I recently picked up some of the first fiction I’ve read in a long time: a few stories by the remarkably named Breece D’J Pancake. (The “D’J” was a misprint in his first Atlantic byline that he just ran with; the first and last names are the real deal.) He was hailed as an Appalachian Hemingway during his career, cut short—and also reminiscent of Hemingway—by a ghastly suicide.
I understand, as in Flannery O’Connor, that grace is supposed to be a quiet but unmistakable character in these raw accounts of West Virginia life. Pancake entered the Church shortly before his death, and the “J” in his name reflects his confirmation patron, John. I’ll need to read more closely to find it, I think: In my first two selections the raw despair came through, but anything divine seemed quite well hidden.
What is clear, though, and what makes the stories still enjoyable, is that Pancake regards his characters not with contempt but with dignity. So much of our storytelling these days, largely in the medium of film, seems to revolve around despair of moral improvement, which is not intrinsically vicious to portray, but it becomes so when we wallow in it, gawk at it, and sometimes celebrate it.
And maybe that, simply, is the grace in these stories: the grace to regard a dysfunctional society with honesty and dignity.
I hope to read more soon, and I’ll report back if my thoughts develop further.
These Seven Days…
…in the Ordinary Form
It is the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings are Isaiah 66:18-21, Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13, and Luke 13:22-30.
This week we see both the universality of the call to heavenly sanctity and the narrowness of the path to get there. In this last chapter of Isaiah, the Lord says that He will “come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” They will be attracted by “a sign”—the Cross or the Gospel, the commentaries say—and “they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.”
The Gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes the complementary truth to the universal call to Christ: In response to a question about whether only a few will be saved, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Cyril of Alexandria has an interesting commentary, focusing on Christ’s rhetorical strategy:
Now our Lord does not seem to satisfy him who asked whether there are few that be saved, when He declares the way by which man may become righteous. But it must be observed, that it was our Savior’s custom to answer those who asked Him, not according as they might judge right, as often as they put to Him useless questions, but with regard to what might be profitable to His hearers. And what advantage would it have been to His hearers to know whether there should be many or few who would be saved. But it was more necessary to know the way by which man may come to salvation. Purposely then He says nothing in answer to the idle question, but turns His discourse to a more important subject.
Tuesday, August 27, is the Feast of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine and a prominent patron for parents in our age of apostasy. The story of her decades of tearful prayers for her son is well-known. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:
There is no more pathetic story in the annals of the Saints than that of Monica pursuing her wayward son to Rome, wither he had gone by stealth; when she arrived he had already gone to Milan, but she followed him. Here she found St. Ambrose and through him she ultimately had the joy of seeing Augustine yield, after seventeen years of resistance.
Less well know, however, is the conversion of her abusive, lecherous, and pagan husband, Patritius. “There was of course a gulf between husband and wife; her almsdeeds and her habits of prayer annoyed him, but it is said that he always held her in a sort of reverence.” Here, also, we see a woman whose story is particularly relevant to our moment, where families are so often riven by religious disagreement. But through her prayers and example, Patritius came into the Church shortly before his death.
Her original feast day was May 4, but in the new calendar it was brought adjacent to her son’s, that they might be celebrated together.
Saint Augustine and His Mother, Saint Monica, Ary Scheffer, 1846.
Wednesday, August 28, is the Feast of St. Augustine, one of the most influential men of the last two millennia. Fr. Butler begins his entry on Augustine thus:
So great is the veneration which popes, councils, and the whole church have paid to the memory of this glorious saint, through every succeeding age since his time, that to load our history with a list of his illustrious panegyrists would be a superfluous labour; and barely to copy the sober praises, which the most judicious Christian critics have bestowed on his extraordinary learning and sanctity, would be like carrying water to the sea.
Rather than attempting, surely inadequately, to write a 100-word biography of Augustine, let’s briefly consider the least-known of the family: his son, Adeodatus, who seems to have been a remarkable figure. The child of his father’s long concubinage, Adeodatus remained with Augustine throughout his life; they were baptized together by St. Ambrose on Easter, 387. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of the boy: “Seeing the wonderful intelligence of his son, Augustine felt a sort of awe. ‘The grandeur of his mind filled me with a kind of terror.’” The entry continues, giving this striking and somewhat intimidating description of the family home:
Monica, Augustine, Adeodatus, who was now fifteen, and a son of Grace, if indeed "the child of my sin", as Augustine had styled him in the bitterness of self-reproach and contrition, together with the loyal Alypius, dwelt together in a villa at Cassiciacum, near Milan. The many conversations and investigations into holy questions and truths made it a Christian Academy, of more exalted philosophy than Plato's.
The young Adeodatus, though, died shortly after his grandmother, at the age of 16. We can only speculate what his intellect might have conjured up had he lived.
Niccolò di Pietro’s Saint Augustine Baptized by Saint Ambrose features St. Monica (front right) and Adeodatus (back right).
…in the Extraordinary Form
It is the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Epistle is 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 and the Gospel is Mark 7:31-37.
It’s so easy to think of the men and women of Scripture as unapproachable, even superhuman, but the last line of this reading from St. Paul is so authentic and vulnerable in its faith-filled gratitude:
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God; but by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace in me hath not been void.
But He puts His fingers into his ears, when He might have cured him with a word, to shew that His body, being united to Deity, was consecrated by Divine virtue, with all that He did.
We see this corporality reflected in the sacramental life of the Church—authentic Christianity is not a merely spiritual, ethereal religion—and we see the priest in the old rite take a drop of saliva and touch the ears and mouth of the newly baptized, repeating the word of Christ: “Ephpheta,” be opened.
Note Christ looking upward to His Father in Domenico Maggiotto’s take on the scene.
The gradual for this week, from Psalm 28 (D-R 27), beautifully emphasizes our dependence on God’s grace, as we saw in the Epistle:
In Deo speravit cor meum, et adjustus sum: et refloruit caro mea, et ex voluntate mea confitebor illi. // Ad te, Domine, clamavi: Deus meus, ne sileas: ne discedas a me.
In God hath my heart confided, and I have been helped; and my flesh hath flourished again; and with my will I will give praise to Him. // Unto Thee will I cry, O Lord: O my God, be not Thou silent; depart not from me.
Dom Johner connects this verse to the readings on either side:
With these same words St. Paul might have given thanks that by the grace of God he is what he is, and that this grace has not remained inoperative in him—thoughts which close today's Epistle. We all have good reason to give thanks from the bottom of our hearts, because we have been saved by the same good tidings. In like manner does the deaf-and-dumb man of today's Gospel thank the Lord, for He did not remain silent, but pronounced His almighty Ephpheta—"Be thou opened!"
Thursday, August 29, is the Feast of the Passion (or the Beheading, or the Decollation) of St. John the Baptist. This feast is said to date to the early Church just as surely as his Nativity, June 24, though it did not develop into the major public festival that its Midsummer counterpart did. While the events of John’s Passion occurred about a year before Christ’s own, the feast marks the apparent discovery of his head in 453.
The Gospel for the feast is the rather bizarre account of John’s death in Mark 6:14-29. You can read it for yourself: It’s impossible to summarize because it is already a summary. (There’s little in the gospels I’m more curious about than the family dynamics the Herod clan.) The introit for the Mass accentuates John’s boldness in speaking truth to power:
Loquebar de testimoniis tuis in conspectu regum, et non confundebar: et meditabar in mandatis tuis, quae dilexi nimis.
I spoke of Thy testimonies before kings, and I was not ashamed: I meditated also on Thy commandments, which I loved exceedingly.
This remarkable panorama, over 30 feet wide, strikingly places the beheading of the prophet amid the decadent feast of Herod’s court. Read more about, and explore, this incredibly detailed work by Bartholomeus Strobel.
Those Seven Days
The consent-makes-everything-right sexual ethic is an extension of the same logic applied to economics.
This is a beautiful case for purchasing Greenland—one of the very few delightful episodes in American politics in the past several years—by Matthew Walther.
No one is going to feel bad about the price tag in 50 years when Helge Damsgaard and her Sirius Patrol shield-mate Kaj Knudsen successfully defeat Russian forces off the coast of Uunartoq Qeqertaq armed with only a pair of laser axes.
Modern liberalism can’t escape its Christian roots: So often it is an upside-down mirror image.
Elton John@eltonofficialTo support Prince Harry’s commitment to the environment, we ensured their flight was carbon neutral, by making the appropriate contribution to Carbon Footprint™.
Hans Boersma reminds us that we must read the “signs of the times” in light of the universality of Christ.
Same, Fr. Sciarappa. Same.
Admit it, you chuckled.
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