Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Chinese in World War I

A few years back I wrote an article about Lu Zhengxiang, the Chinese Prime Minister who, after leading the Chinese delegation to the Versailles Peace Treaty, became a Catholic monk and priest.

I've now come across this excellent presentation about the Chinese Labour Corps during World War I which puts some of his life in context.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Tolkien and the Great War

With events to commemorate the start of the Great War underway across the world, the BBC have produced this feature on Tolkien and the war.

For the definitive guide to Tolkien and the Great War, one should turn to John Garth's excellent book.

P.S. Other projects have been keeping me busy of late and so this blog is likely to be updated only fitfully for the time being at least. Apologies to anyone who has been waiting for updates.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott recently spoke about being a novelist and a Catholic. It's pretty short and you might end up hitting your head against the desk when you hear one or two of her points but it does at least give us an insight into some of the ideas that feed into her books.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Tolkien and Beowulf

With the news that Tolkien's translation of Beowulf is about to be published (see article here), I thought it might be worth returning to the original. 

There's an interesting parallel text version here and, if you want something a little more visual, a good cartoon version here. What I like about this cartoon is that it retains the alliterative verse so you can really hear the original. It also resists the temptation to throw in gratuitous sops to modern audiences.

I've looked at the Sutton Hoo discoveries with my classes and then looked at the last few lines of the poem. We'll also have some fun with the language.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Great Book and Film Recommendations

It's difficult to find good book lists. Either they're too long or they go into a huge amount of detail. So I was delighted to find this list of books and films on the website of the wonderful Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family

What's particularly interesting about this list is that it is related quite explicitly to research on St John Paul II's Theology of the Body (or Catechesis on Human Love or the Anthropology of Love). I would have thought that the books and films recommended here would be particularly suitable for 15 years + 

Saturday, 10 May 2014


Oasis Journal (from Cardinal Scola's Oasis Foundation) is a real find. It's a great read and it's also a great-looking journal. This is one that looks good on the shelf (and off the shelf too).

The current issue deals with some important issues which I'll return to in another post, but you can also read at least some of the Education issue here.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Hitting the Nail on the Head with G.K. Chesterton

"Most modern history, especially in England, suffers from the same imperfection as journalism. At best it only tells half of the history of Christendom; and that the second half without the first half. Men for whom reason begins with the Revival of Learning, men for whom religion begins with the Reformation, can never give a complete account of anything, for they have to start with institutions whose origin they cannot explain, or generally even imagine. Just as we hear of the admiral being shot but have never heard of his being born, so we all heard a great deal about the dissolution of the monasteries, but we heard next to nothing about the creation of the monasteries."

An extract from St Francis by G.K. Chesterton, published in 1923.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Time to Keep Silence

There are times when the outsiders' perspective leaves the reader with a sense of being slightly short-changed, but there are also occasions when the outsider is able to communicate what he sees with as much (or more) clarity than those on the inside. Take Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, for instance, a great book about monasticism from an acclaimed travel writer.

This passage gives a sense of what you are given in the book as a whole: "Listening to the singing of the Hours in the language of fifth- or sixth-century Western Christendom, one can forget the alterations of the twentieth and feel that the life-line of notes and syllables between the Early Church and today is still intact: that these, indeed, might have been the sung words to which King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha listened when St Augustine first set foot in the Isle of Thanet."

What we have here is a sympathetic author who a) writes beautiful prose b) understands and appreciates the Church's continuity c) to many students' delight, writes a book that weighs in at under 100 pages. 

But those same students might find these 95 pages lexically challenging. Take this extract from page 36: "Tierce ended, the officiating monk entered in his vestments, and the deacon and sub-deacon, the acolytes and torch-bearers. They genuflected together, and the Mass began. Every moment the ceremony gained in splendour. If it was the feast of a great saint, the enthroned abbot was arrayed by his myrmidons in the pontificalia. A gold mitre was placed on his head, and the gloved hand that held the crosier was jewelled at the point of the stigma and on the third finger the great ring sparkled over the fabric. The thurifer approached the celebrant and a column of incense climbed into the air, growing and spreading like an elm-tree of smoke across the shafts of sunlight. The chanting became steadily more complex, led by a choir of monks who stood in the middle of the aisle, their voices limning chants that the black Gregorian block-notes, with their comet-like tails and Moorish-looking arabesques, wove and rewove across the threads of the antique four-line clef on the pages of their graduals. Then, with a quiet solemnity, the monks streamed into the cloister in the wake of a jewelled cross."

Not that the comparative complexity of the language should be a reason to ignore this book. Rather, in much the same way that the author had to adjust himself to the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we, his readers, need to adjust our reading to his language. Just as he had to adjust to the pace and rhythm of the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we need to adjust our reading to the pace and rhythm of his prose. Just as there is a time to keep silence, so too is there a time to read slowly.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Hero on a Bicycle

Shirley Hughes is best known for her Alfie books for toddlers but she recently wrote a book for older children which is well worth reading.

Hero on a Bicycle is set in Italy during World War II and features a Catholic Anglo-Italian family who are, rather unwillingly, drawn into helping the resistance. I won't give away too much of the plot but if you want to read another review from a Catholic perspective that tells you more, click here.

Unlike Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman, this is not a book that is suffused with Catholicism - it seems to be Catholicism from an outsider's perspective - but it is a book which takes the Faith seriously and respects it.

I shall be recommending this book in conjunction with Road to Valor, about another Italian Catholic hero on a bicycle. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Forget the play. Forget the film. Forget, if you can, the songs. Read the book.

It's great.

And it's surprisingly innocent.

There's no ratcatcher here, and no children being snatched from their parents. Quite the opposite. As Frank Cottrell Boyce points out: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is "one of the very few stories in which the whole family goes off on the adventure – usually children have to be sent away to school or evacuated or bereaved or fall through a time vortex before an adventure can start."

So Chitty Chitty Bang Bang really is a book for all the family. And if you want more, Frank Cottrell Boyce has now written three sequels.

If you want a sample, you can read the first chapter of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again here.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Divine Comedy

BBC Radio 4 begins a new dramatisation of Dante's Divine Comedy today at 3pm UK time. It's asking a lot to dramatise it in 3 one-hour episodes but I suppose it's asking a lot to fit a journey from Hell to Paradise into one poem.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Beauty in Education

I realise this might sound like special pleading because one of them mentions my talk in Oxford on Saturday but Stratford Caldecott has a particularly interesting set of posts on his Beauty in Education blog at the moment. The article on Education and Evangelization (with the full version here) is especially good. I hadn't come across this G K Chesterton line before, for a start: 

“Is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.” 


Wednesday, 26 February 2014


While I'm on the topic of Radio 3, I thought I'd mention this week's series of programmes about Forgiveness. On Friday it will be the turn of Catholic poet Michael Symmons Roberts.

And if you need more reasons to listen to Radio 3 (or equivalent Classical Music stations in other countries), just listen out for the number of references to the Mass, the Stabat Mater, the  Salve Regina ... in short, to core elements of the Faith that are simply absent from most people's lives. It's not the only reason to listen to Radio 3, of course, but Catholicism does still have a formidable presence in Classical Music

Sunday, 23 February 2014

El Sistema

There was an interesting discussion about Venezuela during BBC Radio 3's Music Matters programme yesterday. Since this blog deals neither with politics nor with music (for the most part), I'll steer clear of most of the details but the discussion of El Sistema (which has brought us Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra) reminded me of this article by James MacMillan about El Sistema's Catholic roots. You can hear Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, speaking about some of his beliefs here.

The programme also addressed the issue of Richard Strauss's links with the Nazi regime by talking to Christoph von Dohnanyi, one of Strauss's great interpreters, who came from a solidly anti-Nazi family. It raised some hugely important questions which von Dohnanyi dealt with movingly, though there is undoubtedly more to be said. What are we to make, for instance, of Strauss's Alpine Symphony, which he considered naming Der Antichrist? Ideology matters in music as well as in literature but maybe a composer's (or an author's) ideology can be trumped by the audience's (or reader's).  

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Claude McKay

According to the Poetry Foundation's useful website, the poet and novelist Claude McKay "continues to be associated with the phenomenon known as the Harlem Renaissance, though he lived outside of the country for much of the period, and has found new audiences among readers of commonwealth literature and gay and lesbian literature."

He should also find new audiences among readers of Catholic literature because, as this article shows, McKay ultimately left behind communism, Islam and other interests and became a committed Catholic. You can read some of his poems, including some of his late Catholic poems, here.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Oxford Talks

Second Spring is holding its second Interfaith Colloquium at St Benet's Hall, Oxford on Saturday 1st March from 2-5pm. There are going to be some interesting speakers, and I'm giving a talk as well.

The theme of the afternoon is Humanising Work and here's the blurb:

Secularization poses a challenge to religious believers in the practice of their professions, more so as the dominant view creates an environment hostile to traditional conceptions of morality and even social order. Are these conflicts inevitable? What kind of public engagement with these issues would be most fruitful? 

In this series of colloquia, Christian and Islamic thinkers engage in a conversation about notions of society, the secular, and the human vocation. If “the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), such initiatives may make a contribution to the development of a culture of peace. 

2:00 – Crafts: Karim Lahham (Tabah Foundation) 
2:30 – Architecture: Warwick Pethers (Gothic Design Practice) 
3:00 – Teaching: Roy Peachey (Woldingham School and Cedars School, Croydon) and Dr Talal al-Azem (Oriental Institute and Pembroke College) 
4:00 – Discussion: chaired by Stratford Caldecott and Karim Lahham

If you're interested in coming along, it's free admission. For further information contact secondspringltd@gmail.com

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Four Quartets

Jeremy Irons is going to be reading possibly the greatest poems of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, for BBC Radio 4 on Saturday afternoon. An added bonus is that they are being introduced by Catholic poet, Michael Symmons Roberts, Catholic politician Lord Alton, and Gail McDonald, an expert on Eliot's poetry.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas from Millom

I bought my first car, a Citroen 2CV, from Millom, a post-industrial town on the Cumbrian coast. A car like no other bought in a place like no other: I was very fond of them both. 

Millom has two claims to literary fame: the second was Montagu Slater, who wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, but the first was Norman Nicholson, a great Anglican poet who wrote this lovely carol (which has been set to music here and here).

His biography has just been published in anticipation of his centenary next year, so the carol seems a fitting way to offer Christmas greetings to you all.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Toni Morrison - Catholic novelist?

Discussions of Catholic literature don't usually start (or end) with Toni Morrison but, according to John N. Duvall in The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison, there is at the very least a question to be considered. (John McClure, in quite a different way, also considers the question in Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison.) Let's have a look at the evidence.

Duvall points out that Morrison opened a can of Catholic worms in 2003 by revealing that Toni was in fact derived from St Anthony, the baptismal name she took when converting to Catholicism aged 12. In 2005, Morrison was more explicit, telling an interviewer that, "I am a Catholic ... And [referring to Paradise] what saved me was, I think - what helped me at any rate - was knowing that I was going to take religion seriously, I mean belief."

So where do we look for the Catholic Toni Morrison? Her 2003 novel Love sounds as though it might be as good a place as any, though, on first glance, the love in this novel is about as far from John Paul II's Theology of the Body as you could possibly get. 

This is a novel about incestuous desires, murder, gang rape and pretty much every other form of hatred you could imagine. In fact, Hate could just as easily have been the title. As one of the narrators tell us early in the book, "Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy's." Which seems to me true, even if it doesn't much help us figure out what love is or get us any closer to the nature of Morrison's Catholicism.

We assume at first that the love of the novel's title is the love of a number of different women for the same man but, as the novel progresses, the absence of the word as well as the thing itself starts to suggest that maybe something else is going on. It is only towards the very end of the novel that "love" the word and "love" the action begin to appear, and only at the very end of the novel that we discover what L's name means and what its Biblical inspiration is. In true Morrison style, all our expectations are subverted with the act of love which eventually speaks its name revealed as an act of murder. Toni Morrison: Catholic novelist? Not perhaps on the basis of this novel.

So what about Morrison's 2008 novel, A Mercy? Again the significance of the title only becomes clear in the final chapter, where we discover that what appeared to be the most callous of acts - a mother giving up her daughter - was actually a mercy.

It is an act of mercy that Morrison has prepared us for. Earlier in the novel the character who takes the girl mulls over what John Boswell called the kindness of strangers: "From his own childhood he knew there was no good place in the world for waifs and whelps other than the generosity of strangers. Even if bartered, given away, apprenticed, sold, swapped, seduced, tricked for food, labored for shelter or stolen, they were less doomed under adult control. Even if they mattered less than a milch cow to a parent or master, without an adult they were more likely to freeze to death on stone steps, float facedown in canals, or wash up on banks and shoals. He refused to be sentimental about his own orphan status, the years spent with children of all shades, stealing food and cadging gratuities for errands." (30) This might not be what we were expecting but it's powerful stuff.

Morrison's novels are often explorations of community (see Duvall, 158-9) with one of the tragedies of A Mercy being that "Sir and Mistress believed they could have honest free-thinking lives, yet without heirs, all their work meant less than a swallow's nest. Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan." (56) So what alternatives are there to this familial selfishness? As John Duvall points out: "What makes A Mercy different from Morrison's earlier work is that it does not explore the possibilities of black community. Rather, Morrison looks to a pre-US past when the laws that would come to constitute the material privileges of whiteness were only beginning to be written. The setting, in other words, is a multicultural America, prior to the invention of whiteness." (160)

However, we could take Duvall's argument a step further since another community that is fatally compromised in the novel (in this case by sin, slavery and sexual exploitation) is the community of the Church. When salvation, of a sort, comes it is salvation from a Catholic family by means of human intervention: "It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human." (164-5)

So where does this leave us as we consider the question we raised at the start? It may be that Morrison is stretching out towards a distinctively Catholic position in her most recent novels, but it would surely be pushing it too far to see her as a distinctively Catholic novelist. In fact, I suspect that we need to probe that 2003 interview a little further before we can reach any definitive conclusions. It's something I'll try to do in the new year.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Othello as Protestant Propaganda

You can tell things are going well when your students start teaching you. One of my students recently introduced me to this essay on 'Othello as Protestant Propaganda'.

If Iago is a reminder of Sant Iago, a duplicitous, Jesuitical character who also just happens to be a "Moor-slayer", then we have a rather different view of the play from the one we may be used to. Othello's "sword of Spain" from Act 5, Scene 2 gains a wider signification for a start.

If nothing else, such a reading provides a useful counterbalance to the glut of "Catholic" readings of Shakespeare that we have seen in recent years. Clearly Shakespeare was emerging from a Catholic world (and a Catholic family) but he emerged into one that was strongly Protestant.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

C.S. Lewis

With the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis's death approaching later this week, it is extremely heartening to see that his work is beginning to be taken seriously in academia. There has also been an unexpected glut of programmes about him on the BBC. This radio documentary about Lewis and Aldous Huxley (who died on the same day) was fascinating, and I was surprised to hear Screwtape's voice booming from my radio the other day.

It's tempting to see him in Catholic terms, as Michael Coren does here, but we shouldn't underestimate Lewis's emotional and intellectual attachment to what he called in That Hideous Strength (one of his greatest books) the "sweet, Protestant world". It is certainly true that the Church of England has changed since Lewis's day, but it doesn't necessarily follow, as Joseph Pearce argues here, that: "The sobering truth is that even if Lewis had not chosen to leave the Church of England, the Church of England would have chosen to leave him." 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Contemporary French Literature

With the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, due to be awarded in the next few days, I thought it might be worth having a quick look at contemporary French literature. (For previous posts on French lit, click here, here and here.)

Last year's winner was Le sermon sur la chute de Rome by Jérôme Ferrari. I know that I am inclined to grass-is-greenerism but I can't quite imagine a prize-winning novel in the UK drawing its title and its chapter headings from St Augustine.

The year before the prize was won by Alexis Jenni with L'art français de la guerre. What drew most comment was the fact that Jenni was a schoolteacher who wrote this, his first novel, on Sundays when he had a bit of free time, but I couldn't also help but notice his deep-rooted Catholicism.

Another winner of the Prix Goncourt (though in a different category) is Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt with Concerto in Memory of an Angel, which features a story about redemption based around a reworking of the Cain and Abel story.

But it's not just the Prix Goncourt winners who stand out. Another really interesting author is Claire Daudin, who writes clearly in the French Catholic literary tradition. She is not just a novelist in her own right - Le Sourire was the winner of le prix 2009 des Journées du Livre Chrétien - but she is also something of an expert on Peguy, Bernanos and Mauriac.

What else you get in France more than in the UK are translations. So the novels of Catholic novelists like Martin Mosebach (Germany), Juan Manuel de Prada (Spain), Nguyen Viet Ha (Vietnam) and Fan Wen (China) are all much more readily accessible than they are over here.

And if that isn't enough to get you excited, there's a new Asterix book out too.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

National Book Awards

The US National Book Awards finalists have just been announced and among them is Gene Luen Yang in the Young People's Literature section. I have written about Yang a few times before and so I'm delighted to see him on the list.

Someone by Alice McDermott was longlisted but progressed no further.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

More Waugh

Fr Tim Finigan has posted a link to this interview with Evelyn Waugh on his blog. It's full of wonderful one-liners, mainly because he seems to go out of his way to avoid two-line answers. The only time he really gets carried away is when talking about Helena and the True Cross.

I particularly enjoyed his answers about Oxford.

When asked why he chose to go to Hertford College, he replied: "They paid me."

When asked why he got a bad Third he gave an even briefer answer: "Sloth."

"What did you do at Oxford?" the interviewer asked. 

"Enjoyed myself," he replied.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero, Martyr

The novel is the genre of our age, so much so that other forms of writing are often quietly ignored. However, it was not all that long ago that literature meant so much more than fiction. So, for example, I wonder how often Waugh's wonderful biography of Edmund Campion appears on reading lists alongside Brideshead Revisited and The Sword of Honour trilogy (which, incidentally, is BBC Radio 4's current classic serial).

In his preface, Waugh writes: "There is great need for a complete, scholar's work on the subject. This is not it. All I have done is select the incidents which strike a novelist as important, and relate them in a single narrative." For Waugh himself, there seemed to be little difference between his work as a novelist and his work as a biographer.

But what of the book itself?

There are some wonderful passages, as you might imagine. Take this one on Pope Pius V's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth: "It is possible that one of his more worldly predecessors might have acted differently, or at another season, but it was the pride and slight embarrassment of the Church that, as has happened from time to time in her history, the See of Peter was at this moment occupied by a saint."

Or this one describing Campion's prayers in the moments before his execution: "They called to him to pray in English, but he replied with great mildness that 'he would pray God in a language which they both well understood.'" The glory of that put-down is Campion's rather than Waugh's but it could so easily have been a phrase used in a Waugh novel.

In the edition of the book which I have, the subtitle is "Scholar, Priest, Hero, Martyr". I see that's been changed to "Jesuit and Martyr" in the Penguin Classics edition. The former follows the pattern of Waugh's chapter headings. I wonder which subtitle is the one Waugh would have wanted.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Blind Man Who Fought the Nazis

I have just read a remarkable book, And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran. Lusseyran was blinded in a childhood accident but "every day since then," he wrote, "I have thanked heaven for making me blind while I was still a child not quite eight years old." Or, as he put it a little later, "I know that since the day I have been blind I never been unhappy", which is quite a statement coming from someone who only just survived the horrors of Buchenwald. 

One of the fascinations of the book is the way Lusseyran described his experience of seeing. It took him a while to adjust to his blindness but then, "I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within, instead of clinging to the movement of sight towards the world outside. Immediately, the substance of the universe drew together, redefined and peopled itself anew. I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about, a place which might as well have been outside me as within. But radiance was there, or, to put it more precisely, light. It was a fact, for light was there."

He describes going for walks in the mountains with his friend and teaching his friend to see. He describes the inner canvas of memory which expanded (in a way which reminds me of Matteo Ricci's memory palaceto whatever size was required by his extraordinary mind. He describes the importance of others:

"I hear blind people say this kind of dependence is their greatest affliction, turning them into poor relations or hangers-on ... But can these sad blind point to a single individual anywhere who has not been dependent, even with his eyes, not waiting for someone else, nor subservient to better or stronger men or ones far away; not bound in one way or another to every living creature? Whatever the bond, be it hate, love, desire, power, weakness or blindness - it is part of us, and love is the simplest way to cope with it."

Light and love are the book's main themes, with all else being a variation on their beautiful melodies: the war, the resistance, betrayal, even the concentration camp are caught up in the greater music that Lusseyran creates.

The book also has great narrative power, especially when Lusseyran describes his life during the war. As a 16-year old, he recruited 10 friends to a resistance group, only to find that 52 turned up to the initial meeting. Before long there were 600 in the group of which he was the head. 

"Being blind" he writes in another context, "seemed to give me nothing but advantages." But it was true during the war as well. He led his resistance group not despite his blindness but because of it. It was he who recruited and he who could tell, when others could not, who was unreliable, who a spy, who could bring death to them all.

His movement grew in size, merged with another larger group and then was betrayed from within. Along with thousands of others he was sent to Buchenwald. Of the 2000 men with whom he travelled only thirty survived.

But it is the reasons he gives for his survival that set this book apart from many others. Lusseyran is quite clear about what he and his group stood for: "Christian morality and its absolute demands for respect and love." 

After almost dying of disease at Buchenwald, Lusseyran "hardly needed to look out for myself, and such concern would have seemed to me ridiculous. I knew it was dangerous and it was forbidden. I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn towards them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me. ... Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone, sometimes a long way off in another block. ... Hundreds of men confided in me. ... I did my best to understand them all. That is how I lived, how I survived."

And, just in case, this seems too safe, too idealistic, Lusseyran reminds us that he knew full well what depth of evil had been plumbed by the Nazis: "The hardest thing was not the cold, not even that. It was the men themselves, our comrades and other prisoners, all the ones sharing our miseries. Suffering had turned some into beasts. ... For years the SS had so calculated the terror that either it killed or it bewitched. Hundreds of men at Buchenwald were bewitched. The harm done them was so great that it had entered into them body and soul. And now it possessed them. They were no longer victims. They were doing injury in their turn and doing it methodically. The man in charge of our quarantine barracks was a German, an anti-Nazi who had been there for six years. Rumour had it that he had been a hero. Now, every day, he killed two or three of us with his own hands, barehanded or with a knife. He struck out in the crowd at random. It was a satisfaction he could no longer live without."

It is a terrifying description because it is so plausible and yet it is not the only picture to emerge from this book. Lusseyran also describes criminals, even murderers, who become saints. He describes men who refused to bow down before the false gods of the Nazis. He lived on hope and describes it beautifully.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

What Makes Catholic Education Catholic?

... is the title of an interesting article written recently by Mark Brumley, the president and CEO of Ignatius Press. To read it click here.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Shakespeare and memories of Catholicism

I was in the happy position of attending a short lecture last week by Dr Gillian Woods from Birkbeck College, University of London, about whose new book I have written before.

In her lecture, Dr Woods pointed out that there is a surprising amount of Catholicism in Shakespeare's plays, given that the religion was proscribed. The Catholic references range from nuns and friars to pilgrims and pilgrimages, from swear words to "very Catholic metaphors" like the ones embedded in the famous sonnet constructed by Romeo and Juliet at their first meeting:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

What do we make then of what she called this "residue" or "memory of the faith that had been banned and rejected"? It seems clear that there were a range of options available to people in post-Reformation England, ranging from nostalgia to fear, from hatred to acceptance. Many of these responses appear in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, many of them appear within individual plays, creating a complex picture that needs to be read in a historically informed way.

Dr Woods used a helpful metaphor in her lecture, suggesting that the ways in which Catholicism is present in Shakespeare's plays are akin to the ways in which pre-Reformation wall paintings survived in the post-Reformation Church. Many were simply removed. Some were literally defaced (in order to make it clear that the Reformed Church in England was not just a new church but a rejection of the Old Church, that it was - in some sense - still in dialogue with it). And others were whitewashed, perhaps in the hope that they might one day be uncovered, though the images still seeped through. (The definitive work on all of this is Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars.)

I like this last metaphor in particular: we can see Catholicism seeping through the language and drama of Shakespeare's plays without having to get drawn into largely fruitless discussions about his own religious inclinations.

Dr Woods finished by discussing Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, a character whose pilgrimage raises all sorts of questions about faith within the play as well as among critics. The very complexity of her role seems to reflect the complexity of Shakespeare's response to the Old Faith, just as the play itself, in Dr Woods' fine phrase, reveals "the limitations of fiction and the inadequacies of real life."

Thursday, 12 September 2013

What happened to the Catholic Novel?

... is not my question but Toby Garfitt's in the journal, French Studies

Dr Garfitt is a very interesting writer. An academic at Oxford University, he is also an evangelical Anglican who has an interest in Catholic Literature.

In his article for French Studies (an article which is in theory available for free, though the link doesn't seem to work), he argues that: "The idea of a specifically Catholic novel arose during the 19th century". Now this raises all sorts of questions about what might be meant by a specifically Catholic novel but we'll put those questions to one side for the moment.

He goes on to suggest that "it was Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801) that inaugurated the new genre of the Catholic novel as a riposte to the dechristianization associated with the Revolution ... and as the novel rapidly established itself as the major literary genre, a number of Catholic sub-genres developed."

All this is very interesting, though I would have liked to have seen more about Balzac who, by any reckoning, was a major novelist and a committed Catholic. According to Garfitt, "The Avant-propos to Balzac’s Comédie humaine expresses nostalgia for the alliance of throne and altar, but only a handful of the novels, such as Le Curé de village, promote a Catholic sensibility."

Even so, the whole essay is fascinating in its overview of a hugely significant era in literary history (whatever our views might be of the phrase "a Catholic sensibility"). However, what I find particularly interesting is the question which gives the essay its title: the notion that the Catholic novel has disappeared, a notion I just don't accept, partly because I don't buy into many of the literary assumptions that emerged in the wake of Vatican II.  Here's Garfitt again, quoting Bernard Beronzi:

"The most significant date in the later history of the Catholic novel, both as an evolving genre and as an object of criticism, is no doubt 1962, when the Second Vatican Council began its deliberations. By 1980 Bernard Bergonzi could write that since the old Catholic world-view had collapsed and was now replaced by a new ‘humanistic Catholicism’ that was less clearly at odds with the surrounding culture, there was no room for the old-style Catholic novel, and the best that could be hoped for was the ‘Catholic anti-novel’ of such as David Lodge."

However, as Garfitt points out there were still plenty of novelists who did not follow where David Lodge led, including Roger Bichelberger, one of whose novels he (Garfitt) has translated into English. 

The article finishes with these interesting thoughts: "In his most recent study The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 (London: Continuum, 2010), Richard Griffiths correctly emphasizes the importance of the French experience of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the writing of Graham Greene and many others on this side of the Channel, but does not see more recent French writers and thinkers as offering any pointers to a possible reinvention of the Catholic novel. One of his central questions is whether Catholic literature can survive as theology moves on, and it will be interesting to see whether the theologically informed reflections of an influential philosopher like Jean-Luc Marion on love, idolatry and transcendence provide something for the next generation of novelists (in whatever language) to get their teeth into."

There are all sorts of assumptions built into Griffiths' question that we might want to question, especially in the light of Benedict XVI's writing: what theology 'moving on' actually means for a start. But this post is long enough as it is, so I'll return to this and related questions in later posts.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

New School, New Blog to follow

A new school opened in London yesterday, The Cedars School in Croydon. I am not an unbiased observer as I work there but I have to say that it seems to me to be a thoroughly good thing.

The school's blog can be found here and I have posts on Latin here, on History here and on the Liberal Arts here. We have also been able to think afresh about the nature of English in the curriculum: for a quick summary, have a look here

If you would like to come and see for yourself, our next Open Day is on Saturday 28th September between 10am and 1pm. You would be very welcome. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Catholic or Roman Catholic?

A reader wrote this in the combox the other day: "You ought you know to refer to your self as Roman Catholic, as there are other churches, notably the Orthodox, which also call themselves Catholic."

It's an interesting point which deserves a fuller reply. Why do I refer to myself as a Catholic rather than as a Roman Catholic? I certainly grew up (as a non-Catholic) referring to my neighbours, the only Catholics I then knew, as "Roman Catholics", and I remember being rather surprised to be told by an Irish priest that the first time he ever came across the phrase "Roman Catholic" was when he came to England.

So, perhaps it would help - as it so often does - if we look at the history of the phrase. The first recorded use of "Roman Catholic" in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from as late as 1581: P. Wiburn Checke or Reproofe M. Howlets Shreeching f. 27, "The profession of ye Gospel followeth not your Romaine Catholikes." 

In other words, as the other examples in OED make abundantly clear, the term "Roman Catholic" is one that was used about Catholics rather than by them. It was, at the very least, a term of disparagement.

So, the simple reason why I call myself a Catholic is because this is what we Catholics call ourselves. And the reason we call ourselves Catholics is because the Church of which we are members is universal, it is Catholic. It is not limited to one city in Italy. It is not, we Catholics believe, just one church among many.

However, there is a sense in which our Church is very much "Roman" Catholic, as Rémi Brague makes clear in his wonderful book, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (or Europe, la voie romaine, to give it its original French title). 

Brague demonstrates not only that Christianity is essentially Roman but that Europe is too. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that: "'Catholicism' does not exist. In any event, not in the sense that it would be an '-ism' as one speaks of Marxism, of liberalism, or of fulanismo ('any-such-ism') dear to Unamuno. Catholicism is not a system of thought, a school, yet less an ideology. 'Catholic' is first of all a characteristic of the Church, one of its 'notes.' It is not a man, me for example, that is Catholic; it is the Church to which he belongs - and which his sin forbids him from identifying with perfectly." To get the full scope of his argument, you really need to read his book. It's well worth it.

So, to summarise, I am proud to be a (Roman) European and a (Roman) Catholic. But I don't think I need to change the name of my blog just yet.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Boxers and Saints

Yesterday was the saints' day of Augustine Zhao Rong and companions, many of whom were martyred during the Boxer Rising at the start of the 20th Century. 

These amazing martyr-saints are not nearly well enough known in the West but help is at hand from Gene Luen Yang, about whom I have posted before. His new book is, in fact, not one book at all but two, Boxers and Saints, which can be read individually or (even better) together.

To read an interview with the author and to get a sneak preview of the books click here and to preorder (with the opportunity to have your books inscribed in Yang's unique way) click here.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

'Please Look After Mother' by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mother  is a novel that demands attention. It has been translated into over twenty languages, has sold over 2 million copies, and won the 2011 Man Asia Literary Prize, beating off opposition from, among others, Amitav Ghosh, Haruki Murakami, Yan Lianke, and Banana Yoshimoto.

So what has made it so successful?

One potential surprise is that this is a character-driven rather than a plot-driven novel. As the different family members learn what they should have known already about Mother so too do we. There is a gradual accumulation of detail. Revelation is slow. But, because it's slow, it's all the more devastating.

The novel also captures a particular moment in history beautifully. This is a novel about the generation gap, about the problems of modernity. As Kyung-Sook Shin points out in this interview“It’s the mother who goes missing, but that’s a metaphor. It doesn’t have to be the mom who disappears; it could be anything precious to us that has been lost, as we’ve moved from a traditional society to a modern society.” She adds that, “Kids nowadays are definitely different from the traditional generation that came before us. And I don’t think that’s restricted to Korean society.”  

But what really makes this novel is narrative technique. This is how it opens:

"It's been one week since Mother went missing.

"The family is gathered at your brother Hyong-chol's house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mother was last seen."

This is very disconcerting. I am not South Korean. I am not a woman. My mother has not just gone missing. The opening of the novel is therefore deeply unsettling (even alienating in the Brechtian sense). I found myself fighting against it for the first thirty pages or so but, gradually, as the daughter comes to terms not just with her mother's disappearance but also with their limited relationship ("Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers"), I was forced to reconsider my own family relationships. 

Powerful as this opening section is, one of the real strengths of the book is that it does not over-rely on the second person narrative. The second section is written in the third person but with one of the sons as the focaliser. Suddenly we gain another perspective. We learn more about key family relationships. We are back on more familiar ground. 

Only to find that the rug has been pulled out from under our feet in the third section - another second person narrative this time told from the husband's perspective.

By the time we get to the fourth section, where we get to hear Mother's own voice, we feel that we have begun to rediscover her. By realising how badly we have treated her - and we really do feel as though it is we, the readers, who have mistreated her - we come to know her as we have never managed to before.

When Mother speaks (and I won't spoil the plot by explaining the context) we realise that there are many things we have missed. She is a deeply impressive woman, even with her flaws, but a woman we still don't fully know. The mystery of the person is deeper than we have kidded ourselves into thinking that it might be.

So why has this novel been so successful? Because it has something very important to say about the family in the contemporary world and it says it in an unusual and unexpectedly powerful way. 

But there's more to the novel than this. Mother is a Catholic. The novel ends in Rome. In fact it ends with a prayer to Our Lady. A major prize-winning bestseller ends with a prayer to Our Lady. Why? Because it becomes clear that, no matter how much they regret the way they have treated Mother, her children and husband can no longer redeem the past, simply because Mother is now missing. The only possible ending, it seems, is to reach out to another and greater Mother, symbolised in Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's. Just when we think we have got to the heart of the mystery, it opens out before us.

For more on Korean Catholic literature click here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Frank Cottrell Boyce

I have written before about Frank Cottrell Boyce, a fascinating author and all-round nice guy. (See here and here and here.)

One of his strengths is that he is difficult to pigeonhole: a homeschooling Catholic parent who used to write reviews for Living Marxism; a scriptwriter for Brookside and Coronation Street who has a D.Phil in 17th Century History; a co-creator of the Olympics opening ceremony who writes great children's books.

In this interview with The Guardian he makes all sorts of interesting points. I've picked out just a few:

In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the flying car with a mind of its own, he was presented with a readymade vehicle with which to attempt all these things. Compared with the highly personal ideas and experiences that lay behind previous books, the continuation of the Fleming brand looks baldly commercial. But there is charm and humour in Cottrell Boyce's two sequels (the original was published in three instalments: the plan is to copy this formula and call it a day). This is partly drawn from his pleasure in the fact that the original is that rare thing, an adventure story in which the parents are invited along.
"That would certainly never happen in Roald Dahl," he says. "The problem I had with Chitty is that people remember the movie, which is a Dahl movie [Dahl wrote the screenplay] … there's a supercar, a supervillain and lots of sexual perversity." The Fleming original, by contrast, is "very sweet".


Meanwhile Cottrell Boyce and his wife, now back in Liverpool, carried on having children. In all they have seven, aged between eight and 27, four boys and three girls. From his account it is a warm and close family, with the youngest children home-schooled mainly because their parents like having everyone together in the house, but also to shield them from the highly commercialised peer pressure Cottrell Boyce describes as "weaponised advertising". His view of celebrity culture magazines such as Closer borders on disgust.


"Being read to at school changed my life. I really became aware of that during the Olympics because we were all of us in that room drawing on stuff we'd read as children and none of it was stuff we were examined on, it wasn't anything measurable. It was stuff that people had shared with us that we went on to share. If you look at that ceremony and what was in it, it was a sense of wonderment in storytelling. We found we had this common heritage – Mary Poppins and so on."


Although he probably wouldn't say so, Cottrell Boyce is a writer with a clear moral purpose, who believes the whole point of books is to extend our imaginative reach, and give us pleasure in the process. Recently he has been reading stories by George Saunders, recommended by his adult sons, and the children's books of Rumer Godden with his youngest. 

and, finally, 

He says he is slow, prone to distractions, and when asked why he did something often names a person or a favour ("I'm very big on loyalty, very big on friendship maybe").