Monday, October 22, 2012

North and South: Unions

Guest Post by Dr. Ken Bugajski:

One of the central plot lines of North and South is the conflict between Thornton and the factory workers. Lauren and I thought you might like some historical context to fill in why there was so much animosity between these two.

For us, the idea of working at a factory is commonplace. Even if you have not worked in one personally, you probably know someone who has, and you can imagine what that sort of job might be like. But for Gaskell and for England, this was all new. The Industrial Revolution has its roots in the late 1700s, but manufacturing took off in the 1820s, and factories of the kind Thornton owns did not exist in large numbers before that time. So from the beginnings of Industrial Revolution to the time of Gaskell’s novel (probably between 1850-1855), there was large-scale change throughout the nation. 

The changes in industry sparked huge changes elsewhere. Between 1800 and 1850, the population of England doubled from 8.3 million people to more than 16 million. From 1850 to 1900, the population of England doubled again, to about 30 million. In Manchester (the model for Milton), the increase was even greater. In 1801, the city had a population of around 75,000 people. In 1850, there were more than 300,000, most of whom were drawn there by the possibilities of employment in the factories. 

Factory work, however, provided little income, as wages were kept very low, especially in Manchester. More than half of the factory workers in Manchester earned 4 shillings a week (or less). 4 shillings in the 1850s is equivalent to about $28.00 in 2010.

 Keep in mind, too, that there is no labor regulation at this time. If the factory owner says you get 4 shillings for working 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week (which would not have been unusual), that’s what you do. If the factory owner changes his mind and states that for 4 shillings, you’ll now work 14-hour shifts 7 days a week (also not unusual*), that’s your new job. If you don’t like that, you can quit—there are literally hundreds of men who will wait in line to take your place.

Further, prior to 1867, these workers had no realistic way to improve workplace conditions except through unions. You probably don’t want me to get into the tangled mess of voting rights in nineteenth-century England**, so suffice it to say that most factory workers—especially a man like Nicholas Higgins in North and South—would not be able to vote in elections. The political system was closed to people who did not own land of a certain value, and almost all factory workers fell into this category.

So what you have, then, in factory workers are a group of men who are working long shifts almost every day for very little money. They live in poverty and have no way to address what they perceive as unjust treatment. When unions were allowed (they were illegal prior to 1824), they became the only way workers could express their desires, and all the unions could do was strike.

I know I’ve thrown out a bunch of information here, and unlike my previous blog entry, this one only touches on North and South a little bit. What I hope, though, is that this information will help contextualize the dynamics of labor in the novel, especially the relationship between Nicholas and Thornton. *A 7-day work week was really the standard. If a laborer only worked 6 days, it was generally because his employer required attendance church on Sunday.

**If you do want me to discuss voting in 19th-Century England, just say the word. ☺

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. A Guest Post

A guest post by Dr. Ken Bugajski, 
Associate Professor of English Education at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Who Do You Think You Are?

In my literature classes, I often talk with students about identity. The question of identity—how an individual defines himself or herself—is, for me, a question that is always interesting to consider when reading a book. I believe my students like to talk about it, too. Given their ages and stage of life, I imagine that they are thinking a fair amount about their own identities and who they want to be.

Novels, perhaps, are the best kind of text for thinking about identity. From the very beginning, novels in English have focused on individuals. A quick survey of early British novels turns up titles like Robinson Crusoe, Oroonoko, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Gulliver's Travels—all are named after individuals. (Jane Austen, though not particularly early as far as novel authors go, is an outlier since her most famous novels are named for concepts instead of people--but even she has Emma.)

You may already know that Elizabeth Gaskell intended for the novel you are now reading to be titled Margaret Hale, but Charles Dickens, who published the work, insisted on calling it North and South. Gaskell's original title, though, shows that she intended the book—at least originally—to focus on the individual, the title character. I thought, then, that as we're beginning this novel, it might be useful to think about Margaret's identity.

When I talk with my students about literary identity, we sometimes start with thinking about how people, in general, define themselves, as there are a number of major ideas that can apply to a wide variety of characters. The rest of this post will focus on some of those areas.

True story: Just 2 weeks ago, my 11-year-old—who, though she only lived there a year, is a native Texan—was practicing with her school choir at St. Charles here in Fort Wayne. They were singing a song with the word "child" in it, but, because the word fell on a short note, the choir ended up singing "chyle." The teacher stopped them and said, ”No, no, no. You have to finish the word. You have to say chil-D. What are you, from the South?" My daughter said, under her breath, "Yes. As a matter of fact, I am."

Just as it is for my daughter, where a character comes from plays an important role in that character's identity or sense of self. Margaret is from Helstone, but by chapter 7, she is on the move to a new location. Such movements are common in novels because displacing a character shakes her up; it makes her look at life in a new way (you can look for a similar movement in Persuasion when you get to it next year!).

Another important marker for identity is, of course, family. When my wife and I used to do Pre-Cana, we often talked about Family of Origin and the role that can play in a marriage, and my guess is you all know how important family can be. Margaret's family is small--just herself, Frederick, Mom, and Dad. But as North and South begins, family members are in their own moments of turmoil. Frederick, of course, is in the Navy and, we later learn, essentially exiled from England. Mr. Hale, beyond the usual distance a nineteenth-century father would have from his daughter, is facing matters of religious conscience and is really more focused on those issues than he is on his family. And soon enough, Mrs. Hale becomes ill. All of these issues set Margaret apart from those to whom she might otherwise be very close. Even though she has a family, the dynamics of that unit change radically in the early parts of the book.

Religious beliefs are, of course, another primary way that people define themselves. Since this club is called Bookish Catholics, I'll assume I don't need to say much else about the importance of religion to identity! Like other areas of Margaret's life, however, religious beliefs are unsteady. Margaret remains strong in her faith, but her father's doubts—or rather, his convictions that dissent from those accepted by the Church of England—bring uncertainty into this area of identity.

Individuals often identify themselves with a certain socio-economic class, and certainly this is the case for Margaret as well. In the early chapters, we get a good sense of her quiet country life. And while she is very kind and active in her help of the poor in her father's parish, she is also comfortable in her own station. Once her family moves to Milton, Margaret sees poverty of a kind she never experienced before—or even knew existed. Further, she meets the Thorntons, and they—as newly wealthy industrialists— present still another new class division to Margaret.

Maybe most of all, we define ourselves by who we love. Including dating and marriage, I have been linked with my wife for more than half of my life. Who I am, who I have become, and the person I am yet be will be influenced—maybe even shaped—by this person I have chosen to love.

When the novel begins, Margaret does not seem to have experienced romantic love. But after moving to Milton—there's that change of location again—she finds Thornton, an odd and very different—yet still strangely fascinating man (oh and look, Margaret likes his simle…

So to sum up, then: If you agree—or at least will go along for the ride—with the idea that individuals define themselves through categories of experience, Margaret finds herself in an unusual situation. What she thought about herself in terms of location, family, religion, class, and love—everything—has been called into question by Chapter 11 of the novel. By creating so many important changes for our heroine, Gaskell's intent and Margaret's conflict seem clear: Margaret can no longer be the person she thought she was.

The big question (and, really, it’s The. Big. Question.) facing Margaret is: Who will she become?

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Tapestry

The Tapestry

As readers travel through the seasons of our heroine Kristin Lavransdatter’s life, it feels as though we are examining the backside of a greatly woven tapestry. There seem to be loose ends still waiting to be tied, jagged edges which were never straightened and mystifying gaps seemingly lacking any purpose. It is as if we are looking at an image which reminds us of something familiar that we can not yet grasp, as though we are “seeing through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13).

Even as we absorb the gravity of Kristin lying on her death bed, we find ourselves drawing final connections while at the same time, making peace with that which we did not understand fully. But as we say goodbye to this very realistic human being, we glimpse the tapestry of her life from above, from the vantage point of eternity. And the loveliness is breathtaking.

Kristin’s life did not always make sense, and she often contributed to that herself when she deviated from the path which was intended for her. She could be headstrong, impulsive and begrudging. But she was also generous, faithful and loyal, and she loved her children and her husband with reckless abandon. If it had not have been for her father and several other key people in her life who reminded her of her eternal destiny, Kristin may have chosen an entirely different future. She sought to understand how her eternal destiny related to her time on earth. Though she struggled with her own weaknesses and frustrations, the legacy of faith that she received took root in her soul. Kristin may not have been able to control the ones she loved and the choices that they made, but she found peace in choosing to be the best she could be in the circumstances she was given. She found that in surrendering to sacrifice, she would win the greatest battle of all - the victory of turning away from temptation and accepting life in Christ.

This message can be universally applied to all of us, as we are all pilgrims on a journey toward an eternal destination. Our tapestries are being woven as we feel ourselves being tugged and pulled in what may appear to be senseless struggling. But as our faith grounds us in all that we do, helping us to overcome the flaws which are inextricably connected to our salvation, we may too see that the greatest joy is to surrender to the sacrifice that both pushes us down and pulls us upward.

Monday, July 2, 2012

God's Wreath

[Spoilers for Books 1 and 2]
In an earlier post, Lauren asked what we felt might be the significance of Kristin's encounter with the elf maiden who bears a wreath.   I am a few chapters into book three and should probably wait until I've finished the entire work to post, but these are the thoughts going through my mind at this point.   I think I can write about the wreath more than I could write about some of the other large themes, such as sin's true nature and effects, before I have finished the novel.

Kristin's encounter with the elf maiden is not the first time we will find Kristin, on or before a rock slab (usually the stone floor of a church or chapel), and  overcome by a reflection of herself, in water, in another's eyes, or in the heart of God.

      Kristen heard a stream trickling and gurgling somewhere nearby.   She walked toward the sound until she found it...Beneath the rock slab the water stood motionless in a deep black pool; on the other side a sheer rock face rose up behind several slender birch trees and willow thickets.   It made the finest mirror, and Kristen leaned over and looked at herself in the water.   She wanted to see if what Isrid had said was true, that she resembled her father (emphasis added).   
      She smiled and nodded and bent forward until her hair met the blond hair framing the round young face with the big eyes that she was in the water.
     All around grew such a profusion of the finest pink tufts of flowers called calerian; they were much redder and more beautiful here next to the mountain stream than back home near the river.   Then Kristin picked some blossoms and carefully bound them together with blades of grass until she had the loveliest, pinkest, and most tightly woven wreath.   The child pressed it down on  her hair and ran over to the pool to see how she looked, now that she was adorned like a grown-up maiden about to go off to a dance.
     But suddenly she discerned a face among the leaves--there was a woman over there, with a pale face and flowing, flaxen hair.   Her big light-gray eyes and her flaring, pale-pink nostrils reminded Kristin of  Guldsvein's.   She was wearing something shiny and leaf-green, and branches and twigs hid her figure up to her full breasts, which were covered with brooches and gleaming necklaces.   Kristen stared at the vision.   Then the woman raised her hand and showed her a wreath of golden flowers and beckoned to her with it.' (p. 19 of Nunnally Penguin Classics edition)

This encounter occurred in the early pages of the first book, or part, of Kristin Lavransdatter, which is titled "The Wreath," so it did remain in the back of my mind as I continued to read, especially this episode when the bridal crown is finally placed upon her head before her wedding to Erlend.   After reading the two, their parallel nature became apparent.

     Kristin...was wearing her scarlet bridal gown.   Large brooches held it together at her breast and closed teh yellow silk shift at the neck...
     "Tomorrow you will wear it loose for the last time," she said with a smile, winding around Kristin's head the red and green silk cords that would support the crown.   Then the women gathered around the bride.
     Ragnfrid and Gyrid of Skog brought over from the table the great bridal crown of the Gjesling family.   It was completely gilded, the tips alternated between crosses and cloverleaves, and the circlet was set with rock crystals.
     They pressed it down onto the bride's head.   Ragnfrid was pale and her hands shook as she did this.
     Kristen slowly rose to her feet.   Jesus, how heavy it was to bear all that silver and gold.   Then Fru Ashild took her by the and and led her forward to a large water basin, while the bridesmaids threw open the door to let in the sun and brighten up the loft.
     "Look at yourself now, Kristin," said Fru Aashild, and Kristin bent  over the basin.   She saw her own face rise up, white, from the water; it came so close that she could see the golden crown above.   So many light and dark shadows played all around her reflection--there was something she was just about to remember--and suddenly she felt as if she would faint away.  --p. 275

 There is so much to cover in these two passages where symbolism is as lush and abundant as the pink blooms Kristin finds at the stream.    The elf maiden encounter's place and function in the novel reminds me of story of Adam and Eve in scripture, in that it sets the stage and can be returned to for connections throughout the story.   Every line is loaded with meaning.   There are the allusions to Kristin's physical appearance in both reflections that we find in her descriptions before and after each experience of childbirth.   There is also the contrast between Kristin's rescue at the hands of her father and the way she must part from Erlend after she givers herself to him in the barn.   And then there is the color red which has such symbolic significance throughout the novel. 

 It makes sense that the little Kristin should have such an encounter in the wild, natural environment of a secluded stream.   The little Kristin, like the young Christian faith of the Norwegian people, was raised on --and nourished by-- a mixed diet of inspiration and caution.   Her spiritual diet included the ancient tales and the more recent stories of Christ and His saints.  In one day, it was possible to experience the wildness of the Norwegian landscape, alive with myth and legend, and then enter the peaceful sanctuary of a solid church, with its tamed timbers and stones--offerings themselves from the land--that had been chiseled and bent to bear witness to the glory of the Creator Himself.    Within herself, the child Kristin embodies a longing for that which is free and wild in nature, while at the same time finding peace and comfort in the form of people such as her father and Br. Edvin and in her Christian faith, young and immature as it is.

It is tempting then, as modern readers, to set an extreme contrast between the wild ancient superstition of Norway and the reasonable faith established by Christ, as they are presented in the 14th century setting of this novel.    Also, as modern readers, we might be tempted to think that we have risen above any mingling of superstition and sound theology in our own times and even in our own faith lives.   That is the always the trap set for the mind of modern man.   Pride in our supposed enlightenment and assurance of our progress can cloud our vision--and our judgement--just as surely as they did for our ancestors.  

In both episodes, Kristin is offered a golden wreath, or crown.   One is in the form of a vision, to which she is beckoned by the elf maiden, while the other one is of substantial physical form, as the family bridal crown.   The crown, and its wedding celebration trappings, had been used by families to beckon maidens throughout centuries before.   Also, Erlend, just as wild and alluring as the elf maiden, uses the crown to beckon Kristin from her despair, as he tries to convince her that she will be able to wear the crown as they marry and then they will make their confessions and all will be set right.   In all three instances, it is the crown of superstition, or a mingling of immature faith with superstition, that is set before, or upon, Kristin.  

As Christians, we sometimes make the same feeble attempts in our present society, albeit those attempts don't have the widespread appeal they once enjoyed.   "No one buys the cow if he can get the milk for free."   "Nice girls don't."   And then, there's that white dress and the elaborate wedding ceremony and reception.    Chastity is often viewed as the end itself, instead of a means to an end--part of our sanctification--as virgin brides walk down our modern wedding aisles.   It can also be seen as a proverbial "get out of jail free" card, in terms of future suffering in marriage or religious life, if presented to young girls in only this shallow, incomplete manner.   Would that were true, how easy indeed would life be!   And how less disappointing for those who "do the right thing" and yet still suffer. 

Kristin's faith journey reflects that of her beloved Norway, but it is also a reflection of our personal Christian journey.   In scripture, we find many references to our spiritual growth and maturity described in the terms of childhood and its stages.   St. Paul makes many such references in the New Testament:

     Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.
I Peter 2:2
     Brothers, stop being childish in your thinking. Be like infants with respect to evil, but think like adults.    I Cor. 14:20

Again, these references are numerous, as we are instructed to be like children, while not being childish.   It sounds so simple!   And it would be, if we frail humans didn't complicate it so.  

My thoughts started to take real substance as I read the episode of a conversation between Kristin and her dear Brother Edvin (our dear Brother Edvin, after reading and loving this character).   In this dialogue is the following profound line:

'"I have often prayed that you might have a yearning for the convent life," said Brother Edvin, "but not since you told me what you know, I wish you could have come to God with your wreath, Kristin."' --p. 251

I cannot help but think that this line from Brother Edvin has double meaning, for Kristin and for us.   It was not simply the offering of her maidenhood that she should have properly made to God, as she offered it up to Erlend on their wedding bed.    It was Kristen herself--her heart, her mind, her soul--that God wanted.   That would not change whether she was to be adorned with the gown of a bride or the habit of a nun.   The offering would be the same.  I am the wreath.   You are the wreath.   And we belong to God.

Kristin felt that something was amiss, even if she could not completely understand or express it.   And she experienced the real results of her choices, although she could not fully explain those either.   In conversation with Erlend's brother, the priest, Gunnulf, she says:

Gunnulf...I was afraid when I went inside for the wedding mass with him, with the golden crown on my flowing hair, for I didn't dare speak of shame to my father, with all my sins unatoned for; I didn't even dare confess fully to my parish priest.   But as I went about here this winter and saw myself growing more hideous for each day that passed--then I was even more frightened, for Erlend did not act toward me as he had before. --p. 361

 With a focus on wreaths, crowns, humiliation before men, ruination of reputation and honor, the true offering is pushed to the background or it is completely lost.  As mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, teachers, etc (of course men, also, but this is addressed to our female book club)...we don't have to be so anxious about our role in nurturing vocations.   We can simplify our methods to focus upon the truth of self-sacrifice--to others, through God's grace--and ultimately of ourselves to God.

We can return to the natural and free garden of Adam and Eve, to their creation, where Pope John Paul II and others have found the richness of the teaching of our very nature and selves.   We can place purity and chastity in their proper place, as part of our spiritual journey--requiring self-sacrifice and sometimes suffering--rather than a source of pride or accomplishment in and of themselves.   And we can teach that purity and chastity make our hearts and souls more open to and ready to receive God, through prayer and His sacraments.   I think that Kristin's parents, Erlend, Gunnulf, and Kristin herself discovered such truths as they grew in Christian wisdom.   Even with that wisdom, though,  there are no guarantees and it is up to the individual to make decisions.   And healthy, righteous fear and shame alone cannot deter an individual forever.   At some point, as we mature, we must make decisions that are a choice of our will to follow where God leads out of love and obedience.   And sometimes, more often than not, suffering is what changes our hearts so we can follow God's path.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise--Psalm 51:17

The truth of this scripture shines forth in the vivid, heart-and-soul-stirring description Undset gives us as Kristen travels to the shrine of St. Olav at Christ Church, to offer her bridal crown and make amends for her sins.   Again, we are given the image of a forest, stone, water, and a vision--this time of St. Olav--as Kristen finally lays her soul and heart bare to Christ, the bridegroom, and offers herself up to His love, examination, and healing.

 The line which struck at my heart, upon re-reading the episode of the elf maiden encounter, was the one to which I added emphasis:  She wanted to see if what Isrid had said was true, that she resembled her father (emphasis added).   It did not grab my attention upon my initial reading, but upon re-visiting this portion, I gasped and my heart was struck by the depth of its meaning and its relation to the thoughts about the crown that had already started to form in my mind.

As a child in the woods, she sought her reflection in the pool of water to see if it were true that she resembled her earthly father.   There, upon that stone floor, sprinkled with Holy water, the adult Kristin seeks and finally sees the first glimpses of her true reflection--her resemblance to and place in the heart of her Father--her Heavenly Father--whose love she experienced in imperfect, but powerful ways through her father, Lavarans.  

     ...The imperishable vines of eternity wound their way upward, clam and lovely, bursting into flour on spires and towers with stone monstrances...The huge, massive walls with their bewildering wealth of pillars and arches and windows, the glimpse of the roof's enormous slanting surface, the tower, the gold of the spire rising high into the heavens--Kristin sank to the ground beneath her sin.
     She was shaking as she kissed the hewn stone of the portal...She sprinkled holy water over her son and herself...She walked as if through if through a forest.   The pillars were furrowed like ancient trees, and into the woods the light seeped, colorful and clear as song, through stained-glass windows...
     She had seen the water from the well back home.   It looked so clean and pure when it was in the wooden cups.   But her father owned a glass goblet, and whenhe filled it with water and the sun shone through, the water was muddy and full of impurities.
     Yes, my Lord and King, now I see the way I am!
     ...Feeling lost and uncertain, she was standing at the entrance to the chancel when a young priest came out the grated door...Then she pulled out the golden crown and held it out.
     "Oh, are you Kristin Lavransdatter, the wife of Erlend of Husaby?"   He gave her a rather surprised look; her face was quite swollen from weeping.   "Yes, your brother-in-law, Gunnulf, spoke of you, yes he did."
     He led her into the sacristy and took the crown; he unwrapped the linen cloth and looked at it.   Then he smiled.
     ...Another priest came in, and the two men talked to each other briefly.   The first priest then opened a small cupboard in the wall and took out a balance scale and weighed the crown, while the other made a note of it in the ledger.   Then they placed the crown in the cupboard and closed the door.

And finally, we see the golden crown put in its proper place.   A mere object, made by men, having no more value than that which is simply weighed, catalogued and put away in a cupboard.   Separate from the true offering that Kristin had finally made--herself--to God.

It was to be the first of many offerings, again and again, as Kristin would turn face and heart toward God and then let pride and stubbornness set her apart from his always-present and never-ending grace.    Was Kristin really ready to make that offering before the suffering she endured?   It was not God's will that she chose immorality, but, as in all things, He could use that for good.   There is always hope because there is always God.

 As Catholics, we understand that faith is not a single decision or moment in time.   It is a constant process and journey.   Spiritually, our development is like the linear development of a child and our journey is cyclical, like the distinct seasons of the Norwegian landscape.   We each find ourselves, like Kristin, turning away from God and then turning back to Him.   And each time we find our peace and hope with God--through private consolations, in the confessional or at the Banquet Table of the Lamb--we get little glimpses of the reality that will be Eternity.   And only then will we no longer be like the adventurous child Kristen or the tempted Kristin, as a maiden stirred by the wildness of physical desire or as the wife who refuses to fully open her heart to God's grace through forgiveness of her husband.   In Eternity with God--true Heaven--we will be like the weaned child of the Psalm, no longer restless and on a childish quest for the satisfaction of mere physical desires and reception of consolations:

 But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.  Psalm 131:2

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Medieval Home

I recently watched a series on youtube called "The History of the Home" hosted by the delightful and brilliant Lucy Worsley (Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces). She has a book along the same lines: If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home.

The video series is in four parts, one on the Kitchen, the Bedroom, The Living Room and Bathroom and each part examines the history of that part of the home from medieval times to the present. While she is focusing on the history of English homes, I think that life was very similar in medieval Norway.  I found the first section of the Bedroom and Living Room series so helpful to me in trying to imagine what it was like to live in Kristin Lavransdatter's world. I'll share them here for you to view. Let us know what you think!

The Bedroom

The Living Room

Elf Maidens and Christianity Converge, Notes on Kristin Lavransdatter

Statue of Kristin Lavrasdatter in Sel, Norway
I found this interesting blog post written by Emily over at

I trust Emily's perspective because she has a miniature dachshund named Mr. Bingley.

But, I digress...

In this post, she discusses the portrayal of Christianity in Kristin Lavransdatter. Being a topic several of us have mentioned, I thought I'd share this snippet with you:

"To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Wreath is its portrayal of the process of Christianization. Kristin's family are devout Christians; it's established in the early pages of the novel that they're more pious than average: "...the other people in the valley felt that God's kingdom had cost them dearly enough in tithes, goods, and money already, so they thought it unnecessary to attend to feasts and prayers so strictly or to take in priests and monks unless there was a need for them." Yet even for the extremely pious in Undset's novel, it seems that their world has only been partially Christianized: in the villages and cities Christian beliefs apply, but in the mountains, away from civilization, live the elves, dwarves and trolls of the old, pre-Christian belief system. It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region. Even Lavrans, who gives ample proofs of his piousness, sees no contradiction in continuing to believe in other kinds of supernatural beings in the mountains. Before seven-year-old Kristin has her titular vision of a blonde maiden with a golden wreath beckoning to her from beyond a pool, Lavrans admits that "I've seen herds of cattle and sheep, but I don't know whether they belonged to people or to the others." And after the little girl runs terrified back to her father, saying that she thinks the vision was a "dwarf maiden," nobody thinks to contradict her:
"Oh, that must have been the elf maiden - I tell you, she must have wanted to lure this pretty child into the mountain."

"Be quiet," said Lavrans harshly. "We shouldn't have talked about such things the way we did here in the forest. You never know who's under the stones, listening to every word."

He pulled out the golden chain with the reliquary cross from inside his shirt and hung it around Kristin's neck, placing it against her bare skin.

"All of you must guard your tongues well," he told them. "For Ragnfrid must never hear that the child was exposed to such danger."
So the Christian ethos, while real for these characters, is something that needs to be guarded and invoked, rather than something that naturally permeates the whole world around them. And threats to a Christian enclave are often localized and external - similar to a modern person's bodily fear of venturing into a "bad neighborhood." It's a take on religious conversion I'd never run across before, and one that fascinates me."

Nonneseter Chapel, all that remains of the Nonneseter Abbey in Bergen, Norway
I like this thought: "It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region."

And then, today, I read Steven Greydanus's review of Brave over at the National Catholic Register. This Pixar film is set in medieval Scotland (which was invaded many times by the Norse Vikings, so they could be relatives of Kristin for all we know). Greydanus writes about Brave:

"It’s no spoiler to say that magic is involved; we meet the ghostly will-o’-the-wisp fairy lights in the opening scene, when little Merida gets her bow and King Fergus loses his leg to a monstrous black bear. 
In folklore, fairy lights that recede or extinguish as one approaches are often thought to mischievously lead travelers astray from well-trodden paths into marshes or bogs (compare the elvish camp fires in The Hobbit) — but Elinor tells Merida that some say the wisps can lead you to your “fate.” Where the fairy lights lead Merida now, and what happens as a result...."

This got me thinking once again about that strange elf maiden scene at the beginning of the book. One gets the impression that it means something. But what? What do you think? Do you see a greater meaning in the elf maiden encounter, and how does the portrayal of medieval Christianity impress you?

Monday, June 18, 2012

If you would like to spend a day reading up on Sigrid Undset, here you go...

There are so many articles and resources about Sigrid Undset and Kristen Lavransdatter, I thought I would put them all in one place for you. If I had tacked them on the end of my author intro post it may have crashed the blog :).

I'm sure I'll be adding to this list, so check back.

Here we go:

Removing the Grime by Tiina Nunnally on her translation  (this is a treasure!)

Character chart of Real Characters in Kristen Lavransdatter

Character chart of Fictional Characters in Kristen Lavransdatter

A Tour of Bjerkebæk, Undset's home in Lillihammer  (be sure to select the english version of the site)

Sigrid Undset: Catholic Viking by Steven Sparrow

A Life Worth Celebrating: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset from an online LDS magazine (he he)

Under Her Heart: Motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter by Carrie Frederick Frost at  (beautiful!)

A fabulous set of posts written by Webster Bull at Witness2Christ (these are great!) :
Taking Back Our Sister 
Catholic Culture Needs More Champions
Are Brothers Taking Back Our Sister?
Free Will, Even in a Snake Pit
Rembering Kristen Lavransdatter
Question: Are You Saved?  "writes Undset, 'no Catholic would dare to say more than that he hopes for salvation.'"

Undset's essay, "Catholic Propaganda", mentioned in above article. 

"The end is a stunner, and as right as rain—worth every hour it took getting to." ~ Webster Bull. Keep writing, Mr. Bull!

Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia from the Brussels Journal  

Why I am Catholic: Because This Book Really is Beautiful by our good man Webster Bull, published at

Sigrid Undset's Time Warp from

Her Introduction from

Interesting Biography from the Great Norwegians website

Reading Sigrid Undset from

Translation of Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter" Trilogy Gets Much-Needed Face Lift from

A tour of Jorundard

Sunday, June 17, 2012

on Sigrid Undset, author of Kristen Lavransdatter

Dubbed by some as the "Catholic Viking", Sigrid Undset might be one of the most overlooked authors of the 20th century. Although, recent buzz in media circles seems to cause one to wonder if that may be changing.

Undset was a timeless woman, in some sense. As an adult she lived in a home she had restored to medieval Norwegian style. Yet, she also wrote essays on feminism that could have been written in 1960. However, her conclusion to feminism was that a woman finds her ultimate worth or demise in her role as a mother.  Her famous novel, Kristen Lavransdatter, has a heroin set in ancient Norway, with thought, desires and struggles that could be faced by any woman today.  Unset has been paraded as a Norwegian feminist author and at the same time pushed aside as a Catholic author with an agenda. Sigrid Undset, at least to me, is as complex and intriguing as her most famous character.

Sigrid Undset became a Catholic in 1924 and four years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Only nine women have ever received that award and Undset was the third and at 46 one of the youngest ever recipients.

Sigrid Undset was born in May 20, 1882 in Kalundborg, Denmark and died June 10, 1949. At the age of two, her family moved to Norway. 

Undset's father was a respected Norwegian archeologist and her mother was his illustrator and secretary. Both were atheists and raised their 3 daughters to think likewise. They were 'free-thinkers', went against the mold and sent their daughters to a controversial progressive, co-educational school. Their mother had them wear pants under their dresses. Undset's parents attempted to resist the strict and sometimes repressive nature of Norwegian Protestantism.

From a young age, Undset's father entranced her with the tales of ancient Norse sagas. So much so that as a child, Sigrid was motivated to learn to read in Old Norse and Old Icelandic. This passion was to carry through later in her novels. Her later writings included not just novels, but essays about Medieval Norway and translations of various Norse sagas and myths. It was not unknown for University lecturers in Medieval European Studies classes to advise their students that the best way to gain an insight into the medieval period is to read Undset's sagas.

After the death of her father when she was just 11, Undset went to several schools. Her family was poor and did not have the resources to send Undset to art school, as was her wish. So, at the age of 15, she attended a one-year secretarial school and took a job soon after as a secretary at the German Electric Company. She thought the work dull, but supported her mother and two sisters for 10 years, and wrote her first two novels during that time.

Her first manuscript, finished when she was 22, was rejected. “Don't try your hand at any more historical novels,” wrote editor Peter Hansen. “It's not your line.” He told her to stick to contemporary topics. In order to get recognition as an author, at the age of 25 she published Mrs. Marta Oulie, set in modern-day Norway.  The opening sentence, “I have been unfaithful to my husband,” guaranteed that the novel would be talked about in literary circles.

Eventually, she was able to make enough money from her writing to quit her secretarial job. Receiving a literary scholarship, she traveled Europe to write, ending up in Rome. There, she met Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter, whom she married three years later. He had been married previously and had 3 children by his first wife. He and Undset had three more, one of whom was severely handicapped. The marriage was not a happy one and after Sigrid moved to Lillihammer with her children to prepare a new home in 1919, they were divorced. 

With her children, Anders and Maren Charlotte

The onset of World War I and the turmoil of her marriage caused Undset to look once again at her opinion of religion. Being raised an atheist, she was taught by her father to be a 'free-thinker' and to question the world around her. Evidently this pursuit of truth lead her to the ultimate truth of the Catholic Church. Seeing the immorality and ethical decline of her culture caused her to question the foundation of her beliefs. She first began her research of the ancient Norwegian Catholic Church from a purely academic standpoint, but this knowledge, combined with her love of medieval Norway, began the turn the tide against atheism. Where as before she had believed that man had created God, she now knew that God had created man.

Concerning her journey to the Catholic faith, she notes that “the war (World War 1) and the years afterwards confirmed the doubts I always had about the ideas I was brought up on — (I felt) that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.”

In 1920, she began writing Kristen Lavransdatter. In 1924, she entered the Church on All Saints Day. In 1927 she published the last book of Kristen Lavransdatter. In perfecting her passion, by seeking out success as an author, and by following her father's knowledge and love for her culture, Undset found the Church.
At her desk at home, writing Kristen Lavransdatter

In the 1920's, Catholics in Norway were practically non-existent. Her conversion was very controversial. She was preached about from Lutheran pulpits and ridiculed by her contemporaries. However, this only spurred her on to write more. 

Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She was given prize money worth $42,000. In today's estimate, that would be worth ten times the amount. She donated the entirety of the prize to a charity assisting families with disabled children. 

The following is from Elizabeth Scalia's essay published at, titled "Sigrid Undset’s Essays for our Time" written on May 29 2012 (are we timely, or what?!):

Sigrid Undset’s life was a heavy one, and it seems if she could not have joy, she was determined to have light; unwilling to live her life in ideological self-containment, it is not surprising that Undset would eventually come to call the Catholic church “home,” or that she would credit the saints with delivering her to its doors. Undset’s fiction is populated with vividly drawn characters—people of action whose narratives are built very precisely upon “human nature as it really is,” including the propensity for doubt and regret. To discover genuine men and women living boldly—not excused from those same propensities yet mysteriously delivered of them in the promise of a life in and with Christ, must have been for Undset a moment of staggering, irresistible illumination. 
(from Undset's biography)
"But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity."
When Joseph Stalin's invasion of Finland touched off the Winter War, Sigrid Undset supported the Finnish war effort by donating her Nobel Prize Medal on 25 January 1940.  Her disabled daughter died in 1940, and her oldest son was killed in action shortly after.  She fled to the United States because of her opposition to Nazism and the German occupation of her country.  There, she untiringly pleaded her occupied country's cause and that of Europe's Jews, in writings, speeches and interviews. She returned to her home in 1945. During the war, the Germans had used her beautiful home as a brothel. She tried to write, but struggled. Sigrid Undset died four years later, on June 10, 1949.  Her home is now a national monument.

Undset on Norwegian 2 Kroner stamp, painting by her husband in 1911.
The 500 kroner note is of Sigrid Undset

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"An Episode of Sparrows", Discussion

Writing prompts for An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden.

Please share your answers and thoughts in comments.

Who was your favorite character in the novel, besides Lovejoy?

Along the same lines, what is the most interesting 'couple' in the novel? The book revolves around relationships. Which relationship spoke strongly to you. 

Do you have a favorite passage? If so, please share, and explain what touched you.

What did this book teach you about joy?

Do we all see a bit of ourselves in Lovejoy? What of her character reminds you of yourself as a child?

While the book isn't about parenting, what of the novel may help you be a better mother, aunt, and/or grandmother to children in your life?

Or, write about whatever struck you! Thanks for sharing!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Then and Now: One Man's Comparison

Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church, Kensington, London.
Bombed by 2 oil bombs on September 14, 1940.
I was doing a bit of research on our book, and found this review on one of my favorite websites, The author of the review is a man named Andrew Smith. I greatly appreciate his perspective. He compares his experience of reading the book as a child, while growing up in post-WWII Liverpool, with his re-reading of the book as an adult 50 years later.

He writes:
"I read An Episode of Sparrows when I was a child growing up in post-World War II Liverpool. It was first published in 1955 when I was eight-years-old. It's said you can't go back, but I'm convinced this book is as good as I remember it. I've ordered a copy and look forward to immersing myself in it as I did as the ten-year-old searching for a bright future among the bomb sites and food shortages of post-war U.K.

I couldn’t have been more than ten-years-old when I first read 'An Episode of Sparrows', but I remembered with great fondness the feisty waif, Lovejoy, and her gargantuan efforts to make a secret flower garden in a hidden corner of a London bombsite in a downtrodden section of the British capital. I remembered her temporary guardian, Vincent, with his impractical ideas of running a “first-class restaurant” and his epic struggles to prevent it from sinking into bankruptcy in an area where people could barely afford a few pence to buy fish and chips wrapped in newspaper let alone pay for a three-course French dinner. I remembered the two wealthy unmarried sisters who lived in the posh square that lay at the border of Lovejoy’s working-class neighbourhood. I remembered the clash of class and culture when the sisters’ and Lovejoy’s worlds collided. 
But I hadn’t remembered the subtle sophistication of ideas flying off the pages concerning morality, religion, entrepreneurship, and social responsibility. Like all good novels — written for readers of any age — those issues are understated. I certainly can’t remember being conscious of them as a ten-year-old. However, like any effective work of fiction, those underlying issues and ideas must certainly have made an impression. I obviously can’t know for sure, but I couldn’t help feeling as I re-read ‘An Episode of Sparrows’ some fifty years later that the book must have had a profound effect on me. I recognized in Rumer Godden’s story my own abomination of class discrimination in any form and a derring-do style of determination that sometimes misfires and/or backfires. I think I must have related very closely to the children in the book because I was reminded of the misery of growing up poor, However I was also reminded of moments of intense joy in small events that made life seem not only worthwhile but wonderful.
Apart from lucid realism coupled with a sophistication of ideas in ‘An Episode of Sparrows,’ the book has a suspenseful plot that sweeps the reader along. Every one of the disparate characters is finely drawn, and the descriptions of post-war London — from rubble strewn bombed-out houses to the sparkling exclusive shops of Bond Street — bring the 1950s city vividly to life. The book is also a lesson in excellent writing, including vocabulary that might challenge some adults. Although written for children, ‘An Episode of Sparrows’ makes for an engaging and thought-provoking experience for everyone."

children playing on the site of a bombed out church in London, 1948

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Desire: To Live.

One of our members, Terri, blogs over at Loaves and Fishes. She recently wrote about the connection she sees between Lizzie's War, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux and Jane Eyre.

Here's an excerpt:

"Lizzie, Therese, King, Jane--they are all embodiments of passion and desire.   They aren't playing by a map or script written by themselves.  They aren't just playing a script written by those around them either.  They don't operate according to the dictates of what society says makes a "good girl" or "good person."   They are following a compass, deep within their very cores--their souls.   The journeys are not perfect.   The paths are not always straight.   And those paths are never neat, tidy, or easy. "

Go read the rest!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

on Rumer Godden, author of An Episode of Sparrows

One of the reasons why I want us to read An Episode of Sparrows is really because we could do well to read just about anything written by Rumer Godden.

As the title of an article written by the UK's The Telegraphs states, "Rumer Godden's life is a story in itself."

And, while Blogger is here trying to correct my spelling of this woman's name, I am reminded that she has also drawn me to have some bit of respect for Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who named their daughter after the author. Despite their crazy Hollywood lives, they must have some good, down-to-earth roots in there somewhere to give their daughter such an honor.


Rumer Godden was born in Sussex, but raised in India where her father ran a shipping company. She and her 3 sisters had a pleasant childhood, somewhat removed from the societal standards of England and the brutalities of World War II. "I always thank God" wrote Godden "that we did not have sensible parents".  She was the 'plain one' of the 4 girls and was a bit jealous of her older, beautiful and talented sister Jon.  "Everything she did was marvellous," Rumer Godden recalled at the end of her life, "and nobody took any notice of me, which was very healthy. To be ignored is the best possible thing for a writer. My writing was an effort to outdo Jon."  

Once grown, she ran a mixed-race dance school in India, became pregnant, married and lived with her rather unkind husband in Calcutta. She had an unhappy marriage, and ended up parting with her husband and moved back to Kashmir to raise her two daughters. They lived like the locals, in a small house, with no electricity or running water. She ran an herb farm and wrote to support her daughters and pay of the debts left to her by her husband. 

In 1947, she returned to England, remarried a good man and entered into the burgeoning English/American literary scene. Around 1950, she became intrigued with the Catholic Church, although she did not convert until 1968 at the age of 60. While researching for her novel In This House of Brede, she spend several years living in the guest house of the Stanbrook Abbey run by the Benedictines. It is said that is where her love for the Church began. After her husband died, she moved to Scotland to live with her daughter. She died at the age of 90, writing until the end. 

Her first published novel, The Black Narcissus, was written almost entirely on a ship voyage from India to England while her infant daughter slept in the bunk below her. 

In the end, she wrote over 60 books, nine of which were turned into movies. Some of my favorites are:

An Episode of Sparrows
In this House of Brede
The Diddakoi
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy
The River

only because those are the ones I've read...
"There are several things children will not put up with in a book," she reflected. "You have to have a proper beginning and an end; you cannot have flashbacks. Then you can't have a lot of description: keep it to a minimum. And you must be very careful with words. I find I use fewer, and they have to fit the case exactly and be chosen with extreme care."
She wrote all her works in longhand with a fountain pen.  She said "that as an artist has to dip his brush into the paint so a writer should dip his pen into the ink and this gives time for thought. She thought many modern books were too wordy as authors just ran away with words on their computers."

Discussing writing, she once stated firmly that she never believed in self-expression. "All these young people, particularly women, say, `We want to express ourselves', but writing is not self-expression. The writer is simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the Holy Spirit that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I've been chosen to do and I think that is what has enabled me to go on."

I like her because she was different. She was strong.  She had dignity. She loved her daughters fiercely. She never stopped thinking. She didn't let cultural standards keep her from the Church. Even in her later years, she never stopped learning.  She was always herself. These are all things I hope for myself and my children. 

"When I was a young writer, I and my contemporaries, wanted one thing more than anything else for our books. It wasn't money, or success, although of course we wanted those things, too. The thing we wanted was for our books to last. And I believe that a book that is written slowly, carefully, words chosen, do last. And in a small way, in a very small way I admit, I have proved it. Black Narcissus was written in 1937 and it's never been out of print. And now, my publishers are bringing back the old books, books I wrote quite early on. I had 6 books republished just last year. And, it's a little bit of the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And I was very grateful for that."

To appreciate her books, you should read about her life. Here is the wikipedia article.   Here is the Rumer Godden Literary Trust, set up by her two daughters after her death in 1998. Here is a nice review of An Episode of Sparrows from the Catholic Media Review blog. Here is the obituary published by the UK's Daily Telegraph.

Here is a youtube video interview with Rumer Godden produced by Off The Page, a Scottish literary and culture series. I could listen to her talk forever... a very good way to spend 25 minutes.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

And the GREATEST of these is LOVE…

It was 6:00am and I was a bit fidgety from my cup of coffee, distracted because I wanted to write and get my thoughts out about Heather King’s, Shirt of Flame, and on fire for the LOVE of the Lord! Being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament at the Adoration chapel this morning was the place I needed to be…

“Jesus transforms a white particle into himself every day in order to communicate his life to you. What’s more, with a LOVE that is greater still, he wants to transform you into himself.” St. Therese of Lisieux

“Christ will not deceive us. That is why our lives must be woven around the Eucharist. The Christ who gives of himself to us under the appearance of bread and the Christ who is hidden under the distressing disguise of the poor is the same Jesus.” Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

“I put before you the one great thing to LOVE on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth and more than that.” J.R.R. Tolkien.

What did you think of the stories of Fred and Gene in the book? How did the stories of these ordinary men teach us about St. Therese? Fred reminds me of my Aunt Katherine. As Elizabeth posted, “God's people should be treated with patience, compassion, and love. Period.” Just as St. Therese did. I will end on that note and LOVE on!

Gene reminds me of Linda, whom I have seen and known for a few years, but just yesterday finally introduced myself and the kids. We must have the same grocery day because we always see each other shopping at HEB or Wal-Mart. She is a sweet lady with auburn hair and is always up for a conversation no matter how long my grocery list is or how cranky the kids are. She marvels at the children and their busyness. If there was seating provided in the grocery aisles, I believe she would grab a seat and enjoy watching and talking to people as they passed by. Our first conversation started when I used to carry Mary Kate in the baby sling. She wanted to see how it was made, so she could make one for her daughter.  It was not for a grandchild, but what she called her “grand-dog”. I no longer want to dodge her in HEB because I have too much to do. I want to put my grocery list down, scoot my kids and cart out of the middle of the aisle, and just visit with my friend Linda. I just think that she is poor in loneliness, maybe it’s that God finds me poor in gratefulness.

We LOVE because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19

Friday, April 27, 2012

Rock Solid

from Chapter July, page 177, Coventry Patmore on a saint: "...he will mostly likely dwell with reiteration on commonplaces with which you were perfectly well acquainted before you were twelve years old; but you must make allowance for him, and remember that the knowledge which is to you a surface with no depth is to him a solid..."

"A solid"--firmness, foundation, support, unwavering, not prone to or dependent upon fashions or whims.   Something which I honestly have felt myself lacking for months now.  "Rock solid" is a cliche we often use, and the book
Shirt of Flame has been a rock of sorts--a pebble-- in my life since it arrived on my doorstep.    Two forms of a pebble--the one-- that aggravating pebble in a shoe that makes its presence known with each step you take until you finally stop and deal with it.   And the other--a smooth, beautiful pebble, held in your palm, as you turn it over and stroke it, an aid to your contemplation, quietly and unobtrusively helping you focus your mind or, to free your mind from focus.  

This book dovetails perfectly with our first read,
Lizzie's War.   They are both real and honest--nakedly so--but Lizzie and Mike, their boys--their various wars, though based on reality, are still fiction and they give the reader the necessary comfort of exploring uncomfortable truths in a fictional setting.    In such a way, fiction can influence our lives.   Through our discussions of Lizzie's War, we explored the role of vocation and striving to truly live--to thrive, spiritually, emotionally, physically--where we find ourselves.   Part of the comfort lay in the truth of the C.S. Lewis quote which heads our blog banner, similarly shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote: "That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong."   We found that we weren't alone as we related to Lizzie, Betty, Fr. Germaine, Danny and saw bits of ourselves, friends, neighbors, and family members in these characters.   For me, the language and honesty of Lizzie's War was refreshing, not as a breath of fresh air, but more like a blast of heat, with its cocktails, profanity, and flawed characters, shaking and awakening me from my safe Catholic world.   The world I had tried to create, and maybe control, through homeschooling, a retreat from the range of great literature which had previously nourished me in favor of a strict diet of classics and spiritual reading, and fewer and fewer non-Catholic friends and acquaintances.   My world--my little world--shrinking and gradually closing in--suffocatingly so.  

So, after the refreshing blast of
Lizzie's War came Shirt of Flame.   I wanted to read this from the first time Lauren shared it with me.   I wanted to hear from this real woman she described in Heather King.   She lived in Los Angeles.   She was divorced.   She had worked for NPR.   She was a convert.   This was no "more Catholic than the Pope" Catholic.   This sounded like a real, in-the-trenches, in-the-world-not-of-the-world-Catholic.   I had loved St. Therese and grown to love her more when I read her Story of the Soul, given to me by my friend of twenty-four years, my southern Baptist friend, Gina.   I finished the book a few weeks before Mama died and St. Therese was my friend and comfort during those first few months. 

Heather King and St. Therese, however,  did not offer me the insulation of fiction as I delved into the truth of Love--what it means to really love, to truly realize we are loved, and of knowing out Lover.   From the beginning, in the title that was inspired by the words of T.S. Elliot, the stage is set for the rawness--the reality--of life: "breaks the air," "incandescent terror," "the torment," "the intolerable shirt of flame."

And I squirmed.   I chaffed--at King's words--and from the shirt, described by Elliot, which King and Therese embraced.   I rebelled.   After the first chapters, the book was left on my bedside table and it grated on me, like that bothersome pebble.  And I didn't want to stop and deal with it.   I wanted it to go away, so I could go away.   I wanted to be left alone to nurse my wounds.   But I had to read it.   I agreed to be part of this book club.   I needed this book club.   And I knew, at some level, that I needed this book.   So, I picked it up again, in my irritation, in my hurt, in what I realized, as I read--as King and Therese pointed out to me--was my egotistical state, where I didn't simply nurse my wounds--real and imagined--but actually preened over them.   My mind and my heart were at odds.   Intellectually, I acknowledged it was a great book--a deep, life-changing book.  I could see its capacity for profound spiritual and emotional growth.   And my heart disliked it for that.   My heart knew what wounds were waiting to be exposed--and healed--and it raged against the pain of the purifying fire, denying itself the cleansing and healing of Love.   

Continuing in the spirit of being forthright, my heart did not open to this book until after I physically sat with others and discussed it.   It seemed that everyone approached the discussion with obvious elation.   I think everyone else at some point even physically expressed her love for the book by hugging it close to her heart, usually after sharing a quote that had special impact.    I listened to my fellow readers as they described how they were touched, how they were convicted, how they were enlightened by the book, by Heather King, and by beautiful Therese.   I watched the downcast eyes that finally looked up rimmed with tears.   And the cracks began to break.   The self-protection and denial of my solitude gave way to an openness and vulnerability in the presence of those beautiful women, each with a wisdom from her own experiences with life and our most recent book assignment.   The edges were being smoothed.   A light of compassion lit my mind's image of my mother as we discussed the passage about faithful women who keep the Church and homes going with their unnoticed efforts.   My mother was that steady heartbeat of our home in the face of the poorly functioning, diseased--spiritually, emotionally, physically--head.   The wound of my judgements--Why had she not left him?   Why had she endured so much?--flared and stung, but I let it be exposed.   I let go and let it rise to the surface.   The hurt of lies and manipulation from a person whom I had trusted were allowed to throb, to pulse with pain, as we delved deeper into the idea that perhaps the untainted image we had of people before they hurt us was the way God sees them, ignoring their flaws and sins, of which we are also guilty.   In the midst of Therese's daily, hourly surrenders of her will, I let myself acknowledge my selfishness over the past few months.   The way I had jealously guarded what seemed to precious little bits of time for myself in the midst of my 24/7 vocation.   It was as if I was giving my heart permission to acknowledge the hurts as objective fact, but let go of the pain they caused.   For the first time in months, I was leaving my heart open to God and the change in my heart was as simple and unsophisticated as the cartoon image from Dr. Suess' Grinch, as his heart slowly grows to almost bursting proportions.   I kept silent during most of the discussion, only joining in toward the end.   I trudged to the discussion, but I left changed.  

And now, that worrisome pebble has been smoothed by companionship, by waves of tears, by the brutally honest and simultaneously loving words of St. Therese and Heather King that reflect their journey, their struggles, their painful purification.   Since our discussion, the quotes from the book, the thoughts of the women gathered to discuss it, and the immeasurably deep truths expressed in it are like that smooth pebble that I hold in my hand.   It's there, always present, as I stop and hold my tongue when I want to gripe at the child who has spilled his drink AGAIN.   It's there as I remember the hurts of the past.   It's there as I attempt to reconcile the familial dysfunction of my childhood with the strength of my mother who loomed large as a refuge of normalcy and hope.   It's there, as I feel less alone and more loved than I have felt in a while.   Unconsciously, I turn over the wisdom, rub it against my palm.   But it doesn't stop there.   I've returned to Shirt of Flame each day since that discussion.   I'm consciously re-reading, not as a book, but as part of a devotion.    The pebble that irritated me now challenges me with the fire, with hope, with loneliness, with Love, even as I know the journey is long and it won't be easy.   Valleys and peaks of the spiritual life.   I've been in the valley and now I can look up toward the next peak, if I can learn from Therese's Little Way and from Heather King's own journey along her own Little Way.

I sit here typing this, watching my daughter through the window as she enjoys a frozen fruit bar with a purity of which only a child is capable.   After she bugged me for hours after I bought the box and I finally snapped, "At 3:00, you can have one!   Quit bothering me about food!"   (Quit talking to me, my child, while I'm trying to write!)   So, good on you, Heather King and St. Therese.   I'm surrendering and going very much against my will by leaving this piece without any well-thought out ending.   I'm going to go spend time with my children and just enjoy being with them.   It's a start--a little one--

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