would have preferred Catholic publishers to be more committed to putting out fiction and soul-baring memoir. The latter does sell to some extent, apparently, but when it comes to sales volume, the more pat conversion stories often sell better than the grittier ones. It would have been interesting to hear from someone at Ignatius Press who deals with their fiction, since to my knowledge they're one of the few Catholic publishers who are actually publishing fiction (even some new fiction) at this time. Maybe at some future conference. However, it's also important to realize that a lot what what we now talk about as Catholic Literature in fact came out from mainstream presses. Which leads to the question...

What is Catholic Literature Anyway?

You would think that as someone who's just attended a Catholic Literature conference, I should be pretty clear on what Catholic Literature is, but I think in many ways that was the underlying (and at times explicit) question throughout the conference, and it's a surprisingly difficult one. Is Catholic literature:

- Literature written by Catholics
- Literature about Catholics (but perhaps not by Catholics -- for instance, Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man For All Seasons, is an atheist)
- Literature which evokes Catholic themes

For those of us who are Catholic, who think about choices in terms of Catholic morality, who share basic common experiences of lived Catholicism such as trying to operate cheerfully and energetically with others while fasting on Good Friday, it's natural to sometimes want to write about characters who share some of our experiences. And why not? Characters have to be from somewhere and they have to believe something. And yet at the most basic level, some mainstream publishers don't want to see that set of experiences or that vocabulary in books they publish. Perhaps they think it's boring, perhaps it has associations in there minds with painful or oppressive experiences. But Catholic writers do at times get told to that there's too much Catholic content in their books. Randy Boyagoda talked about this in relation to his upcoming novel. After two moderately successful mainstream novels, his latest involves a character who is much like him in some ways: A Canadian college professor who is Catholic, though in this case one who recommits himself to his faith after a bout with cancer. Boyagoda talked about how his editor told him that this book "wasn't commercial" like his other two. This didn't mean going with a Catholic publisher. (Again, most of those don't do fiction.) Instead he ended up with a small, independent press where an atheist editor nonetheless saw what was interesting in the character story that Boyagoda was telling.

Perhaps similarly, I was a bit surprised that Confessions of X was published under Harper Collins' Christian imprint, Thomas Nelson. Yes, the novel tells the story of a woman we know of 1600 years later because she lived with a revered Christian saint. To the extent that Augustine, his Christian mother St. Monica, and Augustine's struggles with religious ideas drive some of the plot events, it's a story that involves Christian characters and events. But the main character herself is pagan, and her relationship with Christianity and its God is somewhat ambivalent -- perhaps unsurprisingly given the way in which her life suffers collateral damage from Augustine's. Why isn't this just a mainstream historical fiction novel? The Rome of Late Antiquity is a historical place and time. Augustine is a real historical character. It's not as if this were some kind of "I became Christian and then everything became easy and good" narrative with a heavy handed lesson. But apparently, while Harper Collins though the book would sell (and thus put it out) they thought it would primarily make it with a niche Christian audience and so published it under their Christian imprint.

So from some sort of externally imposed perspective, there's a "Catholic literature" which consists of novels which have too much Catholic content. But is that all Catholic literature is?

I think clearly not, and people had various ideas of what beyond that Catholic literature might be. And yet, these ideas were often more implicit than openly discussed. In the talk “Trying to Say ‘God’ without Sounding like Marilynne Robinson”, Randy Boyagoda talked about how religion is sometimes rendered "safe" for the mainstream by putting it in a sufficiently 'other' time and place. Thus, Robinson's reader can to some degree think of the religion portrayed in her 1950s Iowa is a product of its place and time and need not seem threatening to the reader.

In the "cupcake" panel, the panelists talked about ways they would like to see the experience of women in the Church discussed other than what they perceived as the predominant style of narrative.

Other panels talked more straightforwardly about specific Catholic books, or the experiences of certain kinds of Catholic writers and artists.

I think at some level, a key point people would have to figure out is whether Catholic Literature consists of:

- Books which attempt to actively convey the the truths of Catholicism
- Books which are written with the underlying low key assumption that Catholicism is true
- Books which accurately observe the struggles of Catholics (and others) without

My first instinct is to recoil against the first of these, but I had an interesting conversation with a good friend who writes mainstream YA for a secular publisher, in which she mentioned that one of the interesting things about being "under cover" as it were in circles populated by progressive, secular YA authors is that they actually spend a fair among of time quite openly talking amongst themselves about how best to convey the lessons which they think young readers need to learn. She said that while some of the results are preachy, others are quite well written and effective.

Should Catholic writers, at times, be thinking on similar lines?

I don't think there needs to be a single answer to these questions. One of the things which struck me reading Anne Applebaum's history of Eastern Europe, Iron Curtain over the last few weeks is that quite literally totalitarian insistence of 1940s and 1950s communist governments (radiating out from Stalin's own beliefs) that there was a single acceptable style of socialist painting, a single acceptable style of socialist novel, etc. The Soviets most definitely believed that culture was political, and so they believed that as there was only one party which supported the workers, there was also only one form of art and culture which did likewise.

Catholicism, however, is not totalitarian. There is not only one way to produce art as a Catholic any more than there is only one way to be political as a Catholic.

Nonetheless, even as there are many ways to create Catholic literature, I think it's probably valuable to try to be more explicit in what we individually mean by Catholic literature when we talk about how and where and why to create it.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference. There were a wide range of voices there. I have no idea if I'll be able to attend when they next hold one (in 2019 in Toronto, CA) but it was an interesting experience and if it works out I'd be happy to be able to go to another. Hopefully, by 2019, I too can be talking about my "forthcoming novel" rather than just tapping away at my drafts.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Women Writing Right

Back when I was 18 and first brought Darwin home to visit my family, my younger sister asked me, "Does he like you because you're pretty or because you're smart?"

"Because I'm smart," I said.

She thought about it for a minute and said, "No, that's not it."

Aside from being a cute anecdote, this story points to... well, nothing, actually. Perhaps I'm particularly insensitive, or particularly privileged, or particularly well-adjusted, or (probably) a combo of the three, but it strikes me that there has to be at least one woman, somewhere, who doesn't feel perpetual angst about her body and her place in the world, and I'm content to be that dull person.

Doubtless a good portion of this is due to the crucial lifetime influence of my excellent, excellent father, which is where the privilege comes in. But really, all the men in my life, from father to brothers to husband to father-in-law to friends have been models of civility and respect. Any flak, or prescriptivism, or pressure I've ever had about The One Right Way to Woman has come from other women.

(Nota bene: I realize that this is not everyone's experience, and that many women have had atrocious experiences with men. But if everyone's story ought to be heard, I don't think that mine is of less value than anyone else's.)


One of the talks at the Trying to Say God Conference was called "Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women's Writing".  Now, perhaps I came in on the defensive because a homeschooling mother of seven sounds like precisely the kind of woman targeted by a provocative title such as "Liturgical Cupcake" (even though I don't craft a custom image to go at the top of each blog post). And indeed, the term "conventional fertility" was used rather disparagingly, sigh, as if we have these children merely to show up everybody else. If so, it's a damned inconvenient way to make a point -- but more on that later.

Darwin has already written up the Jane Austen exchange, a small but revealing moment that encapsulated a lot of the talk for me. (For a less dismissive assessment of Austen, try The Paris Review.) There were many honest and moving moments, with some women struggling with aspects of the Church, such as patriarchy, that other women found comforting and revelatory. Everyone's story was unique. And yet I felt that there was an essential sameness to most (not all) of the panelists. There are a lot of interesting Catholic women out there, who could not be described as liturgical cupcakes, who don't need to take antagonism with the Church as an essential starting place. Names that come immediately to mind are Leah Libresco Sargeant, Elizabeth Duffy, Susan Windley-Daoust, Amy Welborn, Jennifer Fitz, Erin Arlinghaus... Or, to pull from the ranks of the almost canonized, Bl. Elisabeth Leseur, a French woman who died just before the outbreak of WWI, writes eloquently of the spiritual life in the midst of physical and social suffering.

I've chosen women whose writing I enjoy in part because their minds work much like mine -- and because they (and I) seem to fall in space in between aggressive feminism and more traditional feminine devotional writing. Women who can be interesting without being angry do exist. Women who can write as individuals, not as models. Women whose bodies are neither baggage nor occasions of sin nor wonderlands. Women who can hold to the Golden Mean even while writing about modesty. Women who can be intellectual without being reactionary.


I took notes, though as I tend to write notes as a response and reflection to content rather than a straight transcription, they might be incomprehensible.

*Why Ann Voskamp? Because her gooey scribings have a very large following, which means that the "liturgical cupcake" approach has a great deal of appeal to a great deal of women. Voskamp is a New York Times bestseller, with her devotionals and her journals and her "no cheap cynicism" and graced moments of wonder (TM). People crave what she's selling -- a kind of beauty and order and loveliness. It's not men sneaking out and buying this stuff by the cartful, and following her Instagram account, and liking her Facebook page. She's offering something women (or most women, anyway) want. And so are many others writing in the same vein.

How, then, do we bridge the gap between the aesthetic packaging of this saccharine style of devotional writing and the more edgy, earthy approach of the unsweetened non-cupcakes? If all women have a secret woundedness that this more toothy style of women's writing is addressing, how do these authors reach out to and draw in the women drawn to this more saccharine approach? It's a big audience out there.

I asked the question (you can hear me at 51:27), and received the answer: we don't. We don't appeal to these women, because they have their own stuff, and they can come to us when they want something more authentic. This blunt answer was eerily similar to a recent First Things post about a conference on intersectionality (also lauded in the panel):
At the end there was a question and answer period. I asked whether and how Collins would suggest that intersectionality engage with its adversaries, the ­hated conservatives. Given the polarization of ­America right now, did she see some way for the two camps to communicate or find common ground? The vehemence of her answer was startling. “No,” she said. “You cannot bring these two worlds together. You must be oppositional. You must fight. For me, it’s a line in the sand.” This was at once jarring and clarifying.
I don't feel this is an adequate answer. Jesus loves these women too. Their souls matter as much as the souls of the enlightened, progressive, openly wounded women. If liturgical cupcakery is deficient as a way of writing about the spiritual life, then does the new standard of writing for Catholic women need to be more evangelistic in approach, and perhaps a nip less self-congratulatory?

(Leticia Adams's response about why Voskamp's style of prettiness and order may appeal to people was quite good, though -- because many people feel that if they do things just right, if everything looks good, then maybe they can keep bad things from happening to them.)

*Gina Dalfonzo recently wrote a book called One by One, about how churches can reach out to single people who want to live faithful lives. Although her book isn't about Catholic churches, I felt that the viewpoint it represents wasn't particularly well-represented in the panel. I turned to Eve Tushnet, sitting next to me, and said that I'd have loved to have heard her on the panel. What were her thoughts as a celibate Catholic woman? "Nuns," she said -- a viewpoint that was not represented as a model of how Catholic womanhood and writing can transcend cherchez les hommes.


Throughout the talk, I wondered if the new standard to which Catholic Women's Writing was being held was any less restrictive than the old one, whatever that is. Edginess and Pain has replaced Mommy Blogging, but if you don't prefer to be either edgy and painful or to write about the The Three Graces I Obtained In The Grocery Aisle, what is there? Can women, even boring women who have a lot of kids, write about ideas, or just life? Is it necessary to prove our woman bona fides by talking about our clitoris and our orgasms and our vaginas, as some panelists seemed to think was a biological imperative?

Oddly enough, the combination of these very things, and my conventional fertility (and also a man, but no one seemed to think there needed to be more Catholic men talking about penises) meant that I was 38 weeks pregnant during the conference, hobbling around with my grossly swollen stomach and grossly swollen ankles.

...And I thought, when I first started writing this post, that I would go on to write up Paul's birth here, but actually, he deserves his own post, separate from liturgical cupcakes and Ann Voskamp and female sexuality. But I will tell one story here. As I was pushing the baby out (of my frickin' vagina, natch), I was meditating on what this panel had taught me about Catholic womanhood and the way our bodies shape our spirituality and.... Bull. What I actually did during the (mercifully brief) time I spent pushing was to wail repeatedly, "I don't want to have a baby!"

And I meant it. And then a moment later I held a squirming, bawling baby, and I didn't mean it. Because pain makes us say odd things, things we kinda but don't really mean. Or things we really mean in the moment, but would repent later. (For the record, I love babies. I just hate the having of them.) It causes us to do weird things in an attempt to find a moment of relief. We do things we don't even remember. (Darwin tells me I threw up on him while I was pushing, of which I have absolutely no recollection.)

Writing the truth about pain, or fear, or brokenness is valid because the human experience encompasses these states. Writing about our bodies is valid because every human life is shaped by the body and its glories and its limitations. But these aren't the only ways to write, even for Catholic women, and they're not even always the most interesting ways to write. It's okay to just write about a topic unrelated to sex (or not-sex) or relationship (or not-relationship). It's okay to be a woman and write without referencing being a woman. The category of womanhood is bigger than any one box, even once all the liturgical cupcakes have been consumed.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The William Report

(or, Why No Posts, Darwins?)

Especially now that the Novena of Paul has been completed, I have wanted to sit down and write up how everything went down (spoiler alert: everything went well, we made it to the hospital, baby is great). I forgot, however, to factor in the amount of time that one needs to spend just looking at a newborn. And what did not enter my calculations was the level of policing we'd need to do with a 3.5yo fellow who is suddenly not the baby anymore.

3.5 is a hard age. You now have the ability to get into all the mischief that you'd just dreamed of earlier, and people keep stopping you. And this makes you angry, especially when no one will let you pet the soft new baby, or hug him, or hit him over the head with a throw pillow, or grab him by the neck. So you move to the next thing, which is the fridge. And when you're pulled out of the fridge, you find the jar of peanut butter. When you're wiped off, you get into the origami paper...

Today I have:

-- scolded William for turning the kitchen faucet on and off and on and off.

-- chased him away from the sprayer.

-- physically guided him in picking up the shorts he threw out of the drawer and refused to replace.

-- removed him from the freezer.

-- tried to persuade him to pee in the potty.

-- pulled his hand out of the toilet.

-- pulled his hand out of his pants.

-- pulled a melted popsicle from its hiding place in the basket in the corner of the laundry room.

-- comforted older siblings after the destruction of a three-quarters-completed 1000-piece puzzle.

-- taken the stabby pencil from William.

-- picked up all the diapers pulled out of the diaper bag.

-- wiped melted popsicle off the dining room floor.

-- wiped grubby feet.

(I pass over what happened yesterday when William broke the Harry Potter wand his sister had so meticulously crafted.)

While nursing, I:

-- fended off William as he tried to head-butt the baby.

-- fended off William as he tried to spit on the baby.

-- cuddled a sobbing William after he'd received a smart tap on the cheek for the above.

-- pulled William's hand out of my shirt, because big boys don't need to nurse like babies.

I've also spent about half my day feeding the ravening maw of the newborn (when he finally realizes that I can't nurse him through his hand).

However, it's not all sibling frustration! Behold, the Four Younger Skeletons of Hodge:

Doesn't that 3.5yo look cherubic?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Lydia Wickham, Feminist Icon?

One of the more incongruous moments of my attendance at the Trying To Say God conference on Catholic Literature was sitting in on a panel entitled “Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women’s Writing”. I didn't necessarily expect to like the panel, but MrsDarwin was going to support a friend who was among the panelists, and I had nowhere else to be.

It was a wide ranging discussion, some parts of which were quite interesting, but one exchange that particularly struck me (in part because I was nervously looking to see if the nine-months-pregnant MrsDarwin would swarm over the desks with a cry of "Fight Me!") went as follows:
"We're talking about a woman's story. And if you a look at the tradition of women writing for women, there's a very narrow space in which you're allowed to tell stories. And, you all know what the basic story is: She needs a man. Is she going to find one? Oh, he's so mean! Oh, but he's nice! We live happily ever after. That's her story."

"I love Jane Austen!"


"Yeah, I teach Jane Austen every year, and I see what she's doing and I appreciate it, but there are so many more stories out there. Think about all the women in Austen novels whose stories don't get told because they're not pretty, because they're not sweet, because they haven't inspire men of greatness, because they made bad decisions. I want to hear Lydia's story."

It's not the first time that I'd heard Lydia highlighted as the true interesting woman in Pride & Prejudice. There was, after all, the Lydia Bennett as sex-positive heroine take that was going around a few years ago.

This one, however, seems particularly odd. If the problem with novels written by women for women is that they focus too much on the search for a man, one would think that Lydia, who is the devoted man-chaser among the Bennett sisters, would be worse as a main character than Elizabeth, who turns down several proposals during the course of the story and is an altogether more self-sufficient person.

Lydia is a problem for her family not because she rejects a worldview in which marriage is a woman's key personal and economic goal, but because she goes about pursing this goal in a manner which is simultaneously impetuous and incompetent and thus calculated to cause the maximum suffering to those who love her and herself. It's often pointed out that for a woman in regency society, making a good marriage provided the same kind of purpose and security as entering into a solid career in the modern world. If we were to take the analogy literally and imagine modern Bennett girls being confronted with the idolization of making it in business, Lydia is not the unworldly one who refuses to climb the corporate ladder, she's the dumb one who runs off to unknowingly get mixed up in pushing a pyramid scheme that's likely to both ruin her finances and land her in jail.

Austen wrote in a different cultural context than ours. While some of her modern fans may like her because they think of her stories as romances about a simpler time when women focused on home and family, Austen was in no sense writing about the conflict between that sort of view of women and a more independent one. Marriages are key in Austen's novels, but that's in great part because marriage was very key to stability and happiness in the time, place, and social class about which she wrote. Austen's one main character who declares herself uninterested in marriage is Emma Woodhouse, and the reason she gives is that her situation as the mistress of her father's house is such that she has no social or economic reason to do so.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Young Master Darwin Arrives

Seven is a pretty good number. Seven beatitudes. Seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Seven sacraments. The seventh Darwin child is also pretty great, bearing the name Paul Timothy. He was born on Saturday at 4:47 PM and just came home about this time yesterday.

MrsDarwin is doing well, and so is baby, though we hope that his insistence on keeping his eyes closed only indicates tiredness after the hard work of being born and is not an indication that disillusion with the world has set in at such a tender age.

Dueling and the Church

Today marks the 213th anniversary of the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, made additionally famous by the hit musical Hamilton. Neither participant was Catholic, and the Catholic Church had little voice in the United States of 1804, but seeing mentions of it reminded me of a quirky area of research which I'd been meaning to write about for some time: the Church's long and often futile efforts to stamp out the practice of dueling.

Dueling, formalized private combat between two people to settle some dispute of law or honor, had deep roots in the Germanic and then Medieval culture in Europe, and the Church spoke out against it early and often. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists the Church's opposition as follows:

St. Avitus (d. 518) made an earnest protest against the law of the above-mentioned Gundobald, as is related by Agobard (d. 840), who in a special work on the subject points out the opposition between the law of Gundobald and the clemency of the Gospel; God might very easily permit the defeat of the innocent. The popes also at an early date took a stand against duelling. In a letter to Charles the Bald, Nicolas I (858-67) condemned the duel (monomachia) as a tempting of God. In the same century his example was followed by Stephen VI, later by Alexander II and Alexander III, Celestine III, Innocent III and Innocent IV, Julius II, and many others. In addition to the judicial, non-judicial combats also occurred, in which men arbitrarily settled private grudges or sought to revenge themselves. The tournaments, especially, were often used to satisfy revenge; on account of this misuse the Church early issued ordinances against the excesses committed at tournaments, although these were not always obeyed. The more the judicial combat fell into disuse, the more the old instinct of the Germanic and Gallic peoples, by which each man sought to gain his rights with weapon in hand, showed itself in personal contests and at tournaments. From the middle of the fifteenth century duelling over questions of honour increased so greatly, especially in the Romanic countries, that the Council of Trent was obliged to enact the severest penalties against it. It decreed that "the detestable custom of duelling which the Devil had originated, in order to bring about at the same time the ruin of the soul and the violent death of the body, shall be entirely uprooted from Christian soil" (Sess XXIV, De reform, c. xix).

Nonetheless, the practice of dueling remained common in areas such as Germany, Poland, Austria, and Hungary into the early modern era. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII considered the practice still prevalent enough that he wrote Pastoralis Officii, an encyclical to the bishops of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires reiterating the Church's opposition to dueling, which he stated as follows:
Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do so in self defense. Those, moreover, who provoke a private combat or accept one when challenged, deliberately and unnecessarily intend to take a life or at least wound an adversary. Furthermore, divine law prohibits anyone from risking his life rashly, exposing himself to grave and evident danger when not constrained by duty or generous charity. In the very nature of the duel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. There can be, therefore, no obscurity or doubt in anyone's mind that those who engage in battle privately and singly take upon themselves a double guilt, that of another's destruction and the deliberate risk of their own lives. Finally, there is hardly any pestilence more deadly to the discipline of civil society and perversive to the just order of the state than that license be given to citizens to defend their own rights privately and singly and avenge their honor which they believe has been violated.
In this encyclical he specifically mention that being a member of the military did not exempt one from the ban on dueling, and also cited dueling fraternities at universities for condemnation. Both of these were particular problems in the German speaking world at the time.

In Austria-Hungary, dueling was technically a capital crime, however there was a gaping loophole in the law in that the emperor and the army expected any officer to defend his honor if challenged. This meant that in practice if an officer was challenged to a duel and declined to fight, he could be expelled from the army for failing to protect his honor.

Even theoretical opposition to dueling was punishable in the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1900 Polish Count Ledochowski, a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, spoke and wrote about his moral opposition to dueling and as a result was expelled from the army as someone unwilling to defend his honor. Ledochowski, whose uncle was a prominent cardinal, defended his statements on the basis of Catholic teaching and appealed to the emperor, but Franz-Joseph refused to overturn the verdict. (see Istvan Deak: A Social and Political History of the Hapsburg Officer Corps)

While in modern times, people often complain that the Church metes out its heaviest punishments against sins of the bedroom, the starkness of the penalties for dueling is worth noting. Subsequent popes kept upping the penalties in an effort to get their message through to a honor-based aristocratic culture that was unwilling to listen to moral guidance. Excommunication and denial of Christian burial for those killed in duels had long been a penalty for dueling. In 1752, Pope Benedict XIV declared that duelists should be denied Christian burial even if they survived long enough to request and receive absolution.

After World War One the dueling culture gradually faded away, and although these penalties have never officially been rescinded dueling is no longer a hot button issue in Catholic moral teaching.