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.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Andrew Seddon's Saints Alive!

Saints Alive! by Andrew Seddon
I love the way the blogosphere can bring like-minded people together, especially when it means I get a wonderful new book to read. This happened recently when Andrew Seddon sent me a nice email after visiting my science fiction blog. When I learned he is a writer, too, I asked if he would like me to review one of his books, and he kindly sent me a copy of his Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints.

There are a number of things I like about this book, the first being that he chose to write about saints that most of us probably know very little about (many of whom you've probably never even heard of). The saints selected for this volume all lived in the first four or five centuries of the Christian era, before the Roman empire collapsed, and many of them died as martyrs to the faith. But they lived so long ago that many of them have fallen into obscurity.

For a writer, this presents a challenge, as Seddon admits in his introduction, because so much of the little we do know of these heroes of the early Church is based on legends that have been so embroidered by the Christian imagination that it is difficult to tell how much of what has come down to us might be based on, or at least inspired by, fact.

Why take such a risk? Seddon indicates his reason in the book's forward:
In many ways, Imperial Rome resembled our own culture. Rome was an expanding, powerful civilization which catered to the rich at the expense of the poor. [...] But some refused to collaborate with the pagan society, and paid for their faith with their lives. The situation is no less dire today [...] It is my hope that these stories, based on the lives of real people [...] will inspire us to courage and faithfulness in the challenging times in which we live.
He goes on to say that he hopes the stories will make a valuable contribution to the current Year of Faith, and I think they do.

Bernini's Santa Cecilia

A few of the saints, or at least their names, will be familiar to many readers: St Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop whose letter to the Romans has been preserved; St Cecilia, to whom an ancient church in Rome was dedicated and is often visited by tourists and pilgrims today (and Bernini's famous sculpture also immortalizes her in our imaginations); St Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier turned Christian hermit, who was tricked into letting himself be made bishop. But I'm sure that most of the saints chosen -- Saints Ariadne, Sabinus, John the Dwarf -- will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Despite their obscurity, Seddon manages to shed light on each of them, not by recounting their entire life stories but by narrating a key moment in their lives -- often, but not always, the moment of their deaths -- which illuminates the distinctive  sanctity of each. These moments are well-chosen and well-narrated, turning the accounts into enjoyable short stories as well as instructive examples.

Saints Alive! will appeal to adults and youngsters alike. In fact, I think they would lend themselves to being read aloud and discussed afterward -- wouldn't that make a nice project for this Year of Faith! I think you'll find that these stories really do bring these early saints to life in your imagination. And if you do fall in love with these heroes of the early Church and would like to know more about these saints, you can turn to the "Notes & Sources" at the back of the book.

You might also want to read some of Andrew Seddon's other books.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kindle freebie, Amazon reviews

download my book free
.Just a quick note today -- I'm running a freebie promotion on my little book on all the helpful uses of diatomaceous earth around the home . Saturday, 15 June through Sunday, 16 June, you can download the book for free!

Those who don't have a Kindle can purchase the paperback version, which is currently being offered at a 13% discount.

Anyone interested in having a "greener" home, using healthier products to get rid of bugs such as fleas, ants, even bedbugs, or just "getting back to nature" will enjoy this book. Think of it as my little gift to you. If you like your gift, please post an Amazon review saying what you like.

The Christus Experiment by Rod Bennett
If you'd like to know what I've been reading lately, you can take a look at my reviews on Amazon or on Goodreads. Among new works of fiction I've read lately, probably the most interesting book for readers of this blog is The Christus Experiment, by Rod Bennett, author of Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words. The premise is fascinating -- what if you could go back in time, kidnap Jesus, and bring him into our own day? I got suckered in by the glowing praise by high-profile Catholics such as Mike Aquilina and Mark Shea, but I have to say that this "high concept" novel disappointed me. If you'd like to know why, read my Amazon review.

Right now, I'm reading mostly science fiction novels from the great writers of the '50s and '60s, some of whom I discussed recently on my science fiction blog. If you hop on over there, you can also read my latest post about the novel I'm writing and the series I'm planning. Catholic science fiction! Saints in outer space! What's not to like?