Book Break: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

I recently finished an English audio version of the 1828 Italian novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni on Audible. I first learned of this book—apparently the most famous and widely read novel in the Italian language—from a post by Joseph Pearce on the Imaginative Conservative website with the provocative title, “The Betrothed: The Greatest Novel Ever Written?” That caught my eye, because, as a somewhat educated person, I had never heard of it.

I also share all this information to distinguish this book from a much more recent young adult romance novel and two-book series of the same name by Kiera Cass. This is NOT that.

Instead, this is a wonderful historical novel set in the 1600s in Lombardy, Italy (pictured above), telling the story of two young, relatively poor, and essentially good villagers preparing for their much-desired marriage, and a cowardly priest who refuses them the sacrament after a tyrannous local lord threatens his life if he should join them. The fearful parish priest is balanced by two heroic clergy, a Franciscan friar who serves as a father and spiritual director to the pair, and the real-life Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the heroic and holy archbishop of Milan, whose pastoral efforts bring about novel’s conclusion.

What struck me most about this novel is how timeless great literature actually is. The book is about many things, each as relatable today as in the time it was set and the time it was written, including:

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Perfection Reconsidered

This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, March 20, 2022, issue of the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin.

Last Saturday, my bride and I went to morning Mass together. In the gospel, Jesus admonishes His disciples, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

I’ve always taken this to be a tall order—impossible, in fact, for anyone but God alone. It almost always makes me feel small, weak, and inadequate to the task. These feelings may be true, but do not seem particularly helpful when it comes to striving for sainthood.

But Father Joe tweaked my thinking with his homily Saturday morning.

“Notice,” he said, “that the Lord doesn’t say, ‘Do everything perfectly,’ but ‘Be perfect.’”

He went on to explain that, with our fallen nature, we cannot expect never to make mistakes—but that we should do the best we can in every circumstance, striving to love as God loves.

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A Long Time Comfortable

This post appeared as a column in the January 16 bulletin for St. Michael Catholic Church. It was written during the cold snap the week before.

As I write this morning, it’s -24 outdoors. That people work outdoors in this weather—expanding our church facilities, for example—is amazing. That people sleep and starve outdoors in this weather while I sit comfortably typing away is tragic and humbling.

The daily readings for the week after Epiphany focus on the love of God, in concept (Saint John’s first letter, explaining that God is love, and all that implies) and in deed (examples of Jesus’ teaching, feeding, healing, and other miracles from Saints Mark and Luke.

The gospel for January 5 was Mark’s story of the feeding of the 5,000, followed by Jesus walking on water and calming the sea. Once Jesus joins His disciples in the boat, Mark ends with this:

They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.

Mark 6:52

My first thought reading this was, “What’s not to understand? How could Jesus miraculously feeding 5,000-plus people harden the hearts of His followers?”

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Learning to Live with Myself

In July of 2019, our family caravanned with friends from Michigan out to Glacier National Park to camp and hike and see the sites. It was a wonderful trip, and for the first time, Brendan’s fiancée (now wife) Becky joined us as well.

One of the characteristics of our family that Becky had to adjust to is the constant crackle of wordplay, sarcasm, and verbal violence dealt out among our members. I remember distinctly the first shot I fired across her bow at the dinner table during one of our first few visits with her. She took it well, with a wry smile and a very deliberate “Wow.”—as in, “Okay, so it’s like that now.”

This is not about that, however. This is about the first real shot she fired back.

We were standing around the firepit at the campground at Glacier, and Brendan was complimenting something he had eaten with Becky’s family: venison meat sticks, I think. I was standing just behind Becky, and as Brendan gushed, I stooped to rest my chin on Becky’s shoulder and gave her my best sideways puppy-dog eyes to indicate how much her future father-in-law would appreciate such delicacies.

She took evasive action, as one might in such a circumstance, and with the same wry smile, said, “You know, you’re basically Bruno in human form.”

I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it again.

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Love Is Necessary

It’s still dark outside, early Monday morning, and I’ve just read today’s gospel. Jesus once again performs a healing miracle on the sabbath, for a woman who has been crippled and unable to straighten her back for 18 years. Once again, the synagogue leader is outraged that the Lord is “working” on the Sabbath, and once again, He sets him straight:

Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering?  This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?

Luke 13:15-16

I close my eyes to reflect: He’s telling them they take time to certain things, even on the Sabbath. They do what they need to do so their animals don’t die. They do what is necessary—but they won’t help this woman. They won’t love this woman, so He calls them hypocrites.

What is He telling them? What is He telling me?

Love IS necessary.

In our current culture, we are less inclined to strictly observe the Lord’s Day by resting from work. But might we abstain from love?

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