Sunday, October 26, 2014


I first became a bit curious about Marilynne Robinson when Maclin Horton's wife posted a couple of quotes from Robinson's books on Facebook. Then a couple of other people mentioned her, so I went to the library and checked out Gilead, her second novel. I was immediately drawn in by the first page, but as I read further I was thinking, "Well, this is a nice book, a good book, an enjoyable book, but not much more than that"--and then I would come across something really lovely or something amazing.

The novel is written in the form of a long letter or journal being written by an old, dying man, John Ames, to his seven year old son. His intention is that the letter is to be read when the son is grown. Set in a small Iowa town, the narrative drifts back and forth in time, now describing physical realities in minute detail, now pondering metaphysical mysteries, now remembering the loves and friendships of the past, each informing and illuminating the other, all interwoven into a panorama of Ames's life.

I'm sure that most if not all of the readers of this post when seeing its title immediately thought of the hymn, There is a Balm in Gilead. It's a beautiful, peaceful, hopeful hymn, There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole/There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul. It doesn't, however, reflect the text from which it is taken. In a lament that sounds much like a description of our own day, Jeremiah (8:22) has been bemoaning the evil that has overtaken his people, and ends with,
Is there no balm in Gilead, no healer here? Why does not new flesh grow over the wound of the daughter of my people?
While John Ames's life is filled with beauty and consolation, it is far from being free from wounds, both in the past and the present. Ames often mentions his regret that not having ever imagined having an heir, he won't leave much for the boy and his mother; his family's past has its share of tragedy and unresolved relationships; and there is one long, difficult relationship that comes to the forefront of the novel.

When I was briefly discussing Gilead with Maclin, he sent me a link to this post so that I could see the discussion in the combox. He sent it mostly because I had said something about a comment that Robinson had made about Flannery O'Connor (negative) and there is a discussion of this in the combox. However, what really struck me about the comments was the varying opinions of what the novel was about: American slavery and the reactions of the churches, Calvinism and various other theological issues (Ames, his grandfather, father and best friend are preachers), liberal theology, and I get the idea that some people thought it was basically about nothing much. No one mentioned, at least I didn't see where anyone mentioned, what I thought was a strong and recurrent theme in the novel, and that is the relationships between fathers and sons.

As we read through the story of the Ames family, we encounter almost every sort of relationship between a father and son. We meet John's grandfather, father, brother, his best friend Boughton, and Boughton's son Jack, who is John's godson and namesake. Love runs through all these combinations of father and son, yes, but also anger, unforgiveness, and disappointment. And in some sense the culmination of this story of fathers and sons lies, I think, in the relationship, ongoing in the narrative, between the two who are related only by their name and sacrament.

One of the factors that contributes to the success of these stories of fathers and sons, and the novel in general is Robinson's ability to capture a male voice. I have found that it is very unusual for authors to write convincingly in the voice of the opposite sex. Thus with a few exceptions, it's Dickens's men that stand out for me, and Austen's women. Robinson, though, was really able to get into the male character.

Another strength of Gilead is the beautiful images she draws, and this is one of my favorites:
That mention reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl weeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn't. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don't know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to  believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a Protestant novel and so readers will not always agree with the theology found in it, but this was not much of a problem for me. It's a quiet, beautiful novel of time and place, and thought, and familial love. I recommended it to, (read, forced down the throats of) my Catholic women's book club for next month, which is a departure for me because I never recommend anything that isn't Catholic unless it was written by C. S. Lewis, and I would recommended it to everyone.

Well, I have mentioned Maclin a couple of times and that is because I knew I wanted to write something about Gilead and I knew that he would too, and I didn't want to read what he had to say, or any discussion of it on Light on Dark Water before I wrote, so I thought maybe it would be fun to post on the same day, and that's what we decided. So if you are interested in reading what he wrote (He says it will be short.) You can click here. I suspect if there is any discussion, it is far more likely to be there, but if you do want to comment here, remember that before you click on the button to post your comment, you ought to save it first, so that if the comment disappears, you can paste it in another comment box. It usually works the second time around.  Blogger is very annoying nowadays.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

August 15 Again

I don't really miss my mother most of the time, but at certain moments something hits me. A couple of days ago, I was thinking about Thanksgiving and then I remembered that she always sat in the same chair (pictured), the chair I am sitting in now, and this year she won't be sitting there. It seems so strange. It reminds me of the day she died. There was a green chair with a footstool that she always sat in in her apartment and you may have read that she was sitting in the chair when she died. She had the leg with the broken hip up on the footstool. I wonder if she was getting ready to put the other one up too. My sister Lisa works next door to the apartment building, so she got there very fast, I guess she'd been alone with Mother, and the police were in the hallway, for about 45 minutes when I arrived.  We sat there for another hour or two before the funeral home people got there to take her away. And then other people came but no one would sit in the chair. Finally, I decided that we had to get it over with sooner or later, so I sat there. Now that chair is at Lisa's house. 

I have been wanting to write about what happened the day before Mother died and the morning she died, but I hesitated because I'm not sure what some members of my family might think about it, but I've decided to go ahead anyway. I had been pretty much talking to the Lord about how if she got sick a third time, I wished that He would just take her home. I felt a bit odd about it though. Of course, I would not have wanted her to die if she needed to be here for any reason that I didn't know, for some purpose of His, but I knew that she was ready to go--that she wanted it and was basically just waiting. She could occasionally if she wanted to get involved in a conversation, or be interested in what was going on around her, but she told me she felt like she was not really there. In some ways, she had already left. 

On Thursday the 14th, the brothers were having a vigil Mass for the Feast of the Assumption at Christian Brothers University, where my husband works, at 5:00 p.m., and since our parish Mass for the feast day was going to be at 8:00 p.m. on Friday night, we decided to attend the CBU Mass. The chaplain at CBU is very cerebral. I thought we would get a very intellectual explanation about the feast of the Assumption, and what we got was a very sentimental homily. I was amazed. I have never seen this priest show the slightest hint of sentiment before, although I don't know him well, so maybe he is different than he appears. He said that his mother was in her 90s and was fortunate enough to live in her own home, but what if she couldn't, and could only live in one room in a nursing home? And what if somehow he were elected pope and went to Rome to live in all that finery and left her in that one room. What would people think of him? And Jesus didn't want to leave His mother in that one room either, so He brought her to Heaven. Now, even I could knock some theological holes in that little story, but it didn't matter. I just thought, "Well, all right Lord, if that's the way it is, I'm going to pray for my mother to die."

So the next morning I prayed very specifically. I asked that she would die if she were ready spiritually and that it be very soon (Thy will be done, of course.) And, you know, it wasn't but 6 or 7 hours later that she did die. She died on the day Catholics celebrate the day that Jesus took his mother to Heaven.

I haven't told this story to many people. I worried about doing so, because if you are not at peace with the idea of your death, you might think this was awful, but it's not. It's the kind of death that we should all hope and pray for.

A few days at most before she died, I took Mother a statue of St. Martin de Porres and told her quite a bit about him. The next time I went to see her she said, "I just want you to know that St. Martin and I have been talking quite a bit." I asked her if he had been saying anything to her because you know I talk to him every day and he never has said anything to me yet. She said no, but that was okay. I'm pretty sure now that she was telling him she wanted to die--I've had more than one person tell me that she told them that--and I have an idea that he just came and got her.

I think I ought to add, since there might be someone reading this who doesn't know me well, that I would never do any physical thing to hasten anyone's death. I believe that that decision is up to God. I also would be very hesitant to pray in this way again. This time, though, I knew it was right.

I said at the beginning that I don't miss Mother very much. This isn't because I don't love her. I think it's because, as I said in an earlier post, I feel so close to the end of my own life, that it doesn't feel to me like she is far away. However long it will be before I see her again, even if I live to be as old as she did (which I doubt) it will seem like about a week.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

An Enduring Beauty

Meeting at the Golden Gate, Giotto

In April, I posted some pictures I had taken of statues of St. Anne, and talked a bit about how I had been asking her to pray for my family. (You have to scroll down in this link to see those pictures.) Then I came across this picture of Sts. Anne and Joachim by Giotto on the cover of a book I was reading, Love's Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisited by Erasmo Leiva Merikakis. The story of this meeting of Anne and Joachim is found in the Protoevangelium of James, and so is legend, indeed we have no historical evidence or scriptural proof of anything about Mary's parents. There is a long, long tradition in the Church, however, of honoring the parents of Mary by these names.

In every statue of St. Anne, and almost every painting, she is pictured with the child Mary. Often St. Anne is teaching Mary. However, when I saw this painting it really struck me that the story of St. Anne is not just the story of a mother and grandmother, but that of a wife. What we see in the above picture is an image of a marriage, a long, faithful marriage of two people who through their faith and their constancy to each other are, "...bearing fruit in old age." Psalm 92:14. It is an icon of the quintessence of  marriage, a man and woman bearing with each other, bearing children, bearing together the adversities of life, and finally, bringing one another to Heaven.

In the past couple of years, I have been thinking a lot, I have had to think a lot, about how to talk to people who have homosexual attractions about what the Church really teaches about homosexuality. How do you speak the truth without completely alienating those you love? It's so difficult, and one way that seems to provide a plausible place to begin is to offer this image, this ideal that is so beautiful, and so difficult to achieve. It is an ideal of which we all fall short in some way, an ideal that we seldom see lived out in its entirety, but which we recognize immediately when we do see it as entirely good. 

Of course, this is only a very tentative beginning, but it benefits from beginning with what is right and beautiful rather than who is wrong and disordered. It's a promise and not a wound. And so, when I saw this document which has caused so much distress and conflict, I thought, "Well, there you go."
There is also the evening light behind the windowpanes in the houses of the cities, in modest residences of suburbs and villages, and even in mere shacks, which shines out brightly, warming bodies and souls. This light—the light of a wedding story—shines from the encounter between spouses: it is a gift, a grace expressed, as the Book of Genesis says (2:18), when the two are “face to face” as equal and mutual helpers. The love of man and woman teaches us that each needs the other in order to be truly self. Each remains different from the other that opens self and is revealed in the reciprocal gift. It is this that the bride of the Song of Songs sings in her canticle: “My beloved is mine and I am his… I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 2:16; 6:3).

Friday, October 17, 2014

We've Got the Whole World . . .

I went on retreat this past weekend, and this window was on the wall opposite me. Someone was good enough to send me this picture because I didn't take any while I was there. I wish it were more distinct, but it will do.

This isn't my favorite stained glass window in the world, but as I was looking at it, I started to think about Joseph in a way that I never have before. There is a joke that I can barely remember about how when something went wrong in the household of the Holy Family, everybody always knew whose fault it was. Sorry I can't remember how it goes, but I don't think it was particularly funny even when somebody told it correctly. After a couple of hours with this image of St. Joseph staring me in the face, I started thinking about the truth behind the joke.

As anyone who has been a parent knows, it's not very long before you realize you're going to mess up. You are going to mess up all the time. You are going to try to avoid the mistakes that your parents made, and you are going to make mistakes in the opposite direction, or you are going to realize that those things you thought were mistakes, were the best things you could have done for your children. You are going to perpetuate the dysfunction of the home where you grew up because you didn't even recognize it as dysfunction. You are going to be really, really tired and be impatient with your kids.

And as I sat there thinking about how Joseph was the sinful person in his home, I realized that this had to be. Jesus if He were to be like us in everything but sin, if He were to identify with us in our suffering, had to have an imperfect parent. I'm not saying that I think St. Joseph was a bad, or even a mediocre parent. I'm sure he was an excellent and very holy parent. He just wasn't perfect. When I look at this picture of Joseph (and this is a very young Joseph although you can't tell here) looking at the infant Jesus, I wonder if he was wondering what the heck an ordinary, sinful man was supposed to do with a perfect wife and a Son that was God. He must have wondered what God was thinking. So much seemed to depend on him, and he knew that he wasn't, nobody was, up to the job. And yet somehow, he completed his task.

It also seems to me that in this image Joseph is a perfect symbol for all Christians, all of us. Here we stand with the Body of Christ, the Church, in our hands to do with as best we can. Whatever our part in the Body may be, we aren't up to the job. We know it. Everybody else knows it, too. I frequently wonder what God was thinking.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Day Late

Not that that would surprise anyone.

I wanted to post this yesterday on the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, but I didn't get home until after 10 last night. I know that I have written about her more than once, although the search engine can only come up with one post. I love St. Theresa. I very much identify with her, not because of her holiness, but because our faults are similar. I have also relied very heavily on the following prayer which I know I've posted here before, but given all the hysteria concern about the Synod and the Ebola Virus, I thought would be worth remembering.

Let nothing disturb thee.
Let nothing afright thee.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patient endurance attains to all things.
Whom God possesses in nothing is lacking.
God never changes.

I'd like to add that this isn't just a nice pious idea. It's very hard work, but it's possible for perfectly ordinary people, not just great saints. We have to turn our minds over and over again from whatever it is we're worrying about, but if we persevere, we can succeed. The Lord will help us to succeed. There will be times, many times, when we fail for one reason or another, and maybe even St. Teresa couldn't do it all the time, but as she said, it's that patient endurance.

Also, remember the Prayer of St. John Fisher on the sidebar. Couldn't be a better time to start praying for our bishops.