Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.
By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.
By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.
That, friends, is providence.

Lenten Hits: Firelight Fridays

One of the most fruitful family sacrifices we undertook this Lent was to fast from electric lights after sunset on Fridays. We had already decided to abstain from television, movies, and video games for all of Lent, when I ran across an article by well-known atheist-to-Catholic convert Jennifer Fulwiler on the National Catholic Register website: “8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights During Lent.” I proposed to the family that we undertake this fast at least once a week, and we decided on “firelight Fridays”once the sun went down on Friday evening, we would use nothing but candles in our house.

My hope was that, as Fulwiler suggests, this would spark a massive downshift in activity and draw us closer together as a family, around the flickering flames. It did exactly that.

The fact that we had already committed to shutting off the televisions for forty days laid a good foundation for Firelight Fridays, since that caused our older kids to break out board and card games and begin playing together and with Lily in ways we hadn’t seen in years. Soon they were inviting Jodi and me to play. Parcheesi, Sorry, Cribbage, Garbage, and head-to-head Solitaire were the favorites, and as darkness gathered late Friday, we would clear the coffee table in the living room, light several candles on a tray, and sit in a tight circle to talk, laugh, and play together. I discovered that Jazz 88 plays the blues all night on Fridays, which offered a suitable soundtrack to our “penitential” family time.

Usually we played together until some of us grew sleepy, then we talked, sprawled across the furniture and floors, until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Often we went to bed earlier that usual for a Friday, and still felt as though we’d had a very full evening, because our time together had started at sundown and was concentrated on the here and now, with the people we love. In retrospect, it strikes as similar to a silent retreat: when we reduce the distractions that keep our eyes and brains flitting about from one thing to the next, time stretches out and we expand to fill it.

By the end of Lent, I was ready to go full Amish and invest in candles for every day of the week. Lily—who each week would begin a countdown to candles on Tuesday or Wednesday—was close behind in her enthusiasm for continuing the practice.

Jodi and the older kids missed family movies and other typical Friday practices, so we compromised: We agreed that, beginning this spring we will commit to at least one Firelight Friday a month: indoors with candles in bad weather; outdoors at the fire pit in good.

Each Lent I worry that we’ll fall back into old patterns as Easter rolls ’round, and we will lose what we’ve gained from fasting. Yesterday afternoon, I picked up Lily from daycare. We hadn’t left Jennie’s driveway when she asked if she could have a snack and watch a show when she got home.

“You can have a snack,” I said, “but we’ll have to wait and see about a show.”

When we got home, she got herself a snack while I put aside my work and started thinking about supper. Next thing I knew, Lily was setting up Clue Jr. to practice playing it by herself. She made no mention of watching a show for the rest of the evening.

If unplugging and lighting candles can work such a change in our biggest little screen junkie, that, to me, is a sacrifice worth sustaining.

Lightning on the Stone


Blogger’s Note: At the Easter Vigil last night, the Resurrection account was from Matthew. The image of the angel appearing like lightning and sitting upon the stone struck meand Lightning on the Stone seemed like a bluesy spiritual someone ought to try to write. So I did this morning. It’s not quite as raw or ragged as it might be if someone sang it over a blues riff…but I’m satisfied.

In dark we walked to that dark tomb
And darkly dreamt of you
Your broken body sealed in stone
And lost in darkness, too, Lord
And lost in darkness too
In gloom we came to Golgotha
As black gave way to gray
I asked our sister Mary who
Would roll the stone away, Lord
Would roll the stone away
The Skull grinned blue—when like a flash
Of lightning from the Throne
An angel, gleaming white, threw back
And sat upon the stone, Lord
And sat upon the stone
As at the rising of the Sun
The Daystar shares its rays
Just so my face with wonder shone
To hear you had been raised, Lord
To hear you had been raised
The sky above was brilliant blue
As blue as any sea
And we rejoiced to tell that you
Were bound for Galilee, Lord
Were bound for Galilee

Fool for Christ: An Easter Reflection

Such fools, these followers of Jesus. Witless tradesmen, traitors, cowards, and louts, smelling of dust and sweat and fish—with a carpenter to lead them! The honest one, Nathanael, spoke well when he asked, Can anything good come from Nazareth? Yet even he was smitten—by a wandering woodworker!

And then what? This Jesus rides into Jerusalem like God’s gift to humanity, picks a fight with the scribes and scholars, and blasphemes before the high priest. Who could stand for it? They had him flogged and humiliated, beaten within an inch of his life—they gave him every opportunity—and still he would not repent. So they had him crucified.

Great wickedness demands great atonement.

Such disciples! Most of them fled when God’s arm was revealed. Only the young one, John, stuck it out to the end. His mother was there, too, I hear. Poor woman. She raised him right, by all accounts, and this is her thanks: a criminal in an early grave. She must be proud.

They’ve been in hiding since. What would you do, if you left your home and livelihood to follow your heart’s desire, only to see it crushed completely and come to nothing? They say he worked wonders: fed the masses, healed the sick, even raised the dead! But how could that be, unless he came from God Himself? And why would God would allow his servant to be profaned so publicly, so completely—on the Passover, no less! Why could he not save himself?

Unless…

But no. Nothing short of bodily resurrection could make up for so great a loss. For the man Jesus to redeem Himself and his followers, He would have to burst from that tomb of his own accord, bathed in light and breathing God’s own spirit, baptizing in fire as the beheaded Baptist foretold, with angels as His heralds and judgment on His lips. He would have to show Himself victorious over not only worldly powers, but over sin and death itself.

Some say he will. Just imagine: the stone rolled back, an empty tomb, the astonished guards. Imagine the embarrassment of the Romans, the recriminations among the Jewish leaders, the joy and wonder among His followers.

Mercy! Who could stand before so great a Redeemer as that?

On that day, may every knee bend at His holy name. May He find a people worthy to be called His disciples.
And may I be one of them.

Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.