All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Pieces of Western Culture

Around 1766 a new form of fun began, so 2016 is as good a time as any to commemorate it.  While for centuries people with mathematical minds had been amusing themselves with chess and cards, 250 years ago people with more pictorial minds got their turn.  By 1766 John Spilsbury, a young printer and map maker in London, had invented “dissected maps, for teaching geography,” what we now call jigsaw puzzles.

According to Linda Hannas’ The English Jigsaw Puzzle (1972), the immediate antecedent was a game based on a map.  In 1759 John Jeffreys, a writing master and geographer in Chapel Street, Westminster, created a game on a piece of canvas in which the players, as travelers, moved around a map of Europe, each turn determined by throwing dice.  He called it A Journey through Europe, or The Play of Geography.  Modern English-language board games, such as Monopoly, trace their origins back to it.

Also in Westminster, in Charing Cross, was Thomas Jeffreys, possibly related to John Jeffreys, who was an engraver and cartographer.  He was also designated Geographer to the King.  Hannas speculated that Thomas Jeffreys may have doubted whether “the King’s geographer [ought] to turn his attention to adapting the serious trade of cartography to the entertainment of children,” but she noted that, whatever his misgivings, in 1770 he published a comparable game.

One of Thomas Jeffreys’s apprentices was John Spilsbury, having begun his apprenticeship at age fourteen.  The middle of three sons, he hailed from Worcester, where his parents, having buried their first spouses, had been married in the cathedral.  Again a widow, Spilsbury’s mother accompanied her teenage sons to London.  In 1760, at twenty-one, John Spilsbury completed his apprenticeship, and the following year he married Sarah May, originally from Newmarket, Suffolk.  By 1762 he had set up his own print and map shop in Covent Garden, in Russell Court, off Drury Lane.  An enterprising young man, Spilsbury also sold silk head scarves printed with road maps of England and Wales.

Hannas reproduced one of Spilsbury’s “trade cards,” part business card and part advertisement, and according to it, Spilsbury sold some thirty different “dissected maps.”  They included maps of Europe and various countries, from Scotland to Turkey, Portugal to Russia; maps of North America and South America; and maps of the ancient world.  Of points in the Western hemisphere, only Jamaica had its own dissected map.  Spilsbury mounted each map on thin mahogany and cut them into several dozen pieces, selling each dissected map in a square box.

Spilsbury made his name with his new invention, but he died young, on 3 April, 1769, not yet thirty.  Among the scarce documentation for his brief life are church records.  He and his wife, his brother and their mother, attended services at a local Moravian church, although only his brother joined.  Instead, John Spilsbury, transplanted Shropshire lad, died an Anglican and was buried from his parish church, Saint Mary-le-Strand.

What began as an educational tool for children became a diversion for adults as well.  By the early nineteenth century, printers had gone beyond dissected maps and had cut up mounted prints depicting historical persons, famous places, and scenes from literature.  Soon jigsaw puzzles featured prints of current events, such as the coronation of Queen Victoria.

Today’s jigsaw puzzles expand the range of images available and tend to come in 500 or 1000 pieces.  Jigsaw puzzles now reproduce works by famous artists, whether Michelangelo or John James Audubon, Claude Monet or Norman Rockwell.  In addition to the traditional square or rectangular shapes, there are round or triangular puzzles, as well as reversible puzzles and three-dimensional puzzles, often of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building.  A recent development in jigsaws has been as therapy for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients; some companies design for them puzzles of twelve large pieces forming cheerful images, such as roses or kittens.

Of course, for some people, even jigsaw puzzles become a political statement.  Suns Out, founded in 1994, of Costa Mesa, California, on its web site prominently declares that its puzzles are “eco-friendly” and are “Never in Walmart.”  Other jigsaw puzzle companies draw less attention to their use of lead-free ink and recycled cardboard, and they cast a wider retailing net.  For example, one of the oldest surviving makers of jigsaws, Ravensburger, began in 1883 in Upper Swabia and now sells its puzzles anywhere in the world.

Two other puzzle companies deserve special mention.  Master Pieces (motto: “Having fun one piece at a time!”), founded in 1995 and based in Oro Valley, Arizona, produces the standard range of images but also markets jigsaws promoting seventeen entities, from Major League Baseball to Warner Brothers, Nestlé to the United States Army.  Cobble Hill, founded in 2005 and located in Victoria, British Columbia, offers jigsaws of paintings by an array of excellent contemporary artists, including Canadians Robert Bateman and Douglas Laird.

Unwittingly, a Thomistic philosopher has described the experience of losing oneself in a jigsaw.  For Josef Pieper, in Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952), leisure is not a break from work but “a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Along those lines, Margaret Drabble, in her meandering memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet (2009), described long hours doing jigsaws with her Aunt Phyllis.  “[W]e were never of the wilfully austere school that does not look at the picture on the box,” wrote Drabble.  “Looking at the picture was part of the pleasure.  Doing a jigsaw was not an intelligence test, or a personality assessment programme; it was a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie.  And it was not, for us, a form of competition.”

Some competitive and calculating people, brooding over timed chess moves or shrewdly watching the croupier deal, might not understand folks who prefer quiet evenings at home assembling jigsaw puzzles.  Nevertheless, what began as a didactic instrument still teaches patience and perseverance, seeing a task through to the end.  Granted, that steady determination easily becomes stubborn obsession.  Despite frustration and the growing suspicion that, even with a new puzzle, pieces are missing, someone finishes a jigsaw with a sense of accomplishment, a brief triumph before taking it apart and putting the pieces back in the box.

A Century on Spoon River

In 1916 Edgar Lee Masters, then forty-eight, published an expanded version of his collection of poems, Spoon River Anthology.  Still in print, it consists of 244 short free verse poems, each standing as an epitaph for someone buried in the hillside cemetery of the fictional town of Spoon River.  Nearly all the poems are in the first person and are addressed to the reader, who is given the role of visitor to the cemetery.

West of Peoria, Illinois, flows the real Spoon River, a tributary of the Illinois River.  The eponymous town Masters imagined along it contained a wide variety of inhabitants, some more admirable than others.  According to Masters, writing in The American Mercury of January, 1933, he arranged the poems to align with the Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven of Dante’s Divine Comedy:  “the fools, the drunkards, and the failures came first, the people of one-birth minds got second place, and the heroes and the enlightened spirits came last.”

The first person we meet is Hod Putt, convicted and hanged for murder.  His grave is near that of a man who had become wealthy trading with Indians.  Putt had “grown tired of toil and poverty” and so “robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,/Killing him unwittingly while doing so.”  For that crime he was tried and executed.

Further on, we meet the Circuit Judge, no name given.  He heard Putt’s case, although the judge says he reached all his verdicts by “deciding cases on the points the lawyers scored,/Not on the right of the matter.”  For such serial injustice, he now acknowledges that “even Hod Putt, the murderer,/Hanged by my sentence,/Was innocent in soul compared with me.”

Likewise unnamed is the Village Atheist, found near the end of our tour through the cemetery.  He had been “talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments/Of the infidels.”  Then he fell ill and “read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.”  They “lighted a torch of hope and intuition” in him which not even the shadow of death could put out.  His conclusion was that “immortality is an achievement” possessed only by “those who strive mightily.”

In contrast to the paradoxical atheist’s Pelagianism, six graves (or pages) away there lies Lydia Humphrey.  She was a spinster who went back and forth to church, “with my Bible under my arm/Till I was gray and old.”  Although she lived alone, she found “brothers and sisters in the congregation,/And children in the church.”  She kept her dignity even though she was painfully aware that to them she was an eccentric and ridiculous figure:  “I know they laughed and thought me queer.”

One of the last voices that we encounter from the grave is that of Jeremy Carlisle.  He tells us, “Passer-by, sin beyond any sin/Is the sin of blindness of souls to other souls.”  It was a sin long besetting him, and he confesses “a lofty scorn/And an acrid skepticism.”  Gradually he came to see that “joy beyond any joy is the joy/Of having the good in you seen, and seeing the good/At the miraculous moment!”  The faces and goodness of others grew clearer to him, until “We were ready then to walk together/And sing in chorus and chant the dawn/Of life that is wholly life.”

Someone who does not speak his own epitaph is Father Malloy, whose Christian name we are not told.  “You are over there, Father Malloy,/Where holy ground is, and the cross marks every grave.”  Separate from the hillside graves we have seen stands the small town’s Catholic cemetery.  Unlike the tee-totaling Calvinists active, if not dominant, in the town, the Irish priest was “so human, . . . /Taking a friendly glass sometimes with us.”  The core of this tribute needs to be quoted in full:

You were like a traveler who brings a little box of sand

From the wastes about the pyramids

And makes them real and Egypt real.

You were part of and related to a great past,

And yet you were so close to many of us.

Quietly exotic, his appeal to some of the Protestants of Spoon River came from his steady realism:  “You faced life as it is,/And as it changes.”

In the 14 December, 1927, issue of The Commonweal (the definite article has since been dropped) Masters wrote about “Father Malloy.”  Masters noted that in the midst of the daily conflict between “the prudent and the shiftless,” Father Malloy “kept his way in a high tranquility at the parish house at the edge of town” beside his church, which “had nothing to do with all this village turmoil.”  Father Malloy’s forays into the town square were “to get his mail, or to attend to the errands of the day, or to visit with the men with whom Peter would have fished.”  Then he left them to the arguments that seemed so important to them, went home, and “calmly celebrated the Mass.”

Primarily among the intelligentsia along the eastern seaboard, Spoon River Anthology at once won high praise.  Editors sought permission to reprint poems from it, and the book became a staple in high school English classes.  Students learnt that Masters based his anthology on an ancient text, The Greek Anthology, and probably more than one bespectacled boy walked across his own Spoon River sort of town to check out the older anthology from the public library.

Masters went on to write other poems, as well as essays and novels, but he knew he would be remembered only for his anthology, so he called his autobiography Across Spoon River (1936).  Whenever Masters wrote about the real-life models for Spoon River’s cast of characters, he described several small Midwestern towns from his boyhood.  He sketched their settlers as contrasting kinds of Protestant, conservatives from New England (such as his mother’s family) and liberals from Virginia (his father’s family).

He admitted that the former lot and “Tories everywhere” disliked Spoon River Anthology, and yet no less a champion of evangelical Protestantism than William Jennings Bryan, recalled Masters, “bestowed a wry smile of congratulation upon me, having read the book at the home of a Presbyterian preacher who was keeping it hidden from his children.”  Masters left unsaid what Bryan thought of the description of the town’s Catholic priest, but Catholic priests and seminarians especially would do well to meditate upon Masters’ poetic portrait of Father Malloy.

A Presidential Speech

With presidential primaries occurring and the incumbent retiring, it is a good time to study a particular presidential speech, one delivered on the 17th of January.  A short speech, it took around fifteen minutes for the President to deliver.  A part commentators seem to have missed requires close attention:


[There] has been the technological revolution during recent decades.  In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly.  A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.  In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research.  Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.  For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.  The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.


The President’s concern bears careful pondering.  Just as some cynics assume every politician is bought and paid for by a couple of major campaign donors, so do others assume that scientists are in the back pocket of whoever gives them a grant.  Just as some people wonder whether the federal government manipulates scientific research, others distrust what the President called “a scientific-technological elite.”

As the President indicated, that elite resides primarily in universities.  The President effectively called out that elite, saying that he has been aware of the danger from gurus of science and technology, especially academics, forming a clique to dominate society.  Apparently the President was worrying about a kind of Gnosticism, esoteric knowledge open to only a few initiates.

If these presidential concerns and warnings do not sound familiar, it could be because that part of the speech, coming roughly ten minutes into it, got overlooked.  After all, by that point in a speech or sermon, nearly everyone’s attention wanders.  Besides, few people can remember every bit of a political speech.  Students used to have to memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but committing to memory anything beyond a password seems to have gone out of vogue.

Another reason this presidential speech could be eluding anyone’s memory is that it was delivered to the nation on 17 January, 1961.  This speech is generally known as the Farewell Address of President Dwight Eisenhower.  In the paragraph before the three quoted above is what has become the most famous line of the speech:  “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

That line seems to be the only one people recall from this brief presidential speech.  Nevertheless, a few paragraphs earlier, near the beginning of the speech, President Eisenhower said:


Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations.  To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.  Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice, would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world.  It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings.  We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.


These remarks stand between Woodrow Wilson’s ideal that “the world must be made safe for democracy” and Ronald Reagan describing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as “an evil empire.”

Because of this threat to American security and freedom, President Eisenhower insisted that America’s armed forces remain strong.  “A vital element in keeping the peace,” he said, “is our military establishment.”  Therefore, he went on, “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”  Eisenhower’s caution regarding “the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex” must be read in this context.

Notice that he spoke of “unwarranted influence.”  For America to stay vigilant and militarily prepared, there must be close co-operation between the federal government and the industries making weapons for the military to use in the national defense.  Those industries benefit from the research of scientists and the inventions of experts in technology, makers of those “hundreds of new electronic computers” replacing the blackboard.

In this speech President Eisenhower used the word “balance” ten times.  Rhetorically he balanced his wariness of “unwarranted influence” acquired by “the military-industrial complex,” with uneasiness about such influence being wielded by the “scientific-technological elite.”

Eisenhower gave this final speech as President not only to the country at large, but also as public advice to his successor.  Three days after this speech, John F. Kennedy took the oath of office and was inaugurated as the next President.  Kennedy was twenty-seven years younger than Eisenhower, and necessarily he brought to the presidency that much less life experience.

In the paragraph after President Eisenhower warned that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite,” he made an observation that was the older generation speaking to the younger.  “It is the task of statesmanship,” he said, “to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system, ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

In the popular imagination Eisenhower beams as a genial, grandfatherly presence, amiable but dim.  During his eight years in office, so the mythology goes, he passively presided over Americans getting on with their lives, an era of domestic prosperity amid the tensions of the Cold War, tensions ably conjured with by his wily but grim Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  Eisenhower’s Farewell Address reminds us of his shrewd and resolute character:  Grandfather, a retired general, staring down the unruly kids.

An Archaeologist’s Fables

In the early 1980s, when compiling for Penguin Books The Portable Conservative Reader, Russell Kirk included a short story by a British archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes.  It was from her collection, Fables, published in 1953 in London and also in New York the same year, although under the title A Woman as Great as the World and Other Fables.  Hawkes (1910-1996) and her second husband, a left-wing novelist and playwright, J. B. Priestley, supported the United Nations and opposed nuclear weapons and otherwise mixed and mingled with North Atlantic champagne socialists, so inclusion in a conservative anthology may have come as a surprise to her.

Such convergence of opposites begs the question what Hawkes and Kirk could have in common.  One clue comes from the sort of archaeologist she admired.  In 1982 Hawkes published a biography of her friend and mentor, Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), who for much of the twentieth century bestrode the British archaeological world like a colossus.  According to Hawkes, Wheeler was a heroic figure in an age increasingly unappreciative of heroes.  “Our small children,” Hawkes observed, “are no longer encouraged to have dreams of lordliness or of great deeds, and their educators normally avoid talk of honour, pride, or rulership.”

She was used to the company of prominent men.  Her father, Frederick Gowland Hopkins, was a cousin of Gerard Manley Hopkins and was a Cambridge biochemist honored with a Nobel Prize, a knighthood, and membership in the Order of Merit.  In his reserved and reticent way, he encouraged his daughter’s love of books.  By age nine the precocious Jacquetta Hopkins knew she wanted to be an archaeologist when she grew up, and eventually she studied archaeology at Cambridge and began excavating and writing.  On one of her early digs she met a young Englishman, an archaeologist who would become her first husband, Christopher Hawkes.

Jacquetta Hawkes combined her analytical skills with a gift for lucid prose, and she became a prolific and popular author.  She wrote regularly on archaeology for The Times of London, and her books ranged from archaeology and history to poetry and fables.  In 1951 she wrote A Land, a book accompanying the Labour government’s Festival of Britain; she baffled librarians by calling it a memoir, because it was part history, part personal reflection, part national propaganda.  Throughout her career, her literary talents made her suspect amongst many of her colleagues, men already dubious about a woman in their corner of academia.

From his home in rural Michigan, Russell Kirk had no such qualms.  Of the eighteen stories in Hawkes’s Fables, Kirk chose “The Woodpeckers and the Starlings.”  It tells of two woodpeckers, “easily the most splendid birds in the Plantation.”  They were admired by all the other birds “not only for their appearance and lordly ways, but also for their unique skill as carpenters.”  Then starlings attacked the woodpeckers’ nest, killed the offspring, and drove the aristocratic woodpeckers from the Plantation.  “To justify themselves,” the murderous, thieving starlings “babbled about equality and the evils of privilege.”

The fable giving its title to the American edition of the book, “A Woman as Great as the World,” is a brief creation story.  The Woman “was of a placid disposition, and, knowing everything, had no cares.”  Ravished by the Wind, she brought forth fish and reptiles and birds.  Then, one day she gave birth to “ugly little mommets who walked clumsily on two legs and presently began to hang themselves with leaves and skins.”  Before long “they were spoiling her physical beauty even while they were destroying her age-long peace of mind.”  At first the torment was too much, driving her into spasms of mad laughter, but then “she was at peace once more, knowing everything and caring not at all.”

Then there is “Death and the Standard of Living.”  It traces the development of a simple country girl into a sophisticated urban intellectual.  There is an echo of Hawkes herself, poised, formal, austere; Hawkes’s dignified bearing, marked by tweeds and scarves, often frightened but then fascinated anyone first meeting her:  “[A]n extraordinary vitality inspired her face,” Hawkes wrote of the girl, “and she was possessed of an aloofness, an ability to retreat into mysterious and private territories, that made her irresistibly attractive.”

Until about age eighteen the girl in the fable believed in God and was a faithful church-goer.  Then she fell in love with a new schoolmaster, who introduced her to the allurements of the world outside her village.  She moved away, found a job, studied philosophy, and indulged in the finer things of life.  Before long, the schoolmaster left her, and another relationship to fall by the way was with God.  “Having lost the love of God, nature, and man,” we are told, “work became her distraction and the accumulation of material goods her obsession.”

From the early 1980s into the early 1990s, Russell Kirk (1918-1994) delivered some fifteen lectures at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D. C., and in three of them he referred to or quoted from another of Hawkes’s fables, “The Unites.”  At seventy-seven pages, it is nearly as long as the other seventeen fables combined, and it depicts a dystopian future society in which citizens belong (as slaves belong to their masters) to a world government of state planning and collective uniformity, where everyone must be useful and everyone must be equal, even in death:  the state enforces euthanasia on everyone at age sixty-six.  As a prophecy of utilitarian and egalitarian horrors, it ranks with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.

In contrast to a nightmarish police state of the future, Hawkes mused in her other books on Britain’s prehistory.  She studied archaeological finds from the time of Stonehenge and earlier, when families of farmers first cleared and tilled the rolling fields of Shakespeare’s “other Eden,” and she meditated upon the organization and energy that went into building megalithic structures, some subterranean, for worshipping ancient gods.

As she wrote in A Land, those “massive communal vaults” were dedicated to “the myths of the goddess and the dying god.”  Here she touched upon the permanent and transcendent, ideas conservatives like Kirk have long defended.  Hawkes saw the faith symbolized by those colossal stones as representing “the timeless unity of the tribe, of its members, dead, living, and unborn, all enclosed within their common matrix, the rock and the earth.”



Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.


Eric Sloane’s Lost World

Certain phrases meant to be dismissive make no sense.  For example, “comfort food,” a far from complimentary reference to food beneath the notice of people who apparently prefer food that makes them uncomfortable.  It simply leaves more bacon and Guy Kibbee eggs for the rest of us.  Another example is “calendar art,” a smug judgment handed down by people who find excellence in a painting that could have been splashed about by a juvenile chimpanzee.  Or a mature one, come to think of it.

All by way of calling to mind an American artist who died suddenly thirty years ago, Eric Sloane.  He was eighty and collapsed from a massive heart attack.  A barrel-chested man fond of bow ties, he was noted for his drawings and oil paintings of Taos pueblos and of barns and covered bridges in New England and eastern Pennsylvania.  He had a special talent for depicting clouds, and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., commissioned him to paint an enormous mural of clouds for its lobby.  Alas, for all his loyal admirers, others relegate him to the tradesman’s entrance with the withering label “calendar art.”

Sloane (1905-1985) came from a well-off family in New York City, and although born Everard Hinrichs, he took the name Eric Sloane to honor his teacher, John Sloan.  Eric, he said, he took from America.  John Sloan was a leader of the Ashcan School, a group of artists based in New York whose paintings were often gritty street scenes, such as garbage cans in an alley.  It was a new direction in realistic or even impressionistic painting, when artistic giants like John Singer Sargent were doing portraits of the great and the good or capturing the gardens of Paris or the canals of Venice.

Eric Sloane took that training from John Sloan in everyday representational art literally into another field.  He saw beauty in the proportions and materials used by early American (broadly defined) farmers.  Whether a stone springhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or an adobe kiva in Taos, New Mexico, Sloane loved that it was on a human scale and fit aesthetically into the terrain.  Sunlight on a faded wooden door in Taos or autumn shadows on a lonely farmstead in Vermont fired Sloane’s creative sensitivity.

Sloane was also fascinated by old American tools, and he collected hundreds of handmade axes and adzes, saws and sickles.  He regarded them as works of art, as much early American masterpieces as paintings by Benjamin West or Edward Hicks.  Sloane used the tools he had collected as models for his paintings and drawings, but even more, he felt a mystical bond with them.  “Closing your hand around a worn wooden hammer handle,” he wrote, “is very much like reaching back into the years and feeling the very hand that wore it smooth.”

That observation comes from the preface to one of Sloane’s most memorable books, Diary of an Early American Boy, first published in 1962 and still in print.  It is Sloane’s edition of a diary by a fifteen year-old boy, Noah Blake; written in 1805, the diary ended up in Sloane’s possession, found by him in an old house.  Sloane interspersed the diary’s laconic entries with his own narrative to explain various points and pen and ink drawings to illustrate them visually.

Noah Blake lived with his parents, Izaak and Rachel, and Noah was attracted to the neighbor’s servant girl, Sarah Trowbridge.  Along with entries about back-breaking farm work, Noah’s diary has a subplot of his furtive desire for a shy girl he got to see about once a week.  Usually he saw her at church, a plain form of Protestant worship he simply referred to as “meeting.”  Shortly before Christmas, Noah took a bold step and slipped Sarah a note; instantly he worried about its propriety and urged her not to open it till she got home.

His possible indiscretion was having copied out for her these words:  “And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another” (2 John 5).  That a teenage boy’s nervous romantic advances took the form of a quotation from the King James Version of the Bible says as much about that lost world of 1805 as does Noah Blake’s record of making ink or cutting hay, of picking apples for cider or splitting firewood by hand.

Sloane’s books and paintings take us into an America almost entirely gone.  Few of us grew up with a seventeenth-century translation of Scripture or a year whose rhythm was marked by planting and harvesting and preserving.  Very likely today only Amish children or those of wild-eyed survivalists think of June as the time when Mother makes strawberry jam or August as the time for canning peaches, green beans, and corn.  Likewise, few kids now think of winter as a seemingly endless daily loop of carrying firewood inside and ashes outside.

By age fifty, Sloane was alarmed at the fast pace of change in America.  He made his case in a slim book (all his books are brief), Our Vanishing Landscape (1955), briskly readable and richly illustrated with his pen and ink drawings of barrels and barns, fences and churches, weathervanes and mills.  As well as being a description and depiction of rural and small-town life that was even then giving way to suburban development and urban sprawl, it is a lament for a disappearing way of life and its values.

With help from the Stanley tool company, Sloane set up a museum near his home in the Housatonic valley.  Sloane’s museum comprises his collection of early American tools, recreates his studio, and displays his paintings.  He is buried on the grounds of the museum.  For his fans unable to get to the sloping woods of western Connecticut, there is Michael Wigley’s invaluable coffee-table volume, Eric Sloane’s America:  Paintings in Oil (2009), with a foreword by Sloane’s widow, Mimi.

While, like many others, Sloane regretted the loss of the family farm and the family shop, his calling was elsewhere.  Farming and shop-keeping were not his vocation.  Artist and writer, Sloane’s gift was that of an historian, showing us the spirit of Americans like the Blakes, whose family life was close to the land and closer to God.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.


Keeping Silence with Patrick Leigh Fermor

T. S. Eliot’s humor best comes across in his poems about cats, but some of his plays have lines meant to amuse. In The Elder Statesman (1959), a retired politician is being shown around the care home he has just entered. “And remember,” says his guide, “when you want to be very quiet/There’s the Silence Room.  With a television set./It’s popular in the evenings.  But not too crowded.”

In August, 1961, editors at The Times of London had in mind a series of one-page articles about the Seven Deadly Sins, and the editors asked Eliot and six others to choose a sin and write about it.  Joining Eliot in the task, and choosing to write about gluttony, was Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), bon vivant, war hero, and travel writer who in 1957 published a slim volume about his visits to Christian monasteries.  That book, A Time to Keep Silence, remains in print, and a couple of years ago copies of it were prominently displayed next to the till at Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly.

Along with Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), Fermor is one of the most fascinating Englishmen of the twentieth century.  Both wrote page-turning accounts of their epic travels, both distinguished themselves for bravery during the Second World War, and late in life both were knighted.  Although they were drawn to times of solitude and silence, Thesiger sought peace in the deserts of Arabia or the wilds of Africa, while Fermor went to monasteries, usually Benedictine.

Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born in London, in a neighborhood between the British Museum and Euston Station.  His father was a geologist based in India, but the boy was sent to live with a family in Northamptonshire.  Brilliant yet unsuccessful at school, from 1933 to 1935 Fermor undertook his first great journey, walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul, along the way reading the poems of Horace in Latin and in the end participating in a cavalry charge in defense of the Greek monarchy against republican rebels.  In 1977 appeared the first of his three volumes recounting these adventures, A Time of Gifts.

At the beginning of World War II he became a captain in the Irish Guards, but his knowledge of Greek got him assigned to military intelligence and parachuted into Crete, by then occupied by the Germans.  There he led a daring raid that kidnapped the German general in command of the island.  That astonishing episode became the subject of a movie starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957).

According to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Fermor, from boyhood Fermor was athletic and interested in religion.  He surprised his schoolmasters with his skill at boxing and rowing, and also for returning from the playing fields lustily singing “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.”  His school was in Canterbury, the cathedral’s history increasing his spiritual longing.  “Catholicism and the Latin Mass,” wrote Cooper, “exerted a strong appeal, as did the candles and bells, incense and statues of the Roman tradition.”  Although he never converted, on official forms he identified himself as “R. C.”

As he grew older, his religious fervor subsided.  Still, he went to Rome for the funeral of Pope Pius XII and the ensuing papal conclave, and he avoided the false gods of the era.  In the 1930s he became aware of the murderous horrors of Soviet socialism, saying it “inoculated me against Communism.”

Like Caesar’s Gaul, Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence is divided into three parts.  First is a sketch of his visits to a French Benedictine abbey, St Wandrille, founded in the seventh century near Rouen.  Next, he contrasts another French Benedictine abbey, Solesmes, with the strict Cistercian abbey of La Grande Trappe.  Finally, he recounts a tour of the abandoned monasteries carved into the conical rock formations of Cappadocia.  From Normandy to Turkey in ninety-five pages:  it says as much about Fermor’s cultural and geographical range as about his concise, yet lyrical and evocative, prose.

Along with the hours of silence between the Hours of prayer, an aspect of these monasteries that Fermor appreciated and even savored was their relationship with time.  “Time passes in a monastery,” he observed, “with disconcerting speed.”  Only the changing seasons and the Church’s feast days serve as landmarks along the way.  He noted that the monks were well aware of this swift passage of time:  “[S]ix months, a year, fifteen years, a lifetime, are soon over.”

Time slipping by somehow gave the monks continuity with their monastic ancestors.  As he listened to the monks chanting the Liturgy of the Hours “in the language of fifth- or sixth-century Western Christendom,” Fermor marveled that “one can forget the alterations of the twentieth [century] and feel that the life-line of notes and syllables between the Early Church and today is still intact.”  Timeless prayer helped him lose himself and imagine back to the late 500s, when Benedictine monks first came to England from Rome, singing these same canticles and Psalms.

Fermor’s retreats at Benedictine abbeys occurred also in England.  He seems to have preferred staying at the Benedictine abbey at Farnborough, oddly secluded amid trees on the outskirts of a town now noted for its annual air show.  In 1881 the exiled Empress Eugénie founded the monastery at Farnborough, and entombed in the crypt of the abbey church are her husband, Napoleon III, and their son, Louis, killed in 1879 while serving in the British army during the Zulu War.  In due course the empress joined them.

Monastic retreats aside, Fermor and his wife divided their time between Gloucestershire and Greece, where he was known as Mihali, Patrick having no easy Greek equivalent.  They entertained friends, and he amused himself by translating P. G. Wodehouse into Greek.  Appropriately, in London he had a pied-à-terre in the Traveller’s Club.  Fermor and his wife are buried at their village church in rural England.

At least since the days of Herodotus, people have had a craving for traveler’s tales, but they have also felt a need for times of silence and reflection.  Managers of a busy bookshop in a bustling part of London knew their customers would want Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence.  Curling up with a cup of tea by a sunny window and reading that book will be more enriching, though less ironic, than a retirement home’s Silence Room and its television set.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

C. S. Lewis and the Total Plan

Thirty years ago premiered on television in Britain and the United States Shadowlands, a drama about C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham.  It starred Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, and it surpasses the 1993 theatrical film version, in which Anthony Hopkins as Lewis essentially reprised his role of Stevens, the butler in 1993’s The Remains of the Day.  Ackland went on to expand his Lewis repertoire by recording for Harper Audio Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and Ackland’s vast, rumbling bass added layers to the letters’ seductively sinister tone.

Lewis (1898-1963) has also been the subject of a sterling radio drama, C. S. Lewis at War, produced in 2013 by Focus of the Family’s Radio Theatre.  In it Jeremy Northam portrayed Lewis, his domestic and academic routine at Oxford disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.  Also challenged by the war were the executives in charge of religious programming at the BBC, who needed to find new inspirational radio broadcasts.  One result was recruiting Lewis to give a series of talks between 1941 and 1944, the scripts eventually becoming the book Mere Christianity (1952).

When C. S. Lewis at War became commercially available on compact disc, packaged with it were six CDs of actor Philip Bird reading the entire text of Mere Christianity.  Thus, people who otherwise might not read the book or buy another audio version of it (such as that recorded by Michael York) had incentive to encounter one of Lewis’s most famous works.

Frequently comment on Mere Christianity turns to Lewis’s presentation of natural law, while another common theme when commenting about the book is to remind people that there is no Mere Christianity Church:  one must find a specific place to worship.  An aspect that sometimes gets overlooked is Lewis’s description of an ideal Christian society.

In Book Three, Chapter Three, of Mere Christianity, Lewis addressed Christian society under the heading Social Morality.  He spoke of Christianity as “the total plan for the human machine,” and as such it contains elements of varying appeal.  Those elements range from everyone doing practical, manual work to everyone being obedient to legitimate authority.  All the while, a Christian society would be cheerful, marked by singing and courtesy.

A visit to a hypothetical perfect Christian society, Lewis said, would leave us with a mixed impression.  “We should feel,” he explained, “that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced’.”  (Here one must recall that state socialism was once regarded as wonderfully scientific and modern; it took a few decades for the fact to sink in that the compulsory fairness and planned equality of socialism reached their logical, Orwellian conclusion with German and Russian regimes of the 1930s and ’40s.)  On the other hand, “its family life and its code of manners” would strike us as “rather old-fashioned—perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic.”

Practical work, obedience, courtly ritual:  It sounds like a description of a model monastery.  Lewis rarely wrote about monasticism, although a Narnia story, The Horse and His Boy (1954), features a hermit.  Nevertheless, from before his conversion to Christianity one finds an amusing observation about the cloistered nature of a theological college.  In a letter dated 10 May, 1921, to his brother, Lewis described meeting an Anglican seminarian and concluded, “Ye gods; a lot of young men shut up together, all thinking about their souls!  Isn’t it awful?”

In 1932 one of Lewis’s students, Alan Griffiths (1906-1993), converted to Catholicism and soon thereafter became a Benedictine monk at Prinknash Abbey.  At Prinknash (the k is silent) he received the name Bede, and in 1954 he wrote an autobiography, The Golden String.  As a monk Griffiths was attracted to what used to be called Oriental mysticism, and in 1955 he moved to southern India, founded an ashram for Christian and Hindu dialogue, grew a beard, wore saffron robes, and became a yogi with the name Swami Dayananda.

Even before Griffiths’ long sojourn in India, he and Lewis had kept in touch by letter.  When Lewis was working on the radio talks that became Mere Christianity, he consulted with Griffiths, who in 1940 was ordained a priest, for a Catholic perspective.  As happens when Anglicans and Catholics talk together about the Christian faith, they agreed on certain points but often found it best avoid areas where they could never agree.  To commemorate their spiritual conversation, Lewis dedicated his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), to Griffiths.

According to Shirley du Boulay’s biography of Griffiths, Beyond the Darkness (1998), Lewis visited Prinknash during Griffith’s novitiate.  If Lewis saw in the liturgy, handicrafts, and hierarchical structure of the monastery an attempt at an ideal Christian society, he left no record of it.  Lewis’s letters fleetingly refer to this visit, and his biographers omit it, as does Griffiths himself.  However, in Chapter Eight of The Golden String Griffiths associated monasticism with the ideal Christian society.

All the same, Lewis had known about the Christian ideal for community life from his theological and historical reading.  For instance, in September, 1945, Lewis published an essay, “The Sermon and the Lunch,” in which he observed that despite their flaws, both family life and monastic life can be romantically portrayed and thus distorted.  “It should be noticed,” he wrote, “that the serious defenders of both are well aware of the dangers and free of the sentimental illusion.”

As one example, Lewis noted that in the early fifteenth century Thomas à Kempis, when writing The Imitation of Christ, knew full well “how easily monastic life goes wrong.”  Some medieval people, Lewis explained, “thought that if only they entered a religious order, they would find themselves automatically becoming holy and happy.”  However, as a student of medieval culture, Lewis understood that “the whole native literature of the period echoes with the exposure of that fatal error.”

As the human machine’s total plan, Christianity is concerned with every human’s growth in holiness.  Happiness can come as a bonus, an unexpected oasis in a relentless desert.  Whether for monks, married couples, or some other state of life, the path to Christian holiness has tough stretches, sometimes lasting decades, that try to the extreme one’s love of God and neighbor.  For C. S. Lewis, consolation came from his belief that here we meet only with shadows, for real life has not yet begun.


When Wildebeests are Green

A sub-genre of the short story is the club tale, a story told by a man in a gentleman’s club, usually in London.  For example, a collection of short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Views the Body (1928), begins with one in which Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, take a corpse to “a dear old Catholic priest, . . . a very sensible and feeling old bird,” for burial.  Probably Wimsey means Father Whittington, “a well-known slum padre” in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), but given Sayers’s admiration for G. K. Chesterton, he could easily mean Father Brown.

In any case, the club tale often deals with the macabre.  An older contemporary of Lord Peter and Father Brown is the equally fictional Major-General Sir Richard Hannay.  Hannay is the most famous character created by John Buchan (1875-1940), and Hannay is best known from his debut in The Thirty-nine Steps (1915).  That brisk adventure begins in May, 1914, when the fate of Europe hangs on the outcome of a tense situation in Greece.  As a greater author assures us, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

Buchan’s only short story featuring Hannay is a club tale:  “The Green Wildebeest,” first published in 1927.  Hannay had referred to it in passing in Mr. Standfast (1919), the context then being ghost stories, but here he relates it in full one evening at the mythical Runagates Club.

Before drawing some salient points from Hannay’s tale, a word about him and Buchan is in order.  Buchan was a son of a Presbyterian minister in eastern Scotland and studied the ancient classics at Oxford and then studied law in London.  His legal career waned as his literary career waxed.

A prolific writer, Buchan was also well-connected within the British establishment.  From 1901 to 1903 he served as private secretary to Lord Milner, colonial administrator of South Africa, and in 1907 Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster.  Officiating at the wedding was Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Bishop of Stepney, later Archbishop of Canterbury.  In 1911 Buchan was elected to Parliament, where he allied with a kindred spirit, Stanley Baldwin, long an admirer of Buchan’s novels.  Buchan’s political life culminated in 1935 when he became Governor General of Canada and was made the first Baron Tweedsmuir.  Buchan died in office in Canada.

As a fictional hero, Hannay stands between Allan Quatermain and James Bond.  Like Quatermain, Hannay has adventures in southern Africa; like Bond, he engages in daring espionage against foreign megalomaniacs.  Hannay comes on the scene in The Thirty-nine Steps as a mining engineer bored with London, and he sets the prototype of the innocent man on the run both from the bad guys and from the authorities.  It was a theme that long haunted the creative genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and in 1935 he made a movie of The Thirty-nine Steps, some film critics arguing that he re-made it in 1942 as Saboteur and then in 1959 as North by Northwest.

What today would be called a prequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, Hannay’s story of the green wildebeest takes place in the early 1900s in south-eastern Africa, the Boer War having ended and post-war reconstruction being underway.  A veteran of the war, Hannay seeks to resume his civilian life by looking for copper in the sheer hills along the Limpopo.  Accompanying him is a young Afrikaner, Andrew Du Preez, at odds with his family’s rigorist faith of Dutch Calvinism.  Hannay describes him as “a hard young sceptic,” a proud product of modern education.

On their long dry trek to the craggy hills they find a source of fresh water under the control of a local native priest.  The priest is old and blind but graciously gives ample amounts of water to Hannay’s party.  Andrew objects to one man doling out water, and he declares he is going to do something about it.

Hannay sees the danger in Andrew’s self-righteous impetuosity.  “If you’re not civil to him,” he warns, “we’ll have to quit this country.”  Hannay adds, “I make a point of respecting the gods of the heathen.”  Andrew rejects this voice of experience:  “All you English do,” and to Andrew’s way of thinking that respect is why the British Empire is in such a mess.  To him the matter is unarguable:  “This fellow is a businessman with a pretty notion of cornering public utilities.”

Later back at their camp Hannay finds Andrew smoking his pipe and trying to make sense of his disastrous confrontation with the old priest.  Andrew, though unscathed, claims he was attacked by a green wildebeest.  Hannay laughs it off, saying to his audience in the club, “A wildebeest is not ornamental at the best, but a green one must be a good recipe for the horrors.”

What stands out in Hannay’s tale is the contrast between a modern sceptic and an ancient faith.  Hannay represents an older imperialist approach, to let the natives keep their own religion, provided it does not require the ritual murder of men like Hannay, while Andrew impatiently insists that the old cults must give way to the new scientific rationalism.  Yet, as time wears on, Andrew feels compelled to exorcise the green wildebeest spiritually pursuing him, and the end is not a happy one.

Despite seeming to be a Christopher Dawson parable about mankind’s innate religiosity, Hannay tells the story to illustrate a proposition untenable today, namely “the persistence of race qualities,” so that for all Andrew’s formal secular schooling, his hereditary Dutch superstitions emerge.  At the club, objection to this half-baked theory comes from “Peckwether, the historian,” who maintains that over time the ancestral stock transforms into something different, so that “the end [would] be as remote from the beginnings as . . . a ripe Gorgonzola from a bucket of new milk.”

For the sad fact remains that Buchan’s otherwise excellent and entertaining narratives at times make one wince, conveying here and there the racial prejudices of their era.  One encounters those unpleasant attitudes in nearly all the English-language fiction of Buchan’s day, including the writings of Sayers and Chesterton.  A healthy result, however, is the opportunity it gives for considering what current bigotries and inanities are passing unquestioned in even the best novels and short stories of our own day.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.



Heraldry of Humility and Pride

Heraldry of Humility and Pride

A characteristic form of Christian art is heraldry.  As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man (1925), ancient Egyptians “had a sort of heraldry; that is, decorative art used for symbolic and social purposes.”  Nevertheless, their kind of heraldry is no longer with us.  No one writing to a genealogical service hopes to get a copy of the ancestral hieroglyphics.

Rather, depending on one’s form of snobbery, some people covet and others condemn the colorful coats of arms that evoke the height of medieval chivalry.  Such heraldic achievements, as they are called, recognize distinguished service, and it bears recalling that coats of arms are granted to individuals (not families) and to corporations.

In Ian Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), James Bond prepares to go undercover as a Scottish knight.  Bond explains to M that his alias comes from an ancient family and has “a coat of arms that looks like a mixture between a jigsaw puzzle and Piccadilly Circus at night.”

Of course, elaborate coats of arms such as Bond caricatured imply a long and illustrious lineage.  A fine example is the arms granted to Winston Churchill, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough.  Churchill’s coat of arms elegantly brings together heraldic devices used within his two great families, the Spencers and the Churchills.  In 1953 Queen Elizabeth II made him a Knight of the Garter, thus encircling his coat of arms with the belt and motto of the Order of the Garter.

To social levelers, it all seems pretentious and preposterous, but medieval heraldry reflects a Christian worldview that sought to distinguish a right relationship between the individual and the institution.  As Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “The art of heraldry means independence; an image chosen by the imagination to express the individuality.”  On the other hand, he wrote, “The science of heraldry means interdependence; an agreement between different bodies to recognise different images; a science of imagery.”

Heraldry as art and science long occupied Chesterton.  He had trained as an artist, and the symbolic use of animals and colors fascinated him.  He wrote about heraldry in essays and short stories, such as “The Heraldic Lion” (1905) and “The Perishing of the Pendragons” (1914).  As already mentioned, he mused upon it in The Everlasting Man, and he addressed it in Chaucer (1932).

In his book on Chaucer, Chesterton explained the magnitude of heraldry for medieval people.  In their world, he wrote, “heraldry was not a mummery or even a mystery,” but was rather “a meaning part of a passion for significance which made all colours, stones, planets, beasts, and flowers emblematic.”  To a medieval way of thinking, God’s creation could never be meaningless.

Relevant to Chesterton’s subject and indicative of how seriously medieval Christians took these matters was a case brought before the Court of Chivalry.  That there were such courts says a lot about the importance given to heraldry.  Along those lines, coats of arms cannot simply be made up by anyone who wants to impress or annoy the neighbors.  As James Bond discovered, and as his creator enjoyed describing, in London there functions the College of Arms, scholars responsible for maintaining records of existing coats of arms and for devising new ones.

The case Chesterton cited dragged on from 1385 to 1390 and now receives attention because one of the many witnesses called was Geoffrey Chaucer, Esquire, today best known as the author of The Canterbury Tales but then perhaps better known as a soldier and public servant.  A case from a late fourteenth-century heraldic court may seem a bit dusty, but in its day it was as important as any modern lawsuit over infringement of copyright or trademark.

The dispute arose from two unrelated knights using the same coat of arms.  The case is known as Scrope (pronounced Scroop) v. Grosvenor, and both Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor claimed the right to wear on their shields a yellow (representing gold) diagonal stripe on a blue background, or, in the technical terminology of heraldry, “Azure, a bend or.”  Scrope won the case, but the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster, still object, one form of protest having been to name one of their racehorses Bend Or.

Although these examples have been British, from the twelfth century to our own day heraldry has marked the length and breadth of Europe and beyond.  Once one gets the knack, one can recognize the Borgia bull from Spain to Rome, and one can spot the azure and argent bendy fusils (or lozenges) of the kings of Bavaria from Munich to western Pennsylvania.  Elements of Bavarian heraldry occur in America because in 1846 monks from Bavaria, with backing from King Ludwig I, founded the first Benedictine monastery here, Saint Vincent, and the new monastery’s coat of arms took features from the arms of William Penn (his father had been a knight) and those of royal Bavaria.

Mention of the Borgias, a family that has produced several scoundrels and one canonized saint, brings us to papal coats of arms.  Popes are monarchs, albeit elected not hereditary, and so they are entitled to heraldic identification.  Papal heraldry dates to the thirteenth century and has occasionally indulged in canting, heraldic punning.  One such instance was Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) having on his arms a dove of peace.

All prelates and priests, as well as monasteries and schools, may have coats of arms.  The great medieval universities still bear coats of arms, and abbots of monasteries impale (another technical term) their priestly arms alongside the abbey’s arms.  Sometimes, when the Church finds herself in lands without formal heraldic authorities, creation of coats of arms can become freelance and fanciful, if not gauche.

Whether ecclesiastical or secular, silly examples are best left unnamed.  All the same, along with offering a chance for punning, heraldry’s dignity also corrals a whimsical menagerie.  Heraldic beasts include unicorns, double-headed eagles, and the four beavers on the arms of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  As Chesterton wrote in St. Francis of Assisi (1923), in a sense Francis, surrounded by heraldry and chivalric ideals, “did see a bird sable on a field azure or a sheep argent on a field vert,” and because “the heraldry of humility was richer than the heraldry of pride,” Francis could lay claim to kinship with the sun and the moon.

image: Fr Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr

What to do with Suffering

In a letter dated 14 June, 1958, Flannery O’Connor wrote about a man who had committed suicide, “His tragedy was I suppose that he didn’t know what to do with his suffering.”  For many, O’Connor (1925-1964) is the Mozart of American fiction; acclaimed in her brief life, her writings have merited a volume in the handsome Library of America series.  Her native Catholicism informed her stories, and for some they hold profound philosophical allure, while for others they are simply sweaty and grotesque.

After college, she studied at the prestigious Writers’ Workshop in Iowa, where one of her instructors was Paul Horgan.  Years later she recalled, “Once he found forty things wrong with a story of mine and I thought him a fine teacher.”  Both distinguished regional writers, Horgan is the Haydn to O’Connor’s Mozart:  the older Catholic artist, spare and elegant; the younger, vivid and vivacious.

The Catholicism of Horgan and O’Connor gave them insights into human nature, and in O’Connor’s case, her faith also gave her a way to understand her own long struggle with illness, primarily lupus.  She wrote in a letter of 9 August, 1957, that she disagreed with Evelyn Waugh’s definition that a Catholic novel deals with “the problem of the faith.”  To her it was “a Catholic mind looking at anything, making the category generous enough to include myself.”  Two years later (6 October, 1959) she wrote that, depending on who was asking her, she might identify herself as a Catholic writer.  “Actually,” she explained, “the question seems so remote from what I am doing when I am doing it, that it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Here one finds a clue to her appeal:  She did not set about self-consciously to write a Catholic story.  She had an aversion to piety on parade, one example being her preference for a breviary instead of popular books of prayers.  “I am a long-standing avoider of May processions and such-like nun-inspired doings,” she wrote on 1 June, 1958, adding, “I am always thankful the Church doesn’t teach those things are necessary.”

Rather, while privately praying her breviary and often going to daily Mass, her approach to her faith was deeply intellectual.  In addition to poring over the fiction of Catholic authors from Graham Greene to Georges Bernanos, Walker Percy to Evelyn Waugh, she delved into works by theologians ranging from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Friedrich von Hügel, Romano Guardini to Teilhard de Chardin.  She also read Church history, saying of Monsignor Philip Hughes’s The Reformation in England, “I feel like I was at it.”

Her vast Catholic reading percolated into her fiction.  One of her short stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” first appearing in the May, 1954, Harper’s Bazaar and published the next year in her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, depicts a rural Southern person with a rare affliction.  The affliction is being what in the 1950s was still called a hermaphrodite, and, wearing a blue dress, this person makes a living by being on display at fairs and carnivals.

As he (O’Connor consistently uses “it”) undrapes, his statement to the spectators is even more revealing:  “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.  This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.  I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it.  I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen.  I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it.  I don’t dispute hit.”

On 13 September, 1954, O’Connor replied to a lady who had written to complain about this story.  O’Connor told her that the hermaphrodite was based on one at the previous summer’s local fair, and the assertion that God had made him that way was nearly a verbatim quote from the fair.  “Any freak so inspired,” O’Connor wrote, “could say the same and I could have used any freak but there is certainly a more poignant element of suffering in this than in anything else one could find at a fair.”  O’Connor went on:  “The point is of course in the resignation to suffering, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Ghost; not to any element of sex or sexlessness.”

Resignation can mean to some people mere passivity, collapsing internally in the face of a grave permanent obstacle.  Another kind of resignation to fate was the hallmark of old Roman Stoics, expecting little from life and getting it.  Either way, suffering is only pain and has no redemptive value.

For O’Connor, though, resignation to suffering meant recognizing a fact of life and moving on, or in the words of the carnival freak, making the best of it.  She had in mind Saint Paul saying that a fruit of the Holy Spirit is, in the words of the Douay-Rheims translation, “patience”; in the King James Version, “longsuffering” (Gal 5:22).

Suffering may become prolonged, even life-long, as with the hermaphrodite (or intersex) not fitting into any standard category.  For O’Connor, the tragedy was not in the suffering but in being stymied by it.  She wrote that her mother said to the wife of that man who had committed suicide that “she didn’t see how anybody with any faith in God could do such a thing.”  According to O’Connor, the widow replied that “she was sure he had faith in God, but he didn’t have any faith in people.”  O’Connor, instead of apologizing for her mother’s tactlessness or praising the widow’s presence of mind, wrote that the widow’s assurance was the same as “to accuse him of the great asininity.”

Whatever “the great asininity” may be, something will always occur to restore one’s lack of faith in human nature.  In Paul Horgan’s novel Things as They Are (1964), the narrator’s twenty-something uncle commits suicide.  The uncle had been a Catholic seminarian but left seminary for reasons no one ever discussed; his imperious father, certain his son was destined to become a bishop, was enraged and never spoke to his son again.  Alas, a hermaphrodite’s gentlemanly behavior was lacking.  The father refused to attend the funeral but went to his own church to pray for the repose of his son’s soul.  No word on whether anyone prayed for the father.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.