Monday, October 27, 2008

Exiles, by Ron Hansen

The Catholic Readers Society met on Sunday, October 19 to discuss Ron Hansen's new historical novel Exiles. Generally speaking the novel was not well-liked. Most of us felt that Hansen attempted to take on too much in too short a time, and thus was not able to convey the full humanity of the characters about whom we were supposed to be concerned. The book attempts to combine two separate stories: first, the death of five Catholic sisters in the wreck of the Deutschland, a passenger ship carrying them to an American mission and away from the restrictive laws of Bismarck's Kulturkampf, in nineteenth-century Germany. The second story concerns the development of Gerard Manley Hopkins as a poet, especially as influenced by the Deutschland disaster, immortalized in his poem commemorating it.

Especially disconcerting to our dear readers were the following problems: 1) That the mixture of historical fact and authorial license was not artfully made. Many of us wondered how much of this were true, and most gave up on trying to sort it out, but it made us uneasy. 2) Hopkins comes off somewhat too 'pious', given what we knew of his character and the manifest difficulty of his style. 3) As mentioned above, the effort to cram the life stories of the five missionary sisters into the early chapters was tediously done, in part because the limitations of the book (I.e. 200 pages) required a cursory group of paragraphs on each. Rather than bringing us into the story, they felt like nonfictional tabloid biographies. 4) More historical background on both aspects of the novel would have been welcome: English anti-Catholicism could have been fleshed out a bit, but even more, we craved a more detailed sense of life under Bismarck that would have humanized the sisters' struggle to seek a solution in their ill-fated mission.

We did begin a very good discussion on Hopkins, and this led us to pick his poetry as the topic for the next meeting, November 9. The Prior suggests the following poems, which can be accessed at the following website:

2: Pied Beauty
3: God's Grandeur
19: Thou Art Indeed Just Lord, If I Contend
23: The Skylight Night
27: The Caged Skylark
45: My Own Heart Let Me Have More Pity On. Let
53: To What Serves Mortal Beauty?
62: Henry Purcell

Tip: We suggest reading the poems aloud and several times!

Rating for Exiles: 1 star (not recommended)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

List of Books

We haven't updated this blog in a long time, since the Prior has not had much opportunity to write up notes from our discussions. However, there have been several requests for lists of books that we have read. I provide that here, with my own (hopefully not too subjective) rating system. Three stars means that the majority of the group felt that it was an outstanding book. Two stars is a generally good rating, but not necessarily a recommended read. One star means that there were a few people who really didn't like the book.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh ***
Woman of the Pharisees by Francois Mauriac **1/2
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene ***
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy **
Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset ***
Silence by Shusaku Endo ** 1/2
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky * 1/2
Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos ***
Father Brown Omnibus by G.K. Chesterton **
Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor ** 1/2
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell *
Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh **
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien **
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt ***
The Crucible by Arthur Miller ** 1/2
The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams *
Helena by Evelyn Waugh **
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene ** 1/2
The Teutonic Knights by Henryk Sienkiewicz ***
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden ** 1/2
The Stream and the Sapphire by Denise Levertov
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen ** 1/2
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy ** 1/2
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin ***
Glittering Images by Susan Howatch **
excerpts from The Divine Comedy by Dante (I won't even pretend to give this a rating)
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticut ** 1/2
Without Blood by Alessandro Baricco ***
The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset ***
poetry of R.S. Thomas ** 1/2
Killings by Andre Dubus ** 1/2
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham ** 1/2
Cosmas, or the Love of God by Pierre de Calan ** 1/2
Viper's Tangle by Francois Mauriac ***
A Danger to the State by Philip Trower **
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather ** 1/2
Turmoil and Truth by Philip Trower **
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark ** 1/2
North of Hope by Jon Hassler **
The Clown by Heinrich Boll ***
Exiles by Ron Hansen *

Monday, January 09, 2006

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

Meeting of January 8, 2006
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
In attendance:
Brother Peter
Brother Brendan
Peter Olson
Randy Chilton
Katie Chilton
Regina Ejmont
Imelda Terrazino
Mary (Imelda's sister)
Mary Bellmar
David Buysse

BP: It is interesting to read another book about a religious community so soon after In This House of Brede. I found Brede to be more realistic. I'm also wondering if others found this community to be a normal one into which an unusual person comes, or if this is a dysfunctional community that welcomes hysteria?
PO: They seemed to gossip more than the sisters at Brede, and their mortifications...ew!
RC: I found many joyful moments, rather than joyful persons; the evocation of the natural world and its rhythms and the way in which the community fit into that was well done.
BP: The prose is so vivid that you see the scenes unfold as if watching a film (without necessarily suggesting that the book was written as a screenplay)
RC: However, the characters themselves are flat; I found no development except perhaps in Mariette and the two Prioresses. Was this part of the style? Was there a purpose for this lack of detail in character?
PO: one similarity to Brede was the episodic nature of the plot (perhaps this is related to the fact that it is about the day-to-day round of religious life)
BB: but in Brede you came to know individual characters and care about them
KC: Randy liked it more than I (we read it last weekend); I found many characters annoying, and I had to keep flipping to the front of the book to figure out who they were.
BP: I wish there had at least been some indication of indecision among the sisters with regard to the authenticity of Mariette's mysticism; each sister seemed to take sides right away and stay there. As an example, I would have liked to see the second Prioress waver a little more and maybe start to believe; also, I think that the priest's character is more developed and more synpathetic.
RC: I wonder why Hansen chose this topic and chose to write a sensationalistic novel? Clearly the minimalistic prose is a device (it's not his normal way of writing). At the center of it (for me at least) is the question of faith: as an example, toward the end at collation when Mariette goes into ecstasy and the stigmate appear, everyone sees it. So this is either mass hysteria or they are real; and yet not everyone believes.
DB:Hansen plays his cards incredibly close; at no point can we say for certain whether the phenomena are real. It reminded me less of Brede and more of Aldous Huxley's Devils of Loudun. It is not clear to me that the phenomena were not demonic in origin, and this is a big question about such mysticism: demonic possession is the flip side of divine possession. Also, it is possible for mystics to produce physical manifestations by psychological suggestion, so it could be God, the Devil or the person him or herself.
BP: so the book is about the classic discipline of the discernment of spirits [eds note: in monastic discernment, all thoughts are believed to originate from God, demons or the self]
BB: this book was written [1991] around the time of Medjugorje and other apparitions; perhaps he is dealing with this in that historical context
IT: I did not like this book! What disturbed me was that I finished it and I didn't care about any of the characters; we were just passing through; the author owes more to his readers
MB: [Mary suggested this book, with strong reservations] I liked the prose style but the book troubled me when I first read it many years ago. The communtiy dynamics I found very troubling.
IT: Why was Mariette's sister the prioress at first? This must have meant something, but I couldnt see what.
RC: It's a very ambiguous book. Note that the stigmata appear only after Mother Celine's death, so that triggers it somehow. Was there some kind of sibling rivalry at work perhaps?
DB: This detail adds to the psychological possibilities and helps to provide more explanations so that the final answer remains obscure
IT: I would have liked to know more about her father.
DB: What disturbed me was not the characters, but simply this whole idea of spiritual experience tied to sexuality, Christ as bridegroom, the Song of Songs; very foreign to me.
KC: Hansen hints at ambiguity in her sexual history
(several persons contribute examples: her flirtatiousness, suggestions that she was seen with a young man outside the cloister...)
RE: I was confused by the use of the mass of the day instead of dates.
DB: Why is the Song of Songs even in Scripture?
BB: The Council of Jamnia settled the question for Jews; it was acknowledged that the book represents God's marital relationship with Israel. I think the problem is the word "ecstasy" a pagan concept generally avoided by the Fathers. It literally means standing outside the body or oneself
RC: It interested me that she said that Jesus spoke to her but not in words; so it is about intimacy and after all, mystic experience is by definition beyond expresssion.
My question is this: can spirituality be recognized in materiality when science can't explain it.
BP: I had stronger reservations about the book before the final 40 pages, in which the Church's usual procedures for checking these things was brought out and explained accurately. But yes: objective means must first be used to determine if there is a natural cause: Padre Pio was examined by at least a dozen doctors who couldn't explain his bleeding. Even then, there were and are those who believe he was a fraud.
BB: A rule of thumb is that there can be no contradiction between science and Church teaching. Science may not be able to explain everything, but it can't disprove
DB: In my judgement, Mariette's mysticism is false because she claims that Jesus won't let science look at her wounds--it's hysterics.
RC: But everyone saw it!
DB: Individuals can produce these psychosomatic symptoms.
RC: The book raises another question: What does the world do with a religious event? The world can't accommodate such events in its normal categories.
KC: I wondered throughout what the author believed was the truth; what was his point of view? He is a practicing Catholics

next month:
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Note for our Visitors

Georgia pointed out to me that you have not been able to make comments if you are not 'registered'. I've remedied this by changing a preset on the site. So, go to it! I'm eager to read what you have to say!
Fr. Peter

The Teutonic Knights, Part II

Present: Susan (guest) Mary B., Mark, Br. Brendan, Imelda, Sally, Peter O., Br. Peter,
Regina, Georgia
Br. Peter- Would anyone like to start the discussion?
G- I was amazed at the way this hatred of the Teutonic Knights remained so strong, even in the intervening years…this book was written 500 years or so after the events we read about, right? Were these knights any worse than anyone else at the time?
P- They thought of themselves as better than anyone else, like Liechtenstein, who was "above" even talking to the Poles.
G-would the history be any different if a Teutonic Knight had written it?
R-There was great suffering of the Polish people at the hands of the Teutonic Knights, who wanted more land.
MB-The Frenchman…
R- LaRoche..
MB-he was under the impression that Poles were a backward people, but when he came there, he was shocked at how civilized they were.
Im- Underlying this is propaganda about the T.K.s ; the West sided with them
R- They expanded out of the original stronghold in Mazovia. There is a museum in Malbork that shows the luxurious life of the Knights. They were trained how to lie to Poles and to their own Grand Master.
B- They still exist today.
Sn-What’s their purpose?
P-They’re known as Knights Templar…
B- These are now located in Germany and in Vienna
P- ..have no Grand Master now- they were active until WW1 when the Grand Master died. You can check it our with a Google search…
Im What was their origin? the book shows how evil can creep into what started as good.
MB They came out of the Crusades
B- other orders started then…
BP- like the Knights of Malta who started as those caring for sick pilgrims…
Sn- a hospitalier organization… were the Teutonic Knights monks? Priests?
BP- they were monks, and lived under the condition where clerics could fight with clubs, no swords
Sn- W as there evidence of in-fighting in this order?
Im- I think there was a defined hierarchy which was honored, but there also was deception- like the lying to the Grand Master.
R- There was terrible cruelty, as seen in the torture of Jurand.
Sl- Is this related at all to Quo Vadis?
R- No, (only same author)- that was about the first Christians
M- This was pretty much a story of the crusades…the aftermath of them…
B- If we were to read what the Muslims wrote about the crusades it would be very different..
G- So history depends on who writes it…?
P- I think in today’s cultures Poles are seen as a backward people- not nearly as modern as most Western cultures. (Sl and BP agree)
Sn- I’d like to recommend a movie on the Poles called "Zelary"..
MB- The entymology of the word slave comes from Slav – the reduction to slavery of many of the Slavic people in central Europe …
(Peter and Mary leave for funeral)
Im- I’d like to hear about the crusades and their aftermath-were they good, or a treachery?
G- One of the things Br. Peter mentioned last month was how a war affects the men who fight in it- they come home and don’t fit in…..
Im- Why did the crusades happen?
B- The Holy Lands had been overrun by the Muslims and they were keeping the Christians from going on pilgrimage there…either killing them, or making them slaves. The crusades wanted to make it safe for these pilgrims to travel to the holy places. If the Muslims wrote about this period they’d paint the crusades as an unjust attack by Christians.
Im-Is this what’s going on today in the holy land?
B- No..
Sn- Is it more like kill or convert?
B-There’s a similarity in that there is a religious fervor behind it…
Im- The more one knows about history the more it helps us to understand contemporary intensity of terrorism.
G- Did the crusaders actually make a safe place for pilgrims?
B- Yes- like Baghdad today… We don’t have the intensity of religious faith in the West today…but it’s still present with Islam.
Sl- All this is done because of men running the world- there’s not enough female influence…not tender thoughts about what other people believe…
Sn- To get back to the book…to train men for war has to compromise their religious identity.
B- Not so much just the problem of men, but of politics…the problem includes nationalism
[Some discussion here about nationalism in Europe – how it was unknown during the Roman Empire, but after that empire fell, nationalism developed and became very intense, the cause of wars, and how it is trying to come together again in the E.U.]
G- I’d like to say one more thing that impressed me in the book…it was the chapter where Jurand decided to go by himself and rescue his daughter [ch.32]. This was such good writing..such a development of his character- a change, really…we had known him as somewhat of a tyrant and in this trip he makes into Teutonic Knight territory, he becomes humble, and gives over his life for the sake of, for his daughter…it was very moving.
Im- I totally agree, it was very beautiful.
BP We have to decide how much we’re going to read for next month- do we need two more months to finish it? (There’s a big range of numbers of pages already read by participants!) We’ll play it by ear next time.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Teutonic Knights by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Present: Regina (new member), Br. Peter, Dave, Peter, Mary(guest), Imelda, Georgia.
BP- What sort of person would you give this book to, with it’s medieval culture, and accent on the Church.
R-I think this was one of the most powerful times in Polish history. It’s a very accurate description of the times. The Teutonic Knights, however, were not good examples of Christians. Conrad invited them into the country, probably because of all the goods they brought with them, but nobody else wanted them.
Im- I think the book is compelling on several levels: it’s a great presentation of Polish history, a good description of knightly culture, as well as the social structure. When you compare the Teutonic knights with the other knights in the book, the Polish ones had more integrity, and were less like an army.
G- I like historical fiction-you get to know the people more. If this was just a history book, we’d read someone’s definition of a knight. But in this book, we actually get to know the knights.
R- When the Teutonic knights came home from the crusades nobody wanted them, they didn’t fit in.
BP-This is the same after every war- like Vietnam vets for instance, being unable to settle down…
G- Or after W W1, "How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree"
R- It seems that with all the knights, honor was most important..
P- And that’s the cause of all the problems!
Im- Polish history really comes through. I like the way these knights functioned in the culture, though it seems they were always ready for a fight. There were so many wars…
BP- nothing changes!!…
Im-…we also get to see the social structure.. what was this king the king of?
R- Lithuania, then he married a Polish noble woman- a very holy woman.
Im- There’s also good character development, for instance, (maybe this is further along in the book than some have gotten…) when Zbyszko realizes that he needs more than just physical strength, he needs wisdom as well.
BP-The book brings out how powerful paganism still was. Part of the problem was things such as this royal marriage where a pagan nation (Lithuania) was united to a Christian one (Poland) through marriage. Then all the people in Lithuania were "baptized", but the pagan culture remained.
Im There were still some superstitions even in Poland.
P- This is where state religions came to be.
G-You can baptize someone but they also need to be catechized and evangelized, which takes a long time.
BP- We also see whole countries being baptized when they are the losers in war- a conqueror brought his religion with him. This was not true of Judaism- which mainly fought off new religions.
G- We can see this is the Old Testament in Maccabees, when they refused to take on Greek culture and religion.
Im When the queen died did Catholicism remain in Lithuania?
R- You have to remember that the people of Lithuania largely were of Indian descent- their language was based on the Sanskrit of India, as well as their religion, they were sun worshippers. But Catholicism remained until the time of communism, which completely overtook it, so that if you were openly a believer, you couldn’t get a job or go to school. Polish missionaries were very active there, and helped to re-Christianize them after the fall of communism.
D- The Teutonic Knights were a military order. The top-down approach to evangelization is not the way of the Gospel- especially today’s gospel of the seed being sowed in various soil. Maybe at the time it was the only way it could be done. The problem we have today is that religion is a social thing, not involving conversion.
G The idea of Catholic cultures is very obvious in a place like Chicago, where each culture has its own ways of worship, and devotions, and family life.
R- There were monastic orders of knights, that were evangelizing, not fighting
P- The Teutonic Knights seemed to be anti-culture..
BP- St Benedict was very aware of the problems of bringing cultures into monastery life- for him, as in all monasteries, everyone was equal. Some governments still want to get monasteries on board, to use for their own purposes, like education. In the Old Testament when a conqueror brought a new god the culture didn’t necessarily change.
P- The fact that Sunday is a day of worship goes back to the ‘sun-god’. The Teutonic knights had a code, a sense of culture.
BP We can see the Holy Spirit at work over the years.
D- The Benedictines, compared with military orders, shows the Christian way of peace vs. the world’s where there is much spilled blood. Ultimately all military orders were suppressed. When Christian orders are suppressed, they bounce back.
G- When you (Br.Peter) said governments want to get monasteries on board, what did you mean?
BP As late as the 19th century Emperor Joseph wanted control of monasteries, but the separation of church and state had pretty much been the rule since the Reformation began to pull them apart.
G Maybe that was one good thing that came from the Reformation?
(Discussion by Imelda and Regina on the organization of the Teutonic Knights in Malbork, where if one was a monk and also a knight he wasn’t allowed to take part in one-on-one battles. There was powerful structure in this organization, with high-geared forces which were in wars most of the time. There were also racial wars, each robbing from the other.)
G- I was impressed with the managerial skills of the young Jagienka- it reminded me of Kristin Lavransdatter. I think today’s women could learn much here, about how important the running of a home is, including the rearing of children.
R- Women generally want God to be praised.
BP The presentation of these women is powerful.
R and BP-noted the telling of time by prayers, and how long it took to say them.
For next month we will read to page 500.
Regina is of Lithuanian descent via Poland, and is very helpful in our learning the pronunciation of Polish names. For those not present, I will try to sound them out for you on paper: Sienkiewicz = shin key’ vitch (my apostrophe will serve as an accent mark)
Macko = match’ ko
Zbyszko = zBis’ ko
Bogdaniec = bog dahn’ yets
Jadwiga= yad vee’ ga
Jagiello =ya gee’ lo
Zych of Zgorzelice = zick of zGorza lee’ cha
Jagienka = ya gun’ ka
Powala of Taczewo = pa va’ la of tock zay’ vo
Jurand of Spychow = yur’ and of spee ha’ vo
Danusia is a nickname for Danuta
W is pronounced V
J is pronounced

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Present:Imelda, Mary (guest) Brother Brendan, Mark, Ian, Peter O., Mary B., Brother Peter, Georgia.
BP-(announcement) The planned reading for the summer months, the trilogy by Sienkiewicz, is too long. I think it would be better for us to take just one of his works, for instance, "The Teutonic Knights", and read it over the summer.
As for the "End of the Affair" book, who do you think the protagonist was ?
G- Graham Greene
B- God is the protagonist- he is behind every scene, and mentioned frequently, "We both hated Him"
G- I was serious about Graham Greene- I think it was about his struggle with Catholicism…maybe he’d already converted and was still learning how to live it…
BP- He converted in 1928, I believe, and this was written..when? 1951?
Ian- He wasn’t a good living Catholic
B- WW2 disillusioned him, like Augustine..
Im- Bendrix had to work hard to evade God; it had a "Hound of Heaven" theme; Bendrix seemed to strive to be left out. He seems evil.
B He certainly wasn’t a nice person.
P- He seemed very cruel-you can’t like him, for instance his treatment of Henry.
Im- Even so, God’s not done with him yet…I got that impression at the end of the book..
MB- He only loves whom he hates- he hates God?. I think he has changed, now it’s about God.
BP and Im- (comments about love/ hate)
B- What is the significance of the "Common" in this book- it’s mentioned so often.
Mk- There’s a sort of "common" at school- where everyone meets.
P- It’s a public space..
BP- There’s a dichotomy between public and private- many people keep meeting there but then go off in pairs. It may signify that the Church has to take a public stance, and then be lived out privately; the characters either do this well, or not.
G- Why this frequent mention of love/ hate? Is it because of Greene’s own experience of the
Church and its "restrictions"?
B- Maybe it’s Britains’s antipathy, not Greene’s
G- Bendrix is so evil toward Sarah, and toward the Church; how could Greene know this without personal experience?
MB- He isn’t evil, not snubbing his nose at the Church. I think he was so full of hate and confusion, he couldn’t even see the good in Sarah- the good everyone else saw.
P- He can’t see the good in others- he doesn’t think there’s anything good in humanity…when there is goodness, he has to take them down..
BP- he even insists in cremating Sarah…
G- I didn’t know cremations were ever public like that…
B- I thought it was beautifully written-very good prose..
Im- yes, and he’s a good story-teller, his writing is compelling. I liked the line,"eternity is the absence of time." I found Bendrix to be obnoxiously into himself, but God was still after him.
P- He related to God like he did to people…
B- What made him that way?
BP-He had no friends..
Im- Comparing him to Tolkien, who had so many good friends, and led such a normal, social life.
P-There was a club Bendrix belonged to, but there were only two authors…
BP- nobody showed up…
MB- Why was it set during the war, since he wrote in ’51?
Im-He needed a backdrop for the miracle of recovery from bomb?
P- But why was Sarah out…
MB- …just wandering around..
B- The descriptions of the bombings are marvelous, but yes, that’s a good question…
BP- There a millions of people at war just across the channel, and Bendrix doesn’t even notice; he’s so wrapped up in himself
MB- Does he feel guilty somehow for not being in the war- he had a disability I think.
B- The war only hits home for him when he’s almost killed.
Ian- Don’t be too hard on Bendrix-he brought Sarah to God. The point about Smythe is that hatred of God is two steps closer to God.
B- "People who hate God…" (quote from Sarah). Does this remind anyone of Sebastian? [in "Brideshead Revisited"]
BP Sebastian believed in God, but he didn’t like Him. In the first part of this book Bendrix insists he and Sarah didn’t believe in God.
Im-As I read the miracles in this book I was reminded of Brother Brendan: last month- when I said Helena’s "miracle" was hokey, you called me an agnostic.
G- Last month we also complained about not getting in on very much of Helena’s conversion- and this month we hear almost too much about Sarah’s!
BP- The miracle stories are peculiar, especially Bendrix’s reaction to them.
P- He believes in coincidences…
MB- The movie of this didn’t follow the book well…for instance, they combined Smythe and the priest…
P- And they make a lot more of Bendrix’s death
Im- Are they normal things or are they miracles?
B- Pope John Paul 2 said that God’s hand was in everything…
BP- Bendrix is an essentialist- but he can’t see the importance of sacramentality. He obsesses over Sarah’s body
Ian- her living body- once she died the body didn’t matter
P- He rejected baptism, even baptism of desire
BP- That priest was so patient…
MB and G- Loved that priest- he had great lines…
BP Bendrix insists on cremation, showing his disinterest in the body
MB- I agree-he is somewhat of a believer, but doesn’t want to believe; his need to have her cremated shows his fear of the resurrection. Why is it raining so much of the time in this book…is it really that rainy in England?
G- Why the war? Why the rain?- maybe both were- reasons for everything that was going on.
Im-The rain caused the illness to become serious
B- and the fateful meeting with Henry…
Im-Henry was really intolerable dull, wasn’t he? Why did Sarah stay with him?
G- For security- then she could have as many affairs as she wanted.
P- Marriage provided her with a certain amount of respectability.
MB- Did she really have these affairs? Or were they only imagined by Bendrix?
Im-I thought it was clear they were real..
BP- [-tries to find places in the book where her affairs were attested to, but nothing was certain]
If Henry was boring, that led to his credibility-made the story more realistic; even the dull need to be dealt with.
Im- She was such a free-spirited woman, her life with him seemed suffocating, yet she stayed.
P- She was supposed to be good, rather than evil, therefore she stayed in the marriage.
G- Why was her mother brought into the story?
Im- It paved the way for another miracle..
G-Some of this book seemed contrived…
B-No, not contrived…it’s how we learn of Sarah’s baptism. She also provided some comic relief, as did Mr. Parkis’s son.
G- I saw him more as an abused child- getting exposed to such a business as this..
Im- I agree with Br. Brendan…
BP-Some of the characters bring lightness to the story, we get tired of Bendrix
P- There’s little hope with him…
B- The detective and his boy also give another view of Bendrix-he looked down on them
MB- He……the interview that could have made him someone..
Im- The boy was also the tool to bring in the documents…
BP…It’s time…we need to choose our next book.
"Soldier of the Great War" by Mark Helprin was suggested, as was "In This House of Brede.
Final decision: "The Teutonic Knights", by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
(But add the Helprin book to our list.)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Present: Mary (guest), Imelda, Mark, Peter, Mary B., Katy, Br. Brendan, Brother Peter, Georgia
BP- I have an announcement: our notes will now be entered on line- at a blog site for now, eventually on the Monastery’s web site. This is to facilitate a wider group, including those who want to read along with us but can’t make it to the meetings.
I want to read a quote from the introduction to "Helena" in the Macmillan Publication of this book: they say that this book is similar to Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." And in Waugh’s own words, it’s his best novel, that it was most important as it showed his writing to be a vocation: to write books that only he could write.
B- Notes the joke about author Gibbon in this book; very beautiful writing here, it sparkles at times, as in the description of Constantius’ aging.
BP- Terrific prose; how does it compare with "Brideshead Revisited?"
K-Brideshead is better; the characters in Helena are pretty flat, the canvas is too big and seems to presume previous knowledge of the geography and political climate.
Im- I agree; there’s no character development in this one; in Brideshead I really knew the characters.
B- The real main character here is the Church, as well as creating a mood. I think the death throes of paganism are portrayed in a way that Gibbon failed to do. In Helena we can see the impact this fall of the empire had on the individual; it captures the mood of the day.
G- They were certainly very accepting of the frequency of political assassinations
B- Like our own time.
Im Why did Waugh select Helena…and why did she become Christian?
B- See the preface- the "Invention of the Cross". Christianity was not a human invention.
BP- Christianity is true. She’s a British empiricist, who needed (wanted?) to see for herself the fact of the cross.
Im-I read it differently: she was so fixated on finding the cross, did she convince herself and others that that’s what it was?
G- I think the miraculous things that happen, like Marian appearances, (including the current "Our Lady of the Underpass") are God’s way of getting our attention. But it’s a mistake to have our faith depend solely on these events.
B_ Your questions are truly post-modern way of thinking. At that time they wanted historical things. Christianity’s great struggle was with Gnosticism; Christianity is historical and accessible.
Im- I think there’s too much stress on miracles; when that happens, religion suffers. Why extraneous things?
B- Because the miracle of God becoming man is the basis of our faith. It’s not a word pronouncing salvation, it’s a man.
G- Is the need for miracles dependent on culture? Is our "post-modern" questioning due to, like Helena’s time, one of paganism vs. Christianity?
B- Yes, the Vita Benedicti is evidence that this was necessary.
BP- I don’t think finding the cross led to her having faith, it was the other way around. In one sense this isn’t really necessary, but relics are real and show that we are an incarnational church- not Gnostic, where only the mind matters.
Im- Many things require a leap of faith; incarnation I can do, miracles are harder.
B- Miracles aren’t central to belief but there is a place for them= the healing power of Christ is still here; we believe because we’ve been given the gift of faith- it’s a charism given to the Church.
P- I think it’s also important to see that miracles still happen.
K- I didn’t buy Helena’s conversion-what happened to convert her?
Im- I can see what happened to her son….
K-there’s no witness…
Im- c’mon, Waugh, make something up!
G- Maybe he just wanted to keep the novel short…
B & Im- Her whole life showed an inquisitiveness, she had many questions and conversations about various religions, she showed a sharp mind…she wanted truth.
BP She wanted, facts, truth…the other religions simply were not true. I was disappointed though that there was no conversion story.
K- On page 9…a word of enlightenment…
MB- was this the same as the conversion of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead?
G- maybe we expect her to have had to learn about the kind of complex church we have today, with all its doctrines and liturgies and devotions. Wasn’t the Church much simpler then…you hear about Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, and either believe it or not…
B- There was a fairly well developed catechumanate by then, where the moral life was learned…
K- On page 129 (120?) ..Lactantius’ cryptic answer…
BP- We heard in "Catholic Literary Converts" that Waugh’s own conversion wasn’t spectacular; many writers have the same experience…once converted, they are more or less outcasts from there peers.
G- Most Protestant Churches don’t stress belief in’s mostly seen as a Catholic thing
MB & B- converse about Protestants and miracles…they’re lack of contact with the early Church may be the cause of their unbelief in miracles…
BP- Lack of Apostolic succession leads to immaturity in the faith…that laying on of hands is life-changing.
BP & P to prayer-
MB- I felt the same as Brother Peter about this book
P-I’d like to add a book to our list:"The Name of Rose" by Umberto Eco.
After discussion on list of books it was decided our next read would be "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene.
You can now read these notes on this web site: If you do not have access to the internet, please call me, Georgia, at 708-788-9531 and I will mail you a copy.