Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fact, Legend, and the Perils of Modern Hagiography: Andrew M. Seddon’s Celtic Paths

In my most recent post, I talked about the problems created when we insist on “facts” rather than truth – the modern obsession with being “scientific,” as if that were a guarantee of “truthiness.”

The modern Christian hagiographer faces a similar problem when seeking to portray the sanctity of men and women whose lives and deeds are shrouded in (often quite fanciful) legend. Surely it is much easier for a modern writer to deal with a Therese of Lisieux, a Maximilian Kolbe, or a Theresa of Calcutta – whose lives are thoroughly documented (complete with photographs, personal mementos, and video footage), whose miracles have been vetted and certified by scientists and medical experts – than to make a six or seventh century saint emerge from the mists of legend and come to life for modern readers.

Fortunately, however, some writers are willing, and able, to rise to the challenge of bringing obscure ancient saints to life. Several months ago, I commended the first volume of Andrew M. Seddon’s Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints series, called Saints of Empire. Now he has come out with a second volume called Celtic Paths (the full title is Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints: Volume II Celtic Paths). In the new collection, Seddon has taken on an even more challenging task than he did in Saints of Empire: working from confused sources, confusing names, and a tissue of legend and fantasy, he brings to life saints that most of us have never even heard of, such as Ailbhe, Senan, and Tewdrig, as well as others whose names, at least, will be a bit more familiar: Brigid, Columba, and Brendan.

St Brendan and the whale
St Brendan and the whale
(An aside: Actually, I believe I was the one who suggested that Andrew include a story from the wonderful account of the mystical voyages of Saint Brendan the Navigator, whom he originally had not planned to write about. I have no idea whether my suggestion influenced the "science-fictiony" character of that particular tale. In my science fiction novel, which will be published soon, I have named a priestly order of missionaries to the stars the Order of Saint Brendan the Navigator. Learn more about the historical Brendan here.)

I should note that “Celtic” does not necessarily mean Irish. The Celtic peoples, when they migrated to Western Europe, settled all along the Atlantic seaboard, from the northern coast of Spain to the British Isles. Therefore, the stories in Celtic Paths include saints from Armorica (St Leonore) and Brittany (St Ruadhan), as well as others from Wales, Scotland, and, of course, Ireland.

One of the things I particularly like about the stories in Celtic Paths is the way the stories capture the flavor of the ancient Celtic imagination, in which the supernatural realm is not “up there” in the distant heavens, but overlays and penetrates the natural world, bleeding through into ordinary life in a most unpredictable way. In such an atmosphere, we can well believe that an obscure monk might command sea monsters, tame wolves, or even wander into the distant future and return to tell about it. (Yes, all those things happen in these tales.)

Sanctity is much more than wonder-working, of course. After all, in the modern process of canonization, miracles are the last test of sainthood, not the first. The stories also nimbly convey the Celtic temperament, which is seldom one of simpering piety. This brings us to another difficulty that Seddon must have grappled with: how to show the holiness of these obscure, ancient saints. In the author’s Foreward, Seddon admits:
They weren’t all sweetness and light. They could be fierce, impetuous, prone to outbursts of anger, ready to hurl curses, possessed of severity and an ascetical bent. They could also be hospitable, show concern for animals, and enjoy humor over a barrel of ale.
In other words, they were people just like us! I find it refreshing to be reminded that one need not be bland and saccharine to be holy. Many of these saints also share a notable canniness – a shrewd understanding of human nature. This is illustrated in the story of St Colman, who catches the conscience of a king in much the way that Nathan the prophet caught King David's. This shrewdness is not only a sign of their holiness (i.e., they share the mind of Christ, who often knew people just by looking at them), but is also a one of the traits that endears them to this reader.

cover Celtic Paths by Andrew SeddonCeltic legend, both Christian and pagan, is full of wonders, of course. If fantastic myths are all we crave, we need look no farther than the Mabinogion. But the stories in Celtic Paths recount the lives and deeds of holy Christians, not pagans, so the challenge is to hint at their sanctity while preserving the hallowed haze of legend. This Seddon achieves by a variety of means, including acknowledging the iffy nature of legend. For instance, in the story of seventh-century abbot Adamnan who had taken on the task of writing a biography of St Columba, who lived a century before him, Adamnan himself has to figure out how to sift through conflicting, and perhaps incredible accounts, the only material he has to work with.
He wished to be honest. But he also wished to be edifying. And what, really, did he know about a battle fought so long ago? He had heard different reports. Some said that Columba encouraged the battle to avenge the wrongful death of a young man snatched by King Diarmait from Columba’s sanctuary. Such things happened in Ireland. Others said that it was because Columba had made a copy of St. Jerome’s psalter belonging to St. Finnian and refused to give it up. Adamnan couldn’t credit this. Or was Columba involved simply because his royal blood drew him into the conflict between the northern and southern cousins of the Ui Neill? Who knew? So far removed in time, Adamnan felt unable to sort the wheat from the chaff.
I won’t tell you how Adamnan solved his dilemma – read the story if you want to know – but I will tell you that he became famous for his biography of Columba. Andrew Seddon accomplishes a similar achievement in his stories, crafting appealing tales that I think will appeal to a wide audience.

If you like stories about saints (or even if you don’t!), you should definitely try these well-crafted, entertaining tales of Celtic Christians from long ago.

(Full discolosure: I received an advance copy of the manuscript, so that I could write a book blurb for it. You'll see the blurb on the back cover, and inside as well. But I really do like these stories. I'm not recommending them because I got a free book! If you'd like a second opinion, read another review, by a different reader, here.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Truth, Eternity, and Mere Facts

The Magician's Twin
On my way back from a recent meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group, I caught a snippet of Al Kresta’s interview with John G. West, editor of a new book called The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.  West was discussing the philosophical shortcomings of scientism, an ideology that reduces all truth to that which can be verified empirically. Coincidentally, at our writers’ meeting, I’d just had a conversation with a writer working on a short story that explores a similar theme.

This coincidence points to a problem that plagues the modern mind, i.e., the bad habit of confusing mere facts with truth, of conflating knowledge and wisdom. The world we live in today is obsessed with facts, yet has little understanding of (or appreciation for) truth; when scientists claim they know something to be true, we too often take them at their word, never questioning the relationship between particular empirical facts and universal truths. Few scientists are willing to admit the inability of the scientific method to arrive at universal truth (although it can, I believe -- if properly employed -- inexorably approach absolute truth). Anyhow, if you don't believe me, watch this TED talk (since banned from the TED channel for daring to question the dogmas of scientism)by biologist Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge University. (If you like the video, you might like his book as well: The Science Delusion -- recently re-published under the title Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.)

Christians know – or should know – that the most important truths cannot be verified by science. These are immaterial, spiritual, and transcendent, metaphysical, literally beyond the realm of science. (Let us not forget that science can observe, and pronounce judgments on, only material and contingent (physical) reality. If it claims to be able to do more, it lies.) Sadly, the modern age has seen a schism introduced between physics and metaphysics, which at times appears to be more of an all-out war.

‘Twas not ever so, however. Earlier ages (one might say wiser ones) understood that there is more to the cosmos than meets the eye, and until the modern era people had no trouble grasping the idea that the immaterial and transcendent is greater than (i.e. truer and more important than) the merely material, because the former is eternal while the latter is contingent and ephemeral. In ancient times, the imagination was often of more help than the naked intellect in grasping such immutable truths. This is why, at the dawn of western culture, poets were considered something akin to prophets; it’s why Homer and Hesiod invoked the immortal Muse to inspire their writings, so that they could adequately convey the truth about their poetic subjects.

Conversely, even fields that today we would regard as matters of fact – history, for instance – had something in common with poetry, in that the facts of the matter were important chiefly because of the universal truths that they bring to light. (Remember that Aristotle acknowledged that history was “philosophical,” but poetry was even more so.) When Livy sat down to compose his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, he acknowledged that there was scant documentary evidence for many of the legendary figures and events about which he wrote, but he didn’t necessarily see that as a stumbling block. In the preface to that massive work, he wrote:
I do not intend to either affirm or refute those traditions, more suitable to poetic fables than to authentic historical records, which are handed down from times before the founding of the city or from times just before it was founded. …
The traditions he referred to were the legends surrounding the birth and upbringing of Romulus and Remus, who were reputed to be demi-gods fathered by the war god, Mars. After being stolen from their mother and exposed in the wilderness (the “after birth abortion” common in the pagan world), they supposedly were suckled by a mother wolf who heard the
Sons of War God + Suckled by She-Wolf=
The founders of Rome were bellicose and savage,
like modern scientific dogmatists.
pitiful cries of the newborn twins. Livy did not wish to dispute pious legend, because his purpose was not to critique his source material but to expose the moral lessons contained therein, his overall aim in writing the history being the edification of the Roman people, who were greatly demoralized and disillusioned after generations of civil strife. Waving aside the question of whether Rome was literally or only figuratively born from the god of war, Livy goes on to say:
But, however those and similar myths are considered and judged, I myself will give them no importance. In my opinion each reader should focus attentively on these points: what were the life and customs? Through the actions of which men and by means of what skills, at home and in war, was dominion brought forth and increased? Thereafter the reader may follow mentally how morals collapsed, as is characteristic of a thing sitting idle, little by little when discipline was first slipping, then more and more, then began to plummet, until these times arrived in which we can tolerate neither our faults nor the remedies.
In other words, there were moral and civic lessons to be gleaned from this history that transcended mere fact or legend. If Livy had insisted (as a modern historian might) on recording only those public figures and events that could be pinned down with documentary certainty, his history would have been much shorter and of much less value either to his contemporaries or to his posterity.

Mere facts will get lost in the dust of time, but truth will endure.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

Members of the Dallas Chapter of the
Saint Thomas More Society, with
local bishops after the annual Red Mass.
About a month ago, I presented an address to the local Saint Thomas More Society entitled "Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories." This blog was instrumental in getting me the invitation to speak to this group of Catholic lawyers, and the talk I gave drew together a number of things I've discussed here, so I thought I would give the text of the lecture a permanent home here. You can find it by clicking the "Literature and the Moral Imagination" tab at the top of this page. Or just click this link.

Let me know what you think!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Great Free Ebook on Prayer and Holiness

I've been writing and revising my novel, which accounts for the long hiatus from this blog, but also reading things that I'll eventually want to discuss here. Meanwhile, here is a very nice freebie for you that is worth reading: Connie Rossini's Five Lessons from the Carmelite Saints That Will Change Your Life.

Five Lessons from the Carmelite Saints That Will Change Your Life, by Connie RossiniMany years ago, when I was first beginning to learn about prayer, I was drawn to contemplative spiritual writing: St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing (as well as Brother Lawrence -- not sure if he counts as contemplative, but I suspect he does). Although it has been quite a few years since I have read much of any of these, I must have absorbed a lot, which became the cornerstone of my spiritual life. I say this because when I read this little booklet, which summarizes insights gleaned from the great contemplative spiritual writers of the Carmelite Order, I recognized each point as the key lessons I've been learning for more than thirty-five years.

The overall lesson is that we are all called to holiness. Each. And. Every. One. "Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." A daunting task? As this little book points out, it's not something that happens in a day, or a week, a month, but over the course of years, if we persevere.

If you've tried reading St Theresa of Avila or St John of the Cross but found them too intimidating, don't give up. Start over, with this little booklet. You may find that you are already on the way, and farther along than you thought.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Ruminating on The Father's Tale

sheep chewing cud
Here I am, ruminating on The Father's Tale
In Book Ten of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo refers to the memory as “the stomach of the mind” – an image that probably seems strange to many modern readers, but one that has been very useful to me. He wasn’t talking about the kind of stomach we humans have – which are a kind of waystation for food on its way to the intestinal tract – but the kind of stomachs found in sheep (as well as cattle and goats, etc.), i.e., a ruminant stomach. The ruminant stomach stores food until it can later be brought back up and chewed over (ruminated).

I’ve always loved this idea of the memory as somewhere that we store our experiences until we have a chance to bring them back to mind and “chew them over” or ruminate upon them. Animals who literally ruminate (chew food that they have already swallowed) do so in order to get the nutrition out of what they have eaten, and to be able to digest it properly; in a similar way, as Augustine understood, our memory lets us bring back things we have already experienced and not only “taste” and feel them again, but also derive more profit from them than if we just let them sit in our memory unexamined. When we ruminate (in the figurative sense) we get more out of our experiences.

Some of us are more inclined toward rumination than others. I am definitely a “ruminant creature,” and one of the reasons I started this blog a few years ago was to give myself an excuse to ruminate on things I’ve read. In fact, I would say that rumination provides a great part of the pleasure of reading. This is why I prefer to read books that will reward further thought – books that are “good” in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term in An Experiment in Criticism.  One of the problems of reading things that are the literary equivalent of junk food is that they really don’t provide much of a “mental cud” – if you try ruminating on them, you find that there is nothing there.

The Father's Tale by Michael D. O'Brien
A lot of my rumination these days occurs while I am taking a walk along the shore of the lake where I live. There’s no telling what will come to mind as I walk along. This morning, it was Michael D. O’Brien’s The Father's Tale, a book I read a couple of months ago, which I’ve been allowing to sit in the stomach of my mind until it was ripe for rumination. (So I’ll be chewing it over for a while – expect more than one post on this book.) I have been planning to write about this book here, and find that there is a lot to discuss – which suggests that it is a very good book.

You wouldn’t know this from many of the reviews that appear on the internet. Google “Michael D. O’Brien The Father’s Tale” and you’ll find that the reviews that show up in the first couple of pages of results complain a lot about the length of the book (nearly 1,100 pages -- one reviewer suggested that you could trim it down to 300 pages and not lose the "essential story") and the “absurdity” of the plot. Most readers considering this novel will be put off by such remarks and, like the reviewers who say such things, like the rich young man to whom Jesus said, “You are very near to the Kingdom. One thing more is required of you,” they will go away sad, never knowing what they are missing. Or perhaps they are more like Euthyphro, whom Socrates had been guiding toward a true understanding of piety, but quit the discussion at the last minute, saying it made his head hurt and, anyway, he had more pressing things to attend to.

The truth is that this book is probably fare too rich for such readers, who have been weaned on modern novels that traipse expeditiously, and superficially, through plot points to their happy endings. Such books are the literary equivalent of a quick meal at Chili’s. The Father's Tale is not such a one. It is a rich and varied banquet, one to be savored and ruminated before being digested. Just as a banquet is not gulped down in one mouthful, nor quickly digested before bedtime, I don’t think I can do this book justice in a single discussion. So I will discuss different aspects of the book in separate posts. These will not be “reviews” in the usual sense, but reflections on things that I find have spurred my own reflection.  

I’m going to discuss this book as if you all have already read it – so take the spoiler warning as read. Of course, many, if not most, of you have not yet read The Father’s Tale – that’s okay. Perhaps my discussion of it will make you want to read it (I hope so). Let me warn you right now, though, that this is a huge book – both literally and figuratively (nearly 1,100 pages). And it’s a little slow getting started, so hang in there. After the first 75 or 100 pages, though, it just gets better and better and better, right up to the last page.
Reading as adventure, by Alex Vitti
As you read, you may find that book seems constantly to be changing from one kind of story into another – don’t let this upset you. The author has divided it into four separate parts, which suggests that these kinds of changes are deliberate, and together they create the overall architecture of the story. When you have finished, you might want to reflect on how the four parts work together to make the whole. I did this as a formal exercise – as an apprentice novelist, I have adopted the habit of doing a structural analysis of each novel I read, a practice which I find very illuminating, as it gives me a kind of “God’s eye view” of the plot, revealing the integrity of the plot, which may not be evident in a single, superficial reading (the only kind of reading that many novels deserve or require).

If you haven’t read The Father’s Tale, but are beginning to think maybe you should, get started. Don’t rush, but keep going once you begin. Think of it as an adventure – not as if you were jumping on a jet to get from New York to Johannesburg in the shortest time possible, but as if a friend has kidnapped you to take you on an around-the-world ramble whose itinerary is unknown to you. Like Alexander Graham, the protagonist of The Father’s Tale, you will go places you never expected, experience things that may seem unpleasant and uncomfortable at the time, you may even reach a point at which you despair of ever reaching the end of the journey, but at the end you will know that you have been greatly enriched by the experience.

P.S. I just discovered an online magazine on literature and art from a Christian perspective called Ruminate. Give it a look!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Ad Limina, by Cyril Jones-Kellett

Ad Limina: A novella of Catholics in space, by Cyril Jones-Kellett
A few weeks ago, I promised a review of Cyril Jones-Kellett's Ad Limina: a novella of Catholics in space , and I've written and posted it over on my science fiction blog. What I’d like to mention here relates to the “Catholic” aspect of it, something I allude to briefly in the full review:

While the story is, on the face of it, a grand adventure, another way to read it is (and details in the story suggest that this is how the author hopes we will read it) as a spiritual trial, from which the soul in question emerges purified and hardened against the wiles of the Enemy. Bishop Mark Gastelum’s spiritual journey takes him into the wilderness where he is tempted in many ways; at the end, having endured these temptations without succumbing, he is spiritually mature and ready to take on greater challenges.

Modern novels don’t always have a “hero” – in fact, one of the hallmarks of the novel, the thing that distinguishes it from earlier narrative forms, such as the epic and the romance, is that the protagonist is an ordinary person dealing with ordinary human problems (not literally wrestling gods, for instance, as Achilles does in The Iliad). However, as I’ve mentioned before, the Christian writer – at least when he is writing as a Christian – will naturally tend to create a Christ-like protagonist, Christ being the greatest hero of all. This works very well in the modern novel, because Christian heroism is not showy and vainglorious as the pagan epic heroes were. In becoming man, the almighty, infinite God had to squash himself down into a very lowly form, and then proceeded to live a very lowly life and allowed himself to be killed in the most ignominious fashion. So it is perfectly possible, and even fitting, for a modern novel to have a protagonist who is also a Christian hero.

Bishop Mark Gastelum, the protagonist of Ad Limina, is a small man, in his own estimation – that means not only that he exhibits a decorous Christian humility (as we might wish every bishop to do), but also that he underestimates what God will require of him. The journey he undertakes in the novel serves to enlarge him and his view of things, and also to expand his understanding of what it means to represent Christ to a troubled world. Like the Lord he imitates and serves, he is sent away from his cozy world, out into the wilderness of space where he will be tempted and tried in many ways. Like Christ, he will learn firsthand that religious authorities do not always conform to the will of the God whom they putatively serve – his life will even be endangered by some of them.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that most of the temptations that our futuristic bishop feels are those that present themselves to many Catholics today – the temptation to create a “Catholic ghetto,” for instance, in which we withdraw from, and ignore, the troubles of the larger world. The temptation to convince ourselves that some of the more ambiguous lures of modern life really won’t hurt us if we enter into them cautiously or partake of them moderately. The temptation to believe that we can be true Christians while avoiding the real cost of discipleship.

Even if you don’t care for science fiction, I recommend that you read Ad Limina. It is a “good” book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term:
Lewis proposed that we define "good books" not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A "good" book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight.

I believe it is also, as the best science fiction always is, a “philosophical” story, in the sense that Aristotle used that term – it invites us to learn something about the truth of our human condition, by projecting ourselves into the persona of the protagonist. On both these grounds, then, I heartily recommend this book to my readers. Now, go here to read my full review or go here to buy the book (at least read the sample!).

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Novella longa, vita brevis or Why I Haven't Written on This Blog Lately

I thought I would tell you all what I've been up to lately: I've been writing like mad the past few months, but not -- alas! -- on this blog. I've found that I've reached an age where I am willing to admit that multi-tasking is not what I do best. (This has probably always been true, but I'm finally ready to admit it.) So, since I've been trying to get my first novel ready for publication (not done yet, folks!), I've had little time for reading the kinds of things I like to discuss on this blog.

The Father's Tale, by Michael O'Brien
This is not to say that I haven't been reading at all -- indeed, I am now about 850 pages into Michael O'Brien's gigantic novel, The Father's Tale , and when I've read the remaining 300 pages or so, I will definitely want to tell you about it. O'Brien himself describes it as a retelling of two parables, the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd, and it is that, but it's also a romance in the technical (medieval) sense, a quest in which a man goes looking for his son and finds himself in the process.

I also want to tell you about a book I found when I tried searching for "Catholic science fiction" on Amazon -- I discovered a new book called Ad Limina: a novella of Catholics in space , by Cyril Jones-Kellett. It so happens that the author left a link to the book in a comment on this blog a couple of weeks ago, and I've promised him I'll write a proper review of the book, first chance I get.

Another book I hope to read and review soon is D. A. Knight's Cretaceous Clay & the Black Dwarf, written by a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group, whose real name is Alan Brooks. I met him last summer at the Catholic Writers Conference, when he was getting this novel ready for production, and again at our most recent writers group meeting, where he was handing out review copies of his book. So that's in my stack of things to read and review.

If you'd like to know more about the Catholic science fiction novel I am writing, to be the first of a series I call Sancta Futura, please subscribe to my science fiction blog. I hope to put a proper author web site together soon, which will incorporate both this reading blog and my Sancta Futura science fiction blog, but my mono-tasking brain is shrinking from that task. It must happen soon, though, because I need to start making some money, and web sites apparently help do that. I hope to have the novel ready for publication by the end of September.

In the mean time, I'm working on a little pocket prayer book, something that will combine prayers already familiar to most Catholics, with a few treasures from the Anglican tradition. I'm a member of an Anglican Use Catholic parish (St Mary the Virgin in Arlington, Texas), a parish that will officially become part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, as soon as the Diocese of Fort Worth gets a new bishop who can sign the paperwork. Our current Pope Francis, and our two previous popes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, have all made clear that Anglicans coming into the Catholic Church bring with them a precious and distinctive liturgical and spiritual tradition (what Pope Benedict referred to in Anglicanorum Coetibus as our "legitimate patrimony"). So I'm going to try to do my own little bit to share some of the Anglican tradition with the wider Church by including some of the wonderful Anglican collects that anyone can use as part of their own private, devotional practice. This book will also be made available on Amazon and perhaps, later on, through other booksellers as well. If you have a favorite prayer (Catholic, not necessary Anglican) that you think I should include, please let me know!

Making money as a novelist and literary blogger is even more difficult than making money as a musician or artist -- certainly, it takes a lot more time. I've recently begun selling off some of the books that I've had in storage for nearly four years, and it's a painful experience -- mostly because used bookstores pay a pitifully (insultingly) small amount. I've decided instead to sell my books to friends, which is one way of seeing that they go to a good home.

I'm also working on another way to help friends such as you, dear readers, to connect with great books, and this is to build my own personal Amazon bookstore, chock full of books that I've discussed on this blog (and others that I'd like to discuss or recommend). I've already begun building it, and will continue to work on it (it is a slow, tedious business), but you can already shop there. See the tab at the top of this page that says "Catholic Reader Amazon Store"? Click the tab and you will be magically whisked to my personal bookstore. When you buy books from the bookstore, two wonderful things will happen: 1) you will soon be reading a wonderful new book, and 2) I will be paid a small royalty on your purchase, at no additional cost to you.

When you're done shopping, just click the link at the bottom of the page that says "return to Catholic Reader blog," and you'll be right back here. Right now, I've loaded up some of the historical mysteries and science fiction books that I've mentioned in the past, and I'll be adding to the bookstore a little bit at a time.

One section that I'm particularly eager to add will contain works by contemporary Catholic writers, particularly novelists. If any of you readers have books that you would like me to include, please let me know. And if you have any books that you would like me to review, let me know that, too.

UPDATE: Aaargh! Amazon deleted all the books I put in my bookstore. I am rebuilding as fast as I can. Check back in a day or two.