Saturday, March 16, 2019

My lecture went very well!

I was not very nervous, as I enjoy being in front of people and love reading aloud. I decided to read it--and the reasons are spelled out in the text below. Both Father Austin and Husband helped immensely and were very encouraging. The whole thing was recorded and the video should be up within a week. I must say I loved the whole thing. I was a bit unprepared for the full room and the general enthusiasm. I thought it's be a dozen people and they'd find a bit boring, especially the part about the levels of reading--which was done per request. After the generous applause, and the many questions in the Q & A session, I was on my feet for over an hour and a half with people informally queuing up and wanting to chat with me, offering a comment, asking a question, telling me a story.

I don't think I said that much-- I repeated myself quite a lot--but it seems that they were both eager and delighted to hear it. I have a grateful heart--because all of this is answer to prayer--that God will use my skills for his service.

Text of my lecture:

Lumen Veritatis Lecture by Ana Braga-Henebry, M.A.
Given on March 16, 2019, Church of the resurrection, Lansing, MI

It is a very good thing that in the field of Humanities, for the most part, lectures are given by the speakers reading their papers.
Yet, doesn't it seem ironic that, in a field where words and imagination abound, we would be limited by reading? Did you know that this is not the case at scientific conferences?
My husband is a scientist. I have attended a few conferences with him. When they lecture, it is all about numbers: exact measurements, quantities, ratios, numeric data. For this Arts and Humanities lover, numbers, as marvelous as they are, do not tell stories. And scientists do not read their papers, they present them using visual aids. Their stories are "arguments" where the numbers—in tables and graphs—provide evidence to persuade the audience. Words seem to be mere accessories they need; - words seem to be there just to weave their numbers into some comprehensible form. 
In the field of Arts and Humanities, however, it is a dangerous thing to let oneself go off script. An unscripted lecture would always risk going on and on into countless tangents and digressions.
So, the fact that I am reading tonight is a safety measure for me, and very likely a relief for you. In heaven, it is my wish that numbers will be kept to a necessary minimum, while imagination will go on and on, ad infinitum, around the dinner table, alongside good friends, vintage wine - and delicious, homemade food.
It is to the dinner table that I wish to bring you, to begin tonight's wonderful topic of books! Good books: how to identify them; how better to read them; and the reasons we delight in them. What better subject to spend a Saturday evening thinking about!  
As a wife and mother over these many years, the dinner table—the sacred space where we gather every day—has served for me also as the learning table, or the imagination table, or the table of stories—stories both told and listened to.
During a day of preparing a careful meal for family and guests, it is exactly the expectation of dinner table conversation that keeps me humming as I peel, wash, sauté, and roast in the kitchen. And so very often, aren't these conversations about books?
Few occasions serve as a better environment for the discussion of ideas, the telling of stories, and the long conversations about books, as the dinner table. Once the prayer and blessing have been said, and guests and hosts alike are enjoying the food, an invariable conversation opener comes up: "SO… I am reading this book…."    
We will begin to recount passages, tell relevant stories, make comparisons, and bring up  memories from books we have read before.
A dinner guest may suddenly lift the glass of Port wine and exclaim, "That's exactly it!", and another may wonder, "I never thought about that passage this way!", while another may ponder, "Fascinating!"  To us, at home, this is a bit of heaven.
I truly hope this scenario sounds familiar to you.
There is one aspect that unites this table conversation to other, similar table conversations around the planet: the books discussed are almost invariably good books. As vague or ambiguous as the term "good books" can be,—and we will discuss this in a moment—I believe there is a general agreement about what a good book is. Books that spring conversations are going to be worthy books of some sort!  Here I must include the exception of maybe someone relating the sorrow of a child having to read an inferior book for school. No, for the most part, we want to discuss excellent books!  I do not mean we will be discussing Plato's dialogues and Sophocles' tragedies at every dinner! Or even Don Quixote, or Shakespeare. There are all kinds of good books o be discussed!
We may talk of much more mundane books: I may even bring up a good murder mystery—I am a fan of Agatha Christie's murder mysteries, for example—excellent examples of written English!-- and my husband loves the Jeeves and Wooster sarcastic, hilarious, and carefully crafted stories by P. G. Wodehouse —which, by the way, turn out to be extremely moral. A serious non-fiction book will come up as well, especially the ones with interesting new research on beloved subjects of study. Yet one thing is for sure: we will not be discussing the cheap paperbacks with embarrassing front cover illustrations that seem to populate every public library and big-box store. We will also seldom mention Self-help books and best-sellers.
There is definitely an understood agreement that there is such a thing as a good book-- and the ones in that class are worth reading, and worth discussing.
For us here at Resurrection Parish, the idea of a good book may be easily grasped. As opposed to the secular world in which we must live, - here, we know what the Good is. Social media will show us in less than 60 seconds that the world out there has little grasp on the concept of an objective Good. But here - we know there is the Good with capital G, the one who is also Beauty itself, the One who is Love itself. We know who we are,—and we know our purpose in this life. How simple, and satisfying is this knowledge we own, to guide all of our days and actions. How fortunate we are to have been given this grace, our lives directed by the ultimate purpose. Sinners that we are, we have so much to help us on our journey: the sacraments, and the guidance of our parish priest, and of the Church not least among them.
So simply put, a good book is one that will help us to get to our final destination, the divine destination we were created for. A good book will teach us lessons of virtue and bring us to tears with true sorrow, and heart-felt victories over evil. A good book can entertain immensely—joy being a God-given gift for us! However, this entertainment will be life-affirming, and not immersed in the muck of debauchery or in gratuitous, graphic descriptions of evil in its various forms.
The joy of reading a good book stems from this longing that we all carry in our hearts, given to us by our Creator to guide us in this vale of tears. The same deep longing that bring us to tears when faced with great beauty: an unexpected, gorgeous sunset stretched out in front of us. - A moving painting that takes our breath away as we enter a room in the art museum. The tears we shed when witnessing an act of pure love. This longing that says, "I am made for this! I want more of this!" - For the sincere Christian, we know what this desire is. We know that we have been made for it! We are willing to live this life in preparation for it, even if trampled by the weight of the world, -- and worse yet, by the weight of our own sins.
We can look a bit further into the concept of a good book. We will explore the idea of the so-called "GREAT BOOKS", and then on to mentioning and recommending a few authors.
I would like to start with a personal anecdote: My husband and I like to say that when we met and decided to be married, so did our books: they have been multiplying ever since. Like us, they were a young collection, aspiring to greater heights, idealistic, filled with promise. Like us, through the years, they gained depth and experience, and our collection of paper friends expanded sideways, in variety and in depth.
Our collection of books about the lives of the saints for example became ever expanding, and the authors we encountered together gained prominent place. (We shall never forget reading Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross for the first time together –and promising to name a daughter after this intellectual, courageous woman!) As the children came, the classic stories we read as children were re-introduced and explored as a family.
Book lovers we were, when we were a new young married couple, one baby in arms and one in utero, we were happy to accept an invitation to join a book group. This group was made of fellow graduates of his alma mater, which happens to be the pioneer "Great Books" college program in the United States.
We were still poor graduate students, and we were sort of star-struck as we were hosted in a beautiful home and entertained with nice wine, fine cheese, and yummy cakes, amidst professionals in the law and medical fields, among others.
The book in question was a magnificent classic: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. I could not wait to discuss the brilliant and unforgettable psychological novel about how contemplating and committing a crime wreaks havoc on the soul. What comes into the mind when planning a murder?
What leads a person to make that decision? How does the soul react to such an action, and how does one find the way out of its devastating aftermath? There were so many questions I was eager to see explored! Here we were among educated readers who were all owners of larger life experiences than we were. Undoubtedly, we were in for a very rich discussion!
The discussion started, intelligent observations, quotes lifted directly from passages of this great classic of Russian literature.
Soon enough, however, I am sad to report, things went sour.  
The topics began flowing from the book to small, petty personal opinions, and to unclear digressions. They brought up details, twisted and turned them, this way and that, and even attempted to insert them back in, but they had the wrong end up, clearly!  
I tried to intercept and save the discussion, desperately, but who was I, this novice, this know-nothing?
Believe me, (and my husband will nod here), I can be VERY loud and demanding, but my attempts that evening were not much more than feeble.
On the way home, as my husband navigated the nighttime traffic of the big city, I was flabbergasted. "Here's Dostoyevsky," I was almost shouting, "writing this amazing work of how Christian love redeems not only the guilty conscience, but also how it affects everything around it! Think of Sonya, such a complex character, both a redeemer and redeemed! A book about forgiveness and salvation that brings the reader gleaming from the darkest opening.
Crime and Punishment will survive the millennia for being a fantastic, innovative account of the bright light of Love conquering Darkness inside the human mind—and they were discussing what? Their petty distortions, with examples from their mundane lives? What a waste of an evening! What's the good of their dressed up looks, the heels, and ties, and blazers, if they spent when whole evening missing the point?"
My poor husband. There was the quiet scientist and even-tempered guy, just driving us safely home, loving his wife and babies every minute of the way.
Don't we love how God invented marriage to be so very complementary?
I think that night, outraged at seeing Crime and Punishment turned upside down, I made a decision for life—to love and promote good reading. Reading to our kids, participating in, and leading, or even starting book groups, writing about books, writing book reviews on Amazon—they were the positive results of that evening. I thank God for that—He, Author of all that is Good.
That book group we attended was made of college graduates of the same institution. It is also my husband's alma mater, St. John's College in Maryland. That small liberal arts college was the first to completely adopt the so-called "Great Books" as their sole curriculum, and became well-known for that.
Many graduates are active in the fields of journalism, broadcast media, medicine, law, and education.  The program is secular, yet it is able to bring a student to the ultimate end of one's sincere search for truth. My husband is not their only graduate who has come into the Church. We have a good priest friend who speaks with fond memories of the discoveries he made during the years in that same college, which led him into the Church, and, eventually, to the seminary and holy priesthood.
Unfortunately, it is more common to graduate from such a program armed with an intellectual arrogance and a bad habit of analyzing everything as if the answers, or Truth, do not really matter.
Thankfully, there are excellent Catholic Great Books colleges where the reading list is immersed in sound Theology, and where the academic life is bathed in gorgeous, centuries-old liturgy. We are delighted to say that we have a daughter now at one such college, and she loves it.
Back when he was in college, Geoff had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by the philosopher, educator, and author Mortimer Adler. Adler was one of the founders of the Great Books movement. He was one of a number of academics at the University of Chicago who were concerned about how to improve the education system in the US. They thought there was a need to return to the western liberal arts tradition, as turn away from overspecialized, progressive approach to education advocated on the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the influential John Dewey. Colleges that incorporated the Great Books curriculum used classic works as the primary texts and, for the most part, Socratic-style round table seminars, instead of lectures by professors.  
For those of you not familiar with this approach, the teacher in the Socratic style classroom guides the students' discussion on the material read by asking the opening question and gently prodding along the subsequent discussion by the students. Similar programs were adopted as an option in some larger universities. Case in point - the Program of Liberal Studies at The University of Notre Dame, and the Ignatius Institute at University of San Francisco.
Not only larger, well-known universities, but also smaller ones took the same approach within certain departments. In the small city of Marshall in southwestern Minnesota, the State University used to have, and I quote, "an Honors Program that was based off St. John's College in Maryland where the students read many of the Great Books". This quote is from a good friend, a graduate of that honors program. He told us this when we were meeting in his office one day. He pointed to many volumes of Great Books on his shelves: those were partly responsible for his priestly vocation, he told us, a big smile on his face. He became a good friend, and celebrated nuptial masses for two of our children.
As smaller Great Brooks programs inside larger institutions go, there is the very interesting history of the short-lived Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, led by Professors Senior, Quinn, and Nelick from 1970-1984. There students enrolled by the hundreds, read Great Books, went stargazing, learned and sang old songs by the campfire, and learned to ballroom dance among other "classical" activities! They traveled to Europe to visit ancient Benedictine monasteries. They re-discovered the wonder of Life, the excitement of searching for truth, and numerous students converted to the Catholic faith. Some of the graduates of that program became educators, professors, priests, - one founded a college, at least one is a bishop. Interestingly, one alumnus became a lifelong Latin educator and is the author of the Latin program I use here, at Resurrection School. Quite a few of them entered the monastic life in France and, in 1999, some of these same University of Kansas students, now fully professed monks, arrived back in the United States to start a new Benedictine foundation.
If you are ever planning on a trip through northeast Oklahoma, call ahead the Abbey of Clear Creek and enjoy Benedictine hospitality in their beautiful guesthouse. From their humble beginnings, in less than 20 years they now have grown to 50 monks! Their website,, tells their story with gorgeous pictures of the buildings, landscape, and working farm—and there you will read the details about how the short-lived Integrated Humanities Program of The University of Kansas, and the Great Books, were the seed of it all.
Talk about how fruitful people can be when they say FIAT to God's plans!
So you may ask, what does a Great Books education look like? At St. John's they start with the Greeks as freshmen—Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle—then, as sophomores, on to the Romans—Virgil, Tacitus, Plutarch, Livy—many books of the Bible, Medieval Philosophy and Literature—St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, Dante—and the Renaissance—Machiavelli, Bacon, Shakespeare—and so on, you get the picture. They read and discuss philosophy, literature, history, some theology, and plenty of math and science, all from primary sources, though usually in English. No textbooks, no classroom lectures.  
Our daughter is a sophomore at Thomas Aquinas College, which is the Catholic analogue to St. John's. In her blog, she wrote about her favorite readings during freshman year. I cannot think of a better window for us to glimpse at what it is like to be educated with the Great Books. She starts with the Bible:
"For freshman theology, we read the entire Bible throughout the year. I enjoyed it as much as I expected to - maybe more - but I loved certain books of the Bible far more than I thought I would. Most of the books of the prophets were great, filled with solemn pronouncements and the various anecdotes so familiar to us. The book of Ezekiel was a whole different experience. It felt a lot more like reading Revelation than the other prophetic books, with all of Ezekiel's strange and disturbing visions. Our class discussions on Ezekiel were out of this world. 
"We focused especially on chapter 16, which is a rebuke of Israel for her faithlessness in view of all God has done for her. The imagery of a virgin bride turned harlot, which occurs in countless places throughout the Old Testament, here holds a unique bitterness, a tone reminiscent of a jilted lover. The author details how God brought up Israel to be a beautiful bride and adorned her with finery, but she turned away from Him and sold her beauties in sordid places. The comparison of Israel's sins with those of notorious cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah is harsh to the point of damning.
"Despite all this railing against Israel's harlotry, Ezekiel 16 ends with an affirmation of God's continuing fidelity and mercy.  Nothing that Israel can do, not even this most abominable of sins, can stop God from loving her as His own, and He is willing to re-establish His covenant with her again and again, as many times as she repents and turns back to Him. There is no vindictiveness in this jilted lover; only deep and unutterable mercy."  
Next - she mentions loving to read Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, because she was convinced he explains things the way her brain works, and to her it all makes sense. She loved learning Logic by reading Aristotle and finishes it by saying: "All this experience of logic really makes me aware of people's arguments -- and what makes them valid or invalid."  
A third book she mentions is Gregor Mendel's account of his experiments in genetics: "Natural Science was definitely the hardest class for me in freshman year. Despite it being the most intense and lively class for my already wild and combative classmates, I didn't find the subject material very engaging. - That is, until we read Mendel. Reading his own account of his experiments on thousands of pea plants was fascinating. His simple method of observing and opening every single pea pod to record its characteristics yielded some remarkable results. It was amazing how, when he had enough samples (tens of thousands), the numbers he counted by observation matched up almost perfectly with the numbers he predicted by his probability ratios. Mendel's discoveries are still relevant today, as the quiet little botanist monk is now known as the father of genetics.      
"Reading Mendel's report, I was so enthusiastic about his successful experiments that I explained it all to several people, including my roommate Emily, whose section had the misfortune of skipping the Mendel reading due to schedule constraints. I had never experienced such excitement about natural science!"  
The fourth book she mentions was the Greek historian Thucydides:  
"The Peloponnesian Wars was one of the two things we read in seminar that effectively killed almost all freshman enthusiasm. Our three weeks spent on him involved 150-200 page readings of dry historical accounts every week, which turned even finishing the seminar readings into a rare occurrence, let alone liking them. To be honest, I'm not really sure why I did like Thucydides so much. The military aspect of his history (it was about a war, after all) did not make it appealing, and the speeches interspersed between the accounts of battles were interminable and almost worse than the battles.
"But his style of retelling the events of the war kept it interesting for me, in large part because it was reminiscent for me of learning ancient history in elementary school, when my mom read to us aloud from A Child's History of the World. I understood the military maneuvers and strategies much better than I expected to, and found myself well able to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of the various decisions the generals and rulers made. My favorite part of the history was when the Athenians decided, against Pericles'- express advice, to try to conquer Sicily, which failed horribly.
"It was an amazing year, as I can't stress enough. What an opportunity God has given me!"  
 Yes, all this from the perspective of a 19-year-old student finishing her first year in college. Our beautiful Maria had read many of the Great books during high school. Her very favorite author? Dante. She has always been a disciplined student and a serious young scholar, and Thomas Aquinas College was the only college she applied to. Keep her in your prayers, as she discerns a religious vocation.
Let's now turn back to Mortimer Adler, and look at his most popular book, "How to Read a Book".  First published in 1940, the book is widely considered a definitive guidebook for people interested in improving their ability to read, comprehend, and debate what they read. Besides stressing that we should be reading the great books of our cultural heritage, Mortimer Adler also speaks of the fact that people can improve the way they read.
One blog, entitled Right Attitudes says, "This book stemmed from Adler’s belief that students of liberal education needed to be grounded in the “great ideas” of humankind, as represented in the canon of Western classic literature. For him, the art of reading well is deeply correlated t the art of thinking clearly & critically.
If you are interested in this subject, I recommend that you get a hold of the book as I did—but be forewarned—it is a dense book. It seems that today, in this age of Too Much Information, there is a big market for people to publish book summaries, so you may also look online for a good summary of Mortimer Adler's How to read a Book. You will find numerous results!  I have even found fun animated YouTube videos summarizing the entire book! As I started writing this talk, I received an invitation to download a new app specialized in book summaries.
The young developers of BLINKLIST grew to 8 million s in just a couple of years. Customers download summaries of all major books published, all for $89 a year. So people want to read, they want to be informed, but don't feel that they have the time for it, and maybe they also feel that they can't do it very well.
"How to Read a Book" covers every aspect of reading we may be facing. The author lists everything from fairy tales to lyric poems, fiction, and history to informational books. He is eloquent but long-winded, so be ready to read some things you always thought obvious, and some passages that sound far too academic or even pointless.
The author gives general reading tips, such as trying to see books as a conversation with the author, and keeping in mind as we read that books are the QUOTE" imperfect creations of imperfect creatures. He exhorts us to make books our own - by highlighting, folding the pages, taking notes, and even paying attention to our reading environment.
He identifies four LEVELS OF READING: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical and what he calls "Syntopical" reading. The discussion of these four levels make up the bulk of the book. I will summarize them:
Elementary Reading:  In mastering this level, we learn the rudiments of the art of reading, receive basic training in reading, and acquire good initial reading skills.  The question that is asked at this level is: What does it say?

Inspectional reading: is also called pre-reading or skimming. This level's emphasis in on time… its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time. This is usually done through an examination of the surface of the book checking things such as the title of the book, its preface, table of contents, index, author's and publisher’s blurbs, even reading a few pages. Finishing reading at this level, one should be able to answer the following questions: What kind of book is it? What is the book about? 

 Analytical reading is the most demanding level for readers. It’s more complex than the preceding levels and represents a complete form of reading.    "The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. … Analytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own."  In this level, the reader is asking, "Is the book true, in whole, or in part?
The fourth level is what he calls Syntopical reading - or comparative reading. This is the most complex and systematic level of reading. A syntopical reader reads different texts on the same subject and compares them to each other to arrive at a better understanding of the subject. Of course, today with the internet we can accomplish this rather more easily than taking the specific steps he describes. The question posed is: "What of it?"  At the end of this level, is when the reading of the book may cause changes in the reader!
Adler wrote many other books. Two of his more well-known titles are "How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization", and "Aristotle For Everybody". He, like Chesterton, is one of these highly quotable authors, so here are three gems:
“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
“Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”

“...a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You become wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” 
When Mortimer Adler died in 2001 at 98 years old, the New York Times published a beautiful obituary. The following is an excerpt:
"Dr. Adler spent much of his life combating the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, one of his teachers at Columbia University, and championing the notion, propounded by Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, that truth and values are absolute and unchanging. He wrote that "The fundamental ideas and concepts upon which education should be based are not merely the mores and beliefs which happen to be current in 20th-century America, they are universal truths about what constitutes a good education for all at all times and places! To promote this goal, he helped devise the Great Books program, a course of study in classic Western literary. He fought his entire life for a return to a model of education that values our western civilizing incredibly rich heritage."  
Today we cannot read about the blossoming interest in classical education in America today, or browse a website or catalog specialized in classical education without finding a reference to Mortimer Adler. And here it is good place to insert what the NY Times obituary failed to mention. That at the end of his life, having enjoyed mostly Catholic good friends who were, like him, interested in a rebirth of classical education, Mortimer Adler, who grew up in a non-observant Jewish family, died a Catholic. Author Ralph McInerney is quoted saying, "Finally, he became the Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life".
I think it is interesting that perhaps much of what Mortimer Alder has done for us—for the readers of his books, for the students and professors involved in the Great Books movement,  its wide ramifications including the many conversions and vocations stemming from it -- may have been all propelled by his disagreeing with one of his college teachers, Prof. Dewey,  who was himself heavily influenced by Karl Marx and who is known for "his theory and advocacy of progressive education that revolutionized the purpose of schooling in American life" according to Columbia University's website.
So I wonder: What if Mortimer Alder hadn't had John Dewy as a professor at Columbia University? What if he didn't find something he passionately reacted against? And more—what if he did nothing about it?
 So this is another question that is posed for us tonight: How often in life are we called to turn around something difficult - into a good? It is with the grace of God, and his guidance, that we can see negative situations resulting into very fruitful channels for the work of his unbounded grace in this world.
Let's close this section on Mortimer Adler with one of his better quotes:
 “If a book is easy and fits nicely into all your language conventions and thought forms, then you probably will not grow much from reading it. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.” 
 Finding diamonds through challenging ourselves into reading. SO true!
We arrive now at the last and, for me, most fun part of this talk. I will discuss six authors who are, for me, examples of good reading for Catholic readers. As much as I like and read non-fiction, I am only bringing up here examples of fiction—because it is the well-written, and captivating stories that make the most unforgettable reading.
First, Jane Austen: In 2007 a survey was done in the UK about favorite books, and wouldn't you know, Jane Austen, the old fashioned societal portrait writer won the day with Pride and Prejudice as No. 1, and two other of her titles in the top ten. 
I read the Jane Austen books back when they displayed their names in Portuguese on my parents' shelves: Orgulho e Preconceito, Razão e Sentimento, Persuasão. They are still the books I read most often, and I know I'm not quite alone in this periodical rereading of her novels for the sheer delight of it.
Now if we think of how many novels have been written and published in the U.K. over the last few centuries - the obvious question surfaces: what holds Jane Austen supreme, above all others? What in her writing keep readers entertained again and again during their lifetime? The question for us tonight is also, as we explore the ins and outs of what comprises a good book: why is it universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a good book? One we tell our children to read, one we quote, one we give as gifts to friends, one that have newly published editions every time we visit the bookstore?
Pride and Prejudice isn't a "Catholic" book on the surface, but it doesn't take long as we dive into it to discover its Catholic themes! The first one comes to mind immediately from the title: we are dealing with our own faults, the ones portrayed by our dear protagonists so well -- the faults that, if undiscovered and unrepented, will inexorably keep the two main characters apart and bring unhappiness. My take is that everything in the book is background for Lizzie and Darcy to undergo their humbling self-examination and admission of their own pride and prejudice. The Bennetts, the girls flirting with officers, Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins, Rosings Park, The accidental visit to Pemberley. In this multicolored background, Lizzie and Darcy embody for us our own sinfulness, but much more importantly that that—our sorrow over our faults, our admission of sin, and our lack of peace.
Which one of us could not relate to these elements? Aren't they universal? Or catholic, for that matter? What comes for Lizzie and Darcy after humble recognition of their own errors? Fulfillment. So, we read again and again this beautifully written, funny, intelligent and delightful story and find in it our own story of sin and sorrow and redemption. A great book does that!
Second,  I delighted in reading the Laura Ingalls books in Portuguese as little girl,! From them I learned about obedience, courage, kindness and other universal lessons that transcend both distance and geography. I could so much identify with Laura, as I too was the rambunctious one of two dear sisters, and so wished I could be as good as my older sister. Ma was the calming, balanced, and loving guide for little Laura, as my mother was to me. But down in Brazil, the geography of the endless prairie and the harshness of its brutal winters was not something I could fathom. Little did I know when I found the Laura Ingalls' "little town on the prairie" on my father's huge National Geographic wall map, that one day I would live through those long winters for 13 years in South Dakota!
Listening to the audio narration of the Little House books – then in its original English, then with my own daughters while driving across the same South Dakota windswept landscape - to and from our acreage,- and under the same skies and formations of migrating birds, -- those were literary come-to-life days for me. Laura of course was not Catholic, and I brought this up to my mom one day, very concerned, after finishing a chapter where Laura was quite unhappy with the preacher's sermon. In her infinite wisdom, my good mother told be, as if in confidence: "Laura was so smart—had she come across good Catholic people, had she access to the catechism, she would have certainly converted." So -- I live in the certain hope that, if, God willing, I ever make it to heaven, there will sit Laura Ingalls, maybe resting on a prairie windblown cloud, and fully Catholic.
Third, a Princeton graduate and co-founder of Christendom College, Jeff Mirus says in a wonderful article that Sigrid Undset is considered by some to be the world's best novelist. She received the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature, after writing the remarkable historical saga entitled Kristin Lavransdatter. In this monumental trilogy, we follow the story of the strong-headed Kristin from the childhood to the end of her life.
Set in Undset's native Norway in medieval times, the novel masterfully recreates a world where the Catholic faith and customs were still dealing with residual local pagan practices. Kristin is passionate, and sinful in her youth, and we see in her plight our own personal story of sin, regret, penance and forgiveness. The book is a page-turner and, in some circles, it has earned much fame for driving mothers to neglect all housework tasks for several days. It happened to me too.
I seem to re-read it every decade to find in those pages new marvelous insights. I listened to it very recently and discovered, in the older Kristin, subtle facets I had never noticed before. The symbolism of the wreaths in the novel for example, the bridal wreath she shames, and the red rose wreath she chooses—these seem to bring, at every reading, a more powerful if fateful image.
The novel is semi-autobiographical.  Sigrid Undset suffered deeply in life in many levels, through personal sin and its consequences, with the Second World War, through exile, and the death of her children. Like her protagonist, she chose to live a monastic life at the end of her life.
For us Catholics, what is most exciting about this author is her discovery of the Catholic faith while working on the research for the trilogy. I found Kristin's faith throughout her adventurous life in the book to be exhilarating! At every step of her sorrowful life journey, her dialogues with God and unwavering faith are the high points. They came from a sincere heart inside the author!
Sigrid Unset wrote other Catholic books, including the four volume Master of Hestviken, but it is Kristin Lavransdatter that brings her newfound faith to the page in the best developed literary tension. Later in life, Undset wrote about saints, and her biography of St Catherine of Siena is greatly admired.
Fourth, since I have only mentioned women writers so far, I want to touch on the prolific Charles Dickens. At home we laugh at how - none of us like him very much, but we seem to be magically attracted to his fiction. So just for fun, after reading and disliking Hard Times and its heavy-handed, preachy message against utilitarianism for book club recently, I went on to re-read David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and finally his last work, new to me, Our Mutual Friend. All Dickens' books bring us sorrow, and beautiful and moral passages, all populated by seemingly impossible coincidences. Some are more interesting than others, but all a bit flat. I think he redeems himself to a certain extent in this last one. In Our Mutual Friend, we have two couples of protagonists, and we see goodness and love at work. In each couple, there is one character who undergoes, like both Darcy and Lizzie Bennet, a self-examination and change for the better. Dickens' characters are more cartoonish than Jane Austen's, but they still provide a satisfying read!
Fifth, I am a contributor and writer for the National Well Read Mom book club for Catholic women, and I will read a couple passages from my Willa Cather book reflection in the 2015 Book Club Companion and Study Guide:
"I have loved the writing of Willa Cather since our family lived in Nebraska. During those years, my husband and I read quite a bit of her work, and were enchanted especially by her two Catholic books, the marvelous and unique Death Comes to the Archbishop - and the one set in Canada entitled Shadows on the Rock. I have often wondered how Cather came to be so knowledgeable of things Catholic: history, hierarchy, sacramental life. For years I had liked to believe that Sigrid Undset had influenced her. The Norwegian author had met Cather while in self-exile in NYC during WWII. The two writers became dear friends-- but I was wrong in my supposition:  Death Comes for the Archbishop was written prior to their meeting. I dug deep online and lo and behold, I found a paper by a Professor at SDSU entitled “Willa Cather’s French Neighbors”! So the mystery was solved: the author grew up in a small town populated by French-Canadians! The stories and characters in her Catholic books were taken from real people! She had visited their homes and enjoyed daily life among their families, and learned of stories she never forgot. Later in life, when she sent time both in New Mexico and Canada, she remembered them and transformed them into books! One of the best literary things I have done was to read Death Comes for the Archbishop before visiting Santa Fe NM for the first time—as a statue of the protagonist sits, imposing, on the front of the French style cathedral he built!
I discussed Shadows with a dear friend, and in our conversation, he reminded me of the behind-the-scenes role that Cécile plays. A role that women have played in history from time immemorial, a role essential for humanity and for civilization. She not only makes a home, in every sense, for their little family—caring for the little things that kept culture and civilization alive—but also from this home she causes Love to radiate outward. The stability and bounty of their home spreads out to shelter and feed the poor old man, the little wayward boy, and all who come visit. Her home is a tangible model of what the Family is called to be by God: a cell of society, spreading Love and Light. END QUOTE
Finally, we cannot close a discussion Catholic authors without briefly bringing up Flannery O'Connor. Her tales are portrayals of a grotesque world, but a world where she also found the light of grace pouring, suddenly, on the most unlikely subjects.  O'Connor was a fervent Catholic and made no qualms about it, and her quotes can be pretty funny. She is considered by many as the best American writer of all time, and she is beloved by Catholic and secular literati alike.  So I close this section on good fiction authors with three gems from her about faith:
"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” 
“Grace changes us, and change is painful".” 
“What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big blanket, when of course it is the cross."
To bring this whole and long talk to a close, I want to bring us back to the dinner table at home. I am the seventh of a family of ten children, and many were the books discussed at the family dinner table. My youngest sister is Benedictine religious sister and, in the Abbey, they have the tradition of listening to good books that are read aloud during mealtime. Listening to books read aloud is also an early key in a child's education.
For many, many years, I read aloud to the kids during school hours, and Geoff read aloud to our children after dinner, always targeting the reading level to the older ones. They stopped everything for this family reading time. Today our kids have very fond memories of those years and enjoy chatting about it. The younger kids were encouraged to have pencil and paper or something quiet to work on, while listening to CS Lewis, Tolkien, Jules Verne. From recorded book during our car trips, we all enjoyed listening to the Sherlock Holmes stories, Mark Twain, James Herriot, and myriad good children's books. We even listened to classical history books for children, as our daughter mentions in her blog. Many of them kept to the habit of listening to books as well as reading them. The discussions at meals, and listening together times, bring us the very best memories.
Good books.
We believe that, second to teaching them our Catholic faith, there is no better tool for the education of children than good books.
Thank you very much for your attention!

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