Book Break: A Canticle for Leibowitz

LeibowitzBeing without work these past few weeks, I’ve had more time than usual to read. Last weekend, I finished Walter M. Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book recommended to me by three of the smartest men I know. Set in post-apocalyptic America in the centuries following a nuclear holocaust, it tells the story of the monks of the Albertine Order of Leibowitz, who scratch their livelihood from the rocks and dust of the southwestern deserts and dedicate themselves to their founder’s mission of extracting knowledge from the rubble of the previous civilization and preserving it for the future. Continue reading

Book Break: Old House of Fear

While back home in Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend, I had the pleasure of browsing the Mecosta Book Gallery and coming home with my first Gothic fiction work of local literary hero and celebrated thinker and writer Russell Kirk, an unjacketed, former library edition of Old House of Fear.

Too few people, perhaps, know of Russell Kirk today. Even growing up a few miles from the tall brick house where he dwelt and wrote, and with his four daughters not far from me in age, all I knew growing up was that a eccentric writer supposedly lived in that big house. Such knowledge was wasted on my teenage self; had I known he was one of the foremost conservative political thinkers of the last century and a novelist to boot, I may have postponed Yale for a year and ultimately saved myself the trouble and the expense.

But I didn’t — and now I’m playing catchup.

I would describe Old House of Fear as a Gothic men’s adventure story: equal parts ghostly yarn, murder mystery, and manful romance. Our protagonist is sent by his employer, a Scottish-American industrialist intent on buying his family’s ancestral home on the remote Scottish island of Carnglass. The requisite castle has an ominous name — the House of Fear — though in its ancestral Gaelic it would be spelled fir or fhir and means “man.” What begins as a challenging business transaction with a strange old widow becomes a treacherous tale of intimidation, terrorism, and murder, involving Communists and occultists, as well as more run-of-the-mill ruffians, a beautiful red-headed niece who may also be a witch, and the ever-present shadow of a legend: a grostesque, three-eyed goat-man said to haunt the island from time immemorial.

It is a quick and satisfactory read, if a bit tidier than I expected at the end. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it wholeheartedly…if you can find it! If not, I may be convinced to loan it to you!

Book Break: Small Is Beautiful: Economic As If People Mattered

One of my regrets from my college days is not taking any courses in economics. I received a relatively unstructured liberal arts education: aside from a few specific prerequisite courses for my undergraduate degree, all class were divided into four groups, and we had to take a certain number from each group. Math and physical sciences were grouped together, so the classes and labs I took in chemistry meant I didn’t have to take math. I heard only complaints from my friends in economics classes, and since I had so many other interesting classes in the social sciences to choose from, I skipped it.

This teenage shortsightedness bothers me still today, since our news and politics revolve around the economy. E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered recognized this utter domination of economics over all, warned against it, and proposed specific antidotes. Written in 1973—a year before I was born—and recommended to me by a former boss, it strikes me as a book that was likely read, loved, and then neglected by many in the last 40 years as they were swept along by currents too strong to swim against.

With no economic background of my own with which to offer a proper review or critique, I will instead offer a couple of objections and a few ideas I loved from the book.

The most obvious grounds for dismissal of Schumacher’s book for many will be that the alarms he sounded in 1973 were, in retrospect, too shrill—the gloom and doom he predicted, especially in terms of natural resource shortfalls and environmental crises, have not yet come to pass. For some readers, this alone will “prove” that the author obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Schumacher himself, a Rhodes Scholar and economic advisor with the British Control Commission and the British National Coal Board, warned against trying to predict the future. Common sense told him that finite resources can’t last forever, and exploratory calculations suggested that, at the rates of consumption and growth he was seeing in the 1970s, we were living on borrowed time. He acknowledged it was possible that we would find new sources of fossil fuels and other rapidly consumed resources—his point was, to what end? Unless we change our habits, eventually we will suffer.

The second objection was, for me, the more difficult: at this point in his career, Schumacher had strong opinions about what was wrong in the world and what needed to be done about it, and his blunt negative assessments of markets, economists, and motivations in his day leave little room for compromise or evangelization. I found myself nodding in agreement with three-quarters of his writing, only to run against passages about which I thought, surely not everyone in capitalist society is solely motivated by relentless profit-taking?

On the other hand, Schumacher does an excellent job of drawing our attention to the underlying problems with an economic approach to everything. Early in the book  he quotes his fellow British economist (and an early benefactor of sorts) John Maynard Keynes from 1930: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

Is this not contrary to the Christian ideal and common sense? Can fallen man use sin to achieve virtue? Of course not—but he can use his fellow man to achieve personal prosperity.

Schumacher goes on to write, “This was written forty years ago and since then, of course, things have speeded up considerably. Maybe we do not even have to wait for another sixty years until universal plenty will be attained. In any case, the Keynesian message is clear enough: Beware! Ethical considerations are not merely irrelevant, they are an actual hindrance, ‘for foul is useful and fair is not.’ The time for fairness is not yet. The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.”

Lest you think of Schumacher as a naïve idealist imagining utopia, consider that two simple, practical ideas he advocated in his writings were the continuation of coal development and reducing energy consumption. He recognized that mankind is notorious for developing new problem-solving technologies that create new problems; that turning one’s back on an entire energy source on the belief that we could replace it entirely with oil or nuclear energy and meet rapidly growing worldwide demand, was foolish, even if it turned out to be true; and that wasting resources we cannot, ourselves, replace never makes sense.

This, to me, is (at least in part) what conservatism ought to be: maintaining the tried and true even as we explore new possibilities and conserving, even when a crisis is not looming, because it’s the sensible and moral thing to do.

Am I good at it? Not very—but getting better.

His biggest idea, however, was the concept of intermediate technologies for developing countries. Schumacher traveled the world and saw that most economic development supported by wealthy nations not only replicated the patterns of economic dysfunction he was in the developed world, but deepened the economic problems in the developing country for all but a fortunate few.

One example he uses (which I will paraphrase and expand on) is that of a large earthwork project that needs to be done in a developing country. You have a range of options you may employ for accomplishing this work, from people using their hands to scrabble and scrape away at the earth to the most modern and powerful earth-moving machinery. The former approach would cost almost nothing and “employ” a lot of people for a long time at menial and nearly impossible work; the latter would employ relatively few people for a relatively short time, unless the expensive equipment broke down and needed repairs—in which case there would be no parts or expertise locally to fix it. In the middle, however, are a range of intermediate technologies, however, that could put people to work, providing income for their families, value for their time, and dignity for themselves. For example, equipping a hundred men with well-built shovels and wheelbarrows would put those men to work—plus many more making and repairing shovels and wheelbarrows using local materials. The money earned by all those people (instead of just a few heavy-equipment operators) could be used to support other local industries—because what good is producing food or consumer goods if no one has any money to buy them?

There is much to love in this book, including Schumacher’s very Catholic views on the dignity of work and the human person. He speaks against an all-pervasive economic approach to efficiency, which quantifies and assigns value to the incalculable and invaluable. When everything is assigned a value, the sacred (such as human life) is diminished and no longer sacred. He speaks against an approach to labor and productivity that reduces work to individually pointless tasks without freedom or creativity and fails to employ large segments of society that, because they see no value in their time and effort, quickly devalue themselves. And he speaks against the underlying assumption that one who works less and consumes more is better off than one who works more and consumes less.
It is a thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it. 



Book Break: Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero

My first visit to the University of Mary Bookstore, a slim little volume caught my eye, perhaps because I was hungry. The book was titled Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero by William C. Sherman and John Guerrero and is pictured to the right. In proper Polish, the good Father’s name is rendered Walerian Pączek (pronounced va-LAIR-yan POWN-chek, though it appears his Plains parishioners may have said it “paycheck”) and his last name is the singular form of pączki, those stout, fruit- or custard-filled pastries Poles and others enjoy on Fat Tuesday.

I received the book for Christmas and finished it last night. At just 88 pages, it is a quick read, and worth every moment — if for no other reason than to imagine this Polish hero serving as a parish priest in rural North Dakota and recognizing that most of the time, we have no idea what people have been through in their lives.

Fr. Pączek was born in 1909 in East Prussia, a region of Poland which at that time was under German control. He grew up speaking Polish and accentless German, became a Catholic Pallotine priest, joined the Polish Army, served in the British Army after World War II, then moved to the States, ultimately to become a parish priest at historically German and Czech parishes North Dakota. He was quiet about himself and his experiences in the War, so most people had little idea that their Polish pastor:

  • Served in the Polish Home Army (the underground military resistance to the Nazis) under the code-name Germen, providing for the spiritual needs of fighters and refugees with secret Masses and moving intelligence, communications, and large sums of money under the noses of the Germans, even to the Polish government in exile in London.
  • Personally forged documents for Jewish families using the identities of recently deceased Poles gleaned from the growing cemeteries around Warsaw to help them avoid detection by the Nazis. (One of the most compelling scenes in the book is a chance meeting between Fr. Pączek and a Jewish man who escaped to the States from Poland. The Jewish man shows Father his forged documents, and Fr. Pączek rewrites the information on a sheet of paper to show the handwriting is an exact match.)
  • Narrowly escaped death at least six times, was an excellent marksman and carried a handgun during (and after) the war, and was decorated by both the Polish and British armies and recognized by the U.S. Army as well.
  • Was a marked man by the Polish Communist Government after the War — and as a result, spoke little about his service and often destroyed correspondence about it to avoid endangering friends and family still in Eastern Europe (and himself).
  • Spoke several languages and earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate in canon law, which he completed via correspondence to scholars across Europe while serving in parishes in North Dakota.
  • Was known and welcomed by name, rank, and code-name by Pope John Paul II and greeted as Fr. Colonel Pączek by the Swiss Guards when he visited the Vatican.
Juxtapose these facts against this blog post from a former parishioner of Fr. Pączek’s, who recalls going to the Polish priest for Confession because he was more lenient than the other priests in terms of penance, and the words “quiet hero” seem particularly apt. Only at the end of his life did the parishioners who remember him really begin to know him.
The book is clearly a labor of love. Sections of it read like a draft, raising as many questions as they answer — and since so little was known about his life before Fr. Pączek’s death and he was not inclined to make it easy for people to sort out his past, many of those questions and controversies will not be answered this side of heaven. But all told, it is a compelling portrait of a man who shouldered the burdens of war and carried them with quiet dignity all the days of his life.

Headed to the Motherland!

This time tomorrow, Gabe and I will be winding our way through security lines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, preparing to embark on a pilgrimage to Poland to join Pope Francis and millions of other Catholics from around the world for World Youth Day. This will be Gabe’s first flight, first international trip, and first World Youth Day; for me, it’s my second overseas trip (Iceland being the first), one of my two or three longest flights (Iceland and Hawaii), and my second World Youth Day (2002 in Toronto with Pope John Paul II).

For me, it as also very much a journey to the Motherland. My mom is a Polish Catholic farm girl whose grandparents immigrated from Poland in the first half of the 20th century: the Galubenskis and Koczwaras. The Thorp clan is so diverse in its various bloodlines that Polish has always been the nationality I’ve identified most strongly with: it’s the only foreign language I’ve heard older relatives speak, the one ethnic cuisine I’ve had older relatives cook and serve, the language I studied in college, and the only poetry I’ve ever taken the time to translate myself. Poland’s history is deep, beautiful, tragic, and heroic. And even now, remarkably Catholic.

I am blessed to make this trip with a number of friends from here in Minnesota, and especially with Gabe, whose faith as a teen almost certainly surpasses my own. It is my hope that this trip deepens my own conversion and his, so we can be the men God has called us to be with courage, joy, and zeal.

I’m sure I’ll post much more on this trip when we return. Pray for us and for our family and friends while we’re away, and know of our prayers for you! St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Faustina Kowalska — all you great Polish saints and all you holy men and women — pray for us!