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The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

“My God! I love you!” – Last words of St. Therese of Lisieux

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On September 30, 1897, Therese Martin, Sr. Therese of the Child Jesus, quitted her 24-year-old body and entered into eternity. The “Little Flower,” (a name she called herself which became emblematic of her relationship with the great gardener, God) was the ninth child born to Louis and Zelie Martin. After a painful battle against tuberculosis, Therese followed four of her siblings and both of her parents into the eternal arms of Jesus. The remaining four Martin sisters (who were also Carmelite nuns and therefore Therese’s natural and religious sisters) submitted Therese’s writings to the convent chaplain so that the process of her canonization could begin. In 1925, she was canonized a Catholic saint. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her the third female Doctor of the Church. There is hardly a Western Catholic alive who does not know the name of St. Therese and at least some details of her life. In the Catholic tradition, she is one of our most powerful and beloved examples of Christian witness.

Under the direction of her mother superior (and her natural sister, Pauline), Therese wrote three letters detailing the story of her conversion, the story of her soul, and the story of her life inside of Carmel. These three letters (written to different family members, at different times, and in different lengths) were written by Therese (in obedience to her superiors) because many suspected that she would be a candidate for canonization after death and these testimonials would aid in that process. A truly obedient little sister and Carmelite sister, Therese gave her sister Pauline permission to edit the letters as necessary. Upon Therese’s death, her sisters trimmed, edited, and reworked some of Therese’s writing. While the original documents and the edited documents say substantially the same things, they are adjusted for different audiences. The edited version of her writing was published and is widely read under the title The Story of a Soul.

“It would certainly have been impossible to publish Therese’s manuscript word for word at the time… in a period when so much importance was attached to perfect correctness of style and scrupulous respect for literary conventions, to publish the rough notes of a young and unknown nun would have meant making oneself ridiculous as well as betraying the author… Mother Agnes in fact rewrote Therese’s autobiography… There is no doubt that the content remains substantially the same, so does the basis of the doctrine, but the form differs to the extent that the temperament of Mother Agnes differed from that of Therese.” (Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux)

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Therese and two of her natural and religious Carmelite sisters on laundry day.

In 1952, Fr. François de Sainte Marie, a Carmelite priest, undertook the work of compiling a facsimile of the original writings of St. Therese. The French Carmelites asked Msgr. Ronald Knox to translate that French document into English. “One delightful trait runs throughout, namely a delicious vein of humour making her most vividly human, and who could better interpret the humour of Saint Therese than Monsignor Knox?” (Foreword)

Like many “good” Catholics, I first approached St. Therese in The Story of A Soul. Unlike so many of my friends, I was completely turned off by the writings of this giant of Catholic culture. I found her writing to be saccharine sweet and disconnected from my reality. I presumed that I was simply not called to love her.

When my reading buddy and I finished Creed In Slow Motion, we wanted more Knox to read. We loved the friendly and humorous voice in which he writes. We had been watching Bishop Barron and Word On Fire’s Catholicism series, and I really wanted to know why a theologian I so deeply respect was so smitten with St. Therese, when I could not approach her. On a whim, we agreed to read Knox’s translation of St. Therese’s autobiography. We were richly rewarded. Therese is anything but saccharine and her writing is powerful. Knox gave me a Therese who had meat on her bones and fire in her belly. She was loving and delightful, but she was also prideful and utterly human. Thanks to Knox, I believe that I have made a new friend in the “Little Flower.”

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Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin

St. Therese was born very frail and her mother despaired of her maturing to full bloom. St. Zelie Martin had already buried four of her nine children and wrote to a friend, “I have no hope of saving her. The poor little thing suffers horribly…. It breaks your heart to see her.” Mercifully, Zelie was wrong. Therese had an iron will and an inherent passion to live. This strong will was rooted in a fierce pride. As a small child, Therese was delightful, but also stubborn. As Therese tells us, she had a very happy early childhood. When her mother died, however, Therese turned inward, becoming extremely sensitive and irritable. Her older sisters were loving and became surrogate mothers to her.

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“The extraordinarily wide circulation of The Story of a Soul, which has become part of the patrimony of the Church, may tend to make the reader forget that its original character was that of an intimate family document. Witnesses at the Canonization Process stressed this point…” (Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux)

This autobiography is interesting because it was never intended for publication. Therese desired only to make a full confession of her life, her conversion, her struggles against sin, and her desire to serve the Lord. In her humility and honesty, we get a gorgeous theology which has become central to modern Catholic thought. Therese studied the lives of the great saints like St. Teresa of Avila and became discouraged. She bemoaned that she could never do great things for Jesus like Catherine of Siena or Joan of Arc did. The more she grew in holiness, the more she understood that God plants flowers of many varieties in His garden. While she could not be a strong and perfect rose, she could be a little flower that loved Jesus in small but complete ways. She writes of a childlike prayer life and notes that while her prayers may never be great, they will have to be good enough because Jesus said that children would inherit the kingdom of God. The “Little Flower” even jokes that while the Grand Teresa could approach our Lord and look up to Him, she the Little Flower would ultimately get closer to Jesus because her smallness would beckon Him to stoop and pick her up.

Thanks to this translation, her story is filled with warmth, humor, humility, and friendliness. As I read of her days in the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux, I was inspired to study her “little ways” more carefully. Her small sacrifices were often far harder to make than great sacrifices would have been, because they were done in secret. Her example is particularly powerful to me in this season of life.

 

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Therese as a young child

 

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

The movie is better. Much better, in fact.

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In 1903, Baroness
Orczy wrote a successful stage play about a foppish English noble who mastered the art of “disguise and redirect” in order to save the lives of French royals destined for the Madame Guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Building on the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel production, she converted the story into a novel which launched a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories. The concept is quite intriguing and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. The title, The Scarlet Pimpernel, became so emblematic of resistance to terror that several decades later a number of distinct WWII spies were assigned the moniker. For example, Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was dubbed “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his use of disguises and underground rescue operations for escaped Allied POWs, Jews, and refugees during WWII.

The 1982 movie is better. I know, I said that already. As a bibliophile, it pains me to write that. But, sadly, it is absolutely true. And sadly, the same is true of my other favorite Pimpernel story. The movie The Scarlet and the Black with Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck is much better than J.P. Gallagher’s The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. (More on that in another review.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a quirky book (or series of books). The writing is uneven. In places, it is beautiful. In other places, it is enough to drive any good reader to the brink of insanity. How many times must she use “superhuman” to describe an effort that Percy or Marguerite is making… at least twice in one chapter and again later. It doesn’t fit the first, second, or third time! Let alone three times in one short novel.

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This story is so interesting, that it has become a classic without really proving itself a specimen of good literature. Perhaps someday it will go away. But I suspect that this one will hang around. The idea of a consummate actor with nearly limitless resources, power, and influence putting his life in danger to save innocent men and women from the satanic bloodlust of the French revolutionaries is classically intriguing. The story is brilliant. The writing is subpar. The concept has gone on to inspire the back story for many other super heroes like Batman and Zorro.

Towards the end of the novel, there is a long and irritating windup before the conclusion. Frankly, it is ridiculous and incredibly repetitious. We hear how much Marguerite loves this man, whose life is in peril, every other page. Far from romantic, it feels like a record that keeps skipping. Marguerite’s superficiality is distracting and takes away from the story itself. The final section of the novel, however, is lovely. The conclusion is creative, elegantly written, and rosy.

I keep saying that the movie is better. It is. The screenwriters took all of the Marguerite novels into consideration when writing a strong story arc with nuanced plot twists. (Over the 13 Pimpernel books, Sir Percy’s wife Marguerite only features in a few.) In the 1982 movie, Jane Seymour’s Marguerite is a much stronger and more interesting character than the Marguerite of the novels. Likewise, Anthony Andrews’ Sir Percy is warmer and more lovable than the character in the novel. By combining several of the best storylines into one movie, we get the best that the book series has to offer.

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Uneven as it is, the story is a wonderful way to introduce teens to the historical setting of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Of course there are more well-written historical fiction books in this setting, A Tale of Two Cities, for example. This one, however, is unique, compelling, exciting, wholesome, and romantic. A little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Charles Dickens, a little bit Victor Hugo, and a little bit Alexandre Dumas. Clean, noble, and clever, this story could help young men and young women fall in love with the period and develop an interest in the complexities of that time.

The Audible version that I have is both excellent and horrible at the same time. The narrator is fantastic. The cover art and music are horrendous. If you choose to get the audio, don’t let the music turn you off of the really great narrator.

Note: I would not pass along the other novels in the series to teens without previewing. I am re-reading The Elusive Pimpernel right now (another Marguerite novel) and am irritated with how much like a cheap romance novel it reads. It is not immoral, but it is loaded with over the top descriptions of romance and marital bliss. To quote Fred Savage’s character in The Princess Bride, “is this a kissing book? I HATE kissing books.”

 

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My Sisters the Saints

“A beautiful and inspiring story of a woman’s deep faith and the saints who became her sisters along the path to her answered prayers.” -Mary Higgins Clark

In October 2014, I was struggling under the weight of a heavy cross to bear. I had lost three babies in miscarriage, was struggling against a neurological disease, and was trying to make my peace with the fact that trying to have more children was too dangerous for me. I was not in a great place. Amazon kept recommending My Sisters the Saints to me, presumably because I was doing a lot of book searches related to spiritual motherhood and St. Teresa of Avila.

“Feeling a mixture of anger and despair, I knelt in a nearby pew and let the darkness engulf me.” (p 9)

I was not sure what I would be getting into with this book. I have a, probably unfair, bias against modern books. I have been so disappointed by books drafted in my own time. So often they make great promises to connect with a modern reader and ultimately fail to have much substance. My expectations for this book were low.

In very little time, I was swept up in the compelling story, made even more compelling when I discovered that she was talking about the Carmelite monastery in my town. I read it in just a few sittings over three days. Campbell’s story forced me to confront some things in my own story. She addressed some fears I had and took me to places that I did not want to go.

That fall, I was angry with St. Teresa of Avila. I had just put down her Interior Castle and wasn’t very happy with her. She was the first female saint I had ever really and truly appreciated but she was writing to nuns and, while she satisfied my intellectual need for authentic theology, her writing made me feel unworthy and left out because I did not wear a habit.

I was frustrated with Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. After more than a decade of loving the little nun and trying to adopt some of her spiritual wisdom, I was coming up empty and feeling as though she was actively pushing me away.

With the exception of Edith Stein, the other saints in this book did not appeal to me at all. I knew little about St. Faustina and what I knew wasn’t very exciting. I always grimaced at the mention of St. Therese of Lisieux. I knew that the church treasured her witness and had elevated her to the position of Doctor of the Church. And yet, I found her to be saccharine sweet, idealistic, and useless to a modern married woman like me.

As a Catholic revert (someone who is raised Catholic, leaves the church for a period of time, and then returns home), I was struggling to get over my Protestant concerns about Mary. I found her to be unapproachable because I was miserably confused about what to think of her.

“Like many Catholics born after the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965, I grew up viewing Mary with some ambivalence… I knew too little about Mary to feel genuinely close to her and felt too wary of Marian piety to learn more.” (p. 183)

Only Edith Stein appealed to me, and that was because I knew nothing of her except that she had been a Jew,  and that she was a theologian and a feminist.

“I realized that my lingering melancholy might be connected to the intimacy with God that I had abandoned shortly after arriving at college. For more than three years, I had given God the scraps of my time and attention, put Him last on my list of sources to turn to for answers and fulfillment.” (p. 9)

Campbell’s story is different than mine, but she and I have walked similar paths. In this powerful little book, I was reintroduced to these saints in a new way, as she was, through her crises. In each chapter, Campbell chronicles a significant life challenge that she experienced as she tried to renew her relationship with the Lord and walk with Him. In each chapter, she is suffering. But in each season, the Lord’s mercy invades her experience. Each time, the messenger of His mercy is the writing and example of a sister in heaven. I began to see that just as she moved into friendship with new saintly sisters, I too could look for the companion that God had ordained for the various legs of my journey.

“And though I felt a shaky sense of peace taking root in my heart, whatever was happening inside me was still not strong enough to curb my vanity and vices. It just made me enjoy them less.” (p. 23)

When the book opens, Colleen is broken. She is a college student who has gone off the rails. She has excellent and holy parents, but she has enjoyed the fruits of the world and is starving for spiritual nourishment. As the Spirit stirs in her heart, our Lord uses the writings of St. Teresa of Avila to conquer her spiritual and intellectual pride. In the writings of St. Teresa, Campbell returns home to Christ reluctantly and by degrees. Reading the mystic Doctor of the Church, Colleen’s rational self is converted so that she can give her heart permission to be converted as well. Interestingly, St. Teresa of Avila’s writings are what converted Edith Stein from Judaism. Like Colleen, I found solace in the sound theology of Teresa of Avila.

“Teresa’s example convinced me that my journey to understand who I was and how I should live as a woman was inextricably bound with my journey toward God.” (p. 24)

Upon her return to the faith, Colleen is challenged deeply. I could appreciate her laughter at Teresa of Avila’s complaint against God: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”. When we truly embark on this adventure, we can be sure of two things: suffering and divine support. His will does not not take us where His grace will not cover us. However, it is often to the very limits of our ability to trust in that grace.

On this journey, Colleen’s father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, Colleen must watch her robust and saintly father suffer indignity and abuse from this merciless disease. During her father’s decline, Colleen is working at the White House as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, but her career is tearing apart her relationship with her fiance. In a radical trust fall of sorts, she must make some difficult choices that are seemingly unclear. Instead of reasoning her way through them, ultimately, she leans into the example of St. Faustina and prays the Divine Mercy Chaplet for months, “Jesus, I Trust In You.”

“Genuine spiritual motherhood lies in leading others to freedom, not dependence; in giving, not getting. But a woman cannot give what she does not first possess. Only in loving God can she find the strength and selflessness she needs to be a true spiritual mother.”

And then we get to her challenges with infertility. Her insights into Edith Stein’s writings fed my soul in a profound way. Two years and two readings later, I am still wrestling with those writings, but I know Edith’s writing continues to grow me and change me. They significantly altered my view of my vocation and gave me a peace that is still working its way deep into my soul.

Finally, Colleen journeys with Saint Mother Teresa through a very dark period of her father’s final days. And when she comes through that, she clings to the Blessed Mother as she transitions into a whole new way of life.

God has worked in my life in a way much like He has worked in Colleen’s. First, He converted my reason. Then, He converted my desire. After that, He converted my will. And now, He is working on my trust and total surrender. His mercy, patience, and grace astound me. His creativity delights me.

I owe Colleen a tremendous debt. Instead of combing the stories of the saints for spiritual answers, I am learning to study their lives for practical answers to my practical problems, which ultimately leads to spiritual answers to my spiritual challenges. In the lives of the saints, I see how the Gospel can be lived in any day and in any circumstances.

I cry every single time I see the name of her son. John Patrick. My littlest guy happens to bear the same name. Every time I see that line in the book, I cry tears of relief. I know that the Lord is listening and working in my life. I know that it was no accident that the Holy Spirit led me to this beautiful story.

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Saint Edward Catholic Church – North Augusta, South Carolina – Designed and painted by Joseph K. Beyer. Window fabricated by Artisans of Beyer Studio, Inc.
Posted in Book Lovers Community

Creed in Slow Motion

“Authors Note: The sermons of which this book is composed were delivered to the girls at the Assumption Convent (now at Exton, Rutland) when they were being evacuated to Aldenham Park, Bridgnorth, during the late war.”

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In 1855, the bishops of England had suggested to John Henry Newman that he should translate the Vulgate Bible into English. Because Newman was never able to produce a translation, the Bishops asked Fr. Ronald Knox, almost a century later, to take up that translation work. In 1939, Reverend Ronald Knox resigned his chaplaincy to the Catholic students at Oxford University and retreated to the country estate of friends so that he could work in quiet seclusion. Not long after his arrival, the Second World War forced the boarding school of Assumption Convent in Kensington to evacuate to the estate. “One can imagine Knox’s consternation as he watched his scholarly sanctuary invaded by a pack of schoolgirls and all his translation apparatus crowded into one small room. For the duration of the war he lived in a community of fifty-five students, fifteen nuns, and several lay staff.”

I: I Believe in God

“More and more, the longer I stay here, and the longer some of you stay here, do I find it difficult to preach to you. At Oxford, where the ordinary undergraduate lasted only three years, it was quite simple, because at the end of three years I started preaching the same sermons again….I am going to start this year by launching out on a course, and a course which will see us through more than a month of Sundays. I’m going to give an exposition, clause by clause, of the Apostle’s Creed.”

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A friend of G.K. Chesterton, Knox was a sincere and charming chaplain. In the introduction, the editors inform us that Knox’s friendly conversational style and his true affection for the teenage girls earned him a special place in the hearts of his flock. If the editors are correct, the girls would routinely cut their weekend family visits short, foregoing movies and ice cream, so as not to miss his weekly chapel. Throughout these sermons, he is personable and delightfully aware of how to speak into the hearts of giddy school girls and their adult caretakers. As I read, I appreciated his style but even more than that, I appreciated what his style could do for teenagers today. I think that this book is a good fit for any mature age, but is particularly winning for young adults.

“…what religion is: a tremendous adventure which makes even this very deceptive and transitory world worth living in, because it is shot through with the glory of God and the love of Jesus Christ.” (p. 133)

Reverend Knox was ordained in the Anglican tradition in 1912. Through the writings of G.K. Chesterton and others, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1917 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1919. He teased and goaded Chesterton during the years between 1917 and 1922. How was it possible that Chesterton could bring Knox to Rome when Chesterton was still unconverted? Not surprisingly, Knox was a key influence and sympathetic friend during Chesterton’s long conversion process.

The Creed In Slow Motion is, as Knox explained, “an exposition, clause by clause, of the Apostle’s Creed.” Creedal Christians will have different reactions to Knox’s sermons. His style is absolutely appealing, his comments are informative, and his sincerity is convincing. The first portion of the creed is pretty commonly understood by Christians in a wide variety of traditions.

“…you are to say the Credo as an expression of your own individual point of view, giving it the full homage of your intellect, prepared to explain it to other people; if necessary, to argue it with other people.” (p. 3)

XII. Dead and Buried

Here is where things get sticky. Many Reformed and Bible Christians are likely to approach the rest of the book with varying degrees of incredulity, frustration, confusion, and doubt. I understand and respect that. I think that Knox does as well. Having been an Anglican Protestant, he has a particular sensitivity to the nuances of Roman Catholic understanding of these clauses. Knox is convinced of the truth of these claims. As a convert, he wrestled these points out before coming into the church. Therefore, his explanations are grounded in his careful discernment. He converted because the Holy Spirit moved him into belief on these points, and as a caretaker of young souls, he felt bound to help his students understand and be able to articulate their belief in these statements of faith. Knox’s preaching is clear and orthodox Catholic teaching and excellent catechesis. If you are not Catholic but desire to understand what and why Catholics believe about Purgatory, Old Testament Jews, saints, the 7 Sacraments, why Catholics are not “sola scriptura,” and aspects of Mary, this is an excellent place to start.

Conclusion

The vast majority of traditional Christians subscribe to some kind of creedal Christianity. One of the great miracles of Christianity is that, despite the chaos that Satan has caused inside our churches, and the separation that has been affected between our traditions, the Gospel remains paramount and universal to all of us. With only nuanced differences, most traditional Christians submit to the authority of the Gospel expressed not only in the text but in the distillation of that text found in the Nicene and Apostles creeds. While this book properly expresses the Catholic point of view on this universal creed, it is a beautiful exposition on the way that all Christians try to orient their entire lives toward God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:5

Note: I strongly recommend this particular printing of this book. Friends have acquired the kindle version and other printings, both of which lacked the notes and introduction. This is a very nice printing.

Apostle’s Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Wisdom and Innocence

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Like a great wind after a night of thunder
He rocked the sodden marches of the soul
And ripped the mists of cowardice asunder
With laughter vivid as an aureole.

He does not need to knock against the Gate
Who every action like a prayer ascended
And beat upon the panels. Trumpets, wait
For a hushed instant. We love him. It is ended.

-Jewish poet Humbert Wolfe about G.K. Chesterton

Like its subject, this book is massive, jolly, and erudite. Joseph Pearce has a master work in this tome, and like David McCullough in John Adams, he has enabled me to truly fall in love with this robust Jongleur de Dieu. If you read only one work from Joseph Pearce or only one biography on Gilbert Keith Chesterton, let it be this one. Pearce’s careful scholarship really allows Chesterton to tell his own story through quotes from books, articles, and letters.

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George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and GKC

I have always been skeptical of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but Pearce showed how much and why Chesterton loved them, which helped me to want to love them too. I was generally uninterested in Hilaire Belloc and totally unaware of Msgr. Ronald Knox, but thanks to this beautiful testimony of GKC’s love and admiration of these men, I feel as though I have found friends in heaven. In this nearly 500 page adventure into the wisdom and innocence of this loving, brilliant, and gentle man, Pearce has drawn such an intimate and life-like portrait that I feel as though I had really known Chesterton. Because this book is so authentic, my reading buddy and I sobbed through the last chapter and feel as though he and Frances just died again.

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“The writer may put himself in the position of the ordinary modern outsider and enquirer; as indeed the present writer was still largely and was once entirely in that position.” – GK Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi

This work from Pearce is being told from the vantage point of someone who was once an outsider and for whom his subject was responsible in part for his coming “in”. The genius of this work is not in the recalling of interesting facts about Chesterton’s life. It is in the careful scholarship which allowed Pearce to edit the facts and source material into a cogent retelling. As Chesterton did on so many occasions as a biographer, Pearce puts himself in the shoes of someone who knows little or nothing about one of the most famous men in England before WWII and tries to tell them a story worth hearing. Like Chesterton, Pearce has written many biographies. Like Chesterton, some of his biographies are interesting but a bit detached. Again, like Chesterton, this one is like the “modern outsider and enquirer; as indeed the present writer was still largely and was once entirely in that position.”

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Without going off on too much of a tangent, I think that it is important to know something of Pearce. In his early life Pearce was a radical white supremacist who was imprisoned twice for publishing racially charged and rebellious pamphlets, and other radical activity. During his second prison sentence, he was in solitary confinement for many months and he filled his days with reading. Along with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many other modern Christian writers, Chesterton cut through Pearce’s tough exterior and penetrated something in his soul. Through reading Chesterton, Pearce gained a rational response to the chaos of his internal world. Their shared love of Distributism (a form of economics similar to but different from Libertarianism) and journalism allowed Pearce to really listen to and trust Chesterton. Wisdom and Innocence reads like a powerful testimony given by an adoptive son about the magnificence and affability of his adoptive father. Pearce loves his subject and seems to want his readers to know and truly love Chesterton too.

Despite being a substantially sized offering, I would recommend this biography to anyone who desires to meet Chesterton for the first time or get to know him better. In many ways, Pearce has arranged this book to be a primer on the gentle soul and to help us approach his writing appropriately. There is no question that Pearce has read Chesterton extensively and understands his subject well. As he moves through GKC’s life and highlights the writing of that moment, he gives us valuable context so that we can see what was really at work. I don’t think that I am ever going to really love The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but thanks to Pearce, I believe that I will understand it well enough to appreciate the effort.

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The real problem with a 450+ page biography is that the reader is so invested by the last chapter. I read The Woman Who Was Chesterton and loved it. I cried when they died. And yet, the book was so short and the description of their deaths was so brief that I could not remember who died first. In Pearce’s account, I sobbed and sobbed. I spent nearly 5 months reading this book at a rate of a chapter per week. The deaths of Gilbert and Frances haunted me as I rounded the bend towards the end. And when they came, I was like Belloc. “Hilaire Belloc was found after the funeral weeping tears of disconsolate isolation into a pint of beer outside the Railway Hotel.” (p. 483)

“Holy Father deeply grieved death Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton devoted son Holy Church gifted Defender of the Catholic Faith. His Holiness offers paternal sympathy people of England assures prayers dear departed, bestows Apostolic Benediction.” – A telegram from Cardinal Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII) for and on behalf of Pope Pius XI to Frances Chesterton upon the news of the death of her husband.

I want to thank Mr. Pearce. I had prayed for a way to know and understand Mr. Chesterton better. After several years of reading and searching, I found the man brilliant and funny but still a bit unknowable. Thanks to Mr. Pearce, I now feel as though I have found a kindred spirit whom I will read for the rest of my life.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Quest for Shakespeare

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“Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was someone else.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

In 2008, Joseph Pearce tackled the daunting task of trying to decode the enigma of Shakespeare’s religious identity. An Englishman by birth, Pearce is acutely aware of how intriguing and important the Shakespeare religion debate is to English culture. In another period of history, the Bard’s religion would have been a mere footnote in a biography. Shakespeare’s life, however, coincided with a time of intense religious torment. As Pearce so carefully chronicles, most of Shakespeare’s family and friends were recusant Catholics, yet the Bard was a favorite of the anti-Catholic queen. Because of his proximity to those who hated Catholics and his relationship with prominent Catholics, Shakespeare’s religious identity has been the subject of heated debate since shortly after his death. The Bard, his plays, and the legends that surround him are regarded as sacrosanct in English culture.

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In The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, Pearce makes the scholarly assertion that we can reasonably guess much more about Shakespeare’s beliefs than modern scholars would like us to believe. Over fifteen chapters, Pearce tells the story of Shakespeare’s life more or less chronologically. Using clues from the plays, accepted biographical details of Shakespeare’s life, historical facts about major events and major persons of the period, Pearce applies critical analysis to all of the major scholarship on the matter. With a friendly voice, a flair for storytelling, and a love of logic, Pearce carefully responds to the more reputable claims about Shakespeare’s character and beliefs.

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Pearce, a convert to Catholicism from racist agnosticism, has a clear bias towards Shakespeare being a Catholic. Even though I am a Catholic, however, I approached this book and his assertion with skepticism. I was a theatre minor in college, have been to Stratford-upon-Avon, travelled to the Stratford Festival in Canada several times, and generally love Shakespeare. I wanted to read this book mostly to learn more about the Bard and gain insight into his plays. While I learned very interesting things about some of the plays, Pearce didn’t spend much time with them. Instead, Pearce did what he is truly excellent at, he wrote a biography that researches the research. It is clear that Pearce has read nearly all of the most compelling scholarship on Shakespeare and in so doing, discovered a thread that runs throughout that body of work that he can illuminate for us.

Pearce’s defense of Shakespeare’s Catholicism is staggeringly compelling. Grounded not in nuance, but in historical facts, cultural prejudices, and keen knowledge of how resistance movements work (presumably from Pearce’s political past), Pearce treats us to a well defended thesis.

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Interestingly, Shakespeare’s alleged recusancy to Elizabethan Anglicanism is interesting but isn’t the most interesting aspect of this book for me. What I found far more intellectually satisfying was how Pearce pulls together so many other people and events that I was only vaguely familiar with and places them in their historical and intellectual context. I really enjoyed touring the period itself.

Classic Pearce, this is well researched and told beautifully. This fascinating story is an intellectually satisfying puzzle to play with. If I were not already committed to a specific path for my 2017 reading, this would easily have inspired a substantial rabbit trail to follow.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Importance of Being Earnest

I love stories. While a student at Hillsdale College, I was a theater minor. Between the long hours I logged as Stage Manager and then House Manager, and my appreciation for the art of great storytelling, theater seemed to be a sensible minor to attach to my Philosophy/Religion major. Interestingly, part of why I became a philosophy major was because my favorite professor was a regular actor in our vibrant theater department. Over my years at Hillsdale we did some truly excellent classic plays, and because of my philosophy professor we had incredible conversations about the many aspects of human nature on display in the greats like Taming of the Shrew and The Importance of Being Earnest. I will always be grateful for those incredible conversations.

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Oscar Wilde is a challenging writer. I think that he is most famous for three things: being openly and defiantly bi-sexual, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and this happy and delightfully funny little play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Because of his controversial and raucous personal life and his dark and disturbing Dorian Grey, I was genuinely uneasy about reading The Importance of Being Earnest. I was fearful that it would have themes that I found distasteful. It does not. Not really. In fact, it is English comedy at its best.

Wilde was absolutely a master of witticism. Earnest is a very fast moving and side-splitting comedy. His jabs and jibes are smart and delightful. No one is immune from being both the fool and the hero when it is all said and done. If adults could recapture the wonder and joy of childish play, I think it would look something like this comedy.

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The play itself demands to be heard and/or seen. Reading it on the page is excellent, but hearing it is far better. To that end, I laughed my way through this multi-actor theatrical production via Audible. Performed by stage actors, it really delights the ear and comes alive in the imagination.

The play itself is pretty wholesome. While there is some innuendo, it is generally clean and Victorian. The famously funny movie starring Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon, and Tom Wilkinson is a feast for the eyes and is brilliantly acted. That said, it is interpreted artistically (with some modern prejudice) and few opportunities to make it racy were lost. Delightful as the movie is, I caution parents before showing it to their teens. As an example, two of the characters get the name of their lover tattooed in a place usually covered by undergarments. Not only are the tattoos off script, the scenes are designed to be provocative. Another example stages some of the scenes in a raunchy dance parlor. The movie puts more Wilde into Earnest than Wilde did.

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The play itself is absurd and over the top, but somehow, that makes it all the more funny. It seems obvious to me that PG Wodehouse was nodding to Earnest when he created Jeeves and Wooster.

The play is short and can be read or listened to in one afternoon. I think this is an audiobook that I will reach for whenever I am between books and needing a good laugh, world weary, or just in low spirits.

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