Best Western Films for Your Summer Watch-list

The best western films to watch this summer

A new season, a new watch-list, this time featuring the best family-friend Western films for summer.

For us, summer means an end to the traditional school year in our household. It means time for extra-curricular we cannot fit into the school year: swimming, baking, sewing, horseback riding, art, soccer and so on. There are so many things.

And of course, as the afternoons heat up, we look for indoor activities to fill the time. This year we implemented tea time. Right around 4 o’clock I pour sweet tea or lemonade or in the toddler’s case, milk, and serve up a treat like scones, zucchini bread, blueberry muffins, fruit, cheese and so on in fancy dishes and we have tea time, which holds us over until dinner time.
The English concept of tea time, I learned is intended to give one a mental boost and hold one over until supper time. High tea would present a larger selection of savory foods and takes place later in the day. Tea time need not be fancy. It is essentially snack time. This new tradition allows me to sit with my children, talk a bit, go over upcoming plans, and review what chores need to be done after tea time. When we finish, they begin their evening chores while I clean the kitchen and prepare dinner. They work better when they see an adult working on chores, too. After that the evening begins, the father comes home, and if we watch a movie that night, this is when it happens.

When summer starts, I go for adventure films: Swiss Family Robinson, Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and the like.

But the hotter it gets in California, the more inclined I am to watch Westerns. I grew up in an age of cynicism regarding this genre, and to be sure, it has many problems. The best western we knew of was Back to the Future III. Over time, I’ve encountered a smattering of really terrific films all available through our local library or Hoopla.

Photo by Sarah Lachise on Unsplash

Stagecoach

1939, directed by John Ford, with John Wayne’s Hollywood debut. You will see amazing stunt work in this film. This is where all the stereotypes from so it’s worth watching to know their source. It is set during the Apache wars and Native Americans are not given a role beyond this. I do not recommend a steady diet of that kind of storytelling but we counteract with some education, good books and more nuanced movies later. Your typical road movie, for all its simplicity, the characters are fleshed out and interesting.

Dodge City

1939, directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Errol Flynn smiles and plays the good guy bringing law and order to a wild western town dominated by murderous bad guys. It’s a mafia movie with horses. Olivia de Havilland writes for the newspaper and is a well-enough written character for the genre. The power of the press is on display as the editor puts his life on the line to print the truth.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

1962, directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Vera Miles. Jimmy Stewart plays a city slicker lawyer representing law, order and education. John Wayne plays the west in which a man “handles his own problems” by packing a gun. The relationships are rich and nuanced, the moral choices are worth a discussion following the film.

High Noon

1952, directed by Fred Zinnemon, starring Gary Cooper with Grace Kelly in her 21-year-old Hollywood debut as a supporting character. He plays an old lawman, she plays a Quaker in a Western that shows establishing law does not come easily or always work as it ought. A man Gary Cooper sent to prison gets out and aims to kill him. He can stand his ground and face the man or run. We get the iconic clock ticking scenes, the shoot-out in the deserted, dusty streets, and the trope of the bad guy using the woman to get the good guy to come out and save her.

Broken Arrow

1950, directed by Delmer Daves, starring Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler. I love this movie. While the female lead character lacks development, like many others, what makes this movie remarkable is its willingness to show good and bad actors on both the US and the Native American side of the Apache Wars. Too many films tell the story, us against them, villainizing either one side or the other. Stereotypes still exist, but if you or your kids enjoy the genre, this one is a must for the list.

Photo by Cayetano Gil on Unsplash

These are the family-friendly films. It’s after-hours when my husband requests we watch The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and yes, Back to the Future III.

Peace in Pregnancy: The Story of the Book

Some authors will say that the first book they write simply pours out of them. Those are the words they stored up all those years. The book practically writes itself.

I felt that way. Journey in Love: A Catholic Mother’s Prayers After Prenatal Diagnosis was my storehouse of reflections, prayers, and anchors during our darkest days. When I signed the contract for that book, the acquisition editor and I negotiated a second more general book to be titled, Peace in Pregnancy: Devotions for the Expectant Mother, to be completed sometime after that first one.

And so it went. Journey in Love was published and around that time, our homeschooling days picked up the fire and I realized I could not work on the additional project outside of summer vacation. We renegotiated the deadline.

And a couple of months before I planned to sit down and get to work, the at-home pregnancy test read positive. I would have to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and write the book on peace during pregnancy while I walked it myself. In the introduction, I shared, “I did not know many moments of peace during my pregnancies, even when the pregnancies were healthy and progressing beautifully, but I sought it and in searching for it, I came to know peace even if I struggled to continue to choose the path toward it.”

Those first drafts were typed out while I waited for the twenty-week ultrasound, which would answer so many questions about whether past diagnoses would be repeated. Like the mother in Sigrid Undset’s Images in a Mirror, once we knew the full measure of sorrows possible in motherhood, the death of a child, each moment of joy and each moment of worry weigh heavier than they ever did before.

There were delays on the editor’s end. It was not until the sleep-deprived months of waking to nurse my hungry, growing, fantastically- healthy daughter that the first edit request came in.

In publishing, at least with Our Sunday Visitor, the non-fiction author turns in the proposal, which contains a chapter or two and an index. After that, the author works away, writing and editing the first draft. That gets sent over. When the deadline passes, the editor works on his or her part and returns it with the requested changes. Back and forth one more time until it goes to the line editors who clean up any grammatical or punctuation errors and then onto layout.

This process was simple when the words poured out of me. But through the haze of first-trimester fatigue and then early infancy, it was challenging. I felt the toll of the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies all of it. So I made the call. We renegotiated the deadline.

My editor understood and supported me by expressing her belief that this would be an important book and that I needed to be the one to write it. I carried those words with me.

Still, the school year passed and I was at a loss of how to make these changes until I sat with a young woman on the patio discussing the trials of motherhood. That night I understood, “write as if it were for her.”

While I struggled on with the ups and downs of the project, another friend said, “Maybe this isn’t for you. Maybe it is for someone else.”

Peace in pregnancy. Peace in pregnancy for a mother after miscarriages, prenatal diagnoses, and infant loss. Peace in pregnancy for the mother who has faced none of that but glows as she moves closer to the introduction of her firstborn. Peace in pregnancy.

A box of copies arrived at my door yesterday. There is something unspeakably overwhelming at seeing one’s name in this way, on the cover of the book, and despite the pains laboring to bring it to fruition, here it is, “Peace in Pregnancy: Devotions for the Expectant Mother” available now at Amazon or at Our Sunday Visitor.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Undset for the Masses

I have Sigrid Undset on my mind these days.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Never heard of Sigrid Undset? You are not alone. 

Undset lived from May 20, 1882, to 10 June 10, 1949. She lived in Norway until 1940 when she moved to the United States to escape the Nazi occupation. She returned to Norway in 1945. Her parents were atheists and Undset considered herself agnostic for much of her life. Like many others, the First World War created a crisis of faith for her, culminating in her reception into the Catholic Church in 1924. Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928 for her epic works set in the middle ages titled Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken

When Undset writes, she is not merely telling a story.

She paints a portrait of a person. What makes her one of the greatest authors of all time is her ability to peer into the fullness of an individual and share the story from that person’s point of view. Every human being has strengths and weaknesses. Every human person has a limited understanding of himself. Events happen, sometimes very big events and sometimes very small events that wake up in us the truth we needed to know or they are the straw that finally breaks us to do what we know to be right. Very few of us get it right the first time. We have illusions of what we can do, of what we are strong enough to withstand, of what we like or dislike. Under these illusions, we may find ourselves in circumstances we never expected.

Undset, unlike so many authors, is capable of seeing the full range of human experience.

She causes you to love a rake like Erland in Kristin Lavransdatter. You pity the hard-hearted daughter of Olav Audensson. You sympathize with the bourgeois bored housewife in Images in a Mirror, and like her, you wonder, is there more than this? Life with four children does seem a drudgery. What took the spark out? These are all questions we ask ourselves in similar situations. Undset saw that even in the most mundane, routine lives, we are still alive, still thinking, breathing, looking about us, and more than anything else, we are still longing. 

What will we do with this longing?

The time and period in which Undset writes are so pivotal in grasping the magnitude of her questions are asking. She lives in a secularized Lutheran anti-Catholic modern world of artists and writers to whom love, truth, and beauty are ideals of a distant past with no bearing on today. Marriage is nothing. Divorce is nothing. Sex outside of marriage is nothing. It all comes to naught. We have not even free will, only what we feel.

What a perfect backdrop to place a woman who married for love, bore children she loves, and is loved by a faithful hardworking husband who will find a way to give her the rest she needs after an illness. 

Undset wrote, Images in a Mirror in 1917, six years after the startling and heartbreaking Jenny (1911), two years before her marriage fell apart while on holiday (1919), three years before she published Kristin Lavransdatter (1920), and seven years before she converted to the Catholic Church (1924). 

These dates matter intensely when we consider the values of which Undset writes.

For the artist who moves from atheism to Christianity the jump in worldview is considerable. We see her through her characters, searching, responding to that longing that there must be something more. Undset is not afraid to write herself into her characters. What makes her magnificent is that she does not do only this, she also considers and explores the multiple facets of those her characters encounter. 

It is not always perfect.

I’m not sure Vegard is as clear as he might be in the beginning, the only time the reader is allowed his perspective. I want to go back and see, is this man, this salesman, she later calls him, painted as fully as he might in the beginning? Perhaps not.

Nor are those in the life of Paul, the protagonist of The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush. In those works, we never see beyond his perspective. The outside characters are flat when compared to the depths of those supporting roles in other works. And yet, Paul himself is a little obtuse when it comes to what he sees in others. Like many artistic temperaments, he is consumed by the fire that burns within him such that he cannot see straight. He is lit from within and pursues the ideas as much as he humanly can.

In Images in a Mirror, Undset also considers the artistic temperament from the way an outsider reads to it to how it is truly experienced. With so many competing passions, the artist follows the one that cries the loudest. But that voice must be quieted if we are to do what is right.

Did Undset face these same issues?

I have not yet read her autobiography or biographies on her. It can wait a little longer. To explore and consider the fictional characters created by this remarkable woman is enough for me right now.

I think it’s probably always best to start with what is considered an author’s best work. Kristin Lavransdatter translated by Tina Nunnelly may be the best place to start. For a collection of her lesser-known works, check out the selection at Cluny Media. 

Death, be not proud

The poet behind “Death, Be Not Proud”

John Donne, the poet behind “Death, Be Not Proud”

John Donne, who wrote “Death, be not proud,” lived from January 22, 1572, to March 31, 1631. He was an English poet, scholar, soldier, and secretary whose life shifted dramatically over the years. According to Arthur Christopher Schaper writing for The Epoch Times, “The early Donne was the passionate lover and rebel of sense; the later Donne, a man consumed with his spiritual journey and search for truth.”

The emotional rapture of adventure, poverty to pay for it, then of love, then of a secret marriage, fatherhood, to the grief of a stillborn child, increasing financial security after the social and professional punishments following their elopement, to widowhood, and finally, to consistent financial security, Donne’s life mirror the epic wave of the greatest poems. 

While manuscripts of his poetry circulated during his life, his poems, including Sonnet X of his Holy Sonnets, also called “Death, be not proud,” were not published until 1633. He composed the poem between February and August in 1609, 8 years after his marriage, but before he would undergo the greatest moments of suffering in his life.

It holds hope in its hand, and I imagine, becomes one of those treasures a soul returns to after suffering to think of how soothing a balm it is. Like the Transfiguration, this wisdom was revealed to him, perhaps to assist him in the days to come.

The poem speaks to Death personified. 

Image of the Grim Reaper

What else do we call him? The Grim Reaper, Thantos, Banshee, Hel, Santa Muerte, and so on. 

Encyclopedia.com dates this concept back to the ancient world coming emerging into the “mighty and dreadful” persona Donne confronts in the middle ages. Death has been personified through the ages; in the ancient world as a feminine figure, and from classical Greek civilization to the present as a masculine figure. When the plague raged throughout Europe, death acquired a violent, frightening, and macabre image. The image of the “grim reaper” is preserved in art and literature, and in people’s minds, to the present day.”

In this understanding, Death acquires mysterious power, taking those we are powerless to save. It overthrows, as the poem says.

Yet, the poet, quietly so, challenges that idea. 

for thou art not so

He not only fools those who fear him, but he is also fooled.

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not 

Now Death itself is the powerless one

poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The tone turns condescendingly, as Schaper puts it. Now, not only is the Reaper not destructive, but helpful, offering us peace and restoration. 

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

Taking the Upper Hand

First, Death is not so powerful, then he is helpful. Next, he is actually in the power of others. External forces, random effects, kings who condemn men and enemies to death, even desperate madmen who kill themselves or others take Death into their hands and inflict Him on others.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

If Death is sleep, well, some mechanisms work even better.

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than they stroke; why swell’st thou then?

All this reduces the estimation of death, reminiscent of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:56 “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”

And why?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:56 and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

When one faces the suffering of life, what recourse is there in Christianity more powerful than the fierce belief that this is not all there is?

Where the power of Death inflicted fear, an unknown force bigger than ourselves, Donne shows in this poem that not only can Death be known, but Death does not loom so large. It cannot block out the light and all else. When the man lies dying he thinks, “This is it, I thought this would never happen to me, now is the end.”

But Donne illuminates what comes beyond that moment. Death is but a sleepful hour, a dark passageway one travels through. Something exists on the other side.

This is not the end. 

Death is not the end. Photograph of crosses on a hill at sunrise.
Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

Shraper describes this confrontation between the Poet and Death as a quiet battle. From whence does this silence come?

In The Eight Doors of the Kingdom, Fr. Jacques Phillipe meditates on what it means to be poor in spirit. To be emptied, to admit one’s powerlessness frees one to be clay in the hands of God, to be guided, to be filled up with his love and his grace. 

The Poet’s revelation is transcendent, it goes beyond what we know from what little we witness with our eyes. It goes into the spiritual depths of our hearts where we sense, we believe, we hold against the logic of materialism that the one I loved who died still exists, this is not all there is. I need not be beaten with despair in the face of death. There is hope.

With this belief, the Poet vanquishes Death not by positioning himself as greater than the Reaper, but as one who quietly trusts in Christ who entered Death and emerged victorious, promising the same to those who follow in his way.

He empties himself by turning to the greater one. 

Death, thou shalt die.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Check back next week for our discussion on the Last Supper Discourses in the Gospel of John, Chapters 14-17.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

To explore reflections from the first and second week, click the links below: 

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is the fourth book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did Ivan Illyich encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?
Cover of The Death of Ivan Illyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia and his sufferings and death from a terminal illness. It was published in 1886 by Leo Tolstoy, written shortly after his religious conversion in the late 1870s.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

There is no question what this story is about. Tolstoy gives us the full portrait of the life Ivan Illych led and the world he left behind, connecting the dots of how he arrived at that point. 

Those he left behind feel entirely superficial feelings about the thing. 

Tolstoy shows us the trajectory of his life, spelling out the increasing superficiality in Ivan Illych’s relations with those around him, the superficial nature of all that he takes pleasure in. In fact, Ivan Illych’s goal in life before this point was a pleasant life, free from disruption or disquietude.

Literary commentary links his illness to this lifestyle and a symbolic demise. It is a reality he sees himself in his final weeks. “It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up,” he thinks.

Three Revelations Before Death

The first revelation

The first revelation is the realization that he is mortal and will die. This illness, though linked in Ivan Illyich’s mind to his fall, was most likely pancreatic cancer, and at the time, incurable and most often uncommunicated to patients by their doctors.

The second revelation

The second is that human connection alone brings some relief. Those in his life will not look at his suffering in the face. They look away. Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, “was the only one who understood and pitied him. And for that reason, Ivan Illyich felt comfortable only with Gerasim.”

The third revelation

The third revelation is about his life, whether or not he lived well. “Perhaps I did not live as I should have, it suddenly occurred to him. But how could that be when I did everything one is supposed to do? He replied and immediately dismissed the one solution to the whole enigma of life and death, considering it utterly impossible.”

This question continues to present itself to him. Ivan Illyich defends himself against the accusation. “And there was nothing left to defend. But if that is the case, he asked himself, and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters, what then?”

It acts as revelation, it comes to him as he wrestles with it. He approaches but does not grasp it.

He receives the Sacrament. 

Ivan Illyich pities those he leaves behind, finding peace and a willingness to accept death in the love of his son and sympathy for his family.

And he dies.

Much of the reflection on death itself, the superficiality of a life spent doing what one thought was expected of him socially, Tolstoy lays out for the reader. 

It’s clear that Ivan Illyich encounters something transcendent because he is facing the end of life as he has lived it. 

But does it change him? 

Does he respond to it? I do not know. I find the ending unsatisfying, but probably quite realistic.

Ivan Illyich can never answer this question, “what then?” 

The issue is one of facing reality. He could never go back to being the person he was, never enjoy the things he enjoyed as freely as he enjoyed them. He is now too aware of what is real. 

But alas, as Ivan Illyich discovers the truth he does not discover Him who is Truth. He does not begin to think about God. The Sacrament is just what one does. Rather than encounter the one presenting in the Sacrament, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he hopes again for physical recovery and falls back into the same despair.

The only plane then that God can reach him is through the natural, paternal love of the child who loves him, too, whose childlike honesty does not hide from suffering but instead would examine it dwell over it and remain so entirely present to it. Ivan Illyich’s last act is to feel a little love and a little pity for perhaps the first time since he was the age of the son before him. 

In this brief glimpse, he sees that he squandered what he had, including those chances at love, so he desires to say “forgive.”

Perhaps this is the moment of power, to look at another’s suffering and not look away. To experience one’s gaze, when one is suffering, and to feel seen.

The novella remains a personal and social commentary. Instead of “forgive,” Ivan Illyich says “forget.” Inwardly, he knows, and he knows that God knows. This is is what matters most now. In this he can rest.

Head of an Angel, after Rembrandt
Vincent van Gogh
Date: 1889; Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

Someone knows him and sees him. Someone understands.

Ivan Illyich dies with little more understanding of that Someone then he set out with, but he knows something, and with this knowledge, he can stop fighting.

Outwardly, his wife will forget, his children will forget. They may not dwell long enough on his life or actions to even consider the need to forgive. 

It was just what’s done.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Check back next week for our discussion on the poem, “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

To explore reflections from the first and second week, click the links below: 

Love in The Gifts of the Christ Child

“The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald is the third book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?

To chasten, according to Merriam-Webster, means to discipline, to correct by punishment or suffering; to purify, to prune of excess, pretense, or falsity, to refine; and to cause to be more humble or restrained. In “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald, this word become an important foundation to the entire story. Sophy, who calls herself Phosy, and the purity of her love will be the mechanisms on which the action pivots. 

In her childlike logic, she prayers that the Lord would chasten her, for whomever He loves, He chastens. MacDonald tells us right away her life has held suffering and lament, if she only knew how she had suffered. 

MacDonald steps back to tell us the story. 

Sophy is pure, innocent, and neglected. Her virtues and attributes go unseen. It is not she who will change in this story but those whose lives work around hers in the periphery. She is neglected and she sees them move in and out of view, but they never see her.

Her mother died, but her father did not grieve too terribly. He remarried an immature woman for the odd selfish end of forming her character to be as his , to make her in his own image. Augustus’ fall from an interesting man to a man who has given up on life is summed up thus,

“He had given up reading poetry.”

The man who once read poetry and stops has stopped living. The interest in business, the disbelief in an ideal, takes away his ability to be present and delight in the moment. This, of course, is exactly what we encounter in children. Good material and fortune, in the absence of delight, erodes the spiritual side of himself.

Then we have their servant, Alice, whose poetry is John, the man she loves. In the face of good fortune, she wholeheartedly embraces the pride of position and rejects John, who appears to us a good man, in all respects.

This is the story. 

George MacDonald (10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of modern fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. In addition to his fairy tales, MacDonald wrote several works of Christian theology, including several collections of sermons. He influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein for his ability to make real both the physical world and the spiritual or phantasmic world.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote,

“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

It is on this plane that Macdonald brings us the transcendent. 

Rather than a goblin or a fairy, we enter into the imagination of a lonely child who longs for love.

Modern readers often shudder at reading stories that involve the death of an infant. They are indeed the most heartbreaking. I recognize that. It is a common theme for MacDonald. The infant is innocent, an undeveloped character in the story of life, and yet our complexities and stories swirl around the loss of life, our hopes and dreams, our past traumas, and for the mother, the most primitive, integral love she can offer is intimately bound up in that child. When a mother loses a baby, she loses part of herself. When a father loses a baby, he loses part of himself. And so there may be no clearer way to see who we are than to see ourselves as broken open as we are in the sight of an infant who has died.

Macdonald, who himself knew sorrow in fatherhood, explores the power of redemption not just through suffering, but grief. The utter purity of Sophy’s love is a revelation of the love of God. She is almost not a true character at all, but some incarnation of God to reveal himself to Augustus and Alice, according to Jessica W. H. Lim, who explores Sophy’s role in “Sacramental Grief: Embracing the dead infant in George MacDonald’s short stories.” 

The reader is carried along Sophy’s steps and actions. We know who she resembles as her halo and mantle are identified. We gasp with horror, the sobbing, revelatory horror of death when she cries, “Jesus is dead!” And if we have allowed our hearts this far into the story, we feel the light shine into the heart of Augustus as he folds Sophy into his arms. The moment of transcendence is neither remote, nor obscure, it comes brazenly into the lonely and longing hearts, hearts dulled by a life that seems to never change nor promise the ideals we once had, and a life of humility that idolizes prestige. 

Through this, on this vertical plane, God makes himself known. 

God is Love. Through this incarnate image of himself, this image of love in Sophy’s tender care and her unspeakable grief to discover the child is not alive, God reveals his father’s love for us. With a violent love, it breaks into the hearts of Augustus and Alice. Suffering and pain already exist in the world. The Lord need not send those. But it is through love itself, through the sight of love, the through love that burns in their hearts, that they know Him.

The scales drop from their eyes. They are transformed, loving and repentant. 

It is an act of God, a miracle; it is the answer to a prayer.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.
For explore reflections from the first and second week, clink the links below: 
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor

Asbury in The Enduring Chill

The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor is the second book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, “How did the main character, Asbury, encounter transcendence?” and second, “How did he respond?”
For reflections on our first book, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, click here.
This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O'Connor.
This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O’Connor. (AP Photo)

Flannery O’Connor lived from March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964, dying from Lupus at the age of 39. She studied writing at Georgia State College, attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, lived with writers at Yaddo, an artists’ community after earning her MFA, and only left that way of life when her health needs demanded she return to live with her mother on her mother’s Georgian farm. 

The setting of “The Enduring Chill” presents us with a common theme in O’Connor’s work; the educated young adult returning to his backward home in the rural south.

Asbury is a college-educated intellectual with an “artistic temperament” who moved to the city to escape the stifling environment of his mother’s dairy farm. His mother labels him with this “artistic temperament” to explain away her inability to understand or reach him and to excuse his rudeness and emotional reactivity to all she says and does. 

His sister sees him as a failure, a child-man who tries at nothing and succeeds at nothing. 

How does Asbury see himself? 

Flannery O'Connor and her self-portrait.

He sees himself as in touch with something deeper than the reality before him. He knows more and can see more than others. This places him in the artistic or poetic class, a higher class of being than those around him. And so, he is disgusted with them for their obtuseness. They could not possibly understand.

When Asbury comes home, he comes home to die. He perceives his impending death, and so puts himself through the paces of existential death. 

What happens to Asbury? 

Asbury begins in the story with a sense of the transcendent. He wants to capture it after experiencing something bigger than himself in the “moment of communion” he recalls with the two dairy workers, a moment to meet spiritually and not just physically with another. Though not a Catholic, he asks for a priest.

If he is to die, let him meet with one in whom he can see himself. Let him meet with an intellectual, a Jesuit even, like the one he encountered early in the story. During a discussion, that priest says, calmly.

“There is…a real probability of the New Man, assisted, of course…by the Third Person of the Trinity”

The priest called for is not like that man. Fr. Finn does not concern himself with the death of Asbury’s body. He does not attempt to reflect the image Asbury would like to see. Rather, passing by Asbury’s conception himself, the priest cuts through the image and shows Asbury who he really is.

“The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are — a lazy ignorant conceited youth.” 

Asbury thinks his body will die. But in truth, it is his old nature that must die to grasp this divine thing. He must exchange the image of himself as superior, all-knowing, all-seeing for one that reflects the truth.

When one is saved, when one accepts Christ as Lord and God, one must change.

“Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Ephesians 4:22-24

As his body writhes under the agony of his illness, his soul struggles under this existential death. First, he blames his mother for his wasted life. Next, he pities himself for the loss of a young life. So much more might have been achieved. He changes from his petulance to regret. His life will end and he achieved nothing. He is a failure.

The poet or artist is nothing until he can touch the transcendent. Asbury has had only a poor taste of communion. The real thing would help him not only taste life but make his death a worthy one. That real thing is the Holy Spirit.

The priest lays it squarely on his shoulders. Asbury faces himself as he is. It isn’t his mother or his young life that prevented him from achieving something worth anything. It was only he himself.

Asbury anticipates a revelation, some terrible shock, will come with death. Transcendent communion not with human beings, but with the Reaper itself.

As Ashbury is ill, death takes on its own character.

The shock comes.

He is not dying.

Now, he must live with himself.

To live is more terrible than death because he saw what a pathetic death it would be. Knowing what it is to face death after a wasted life, with life in his hands he must make a choice. 

Asbury encounters the transcendent when he encounters the truth:

God is truth. Truth exists beyond our perception of the world. It is not true only because we think it is true. The truth of himself first presented is his encounter with the transcendent. 

Death is the vehicle that reveals this truth. Asbury looks around the corner to face death as if it were a character, more real to him than his mother’s employees. His conception of them exists on his mind and try as he might, he cannot make them what he would like. They disappoint him. 

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things.”

John 14:26

Asbury is reduced in his estimation. Humbled by the revelation that all he thought true was false, he is broken and ready, though he does not yet understand it.

What is his response?

He puts away the key to the drawer holds the letter which was meant to change the life of his mother. His life must change instead. Though he does not know how.

And as he sees the bird descend, he knows that God, that hound of heaven, in the form of the dove, the Holy Spirit, will pursue him. 

Find Ashbury and "The Enduring Chill" in "Everything that Rises Must Converge"
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

The Old Man and the Sea

Book One of Our Literary Lenten Book Club

Cover of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is the first book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?

A particular set of beliefs that embody the work of Ernest Hemingway, whose canon of works struggled with the pain of the lost generation, whose alcoholism, repeated marriages, and path of finding, losing and finding again the faith still ended in suicide. We may not hold the same beliefs or values as the author or the characters, but as the mature author struggle to reveal something true and good through his writing, we find a world we can understand.

The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953. The Nobel Committee referenced it when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

It was the last major work of fiction written by Hemingway published during his lifetime. 

They described The Old Man and the Sea (1952) as

“the unforgettable story of an old Cuban fisherman’s duel with a huge swordfish in the Atlantic. Within the frame of a sporting tale, a moving perspective of man’s destiny is opened up; the story is a tribute to the fighting spirit, which does not give in even if the material gain is nil, a tribute to the moral victory in the midst of defeat. The drama is enacted before our eyes, hour by hour, allowing the robust details to accumulate and take on momentous significance. ‘But man is not made for defeat,’ the book says. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”

“But on the other hand, he also possesses a heroic pathos which forms the basic element in his awareness of life, a manly love of danger and adventure with a natural admiration for every individual who fights the good fight in a world of reality overshadowed by violence and death. ”

How will this old man encounter the transcendent?

the sea, or la mar as the old man sees her

The academic answer centers on Hemingway’s reverence for masculinity. For Hemingway, a fighting spirit, to never admit defeat, equals a moral victory. This is the religion of Hemingway’s work and it is in this moral code most easily considered in The Old Man and the Sea.

I do not doubt his. In a letter, Flannery O’Connor wrote in her comical way

“[Faulkner] says that Hemingway discovered God in the Creator in this one. What part I like in that was where the fish’s eye was like a saint in a procession; it sounded to me like he was discovering something new maybe for him.”

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, by Flannery O’Connor

The fish was dead, its eye no longer alert to the things below.

The reader can feel the unity of the Old Man with the created things around him. He is one with it. In it, he feels transcendence. It humbles him. The world is bigger than him. We will never respond well in the sight of the Divine if we do not realize how small we are.

Old man on a fishing boat waving to birds

He has a passing understanding of God, but he does not link God’s creation to the Creator. He expresses his sorrow to the fish or his mistake, not to the one who made the fish and made it to live so long. The action all happens within the horizontal realm. 

If we take O’Connor’s observation at face value, we could consider that the encounter with transcendence comes not from the unity with creation, overtaking nature, or victory despite destruction, but rather, in being defeated, and then being taken. The man feels his unity with the fish, he feels his own defeat. When he returns to the shore, feeling utterly beaten, he does not die. The sharks of the world do not consume him. He returns to the goodness of the boy who loves him, who now chooses, regardless of his parents wishes, to care for the man.

And the man lets him.

His humility comes to this. The defeat in this world on the horizontal plane comes to this. “I will not leave you orphans,” Christ says in John 14:18.

This was Hemingway’s final work. The author himself, by taking his life, assumes a sort of defeat like the old man. But instead of the isolating decision to take oneself away from this world, the old man gives himself. He will not give up. He surrenders himself not to death, to some desperate end, but to the arms of one who loves him. If this act, which redeems the apparent failures of old age, is not a sign of transcendence, I do not know what is.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

Why Jazz?

Jazz is always a staple in our family culture but, in these last weeks of Mardi Gras, it comes to the forefront of our musical revue. In our nod to New Orleans as the premiere celebration spot for Mardi Gras, we listen in on Spotify, watch “The Princess and the Frog” based in New Orleans. I pick up a copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” written by Zora Neale Hurston. My husband makes a King Cake to be consumed before Lent kicks in.

A good friend said to me does not like jazz. When I hear this, I first wonder

What sort of jazz this person has in mind?

I do not remember my first introduction to the genre, but I remember when jazz became a staple in my life. We parked near the haberdashery in downtown St. Paul, walked around the corner and down the steps to the blackened entrance, where the man sitting on a stool called us “cats” and took our cover charge. We walked into the space, all painted black with large framed signed posters of jazz legends. At the opposite end of the room was the stage. The bar filled the center with tables all around. Whenever possible we sat near the front, to the right of the stage. There we learned the beauty of listening live, knowing the performers, encountered new musicians we never heard of before, discussing legends those who performed for hundreds of dollars a ticket upstairs, then jammed downstairs for all the after-hours. It cemented itself as one of my most stable and most enjoyable college memories: The Artist’s Quarter.

In all that listening, we distinguished the good from the “meh.” We tuned in during solos to hear each musician creating a melody based on the chord structure on the spot. My friend was not a musician, and neither am I, but we loved it and learned from it and carry that love into our lives lived on separate ends of the country.

Like all musical genres, there are many kinds of jazz.

Yes, there is bland, boring, cheesy elevator jazz. And there’s that man in sunglasses playing the “Careless Whisper” as his life depended on it. But there is also big band, swing, ragtime, and rhythms with its roots in African-American spirituals and other folk traditions.

In the big picture, jazz is a uniquely American tradition. Even the Peanuts Gangs have something to say about jazz in “This Is America, Charlie Brown”. If you want to instill a sense of patriotism in the next generation, teach not just John Phillips Sousa and Johnny Cash but Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

It’s a gift to listen to these musicians at work. The gift lies not just in their ability to play an instrument, the craft of which I have little to no knowledge, but in watching the creator do something all great artists must engage in from time to time: improvisation.

Improvisation looks different in different mediums.

As a writer, I do not only count putting words to paper but also the reading time, the book club time, the impromptu read-aloud time while teaching my children to memorize poetry.

Playing with the medium, like a child handling a batch of playdough, works our mental and creative muscles in important ways, explains Marian Parsons, author of the Miss Mustard Seed blog and several books. To grow and develop as an artist, she argues, it’s necessary.

For the painter that might mean some messy, abstract strokes or color studies, that is, swatches of color on a piece of paper. For the writer, it might be reading nonsense verse out loud. For the musician, it’s very likely improvisation. And improvisation is the heart of jazz, that swinging song with some impressive solos.

This sort of creative play, in whatever the work is, sharpens our senses and develops our muscles for the given work so that when we come back to Bach or book editing or the canvas, we are that much more adroit to take on the challenge required for higher-skilled work.

So you take the time for something like this in your own life?

Something creative. Something playful. Something in which the stakes are low but the payoff is delight?

 “HORSE” for the basketball player.

An innovative mod for the gamer.

A go-cart for the car mechanic.

And jazz for the musician.

The fun of it, the joy of it, has the power to spill over to the benefit of not only the creative type himself but to those in his circle and those with whom that joy is shared. And in this world where international and national events seem so terribly terrible and important, this is the antidote we need to keep us balanced, focused and forward-moving. And that brings us non-musicians, this month, to the jazz of New Orleans.

Lenten Literary Book Club

Do you buy Lenten devotionals but find the process of following them too dry, too big, too small, or too boring?

Do you want to enliven your Lent with holy and literary thoughts?

Do you look into your soul and find a whole bunch of fiction?

If you answered yes, then this is the book club for you!

Several years ago, an acquaintance nearby started a book club and some literature-loving friends invited me along for the ride. We’ve continued to meet monthly, excepting holiday months, and moved from long form novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Kristin Lavarnsdatter to short stories and novellas.

The format works, and I want to bring it into the Lenten sphere with a handful of works that can deepen our hearts and minds and help us reflect on the things that matter most.

Lent begins March 2 on Ash Wednesday.

It ends April 14 on Holy Thursday.

Here’s the plan.

  • You read along.
  • I’ll write some thoughts.
  • You comment on the post with your thoughts on the website or Facebook and we can all respond to each other.
  • If you want keep thoughts to yourself, that works!
  • If you want to discuss it with other friends in real life rather than online, that works!
  • The field is open, so let’s have some fun and think some thoughts.

To participate, read these works by these days:

March 9

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Oldmansea.jpg

            Find it in print at your library or Bookshop or read the text online.

March 16

The Enduring Chill by Flannery O’Connor

Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories (FSG Classics): O'Connor,  Flannery, Fitzgerald, Robert: 9780374504649: Amazon.com: Books

            Find it in Everything that Rises Must Converge in print at your library or Bookshop or read the text online.

March 23

The Gifts of the Christ Child by George Macdonald

            Find it in print at Cluny Media or read the text online.

March 30

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich - (bantam Classics) By Leo Tolstoy (paperback) :  Target

            Find it in print at your library or Bookshop or read the text online.

April 6

Death be not Proud by John Donne

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Read the text online or find it in many poetry anthologies

April 13

The Last Supper Discourses

TintorettoLast Supper, 1592–94, showing the Communion of the Apostles

Gospel of John, Chapter 14-17, read it in your own bible or online.

Naturally, you can find all these works on Amazon as well, but if you are not already familiar with Book Shop, it’s a great website that work to support small, local bookshops.

Now, the questions for each reading

  • How does the main character or characters encounter the transcendent or divine?
  • What is their reaction to it?

Except for the April 13 reading

  • In Holy Week we are invited to encounter the Crucified Christ. In this encounter, he comes into our story.
  • On top of considering others’ reactions to Christ, what is your response to the Last Supper Discourses?
  • How does it move you?
  • The best stories show rather than tell. Does it move you to action beyond reflection?

Each week I’ll post a reflection here and on Facebook and we’ll take it from there! Comment below or send me a message if you plan to join in!