Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1990

September 1990

Fragments of Stained Glass

By Claire Nicolas White

Publisher: Mercury House

Pages: 230

Price: $18.95

Review Author: Aaron W. Godfrey

Claire Nicolas White, a distinguished poet, was born into an artistic family and mar­ried into another, with all the concomitant creativity, iconoclasm, and instability. The book is less a biography than a reverie, a fragmented chronicle of life in Europe and America over the last six decades. It tells of a world that no longer exists as it did before World War II and one which the present generation probably will never be able to under­stand thoroughly.

Joep Nicolas, White’s fath­er, was an eminent Dutch stained-glass artist (hence the book’s title) who immigrated to America just before World War II. Her husband, Robert White, a sculptor, is the grandson of Stanford White, the architect, whose “exuberant public life” created difficulties for the family.

She describes well the pain, inconvenience, and dislocation of the European exile community in New York dur­ing the war. Life was hard (but not too hard) for those who were able to flee to Amer­ica in the wake of Nazism. The young people were able to attend good schools and col­leges that enabled them to be successful after the war, either in America or (if they chose to return) in Europe.

Claire White’s memories are both nostalgic and unvar­nished in their clarity. She looks at parents, family, and husband unsparingly, which lends credibility to her ac­count. The book lacks the sappiness of most personal mem­oirs and has an edge that is sometimes disconcerting. Her interactions with people like Aldous Huxley, a collateral relative, give a new perspec­tive on that important literary figure.

Fragments of Stained Glass is a book in which Roman Cathol­icism is integral but rarely stated specifically. It is insepa­rable from the fabric or, one might say, the matrix of the stained glass.

Claire White, who came to America with little English, has mastered it. Hers is a book for all seasons, enhanced by subtle humor and a rare sense of tranquility and forgiveness.

Most Ancient of All Splendors

By Johann Moser

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 94

Price: $14.95

Review Author: James E. Person Jr.

In a lecture originally de­livered in the 1970s, John Wain lambasted a type of poetry still prevalent today: “The years since 1960 have seen a mass turning-away from the notion of poetry as an art that [has] something in common with music, and to­wards a more or less improvi­satory style which aims at one of two objectives: either to simulate the ravings of a drug-addict, or to inculcate very simple…social messages.” Wain added that this poetry “flourishes better at ‘poetry readings’…than on the printed page, being written not for those who wish to read, and ponder, and reread, but for those who need each other’s company in a crowded space and a poet up on the platform dealing with the lat­est important experience….” Wain’s assessment is ac­curate to a point; what he failed to mention is that we are not actually told about “important experiences,” but about the insignificance of man. Droning about the mean-inglessness of it all when not joylessly celebrating the joys of lubricity, the architects of this present darkness in American poetry share with the reading public a peculiar gospel, hav­ing come that we might have dullness and ennui, and have them abundantly.

Turning from the poetic ash-heap, it’s a pleasure to encounter Johann Moser’s first poetry collection, Most Ancient of All Splendors. Here is poetry that celebrates the enduring, the tragic, and the ennobling in culture, and that breathes with moral imagination. Mos­er’s poems are carefully crafted vessels: beautiful artifacts of language. As the collection’s editor writes, each poem forms “an integral, self-contained, and cohesive structure. In me­dieval terms, [Moser] seeks to achieve in each of his poems a splendor formae — a radiance of formal unity.”

The Christian (and spe­cifically Catholic) vision of man held by Moser enables him poetically to declare at once the glory of humanity and its fallenness. These tendencies are tempered by an emphasis on celebration. Where T.S. Eliot would write of Gerontion’s waiting for death, dreaming with his “dry brain in a dry season” of being whirled in fractured atoms beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear, Moser’s Sheba (in “Testament of Sheba”) speaks of a cosmos in which “God rides His green-bright Dolphin / Through plan­etary seas and astral oceans” and where “Tabernacles of the stars / Whirl in ancient ecstasy across the night.”

The speakers in each po­em, whether Moser, an un­known persona, or various identified personages, affirm a world of order and transcend­ent purpose. “I am the term; I am the boundary stone,” says the Church (in “Terminus: Concedo Nulli”). “I concede, I have conceded, ground to none.”

Elsewhere in Most Ancient of All Splendors are other po­ems well worth reading, writ­ten in a variety of traditional forms and employing poetic diction suitable to the poet’s intent. Especially worthwhile is the gentle “Galileo: A Letter to His Daughter,” with its view of the ordered universe as re­sembling a great dance, remi­niscent of the vision of C.S. Lewis. Also notable is “Hom­age to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” in effect a stated hope and prayer for a spiritually renewed Russia.

John Ireland and the American Catholic Church

By Marvin R. O'Connell

Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press

Pages: 610

Price: $27.50

Review Author: D.Q. McInerny

John Ireland became the third Bishop of St. Paul in 1884. Four years later, when the see was raised to met­ropolitan status, he became its first Archbishop. What sort of man was this major figure in American Catholic history? Whatever favorable descriptives might be brought forward — and there are many — “saintly” is not one that natu­rally suggests itself. He was certainly an essentially good man, walking unwaveringly in the ways of an iron-willed religious faith. But as far as our limited vision allows us to say, there seems to have been something missing. And that something, I suspect, was a sufficiently large contemplative component to his life. Ireland’s life was chiefly characterized by a too steady and unmitigat­ed embroilment in public af­fairs. The world was too much with him, and that meant, of course, the rambunctious, progress-obsessed world of late 19th-century America. It was a time when growth was explo­sive, and altogether too many things appeared possible.

At a time when American Catholics were aligning them­selves with the Democratic Party, Ireland was a staunch, life-long Republican — and was quite close to Presidents McKinley and (Teddy) Roose­velt. Ireland was a consum­mate politician, both inside and outside the Church. His machinations in the realm of ecclesiastical politics are as intriguing as they are at times disconcerting. He was natural­ly combative, and in his deal­ings with certain of his peers in the hierarchy, for example, he had a way of too easily taking opponents for enemies. Given his warrior mentality, he could be a ruthless antago­nist. The problem with this approach is that it tends to make the ultimate considera­tion not charity, but victory.

Ireland has been blessed in his biographers. Msgr. James M. Reardon’s The Cath­olic Church in the Diocese of St. Paul, published in 1952, con­tained a 222-page chapter on Ireland which constituted in itself almost a full-fledged biography. The following year Fr. James H. Moynihan’s Life of Archbishop John Ireland was published. Both are reliable sources, though the latter is oddly organized and tends at times toward hagiography. Now we have available truly a masterwork of biography in Marvin R. O’Connell’s John Ireland and the American Catholic Church. Fr. O’Connell, a pro­fessor of history at Notre Dame, is himself a native Minnesotan and a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul.

Contemporary biographers evince a propensity for pro­ducing large, ungainly tomes whose organization is fractured and whose style is ponderous — works decidedly short on art. This is emphatically not the case with O’Connell’s bi­ography of Ireland. His labors of research and writing have met with wonderful success, giving us a gem of scholarship which reads like a novel. The book is one of the best biogra­phies written in this country in recent years.

The Believers

By Janice Holt Giles

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky

Pages: 214

Price: $9

Review Author:

“Oh, the evil that is done in the name of piety!” Rebecca Cooper’s anguished cry an­nounces the theme of this superb novel (first published in 1957 and now reissued) that explores the elements of Shaker religiosity in early 19th-century Kentucky. Swept up in the spiritual awakening that convulses the region, Rebecca’s husband, Richard, shivers with the ecstasies of brush-arbor revivalism. When this fever cools, he finds fresh inspira­tion in the gospel expounded by Shaker missionaries who are scouting the frontier in search of recruits. Their world-blasting asceticism repels Rebecca, but for Richard’s sake, she muffles her aversion and joins him at the newly established Shaker community at South Union, near Bowling Green. Rebecca abhors the Shakers’ Manichaean contempt for the physical world, a revulsion so strong that it compels them to condemn procreation.

Although Janice Holt Giles rejects the sentimental notion of Shakers as simply kindly and benevolent folk who de­voted themselves mainly to crafting exquisite furniture, she does not paint them in unrelievedly gloomy hues. In the Foreword she confesses her “great respect” for them; they were, she avers, “a gentle, dedicated, innocent people.” But in this innocence lies the rub. At the end of the story Rebecca, long since departed from the Shaker utopia, re­flects on her experiences with the Believers. “The most de­voted of them were good peo­ple, as they saw goodness,” she recalls. “My quarrel with them was that their conception of goodness made no allow­ance for any other man’s and that, I felt, was tyranny. It was the tyranny of innocence, but I saw evil come of it, exactly as evil comes of all tyranny, for innocence is no guarantor of goodness.”

Masks of Satan: The Demonic in History

By Christopher Nugent

Publisher: Christian Classics

Pages: 216

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

“The Father of Lies is the Prince of Appearances,” Chris­topher Nugent declares in de­fining the governing idea of Masks of Satan. The devil of popular imagination — the cartoonish figure of cloven hoofs, forked tail, and obscene leer — does not stalk these pages. In wrestling with the question of evil, Nugent iden­tifies the “masks” Satan has donned in the course of Western civilization — from the ancient Greeks to Hebrews to the 20th century, from Dio­nysus, inspirer of fiendish ec­stasy, to the “demonocracy” foisted upon the world by Hitler and the Nazis.

Nugent reduces Satan’s disguises to three essential types. “The first mask of Satan,” he contends, “is that of the Rebel” who defies God and curses the sway of heav­en. In another guise, Satan appears as “an elemental com­pound of Narcissism and Nihilism.” Finally, there are the “sacraments of Satan”: “any fetish from phallicism to what the old world called ‘filthy lucre.'” Masks of Satan will disappoint those who dote on sensationalism, for Nugent believes that “the demonic is neither exotic nor remote; it is very near. It is of men rather than monsters, and we have seen the horrors of historical fact exceed the vilest horrors of gothic fantasy. Truth is more frightening than fiction.”

Nugent does not leave the last word to the powers of ma­leficence; it goes instead to the antidote to evil — the divine love that “breathes the current of life into the Cosmos.” He concludes his engaging study on a note resonant with hope: “The antidote to the wolf of man is the Lamb of God.”

The House of Twilight

By Yun Heung-gil

Publisher: Readers International

Pages: 233

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

Yun Heung-gil was wounded into brutal reality by the Korean War, a calamity that crashed upon his native land when Yun was eight years old. “He witnessed the fabric of his nation rent by conflicting ideologies,” Martin Holman points out in his informative Introduction to The House of Twilight, a collection of seven of Yun’s short stories. “And, in his literature,” Holman continues, “he has portrayed families ravaged by those clashes both from within and without. But because his narrators are often children, the ideological struggle is pre­sented obliquely.”

The poignance of a child’s perspective appears most ef­fectively in “The Rainy Spell,” where a boy is buffeted by the strife between his grandmoth­ers. One woman has lost a son to the South Korean cause, while the other has a son who is hiding out in the mountains with a band of Communist partisans. Reminders of the savagery of war come not so much in graphic descriptions of death and. destruction — something too massive for a child to grasp — but in com­monplace details and unobtru­sive observations. In “The Rainy Spell,” for example, the narrator notes the village’s “three or four dogs that were lucky enough to survive the war.” In “Fuel,” an account of a family’s struggle to endure, the narrator, now grown to manhood, recalls the priva­tions of the 1950s. “I still can’t understand why my family had to worry about fuel so constantly when we had so little to cook with it.” In such unpretentious moments of rev­elation lies the affecting power of these stories. One under­stands why, as Holman men­tions, Yun is “regarded as one of the rising stars of Korean literature.”

The Letters of Evelyn Under­hill

By Charles Wil­liams

Publisher: Christian Classics

Pages: 343

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

“He [God] expects us to behave with common sense even in regard to His graces, doesn’t He?” Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican authority on mys­ticism, had a short fuse when it came to tomfoolery commit­ted in the name of spirituality. She evinced no patience with the popular notion of mysti­cism as a solipsistic flight into a cloud of ineffability. Upon the scores of correspondents who sought her guidance (given freely and generously, as these letters, first published in 1943, indicate), she pressed an unsentimental realism that often dismayed those inflamed with spiritual fevers. “Move away from the vivid, passion­ately rapturous type of reac­tion,” she cautions one neo­phyte. She condemned all psychic tricks, gimmicks, and ploys that promised a shortcut to union with the divine. “I think it is better, really,” she urged, “to teach at once the hard and wholesome doctrine that the attitude of adoration and humility is what matters and that spiritual realization is secondary to this, and can only be prepared for, not obtained, by our deliberate conscious effort.”

Underhill deprecated the kind of spiritual “loftiness” that tempts an ardent seeker to disdain less advanced be­lievers. She bluntly reminded such elitists of the inner life that they belonged to the body of Christ and were bound irrefragably to the most prosaic of Christ’s followers. “Enter in­to the interests of others, how­ever twaddley,” she com­manded a correspondent. Her firm sacramentalism — “God coming into our souls by means of humblest accidents” — demanded that the quest for spiritual ecstasy be rooted in quotidian realities.

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