Monday, October 04, 2010

Edith Stein on "extraordinary women"

A few weeks ago I emerged from one of my favorite places of prayer, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, with a new book under my arm: "Essays on Woman," by Edith Stein. The German Jewish philosopher-turned-Carmelite, is also known to the world as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whose fruitful life ended in martyrdom at the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

In the church’s cool underground chapels I had been pondering the call to sainthood, a call that of late had been plummeting through the chasms of my stubborn, quick-to-speak and slow-to-hear personality, snagging on the sharp edges of my anger and my fear, and getting mired in the muck of my self-indulgence and self-pity... read the rest here, at Catholic Womanhood.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Final Thoughts on Kristin Lavransdatter

Hello to the faithful few who made it through all of Kristin Lavransdatter! Unfortunately someone requested my copy of the book, which I actually finished reading over a month ago, so my thoughts will have to be a bit here-and-there and without page citations. I was so engrossed in the book I both did and did not want it to end!

I had two main themes that I was musing on as I finished the book. Feel free to toss out anything you may remember or questions you have in the comments section.

Independent woman or woman of the Church?

The back matter on the copy of the book I had describes Kristin Lavransdatter as being about a woman who “defies her family and her faith to follow the passions of her heart.” I beg to differ. Perhaps the book reviewer saw Kristin as an “independent woman” who does “what she feels is right” rather than being “confined” by the structures, traditions, and authorities of the Church. Perhaps they saw her sins, and thought that they put her outside the confines of the Church. But to me, this is an incredibly simplistic (and of course theologically incorrect) reading of a complex character. I don’t think I could have read a thousand pages about an “independent woman who defies tradition” -- there’s not much nuance to that, and I know I would have tired of it after a while.

I would like to propose that despite--or perhaps even because of-- her transgressions and weaknesses, Kristin remains both in heart and in deed in communion with the Church. The dialogue she has with Sira Eiliv (the priest she was close to throughout her early married life at Husaby) in the convent towards the end of the book, describes the dynamic of much of her life-- over and over again she chose her own will rather than God’s, and was broken by her choice. But from that brokenness came the fruit of lessons learned and wisdom gained.

Particularly illustrative of one of the main dynamics of Kristin’s spiritual life was Sira Eiliv’s question to Kristin-- when a child burns their hand on an ember, after their mother cautioned them not to, does the mother then take credit for the burn as her punishment of the child for transgressing boundaries she had set for the child’s own well-being, happiness, and health? Not really; the burn is merely the natural consequence of the action which the child must suffer, even if the mother might wish to shield her child from the suffering. In the same way, Kristin suffers the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries that the church has put in place for her well-being, but her suffering also bears fruit. This fits within the understanding of the Church that God can use all things for good, even the greatest evil, as the Cross teaches. A simplistic reading might understand the “fruit” of Kristin’s sin to be proof that the sin was not in fact sin at all, but I don’t think one could argue this as a point of the novel itself, given the internal suffering and conversion that Kristin must go through at each stage of her life. This is not a novel about turning away from God, about rejection; it is ultimately one about redemption.

Note how Kristin in a sense “began” her life (as an adult) in a brothel and ends her life in a convent. There are nuances in each tableau-- despite her willingness to succomb to her passion with Erlend, there remained a certain purity to her, in her childish demeanor and her blind trust in Erlend’s promises. Gunnulf, Erlend’s brother, heavily placed the blame for the couple’s sin on Erlend, particularly on the fact that he was taking advantage of a woman barely beyond childhood. Kristin herself knows that she was not forced into the situation, but there still remains the sense that what she was doing was beyond her own understanding. Within this “beginning” of her life, Kristin is involved in the death of Eline, Erlend’s mistress for years, and leaves the incident feeling somewhat responsible for her death.

At the end of her life, Kristin becomes a nun; turning from the world to God. She has made two pilgrimages to Nidaros--one as she began her life, to atone for her dramatic sin with Erlend, and one as she ended her life, to atone for the less dramatic, more persistent sins that laced their way through her life as wife and mother. Finally, she enters the convent to end her days. Yet she is not simply a nun; her person retains that sense of being “mistress” of Husaby and Jorundgaard; although much of her life running the household was peppered with the faults of her strong personality, it was also seasoned with her generosity, particularly with the poor and with her children. Her strength of character is finally a redeeming quality when towards the end of her life she saved the life of an innocent child and bringing the body of a poor woman to consecrated ground for burial, and in so doing brings upon herself her own death.

Throughout her life, Kristin experiences moments of consolation and desolation; times when her prayer is fruitful and easy; times when it wells up from the searing sorrow of her soul; times of business when prayer is sparse and almost thoughtless; times when her soul seems dead and unable to reach outside itself to God. A simplistic reading, perhaps of one not experienced themselves is the life of prayer, might see Kristin as someone who is “not pious”, someone who is not “within the church” but “out on her own“ given that she does not live a life of sugar-coated perfection or consistent mystical union with God. Yet anyone practiced in the spiritual life knows that it is not the way one feels about prayer or towards God that matters; “by their fruits you will know them”. Kristin is not a saint--she speaks harshly towards her husband, and bitterly holds within her heart many of his transgreassions. Many a time the book notes that Erlend did not hold on to Kristin’s faults with such stubbornness (illustrative I think of women/men in general); in fact his lack of rancor is pointed to several times as the main hope that his family and friends had after death that God would have mercy on his unconfessed, unabsolved soul. The contrast with Erlend makes Kristin’s stubborn holding on to his sins seem even greater. She clings too much to her children, she turns to pagan practices to save the life of a child (what she does-- taking dirt from the cemetery to lay on the child-- seems not to be all that big of a deal, but towards the end of the book, we realize what might happen if pagan practices are taken to their ultimate expression-- sacrifice of innocent blood.) Her action was small compared to those who would sacrifice a child that they might save themselves. [Anyone have any other thoughts on this topic…? I wrote this quite a while ago and Kristin’s virtues are getting fuzzy in my memory.]

Regardging Motherhood & housewifery

One thing that struck me about Kristin’s wifehood is the scale of it. She was considered an excellent wife and a skilled mistress. Perhaps some might say that this was out of the ordinary, because Erlend was so inept at household matters that she had to take over the role of a man. Yet later in the book, when we are able to get a glimpse into the household of Simon and Ramborg, it is clear that even in the hands of an able man like Simon, who purposely allowed Ramborg to be shielded from the typical duties of the wife, the medieval household needs a woman to take charge of some elements, otherwise there will be disarray.

I can’t help but reflect on the difference with our own time. A household was basically a small, somewhat self-sustaining town. Being a wife and mother did not mean sitting inside one’s house alone with small children, taking care of menial tasks, and never interacting or conversing with another adult from 8am until 4pm. I think when we “modern women” reflect on what the vocation of motherhood means, we need to reflect carefully on what precisely we are including within that vocation. A vocation, it seems to me, must have an enduring meaning outside the historical period within which it is lived. We see here a historical account of medieval women who are in charge of much more than just a couple kids, vacuuming, and cleaning bathrooms. Many times Kristin refers to herself as “ just a simple woman” or “a foolish woman”-- certainly the feminists out there must shudder at such terms-- yet the rest of the story proves her to be far from that, particularly in her moments of bravery--setting out alone on pilgrimage to Nidaros, first at the beginning of her life and then the end.

Another funny thing I’ve found within this book is solace in extended breastfeeding, child wearing, and cosleeping. Kristin connects her breastfeeding relationship with her children with the joy of their early years; their sleeping by her side with intimacy with them. Bjogulf, the child she need not nurse herself, is the child who is most distant from her; she was blind to his blindness for many years. Once her sons move to the loft bedroom above her, they are grown, distant, and mysterious to a certain extent.

For all the La Leche League propaganda encouraging breastfeeding, I never read anything as compelling as this book regarding the goodness, the satisfaction, and the joy of the breastfeeding relationship. Kristin is aggrieved when she is forced to turn her children over to a wet nurse due to circumstances beyond her control; in this I saw a comparison to bottle feeding. It seems it should not be a “first choice” but rather a means of nourishment for a child when there are circumstances that make it necessary.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Nook Book Club: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part I: The Wreath

I have two confessions to make as I begin this "check-in" on our reading of Kristin Lavransdatter-- appropriate for a novel full of confessions and secret revelations, don't you think? First, I am about 100 pages from finishing the entire three volumes. It has been an engrossing novel that has held my attention throughout! I really meant to just stick to the pace I had proposed, but we took a mini family vacation, and I've had more down time than usual, so I had more time for reading. I promise to try not to reveal anything about the story, though! Second, we are in the middle of painting our kitchen, so this first installment of our book discussion might be more of just an invitation to share thoughts/comments. I think this appropriate, though, considering that the most fruitful discussion will come once the novel can be seen as a whole. (Photo to the right is of a medieval Norwegian church.)

In addition to referring back to my previous post on Part I, and inviting comments on those points, I thought it might be helpful to group any thoughts/discussion into four areas.
  • The Plot : Anything surprising? Confusing? Interesting?
  • The Characters: What do you think of them? I can't nail it down to only the first part of the book, but I find Undset's description of the internal spiritual/emotional life of her characters deep and compelling.
  • The Cultural/Historical Setting: So much here. I'm particularly fascinated by the interplay between superstition and Catholicism. Did anyone else notice that after writing these books Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism? It makes sense; it is hard for me to imagine some of the dialogues that pertain particularly to personal experiences of faith to come from someone who is merely looking "from the outside in" in a historical manner.
  • Personal responses to the book: Is this book making you look at life in a different way? Making you appreciate/think about anything differently? Kind of a random response, but I thought I'd note it because it was something I mentioned to Michael-- I may have a slightly romantic notion of what it would be like to live, and in particular, eat, in a traditional society. However, as I read this book I pondered the fact that there is nothing really romantic about eating rancid butter, going without protein for months on end, or having to scrape around forests for bark and moss when the winter months grow long and the supply barrels are low. Just as I have to tip my hat to the goods that modern medicine have brought about, there are genuine goods of health and human flourishing that the ability to ship food over distances and store it for longer periods of time.

This Wikipedia article provides a short summary of each section of the novel; particularly helpful are two charts of characters, one of of the fictional characters and one of the historical characters (kings, etc). As the book goes on and the family relationships become more important in the plot, this is quite helpful, especially when all the names begin to run together!

Unfortunately this is all I'm going to be able to manage for now... I hear Daddy and the boys coming back from a Home Depot run to buy more spackle and painting supplies...and someone is crying... so I'm off! Remember that our next chat on Part II of the book will be June 22.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nature's gifts

Gabriel, Peter and I escaped to the woods the other day. We escaped a load of wet laundry in the washer, carpets speckled with dirt, and bathrooms crying out to be cleaned. Despite the mess, we needed the escape; life has been hard and conflict-wrought lately, and we needed the healing of tree-shaded paths and one-on-one time with each other. Our escape route would take us to a small waterfall a friend had told us about the day before; it would be a long walk for Gabriel, but the promise of an exciting destination was enough to keep his three-year-old legs cheerfully moving down the path. He marched along with a walking stick he had discovered on the side of the trail, balancing himself with the stick as he forged across creeks, and, true to Gabriel-form, intermittently pretending to weed-whack long grasses that grew along the side of the trail.
I wondered if the spirits of our little group would remain high enough to make it to our destination. Often we start out well, but energy and enthusiasm lags as the distance we cover grows. I used to bring snacks, thinking it would provide inspiration to continue our journeys, but that proved to distracting--the main question would then become not the hike but when and where we would eat our snack and how much of it there was. Trail mix was more engaging for my three year old than nature, and so much would go unseen.
Fortunately, on this particular journey, I had left the snacks at home, yet we still had much to sustain us. Everywhere we turned, the bounty and the beauty of nature was spread before us. Small creeks welcomed rocks plopped into their shallows by gleeful toddler hands. Tiny freshwater clams peeked out of the mud at the base of the waterfall. A black water snake slid by, and we watched from a respectful distance as he flicked his purple-black tongue in and out. A friendly birdwatcher pointed our eyes towards an amazing daytime sight: a huge barred owl peering down from a tree branch quite near the trail. His black eyes blinked and his feathered head swiveled as we passed his perch; he seemed almost as surprised to see us as we were to see him. As we emerged from the woods into the sunshine, an abundance of butterflies and moths amused Gabriel. Even in a small, unassuming puddle on the side of the path we found treasure: hundreds of tadpoles flitted between marshy grasses.
The beauty of such moments, for both myself and my children, is that they cannot be produced, and thus cannot be consumed, as one might “consume” a television show, or a ride at an amusement park. In those cases, there is a certain expectation of planned for, anticipated, perhaps even calculated enjoyment--there is a certain element of surprise lacking. With nature, there is always the element of the unknown; the risk of what may or may not be. Nothing can be demanded; there may be clouds of gnats or rain; there may be sunny skies and wildflowers; in either case one must accept what has been offered and make the best of it. I am glad to immerse myself and my children in this dynamic whenever I can--either on short walks or longer camping trips--because it is good for all of us. We learn to accept the gifts for what they are-- exciting moments of experiencing something new or challenging ones that call us to cheerfully make the best of a tough situation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Club: Themes, Thoughts, Questions

Many of you have told me you're interested in reading Kristin Lavransdatter this summer. Our goal for finishing Part I of the book is June 1, so I hope you can find a copy and start reading soon if you haven't already!

I thought it might be helpful to lay out a few themes, thoughts, and questions regarding Part I--purely from my own encounter with the text. (I will probably glance at and share some thoughts from others' commentaries on the text once I read the whole thing, but honestly, I don't want to read them yet and spoil the plot!) I'll try not to give anything "major" away, so these points will be very general, and filled out more on June 1. I admit up front that I don't think I can approach this book in the "detached" way that I did books in my lit classes for high school and college, discussing it purely for the sake of literary criticism. There's just too much here that begs to be related to our own humanity and our own experience of faith, life, family, tradition, etc.

A few things to keep in mind/think about as you read:
  • The dynamic of sin: There is so much here... how the sin of individuals can affect not only those persons but also relationships, families, communities. Notice the comparisons/contrasts with our own culture. The same sins persist, but in a cultural milieu that claims that the actions of individuals can be conducted in a realm that is merely "private" and without relevance to the outside community.
  • Honor: What is honor, for the characters in this book? Is it meaningful, or is it simply an imposition of the culture?
  • Filial/spousal/fraternal/friendship/fuedal relationships: I don't want to say too much here for fear of giving too much away. I just want to note the excellent depth with which Undset treats these relationships and ask what, if anything, stood out to you about them.
  • Natural world: Notice how frequently the natural world is not simply an intert backdrop for the story-- life is dependent on and affected by the natural world, not only because many of the characters are farmers, but also because in this historial period there is little technology to separate one from the realities of nature. At the same, the natural world also seems to both highlight and echo the characters' experiences/feelings.
  • Historical/cultural elements: What stands out most to you about life in 14th century Norway? A few questions: what do you think of the "Catholicism" of the culture? What does it mean for life to be dated not by numerals but by feasts and fasts, holy days and saint's days? Here's one particular moment that stood out to me:
    "Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicolored specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monks face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl, the colors of the picture were dimly was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven." (p. 32 in my copy)

Kristin, as a child, wonders at the beauty and mystery of stained glass in her first encounter with it on a trip to a faraway city with her father. This was a singular experience for her; the cathedral was probably the largest building she had ever entered, and other than in the natural world, she had probably never experienced such beauty. What a constrast with our own experience--we have entered countless large structures with purposes far from glorifying God, and colors, sounds, and images are constantly flickering past our eyes in all sorts of media and modes. The church is no longer a world set apart in this way; the mere entry into a church building is not an entry into a new more wonderous or more beautiful world that reflects heaven. In fact, the art, imagery, and music encountered within a church can sometimes seem to be struggling to reach the excellence of that which we have experienced outside.

Certainly, I can think of many exceptions. Personally, when I think of beautiful (non-natural) places, my mind turns to a short list of cathedrals, churches, and chapels that I hold dear. I think what I am reflecting on is that in our cynical, technological, post-Enlightenment age, it is difficult to count on a spontaneous experience of wonder as a companion to our entry in a church structure; in the environment in which we live today, I think the ability to wonder must be both protected and cultivated because it seems important with regard to the desire for God, and that which is not "of this world," but that's another post for another time. I'd love to hear what you all think on this topic.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Nook Summer Book Club

For once, last week, I decided to browse through the "grown up" library books. As Gabriel and Peter zoomed around me pushing the step stools like lawnmowers in front of themselves and peeking at one another through the shelves, I remembered why I haven't attempted to to this for a long time. In any case, glancing through all the great books that there are out there made me realize that I am in need of an incentive to read good books. I am more and more convinced that I will only be authentic in my encouragement of my children's reading if I can continue to feed my own mind and heart with rich literature. (Not to mention the fact that the former lit major in me is itching to read something other than parenting books!)

With summer stretching before us, I thought we might take up a book together. On our adventure through the library shelves, I managed to snag Kristin Lavrensdatter by Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. It depicts "the clash between fuedal violence and Christian piety, traditional imperatives and the individual conscience" as it describes the life of a young woman in fourteenth-century Norway. It's long, but so far it's been a very fast read, and comes highly recommended to me by trusted sources.

I will post (and invite comments/discussion) on Part I on June 1, Part II on June 22, and Part III on July 13. And if locals are enthusiastic about this we might even have an in person book discussion at the end, but we'll see how things are going in July. I've been reading the newer translation by Tina Nunnaly (which has interesting historical footnotes in addition to more accessible language for the modern reader).

I found these interesting thoughts regarding the novel on a blog called "Why I am Catholic," in case you need a couple compelling reasons to give the book a shot.

Are you--or anyone else you care to invite--up for joining me? Drop me a line and let me know.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Antonia's Home

Here's some photos and news from Antonia and David, home in Slovakia now and living in their temporary flat.