Saturday, August 1, 2015

Farewell, and See You In God's Country

Dear readers,
Tomorrow evening I board a plane headed west. At long last, I am entering this grand adventure called Wyoming Catholic College. And I will be so busy reading Great Books and climbing mountains and making friends and praising God--that I will not have time to keep up this blog any longer.
The two years I've spent writing "The Pen and the Sword" have been very fruitful. I've been able to share countless insights and enthusiasms about my favorite authors, poets, and Church traditions. I want to thank everyone who read my posts, especially if you showed your appreciation by leaving comments. I've learned a great deal about blogging, networking, and developing a readership. Thank you all!
Sometime in the future, I will probably start another blog. Although I will not be updating this one any longer, it will remain online as an archive. Please feel free to browse and comment on any post, no matter how old. I still appreciate it.
Throughout the next year, I may occasionally pop in as a guest blogger on the Catholic Writers Guild, relating my college adventures. And I will probably maintain a slight presence on Facebook. For the most part, though, I will be immersed in the fantastic curriculum, outdoor programs, and spiritual life of Wyoming Catholic College. I would ask your prayers as I leave home for the first time! This adventure is going to take a lot of trust in God.
I'd like to share one last literary quote before I officially sign off of "The Pen and the Sword". For summer reading, the College sent all the freshman a copy of Owen Wister's The Virginian, the classic Western novel, set--naturally--in Wyoming. Besides being a gripping adventure story and the best romance I have read in years, it's also a gorgeous portrait of the land itself. Here is a passage from the beginning of the book which set me daydreaming of Wyoming once again:
The air was like December, but in my blankets and a buffalo robe I kept warm, and luxuriated in the Rocky Mountain silence. Going to wash before breakfast at sunrise, I found needles of ice in a pail. Yet it was hard to remember that this quiet, open, splendid wilderness (with not a peak in sight just here) was six thousand feet high. And when breakfast was over there was no December left; and by the time the Virginian and I were ten miles upon our way, it was June. But always every breath that I breathed was pure as water and strong as wine.

Pure as water and strong as wine. That, too, is my memory of the mountain air and the Wyoming sky. And I am returning to it, not simply to visit, but to live, learn, and pray there. I am seeking wisdom in God's Country. I'll see you there.
Farewell, blessings, and thanks to all,
Mary J. Woods

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Heart-cry

Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930), Cry of the Prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem,
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Today I post on an impulse, and in a different vein than my usual. I do not generally write on current events, but the things which have happened in this country the past week demand that every Christian, every lover of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, stand and shout. So here is my heart-cry. Lord, shield your people!
The spirit groans in me as I read of the world's corruption, and our country's sickness in particular. The Church stands as an island in the mad world's river-rush. Per-se-cu-tion. It comes, a sure and no-longer-so-faint roaring from up that terrible stream. I do not fear for the Church in an ultimate way. Christ told us the very jaws of Death would not prevail against it, and in two thousand years they have not. But I fear for the people--the people of the Church who are weak, and the people outside the Church who roar against us, for whose hearts God also agonizes, though they do not yet hear Him. And I am afraid of the pain--the loss and misunderstanding and helplessness and injustice and suffering. For holding a firm hope in the Lord does not mean that suffering will be taken away or eased. It must be endured. Faith allows that we endure it with purpose, and not in vain. But the pain itself will not be alleviated, until all things have been fire-purged and drawn to their destiny.
O God, God! Jeremiah's words echo eternal:
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable,
 refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Oh, cry, prophet, cry for all of us, for all times when nations and peoples turn from their natures and destroy themselves, in a tsunami of evil and agony. When will we stop, Lord, when will we stop?
And when our heart-grief and our strength is spent, and we grow weary of asking why this has happened to us, and how we are ever to stand, let us lie in that tear-cleansed silence, and listen with Jeremiah to the Lord our God's reply:
 If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious and not worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you,
says the Lord.
Listen, my people, listen and turn! Stand before Him! Utter the precious Truth! If this is an age of suffering for the Church, it only means it is an age of saints, and our weeping should be not only for anguish but also for indescribable joy! Christ's very Cross is our sign of this; torment, transformed to salvation. So brothers, sisters, lay your hands on that Cross with Him, let the splinters tear your skin and the beams crush your shoulders. Mingle your soul-bleeding with His own. Surrender and undertake the trial. You will find this bitter water changed by His touch into the very wine of Life.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, come to us and save us!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

We Are God's Poeima: Poetry and the Human Person

Photo by DeduloPhotos,
In the midst of novel-writing, volunteering for the Catholic Writers Guild, and starting to prepare for a freshman year of college which seems threateningly close, I find I have neglected my own blog (again) for a full two weeks. Sadly, I still haven't time to make a proper post! In lieu of that, however, I will share a couple of related links I've found over the past few weeks, on that favorite subject of mine--poetry-philosophy-theology.

The first is a video series called For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. The best description I can make of this is that it's a sort of modern, film equivalent of Mere Christianity. While I have not been able to buy the entire series, the trailers look excellent--a straightforward and fervent, contemporary and beautifully artistic exploration of what it really means to be a Christian today. Evan Koons, the creator of the series, also has a Youtube channel with a vlog where he posts numerous other beautiful and insightful bonus videos. They are all worth watching, but today I'd like to draw your attention to the one below. Do not be deceived by the informal and humorous opening--it becomes stunningly profound.

The same afternoon after I had watched this video (and was still rather giddy with the beauty and holy thrill of it), I had picked up my latest issue of Dappled Things Magazine and flipped open a random page--the middle of an essay by Ryan Wilson called "How To Think Like a Poet". To my astonishment, my eyes fell upon a paragraph in which the author made reference to the exact same passage from Ephesians that Mr. Koons had in the video above; "we are His poeima."
I had encountered the exact same spiritual concept in virtually identical words from two different sources in the span of two hours. Usually when that happens I know the Holy Spirit's up to something. By the time I had read the essay from beginning to end, I felt as if my brain were on fire with enthusiasm and excitement. I have read and thought a good deal about the purpose and craft of poetry (not to mention writing some of my own), but this essay beautifully pulled together the most important concepts into an integrated whole. Read it here on the Dappled Things website. It is not a quick read, but for anyone with any serious interest in poetry, art, and the philosophy (and theology!) behind it, I would strongly urge you to set aside some time to carefully read the entire thing.
The work of Mr. Koons and Mr. Wilson is, I think, far more edifying than anything I could write on short notice. Explore, enjoy it, and then go out and be God's poetry!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Divine Authorship: Reflections for Novelists from "Mere Christianity"

Photo by JulesInKY,
In my post last week I mentioned that one of the most significant events of my spiritual retreat was reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. It was the last major work of his I hadn't yet read, so I was very pleased to find it in the monastery library. As usual, Lewis' perceptive insights, personable style, and profound implications made Mere Christianity very much a life-changing read. Venturing into this book is a little like a conversion experience in itself--whether you're already a Christian or not.
During the "dramatic arc" of my retreat, I strongly heard God calling me to a complete surrender of my will to His own, and a renewed faith in the reality of His love. There were many, many passages in Mere Christianity which guided me through that week's journey--too many to write about in one blog post. Instead, I would like to share one particular passage which, while not directly related to the main "drama" of my retreat, still affected me deeply--thanks to my experience as an aspiring novelist.

In the chapter "Time and Beyond Time," Lewis attempts to explain in layman's terms the mind-boggling mystery of God's life in eternity:

Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty--and every other moment from the beginning of the world--is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.

That is difficult, I know. Let me try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I am writing a novel. I write "Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!" For Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary's maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all. Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and for as long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary's time (the time inside the story) at all.

Instantly, when I read this paragraph, I could relate to Lewis' analogy. In working on my own novel over the past several months, there have been countless times when I've left a scene, or even a sentence, suspended while I picked up my journal and did some brainstorming. It's such an everyday experience for an author (or reader) that the profundity of it never struck me before. While I was still marveling over this, a new insight unfolded in my mind, related to my specific relationship with the characters in my story.

I have known my full plot for a long time. I have lovingly crafted my protagonist's journey, aware of both the entire arc of his character development, and experiencing individual events through his eyes as I write out the story. Any event--the trials my character has already experienced, in his "timeline," and the ones he has yet to undergo--can become the present to me, whenever and however long I desire.

The result of this mock-eternal viewpoint is that I know my protagonist fully, and I am extremely fond of him. So I was a little mortified when, after giving the several first chapters of my novel to family and friends, several commented how much they disliked the main character. (He's a cocky, irresponsible hothead of a medieval Scottish prince--I will leave the rest to your imagination.) I admitted that, at the beginning of the story, the protagonist was supposed to be a jerk. So I should not have been surprised at the negative reaction. And yet I still felt defensive of my character. I wanted to exclaim to my readers, "You have to wait and see how he turns out before you decide if you like him!"

Lewis' comments on eternity shone new light on my novel-writing experience. After reading the above passage of Mere Christianity, I realized more clearly how my early readers and I could have two completely different attitudes towards the protagonist. My readers, in a certain sense, share the timeline of the novel's characters. They cannot see (until the end) the full arc and meaning of the events, much less foretell the development of individual characters. They disliked my protagonist, quite naturally, because most of what they saw of him in the early chapters was dislikeable.

I, on the other hand, knew my character not only for his actions at any given moment, but also for who he would be by the end of the story--who I was crafting him to be. Thus I could love him (though not necessarily approve of him) even in the midst of his rash, prideful, and downright dumb mistakes. In fact, I found myself especially close to him in the fury of his darkest and most anguished moments.

All this to say, I realized that God probably sees me--and all of us--in something of the same way a novelist sees his characters. The comparison is only a shadowy hint of the reality, but it is worth reflecting on nonetheless. God loves each of us infinitely and intimately, not for our weaknesses and failures in Time, but for the splendid vision He conceives of each of us at every moment in the Eternal Now. If we thought of this more often, how would it change our approach to life's challenges and trials? And how would it alter our treatment of the people we encounter every day--fellow characters, who are, together with us, being crafted by the Holy Spirit--all towards that astonishing and unimaginable moment, when we will step out of the book of His Story (history) and into Reality--the full life of the Trinity.

C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity reminds us of our true place in the spiritual world. I know I could stand to think about it a lot more often. If you have not read this classic work, I urge you to acquire a copy as soon as possible. Like a mountain climb, it's a self-revealing journey--and the view from the summit is beyond breathtaking.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Week at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery

Greetings, readers! It's very good to be back. A few days ago I returned from a week-long retreat at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio--a new women's monastic community in our Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma. It was a beautiful, life-changing experience--the week was so chock full of reflections and insights that I think it will take me the whole next month to unpack them on this blog!
Since I'm still recovering from the experience, so to speak, this is really a mini-post, a sort of preview of what I read and reflected on over the week. Hopefully I'll write in more detail about at least some of these points in the coming month. (If there's a particular one you'd like to hear about, let me know in the comments!)
Also, in gratitude to the sisters of Christ the Bridegroom for welcoming me into their community for the week, I'd like to share the link to their website and blog, and a few points of their mission.
I did more reading over the past week than I probably have in the past three months. It reminded me again just how much I need Great Books--spiritual and literary--to nourish my mind, heart, and soul. Here are some of the discoveries I delighted in, with mini "teaser" reflections!
"Leisure: The Basis of Culture" and "The Philosophical Act" by Josef Pieper
A pair of essays by a Catholic German professor and philosopher, written after World War II. Full of sound and piercing insights on the nature of true leisure as opposed to the "workaday world", receptivity to the "essence of things", philosophy's relation to poetry and wonder, etc. Fabulous. They've inspired me to pick up my Plato again!
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
A Lewis classic that I'd been wanting to read for a long time and finally got around to. Reading it was a kind of re-conversion experience in itself. If you've never read this book, watch out--it's life-changing.
Song of Songs and Theology of the Body
If there was one book of the Bible I'd avoided for years, it was the Song of Songs. Similarly, I'd long avoided picking up any works on Theology of the Body. It was a topic I simply didn't want to deal with for most of my teenage years--and my misunderstanding of which caused me quite a bit of emotional and spiritual pain. Finally allowing God to open me up and lead me into a truer understanding of both human and divine love, was the climax of this retreat. I feel a new world has opened up before me.
Christ the Bridegroom Monastery, on their website, describes their identity thus:
We are a Byzantine Catholic monastic community of women in the Eparchy of Parma dedicated to a vigilant life of prayer and hospitality according to the traditions of the Christian East. Laying down our lives in imitation of the Bridegroom, we joyfully embrace the monastic virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience. We participate in the dynamic love of the Trinity by sharing a life of prayer, work and recreation at our monastery. Meditating on Scripture, especially the Song of Songs, and immersing ourselves in a life of personal and liturgical prayer, we enter into a spousal relationship with Christ the Bridegroom. Looking to the Theotokos as our model, we open ourselves to the Divine life of the Holy Spirit, bearing forth fruit for the Church and the world. Our monastery provides a spiritual garden and a bridal chamber in which we draw others into this same life-giving relationship with Christ the Bridegroom.
The emphasis on the spousal relationship with Christ was the most significant aspect of the monastery life for me. I had long been familiar with the icon image of Christ the Bridegroom, but had never seriously ventured into having that kind of personal relationship with Jesus. As I've only just begun to discover, it is infinitely beautiful. The sisters elaborate on this unique ethos of their community:
We seek to reclaim the spousal language from the distortions of our culture, showing not only that monastic celibacy points to mankind’s union with God in heaven, but also that human sexuality is designed by God to lead men and women to this same union and to participate in the life of the Trinity.  Being vulnerable to the movement of the Holy Spirit, our monastery aspires to remind all baptized Christians of this personal invitation to union with Christ as their Bridegroom and to renew a healthy, integrated view of the human person, body and soul. 

It certainly reminded me. Honestly, my life is not the same. God bless these nuns for nurturing this crucial aspect of our humanity and our relationship to the Divine Trinity!
Besides this mission, the sisters also provide hospitality to visitors and retreatants, support of priests and seminarians, a witness to youth groups and pro-life events like the March for Life, and a joyful example of Eastern Catholic monastic life. They are small, but already doing wonderful, wonderful work. Check out their blog here:  They also have a presence on Facebook and Youtube, so be sure be take a look at those links as well! And if you happen to live or be passing through the Cleveland, OH area--what are you waiting for? Go down and stop by for an hour--or a day--or a whole week...
All photos and quotes taken from

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Being Happy Thinking: Tidbits from Stevenson's "Walking Tours"

View of Glen Frankfort (aka Island Prairie Park), where I have spent many hours "being happy thinking".

Dear readers,

My apologies for the irregular blog posts, which will continue to be irregular for a while yet. Working part-time and attempting to finish a novel before August do not leave much time for reading and reflecting on Great Books. Thus this week I do not have much prepared to share with you except a passage pulled from my faithful commonplace book. (See my first post on that here.) It's a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "Walking Tours".

A bit ironically, this particular selection has nothing to do with either walking or touring, but rather sitting by the fire. It's one of Stevenson's numerous odes-in-prose on the importance of leisure. I thought it particularly appropriate for me just now--the past several months I've been working my head off, applying for scholarships, saving for college, and writing a fantasy novel. But next week I'm putting that all away for seven full days, going on retreat at a small Byzantine Catholic women's monastery in Ohio. I know it's going to be a challenge, denying my workaholism for an entire week, but I believe this retreat will be the best thing I've done for myself for years. I look forward to many hours of being "happy thinking".

Stevenson does not venture into the spiritual effects of leisure, although he comes very close, in the moralistic tone he was rather fond of. What I mean to say is, that although he does not bring up the essential part God plays in contemplation, some of his points are spot-on anyway. I'll expound further as we proceed through the quote. Without further ado...selections from RLS's "Walking Tours":

Or perhaps you are left to your own company for the night, and surely weather imprisons you by the fire. You may remember how Burns [Robert Burns, 18th-century Scottish poet], numbering past pleasures, dwells upon the hours when he has been "happy thinking." It is a phrase that may well perplex a poor modern, girt about on every side by clocks and chimes, and haunted, even at night, by flaming dial-plates. For we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realize, and castles in the fire to turn into solid, habitable mansions on a gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought and among the Hills of Vanity.

The poor, clock-haunted moderns Stevenson was referring to, by the way, were the inhabitants of Victorian Britain. How much deeper have we moderns of the 21st century fallen among the "flaming dial-plates"! From education to the workplace to being up on the latest technology, so much of society is focused on that vague thrill of "getting ahead". Apparently the phenomenon isn't quite so modern as we thought, if Stevenson sensed it back in the 1870s.

Another interesting point: "Hills of Vanity" might strike one as an odd phrase at first reading. The word "vanity" generally has negative connotations, calling to mind the shallow, the ephemeral, the ultimately meaningless. But in this context, Stevenson uses the word to the precisely opposite effect. The Land of Thought and Hills of Vanity are those pursuits of leisure which seem vain in the eyes of a utilitarian, materialistic world, but in truth are a return to the contemplation of goodness, truth, beauty, and God--everything that makes us human.

To continue:

Changed times, indeed, when we must sit all night, beside the fire, with folded hands; and a changed world for most of us, when we find we can pass the hours without discontent, and be happy thinking. We are in such haste to be doing, to be writing, to be gathering gear, to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts--namely, to live.

I rather think Stevenson would have disapproved of social media. Even when things like Facebook and Twitter are being used in good causes, so much of it simply makes us crave constant distraction. One of the immediately noticeable things, when watching people in a public place (like the restaurant where I work), is the apparent inability of many individuals to sit still for two minutes without taking out their phones. This includes adults, not just tech-savvy teens! Passing contented, quiet hours without the iPhone or tablet on hand might be unimaginable for these technology users. But our brains and souls need rest--to nurture things like creativity, real relationship, and wisdom. As Stevenson says, to live!

As we've seen, even these couple of short passages contain a plethora of points for reflection. Stevenson was fond of writing about imagination and leisure--just recall any of his famous poems from A Child's Garden of Verses, or, less well known, his essay "An Apology for Idlers" (a defense of leisure against constant work and study). His words are excellent reminders for all of us about the perils of over-activity. That's what our Christian Sabbath is for--to slow, to stop, to turn back towards our Center, Who is God. I look forward to a whole seven days of slowing down as I take my retreat next week in Ohio.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

God's Forgotten Friends: Two Reviews of Susan Peek

Recently through the Catholic Writers Guild I met the wonderful Mrs. Susan Peek, homeschooling mother and novelist. Like one of my favorite authors, Louis de Wohl (whose books, strangely, I have yet to write about on this blog), her specialty is saint stories. In addition, Mrs. Peek is doing her fellow Catholics a beautiful favor by bringing to light the tales of saints who have fallen into obscurity, through her ongoing series, "God's Forgotten Friends." Geared especially towards teens, they are not only inspiring examples of holiness, but also rollicking adventures! I am happy today to offer my readers reviews of two books in her series: A Soldier Surrenders: The Conversion of St. Camillus de Lellis and Saint Magnus: The Last Viking.
In this brand-new edition of A Soldier Surrenders (previously published by Ignatius Press), Susan Peek takes us back in time to a lonely Italian road in the winter of 1570. It's here that we meet Camillus de Lellis--a giant of a young man devoted to drinking, gambling, and offering his sword as a mercenary to the highest bidder. This rough exterior conceals a soul of surprising compassion--he feels deep pity especially for the wounded and dying of the battlefield. But, as a "soldier of fortune", he carries his share of bad habits and hard luck. Despite his skill at the cards, his love of the tavern and the gaming table more often leave him penniless than not. And he bears a secret shame--a mysterious, painful wound on his leg which can't seem to be cured by ordinary doctors.  
The quest for healing brings Camillus to the San Giacomo Hospital in Rome, where, empty-pocketed as usual, he reluctantly serves as a volunteer caretaker in exchange for receiving treatment of his wound. His hospital experiences increase his desire to aid the sick through personal love for each patient. Nevertheless, his raucous tavern habits and his tainted reputation as a mercenary leave him few friends among the hospital staff, with the exception of one kind-hearted fellow orderly, Curzio Lodi. But even Curzio's patience wears thin when Camillus persists in indulging his passions to drown his personal woes. At a crucial turning point of the story, Curzio berates his friend:
"You think you know so much about courage, Camillus? Well the truth is, courage comes in a lot of different forms, and God is only interested in one of them! You're not a soldier; you're not even a servant! You're nothing but a slave, Camillus! A slave to your own self-will!"
Camillus stubbornly tries to forget his best friend's chiding. Dismissed from the hospital for unruly conduct, he attempts to reenter his former life as a mercenary. But continued ill luck and the still-unhealed ulcer on his leg eventually reduce him to destitution and beggary. Finally, at the lowest point of pain and humiliation, he sees the light. He commits his noblest act as a soldier, gives up his own will, and surrenders to God's.

Having given his personal struggles into Divine hands, Camillus finds renewed direction in life. He returns to San Giacomo, where his vigor and commitment in serving the sick earn him the rank of hospital superindendent. But Camillus realizes his vocation does not end there. To fulfill his lifetime longing to minister to the dying souls of the battlefield, he enters the priesthood and founds the order of the Servants of the Sick. Their symbol: a red cross on a black cassock--the original Red Cross organization.

Mrs. Peek punctuates the spiritual drama of the plot with battles, duels, and lively dialogue. While I was a bit taken aback by the modern idiom of the narrative, her contemporary style offers a lively sketch of the boisterous, hot-tempered, and ultimately God-passionate Camillus de Lellis. He's a man we can all imagine knowing--and loving. Applause and thanks to Susan Peek for rediscovering the life of this "saint for strugglers"!


It had never occurred to Magnus, second son of Erlend, to arm himself with a weapon before setting off for Vespers...
This opening line of Chapter 2 in Mrs. Peek's latest saintly adventure story introduces us to Magnus Erlendson, the teenage prince of an 11th-century Orkney Isles kingdom, who would much rather dedicate his life to God in the monastery than spend it as a sword-toting warrior. Fortunately, Magnus is not in line to the throne--his older brother Aerling and his cousin Hakon are. Unfortunately, that is about to change.
When Magnus catches the unscrupulous Hakon committing an atrocious crime, he is swept into a life of turbulence, bloodshed--and holiness. Hakon is banished from the kingdom, swearing vengeance on Magnus. True to his promise, Hakon enlists the help of the king of Norway to overthrow the Orkney Islands. While Hakon snags the throne, Magnus and his brother Aerling become Norse prisoners.
After many trials, spiritual and physical, Magnus manages to flee to Scotland, where he lives for ten peaceful years. Despite his cousin's treachery, Magnus defeats his impulse to hate and now only wants to put his past behind him. But duty calls again when Hakon himself enlists the exiled prince's aid to help put down illegitimate rivals to the Orkney throne. Magnus returns, reluctantly, only willing to leave his tranquil exile to restore the peace at home. But Hakon's hate has not faded over the years--and his further treachery will test Magnus' spiritual mettle to the core. The climax of this story is so heart-racing and heart-wrenching that I dare not reveal it--readers will have to experience it for themselves!
Packed with desperate battles and action galore, this is no saint story for the faint of heart. However, the spiritual themes are an equally integral part of the tale. Magnus' struggle against hatred and revenge proves to be more dramatic--and more important--than any of his clashes with the blade. The unlovable villain Hakon also turns out to be a surprisingly deep character, when faced with Magnus' choice of love over hate.
Mrs. Peek's distinctive contemporary style is noticeable in the book, but doesn't detract in any major way from the historical setting. My only critique would be that some of the minor characters verge on being caricatures, seeming only to further the book's theme of forgiveness. However, the main drama between Magnus and Hakon is well-rounded and fully satisfying.
Overall, Saint Magnus: The Last Viking is a rollicking good tale of a truly extraordinary man--a warrior-saint whose innate peace changed the hearts of everyone around him, including his enemies. It's sure to be a favorite among all young adventure-lovers of the Faith!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

45 Years of Thrilling Truth: Rediscovering Apollo 13

On this blog about truth, beauty, and literature, most of the adventure stories I write about are fictional. But every once in a while, I encounter those absolutely true adventure stories which are all the more marvelous. The saga of Apollo 13--NASA's "successful failure"--is one of those tales.
Tomorrow, April 17, is the 45th anniversary of the splashdown of Apollo 13. Inside that tiny command module which landed safely in the Pacific Ocean were astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. These three men had just been through a four-day ordeal unlike any other in the annals of survival stories--guiding, with the help of the Mission Control technicians on the ground, a dangerously malfunctioning spacecraft back to earth from 200,000 miles away.
For those of you not already familiar with this incredible account of courage, teamwork, and ingenuity, I cannot enough recommend Jim Lovell's own book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (co-authored by Jeffrey Kluger). The popular 1995 movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, was based off this book. The movie was actually my first introduction to the story. I watched it over and over as a kid, though I didn't really understand much of it until later. Although naturally a dramatized and somewhat abridged account of the events, the film is thrilling and well done. It's definitely worth a viewing (or a re-viewing, if you've seen it before!). The book is even more exciting. Lost Moon gives the reader a much fuller grasp of the story, including the backgrounds of the main characters, Apollo 13's place in the context of the NASA moon missions, and explanations of the highly-technical spacecraft operations in layman's terms--all woven into a plot so skillful and tight, you'll forget you're reading a non-fiction memoir and think you've plunged into a novel.
This past winter, I read the book for the first time, and watched the movie again for the first time in a few years. I was struck very deeply by the romance of the tale--the improbable catastrophe and the even more improbable triumph. And so this high-tech, space-age rescue story came out in my own words as a poem.
The references to Ulysses, Ithaca, and other names and places from ancient Homer, are not just my love of the classics randomly making themselves known. The name of Apollo 13's command module was actually Odyssey. (How NASA expected to blast a ship into space named after the most misfortune-ridden quest in literature, and not have a little trouble, is beyond me.)
Here, then, is my own retelling of this remarkable tale, in verse. It is dedicated to the three astronauts and Mission Control team of Apollo 13, and all those others who took part in or witnessed the extraordinary events of one April in 1970.

Crucible of Love: Apollo 13, April 17, 1970
By Mary Jessica Woods
The placid arc of earth fills up the glass
As Odyssey spins silent homeward-bound—
No great Greek fate-tossed warship, lone-captained,
But a thimble of steel crafted for airless seas,
Guided by three chilled crew with rudders of flame.
Four days the ship has fought, a blasted cripple,
Tracing a giddy whorl through death’s void,
Brilliant with cold stars and a starkling sun;
Four days in the gray tiered fort of Mission Control
A thousand have strained at their screens, marking the numbers,
Nursing the Odyssey’s slowing breath and blood;
Four days. Now, minutes from Ithaca,
All guidance is shed, all tillers are abandoned,
Surrendering to the fierce mother-love of Earth.
For the mother cries for the children of her body:
The metal drawn from the hard depths of her womb,
The mortals raised in the bounds of her warm breath—
These she clasps close again with a deadly joy,
An engulfing kiss of fire, a crushing strength;
Her fragile sons, knit of soft flesh and bones,
Plunge, trusting, through her crucible of love.
These men who have survived the span of space,
Now merely seek to endure the Earth’s embrace.
“Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.
Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.”
The silence on the surface swallows hearts
Of millions: wives, children, parents, friends;
Technicians, flight controllers dragging smokes;
Navy men glassing the South Pacific surge;
And strangers by the hundreds of thousands,
Willing, praying their mortal brothers home.
The sizzle of the empty radio
Is, for three minutes, the smolder of burning hope;
And for the fourth, the crackling choke of fear;
And by the fifth, the sputter of despair—
Again the hopeless greeting ventures out:
“Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.”
Of a sudden the radio gives a gasp—
A raspy, rushing hack of stirring life—
And the Odyssey replies to a heart-stopped world.
A roar goes up, a million pulses freed.
Ulysses once hailed his wife and son; now,
The whole world is Telemachus, Penelope,
To three men strapped exhausted in their ship,
Watching the scarlet ‘chutes, with quiet eyes,
Spin like three jewels against the silken skies.

 ~ Poem Ó Mary Jessica Woods, 2015

Photo credit: "Mission Control Celebrates - GPN-2000-001313" by NASA - Great Images in NASA Description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Long Live the Weeds! ~ Hopkins' "Inversnaid"

"Loch Heron", September 2014 - Photo by Mary Woods
I happen to live right on the border of where the sprawling Chicago suburbs begin to peter out into flat Illinois farmland. Consequently, in my town, the orderly ranks of streets and lawns and strip malls are occasionally invaded by wildness. Streams flanked by armies of reeds and young willows. Wedges of forest, stubbornly holding out between baseball diamonds and residential build-ups. Spreading creekside trees, like bulwarks of romance against the mundane tyranny of Suburbia.

Loch Heron. Linden Cove. Smuggler's Nook. The Forest of Silver Hands. You won't find these names on any map of Frankfort, IL, but they are important places, nonetheless, for me. They are my own haunts, my own landmarks. Wonder is the guide which leads me to them. They are beautiful spots, in their unobtrusive way, with endless surprises for those who wait and keep open eyes. Old mussel shells, washed from mud, which gleam royal pearl inside. Muskrats nuzzling through cool water, slick-furred and beady-eyed. Geese taking flight in magnificent, thunder-winged, trumpeting hundreds. These are the poems I read and love from God's "First Book" of nature.

Recently I came across a poem--with human words--expressing much the same sentiments. Not very surprisingly, it's by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This 19th-century English poet and Catholic priest is most famous for his inimitable descriptions of nature in pieces like "Pied Beauty", "God's Grandeur", and "Hurrahing in Harvest". Not just descriptions--raptures. The mere way he uses words usually makes me want to fall flat on my face for sheer joy (in the beauty) and utter despair (because I will never even touch his skill and imagination).

Despite that, I never regret picking up a volume of Hopkins. Some of his works are so richly and convolutedly packed with ideas, like glittering mosaics, that they are hard to comprehend. But many of his poems are simpler in concept and no less lovely in art. One of these small gems is "Inversnaid".

Written in 1881, the poem describes the landscape of Inversnaid, a small settlement in the Scottish Highlands near Loch Lomond. Hopkins' natural descriptive abilities, his skill in playing with alliteration and assonance, and a sprinkling of Scots vocabulary, make for a poem as delicious in the mouth as it is lovely in the mind's eye. I myself am not certain what all the words mean precisely, but I let my ear create images for me--if that makes the least ounce of sense.

Finally, Hopkins ends the poem with a poignant cry for the preservation of wilderness. Let it be left, he says, O let it be left. It is good for the mind and body; it is good for the soul. Let it be left--even small corners of it, for the good of us all.

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
This dárksome búrn, hórseback brówn,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A wíndpuff-bónnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a póol so pítchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bridegroom Song: A Poem for Great and Holy Week

The title of the of icon above is "Christ the Bridegroom". This juxtaposition of concepts, this inherent mystery, strikes me to the heart every Great Fast. This is how Christ comes to His divine wedding with His bride, His people, His Church--God bleeding, tortured, utterly humiliated. Earlier this Lent, my own meditation on this icon called forth this poem into being. May we all be blessed as we enter into His Passion tonight and tomorrow.

A note: The accents indicate an unusually long stress on a word, and should be read as such. The form is meant to be extremely simple and forceful, expressing, I hope, something of undiluted longing and anguish.

Bridegroom Song

By Mary Jessica Woods
Sée hów I come to thee—
Wrísts ráw and bound for thee,
Brów blóody-crowned for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Lóok hów I gaze for thee—
Éyes sált-blind for thee,
Weeping God divine for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Féel hów I ache for thee—
Shoulders stiff with blood for thee,
Féet fóuled in mud for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Hear my lóve sóng to thee—
Whíp-wáils high for thee,
Every shaking cry for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Knów, nów, my thirst for thee—
Bríde, my own, I long for thee,
Behold my sorrow strong for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

~ © Mary Jessica Woods, 2015 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Descent into the Heart: "The Way of a Pilgrim" and the Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

A dozen words. A dozen words make up the most powerful prayer of the Eastern Christian tradition--the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart.

The Jesus Prayer is one of the most ancient in the Church. When exactly it came into being is unclear, but it was certainly being used by the 7th century, and is probably a good deal older. The text itself is clearly drawn from two Gospel passages--the parable of the publican and the pharisee, and Christ's encounter with the blind Bartemeus--blended into a single potent petition:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (Luke 18:13)
And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47)
The purpose of the Prayer is simple: to put oneself into the presence of God. It is an aid to meditation, meant to be recited slowly, with attention, and repeatedly--indeed, unceasingly. As the Rosary, in the West, has its beads, so the Jesus Prayer has its prayer rope, known as a chotki in Russian. The chotki is typically made of wool, a loop of closely-nestled knots, ending in a cross and tassel. The number of knots varies, but is often 100, divided by beads into sections of 25. On each knot is recited one Jesus Prayer. Other prayers can be said on the beads, if desired. The purpose of the tassel--traditionally--is to wipe away tears of penitence.

I cannot remember when I first learned this prayer. My family entered the Byzantine Catholic Church when I was four. I know my father must have discovered the tradition of the Prayer soon after, but I have no memory of him first teaching it to me and my siblings--in the same way I cannot recall first learning the Our Father or the Hail Mary. I do remember getting my first chotki, when I was six or seven. I remember wearing it doubled around my wrist for years, until the knotted loop stretched out of shape and the tassel at the end wore away to a nub. And I remember my father reading us stories from The Way of a Pilgrim.

The Way of a Pilgrim is considered a flower of 19th century Russian Orthodox spirituality. And yet it is a small book, simple in style and approachable in form. And it's probably the best introduction to the Jesus Prayer. Here is the book's first paragraph:

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.

Thus we are introduced to the Pilgrim,  an anonymous peasant living in mid-1800s Russia. While not considered strictly autobiographical, the stories are likely based around the experiences of a real Russian pilgrim, re-written with the focus of spiritual edification. The tale begins when the Pilgrim, attending Divine Liturgy one morning, hears the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, to "pray unceasingly" (1 Th 5:17). These words, recalls the Pilgrim, "engraved themselves upon my mind". From that time on he is launched on a journey--both physical and spiritual--to pursue unceasing prayer.

Before long, he encounters an elder at a monastery, the first person to give him clear guidance on the meaning and method of constant prayer:

As we entered his cell he [the elder] began to speak again: "The constant inner Prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one's imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This Prayer consists of the following words: - 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!' Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it.

The elder then introduces the Pilgrim to the Philokalia--a collection of writings by the Church Fathers on this practice of inner prayer. This book, along with the Holy Bible, is destined to be the Pilgrim's constant companion on the rest of his journey. As they sit together in the cell, the elder gives the Pilgrim his first lesson in the Jesus Prayer:

He opened the book, and after having found the instruction by St. Simon the New Theologian, he began to read: "Take a seat in solitude and silence. Bend your head, close your eyes, and breathing softly, in your imagination, look into your own heart. Let your mind, or rather, your thoughts, flow from your head down to your heart and say, while breathing: 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Whisper these words gently, or say them in your mind. Discard all other thoughts. Be serene, persevering and repeat them over and over again."

This lesson is the foundation of all the rest of the Pilgrim's spiritual endeavors. He stays with the elder for a few more months, learning the art of constant prayer, until the old monk passes away (although that is not the end of the elder's teaching--he appears multiple times in the Pilgrim's dreams, continuing, even after death, to give him guidance!) After this, the Pilgrim takes to the road, reciting the Jesus Prayer, reading the Bible and Philokalia, and visiting shrines and churches. On the way, he encounters a host of characters, from robbers and army captains to priests and pious married couples. Many of these have their own tales of spiritual journeys, to which the Pilgrim listens eagerly for his enlightenment.

But the essence of the book still revolves around inner contemplation and the Jesus Prayer. These passages continue the instruction given by the Pilgrim's elder, describing how to time the Prayer with one's heartbeat and breathing--an integrated body-soul experience--all for the purpose of drawing closer to Christ. The Pilgrim exults in the peace, holy longing, and spiritual insight the Prayer gives him. He has his share of trials, too--spiritual and physical--but the pure joy of the Jesus Prayer always buoys him up once more.

The stories in The Way of the Pilgrim are truly life-changing. The instructions on the Prayer of the Heart are so simple and straightforward, that it's actually hard not to try and incorporate them into one's spiritual life. The most difficult thing, I have found, is perseverance. Often the Prayer seems dry repetition; but then I have never yet labored enough to get past that part of the process. However, even in short spurts, it is a beautiful comfort. I pray it before Liturgy, to focus my mind. I wrap my chotki around my wrist every night and recite it while falling asleep. It is always the first prayer to spring to my mind and heart in times of trouble.

The Jesus Prayer is so simple. It is so powerful. If you feel so moved, I urge you to take it up. Read The Way of the Pilgrim. Most of us don't have the time to devote the entire day to inner prayer, as the Pilgrim does. But that is no excuse for not bringing ourselves to Christ. Set aside a little time. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Take a step into your heart, away from the world, and into the Divine Presence of God.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Mishmash of Masters: My Commonplace Book

Six AM on a weekday morning found me at the breakfast table, bleary from another late night, novel-writing like a madwoman. As I munched my toast and swallowed tea, desperately hoping for an energy burst, I opened up Homer's Odyssey--meals are often my only time for reading-- and stared at the first lines of Book II:

Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Telemachus rose and dressed himself. He bound his sandals on his comely feet, girded his sword about his shoulder, and left his room looking like an immortal god.

I almost burst out laughing. Man! Why can't I get up like that in the morning?

The lines, besides making me smile, also struck my poetic imagination. I wanted to remember them. In fact, they delighted me so much that they urged me to restart my commonplace book.

I have kept a commonplace book since May of 2013. I was inspired to begin by a passage in the "Guide to Daily Reading", an introduction to a set of books The Pocket University, published in 1934. Among a series of lovely little essays on books and the art of reading in general, I came across this passage by Richard LeGallienne, in a section on how to remember what one reads:

Yet it often happens that he [the reader] forgets much that he needs to remember, and thus the question of methodical aids to memory arises.

One's first thought, of course, is of the commonplace book. Well, have you ever kept one, or, to be more accurate, tried to keep one? Personally, I believe in the commonplace book so long as we don't expect too much from it. Its two dangers are (1) that one is apt to make far too many and too minute entries, and (2) that one is apt to leave all the remembering to the commonplace book, with a consequent relaxation of one's own attention. On the other hand, the mere discipline of a commonplace book is a good thing, and if--as I think is the best way--we copy out the passages at full length, they are thus the more securely fixed in the memory. A commonplace book kept with moderation is really useful, and may be delightful.

I have certainly found my commonplace book a delight, and in fact a very helpful tool for memory. I don't always copy long passages, but I may enter a short poem, or a few paragraphs of prose, or verses from spiritual reading and Scripture. The book has proven a good way for me to memorize the latter. In some places it has served double duty as a prayer journal, when I copy down Bible verses and reflection to help me through some spiritual trial. The other entries--the poems, the bits of novels, the Gaelic song lyrics, and other miscellania--are my personal treasure trove of fond memories and future inspiration.

My main criterion when choosing passages for a commonplace book entry is the strikingness of them. Occasionally I will enter things that I think I simply ought to memorize--like the Creed, or, more recently, the list of American presidents--but usually I only copy a passage because it plucked some chord in my heart, of drama, or beauty, or romance. Thus, flipping through my commonplace book is a detailed portrait of the characters, scenes, themes and words which have most shaped my thoughts and writing over the past two years.

Many of these entries I have already shared on my blog--like Frost's "My November Guest" and "The Lone Striker", Stevenson's novels and poems, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and others. But many I have not shared. Here, then, is a selection of my favorite passages from my commonplace book. May they inspire you to read some of the beautiful works they come from!

May 22, 2013

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again. -- Oh Mary! Mary! -- boy! boy! boy! -- But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week may sink with all the crew! Great God, where are Thou? Shall I? Shall I? -- The wind has gone down and shifted sir; the fore and main topsails are reefed and set; she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr Stubb; go thou down, and wake him and tell him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 123

I DARE someone to tell me Moby Dick is a big boring book about a whale.
June 10, 2013
The Gobhaun Saor and his son were left in the dun without light, without food, and without companions. Outside they could hear the heavy-footed Fomorians, and the night seemed long to them. "My sorrow," said the son, "that I ever brought you here to seek a fortune! But put a good thought on me now, father, for we have come to the end of it all." "I needn't blame your wit," said the father, "that had as little myself. [...]"
"If we had light itself," said the son, "it wouldn't be so hard, or if I had a little pipe to play a tune on." He thought of the little reed pipe he was making the day the three Fomorians came to him, and he began to search in the folds of his belt for it. His hand came on the lock of wool he got from Mananaun, and he drew it out, "Oh, the fool that I was," he said, "not to think of this sooner!" "What have you there?" said the Gobhaun. "I have a lock of wool from the Sea God, and it will help me now when I need help." He drew it through his fingers and said: "Give me light!" and all the dun was full of light. He divided the wool into two parts and said: "Be cloaks of darkness and invisibility!" and he had two cloaks in his hand colored like the sea where the shadow is deepest.
"Put one about you," he said to the Gobhaun, and he drew the other round himself. They went to the door; it flew open before them; a sleep of enchantment came on the guards and they went out free. "Now," said the son of the Gobhaun Saor, "let a small light go before us"; and a small light went before them on the road, for there were no stars in Balor's sky. When they came to the Dark Strand the son struck the waters with his cloak and a boat came to him. It had neither oars nor sails; it was pure crystal, and it was shining like the big white star that is in the sky before sunrise. "It is the Ocean-Sweeper," said the Gobhaun. "Mananaun has sent us his own boat!" "My thousand welcomes before it," said the Son, "and good fortune and honor to Mananaun while there is one wave to run after another in the sea!"
They stepped into the boat, and no sooner had they stepped into it than they were at the White Strand, for the Ocean-Sweeper goes as fast as a thought and takes the people she carries at once to the place they have their hearts on. "It is a good sight our own land is!" said the Gobhaun when his feet touched Ireland. "It is," said the son, "and may we live long to see it!"
~ From "How the Son of the Gobhaun Saor Shortened the Road", retold by Ella Young
This is Irish fairy-tale at its most striking and moving. Elements of this story haunt my own Celtic tale.
August 8, 2013
Hotspur: He shall be welcome too. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales,
And his comrades, that daff'd the world aside,
And bid it pass?
Vernon: All furnished, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd,
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Hotspur: No more, no more: worse than the sun in March,
This praise doth nourish agues. Let them come;
They come like sacrifices in their trim,
And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war
All hot and bleeding will we offer them:
The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit
Up to the ears in blood. I am on fire
To hear this rich reprisal is so nigh
And yet not ours. Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales:
Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse.
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 4, Scene 1

Could you possibly heap any more praise on an enemy than Vernon does on young Prince Harry (the future King Henry V of Agincourt fame)? And can't you just see Hotspur fuming in envy as he leaps astride his charger? This Shakespeare play is as gripping as an adventure novel!

Epilogue: If you have actually read to the end of this post, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. There's a heck of a lot more I'm dying to share from my commonplace book, and this post makes me realize I should do it more often. Until next time--happy reading.