Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review - Citadel of God

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The Roman Empire in the West has fallen and Italy is under the government of the Gothic king, Theoderich. Under his generally benevolent rule, Italy has found security and a measure of prosperity it has not known for a century. But the Romans who make up the vast majority of the population are chaffing under the barbarian yoke. The Young Lions in the Roman senate talk quietly of freedom, but the elders among them--men like Albinus, Boethius, and Symmachus--urge caution. Boethius's young wife, Rusticiana, favors the approach of the Young Lions and a rash comment of hers is taken literally by a boy, Peter, who makes a clumsy and unsuccessful assassination attempt against Theoderich. Peter, injured in body and spirit as a result of his failure, nurses a grudge in his heart against the Goths. He is subsequently entrusted to the gifted young teacher, Benedictus, to see to his moral education.

Thus begins Citadel of God, a wonderful old book by Louis de Wohl. Originally written in 1959, the work is a gripping journey through the history of the early 6th century AD, bringing alive many of the celebrated names of that epoch. As someone with a particular interest in that time period, I found the book to be fascinating. It is sub-titled A Novel of Saint Benedict, and indeed it is. Entire passages in the book are based directly on the biography of Saint Benedict as contained in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. De Wohl's portrayal of Saint Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, is close to perfect. He comes across as a humble wonder-worker inspired by God and driven to do great things for His greater honor and glory alone.

But surrounding the Benedict story is the entire panoply of late Roman history--the triumphs and tragedies of the Justinianic era. It is a tale that few people in our current day know at all, though it is very much worth knowing. Citadel of God reads like a 1950s Hollywood epic and the story itself certainly lends itself to that kind of treatment.

One word of warning: there are a few PG-13 rated scenes in this book. They are nothing a young person over the age of 14 or so couldn't handle, but still--this is not a children's novel. That said, Citadel of God is a wonderfully engaging read, and a good history lesson. I can not recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review - The Search for Saint Valeria

There is something terribly wrong in the fictional Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Catholicism is withering, weighed down by worldly priests and an unfaithful laity. Even Cardinal Fulbright seems more concerned with appearing "modern" than in the glorious heritage and teachings of his Church. But there is an oasis--a traditional parish known as St. Philomena's that is run by ex-cop-turned-priest Father John Baptist. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the unctuous Cardinal tolerates Father Baptist and his Latin Mass parish in the middle of this sea of modernity.

This antipathy toward tradition in fictional Los Angeles means stripping Catholic parishes of their beautiful artifacts--monstrances, ciboria, chalices, vestments, altars, and even reliquaries--and these holy items have been showing up for sale in pawn shops and other seedy places. To top it all off, the Cardinal has even moved the miraculously incorrupt body of the city's patroness, Saint Valeria, out of the cathedral and into an unmarked grave.

However, this final outrage seems to have sparked a string of robberies. Catholic holy items have been stolen from all over the city. Even the Cardinal's own personal chalice, an ugly modern monstrosity, has been pilfered. To solve this string of crimes, the Cardinal calls in Father Baptist. Soon, assault and murder are added to the string of crimes connected with Catholic artifacts and it's up to Father Baptist and his gardener/sidekick Martin Feeney to unravel the mystery.

The Search for Saint Valeria is the third Father Baptist mystery, but it happens to be the first one I have read. Admittedly, I'm not a big mystery fan. But this one held my attention and even made me laugh a few times. It is quite cleverly written and for any Catholic who is aware of the goings-on in the non-fictional Archdiocese of Los Angeles, some of the characters and antics in The Search for Saint Valeria will raise eyebrows and elicit the occasional sigh of disgust.

I recommend this book. If you are a traditional-minded Catholic, you will certainly enjoy it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review - Orthodoxy

I have now read four books by the human quote machine known as G. K. Chesterton, and this one, Orthodoxy, is my favorite so far. In a nutshell, Orthodoxy chronicles Chesterton's own rather unorthodox journey to his Christian faith. Written before his eventual conversion to Catholicism, the work is a mile wide, a mile deep, and has a strong current. It is very easy to get tossed along in Chesterton's stream-of-consciousness. I found it much better to just take it nice and slow, hop from one paragraph to the next, and occasionally re-read bits I didn't get on the first pass.

Chesterton's arguments in favor of Christianity are anything but straight-forward. They are filled with metaphor and allusions, both to literature and to the events of the late 19th century. However, the end result is striking. And the number of brilliant aphorisms that may be mined from Orthodoxy is practically infinite. Here are a few of my favorites:
"Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe."

"Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde."

"Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die."

‎"We have almost up to the last instant trusted newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just as recently, some of us have seen that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men....We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press."

"The man of the 19th century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it."

‎"How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them."
There is also a passage in which Chesterton compares Saint Joan of Arc to Tolstoy and Nietzsche which I enjoyed very much. These quotes should give an idea of how much ground Chesterton covers in Orthodoxy. And this is truly just scratching the surface.

Orthodoxy is a highly philosophical book that deals with a great many abstract concepts. However, if you are interested in philosophy, intellectually curious and want to find out how one of the great minds of the 20th century came to embrace Christianity, you will find Orthodoxy to be an enlightening and very rewarding read.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Egredere si potes

In my youth, I remember thinking how romantic it was that a boy in seminary or girl considering the consecrated life would "leave all that" and run off to be with the girl/boy of their dreams. I remember watching The Sound of Music and thinking, how wonderful it was that Maria escaped from the boring monastery and was able to find "true happiness" in the arms of the gallant Captain von Trapp and his wonderful children.

But now that I am older, that scenario has turned completely upside-down for me. Far from romantic, the conclusion of The Sound of Music now seems almost trivial. Why? It is simply for this reason: because I understand that there can't be true happiness in the world, only temporary contentment. And that what goes on in a monastery is not boring but is instead the most important human activity of all.

This was all brought to a head for me recently by a book I am working on entitled, Leave If You Can. Originally written in German by Luise Rinser, it is the story of two young Italian women during World War II. They boldly leave home to join a communist partisan group fighting the Nazi occupiers of Italy. Though idealistic and atheist, Angelina, the main character, finds herself in an internal struggle every bit as dangerous as her physical struggle against the Nazis. She is in love with the dashing partisan leader, Antonio, but she is mystically drawn to the war-shattered monastery of Santa Maria del Monte. When the war ends, Angelina must decide: will she remain in the monastery and become a nun, or leave and marry Antonio?

How this question is answered in Leave If you Can is so beautiful that it moved me to tears. It makes the conclusion of The Sound of Music seem shallow by comparison.

But it has forced me to wonder: Is this change a product of my age? Perhaps. At nearly 39, I am staring middle age in the face, if I'm not there already. My youth is spent, and now that I view it from the other side, it is easy for me to point out all the places where I went wrong, wasted my time and effort, chased ridiculous fantasies, postponed the crucial elements of life. So is this change the result of bitterness over my lost youth, or because I am wiser than I was?

Perhaps if I explain how this view developed, you can tell me...

If this world were all there is, a young person would be completely right, justified, and intelligent for escaping from the meaningless life of a religious, serving a God who doesn't exist. But God does exist, He does call people, and this world is not all there is. In fact, we are only transients here. Our lives flare and then fade. Before we know it, we are facing death and eternity. And where we end up depends completely on the choices we make--do we follow God's call? Or do we distort it, ignore it, run from it, lie to ourselves about it, pretend it doesn't exist or that we can't hear it?

I have spent most of my life in a spiritual fog. Though raised Catholic, I didn't even know enough to listen for God's call. No one ever taught me how. I didn't know how to pray, either. My only example was my grandmother, coincidentally named Angelina. She was a woman who faithfully said several Rosaries and chaplets every morning. I used to watch her and wonder why she did it. Though she never explained, she gave me many holy cards and other religious knick-knacks. I still have a St. Anthony Chaplet she gave me when I was a boy.

By the time I learned how to pray and really listen for God's voice, the die was already cast for me. I am now a husband and father and am most fortunate that God has blessed me with a magnificent woman and many beautiful children. At this point in my life, God's call for me is crystal clear--to serve them my whole life and do my best to raise them, provide for them, defend them, and help them get to Heaven.

But now, I have caught a glimpse of how utterly wonderful and urgently necessary the religious life is. That which was lacking in my past life--examples of saintly priests and nuns--is now before my eyes. And they have added such a new and extraordinary dimension to my life that at last, I get it. I understand. And I see why the Enemy expends so much effort trying to undermine their faith, destroy them, and abort their vocations before they can grow and thrive. It is because these chosen souls have the ability--and indeed, the mission in life--to lead myriad others, like myself, to Christ who is God. How amazing! That is a vocation beside which my own seems insignificant.

And for that reason, when I watch a clear religious calling vanish before my eyes, it now hits me like a punch in the gut. I think of all the poor souls that person could have reached as a religious, all the prayers they could have offered, all the children they could have taught, all the poor and sick they could have assisted, all the dying they could have consoled, all the souls in purgatory who could have benefited from their devotions, all the future vocations they could have fostered in other young people by their example, and I feel almost as if a great disaster has occurred. If only they understood the true worth of the tremendous gift that God has offered to them.

The world is an extremely enticing place--especially so for those who are young, brilliant, and beautiful. I have come to view it as a literal miracle when such as these, who are called by God, can actually run the gauntlet of temptations to arrive at their religious vocation. So very few of those truly called are able to make it.

So which is it? Have I tapped into something wise, deep, and true here? Or have I merely become a senile old curmudgeon?

Either way, we must all remember to pray for those young people whom God is calling. I still say my old St. Anthony chaplet several times per week. Henceforth, I shall add an intention for all those discerning a vocation to the consecrated life, that God will shower abundant graces on them and give them sufficient courage to live up to their vocation. We need them.

Saint Anthony, pray for them.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Chesterton on Joan of Arc, Tolstoy and Nietzsche

No sooner do I finish a book on Joan of Arc than that same magnificent saint appears in another work I am in the process of reading--Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. His passage on the Maid is so wonderful, I have to quote it in full lest I forget it:
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.

I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.

Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts.
Brilliantly said, Mr. Chesterton. Wow.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Book Review - Saint Joan: The Girl Soldier

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Written by Catholic novelist Louis de Wohl, Saint Joan: The Girl Soldier tells the tale of one of my all-time favorite saints: Joan of Arc. And how can anyone not love the story of St. Joan? It is one of the great epic tragedy/triumph stories of all time.

In the early 15th century, the English dominated much of France. Reeling from defeat after defeat, the cause of the weak French dauphin, Charles VII, seemed on the verge of collapse. But at the exact moment when final defeat seemed inevitable, a young maid arrived on the scene, claiming to be a messenger from God. Her message was simple but impossible: the besieged city of Orleans must be relieved and the Dauphin must go to Rheims to be crowned king. The French nobles scoffed. Why should they ignore their own better judgment to heed the insane exhortations of an ignorant peasant girl?

But there was something very special about Joan. She really did hear voices--the voices of Saint Margaret the Virgin, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and Saint Michael the Archangel. Those who doubted her voices were soon humbled, for Joan's ability to predict future events was uncanny. What's more, she had a much better grasp of military problems than any of the French commanders and her advice, when followed, always led to victory. But when her advice was ignored, the result was always defeat. The mere name of the Maid was enough to rally the French common soldiers and people and soon, even some of the nobles came to believe in her.

She was put to the test at her first meeting with the Dauphin whom she had never seen. When presented before the court, the Dauphin hid himself in the crowd and had one of his courtiers preside. When Joan entered, she immediately picked the Dauphin out of the crowd, curtseyed to him, and said, "Gentle prince, it is you and no other who are the dauphin."

Following a string of incredible victories, Joan's mission was fulfilled: Orleans was rescued and the Dauphin was brought to Rheims and crowned king of France. Not long afterwards, Joan was captured by the English--her voices had warned her this would happen. Following a humiliating and unjust trial, Saint Joan was condemned to be burned as a witch. She died a martyr for Christ and for France.

Louis de Wohl's biography is a fine telling of Saint Joan's story. Though a little heavy on the political details surrounding her struggle--both in the French court and in the tribunal which condemned her--de Wohl paints a compelling portrait of the Maid and her career. This is a book that may be easily read by a child over the age of 10. I read it with my 7 year old daughter and both she and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Highly recommended!

Update, May 29, 2019:

Since I wrote this review, I also have also read and reviewed Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a book that should be read by anyone with even the slightest interest in Saint Joan. It is a unique and fascinating work of literature.

As she is a saint who is dear to my heart, several articles about or mentioning Saint Joan have appeared on this blog as follows: