What Novels Teach Us

With our new daughter coming (or here, who knows what’s happening, that’s why we’re in reruns [yes I know that’s a run-on, give me a break, Eleanor won’t stop crying]), I’ve been thinking a lot about why novels are important and how I should introduce her to reading. Okay, so maybe our newborn isn’t ready for a letter from my favorite monk who died before she was born. But you might be:

Victorian ShelfieThere is so much to recommend novel reading. Not only are novels perhaps the most delightful invention ever made, but they can improve our capacity for empathy and understanding of the minds and emotions of others. Reading can even be useful for managers who want to improve their ability to think ambiculturally.

But even with all that, I think the most compelling defense of novels that I have ever come across was in the final letter of a monk to his community. You can read the letter in its context here and my post on his passing here.

March 12, 2015

Dear Abbot Gregory and Confreres,

It seems fairly obvious to me that my earthly days are reaching their conclusion. As this comes to be, I would like to say a profound Thank You! to God for life, faith, you my confreres, my family, vocation and friends.

I loved my childhood days in Idaho and have loved my life at Mount Angel over these 63 years. I thank all of you who have been a part of my life at Mount Angel. The monastic life is a wonderful charism in the Church and has resonated well with my life: community, silence, choir, obedience and reading—all growing out of the Liturgy. I have loved the teaching charism in the Seminary. Teaching those who will carry on the faith is a privilege for which I am very grateful.

Some of you may have heard of my plan of life for all of us: Jesus Christ, Church, Liturgy, and novels. (Novels teach us the mystery of the human family—our brothers and sisters on their own journey to the glory of God.)

And so, my brothers, I thank you for the privilege of spending my life in this Monastery with you. Please pray for me and know that I will be praying for you.

In the Lord and Saint Benedict,

Father Paschal

“Novels teach us the mystery of the human family.” Think on that for a moment. All the other reasons to read novels flow from it. We increase in empathy because the more we gaze upon this mystery, the more we see that we share in the same frailty, that we’re the same family. We become ambicultural because all cultures are part of this mystery. This is not a shroud separating us from understanding, but a bottomless well that we can continually look through and discover something new. Have you ever had those moments when you finished a novel and you just had to sit for a moment and let the remembered plot fill your mind and your senses. You weren’t thinking deeply or analytically about it, but you also weren’t ready for the next novel. You were just being with the text. That was when you entered into the mystery of the human family.

I think I’ll stop there before I start feeling like we need another Kirk hug.

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Are Our Souls Compasses?

Don’t worry! My wife is not actually three thousand miles away. This is a rerun post. We’ve either had a baby, or are in labor, or are so close to labor that we’re getting everything together that we need.

This post about poetry and marriage is perfect for Valentine’s day though. Especially since this might just be our last one before Operation Eleanor commences.

So no comments about how I’m a terrible person for leaving my pregnant wife in Oregon. We are both in Georgia.

My wife is three thousand miles away. She is in Oregon finishing up some work and I’ll be picking her up at the airport in a few more weeks with the same excitement of our first date.

Click for SourceWhen we first embarked on this foolish idea of living in different states as I started my work at Emory and she trained her replacement, I had thought of John Donne’s poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” I had almost thought of sending it to her with the same intent of consolation. In the poem, the speaker uses a conceit, an elaborate metaphor that is sustained throughout, to understand the effects of absence. In this conceit, the souls of the lovers are one, like the legs of a compass, which are spatially apart but linked by the same handle and hinge:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

A compass may be a material thing, but this is a disembodied view of love. The soul is given precedence without a body. Other people are “laity” before the “love so much refined” of the speaker and his beloved. Mourning, the pains of the heart, are forbidden before the enlightenment of the soul.

I’m glad that that isn’t the poem I wrote down for her.

As I’m counting down the days until her plane leaves for Georgia, I’m experiencing the mourning that Donne forbids. I miss most the little things, her daily presence. Jack Gilbert describes this in Highlights and Interstices:

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Click for Source

Breakfast Time by Hanna Pauli

“Our lives happen between / the memorable.” All the action of love and familiarity is hidden in the enjambed line. The “two thousand habitual breakfasts,” the whole length of Waller Street, everything. Everything in a space between lines. An absence smaller than the gap between the legs of a compass but deeply felt.

Perhaps this makes me a “dull sublunary lover” but I miss my habitual breakfasts with her most.

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Operation Eleanor


You may have noticed the numbers ticking down on the right over an ultrasound picture. Sometimes we look over at the countdown with excitement. And other times we avoid previewing posts because we don’t want to be reminded how little time we have left to get everything together.

That countdown means we’re very close to the commencement of Operation Eleanor. And that means I’m going to take a little break from the blog.

No worries, I’m not going completely silent. No, we’re going to enter into the time-honored tradition of reruns. That’s right, along with 30 Rock and Star Trek and BtVS, you will also be able to binge some Golden Echo.

The posts will start next week, and right now are planned into early March because, let’s face it, I probably won’t be sleeping much during that time, and I don’t want to inflict that kind of babbling on you.

Until we start our regularly scheduled programming (perhaps with some Eleanor pictures!), I have something you can help me out with.

Below is a board where we’re gathering books that we want Eleanor to grow up with, and we would like suggestions. What are the essentials? What do you wish you had known about from the beginning? What traumatized you as a kid, making you wish you had never read it?


Filed under Education, Operation Eleanor

Discovering the Poetry of Father Hopkins

hopkinsbeechAbove the chair where we’ll rock our daughter to sleep, across from the portrait of Br. Monday, and sharing the same wall as overly-earnest child Flannery O’Connor scowling poring over her book is a print of one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s drawings. The sketch, dated July 25th and probably made during the 1860’s, depicts a beech tree in the center from the perspective of Appledurcombe house where young Hopkins spent summers on the Isle of Wight. The building in the background is the parish church in Godshill.

When I first saw it, I thought with caught breath that I am seeing what he saw, sharing the same experience of my favorite poet. Now our daughter, Eleanor will grow up with that view. She with her “fresh thoughts,” before she ever grieves “over Goldengrove unleaving,” will grow up knowing that this poet existed. I didn’t know there was such a poet until I came across him in a textbook in my last year of high school. The reading was unassigned, and I found him by chance.

It is a strange thing to think about how her experiences and store of knowledge will be built off of ours.

This mystery of discovery and the gift of one generation to another, makes me think about the time before Hopkins. I don’t just mean the time before I knew him, or the time before I will first introduce Eleanor to him, but the time before the world knew him. He was rarely published in his lifetime. Mostly his poems were circulated through correspondence with like-minded friends, like Robert Bridges.

But then, in 1918, his poetry was published by that same friend, the poet laureate. I think this is a fascinating time to look at how the world saw this idiosyncratic Jesuit. Now we tend to use different editions of Hopkins’s works since Bridges took liberties in making changes and set The Wreck of the Deutschland like “the dragon in the gate” blocking our way into the poetry.

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives us a window into the reception of Hopkins right before Bridges published his poetry. In 1914, we have this little description by Blanche Mary Kelly:

Jesuit and poet, born at Stratford, near London, 28 July, 1844; died at Dublin, 8 June, 1889.

His early education was received at Cholmondeley School, Highgate, where he gave evidence of fine intellectual endowments, scholarly tastes, and poetical gifts above the ordinary. The numerous conversions from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church in the middle of the nineteenth century together with the spirit of the Oxford Movement were not without their effect on the young student, and in October, 1866, he was received into the Church. In the following year he entered Balliol College, Oxford, having been prepared for his classical course by Walter Pater. Very soon his religious vocation manifested itself and he left the university, going to the Birmingham Oratory, where he spent a short time with Father Newman. In 1868 he entered the Society of Jesus. After ordination he was sent to Liverpool where his work lay among the poor of the slums of that city. His next post was that of preacher in London, after which he was stationed at St. Aloysius’ Church, Oxford, where the Baron and Baroness de Paravicini have erected a memorial to him. In 1884 he was elected fellow of the Royal University of Ireland and appointed classical examiner at Dublin, where he died of a contagious fever.

While still at school he had written verses of distinctive merit but in his ardour as a novice he destroyed his poems, a single fragment surviving, and he wrote no more for nearly ten years. The poetry which he subsequently wrote at various periods until the year of his death is of a very high quality. It resembles the poetry of Crashaw in its exuberance of language, its lyric qualities, and its daring metaphors. The poems have never been collected, but many of them have been published in various anthologies such as Beeching’s “Lyra Sacra” and Miles’ “Poets and Poetry of the Century”.

Most of the entry focuses on his education and life as a Jesuit. The final paragraph acknowledges he was a poet, and it sounds like he was a pretty good one, like the Baroque poet Richard Crashaw. But his poems are scattered in “various anthologies” and this entry is mainly a note about a marginal character of the Oxford Movement. Nothing about sprung rhythm yet and “exuberance of language” is fitting but doesn’t really tell us much.

Then in March of 1919, the Jesuit periodical, The Month, published a review of the 1918 edition: “Gerard Hopkins: A Recovered Poet.” Written by a fellow poet, Louise Imogen Guiney, the review is ecstatic about the work of a certain “Father Hopkins”:

. . . Not since Francis Thompson have we had so disturbing, debatable, and compelling a poet. . . Let there be no doubt about the worth of Father Hopkins’ literary work. It has winged daring, originality, durable texture, and the priceless excellence of fixing itself in the reader’s mind . . . It is abundantly clear, then, that we all owe Dr. Bridges a debt of profound gratitude.

Of course this is not the only review after the 1918 edition. The Times Literary Supplement fittingly published a review. “Fitting” because Hopkins’s own father, Manley Hopkins had been published by the Times as a reviewer. Theodore Maynard reviewed Hopkins in Chesterton’s The New Witness with “cautious enthusiasm.” And there are other early reviews that you can find in Gerald Roberts’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Critical Heritage.

Though these reviews won’t be her start, Eleanor will grow up with some awareness of Father Hopkins. His collection of poems stays on a little shelf on our coffee table, and his portrait is in our dining room. Maybe she’ll even catch a glimpse early on, rocking under the same view of a tree he saw every summer.


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What to Do When There’s No Inaugural Poem?

There will be no poem at today’s inauguration. The tradition began at Kennedy’s inauguration with a poem by Robert Frost.

I know it’s not an unbroken tradition. Not every president since Kennedy has had an inaugural poet. But this one feels conspicuous.

I’m not surprised that there isn’t an inaugural poet. Who would agree to it? What would they write?

Would it be a lament?

Would the mic cut out?

We won’t know, because there’s no inaugural poet this year.

But we do have a poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. And he began a project where all of our voices are woven together. It was called La Familia, and here’s what he has to say about it:

La Familia (The Family) is an opportunity for you to contribute to an epic poem of all our voices and styles and experiences that will run the span of my Laureateship. By contributing to La Familia, you will be part of my family—and all our words will be seen and our voices be heard, throughout the nation and beyond.

Let’s take a look at a part of it. This is from section 6, “My Democracy”:

I live here.
That’s my democracy.
I live here and you live here and we all live here.
Together. All here together.
And we should listen, hear and act.
As one.

And this

Democracy is a sacred vow
of open minds and caring hearts
to mutual respect, not ridicule,
social equality of all people.

And this

Democracy means we all have a voice,
and we all have to make a choice,
but we have a responsibility
to choose what is right and good
for everyone.

These were all written in spring of last year. Maybe they seem more optimistic than we feel today, but I think it’s times like these when we need to look at our past selves with their hopes and values as we look for ways to preserve la familia.

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Thomas Hardy and his Choirmaster

Thomas Hardy by William Strang 1893Today is the anniversary of Thomas Hardy’s death in 1928. Perhaps you’ve read some of his wonderful novels, like The Mayor of Casterbridge (my own introduction to the Victorian master) or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or my personal favorite Jude the Obscure (which I’ve posted about here and here). But did you know the novelist was also a poet? After Jude the Obscure, he was principally a poet.

Right now, I’m going through his massive volume of poetry as I construct a reading list for the program I’m in, and I would like to share with you one of his poems that resonates with this anniversary. Of course, most Hardy poems resonate with this anniversary, but perhaps you haven’t come across this one before, “The Choirmaster’s Burial”:

He often would ask us
That, when he died,
After playing so many
To their last rest,
If out of us any
Should here abide,
And it would not task us,
We would with our lutes
Play over him
By his grave-brim
The psalm he liked best—
The one whose sense suits
‘Mount Ephraim’—
And perhaps we should seem
To him, in Death’s dream,
Like the seraphim.

As soon as I knew
That his spirit was gone
I thought this his due,
And spoke thereupon.
‘I think’, said the vicar,
‘A read service quicker
Than viols out-of-doors
In these frosts and hoars.
That old-fashioned way
Requires a fine day,
And it seems to me
It had better not be.’
Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.

But ’twas said that, when
At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Thronged roundabout,
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.

Such the tenor man told
When he had grown old.

Want to know what those ghosts were playing? Click here for Benjamin Milgrove’s “Mount Ephraim” tune.

The lines, “That old-fashioned way / Requires a fine day” stick with me. I would hope that Hardy’s wishes were respected more than the choirmaster’s, but it seems only his heart rests where he wanted it, while the rest of him was interred befitting a poet of England in Westminster Abbey.


Burial site of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Photo by Gary Watson CC BY-SA 3.0



Filed under In Memoriam, Literature

6 Hopkinsian Observations on the Epiphany


What an epiphany feels like according to Wikipedia

A grandmother has a gun to her head, as Miss O’Connor tells it, and her “head cleared for an instant.” Luke searches his feelings and knows it to be true, Darth Vader is his father. Stephen Dedalus looks over at a woman in the water, her face “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty,”  and he cries out “in an outburst of profane joy.”

We’ve all had our epiphanies. The moments when we don’t quite know why, but we see ourselves more clearly or realize something that had eluded us before.

When these experiences are expressed in literature, James Joyce’s works seem to be the trope namers. In Stephen Hero, an unpublished manuscript that was influential on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce defines his understanding of the literary epiphany:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

It is in these epiphanic moments that we find “the supreme quality of beauty” as Joyce puts it.

Philosophy professor, Richard Kearney, sees the epiphany as a central aspect of our modern and secular response to the physical world. “Far from banishing epiphanies,” Kearney argues, “secularization can lead to an immanent multiplication of the times and places in which epiphanies are made possible.” But to understand how epiphanies work, how we can find Joyce’s “supreme quality of beauty,” and even how the grandmother can reach for the gun-wielding Misfit with compassion, we need to look at the liturgical Epiphany that inspired the literary epiphany.

To do so, Kearney turns to the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (and you thought this would be a post on Joyce and O’Connor). But instead of the poetry of Hopkins, he turns to the devotional writings of Hopkins. During a retreat in January of 1889, Hopkins wrote on the Epiphany, ecstatically proclaiming that “yesterday I had ever so much light on the mystery of the feast…more than I can easily put down.”

Kearney distills these pages of notes down to six observations that open up the Epiphany, and by extension our own epiphanies, for us.

1. The Magi were strangers

Epiphanies seem to come from outside ourselves. The startling otherness of an object or a situation strikes us in such a way that sparks the realization. As Kearney puts it:

Hopkins makes much of the fact that the three magi were strangers from afar—Gentiles or “Persian Magians,” as he put it, who may have come from the “… borders of India.” They came, he notes, in secret, unrecognized and unannounced; and it is telling that right after their visitation, the Holy Family takes flight into another foreign land, Egypt.

The trope of the divine stranger is common in biblical literature. Consider the story of Abraham and the three angels, here through Robert Alter’s translation:

Rublevtrinität ubtAnd the Lord appeared to him in the Terebinths of Mamre when he was sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day. And he raised his eyes and saw, and, look, three men were standing before him. He saw, and he ran toward them from the tent flap and bowed to the ground. And he said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be fetched and bathe your feet and stretch out under the tree, and let me fetch a morsel of bread, and refresh yourselves.”

Though the narrator reveals that the stranger is divine, Abraham only sees only three men, and yet he still runs out to greet them with hospitality.

In the Epiphany, there is a doubling of this trope. The Magi come as strangers, much as Hopkins felt a stranger in Dublin, but the divine stranger is actually the Christ child.

2. The Magi, unlike the shepherds, come after Christmas

Hopkins notes that the “date of the coming [is] uncertain.” We aren’t quite sure when the Magi come, but we know it’s not simultaneous with the shepherds. Liturgically, these two manifestations, one to the local shepherds and another to foreign Magi, are separated by twelve days. The Shepherd Mass will be celebrated at dawn on Christmas, while the Magi are celebrated today. According to Hopkins, these twelve days equal a combination of the six days of creation and a new set of six for redemption, making “a sort of mystical year, meaning the fulness of time.”

Kearney sees this as a specific kind of time unique to the epiphanic moment. He calls it the “aftering” of the Epiphany, and proposes that “the nativity is revealed in its after-effects.” Like how Dante sees the griffin through the eyes of Beatrice, we see the Christ child through the eyes of the Magi.

And perhaps, that means we also see the Misfit through the eyes of the grandmother, as we’ll see in the next observation.

3. The Magi approach the sign of the star as readers

As astrologers, the Magi read the stars as hermeneutical signs to come to the conclusion that the child in the manger is divine. Hopkins emphasizes that “the star was nothing to ordinary observers, perhaps not visible at all to them.” Perhaps an outsider watching the grandmother would only see an unhinged man with a gun recently escaped from prison, but she sees “one of [her] own children.”

4. The gifts of the Magi are aromatic frankincense and myrrh

The Magi bring “sweet-smelling gifts,” which Kearney notes highlight the “carnal character of the Epiphany.” The epiphanic moment of a divine stranger is decidedly physical and sensual. Abraham sees the three men in “the heat of the day” and then runs out to meet them, offering refreshing gifts. The grandmother reaches out to touch the Misfit. Stephen Dedalus’s moment of looking at the woman in the water is then not a divergence from the liturgical sense of an epiphany but firmly within the tradition.

According to Kearney the very physicality of the Nativity and the Epiphany points to how Christ as divine stranger is in this moment is a homeless child and that “here we have the epiphanic paradox par excellence, of the highest in the lowest, the first in the last, the infinite in the infinitesimal.”

5. The Epiphany as an event is “surrounded by darkness”

The star of Bethlehem shines at night. The Nativity takes place in a dark cave. The Christmas narrative itself is darkened by the flight into Egypt and Herod’s order for the slaughter of the innocents.

In O’Connor’s story, the grandmother is at her darkest moment when she has her realization. Before his own epiphany and after considering “the grave and ordered  and passionless life that awaited him,” Stephen Dedalus is described as “disheartened,” and raising “his eyes towards the slowdrifting  clouds, dappled and seaborne,” he drearily thinks of them as “voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march.”

6. We must read the Epiphany of the Magi with the Epiphanies of the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana

Often we might think of the Feast of the Epiphany as the manifestation to the Magi as representatives of Gentiles. But Hopkins, following an older liturgical practice folded the manifestation to the Magi with the manifestation to John the Baptist on the Jordan and the turning of water into wine at Cana. Take a look at this antiphon, “Hodie celesti sponso,” to see the way the three epiphanic moments revolve together:

Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.

Each separate event is mystically unified through a single narrative. Rather than John baptizing Christ, Christ washes his bride. Rather than bringing gifts to a child in a dark cave, the Magi are wedding guests at the very wedding where water will turn to wine.

Beyond these six observations, though, there is a seventh one that can’t yet be written: our reaction. In the darkness of an epiphany, when approached by the stranger, whether Magi or Misfit, we are faced with a choice. We can reach out to the Misfit like the grandmother, or we can pull the trigger. In his book, Anatheism, Kearney looks at religious stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam where the stark otherness of a divine stranger leads to this choice. “In such primary scenes,” he proposes, “two responses are registered: hostility or hospitality.” Abraham could have coldly ignored the three angels, but instead he ran out to meet them.


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