8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. Luke 2:8-20 King James Version (KJV)
After 2000 years of Christmas sermons, in hundreds of languages, in different countries throughout the world, and by way of innumerable faith traditions, is there anything new or original left to be said about Christmas, and what it means, that hasn’t been said before? Perhaps not. However, like re-reading that favorite book for the 17th time, or watching that favorite movie or television show for the 358th time, even when you know exactly what comes next, what the very next word is going to be, often we find a new meaning or a new slant on something that is as tried and true as Christmas itself.
And so it is with me this year. This Gospel reading recalls the story of the angels bringing the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Now, we all know that story. We’ve heard it many times over, and those of us who cherish “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will always, in some ways, hear Linus quoting from Luke, no matter who is reading that passage of the Bible to us. We know the story. We SEE the story in every Nativity scene we pass by. There is almost always a shepherd near the manger carrying a lamb on his shoulders and another lamb or sheep to be seen somewhere hanging around. It’s always seemed to me that the sheep and the shepherds were just THERE, minor players in a Christmas play, the “extras” assigned to the kids who didn’t quite measure up to the roles of Mary or Joseph; they enter stage left, ooh and aah over the baby, and exit stage right, singing “Go tell it on the mountain”, singularly unimportant and taking secondary roles to the more illustrious wise men (who in reality weren’t there at all) and most definitely playing supporting roles to the Holy Family, or just standing around as so much scenery, contributing to the mood and filling up the bare spots in the Nativity scene. I overheard a conversation recently that made me really think about the shepherds. While visiting some friends, their cat jumped into the midst of the family crèche and knocked over the obligatory shepherd. It was chipped. The younger daughter of the family was somewhat distressed, and to make the little girl feel better, the mother said to her, “Don’t worry about it, Honey. It’s just the shepherd. He’s not all that important.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when reading the Scripture appointed for today, it struck me. Not all that important? But weren’t they? Who WERE these shepherds? Why were they there in the first place? Why did THEY get the news of Christ’s birth in such a spectacular way? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement?
In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them. When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted from a farmer’s resentment of a shepherd. Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk. Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people.
Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God’s Son stepped forth. How surprising and significant that God the Father handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to be the first to hear the joyous news: “It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!” What an affront to the religious leaders who were so conspicuously absent from the divine mailing list. Even from birth, Christ moved among the lowly. It was the sinners, not the self-righteous, He came to save. So is it really all that surprising that the first announcement of Christ’s birth was to the lowly shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides?
Consider the events leading up to Christ’s birth. Mary was barely 15. Christ was born to an unwed mother, Mary, a servant girl; Mary the young woman who delivered while only betrothed to Joseph. He was born in a stable, a cave! A holy God being born to a couple no different than immigrants, far from home and in a strange city, in a place where animals were kept. A couple who couldn’t even find a place to stay, turned out of every inn! It’s all too bizarre.
Yet this is the God we experience. This is our claim; This is the meaning of his very name: Immanuel, meaning “God with us” — with us not just in nice times, but most especially in the times of our lives when we are in the caves, and stables of our lives, when we are turned out of the places we’d like to be, when we are at the lowest of low points, when we are out in the dark, and in the cold like the shepherds.
Our God, the God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is the God of the oppressed, the repressed, the depressed; the God of the sad, the grieving, the sorrowful; the God of the lonely, the lowly, the poor, the God of the Shepherds; the God of the despised, the destitute, the dejected. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who stood with the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, who led them out of Egypt to a promised land of freedom. Our God is the God of widows and orphans and stranded travelers. Our God is the God who doesn’t stay neat and tidy and spotless, but comes and stands beside us in our times of deepest need, who comes among us as the child in the dirty manger and the God of the shepherds on the hillside. The God we’re speaking of dares to join the unsuccessful, the failures, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden; the God of the Shepherds.
Wherever there is suffering, our God is there. He stands with Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, and with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. He is with us when we face cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. He is with us when we face amputations, operations, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, or even death itself. The God of the manger and the Shepherd is Immanuel, God with us. At our deepest times of loss and need, in the dirtiest and most embarrassing parts of our lives, God is with us, His rod and His staff, they comfort us. It is God who glues us back together when we become, like that figure in my friends’ Nativity scene, chipped, flawed, and much less than perfect.
And it is up to us, to demonstrate the love of God, the God of the lowly, the downtrodden, to the world. We, like the shepherds in the Christmas story, are to be the ones who are to proclaim the good news “which shall be to all people” to all the people of the world. It is our responsibility as Christians to be the instruments through which God can work in this world. As was most famously stated more than four centuries ago by Saint Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
My very favorite Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” includes the lines, “What, then, shall I bring him, empty as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part. What can I give Him? I can give Him my heart.”
Won’t you, this Christmas, give Him your heart? Won’t you, like the shepherds in the children’s plays of the Christmas story, be one to “go tell it on the mountain, over the fields and everywhere” that Jesus Christ is born? Amen.
It is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As a Catholic, you’ve seen the image of Jesus depicted in many ways–kneeling in prayer, surrounded by children, as a child in the arms of St. Anthony, and dying on the cross. One of the most recognizable images is the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s the image of Jesus with His heart exposed, surrounded by thorns, with flames and a cross emerging from the top. This image of Jesus is striking and powerful. In honor of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, let’s take a look at the meaning of this image. What does it symbolize? Why do we celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Also, who was Margaret Mary Alacoque and what was her connection to the Sacred Heart of Jesus?
The sacred heart of Jesus Christ is a symbol that entered the world through the mystical experiences of several Roman Catholic nuns to whom the pierced Heart of the Savior appeared in visions. Yet it was Saint Mary Alocoque who perceived, through many supernatural visions of Christ’s passion, the symbol of the inflamed pierced heart, encircled with thorns. This vision is known as the “great apparition”, which occurred during the octave of Corpus Christi, in June of 1675.
In this vision Jesus entrusted Saint Mary with the mission of propagating the new devotion. Jesus continued to appear to Margaret Mary and made revelations to her until 1675. It wasn’t until 1856, that Pope Pius IX decreed that the feast should be regularly celebrated throughout the world.
What Does the Sacred Heart Symbolize?
Catholics (and people in general) are visual people. Jesus knows this about us that’s why in addition to using parables to give us messages, He uses images to convey His messages. Seeing an image of the Heart of Jesus with thorns and the cross and flames certainly grabs our attention and speaks to us. He is saying, look at My Heart and see what I am feeling. The thorns around His heart are a representation of our sins and how our sinning pierces His heart. The flames and the cross serve as a reminder of the suffering He endured for our salvation and of His burning love for us. The dripping blood represents the blood Jesus shed for our salvation. That’s a pretty powerful message! But let’s explore this image in depth, to understand it fully.
The Sacred Heart is often depicted in Christian art as a flaming heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, encircled by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, and bleeding. Sometimes the image is shown shining within the bosom of Christ with his wounded hands pointing at the heart.
- Heart: The heart is the center of being, both physical and spiritual. The heart represents compassion, understanding, love and charity. It also represents the temple of God, His Divine Center and dwelling place. The heart is the spiritual center of a being. The pierced and bleeding heart alludes to the manner of Jesus’ death and reveals to us Christ’s goodness and charity through his wounds and ultimate sacrifice.
- Crown of thorns: A crown is a symbol that represents sovereignty, victory, honor, dignity, reward, the highest attainment, dedication, completeness, the circle of time, of continuity and endless duration. For Christians it is also a symbol of the righteous, blessing and favor, and victory over death. Yet the crown that was placed on Christ’s head was made of thorns to deliberately parody the crown of roses worn by the Roman Emperor. The crown of thorns has thus become the symbol of the Passion and martyrdom of Jesus Christ.
- Cross: In Christianity the cross is a symbol of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice. It is redemption, atonement, suffering and a symbol of faith.
- Flames or Fire: Transformation, purification, renewal of life, power, strength, energy. Fire facilitates change or passage from one state to the other. Fire manifested as flame symbolizes spiritual power and forces. Fire and flame both represent truth and knowledge as consumers of lies, ignorance, illusion and death.
Light: Light is a symbol of life, truth, illumination and a source of goodness. Radiance emitted by light symbolizes new life from divinity and the power of dispelling evil and the forces of darkness. It also embodies the aspects splendor, glory and joy. When illustrated the straight line usually represents light and the undulating line is symbolically heat; light and heat are symbolically complementary and polarize the element of fire.
The sacred heart is a symbol of great self sacrifice and unconditional divine love for all beings captured in the actions and deeds of Jesus Christ. When our love and compassion overcomes and sacrifices our own ego, our spirit will be liberated and transform our entire being into a holy one. If we align ourselves with meaning of the Sacred Heart and the liberating vibration of Christ consciousness, this great symbol can become a gateway for us to change the world through our expression of unequivocal, genuine love. So let us love one another unconditionally.
As my Father has loved Me, so have I loved you.
— John 15:8
Last week was marked by a momentous occasion. A new, and very controversial president was sworn in. I cannot remember any past President being the target of so much hate. His family (including his children) has also been the targets of rumors, innuendos, and blasting from the media. While I do not agree with his policies, his plans for our country, or his stance on many key issues, I cannot reconcile the behavior and hateful words that have been shared on social media. Even a few of my fellow clergy have gone so far as to spread messages of hate. But this is not the message we get from the teachings of Jesus Christ. In His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), He offers to reassure His disciples that though they face hardships and trials, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As we read through these teachings of Jesus to His disciples, we learn much about what is not only awaiting us in the future, but also what we can expect now. For those who have lost hope, like so many did after the recent election, we are reassured that the kingdom of heaven (God’s love and comfort), is with us right now (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”). Jesus then goes on to describe the blessings for those who are sad, who are humble in spirit, who may be down on their luck, who always tries to do whats right, and who always strives to treat others fairly. While not promising riches or fame, Jesus is offering something more precious.
In this time of turmoil in our country, Jesus teaches us to be peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:9-10). We are also cautioned to hold our tongue ( “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account). Though we may disagree with the policies and practices of the new President, we should not use this time as an opportunity to spread poison, whether in our speech or through our actions.
Instead of spreading hate, we should be spreading hope. Instead of pushing people away (because we may disagree with their ideals), we should be pulling people in to our faith, teaching them about the love of Christ. Instead of teaching our children its ok to hate someone because of the color of their skin, their sex, their choice of partner, or their religion, we should be setting an example of love for all human kind. Peace begins with us, the children of God.
A Prayer for Our Country:
bless our nation
and make it true
to the ideas of freedom and justice
and brotherhood for all who make it great.
Guard us from war,
from fire and wind,
from compromise, fear, confusion.
Be close to our president and our statesmen;
give them vision and courage,
as they ponder decisions affecting peace
and the future of the world.
Make me more deeply aware of my heritage;
realizing not only my rights
but also my duties
and responsibilities as a citizen.
Make this great land
and all its people
know clearly Your will,
that they may fulfill
the destiny ordained for us
in the salvation of the nations,
and the restoring of all things in Christ.
The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings
When I first began reading this book, I really had no idea what to expect. It was a relatively easy read (on my Kindle), though some chapters read more like a history book. But that’s what the Bible is, isn’t it, a history book? Or is like any other non-fiction book written by man, just a collection of personal stories and eye witness accounts, but only with parables, stories, embellishments, thrown in? And there is the first mistake I believe modern readers of the Bible make, and which Dr. Hoffman points out in this book. While most of the Bible is factual, meaning it did happen, it is still a personal account of who did what when. And as with any personal testimonies, there will be conflicting reports among various individuals. Also, we modern English readers tend to forget that the Bible wasn’t initially written in English. In its many translations, from Hebrew to Greek, to Latin, and finally to English, there surely must have been some things changed, and some things may have been lost in the various translations.
Dr. Hoffman details five ways the Bible gets distorted: culture gap, mistranslation, ignorance, accident, and misrepresentation; and two common elements that they share: misapplying tradition and missing the context. Some of the ideas explored in Dr. Hoffman’s book include definition of marriage, aging (how long people lived), homosexuality, polygamy, and the conflicting accounts of the creation story (Adam and Eve), just to name a few. Amazon offers this review:
“The Bible Doesn’t Say That” explores what the Bible meant before it was misinterpreted over the past 2,000 years. Acclaimed translator and biblical scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman walks the reader through dozens of mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings about the Bible. In forty short, straightforward chapters, he covers morality, life-style, theology, and biblical imagery, including:
*The Bible doesn’t call homosexuality a sin, and it doesn’t advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of the family that has been dubbed “biblical.”
*The Bible’s famous “beat their swords into plowshares” is matched by the militaristic, “beat your plowshares into swords.”
*The often-cited New Testament quotation “God so loved the world” is a mistranslation, as are the titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God.”
*The Ten Commandments don’t prohibit killing or coveting.
What does the Bible say about violence? About the Rapture? About keeping kosher? About marriage and divorce? Hoffman provides answers to all of these and more, succinctly explaining how so many pivotal biblical answers came to be misunderstood.”
While at times I did feel like I was reading a history book, I honestly found this book to be very informative. The Bible has been picked apart, used as a weapon, mistranslated and misquoted, so much so that we forget why it was written in the first place. When we take just one passage, one parable, one story, and use it for a singular purpose, we miss the whole reason these words were written down. Dr. Hoffman’s seeks to remind us that the Bible is a book, written by men a long time ago. And as with any book, should be studied in-depth, and not be quoted randomly to suit this or that purpose.
“Will only a few be saved”? How this question must have annoyed Jesus! Here He was speaking of the good news of God’s love and revealing the path to God’s kingdom here on Earth and this bean counter wants to talk numbers; well not really numbers, this man wanted to know who will be saved and more specifically was he probably included in the saved group. From Jesus’ reply it is evident that He saw right through the veiled question and deep into the man’s self righteous heart. So, instead of answering the question, Jesus gives allegorical directions then a warning of the outcome if one fails to take His advice and, of course, a description of the reward for those who do walk the righteous path.
Jesus tells the man, and those listening to “strive to enter through the narrow gate”. The word translated as strive in the Greek is agonizesthe, meaning to contend for. So just like an Olympian who struggles to surmount all obstacles to win the gold we too must rise up to the challenge and it will not be easy to get through this narrow gate. Why is passing through this gate so challenging? Is it really, really narrow or perhaps has some complicated lock? Remember ancient cities were protected by walls, and in these walls were openings, the gates which were closed at night and during battle. The main gate was large and allowed carts of merchandise, people riding donkeys or horses and crowd of people to easily enter or exit. The main gate was also where the triumphant and royal would process in or out as a form of spectacle. The narrow or pedestrian gate was small and had sharp turns which made it difficult to navigate in armor let alone to draw ones sword and attack; this was the gate for the common people, the beggar, the slave to use. And when these gates are closed, as say during attack, entrance to the city is impossible, you are stuck out in the open, a victim to the raiding army.
But WHY must we agonize and struggle to enter the pedestrian gate, can’t we just walk in? Think about any adventure movie you have ever seen. After hauling all their precious equipment past impediments along the way, fighting off competitors and then finding the treasure, reaching the apex of the adventure the glorious moment always falls apart. After all their struggles and perils, our team of adventurers must hasten to escape or they will surely die; the only means of escape requires them to abandon their treasure, leave their evidence of victory and shed everything but the scraps of clothes on their back in order to survive. Inevitably there is one member who refused to leave the treasure behind, who agonizes over whether to relinquish the riches and fame and flee to safety or hold one to them and hope for the best.
This is the moment Jesus is speaking of, this is the struggle we must face if we wish to walk the path to the Father. We must be willing to divest ourselves of the baggage that weighs us down, holds us back, blocks us from escaping the impending trials of what life throws at us: greed, hate, envy, gluttony, the fear that we might lose out and someone else might beat us. It is a competition, but one where we only battle our own flaws and insecurities. We must always be ready to open our hands and let things go when we face life’s choices; release our treasures for not only our own sake but for the benefit of those around us, those in need, who have less and ask for little. Here too, we might be willing to let those people go who cannot escape the grip of their own fears, those who drag us down instead of lifting us and others up. In essence we must set ourselves free from the worldly desires to be at the top, first in line, best in show, greatest of all, so that we, like the adventurers in the movies, the heroes and heroines of book and film, might escape and find a different sort of reward in telling the stories of our journey’s true success. For it is only when we take a more humble place in line and allow others to go first that’s we begin to shed the armor of our own fears and desires in lieu of a more ignoble and simple garment of altruism, forgiveness and love which easily slips through that narrow gate into the God’s kingdom.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
- D. Vance
June 28, 2016
I grew up in Lutherville, Maryland in the 1950’s. My parents moved there in 1947 after my father returned from Europe and World War II.
Lutherville was a quiet suburb of Towson, which was 8 miles north of Baltimore. We had our “good sections” of the town and the other sections, several of which were “colored sections.” We had a variety of neighbors, from the Japanese man up the street, Mr. Bridge, who changed his name because America had just finished a vicious war with his native country; to the Thomases and the Skinners whose parents came from West Virginia and Kentucky during the war for the plentiful work at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft factory and other wartime industries in Baltimore; to the Webbs from Georgia, the Maiones from New York, and next door, the Daums from Baltimore. Quite a mix when you take in all the other people. Lutherville grew exponentially after the war because the automobile, which was now in reach financially for the middle class, allowed people to live away from the factories and offices of the big city.
Not a mile from my house, on Lincoln Avenue of all places, one of the “colored sections” didn’t get town water and sewer until 1957. They still used a communal water pump at one end of the street.
I didn’t go to a “desegregated school,” one that taught both black and white kids in the same building, until 1958. Lutherville was a town that embodied the post-war prosperity of the 1950’s while living in genteel proximity to the anti-bellum society of the 1850’s. There was a class of cultures, not always peaceful.
While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I was startled to recognize, and remember, those many people who had migrated to Maryland from the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, and other parts of the deep South. I can’t say that this was always the case, but quite a few of our new neighbors were instantly recognizable as “hillbillies” (a term we frequently used ourselves) by the old appliances, rusting 1930 automobiles, household trash, and, indeed, often swarms of chickens in the yards…the front yards too!
But while the outward appearances were telltale, in fact at school, there seemed to be no difference among any of the children’s societal backgrounds, as far as I could tell. We all knew what rung of the upward-mobility ladder we inhabited, but in school, and in sports after school, we were mostly pegged by our abilities.
Not so for the parents, though. One example that Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of was when one of my neighbor kids had been threatening me and some of my friends on the school bus. My father took me over to his house where we met with his father, out in the street. My father described the problem to a grim, unfriendly man, who proceeded to scream across the yard for his son to come over to us. He asked the son if he had done what we described and when the son admitted it, the father promptly slapped the boy on his bare back so hard that the red print of his hand was immediately visible and the boy lurched over and started crying. My father tried to intervene and the boy’s father said, “Mind yer own business. This here’s muh whelp an’ I’ll do whut ah want tuh him.” I was so shocked that I cannot remember what happened after that.
These people were from a world I never knew existed. But here they were, having escaped the grinding poverty of back home for a middle class life in the suburbs…with some having a little trouble amalgamating into it. And as I said, this type of family could be seen throughout the town and the surrounding towns.
- D. Vance was born into, and grew up in that region of the country and that culture that I saw transplanted to suburban Baltimore, only his people went to Ohio along Rt. 23, otherwise known as the “hillbilly highway.” Millions of them left in a great migration that de-populated whole towns in Appalachia. But as one of his characters said, “You can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.” His story is the continuing saga of what happens to people during this type of mass exodus and re-alignment of society and the economy.
It is not a pretty story, as he says. But it is not without its virtues, mostly embodied by a fierce patriotism, loyalty to family and heritage, and toughness.
But what do people do when confronted by a brave new world that seems to make no sense to them? How do they cope? What happens to the children? This book is the story of that revolution, but without the pat answers and pop-psychological nostrums. It is a story that is resonating still, all across our country: What ever happened to the good old days? Who are all these foreigners? Why can’t they speak English? How come they get free stuff when I just have to work and work?
Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new. In Ecclesiastes 7:10 we read, Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. The difference may be that today, so very many people are asking these questions. And although Vance never mentions him, it is obvious that the Republican candidate for President in 2016, Donald J. Trump, attracts these people to his rallies, gives them a voice, and promises them a return to those better days of yesteryear.
All through the book, Vance describes self-destructive behavior, fear of “the other”, disdain for knowledge and rules, and the disintegration of the family. It is a mirror of what is happening to some African-American and Native American communities, yet as is often the case, these people do not think they are so bad because, as one of my southern friends used to say, “At least we ain’t niggers.”
But this is not a book with a Democratic or left-wing bent. Vance is still not convinced that government should play a large part in fixing society’s ills. For example he writes that although his schools were not great, they were adequate. But what kept him from concentrating in school was his chaotic home life, a situation all too many kids face today.
But what comes across so cruelly is that Vance’s people think that nothing they do themselves will improve their lot in life. The game is rigged against them and they have no power to overcome it, to break through to the other side.
Changing these attitudes will not happen through government intervention, or some new program out of Washington. Turning this mind-set around will involve much more, yet Vance gives no answers. What he does do, and extremely well, is show us what’s going on and keeping our nose to the window until we actually see our fellow human being suffering and despairing, not just “those hillbillies.”
To change what’s happening in all of our marginal communities and societies will take a major awakening of the people in our country. Hillbilly Elegy is the opening sermon in what I hope will become a new tent revival of hope and peace.
August 4, 2016
1969 by The Viking Press, Inc.
Introduction by Phyllis Tickle © 2005 Loyola Press
A strange peace settled over me as I began to read Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede. From the first page to the last, amid all the turmoil and joy to be found in this cloistered community, this peace settled down and never left me. And more than that, it took me by surprise, I who subsist mostly on exciting and adventuresome literature.
I admire contemplatives. I loved, and continue to love, reading Thomas Merton; and about our saints and blesseds. But for myself, I have this nagging voice that tells me to get up and get going, and any time spent reading and relaxing is stolen from the important works and days of my life. And then the bell rings for nones and I am settled as a mist in the quiet valley.
Philippa Talbot, successful, professional, talented, approaching middle age, is the protagonist of In This House of Brede. She has risen up the ranks of England’s civil service to be one of the first and most influential women in her department. Well-educated, well-traveled, and well-heeled, Philippa has settled in to a life that many aspire to but few achieve. She is widowed (he died in the Second World War), and while she has a platonic and satisfying friendship with a sympathetic and charming married man, they were once lovers. All this is hers, and then she gives it up to live the life of a cloistered nun in a Benedictine abbey.
While it may seem sudden, her entrance to this new life is a long, inexorable progress to fulfillment through loss, and gain through abnegation.
Those of us who have never visited an abbey may imagine this life as serene, ordered, and deliberate…maybe what we have read about or seen in films. But I should have known that we may leave the world, but the world doesn’t leave us. All the human frailties can be found at Brede…even so can all the human perfections be found there as well. The running of an abbey of 90 nuns is as complicated as any corporation, and so it is with Brede: kitchen, bakery, sewing rooms, fields, orchards, buildings, living quarters, offices. And accomplished with what a corporation might have for petty cash.
Then Godden interweaves the story of a seeker just entering, showing all the fears and expectations she experiences. Then Godden throws real-life personalities into the mix and what a story it becomes! Jealousy, envy, love, admiration, skill, failure, success, tragedy, bliss…and woven through all of that, the love of God and God’s love for us, and how it can frighten or embolden us. While this may be a novel about religious life, the “religious” part is not a shield from the “life” part. But it is a guiding part and a goal as well.
I still find it hard to describe, this “strange peace” that permeates this book and which settles me down every time I pick it up. But part of what came to me is that religious life, contemplative and cloistered life is not “entered in to.” It’s more like the tide. There is a slow and progressive rising, sudden incursions of waves and their retreat, rising to the spring tide level and then just as deliberately falling away until the disorder of the ocean’s floor is visible…and back again. So while there may be joy, there will also be pain. Here, the fulfillment of Ecclesiastes is fully present, and its inevitability is part of what I see as comforting. So the only way to escape is to run full speed into the life.
For a Dominican, there is no more apt description. To be a Dominican means to voyage full speed into life, with God as the wind in your sails.
In This House of Brede is a sea voyage like Melville’s or Dana’s with shoals and deep water, wind and rain, sun and breeze. Its depiction of monastic life is inspiring. Its foundation in the changes within the Roman Catholic Church is brilliant. Its characterization is encyclopedic.
Rumer Godden has given us a book that will certainly prove a beacon in everyone’s quest within their own order, religious or lay or secular. As many reviewers have said, it is one of the few books they go back to time after time. It should be required reading for all monastic orders.