Open Book, October 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately. 

Theodore Rex was as good as its early chapters promised. I’m impatiently waiting for a copy of Colonel Roosevelt, volume three of this Theodore Roosevelt biography written by Edmund Morris.

I’m fortunate to live only a few minutes away from the offices of Sophia Institute Press, with its extensive catalog of Catholic books. One of their titles recently caught my eye: Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal – a particularly timely topic. I’ll be reading it through most of this month, resolutely ignoring as many political-campaign phone calls as possible. (Are voters in every state assaulted with so many calls? New Hampshire only has four electoral votes. Lord have mercy on the bigger swing states.) The book is a selection of writings by Jacques Maritain, edited by James P. Kelly III, exploring the theme of how Christianity and responsible citizenship go together. This is a welcome subject to me, in the age of personally-opposed-but.

Stark Decency deserves greater fame. New Hampshire readers like me can find it in any local bookstore or library shelf, while the rest of you must trust to online sources. Allen V. Koop’s book about a World War II prison camp in New Hampshire reveals a bit of American history little-known outside my Granite State. In 1944, German POWs were sent to the small upstate town of Stark to cut pulpwood for a local paper mill that faced wartime production demands.In an unlikely place and an unlikely situation, friendships developed between some prisoners and guards, and later between prisoners and townspeople. Koop sets out the story in just over 120 pages, ending with an account of a 1986 reunion at which five former POWs returned to Stark for a celebration of friendship and peace. “Camp Stark did more for people and peace than for pulpwood,” he notes. I love the book’s calm and undramatic style, which suits the story.

While motoring in the north country on New Hampshire highway 110, I once came across the state’s historical marker describing the camp. I’m glad the marker is there, and I’m glad Allen V. Koop wrote the story of what’s behind it.

Marker in Stark, New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
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The risk of being more like Mother Teresa


I saw the statue of Mother Teresa during a visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. A pleasing and apt tribute, but a little unsatisfying, and it took me a minute to figure out why: the image is fixed and still, while its subject was always moving. Not mere motion, either, but positive and focused action.

I’m glad Mother Teresa is being canonized this weekend. I’ve thought of her for along time as a saint. With or without miracles, she embodied heroic virtue and service. How much of that will be understood by the people who weren’t around or weren’t paying attention when she was working in India?

She deserves more than to be reduced to a dry paragraph in a book of saints.

We can read about her. Start with Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God (a project that changed Muggeridge’s life). We can watch the movies  made about her life; I enjoyed The Letters. Eventually, though, I must move from hearing about her to hearing her.

Would you throw away an established career in midlife, to your own bewilderment and that of your superiors? She did, going from being a teacher as a Sister of Loreto to becoming a minister to the poor and foundress of an new religious order. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.” She called it her “call within a call.”

That woman had some nerve. Her address at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast was but one illustration of her ability to unsettle world leaders. She talked about caring for the dying, about abortion, about natural family planning, about the urgency of first caring for one’s own family. Poor President and Mrs. Clinton found themselves seated while everyone else in the room was giving Mother Teresa a standing ovation.

I honestly don’t think she got up every morning thinking of how many people she could annoy. She simply went about her work and then told people about what she saw and did and believed. She served God with her words as much as with her deeds.

There was a bit of a fuss after her death when letters between her and her spiritual advisor became public. I remember some of the news coverage: Mother Teresa had doubts; she felt separated from God at times – as if those revelations somehow undermined her work and her reputation.That’s not how I took them, then or now.

She was really human. That was comforting in a way, but also unnerving. If this thoroughly human woman could do what she did even in the midst of internal turmoil, what’s my excuse?

I have none, of course.

It’s easy to say that I wish there were more people like her. It’s tougher to say that I want to be more like her. No telling where that could lead.

Advent: hold the Christmas carols, please

It’s Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year, penitential and contemplative in tone as befits preparation for a great feast. It’s a blessed relief from any number of things. I enter it this year sick at heart due to some recent events, ready for a time of prayer and quiet and humility and renewal.

Keep that elf doll away from me. Throw a curtain around that poinsettia display for a few more weeks. And in regretful (some will say regrettable) defiance of my bishop’s directive, I am fleeing my parish church for the duration in order to avoid Christmas carols at every Advent Sunday Mass.

Yes, carols. He used the plural and I assume that means more than one. It’s not as though Bishop Libasci is ordering the choirs to sing “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nevertheless, I am not on board. I need Advent for the next not-quite-four weeks, not Christmas Lite. Carols at the kids’ concerts or at the store are one thing. Carols during an Advent liturgy are another.

The Mass is the Mass, and my feelings about the music are irrelevant to that. (We liturgical music critics can be insufferable.) My reaction to the bishop’s directive, though, isn’t a matter of mere distaste. I fear we’re diluting Advent and thereby losing something important.

I’ve worked retail, and I remember how we depended on November and December sales. Santa-shaped chocolates on the shelf and “The Little Drummer Boy” on the speakers put people into the shopping mood, so by golly we had the Santa chocolates on display and the music playing by Thanksgiving. We worked long hours. Our paychecks and material support for our families depended on that.

Wanna know what Christmas Eve is like for a retail worker after the store closes? There’s a lot of sleep involved – unless there are kids to be settled. Mass the next day, in all its glory and joy and beauty, is something to be gotten through.

I learned in those days to treasure and crave Advent. My attention to the Advent liturgies was renewed and sharpened. I hadn’t realized how much I had always taken the season for granted. The Old Testament prophecies, the old plainsong chant we now know as O Come O Come Emmanuel (however far from plainsong it’s been dragged by contemporary arrangements), John the Baptist’s blunt call to repentance: all became balm to my spirit when I realized I had to seek out and intentionally participate in Advent rather than just let it happen somewhere in the background. The beauty of the Incarnation, contra my bishop’s concern as expressed in his directive, wasn’t dulled by such preparation. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I mean no disrespect to Bishop Libasci, who has gone out on a limb as a Catholic leader in this very secular state of ours to advocate for refugees and defend religious liberty. The other aspects of his directive make sense to me, especially in view of the coming formal opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Christmas carols during Advent liturgies, though, affect me like physical blows. I’ve heard them before, albeit by the choice of music ministers rather than directives from the Diocese. However scriptural the lyrics, they don’t fit Advent any more than Easter songs would fit into Lent.  The carols’ ill timing evokes for me the malls and commercials and movies that hijack them before Thanksgiving.

I guess I’ll be crossing the state line for a few Sundays, although it’ll be odd not to be amid familiar faces. What’s going on at the altar will be familiar enough.

Reblogged from Leaven for the Loaf by the same author.