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Peacocks, Vanity, and the Possibility of Redemption

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“Vain as a peacock,” we used to say, back when vanity was a vice rare enough to be remarked on. I used to have an aunt who, like Flannery O’Connor (probably their only similarity), loved all sorts of barnyard fowl. She lived on the family farm, breeding, raising, and selling all sorts of chickens, ducks, geese, and their eggs, as well as more exotic kinds of birds, such as rheas (a cousin of the better-known ostrich, native to South America). Each of these bird species has its own native personality; you couldn't act around a goose the same way you could with a duck, for instance. Geese are bossy and territorial and, if you stray into a part of the farmyard where the goose doesn't think you should go, it will bite you on the backside (yes, it will “goose” you).

The rheas, tall stately birds with a kind of innate dignitas, were my aunt's favorite -- they had a special pen with a high chain-link fence, intended to keep them safe from predators. Rheas mate for life, which tur…

The Secret to Reading Flannery O'Connor

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Veiled MysteryAbout forty years ago, I read the work of Flannery O’Connor for the first time, at the suggestion of my college English professor, John Glass. I was immediately hooked, although at the time I had no idea what her stories were about. Mr. Glass, who liked to set us reading challenges, had assigned one of O’Connor’s short stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for class. I read it and was suitably shocked by it but also intrigued. For reasons I won’t go into here, I felt I knew the family in the story — in fact, it could have been my own family, except that none of us had ever been gunned down by escaped felons while on a family road trip. (Not yet, anyway.) If I could make sense of that senseless slaughter, maybe I could make sense of my own life.
After that, I read her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away (I even wrote a paper about that one, but I have no idea what I could have said that would have made sense), as well as some more of her stories, thinkin…

Authors I Call Friends: Andrew Seddon

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I've been away from blogging for a while, and this blog has moved to an independent WordPress site and back to Google's Blogger platform since I last wrote here regularly. Despite my neglect of A Catholic Reader over the past few years, I owe a lot to this blog because it helped launch me into all the other activities that have been keeping me busy: writing, editing, and translating, as well as publishing and book design.

As a way of easing back into talking about things I read, I thought I would introduce you to some of the authors I've gotten to know as friends and acquaintances (through reading, editing, or translating their stuff) through this blog. These are writers whose work I can heartily recommend to other readers.

First, I must mention Andrew Seddon, with whom I first got acquainted after he found me (I think) through the (now defunct) Catholic Blogging Network and offered to send me his first Saints Alive! collection to review. So I did, and it was the beginni…

The Great Flood in Literature: Wrestling with Proteus

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There is a figure in Greek mythology called Proteus (sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea), a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, however, one must first catch him. When anyone attempts to grasp him, he rapidly changes from one form into another in an attempt to evade his captor’s clutches. But if a person is tenacious enough to hold on until Proteus tires and resolves into his true form, the god will render up the truth his captor seeks.

Orally transmitted stories share with this mythical sea god a “protean” character. Handed on by word of mouth, each time a story is told the teller gives it a slightly different form and a different shade of meaning, so that over time many different versions of the same story emerge. The literary author who works from an oral tradition is like the hero who captures Proteus: first he must wrestle with the many versions of the story, but when he finally confers upon it a fixe…

Put on the Armor of Light, on St. Patrick's Day and every day

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As this article from Slate acknowledges, very few concrete facts about Ireland's patron saint have survived. Much that we think we know is merely legend. Keeping that in mind, did you ever wonder why Saint Patrick is credited with expelling snakes (not wolves, not badgers, not even demons) from the Emerald Isle?

I'm not going to dispute whether holy Padraic literally chased serpentine creatures from Ireland, but you have to admit that on a symbolic level the story is apt. Serpents have a long history in Christian iconography, representing the deceptions of the devil. As an early missionary to the island, the fifth-century monk we know as St Patrick was successful in converting many from their pagan superstitions, and for more than a millennium Ireland was known as one of the most thoroughly Catholic lands upon Earth. Since pagan gods have long been regarded as being inspired by fallen angels, who presented themselves as deities, there could be no more appropriate legend about…

Ovid's Metamorphoses: Change is the only constant

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Third installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses I left the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by saying (as I often do) that, in literature, context is everything. We can’t really grasp the significance of Ovid’s version of the Great Flood unless we consider it in the context of the poem as a whole. So what is this poem really about? How does the early episode that recounts the Great Flood contribute to the overall meaning, and how does the overall meaning color the significance of the Flood account?
The constancy of change The title hints at the poem’s meaning. Metamorphoses covers all of history (and prehistory), starting with the creation of the world and ending in Ovid's present day. What might seem, upon a first reading, a rather aimless stitching together of innumerable ancient myths is actually a very careful selection which is tied together by a single commonality: the metamorphoses themselves, one thing being changed into another. Most of these metamorpho…

Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

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As I start looking at Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's famous 1891 encyclical, I'll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo presents his argument, and finally offer my own commentary on it. The first two focus on what is being said, and the last is my own personal response to it. This is a method I recommend to anyone who wants to give an important work a fair reading -- in fact, it's something  that I have always tried to teach my students: understand first, and withhold judgment until you are sure you really do understand.

This is the whole idea behind the 4-step method of reading with understanding that I’ve propounded elsewhere on this blog. Why start with summary? Because it forces me to boil down the argument to its essential parts — but I don’t want to oversimplify it, so sometimes my “summary” is really more of a paraphrase. I don’t want to skip over any really essential ideas. If you try this yourse…

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