by Melanie Bettinelli on May 09, 2013
We learned that there is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the Church’s sophisticated theology of the lay apostolate and the lived spiritual experience of the majority of our people. And this chasm has a name: discipleship. We learned that the majority of even “active” Catholics are still at an early, essentially passive stage of spiritual development. We learned that our first need at the parish level isn’t catechetical. Rather, our fundamental problem is that most of our people are not yet disciples. They will never be apostles until they have begun to follow Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church.
We learned that at the parochial level, we have accepted this chasm between the Church’s teaching and Catholics’ lived relationship with God as normative, and this has shaped our community culture, our pastoral assumptions, and our pastoral practices with devastating results. We discovered, to our surprise and dismay, that many pastoral leaders do not even possess a conceptual category for discipleship. As long as this holds true, the theology of the laity and the Church’s teaching on social justice and evangelization will remain beautiful ideals that are, practically speaking, dead letters for the vast majority of Catholics.
Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. Dom handed me this book a while back and I’ve been reading it slowly for months. It’s the kind of book that I need to chew on, to think over. (And now, having come to the end, I think I need to re-read.) As I read a bit and then let it sit I have found its ideas percolating. I’ve found myself referring to it to help me think about other topics, other books. Weddell’s book is one of those that has drastically changed the way I see the Church and the world of faith and that in a very helpful way.
There are some things I didn’t like about the first time I read it that made it hard to get through, but the second time they seemed less important. The one hurdle I had in reading it was that much of the language felt like “inside baseball.” Weddell’s use of the term “disciple” being the primary example. I felt very uncomfortable with the word “disciple” the first time I read the book because I really didn’t understand how she was using it. As she says in the book, I didn’t really have a mental category for it and it took getting to the end to really be able to stretch my mind around it. The second read through makes so much more sense.
I do think this book is essential to the conversation about the new evangelization. It diagnoses the root problem of the contemporary American Church in rather frightening detail and then sets out a plan to address them. Weddell herself says that there are many gaps in her understanding and many questions left to answer. This book doesn’t try to set out definite answers, but rather lays out what Weddell has learned through more than a decade of her work with the Catherine of Siena Institute, a ministry whose mission is to equip parishes to form lay apostles.
Why is this book so important? Because we have failed:
Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still “practicing”—meaning they attend Mass at least once a month.
Nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe in an impersonal God.[. . .] only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.
Recently my sister was telling me about the new parish she’d joined and how she was surprised that the pastor devoted a sizable portion of his homily to addressing some specific Protestant objections to Catholicism. When she commented on it she learned that a new evangelical megachurch was deliberately targeting Catholics at that parish, trying to lure them in. According to Weddell, they stand a good chance of being pretty successful unless the Catholic parish takes steps not just to counter the Protestant arguments but to actively nourish the spiritual maturation of the adults in the parish, to help them become intentional disciples.
In the first part of her book Weddell lays out some surprising insights into the normative experience in Catholic parishes and why the old assumptions are not longer valid.
[I really wanted to organize this blog entry and polish it up. But I’ve been sitting on it a week and still haven’t got a vision of what it should be. All I have is a bit list of passages that I marked. So I’m just going to throw up a bunch of quotes with no comment from me. Feel free to comment on any of them. These are from about the first third to half of the book. I want to write a separate post about the latter half or two thirds or whatever of the book. Later.
Anyway. I hope this book opens up some conversations. It hit a lot of nerves and touched on a lot of themes I’ve been exploring and conversations I’ve been having. But I’m in too much of a muddle right now to really do it justice. So better to just do what I can and see what happens, Right?]
What’s wrong with cultural Catholicism as a paradigm
One of the deepest convictions of evangelical culture is that every person, whether raised inside a Christian tradition or not, has a personal decision to make about whether he or she will live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. [. . .] In contrast, Catholic pastoral practice still assumes that religious identity is largely inherited and stable throughout one’s life span. [. . .] What we have taken as normative is, in fact, the far end of the “religious bell curve.”
Since the late sixteenth and early sevententh centuries, the Catholic retention strategy has been (a) childhood catechesis and (b) sacramental initiation. [. . .] Setting out to give every Catholic child a solid catechetical background was an extraordinary vision hat had never before been attempted. The endeavor was deeply influenced by a Renaissance optimism about the power of education. The assumption was that a carefully nurtured religious identity acquired in childhood would endure throughout life.
[. . .]
But the evidence suggests that what worked in the seventeeth century does not work in the twenty-first. Pew researchers found that attending CCD, youth groups, and evn Catholic high schools made little or no difference in whether or not an American Catholic teen ended up staying Catholic, becoming Protestant, or leave to become “unaffiliated.”
Our pastoral practice still operates on the presumption that although most Catholic teens vanish after Confirmation, they will find their way back when they are ready to get married and especially when they have children. One huge problem with this paradigm is that Catholic marriage rates are, in fact, plummeting.
We can no longer depend upon rites of passage or cultural, peer, or familial pressure to bring the majority back.
In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism.
+ + +
Personal attachment to Christ is normative
The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not knew that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ—personal discipleship—is normative Catholicism as taught time and time again by the apostles and reiterated by the popes, councils, and saints of the Church.
If a living relationship with Christ and, therefore, his Father and the Holy Spirit, does not exist, we have not succeeded in “transmitting” the faith. The faith has not been transmitted unless the Person and the relationship at the center of the faith have been transmitted. And we can’t successfully transmit the relationship at the center of the faith unless we ourselves consciously participate in that relationship.
The common working assumption that we encounter is that personal discipleship is a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted.
To the extent that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship.
+ + +
Simon Peter’s “drop the net” decision is what we mean by “intentional.” From the moment he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, he was a disciple.
Intentional discipleship is not accidental or merely cultural. It is not just a matter of “following the rules.” A disciple’s primary motivation comes from within, out of a Holy Spirit-given “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
In the twenty-first century, Catholic pastoral practice is still largely based on what could be called an “infant paradigm,” rather than am “adult paradigm.” What do I mean? We often function as though the initiation of a young child into the faith is the practical spiritual norm. [. . .] This paradigm also assumes that a baptized child will pick up the Catholic faith from the family and the parish as naturally and inevitably as he or she learns language and culture. The faith is communicated,and the child trustingly accepts and believes it. The child will inherit a stable, lifelong religious identity and practice from the family and the parish, a Catholic identity that will move seamlessly into adulthood, resulting in slow spiritual growth over a lifetime. There is little expectation of distinct internal turning points, much less of an overt “conversion” experience.
+ + +
Our problem is not that there is a shortage of vocations but that we do not have the support systems and leadership in place to foster the vast majority of vocations that God has given us. Most fundamentally when we fail to call our own to discipleship, we are unwittingly pushing away the vast majority of the vocations God has given us.
In the Catholic tradition, the word vocation is not a synonym for vocational career. A vocation is a supernatural mystery that emerges from a sustained encounter with Christ. It is a transforming, sanctifying path and work of love to which Christ calls us. A vocation builds on our natural qualities but carries us far beyond what we would imagine.
+ + +
What do you think? Have you read the book? Are you interested in reading it? You can listen to an interview with Sherry Weddell on Boston’s The Good Catholic Life if you want to get more flavor of what the book is about.
I haven’t yet got to the part that intrigued me most, the thresholds of conversion. Stay tuned.
by Melanie Bettinelli on April 30, 2013
Finished in April:
1. Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherry Weddell.
I’m working on a separate book review post. But realizing I want to go back and re-read the book first. So I’m re-reading and getting so much more out of it the second time through. Book review coming soon.
2. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI.
This was excellent, as all of Pope Benedict’s Jesus books are. Truly they are a masterpiece, a spiritual treasure. I would definitely recommend them to anyone, Catholic, Christian or non Christian who is interested in knowing more about who Jesus is. They dive into history. They unpack scripture. They explore the mystical union between Christ and his Church. I’ve been meaning to write up a separate blog post that excerpts my favorite passages. Soon. Very soon. Until I get it done the book will sit there on my night table pleading with me.
4. Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden.
The story of a group of Anglican sisters who attempt to establish a convent and school and clinic high in the mountains of India. And who find themselves utterly defeated by… the place itself. I didn’t like this one as much as I’ve enjoyed her other novels about sisters—the masterpiece In This House of Brede or the excellent Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy—but it had something about it. Definitely one of those books I’ll have to read again before I really get it. I do love how much the place itself is a character, the mountain, the palace, the landscape, the wind, the people. What exactly is it that defeats the sisters? Is it the place that is utterly inhospitable and refuses to make room for Christ or is it something lacking in themselves? The character I loved most was Mr Dean, the Englishman who has “gone native,” who drinks and womanizes, and yet who seems to have a clearer vision of Christ at times than do any of the sisters. He at least knows who it is that he isn’t following. His character reminds me more than a bit of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. This is definitely one of those books I’m going to have to read again. But that’s Rumer Godden for you. All of her books bear re-reading.
5. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden.
This was a gem of a book, which isn’t surprising at all because… Rumer Godden. Her juvenile books are all so beautiful. This is the story of a Gypsy girl, Kizzie, whose grandmother dies leaving her all alone in the world. Unwanted by the few distant relatives who show up to comb through her grandmother’s possessions, she’s instead thrown into the custody of the various charitable souls in the local town. Rumer Godden knew intimately what it was to be a child who is an outsider and this story distills that experience. But she also knows how to write about love. This is one of her finest books, even if I’m still not sure how to say the name.
6. The Woodcutter by Kate Danley.
I really wish I remember where I heard of this book. Was it a blog? Was it Facebook? I have a vague recollection of someone mentioning it and I can’t even remember if it was specifically directed at me in a hey, you should read this way or if something else reminded someone of this book or if it was a review or what.
Anyway, someone recommended it and I went and checked it out from the library. And it was a quick read, which was good. It was… different. No, really, it was fun. I enjoy books that are adaptations of fairytales and this had some nice twists. Seriously, the idea of pixie dust being an addictive drug… very clever.
Oh now I think I remember. It had to have been Happy Catholic. Oh and she says it so much better than I could. It’s a story that isn’t all Disneyfied. Instead, it really understands that true love is sacrificial love.
The Woodcutter is more ambitious than most adaptations I’ve read. Instead of adapting one or two fairytales, it swallows up and spits them out in a new way. It that it reminds me a bit of the television series Once Upon a Time. But The Woodcutter is much darker than even that adaptation. In tone at least it cleaves very closely to the original Grimm. In other ways, though, it is so original. The way it has a sort of metanarrative about the nature of story, the Woodcutter being aware of the various fairy tale tropes and conscious that he is in a story, aware when the story departs from the traditional versions.
1. Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Father Robert Barron. I read fast up to the day our book club met and then haven’t read it since. It’s unfortunate because it is a great book, but it’s hard going, the kind of thing I need a carrot to help me get through. Without a deadline looming I’m finding anything and everything more appealing. I’ve got a book review post half written. Maybe I’ll post what I have without finishing the book and do a second post for the second half. The book is certainly meaty enough to demand two posts.
2. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life by Elizabeth Scalia. I’ve just read the first couple of chapters and already I’‘m feeling very, very uncomfortable. This book is an extended examination of conscience on the first commandment. I so needed to read it. Right now. And yet… Ouch. I’ll definitely be writing more about this one. Highly recommended.
Now that I’ve pretty much said that I need to write more about most of the books I’ve read this month…. I can only hope I’ll actually get around to writing all these posts that are brewing. I’ve got plenty of motivation but typing long posts while holding a baby is difficult.
by Melanie Bettinelli on April 28, 2013
The Island-below-the-Star written and illustrated by
Bella loved this delightful Polynesian tale of five brothers who journey across the Pacific in search of adventure and an island they are sure must be out there. Navigating by the stars, the clouds, the currents, the wind, and the birds they find their way from the Marquesas Islands to Hawaii.
The pictures are lovely watercolors, very engaging.
Complete Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem.
I meant to get this collection for Bella for Christmas but my order was cancelled too late to get it in time. So Sophie got it for her birthday and Bella since appropriated it. It’s not that Sophie doesn’t appreciate it, just that Bella adores it. Well, fortunately Sophie is a generous little soul and doesn’t seem to mind in the least. I haven’t read all the stories yet, but I do find them charming. One very minor quibble: just as with Redwall there are little snippets of pseudo-religion that kind of drive me nuts: a wedding and a baptism with language that loosely evokes the Christian sacraments but with no God, just some nature worship kind of language. Definitely not enough to discard the books, but I did mention to Dom in Bella’s hearing that I don’t know why they made that choice. It just bothers me.
I don’t think there are words to express the depth to which Bella adores the Little House books. She really dives into them, spending hours poring over the illustrations. She also loves, loves, loves the three albums of music from the books. I’m constantly amazed at the extent of her recall. Although I’ve only read each book once, she will unerringly remember in which scene of which book each song appeared. She can recount scenes from every book in great detail and often greets Dom at the door with a long narration about some incident or other in a Little House book, it may or may not be from the most recent chapter we’ve read. It might not even be from the current book.
When we got to Farmer Boy she wasn’t at all interested. She just wanted to read about Mary and Laura. But then when we came to the first of the Almanzo chapters in The Long Winter, I pointed out that she’d appreciate them more if she’d read his story. So we began to read Farmer Boy concurrently with The Long Winter. It was sometimes a bit disconcerting to jump back and forth between Almanzo as a boy and as a young man, and Dom asked if she wouldn’t get confused. But she never did. Bella and I regularly read chapters from half a dozen or more different books that we’ve got going concurrently and she never gets them confused. (Right now we are reading Little Town on the Prairie, Audrey of the Outback, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Acts of the Apostles for Children, The Gospel according to St Mark, Five Little Peppers, The Little Prince, The Story of the World Volume 1, and a biography of St Pio of Pietrelcina.) Sophie and Ben loved Farmer Boy too and often plopped down to listen in on chapters.
Bella’s plan is that when we finish the Mary and Laura books we will move on to the other Little House spin offs. I’m thinking the Charlotte books will fit nicely with beginning American history in the coming school year.
In the comments Enbrethiliel reminded me that I meant to include the links to the albums of Little House music. These are the three we have. I think Pa’s Fiddle Band may have more, though I’m not sure if their other albums are merely in the spirit of or are limited to the songs that are actually in the books. Clearly more research is necessary. Maddeningly, the songs on these albums are not arranged according to how the songs appear in the books. It offends my OCD, but I’m trying to deal with it. I posted the links in the comments, but I’ll put them here too:
Yes these are Amazon Affiliate links and yes we get a little bit of credit when you click through and buy. I promise we use the pennies we glean to defray the costs of the children’s education and our own book habits.
by Melanie Bettinelli on April 28, 2013
[I’ve been meaning to write this since February, but life keeps getting me muddled. Why are book reviews both the hardest and easiest blog posts to write? It’s a great mystery. Anyway, I had an inquiry about this book today and it prompted me to finally finish writing my review for crying out loud.]
The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours by Daria Sockey of Coffee and Canticles. I have to confess, I’m not the most unbiased of reviewers. I’ve been a fan of Daria’s for a long time. (I hope she doesn’t mind if I call her by her first name, but having read her blog for ages and having even met in person it just feels weird to call her anything else.) When I first found her blog back in 2011 I was so excited to see someone writing so clearly and insightfully about the Liturgy of the Hours. When I learned she was writing a book I was over the moon.
Daria’s book doesn’t disappoint, either. It’s a great primer for the Liturgy of the Hours, aka Divine Office, aka Breviary, aka Christian Prayer, aka Morning, Evening, Daytime,and Night Prayer, aka Lauds, Vespers, Terce, None, Sext, Vespers, and Compline (with a dash of the Office of Readings, aka Vigils). This is a book I’d definitely recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about this primary prayer of the Church. If you’ve been curious about the Liturgy of the Hours but didn’t know where to start; if you’ve never heard of the Liturgy of the Hours but are interested in learning about an ancient form of prayer that has existed from the earliest days of the Church; if you have a breviary gathering dust because you just can’t figure out how to use it; if you want to read more scripture but aren’t sure how to begin… really unless you are a Liturgy of the Hours pro, this book probably has something for you. And even for someone like me who has been praying it for a decade, I still found some great little nuggets and a lot of encouragement. Daria introduces the various hours and explains how they are prayed, dissecting them into the various parts. She explains all the technical vocabulary, reviews all the various versions out there, including electronic versions, as well as the various learning resources and guides. She tells you not only how to pray, but why to pray as well. She explains how the liturgy of the hours meshes with the liturgical year. She addresses common complaints and quibbles. She even dives into a bit of spiritual exegesis for beginners.
And the book is short enough not to be overwhelming: only 115 pages. All very easy to read in non-complicated layman’s language. All in all a very friendly little book. I’m thinking this, perhaps along with a volume of Christian Prayer, would be a great gift for confirmation. Treat yourself, treat a friend.
by Melanie Bettinelli on April 13, 2013
Saving Erasmus: Crossing the Threshold of Trust
Saving Erasmus: The Tale of a Reluctant Prophet by Steven Cleaver is a quirky little novel that I read for book club. I just joined the group and they are working through a list that was made up long before I joined so I don’t know who suggested books or why. It makes reading each one a bit of an adventure as I have no idea what I’m jumping into. It’s rather fun. But I’ve found that when I go to the book club meetings I don’t have anything prepared to say. Add to that the fact that they are in the evenings and that I’ve got Lucia with me and I don’t feel like I’m very much of a contributor. So I’m thinking if I read the book early and write a review before the book club meeting, then I’ll be going in having something to say.
Anyway, this was a quick read and that was good because I wasn’t sure I liked it very much as I read. It was as I said, quirky, the tone frequently irreverent, and I never really got a handle on what the author was trying to accomplish. The tone reminded me a bit of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books, which I enjoy quite a bit. But where Koontz is a master storyteller, this is Steven Cleaver’s first novel and, well, it felt more like a first draft that needed to be fleshed out than a fully accomplished work. (The reviews on Amazon were all really positive, though, so there is definitely an audience out there for the book.)
The first person narrator is Andrew Benoit, who has just graduated from St Augustine’s Seminary and is on his way to his first assignment as a pastor. As he arrives in the small town of Erasmus he has a vision of the Angel of Death who informs him that he has a week to convert the town of it will be destroyed. He’s very much a Jonah character, a reluctant prophet who at first tries to shirk his assignment, opting first for the cushy assignment of St Exupery but on his way there finding his bus attacked by various plagues (frogs, locusts, cats and dogs) until he gets off and heads toward Erasmus.
Much of this book seems odd to me simply because the Protestant world where it takes place is rather a foreign landscape. But beyond that all of the characters except the narrator feel like caricatures and even Andrew often feels more like a type than a real person. Maybe this is a deliberate stylistic choice, if so, I don’t quite get it. The town of Erasmus, controlled by the greedy Mrs Davenport, feels like a Potemkin village which the author has constructed for the purpose of the story, not at all like a real place. Exaggeration for effect? But what effect? Likewise the faith that is the central concern of the novel seems a very shallow sort of faith. Most often the characters don’t mention God at all, just “faith.” Also God, when he does come up, seems very distant and impersonal. Jesus is never mentioned at all. Come to think of it, I’m not sure any of the Bible references in the novel are from the New Testament. Jonah is mentioned of course and then Ecclesiastes. And then there is an odd conglomeration of figures, a mishmash of various Christian traditions: the Angel of Death; Saints: Patrick, Benedict, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Francis make appearances in visions, St Therese is mentioned. Then there are Protestant Reformation references: One character is names John Luther Zwingli, the narrator puts 95 post it notes on the door of Mrs Davenport’s factory. There is the body of an incorruptible saint (the dead wife of the town’s founder who saved the city and renewed their faith) guarded by a Knight Templar for your dash of Dan Brown funky. Then there are the pop culture icons: the “mystics” who call themselves after tv comedians of the golden age (Harpo, Mae West, Lucy, John Wayne) and finally childhood icons: the Velveteen Rabbit, Jackie Paper and Puff the Magic Dragon.
As I’ve been mulling it over I’ve found that Sherry Weddel’s idea of thresholds of conversion from her book, Forming Intentional Disciples has been very helpful. These thresholds or stages were discovered by a campus minister named Doug Schaupp who asked a group of his students about their spiritual journeys. He found that they all went through five distinct stages of conversion that culminated in a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple. The stages are 1. Initial Trust, 2. Spiritual Curiosity, 3. Spiritual Openness, 4. Spiritual Seeking, 5. Intentional Discipleship. Weddell writes:
Each transition to a new threshold was a genuine work of grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit, but each threshold also required real spiritual energy and real choices on the part of the person making the journey. Conversion didn’t “just happen” for these young adults. It required their ever-increasing commitment to more and more profound choices.
One of Weddell’s most interesting discoveries about these thresholds is that many people who hold leadership positions in parishes are still lingering on those early thresholds. Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual has a personal relationship with Jesus or even a strong belief in a personal God. Sherry Weddell says, “the thresholds are strictly focused on one’s lived relationship with God rather than one’s baptismal status or knowledge of the faith.”
The novel is the story of a man who is crossing one of those thresholds. Although you don’t learn of it until the end of the novel, at the beginning of the story Andrew has been wrapped up in hatred of God, primarily because he blames God, at least in part, for his father’s desertion and his brother’s drug-addicted death. He wants to have faith but doesn’t at all trust God, the Church, anything. And then he has a profound experience:
“I’m tired of this,” I yelled. “I’m tired of being hurt.” I pulled myself up onto the shore. In a tiny pool of stillness, I could see my reflection. Wrinkles and pain marked the face that stared back at me. My eyes were sunk in the black of hopelessness. My face had become that of my Uncle Andrew.
“Why are you doing this?” I shouted. Professor Anderson’s words echoed in my ears.
“What is your question?”
“I don’t know,” I shouted. “I don’t know.” Clarify. Synthesize. Be clear.
“Am I to blame?” The water crashed even louder nearby. I shivered in the cold, and I could hardly muster the desire to live. The answer appeared to be yes.
I stared down at the watery blackness. No stars were reflected there. Darkness had enveloped the woods and taken the sky with it. I could feel my body tighten. The skin constricted around me, and I could feel a stiffening of my joints. I could no longer move. Even my lips were paralyzed. I huddled, freezing, barely able to speak.
“What is the question?”
I didn’t want to ask. I was terrified of the answer I would recieve. I could feel every last pain of my life welling up. I remembered every cause for resentment I’d experienced. I could no longer contain the anguish and sorrow I had kept hidden inside. What was my question?
“Do you love me?” I whispered.
Just asking the question takes just about all he has. But he is answered.
“Do you love me?” I’d asked this of my mother, when she was crying, asked it of the night sky, asked it of God, while my older brother lay dying. He had been unable to hear the response that came back. I would need to listen for us both.
“I love you.”
The tall pine tree was suddenly illuminated in a blue glow. The light enveloped the tree and embraced the waterfall and extended its warmth, surrounding me and holding me safe. Warmth entered my body, and the electricity of life resonated throughout. The trees stopped moving, the rain subsided, and the night sky began to clear.
Clearly he has crossed a threshold, but which one has he crossed?At first I though he was moving from Openness to Seeking, but the more I thought about it and re-read the crucial scene the more I realized that he was at the very earliest threshold, that of Initial Trust:
My tears fell easily for Jamie, my father, and my mother, and for the town of Erasmus. We share so much in common. We all had our dreams. We all wanted to feel important. We all want love and to be loved. We all hurt. I suddenly felt connected, and the connection felt stronger and better than it ever had.
I had hated God for so long. I had been angry, and my anger had only continued the process of Death. Long ago I had allowed my spirit to die, and it was only by the faith of a small boy, the belief of a town, and the magic of the night sky, that I had been resurrected.
Although Andrew has dedicated his life to the idea being a servant and a leader, leading others out of darkness and into the light like the star Polaris, although he has gone to seminary and accepted an assignment as a pastor, he has still been in a profound place of mistrust. He doesn’t really believe in a personal God who loves him. But by the end of the novel he has a profound experience that he is loved.
And he has accepted his role as savior of the town of Erasmus even to the extent of being willing to sacrifice himself for them:
“I don’t know if God believes in me,” I said, “But I do know that I believe in God.” Death listened solemnly as I spoke. “And I have faith in Erasmus.”
Death stood silently facing me. There was a profound sense of peace inside me. The buzzing and change that had been so strong inside my body had now disappeared.
“You can’t destroy Erasmus,” I said, “I won’t let you. I love them. You can destroy me.”
So I’m thinking that this could be a very powerful novel for people who are themselves still in the early stages of seeking. For those who have moved beyond those early thresholds to having an encounter with the person of Jesus, though, the movement of faith in the novel might feel somewhat shallow. Andrew has just begun to dip his toe into the river.
by Melanie Bettinelli on April 11, 2013
Only two books completed in March. I’m still plodding away at the books that were not completed at the end of February. I might have started something new, but if so I can’t recall.
Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
This is a great juvenile science fiction novel. Sirius, the dog star, has been exiled to Earth. Time is running out for him to figure out who framed him. The trick is… he’s a dog. How can he accomplish what he needs to do when he is so limited and powerless? An interesting twist on the idea of incarnation, a celestial being who takes on flesh with all its limitations.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
A fun adventure in the spirit of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland meets Tam Lin. Seriously, who could resist a book with such a delightful title? Not me. September finds herself beguiled by the Green Wind and leaves her dull dishwashing to go adventuring. Unlike Dorothy or Alice, she departs not by accident but on a whim, seeking adventure. When she arrives in Fairy Land she takes on a quest not because she must but because it seems like an interesting thing to do. (This story would seem to be a direct answer to Vanessa Veselka’s complaint about the lack of females who set out on a quest just for the fun of seeing what lies beyond the front gate.) An interesting cast of characters, a narrator who is interested in meta-narrative. I rather lost my heart to the spunky September. This might be a fun read aloud for older kids. However, the story is rather gritty. I think this is a bit too mature for Bella for a while yet.
I see there are two sequels. I’m looking forward to reading them.
by Melanie Bettinelli on April 11, 2013
Anthony hit the jackpot this week with fun read alouds at the library. I generally let him pull two books off the shelf to check out. Sometimes they go back in the bag and stay there after a first reading. But these are so fun to read I grabbed them for his naptime today.
The first is a fun tale from Zaire. (Which I guess isn’t Zaire anymore but is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) It’s a fun little story about a civet cat named Bowane who is going to collect his bride in the village of Tondo, but along the way is too accommodating to the friends he asks to be his attendants and thus misses the girl. She gets tired of waiting for him (they wait years and years for a log to rot so Ulu the tortoise can get across it.) and marries a different cat. The scorn with which she chases Bowane away is delicious.
The story reads like an oral tale written down with all the repetition and funny animal sounds. It’s a book that has all four of my big kids giggling as I read—and sometimes Lucia catches the mood and giggles too.
What’s really fun about it is that each of the animals make a sound:
And so they went on—
Bowane walking, ika-o ika-o, ika-o;
Embenga flapping, bwa-wa, bwa-wa, bwa-wa;
Nguma slithering, swe-o, swe-o, swe-o;
And Ulu waddling, ta-ka, ta-ka, ta-ka, ta-ka—
The four of them traveling to Tondo.
(Don’t worry, there’s a pronunciation guide for all the Lonkundo words.)
It’s such a charming little tale with gorgeous pictures that really capture the personalities of the animals and it has a clever moral too. I’d definitely consider adding it to our library.
Anthony’s second pick is an illustration of a song that Bella used to be quite obsessed with. I first heard it back in my Irish pub haunting days in college when Celine and Marianne introduced me to Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers:
All God’s critters got a place in the choir
Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
And some just clap their hands, or paws
Or anything they got.
Listen to the bass, it’s the one on the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and the hippopotamus
Moans and groans with a big to-do
The old cow just goes MOOOOO
Bella used to watch the Makem and Clancy video on You Tube over and over again. I think Dom even figured out how to download it and put it on an endless loop on my laptop. I didn’t realize what book Anthony had got till we got it home. It wouldn’t have caught my eye, being a bit too garish, but it’s just the thing that a two year old boy would grab. This book has such fun illustrations, big, bold, bright animals all hamming it up on a stage. It’s definitely a big hit with my whole crew. Now Bella and Sophie and Ben are wandering about the house singing along. And of course we’ve been watching the video again too:
by Melanie Bettinelli on March 15, 2013
At the beginning of the month I finished this new biography of St Francis of Assisi. I’ve been meaning to write down a few thoughts about it, but it keeps getting pushed to the back burner. But now that our new pope has taken the name Francis, suddenly it has acquired a new urgency. In the past two days I’ve recommended this book to two different friends who confessed that they weren’t all that interested in Francis.
The book is Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. (That’s right. A Dominican wrote the book on Francis.) Thompson is quite the scholar, though he tucks all the notes away at the end, making it easy to just read the biography section of the book through without worrying about those details if you dont want to mess with it. The notes do explain why he approached the various sources in the way he did, which he thinks are authoritative and which more legendary.
The Francis he portrays isn’t the stereotype you might think of when you hear Francis. There are hardly any animal stories, for one, and the focus is on how Francis was inspired to choose several Gospel passages about poverty and live them literally. But the focus of Francis’ spirituality, especially later in his life, is not poverty but the Eucharist.
I’m going to be lazy and crib from Amy Welborn’s review
It is the St. Francis we know – a penitent committed to living the Gospel and conforming himself to the Crucified – but also one we may not be as familiar with.
This book gave me much to think about - and when we get closer to its publication date, I will post on it again, but for now, I’ll share these three points:
What Fr. Thompson has done, I think, is to work hard to clear away the narrative of inevitability that so often (and understandably) affects biographies of Francis – or any figure. Since we know how the story ends, it is a real challenge not to tell - or read – the story with that end in mind. In this book, we walk with Francis and see things as he saw them at the moment – as much as possible. As I read this book, I felt a bit as I did when I read the diaries of Dorothy Day – with the person, in the moment, responding to God’s grace in all of their limitations and hope.
He presents a clarifying and rather different definition of poverty in Francis’ spirituality – again, working to separate what Francis really said and did from later controversies.
This is very important, and perhaps will be the most revealing and one of the more controversial aspects of the book: He places the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the proper and reverential celebration of both squarely at the center of Francis’ concern.
As I read I marked a couple of brief passages from the book that serve to highlight those points:
The locus of Francis’s “mysticism,” his belief that he could have direct contact with God, was in the Mass, not in nature or even in service of the poor. Thus his harsh words for those who ignored the Eucharistic presence are unique: he never used such language about peace breakers or those who oppressed the downtrodden, deeply as those sins pained him. Francis always preferred to speak in actions and gestures rather than words: he expressed his reverence for churches by sweeping and cleaning them. In response to clerical failure to keep the Host in honorable containers, Francis once tired to have his friars bring precious pyxes to all the regions where they were active. He asked that these be used to reserve the Host when other decent containers were lacking. One can imagine the effect of Francis’s poor followers, with their miserable habits, presenting silver pyxes to parish clergy for the reservation of the Sacrament.
Now Francis meditates on how the Word of the Father, exalted above all creation, humbled himself to take flesh from the Virgin, an act which was “to choose poverty.” This is the only mention of poverty in Francis’s letters of 1220-21, and this “poverty” is not linked to giving up property, simplicity of life, or living only for the day. Francis identifies this poverty with the very physicality of the human condition taken on by the Word.
Nor does Francis dwell on that “poverty” in itself. Rather, he passes to how the Word made flesh gave himself tp his followers on the night before his Passion, when he took bread and wine, and, by the words, “This is my Body” and “This is the Blood of the New Testament,” gave himself over to his disciples as food. Jesus’ act of self giving is, again without elaboration, linked to his sacrifice and death on the Cross for sinners. The Chalice of his Blood given to the disciples is the same one Jesus spoke of in his prayer to the Father: “Father, let this chalice pass from me,” as his “sweat became as drops of blood flowing down upon the earth.” At that Last Supper, then, Jesus initiated the Eucharist so that, as victim on the altar of the Cross, he could “give us an example, so that we might follow in his footsteps.”
The Last Exhortation highlights a theme that is consistently present in Francis’s postconversion llife: the imitation of Christ’s act of self-offering, which becomes real and tangible “in all the churches of the world,” above all in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Christ at the Last Supper commanded his disciples to do as he did, to speak his words over the bread, and so, in eating it, receive his True Body. To take into one’s self the Living and Crucified Body during communion, to venerate it at the elevation during the Mass, and to do so worthily, was to experience the true poverty that was embraced by the Word: human flesh, torn and suffering, bleeding and dying, for others.
I highly recommend this beautiful book. The actual biography is only 141 pages, a quick read. I haven’t spent much time with the notes, but do look forward to reading them one day. I hope that our new Holy Father, Pope Francis will lead many people to rediscover this most misunderstood saint.
by Melanie Bettinelli on March 05, 2013
Finished in February
1. The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3) by Neal Stephenson
In the end I really liked the Baroque Cycle. Though I found much of Quicksilver tedious and parts of the beginning of The Confusion made me want to give up, Volume Three made it worth my while. I was not disappointed after slogging through almost 900 pages (that’s just the page count for System, by the way). and though Stephenson tends to end his novels on a weak note, I thought he wrapped this one up rather well. Or maybe I’m so used to the weak endings I had lowered my expectations just enough. No. I think it really worked for me.
Stephenson has a way of pulling together plot lines you’d long forgotten about and making them pay off in unexpected and delightful ways. There were some laugh out loud moments. One passage just begged to be read out loud to Dom. (I wish I’d copied it out before I took the book back to the library so I could share it here.) Stephenson’s books are more about ideas than characters. I don’t love many of the characters in his novels, though I often find them fascinating. I did thoroughly enjoy Dappa’s series of letters from prison after he’s been unjustly incarcerated as an escaped slave. They are very in the spirit of the popular writing of the day and wonderful satire.
Red flag, because I know some of my readers are more easily bothered by some things than I am. I should mention that like all of Stephenson’s books I’ve read there is quite a bit of explicit fornication and some violence. I don’t think Stephenson throws in gratuitous sex, it always is a function of character development, but yes, it is described in more detail than I would find strictly necessary. If that kind of thing bugs you and you can’t just skim over it, skip these books.
2. Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution by Mary Eberstadt.
I didn’t go to February’s book club meeting for obvious reasons, but I checked the book out from the library to read it anyway. I’ve read one or two of Eberstadt’s articles before. Nothing in this book felt really new, I’ve been thinking about the big picture effects of contraception for a while now, but if you haven’t this book might well be a real eye-opener. At the same time, it was engaging enough I was never really tempted to stop reading before the end. I think I would have enjoyed a discussion on it. Reading it on my own left me feeling I had nothing to say about it. Or maybe that’s just baby brain talking.
3. My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell
I really enjoyed this spiritual memoir, but I’m having a hard time putting my thoughts about it into words. I was glad I didn’t know the ending of Campbell’s story as I was able to enjoy each twist and turn of the narrative with a kind of immediacy that wouldn’t have been there if I ‘d known more about her before I began to read. I already knew all the saints she discusses. What is really interesting in this book is not her portraits of these saints but of the way her own journey was so formed by these encounters.
I spent the most of the book feeling quite frustrated by the story. As attractive as Le Billon makes French culture sound, she also makes it quite clear that it is very foreign from American ways of doing everything. I kept thinking that unless I moved to France there was no hope for me to implement her rules. But in the final chapter she and her family move back to her native Canada and she brings you along as she tries to continue to live her vision of her family’s new improved relationship with food. Compromises are made, battles are fought and lost. But eventually she finds a certain equilibrium. What I liked about this book was the encounter with French culture that didn’t insist that it was always and everywhere better than American culture. Le Billon leaves it up to her readers to decide what lessons they should take away from her story. She proposes her rules but makes it quite clear that they are really more like suggestions. I think I can live with that. The book encourages families to take small steps toward better eating habits only where they feel a need to do so.
5. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, OP
This month’s book club book didn’t fill me with huge anticipation. I figured I should read it and knew I’d probably get something out of it since I’d seen favorable reviews in several quarters. But I didn’t long to read it. I was pleasantly surprised. Though it got off to a rather slow start, I found this portrait of Francis to be quite engaging. A new perspective that tries to find the historical Francis behind all the myths, legends, and hagiography. I haven’t yet read the extensive notes about sources and methods but the main text strives to portray Francis as a man of his time and place. It emphasizes his reverence for the Eucharist, for the written word of God, for the persons of priests, for physical churches and for liturgical prayer more than his poverty and love of animals. It especially portrays him as a man who was terrible at governance and leadership, overwhelmed by the task of caring for his many followers. A man who didn’t set out to found an order and didn’t know what to do with it but who loved God and wanted to be obedient in all he did. This book has forever changed the way I think of Francis in a very positive way.
1.Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherri Wedell
I have one major reservation about this book which is making it hard for me to read it and it’s that Weddell often sounds like she’s talking inside baseball. In short, the books language feels very jargony to me. She never stops to define her basic terms, especially “disciple” which she uses in a very specific way that it’s taken me a while to grasp. Otherwise, I absolutely am loving this book. I find myself referring to it all the time in conversations with Dom. I think Weddell’s insights are very important to the project of the new evangelization. And did I mention before how much this book seems to be an answer to many of my musings last fall about Church community? I really need to come back and write a much longer post about it when I’m done reading and have let everything stew for a while.
2. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict was such a gift to our Church, to the whole world, in the eight years he served as our holy father. Above all he is a consummate teacher. I love reading his books, always I learn so much. In these books about Jesus he makes the Gospels lively and new. Every few pages there is a passage that makes me put down the book, stop and really think: Wow! I had no idea. I mean, once you put it like that, it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? But I had never looked at it that way before. I want to write up a separate blog post, cataloging some of those moments. God willing, I may even get to it some time this year.
3. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo So far I’ve read the first few pages. Then I got sidetracked. I will finish it this year. That is my plan.
The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours by Daria Sockey of Coffee and Canticles. When I found Daria’s blog I was so excited to see someone writing so clearly and insightfully about the Liturgy of the Hours. When I learned she was writing a book I was over the moon. I will definitely publish a review as soon as I’m able to finish it. So far the first parts I’ve read have been as marvelous as I expected.
Waiting for Easter
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
The year I gave up reading fiction for Lent it was a particularly effective fast. Two weeks before Easter I got my pre-ordered copy of Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, The Last Light of the Sun. Waiting to open it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I came home from the Easter vigil, crawled into bed, and read late into the night. That was the first Easter I spent with Dom’s family, before we were officially dating yet when I was rather uncomfortable with everyone making the obvious assumption that I was his girlfriend.
I loved having a special book waiting for the end of the Lenten season. It’s like having a basket of chocolate after giving up sweets. So even though I haven’t completely given up reading fiction, I decided to hold of starting Black Narcissus until Easter when I can eat it while nibbling on all the chocolate I buy for myself. Yum what a treat to look forward to from one of my favorite authors.
by Melanie Bettinelli on February 03, 2013
After I put Lucia down in her bassinet, I realized I’d parked my book there. She didn’t seem to mind.
In 2011 I kept a monthly record of the books I read. I let that slide in 2012 and rather regret it. One of my goals for 2013 is to keep a monthly record again.
Other book-related goals for the year include reading Les Miserables. All the recent furor over the movie has made me acutely aware that I’ve never read it—except for a few abridged scenes we read in one of my French classes. (This was the great article about a man who was so inspired by the character of the bishop that he became a priest that really makes me want to dive in.) Last year’s big classic that I tackled was Middlemarch. The year before was The Brothers Karamazov. I think this is definitely the year of Les Miserables.
So without further ado, here’s January’s reading list:
1. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson The first volume in The Baroque Cycle. Began Volume 1 at the end of 2012 and finished in the hospital after Lucia’s birth.
This is series of historical novels is a departure for science fiction writer Stephenson. Or is it? On the classification of the genre, Stephenson is delightfully playful, suggesting that there is something science-fiction-ish about them. Certainly there is a great deal of science, but there is also mystery and intrigue and alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton and Baron Gottfried von Liebnitz are both characters and there is a great deal about 18th century natural philosophy/science. It’s an interesting time when scientists straddled the line between alchemy and chemistry, sometimes what they did involved a lot of magical thinking even while they were trying to find rational answers. Also, they aren’t strictly historical as Stephenson has also created a fictional Celtic island nation, Qwghlm, off the coast of England that is something like Ireland and something like Wales.
The Baroque Cycle is a sort of prequel to Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I read last year. There is one character who appears in both, a mysterious minor character who is apparently very long lived. (I’m not done with the series, but there has been no explanation so far for why he is. That’s kind of bugging me. I want answers.) Several other characters in The Baroque Cycle are direct ancestors of characters in Cryptonomicon.
Now that I’ve got quite a few Stephenson novels under my belt I’m starting to get a sense of some of his preoccupations that he revisits time and again. One of the is economics, particularly the question: what is money. This probing into how and why money works is a major theme of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle but also appears in The Diamond Age and even to some extent in Anathem. Stephenson explores how political systems, technology, theories of knowledge, and the exchange of information all come together and shape the economic system.
The Baroque Cycle has a huge cast of characters and literally ranges all across the world as one group of characters circumnavigate the globe in Book 2. The major trio are Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher; Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond adventurer; and Eliza, who is hard to pigeonhole with a title as she has her fingers in political intrigues, economics, natural philosophy and just about everything else.
2. The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2). really this has been a perfect novel for recuperating from surgery. If I have to spend days idling around not doing much, then at least I have a good book to see me through it.
3. The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3)—not yet finished. I’m about two thirds of the way through this almost 900 page novel.
Also in progress, several non-fiction books which are getting slight attention as I push to finish the Stephenson, which are borrowed from the library and due back next week:
4. Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots by Scott Hahn
This is the kind of book you can pick up and put down as each chapter is a stand alone piece about a different Catholic custom.
5. Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherri Wedell
I am definitely going to have to write a separate blog entry about this book when I finally finish it. I keep thinking back to this conversation from the end of last year, summed up in this post: Motherhood Isolation and the Mystery of Christian Brotherhood. This book addresses many of the questions and concerns that conversation raised and then pushes me to a whole new level of thinking about them.
6. My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell
I saw Elizabeth Duffy’s review and it made me want to read this book. The first couple of chapters have really grabbed me. I put it down but will definitely pick it up again when I’m done with my library books.
Melissa Wiley recommended this one. So far the first couple of chapters have convinced me that the only way to get my kids to eat like French kids would be to move to a small village in France and enroll them in the local school. So much of what Le Billon describes is so particular to French culture, I’m not sure that I can pull many lessons from the book to apply to our situation. Still, I’m going to read the whole book and think on it for a while. Probably the period when I’m recovering from major surgery and adding a new baby to the family is not the best time to read a book that makes me want to overhaul the way I approach food with my kids. I am rather helpless right now to do more than just get everyone fed and frankly if the kids are eating mostly grains and meats right now and are not being super adventuresome… well, this isn’t the best season to address it anyway. We always do much better on the fruit and vegetable front in the summer and fall when we’re going to the farmer’s market every week. Winter in new England isn’t the best time to inculcate adventuresome eating. And yeah, I should maybe have waited on this one until a different season.