Sigrid Undset’s “Ida Elizabeth”–the Debts of the Progenitors?

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for her epic historical trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. The Norwegian novelist is admired for her honest portrayals of relationships between men and women, especially her descriptions of romantic love and marriage.  At the same time, she displays a thematic interest in flawed human characters who, nonetheless, rise above their failings and transcend to virtue.  In the wake of the First World War and her own marriage, she began to question her upbringing that was without any formal practice of religion.  After taking instructions from her local priest, she was received into the Catholic Church in 1924.  With the outbreak of World War II, she fled to the United States because of her vocal opposition to Nazi Germany, but returned home in 1945.

This last week, I treated myself to reading one of her later novels, Ida Elizabeth, published in 1932 (It has recently been reprinted by Ignatius Press.). In the novel, Undset anticipates the later larger social issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and the effects produced by these on children. To say that this has become a toxic issue is an understatement—to suggest that divorce and remarriage might harm children is often met with condemnation. Undset takes this on in her novel. Near the end of the novel, the titular character, long-since divorced from the youthful and imprudent marriage to her teen-age love and father of her children, has been “reunited” with him do to her former husband’s critical illness. While she considers turning her back on him (for the sake of another relationship) in his hour of need, Ida Elizabeth reflects upon how her children, who have recently been reintroduced to their father after many years, might be affected:

At times she thought of things she had heard—before she was grown up, for instance. A friend of her mother’s was thinking of marrying again, and her children by her first husband mad a great to-do about it. She talked about her new happiness—“our painful, sensitive happiness. But oh, what triumphant joy it is too, when we can have an hour of peace together, just we two.” There was something about the children being sent out for a walk and the maid given an afternoon off and the telephone receiver taken off. And it was courageous—not to renounce one’s happiness, but to pay what it cost.

Oh yes, it seemed tempting—she saw that even now. But if one looks into the dry meaning of all such humid sentimental phrases one arrives at a very simple question: Am I to take what I desire and let my children pay for it? Well, God knows, it is less simple when one had to answer it. Then one discovers that, when all is in tumult within one, the voice of conscience is only like the feeble crow of the mistress in a school-yard full of roaring youngsters. But the fact remains—when they are old enough and strong enough, children can refuse to pay the debts of their progenitors; they can take refuge in bankruptcy from morality or society or whatever the creditor may be called who holds all the unredeemed claims on their parents. But so long as children are children they cannot prevent it, if their parents choose to live their own lives at the cost of the offspring.

Perhaps it is true that people nowadays cheat and exploit one another with more barefaced assurance than formerly. Perhaps human nature remains the same, and it is some outside factor which makes it appear as though there has been more honor and fidelity in the world at some periods than at others. But whatever pass we may come to, even if everyone fails everyone else, the last thing to happen should be a mother’s failing her children (Ida Elizabeth 386-387).

Undset asks the explosive question:  not only do the children pay the price for the adults’ indulgence, but should they?  Must they “pay the debts of their progenitors?’ And, as she suggests, are we content to let them repay these debts by taking “refuge in bankruptcy from morality or society or whatever the creditor may be called who holds all the unredeemed claims on their parents”?  Are antisocial or amoral tendencies in the children something we can countenance?

While many today might say:  children are better off if they are not with contentious parents, Undset is unwilling to dismiss this issue so quickly. She acknowledges that children DO suffer the contention of their parents and wonders if these are the occasions when parents ought to sacrifice for the sake of the children.  For while these situations are often painted in a dualistic manner (either remaining in a loveless marriage OR separating to spare the children from conflict), Undset presents a third way:  working towards reconciliation and/or sacrificing a degree of happiness for the sake of the children.  She takes seriously the moral aspiration of the prophet Jeremiah, who saw the injustice of children paying the price for the “sour grapes” of the parents, when he predicted a future free of this:  “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ (Jeremiah 31:29).

It seems to me that Undset, writing nearly a century ago, has much to contribute to this current issue that seems to be no longer a conversation.  For the sake of children, maybe it’s a conversation that deserves reopening.

By the way, if interested, check out this interesting pod cast of a discussion about the novel:

Undset, Sigrid. Ida Elizabeth. Trans. Arthur G. Chater. San Francisco: Ignatius P. 2011.

Exaltation of the Cross III: Samuel Bak’s “Study I”

To finish our reflection on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and, in particular, the hands of the Crucified, I offer one more image of the Cross, this one by the post-modernist Jewish-Polish artist and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak (1933-).  Entitled “Study I (1995),” the image was based on a photograph of a young boy held at gun point by a Nazi.  How might this image suggest the cross as an exaltation, even a triumph? In the context of the Holocaust image, I would suggest that we cannot.  Bak seems to be making the connection between the crucifixion of the Jewish Jesus and suffering of the Jewish subject of the Holocaust photograph.  This being said, can we not discover in the stunning image some truth about the nature of Jesus’ crucified exaltation on Calvary? 

The deathlike pallor of the hands that are central in this painting help us to see that the death of the Crucified and the putative death of the boy in the image are real and true human deaths. Bak helps to demystify the cross, keeping us from fleeing too fast to the resurrection.  While El Greco’s hands suggest the supremacy of the divine action on the way to Calvary, and the Grünewald hands suggest a mystical blend of the divine and human agency on the cross, this image by Bak is one of a truly, completely human crucifixion. The hands are in the gesture or a surrender with little hint of transcendence. I find the Bak forces the viewer to accept the completely human death of the cross, a correction to orthodoxy for the believer who might want to turn away from the brutality of Calvary to the promise of the Resurrection.  Orthodox faith has always insisted that Jesus’ death on the cross was a true and human death that was real and not illusory. He really died.  As the Nicaean Creed says, “He was crucified, died, and was buried.” Bak presses us further, recalling, with St. Paul, that current human suffering is in some ways participation in the Cross, “making up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Jesus” (Col. 1:24). While the Christian might find this “making up” as an extending of the salvation of Calvary, more generally we could say that Bak’s image reminds us, at the very least, that the Cross goes on and the world continues to groan in anxious anticipation for the victory of life over death (cf. Rom. 8:22).  The hands in Bak press us to recall that redemption is yet incomplete in the midst of intractable and ever-present human aspirations and suffering.

Contrasting Hands–Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

As this week that contains the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross continues, I could not think of a more contrasting image to the El Greco from 1602 that I discussed earlier, than this one by Matthias Grünewald, completed nearly a century earlier, between 1512–1516 and currently on display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France. While the El Greco was an image of Christ carrying the cross, this one is that of the cross carrying Christ, the crucifixion itself.  Have there ever been more contrasting images of Christ’s hands?   The relationship and existential commingling of Christ’s human and divine natures are certainly at play when considering together these two images.  As had suggested, the El Greco hands are Divine hands, Christ gently, peacefully and majestically playing the instrument of the cross, as if caressing it.  The Grünewald hands are very human hands, in spasm against the assault of death.  What might Grünewald be trying to suggest?   The natural interpretation might be that of a fully human experience of death, wracked with agony and suffering.  While the El Greco was not yet at the moment of crucifixion, nonetheless the hands speak of serenity and acceptance, while Grünewald’s are of agitation and repulsion to the cross.

This close up of the hand further reveals a tense, spasmatic hand, battling the cross rather than accepting it.  However, Grünewald is up to much more here in that the fingers are configured in such a way as to suggest the Christogram of iconography. Christ’s fingers are depicted in a pose that represents the letters IC, X and C, thereby making the Christogram ICXC (for “Jesus Christ”). The IC is composed of the Greek characters iota (Ι) and lunate sigma (C; instead of Σ, ς), the middle finger (I) and the index finger and thumb (C), the first and last letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek (Ἰησοῦς); At the same time, we can see the letters XC, chi (Χ) (the crossed pinkie and ring finger) and again the lunate sigma—the first and last letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek (Χριστός).  While we might be therefore tempted to the heterodox interpretation that Grünewald is merely or only depicting a very human Christ (and downplaying His divine power), instead the hand and its Christogram reminds us that this crucifixion is not just the experience and action of the solely human Jesus, but also the Christ, the Son of God.  As to whether this image contributes to a sense of the cross as and exaltation and a triumph, it is worth your meditation to decide.  In both paintings, the hands, the traditional agents of our will (I will something and then bring it about with my hand), cause us to consider the how the cross becomes the place when the human and divine wills of Jesus Christ work out their saving intention—a mix of serenity and suffering.

El Greco’s “Christ Carrying the Cross”

This Thursday, September 14th, is in the cycle of feast days in the Catholic observance somewhat of an oddity to me, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, once known as the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  In the Anglican Communion, it is called “Holy Cross Day” or “Holy Rood Day.”  This feast day commemorates the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 335 AD.  It seems an oddity to me in that Good Friday seems to be the big feast of the Cross, but the day of the commemoration of the most famous shrine of the cross also has its importance!  This week, I’d like to look at some of my favorite depictions of the cross, today’s being that of El Greco, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain.  El Greco painted this subject more than once, but I like this one.  Some highlights as you view it:  1) The centrality of the hands of Christ suggest an emphasis by the artist.  Yet, unlike other more “realistic” depictions of the subject, in this case the artist shows the hands as gentle, as if they are caressing the cross, suggesting an affinity and even tenderness in the bearing of the cross.  El Greco’s Christ here gently holds the cross like he is playing a musical instrument, not an instrument of death! 2) The stormy background suggests the darkness of the moment of crucifixion, as well as the darkness of the world he has come to save.  3) His radiant face suggests a true communion between Christ and his Father, God who is the Light of the World.  4) His clothing–while there are diverse explanations for the iconographic use of red and blue garments for Christ, it is clear they refer to the divinity and humanity of Christ. In this case, the blue is put on over the red, suggesting the blue represents humanity, in that “Christ put on humanity,” an allusion to Philippians 2.  5) Finally, the classic elongated bodies of El Greco are certainly in evidence here.  While some want to ascribe this to the artist’s vision problems, I like how they speak to the transcendence of the human figure, that humanity is created to aspire to more and, ultimately, to be a creature made in the divine image. In the depiction of El Greco, the cross is certainly a triumph!

Gotta Serve Somebody!

Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.” John 8:31-3

In 1979, American folk singer and now Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan famously sang, “Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787, not a Nobel Laureate!) offered a theory about who we serve when he said, “Habitual sin and prayer cannot co-exist. We will either stop sinning or stop praying.”  What do you think?  Is this true?  Can sin and habitual prayer co-exist?  These are challenging words, but I feel the key distinction in St. Alphonsus’ teaching is that of habitual sin. When we regularly recall God and ask for His grace, we both lose the desire and habit of win (though we’ll continue to stumble, but not in a habitual manner) and are at the same time given the grace to overcome it through the habit of prayer.

But what is certainly true is that we cannot claim, with the Jewish followers identified in the above Gospel passage, “we have never been enslaved to anyone.” Whether prayer or habitual sin, we’re gonna serve somebody.

Tears of Lent–the Penitent Magdalene

For Catholics (and other Christians!), the season of Lent, the 40 days of preparation ahead of Easter, begins with Ash Wednesday and a scripture passage from the Old Testament book of Joel, where the prophet sets us on our Lenten course with the words, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12).  Tears and weeping—the course recommended to us by the prophet, as we begin this season of penance and spiritual preparation for Easter!  The figure from our spiritual tradition that comes to mind is St. Mary Magdalene, who in our church at St. Edward in Waterloo IA is depicted in one of our stained-glass windows with a tear coming from her eye.

While some feminist critics have a legitimate complaint about the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a sinful woman, I would like to think about her from a different, and also legitimate perspective:  as the role model for all of us who are flawed and weighed down by our failures who, nonetheless are caught in the embrace of divine mercy.

To assist this reflection, we can do no better than reflect upon the painting of Caravaggio, The Penitent Magdalene from 1594-5.   In summary, Caravaggio captures well our Lenten (and everyday) journey from ourselves and our futile attachments to things towards the light that is the freedom of God and the Gospel.  Looking at the painting, we immediately notice the things that were of former value, strings of pearls and a flask of oil, which are spent and cast away.  Instead, she now kneels a posture of humility, her back turned on the things that formerly commanded the attention of her soul.  Now, she bows her head in the traditional posture of Christ on the cross, even while the slant of light and white to the top right of the painting, begins to descend into the darkness of this time of penance.  The artist seems to be saying:  Inasmuch as we follow the penitential path of the cross and turn from things that cannot possibly satisfy the God-sized hole in our souls, the relentless pursuit of God’s Light will find us!

As we wondered during Ash Wednesday Masses, are the tears recommended by the prophet Joel and exemplified in the figure of the Penitent Magdalene tears of sorrow (in her failures and the attachments that dominated her life) or tears of joy (that, now freed from empty pleasures, she now can see that and the One who satisfies the human soul, God, the Light of the World)?   What are those attachments whose allure has grabbed us and held us from life, and where is that Light being offered to us that gives clarity and the fullness of Life? #Godsatisfies


Laughter–The Cathartic Safety Valve

Laughter—the cathartic safety valve.

A friend of mine recently said, “I have never seen things more politically divided and hostile.” Well, there is some truth to this, though it does also reflect that we have only limited memory regarding more distant past when things were really bad too.  For example, one critic of our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, said of him just PRIOR to his assuming office,

“The illustrious Honest Old Abe has continued during the last week to make a fool of himself and to mortify and shame the intelligent people of this great nation. His speeches have demonstrated the fact that although originally a Herculean rail splitter and more lately a whimsical story teller and side splitter, he is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion. People now marvel how it came to pass that Mr. Lincoln should have been selected as the representative man of any party. His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President. The truth is, Lincoln is only a moderate lawyer and in the larger cities of the Union could pass for no more than a facetious pettifogger. Take him from his vocation and he loses even these small characteristics and indulges in simple twaddle which would disgrace a well bred school boy.”

And this was from a newspaper in his home state!

I don’t offer this as some type of apologetic for our current president, but rather to merely point out that such hostility has happened before in history and will happen again.  From our faith perspective, we do rail against human frailty and perceived ineptitude and long for human solutions to our problems which, due to our fallen human condition, will be lacking.  But, what I want to discuss, from an art/aesthetic perspective, is how laughter (which only we humans have the faculty to employ) is a perennial remedy for the ludicrousness of our human condition.  I can’t help but think about satire, the figure of the court jester from “olden days,” and the very fact of comic theater to suggest that humor has always been with us to contend with the perplexities of life.

Three examples from visual artists come to mind that take this issue on directly. First, with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore this last month, I took the chance this week to watch again her renowned episode from her show, from its sixth season, called “Chuckles the Clown Bites the Dust.” I was surprised, beyond the side-splitting humor of Mary being reduced to laughter at the clown’s funeral (after having chided others for making jokes about the deceased before the funeral), that the episode takes time to reflect on humor as cathartic in a difficult situation like death.  Laughter can become a healing release in the face of an untimely death or other tragedy, when we can make no human sense out of it.   Here’s a link on youtube to watch it –don’t miss it!

Second, I thought about the GREAT, GREAT film by the American film director Preston Sturges from 1942, Sullivan’s Travels. The protagonist, Sullivan, wants to produce as an actor a work of “serious art,” and goes on the road to know the trials of the “ordinary man”  in preparation for this opus magnus. Through a series of ridiculous misfortunes, the famous actor Sullivan finds himself imprisoned with no seeming chance to be found out and saved.  What a great image of the ridiculousness that life can sometimes deliver!  In this setting, Sullivan and the other prisoners take a night from their chain gang to watch a movie, which turns out to be a Disney cartoon where “Goofy” is afflicted by all kinds of misfortune.  When Sullivan finds himself laughing at the comic character, and at his whole confounding and tragic situation, he finds the value in comedy before tragedy.  I hope you can take the chance to see this VERY GREAT film!  See the final scene here

Finally, in a film clip not for children, consider viewing the short clip of the late comic Joan Rivers who, when making fun of deaf children, is accosted by an angry audience member who has a deaf child.  While Rivers does sprinkle some mild profanity throughout the two-and-a-half minute clip, she also speaks to the value of comedy before tragedy.  See it here:

Of course, politics and how our government tries to make our world a more just place are serious business.  But, comedy is serious business too—an essential part of our humanity trying to deal with tough situations.  Let’s not forget to laugh—it’s a great gift given us by our Creator.



It’s Been A While!


Well, I admit it has been a while since I took the time to post on this blog.  The primary reason was that I took on some new responsibilities to teach a class through our local community college for the students at our Columbus Catholic High School. The course:  Introduction to Literature.  So, now that the first iteration of that class is finished, there’s more time to attend to things like this blog.  So, thanks for your patience, and here we go again!   There were many highlights in the course of study, reading lots of great short fiction, poetry, drama, and a novel (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.  One highlight would be “Dover Beach” (1867) by British poet Matthew Arnold.  In the poem, the narrator looks out over the English channel at night and hears the “grating roar” of the tide as representative of eternal course of human suffering, the decline of the “Sea of Faith” as a means to contend with and make sense of suffering, and then offers a final appeal individuals loving one another in the face of war and other aspects of the plight of humanity.   It is worthy of careful reading and reflection, some 140 years after its publication, as its themes are eternal.  I’m sure it would not be hard to connect it to our current experience of the struggles of the eternal human experience.

DOVER BEACH by Matthew Arnold (1867)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Come to the Feast!

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-older-sonThe gospel given to us during this weekend’s Masses of the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time includes the great Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.  It is a teaching so rich, so resonant with life and its struggles, that it can hardly be characterized by a few words.  So, not trying to do so, let’s focus on a part of the parable (and a very important part of it!) as it is “explained” by one of the great masterworks of western art, Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal.” On the right of the painting, standing erect and in judgment over this whole “sentimental” scene is the elder son of the parable.  He stands like a pillar, detached from the entire reunion, unable to join in the joy. Indeed, as the father will later remind him, he wears the robe of his father, part of “everything” that the father owns that has been shared with him, in sharp contrast to his brother, reduced to poverty (by his own choices!) and humbled after years of suffering.  We get no sense of the elder brother’s rage at this “unjust” welcome, speaking volumes to the dwelling place of resentment and rage:  controlled, in a socially-acceptable and mannered way, deep within our hearts.  However, Rembrandt indeed manifests in his painting the effect of resentment, long held:  we cannot enter the feast of life.  Instead, while joy is celebrated at the supremely human reunion of father and [prodigal] son, the elder son still awaits a return to the father, who has grieved him by acceding to the request of “this son of yours” for his premature part of the inheritance that set this whole drama on its course.  The figure of the elder son and his repressed, judgmental representation by Rembrandt, causes us to pause and consider if we have separated ourselves from Life by clinging with tenacity to the feast of resentment.  Even while we stand in judgment, we cannot see ourselves as quarantined from life’s full joys.  Forgiveness and mercy is the call—the call to return to life.  But, this bitter feast of resentment can become such familiar fare that, however poisonous, we can’t imagine any other sustenance.  As the Father initiates the reconciliation with the prodigal in the parable (“while he was still a long way off, he ran to him (the prodigal)”), can we cease our resentment and ask the Father in His Spirit to run to us with his healing and mercy too?  Until we do, we stand on the sidelines of life:  righteous, resentful, in just judgment, and impoverished in the midst of the marvelous banquet that is life.  Time is short—come into the feast.

Divided Self

In the synagogue there was a man with the spirit of an unclean demon,
and he cried out in a loud voice,
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!”
Then the demon threw the man down in front of them
and came out of him without doing him any harm.  (Lk 4:33-35)

Plato, the Greek philosopher, in his dialogue Phaedrus, wrote some 400 years before Christ of an experience in the general human condition that has dogged our humanity since its creation:  the divided self.  In his famous Allegory of the Chariot (246a-254e), he likens the human soul to a chariot with two horses, one noble and the other troublesome.  Any person has experienced this divided self, knowing that something is good, but instead experiencing an attraction and desire for the opposite.  Believers have read the above passage from the Gospel of Luke with this existential fact in mind:  that a “demon” that might possess us is in fact a “we” instead of a “me.” This unfortunate soul is possessed by a demon that itself is divided.  Into this spiritual chaos comes Jesus, to rid the man of this self-division and restore his unity of life.  When we seem unable to “drive the chariot” of our unmanageable and divided hearts, the Christian faith holds up the example of this restored man from the Gospel of Luke and invites us to come to the one, Jesus, who can cast out chaos from our divided hearts and give us a new singularity of purpose: to love God and neighbor.