The Poison of Cynicism

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In the novel Dayspring by Harry Sylvester, first published in 1945, we follow Spencer Bain, an anthropologist investigating the religious practices of Los Penitentes, a penitential Catholic brotherhood in New Mexico that engages in severe penitential acts. In order to gain entrance to the brotherhood, Bain affects a religious conversion. But then he begins, to his disconcertment, to actually feel sorrow, to feel penitent for his many sins. Married with no time for children, he and his wife obtained an abortion. He hasn’t been faithful. He has lied and used others for personal gain. The ironic, sophisticated distance he had been able to place between himself and the reality of sin is stripped away as he shoulders the practices of the Penitentes; praying, fasting, carrying a heavy wooden cross, whipping himself…. READ MORE

Seeing the Hand of God

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Novels often fall into the trap of offering easy redemption. The wayward soul sees the error of his ways, has a quasi-mystical experience, and sets off on the road to the straight and narrow. It’s what we want to happen—even if it sacrifices some of the reality of human behavior in doing so.

Watcher from the Shore doesn’t offer any of this sort of catharsis. Written by the Japanese Catholic novelist Ayako Sono, it is about as unsentimental a novel as you could imagine. Her novel offers a glimpse into a culture that can appear to be rigid and emotionally repressed to Western eyes. At the same time, the book allows the reader to view Christian morality from the outside, stepping into the shoes of an agnostic gynecologist who sees his participation in abortion as balanced somewhere between moral neutrality and a positive good for society… READ MORE

“Joy is the grace we say to God.” Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”

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I recently read Ray Bradbury’s beautiful book Dandelion Wine. It is incredibly evocative of what being a child is like. I found myself pausing repeatedly in my reading as Bradbury’s prose jostled memories of my own childhood: the first realization that, yes, I was a real person and really truly alive; walking in the moonlight during a warm night and suddenly going from comfort to fear; the first real awareness of mortality; the joy of being allowed to stay up late and share in the world of adults; the foods, activities, music that come with summer.

Ray Bradbury uses the metaphor of dandelion wine to represent capturing summer in a bottle, one that can be opened and shared even in the dead of winter to awaken those remembrances of joy and warmth. Bradbury’s writing is itself a bottle of that wine—I’m not sure how he did it, but he captured magic with his words. He himself humbly described how he felt when reading his own work: “Every so often, late at night, I come downstairs, open one of my books, read a paragraph and say, My God. I sit there and cry because I feel that I’m not responsible for any of this. It’s from God. And I’m so grateful, so, so grateful.” READ MORE

Crapulous Cowards and Quarrels: A review of “The Ball and the Cross”

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“I object to a quarrel because it always interrupts an argument.”
—G. K. Chesterton

As I write, a lot of Catholics are worried about the ongoing tussling about pastoral issues in the Church. Others are worried about what seems to be a growing partisan divide in America between those with differing political views. I’m worried about this as well—mostly because many people have decided that differences of opinion are so great that they must avoid the contamination of being friends with those who disagree with them, only engaging their opponents in angry online quarrels.

So it’s an opportune time to revisit G. K. Chesterton’s rollicking, rousing fantasy, The Ball and the CrossCONTINUE READING

The Darkness of Christmas

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As a child my family had the usual comforting Christmas rituals: watching It’s a Wonderful Life, listening to Handel’s Messiah, decorating the tree, baking cookies, wrapping presents.  The licorice smell of anise-flavored springerle cookies, the taste of gingerbread, the sound of the voices as they announce the coming of the baby called Wonderful, Counsellor. All of these can instantly evoke the joy and comfort of being a child at Christmas, screwing up my nearsighted eyes at the lights on the tree and dreaming up worlds lit by candles and colorful glass globes.

As an adult I watched It’s a Wonderful Life with friends and marveled at the darkness I had missed as a child. The fear and rage that George Bailey feels, the weight of grief at lost chances, the humiliation of ambition thwarted. The furious anger that is unleashed as George lashes out at friends and family. The end provides consolation, but leaves the pain and sorrow intact… CONTINUE READING

G.K. Chesterton: The Tame Oracle?

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G.K. Chesterton loved to argue. He argued with his family, he argued with his friends, he argued his enemies into becoming his friends. His infectious delight in argument won over some other prominent literary figures who were determined to dislike the man. They found that he had no qualms being friends with them—so long as they didn’t mind arguing with him.

Chesterton’s essays in the Illustrated London News read as rambling, pugnacious invitations to argument. Nothing was off limits in his column, everything was fodder for jumping from subject to subject, jabbing and poking at the ideas he found incorrect. He exaggerated, tossed off outrageous hyperbole, and overstated his case; in short, he was a provocateur.

I love Chesterton. I’ve been fortunate enough to design a couple of book covers for the Ignatius Press editions of his work, and I’ve been collecting original editions of his books when I can. But good old G.K.C. the wild provocateur is in danger these days. Chesterton the tame oracle is taking his place.

Love of Chesterton has led many people to simply read him while disengaging the critical part of their mind. They accept everything he says at face value—so you’ll have people uncritically agree with, for example, Chesterton’s insistence that women be denied suffrage. If G.K. said it, he must be right!  He’s our tame oracle… CONTINUE READING