Book Review: The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset

(This review covers the second book of the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.)

The Mistress of Husaby takes up the story of newlyweds Erlend and Kristin. Newborn Naakve joins the household, and Kristin’s responsibility as a mother brings her to newfound grief in the extent of her sins prior to marriage. Erlend’s brother Gunnulf is a priest, and his consistent service to Kristin as a confidant and advocate with God serves as a steadying backdrop to her tumultuous life on the manor.

Naakve is joined by many brothers in quick succession. Kristin’s piety and hard work transforms the estate into a goodly inheritance for her boys. Yet, her pride and self-righteousness in the face of Erlend’s continuing blunders blinds her to her own sins. Undset shows again and again how the context of the sins committed within married life often are intertwined so much as to blur the blame from both partners.

Lavrans, Kristin’s father, is particularly shocked at Kristin’s lack of respect for Erlend in daily life, and the impact of this lack upon her sons. While Erlend’s misdoings pose great dangers to his family’s stability, even so do they speak to the greatness of his character, and his overall capacity for great deeds within the larger community.

Given the depth of Kristin’s wrath toward Erlend for his carefree ways, this middle book ends surprisingly. Their passion is reignited during Erlend’s imprisonment for treason. Crises have a way of clarifying our priorities, and also bringing us to full awareness of our own participation in the problems that confront us. Undset’s careful depiction of a marriage crumbling and then rejuvenated under pressure is singular.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Kristin’s talents in the area of household management completely changes life on the manor of Husaby for everyone, from Erlend down to the lowest peasants. Her generosity blunts the criticism to which Erlend has become accustomed. How does hard work translate into improved relationships in your life? Are there situations which no amount of work can change?
  2. The wild antics of Erlend’s closest relatives shock Kristin. She is grateful to retreat into the duties of wife and family to escape the reality that her husband is unable or unwilling to protect her from their influence. Evil blinds us. What evils in everyday life are blinding you or the ones you love from deeper union with God?
  3. In the aftermath of Erlend’s fall from influence, Kristin suddenly discovers within herself a deep well of thanksgiving for the life they had shared upon the manor of Husaby. Are there similar wells of thanksgiving in your life that you may be blind to? For what are you most thankful, and why?
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Historical Sketch: The Creche: pious fable or 18th century marketing ploy?

Nativity tree2011

by Sandra Miesel

Eager to make the gospel story of the nativity vivid, St. Francis built an outdoor tableau at Greccio in 1223. He filled a real manger with straw, and installed a life-sized figure of the Christ-child, flanking the crib with living animals and people. During the Mass that followed, legend says that the Infant came to life in his arms.

St. Francis’ example and his emotive spirituality stimulated people’s desire to picture, touch and re-enact the mysteries of salvation. However, he might be shocked at the enormous industry surrounding creche sets today.

Initially, pious interest focused only on cuddlesome images of the Infant. But the late medieval practice of changing altar panels to match the liturgical seasons led to experiments with freestanding statues to illustrate salvation history. Bambino statues exported from Italy and holy cribs honored in Northern European convents may have attracted additions to make an appealing Christmas scene. Groups of figures representing the Nativity began appearing in German churches in the late 1400’s.

The concept was perfected in Italy. The earliest privately owned crib set belonged to the Duchess of Malfi in 1567. Nativity scenes carved from wood or molded from wax were used for Counter-Reformation catechesis. In the early 17th century, the Jesuits promoted them throughout Germanic lands, where they are called krippen.

In the same era, Neapolitans added non-biblical figures to accompany the Babe and round out the Christmas story. Although the Holy Family wore conventional ancient costumes, they dressed the other sculptures in contemporary garb made of real cloth and placed them against local architectural settings and landscapes. The resulting composition was called a presepe, from the Latin presepio, “manger”.

After Carlo III of Spain became King of Naples in 1734, enthusiasm for manger scenes raised the practice to new heights. His royal presepe contained a thousand figures with Capodimonte porcelain heads and wooden bodies, wearing embroidered silk garments and real jewelry. Soon, aristocrats throughout Europe competed to acquire the finest sets.

Ironically, crib building received fresh impetus in Germanic regions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when “enlightened” monarchs barred them from churches. People set them up in their homes instead. In Austrian-ruled Cracow, cribs became model buildings populated by holy figures, carried door-to-door by carolers. Continuing demand for domestic sets made Munich the chief center of crib production throughout the 19th century.

The English speaking world was not always so receptive. When Catholics first set up Nativity scenes in Victorian England, an Anglican clergyman publicly scorned their efforts as spiritual baby food of an unhealthy sort. Today, even Protestant congregations stage living Nativity scenes, in much the same spirit that St. Francis brought to his original presepio eight centuries ago.

Bible Study: Jesus Gives His Mother to Us

*But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

John 19:25-27

(Revised Standard Version)

In lieu of notes on context, translation and vocabulary, the following is a synopsis by Kristen West McGuire of a commentary on this section of the book of John by Adrienne von Speyr, a Swiss mystic and doctor of the mid-20th century.

Alongside John, the beloved disciple, there are three women at the foot of the cross. Mary, the mother, personifies the suffering of the righteous. Conversely, the Magdalene personifies the sinners for whom Jesus dies. The wife of Clopas in the middle gives roundness to the reality that Jesus died for all of us, even the garden variety Catholic woman. Von Speyr reminds us that “one need be neither exceptionally pure, nor exceptionally sinful in order to be looked upon in a special way by the Lord at the cross.” Thus, we should never assume that our most ordinary of days nor mundane duties keep us from salvation.

Many humble, quiet days of work in the home separated Nazareth from Golgotha for Mary. From the moment of the Annunciation, Mary was the “potential” mother, just as Jesus in the womb was the “potential” Redeemer. When potential turned to reality, Jesus the divine Redeemer bequeathed divine Motherhood upon his mother. “…fruitful Christian motherhood,” exhorts von Speyr, “…lives as joy in self-sacrificing devotedness.”

We are the recipients of her devotion now. “Bodily fruitfulness requires overseeing the fruit.” finishes von Speyr. Conversely, “Fruitfulness in the Lord requires giving up all claim to overseeing one’s life.” Her obedience is intertwined in ours.

Mary’s obedience helps us aspire to eternal salvation. The grace which opened the gates of heaven to all men makes Jesus our brother, and thus His Mother our mother. Like so many Christians, I received Mary in darkness, barely aware of her intercession at first. Her obedience mysteriously enables my own.

What about John? Jesus’ bond with John is not like intimacy as many of us live it. Love for Jesus is expansive and open; not limited to those within its hold, and impossible to keep within. Whatever we receive of Jesus’ love is meant to be shared, not the extra, but all that we receive. As Jesus shares His love with John, it exponentially expands to the disciples and beyond, even to us here in the present.

Jesus gives his mother to John in the same virginal love that she bore Him in Bethlehem. It is a pure love that reflects directly the loving gaze of the Father in obedience and submission. Where others may look upon the virginal love and see only renunciation and hardship, its divine counterpart is unlimited fruitfulness. Mary receives us, nurtures us, and returns us to God the Father in love. Our fruit is her Fruit.

Discussion Questions:

Pretend to be John. You are to take the Blessed Virgin into your home to care for her. Yet, she will also care for you. What gifts can you offer her? What gifts might she offer to you?

Three women named Mary are at the foot of the cross during the passion – the Blessed Virgin suffering, the wife of Clopas present, the sinner Magdalene grateful – which one are you?

 

A Nice Jewish Girl: Kristen West McGuire Interviews Meredith Gould

Meredith Gould is a writer, social media expert, friend to many and best of all, a Christian with no illusions about the difficulty of expressing faith today. Kristen McGuire conducted this interview in 2006.

KM: Tell me about your early faith experiences.

MG: Both my parents were Brooklyn Jews at a time when ethnic-religious boundaries were fairly blurred. Italian and Irish Catholic neighborhoods were in close proximity to Jewish neighborhoods. My mother tells stories about going to Catholic church when public schools were closed for Jewish holidays. She once attended ‘confession,’ although the details are somewhat murky.  My father considered himself a Jewish atheist even though his grandfather was a rabbi and one of his four brothers remained an Orthodox Jew.

My parents moved to an Irish Catholic neighborhood in New Jersey when I was a toddler.  I vividly remember eating fish on Fridays and having an Easter outfit during the 1950’s. In 1960, we moved again and became more observant about Jewish home-based ritual and synagogue attendance.

KM: Were you confirmed?

MG: Yes, but I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I think my parents viewed it as a strange feature of Reform Judaism; either that or they didn’t want to schlep me to Hebrew school or hire a caterer? In any event, I was active in youth group and enthusiastic about Friday night services during my teens. Still, I didn’t feel called to confirmation. But when the rabbi pointed out how my grandparents were major supporters of the synagogue, I decided to do it for them. I still have my confirmation certificate from Temple Sinai.

KM: Did you encounter discrimination as a Jew?

MG: These days, my home town has a significant Orthodox Jewish population. It was quite different when I was growing up. There were mostly Reform and secular Jews and no shortage of overt and covert anti-Semitism. But because I was surrounded by other Jews, I didn’t really get what it meant to be Jewish until I went to an undergraduate school where there few Jews in attendance.

KM: What prompted you to explore other religions?

MG: During my early 20’s, I became interested in Eastern religions, thanks, in part, to the Beatles and the psychedelic drug subculture. I had a misery-induced spiritual awakening in my late-30’s and spent a lot of time practicing yoga, primarily for its physical benefits. I was also intensely evangelized by a charismatic Christian. For two years, I prayed, “God, I just want to know who you are. Please reveal yourself to me.”

KM: And then?

MG: Well, I had a stunning visit from Jesus that completely freaked me out. It was my first experience of holy terror. Imagine a nice Jewish girl (the director of marketing at a yoga retreat center) getting a visit from Jesus! Finally, a series of painful events in my personal life put me on my knees. I prayed, “Ok, Jesus. I’m going to believe that you are who you say you are.” It was a real strap-on-for-the-ride moment.

KM: When were you baptized?

MG: I was baptized at age 42 and waited a decade before coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic church. I had survived a college sorority, one cult, and two marriages. Being very susceptible to group think, I didn’t want to wake up later and say, “Oops!”

KM: How did your family take the news?

MG: I didn’t tell either parent about my baptism for almost a decade. My father, of blessed memory, died before I was confirmed in the Church. I eventually told my mother and said, “Hey, Edith Stein’s mother dealt with it, so deal with it!” Fortunately, my smart, educated mother has a great sense of humor, so she laughed.  She also attended my confirmation and that meant a lot to me. We have great conversations about faith. Once she asked me if I really believed in “all that stuff.” What stuff? The resurrection? Yes, I believe. She quickly snapped back with, “Oh Christ!”  She’s a laugh riot and regularly exclaims, “Oy vey, Maria.” She’s also supports my intellectual and creative work in extraordinary ways.

KM: You are a writer, editor, speaker, publisher, de-cluttering expert, and home health aide. What’s your favorite?

MG: Hard to choose a favorite. After I had my “who are you?” prayers answered, I prayed, “what should I be doing?”. Writing about the faith and especially the Jewish roots of Catholic faith practice is my vocation and ministry. The public speaking is an offshoot.

The home health aide work, which I stumbled into about three years ago, is another gift from God. I work for an amazing Catholic woman whose deep, abiding faith is a constant inspiration. The nitty-gritty tasks of being a personal aide to a quadriplegic keeps me grounded and humbled.  For the past half dozen or so years, I’ve helped people tidy up their home and work spaces, which is also a ministry of sorts. My favorite? I love all of it. I have a full and blessed life.

KM (2017): I want to share your interview again with friends – do you have anything to add to it?

MG: There was a stunning amount of anti-Semitism in my home town–  it took me years to acknowledge and deal with it. Also, although there have been significant changes in the past decade, the scripture from Micah endures as the significant guide to living my life.

Meredith’s Favorite Scripture – Micah 6:8

He has showed you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice,

and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Novena to the Holy Spirit, by St. Edith Stein

Day 1: “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”

Let everyone who listens answer, “Come.”

Then let all who are thirsty come;

all who want it may have the water of life and have it free.

Revelation 22:17

 

Seven Beams from a Pentecost Novena

Pentecost 1942

 

  1. Who are You, sweet light that fills me

And illumines the darkness of my heart?

You guide me like a mother’s hand,

And if you let me go, I could not take

Another step.

You are the space

That surrounds and contains my being.

Without You it would sink into the abyss

Of nothingness from which You raised it into being.

You, closer to me than I to myself,

More inward than my innermost being—

And yet unreachable, untouchable,

And bursting the confines of any name:

Holy Spirit—

Eternal love!

 

  1. Are You not the sweet manna

Which flows from the heart of the Son

Into mine,

Food for angels and for the blessed?

He who from death to life arose,

Has awakened me, too, to new life,

From the sleep of death,

New life he gives me day by day.

Some day his abundance will completely flow through me,

Life of Your life—yes, You, Yourself:

Holy Spirit—

Eternal life!

 

III. Are you the ray

That flashes from the Eternal Judge’s throne

To pierce into the night of my soul,

Which never knew itself?

Merciful, yet unrelenting, it penetrates the hidden crevices.

The soul takes fright at sight of her own self,

Makes room for holy awe,

For the beginning of that wisdom

Descending from on high,

And anchoring us securely in the heights,—

For Your workings, which create us anew:

Holy Spirit—

All-penetrating ray!

 

  1. Are You the wealth of spirit and of power

By which the Lamb loosens the seals

From God’s eternal decree?

Driven by You the messengers of judgment

Ride through the world

And with sharp sword divide

The reign of light from the reign of night.

Then the Heavens are renewed, and new the earth,

And through Your breath

Everything finds its rightful place:

Holy Spirit—

Conquering power!

 

  1. Are You the master who builds the eternal dome

Rising from earth and through to very Heaven?

The columns, enlivened by You, rise high

And stand firm, immovable.

Marked with the eternal name of God,

They reach high up into the light,

Bearing the cupola, which crowns the holy dome,

Your work encompassing the universe,

Holy Spirit—

God’s shaping hand.

 

  1. Are You the one who made the mirror bright,

Which stands beside the throne of the Almighty

Just like a sea of crystal

Wherein the Godhead views Himself with love?

You bend o’er the most marvelous of Your creations

And beaming shines Your splendor back to you.

The pure beauty of all beings

United in the lovely form of

The virgin, Your flawless bride:

Holy Spirit—

Creator of the World.

 

VII.  Are You the sweet song of love, and of holy awe,

Resounding ever round God’s throne triune,

Which unifies the pure tone of all beings,

Within itself?

The harmony which fits the limbs to the head,

So that each blissfully finds the secret meaning

Of His being,

And exudes it with gladness freely dissolved

In Your streams:

Holy Spirit—

Eternal jubilation!

 

Book Review: The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

51-2xzxtjcl-_sx332_bo1204203200_A “tell all” retrospective on Graham Greene in the New York Times Book Review a decade ago tainted my opinion of Greene. Sure, I knew he was no saint. But according to the scribe in Gotham City, his lust was legendary and could even be said to fuel his art. And of course…his books were condemned by the Church during his lifetime.

And yet the sinner wrote some powerful books. His exploration of the effect of religious conversion on two lovers in war-torn 1940’s London, The End of the Affair, is a terrific book.

The book is written from the perspective of the lover jilted by Jesus, Maurice Bendrix. Sarah is his lover, the wife of a bureaucrat. The timeline of the book jumps as the narrator, Bendrix, recounts the story from the vantage points of the present dull bitter ache, interspersed with memories that piece together the background story for the reader.

Bendrix is devastated that she breaks things off after a terrible bomb nearly kills them. He cannot comprehend why. Eventually, he hires a private detective (along with Sarah’s husband, in an ironic twist) who steals her diary and reveals the agonizing truth.

Greene himself later said that the first person point of view made the novel very difficult to write. His point was in the context of his writing craft. However, it is not a stretch to see that the central character Bendrix was similar to Greene in many respects. The book is even dedicated to “Catherine, with love”, a reference to his mistress at the time.

Greene’s question looms large in the background: can anything good come from an adulterous affair?

The ending is one of most satisfying character sketches I have ever read. And yet, I wish I did not know the rest of the story of the author. Be he a saint or sinner, he gave me much to consider in my assessment of my relationship with Jesus, and the passions that fuel my actions in real life and in my secret soul.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene was originally published in 1951. Happily, Penguin Classics re-published a paperback edition in 2004.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Henry truly not know Sarah’s secret adulteries? Conversely, did he know of her goodness, of her gentleness with souls? Which was more real to Henry? Which was more real to Maurice?
  1. Do you think that it is possible to be a “pimp” in the same way that Bendrix accuses Henry Miles of being a “pimp” (being so boring that one was forced to adultery)? Is it a cop-out? Or is it a truth about the ways that unattended love can fizzle and create a vacuum?
  1. Sarah’s forbidden love and then her virtuous self control transformed all of the characters. But her repentance does not convert Henry nor Bendrix to Christianity. Why not? Read the Catholic Catechism, 2380-2381, on adultery, and on the ninth commandment, 2514-2533. How can virtue lead to a transformation in the larger society? Is purity of heart possible in the current cultural climate?

Interview: Kristen McGuire explains her secret

SMMP: Why is Edith Stein so inspiring to you? You are nothing like her.

Kristen: I didn’t choose Edith, she chose me. In my frustrated hausfrau days (with four kids under the age of five and an absent military hubby)…Edith’s life story and intense philosophy rocked my world. Despite being marginalized at almost every turn, her life had great meaning in God’s plan. Stick with your vocation and run with it! 

SMMP: Why are you trying to bring spirituality into the workplace? Isn’t that usually a bad idea?

Kristen: Women are not stereotypes.  Some stay-at-home, some work…and many women cycle in and out of the workplace. Some are married, others are single…some are even nuns. But most women find spirituality motivating. They connect with God, and God has answers for each one.

Women have always transformed their cultures – but very few know those stories. There is a lot of career advice out there and it’s all good – but some work/life issues are really best kept private. In fact, many work/life challenges have spiritual components. I want to speak to that dynamic, with great encouragement. Integrating spirituality into all of my life is important to me. I am betting I am not the only one.

SMMP: Uh oh! You aren’t going to “dialogue”, ending up in a muddy mix of platitudes we can all “agree” upon, are you?

K:  I want to understand and respect my Christian sisters– don’t you? And, I hope to allow women to share their own unique experiences. I want to celebrate the caregiving roles that women play in every community. Ideological differences are polarizing not just government but also the Church. I believe women have special gifts to bridge those divides. I’d like to see more about social justice in ‘conservative’ corners, and more about the right to life in ‘liberal’ corners. I would hope this newsletter will persuade others to chat across the fence occasionally.  

SMMP: Who would enjoy MY SECRET IS MINE?

K: Women of all ages and vocations will find here interesting facts, inspiring examples and compelling stories. Got a bible study group? Or a book club? We will post studies and reviews regularly! We’ll depend on our readers to give us feedback on the various ways it is working, or not working in that mission. One thing is for sure– it won’t be predictable! So tell us what you like, and what you don’t!

SMMP: Is this newsletter going to be “All Edith Stein, All the Time”?

K: The danger is real! We will profile compassionate friends (like Edith), kick-butt thinkers (like Edith) and inspiring sisters (like Edith). Edith didn’t despair when her career goals were blocked by sexism and ethnic hatred. She buckled down and got to work – and created order out of chaos. No, not every article will mention Edith, but her spirit will inspire all the content.  God’s handmaidens, just like Mary.

SMMP: How much is this going to cost me?

K: Access to this blog is free. You can support MY SECRET IS MINE by becoming a patron, or click the links to purchase items for sale at Amazon or Etsy. We will publish books for our patrons, and provide deals from time to time with Catholic partners. (Interested in partnership? Contact us...)

 

“Secretum meum mihi?” What is that?!

A BIBLE STUDY

Isaiah 24:15-18: “Therefore glorify ye the Lord in instruction: the name of the Lord God of Israel in the islands of the sea. From the ends of the earth we have heard praises, the glory of the just one. And I said: My secret to myself, my secret to myself, woe is me: the prevaricators have prevaricated, and with the prevarication of transgressors they have prevaricated. Fear, and the pit, and the snare are upon thee, O thou inhabitant of the earth. And it shall come to pass, that he that shall flee from the noise of the fear, shall fall into the pit: and he that shall rid himself out of the pit, shall be taken in the snare: for the flood-gates from on high are opened, and the foundations of the earth shall be shaken.

(From the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate)

Edith Stein was a young post-grad student, the rising star of her circle in Gottingen under famed philosopher Edmund Husserl. When she embraced baptism in 1922, her best friend Hedwig Conrad-Martius demanded to know why. Stein never responded, but wrote, “secretum meum mihi,” on a nearby page of paper. (Latin for “mysecret is mine, or my secret is unto me.” Indeed, her conversion was devastating to her Jewish family. And although she was aware of a vocation to Carmel early on, at the advice of her confessor, she chose not to follow for over a decade.

Edith Stein is not the only one to have quoted this tidbit “Secretum Meum Mihi” in relation to keeping the inner details of one’s faith private. The famous English convert John Henry Newman quotes it in his conversion account Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and St. Philip Neri also quotes it in his exhortations to his followers. And Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian, quotes it in relation to a commentary on the Song of Songs. All of them concurred: a relationship with Jesus Christ was a mystery one could never fully explain to anyone.

Context: This section of the book of Isaiah is known as his Apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature often focused on a future “day of the Lord”, when the “just one” would reward the good and punish the bad. In this particular passage, the human praise of the Just One is side by side with His expected wrath to sinners

Against the bloody backdrop of current Middle East politics, we might be excused for taking the whole section far too grimly to heart. Will the Lord deliver us? Do my secret longings for God’s mercy open me up to His justice? Yet, being set free implies the truth that we are imprisoned…spiritually, emotionally, and otherwise.

Translation Notes:  Almost certainly, the Bible in your home does not have “my secret is unto me” in it at Isaiah 24:16.  Because there are no vowels in Hebrew, a variety of translations are possible, and the context is thus very important. The original Hebrew word, r-z-h, transliterated “ryzyk”, translates roughly to “thinness, or leanness”. Within the context of the passage, the Latin translation connotes a certainty of weakness as one faces the coming judgment. Subsequent English translations of the original Hebrew use “leanness” – “I waste away,” or “I pine away”.  (Or – I’m skinny!  Woe is me!)

Vocabulary

The Just One: a reference to the coming of the Messiah in Jewish apocalyptic literature, who would judge and punish the unrighteous in the last days

Prevaricators:  Those who deviate from the truth

The Pit:  Hell, or more technically, Sheol, a concept of the afterlife in which one does not merit God’s friendship.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you often find yourself speechless when situations arise that give you cause to mention your faith? How, when and where do you NOT feel safe saying you are a Christian?
  2. How do we find the courage to admit we belong to Jesus? Do we have an obligation as Christians to confront “prevaricators?”
  3. Edith Stein was ultimately killed at Auschwitz for being Jewish. Religious persecution remains a serious problem today. What should Christians in “safe” countries do to support their suffering and persecuted brothers and sisters in oppressed lands?