Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Libraries I Have Known

Catholic Library Association

This is a talk I gave online at the Catholic Library Association's Online Conference. It's about libraries, good and bad, and my young journey with them. 
I am honored to be the recipient of this year’s St. Katherine Drexel Award. As a native of the Philadelphia diocese, one of the oldest dioceses in America, St. Katherine was part of the home team, so to speak, along with my patron saint, St. John Neuman, both great contributors to the Catholic Church in America and Catholic education. My parish church growing up, Visitation BVM, one of the largest in the diocese, had shrines to both.
Today I am joined by my junior English class at the school where I teach, Padre Pio Academy. Having grown up in Philadelphia and New Jersey, some of the oldest Catholic areas in America, my current home is strikingly different. I live in a diocese founded less that fifty years ago, in an area where Catholics were historically scattered, so although it’s now booming, little Catholic infrastructure exists in the Shenandoah Valley.  We are a fledgling school based on hybrid model that brings together a parish setting with the new blood offered by the homeschooling movement. Our three-day-a-week model employs lay teachers who work part time and keeps tuition costs affordable for families. Uniforms for grade school, dress codes for high school, period bells, and school lunches remind me of the Catholic schools I grew up in, but we are pleased to be able to serve students whose families can’t afford private school tuition. It’s a new model suited to the needs of the laity, and provides accreditation and curriculum through our relationship with a nationally-accredited home study program, along with socialization and a parish connection for homeschooling families. We’re working on the kinks, but it’s been fun so far.
As an eager and precocious reader at a young age, libraries were intensely important part of my imaginative and spiritual life as a Catholic school student. In this talk, I’m going to tell you about the libraries I have known and browsed through, and how each one met or failed to meet my needs and the needs of students of that age level.  Here's a handout of my summary of the three stages of development, which I created for my fellow teachers to use.

My first library was located in the grade school attached to Visitation BVM Catholic school where I attended school from Kindergarten through fifth grade. It had floors of waxed linoleum, a small rectangle of carpet for kindergarten story time, and maple wood furniture, with inviting picture books displayed everywhere. Although it was in the basement, my memory recalls it as a perpetually bright, sunny place, well-lined with shelves delightfully packed with books of all sorts and shapes.  When I returned for fond visits years later, I was repeatedly shocked by what a small room it actually was. From the viewpoint of my childhood imagination, it was immense.  There I read the books of Carol Brinkman and Beverly Cleary, sped through the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, and read books on cats, movie monsters, and unsolved mysteries. Much to my mother’s dismay, I had become obsessed with the rather dark and violent musical Man of La Mancha, and it was in fifth grade that I there read a translation of Don Quixote and discovered Shakespeare through the book The Enchanted Island by Ian Serralier. The librarian was a cheerful woman who loved children, and not only helped me find good books (I was easy to please) but allowed me to come in and stock shelves and catch up with my reading and research during recess.
Here I want to point out some characteristics of the first stage of learning, what that great Catholic educator Maria Montessori called the first plane of development or the sensorial plane. In this plane, children primarily encounter reality with their sense: touching, tasting, smelling, feeling, hearing. They learn focus and visual tracking, they seek whole-body experiences where every part of their being is learning. They love repetition, kinetic and auditory, and naming. They delight in names. As with other ages, their mind sorts bits of information and arranges them into narratives, personalized. The abstract concepts of big, medium and small are transliterated into “the daddy one, the mommy one, the baby one,” as the child fits the abstract to his or her personal narrative. Children need to be taught to trust that their senses are communicating reality to them. This will be the foundation for future learning. It is sad to reflect how the whole-body experience of a library—easing books off shelves, the crinkle of the inevitable plastic cover protectors as pages are turned and eyes track words, library voices are attempted, focus begins – that experience is in danger of being supplanted by a sterile virtual reality that absorbs the visual sense only while locking the rest into passive dormancy. I want to thank all of you librarians who continue to give that whole-body experience to our youngest students.
Children ages 0-6 experience everything—including good and evil—sensually. In other words, they identify the good not by the nudges of conscience but by the colors the good guys wear, the sound of their voices, their theme songs, or the feeling of goodness inside. Beauty is what communicates goodness. It is critical that libraries in Catholic schools – and everything used to teach young children – be beautiful so that it can most effectively teach goodness sensually. For properly understood, beauty is the incarnation of goodness: it is what goodness feels like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, looks like.
I have an intense hatred of ugly children’s books, of shoddy storytelling and skimpy artwork, particularly in materials intended to present the faith. Our market-driven world seldom bothers to give well-crafted stories or fine artwork to children, with notable exceptions. Instead, children are left at the mercy of the marketplace of merchandised characters and their endless banal stories, with girls’ stories doused in pink paraphernalia, and boys’ bristling with weaponized black-leather-clad redundancies. The realities of female and male, feminine and masculine, need to be respected, but they shouldn’t be caricatured, in fact or fiction. Catholics realize this, but when Bible stories are revamped as awkwardly animated cartoons, when Christ is reduced to a Simpsons caricature, the child’s sensual experience of the sacred suffers. We adults might be pleased by sparse lines and knobby primitive artwork, but children are dismayed when the Blessed Mother isn’t as radiant as a princess. That is why Catholic environments were historically laden with bright stained-glass windows, textures of stone, wood, and linen, the sight of exquisite statues and flickering candles, the sound of bells and human voices, and smells of beeswax and incense. Our worship is meant to be sensorial.  It is the catechesis for the youngest among us, and a reminder to the rest of us that Christ became sensorial, became flesh and dwelt among us.
Make your library for young children a beautiful place, full of activities that quietly engage all the senses. Help our children to strengthen that connection between goodness and beauty, and curate carefully to leave out anything ugly, even if it purports to be teaching morality.
Now, let me speak for a moment of Catholic communal culture, and a word about hothouses and greenhouses.


Ours is a fragmented secular culture, whirled about in the eddies of new technology, constantly in danger of discarding even the vestiges of human rights and democracy, doubting human value and human choice.  The tendency of American Catholics has been to wait for the secular culture to act, and then ride the wave, or barricade themselves against the wave with a barrage of criticism.
This engagement with secular culture is very “Catholic,” in some ways, like the Church of the Dark Ages baptizing the barbarians even as they stormed the gates, but in these days, it tends to become either lukewarm and lost, or bitter and apocalyptic. In both cases, it’s reactionary, whether praising or pontificating against each new cultural storm.
My personal sympathy as an artist is neither to conform or to criticize, but to create. So, I agree with those who say we ourselves need to be active, not reactive or passive, when it comes to creating culture. I believe we should do something new and Catholic, inspired by the Gospel. In this way I am perhaps siding with St. Benedict, creating intentional Catholic culture, a haven from the storms outside. If you try to create intentional Catholic culture, you will cause problems. You will challenge existing norms, start revolutions in thinking and acting, and possibly create more problems than you solve, at least initially. But you could argue, from a certain point of view, that any Catholic initiative, from Nicaea to Vatican II, created more problems and made existing problems worse, at least to contemporaries. 
And Catholic education and the Catholic school system were similarly criticized in the beginning, as you might recall, for pulling Catholic children out of the mainstream, sequestering them in a hothouse of feverish zeal, in the same way that Catholic homeschooling and Catholic lay movements are criticized today. There are those who will attack or mock any attempt at intentionally creating a Catholic environment as striving for an unattainable perfection or cowardice in the face of a worldly challenge.
I want to remind you that there is a difference between a hothouse and a greenhouse, however similar the structures themselves may look.
Both are “artificial environments” where malevolent or detrimental outside influences are consciously excluded. Both are run by gatekeepers who choose what can enter and what must stay outside. Both have walls that let in light and keep out the rest.
But one, the hothouse, is designed as a lifelong support system: the other is a training ground. One tries to cultivate dependency: the other to foster independence. But they look nearly the same, except for the intention.
In the same way, a Catholic environment that shelters souls considered too weak or exotic to face the outside world and a Catholic environment designed to allow the young to grow strong and healthy, ready to go out into the world and preach the Good News, might have similar rules, criteria, and practices.  But the intention is entirely different. And being accused of sharing characteristics with a hothouse does not invalidate or do away with the necessity of greenhouses.  And we need Catholic greenhouses, more that ever: for the young, for the broken, for those resting after battle. And I believe that the Catholic library is a vital kind of greenhouse, no matter how old their patrons.
As a Catholic educator and author, I am also a greenhouse worker. Together with Catholic librarians, we help create Catholic culture by carefully collating collections and curriculum, weeding through sources, giving guidance, judiciously challenging, protecting, but also equipping.
I think your job is harder than mind. I work with a set curriculum in education, with my imagination in the other. You have to face an expanding cloud of material in a world where technology and other revolutions are splintering categories and shattering institutions.
You are creating gardens of literature and lore, properly scaled to the size of your students and patrons, where they can play and learn. Of course, research now tells us that playing and learning are remarkably similar.


In sixth grade, I switched to a public school, and a new library. This library was ample and generous, with satisfying rows of bookshelves just the right height, endless mazes of fiction and nonfiction, biography and reference. I loved them all. By this time, I was a researcher as well as a reader, and although I missed my old school, I rejoiced in looking up and learning more about my new passions: Shakespeare, theater, puppets, movie making, animation. But the library periods in public school were painfully short for my imagination and interests. I was by this time the awkward adolescent, the problem child in class, slow maturing, oddly dressed, quiet, and too opinionated for my own good. My homeroom English teacher targeted me for special education, advising me to read the latest edgy teen fiction and trendy teen magazines. I have no idea why: I am guessing she deduced my parents were strict religious nuts and wanted to liberate me. But I stolidly ignored her, following my own internal compass, with only a vague awareness of outside pressure. Naturally, I was a target for bullies during lunch, so I began escaping to the library to read my problems away. I read Wuthering Heights and was transported in bliss. I read Jane Eyre and was relieved my school was nowhere as bad as Lowood Institution. I researched Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, read about student filmmakers and dreamed of owning my own still-frame movie camera. The librarian was a nice, cheerful soul, and tried to accommodate me, but in a vast school of thousands of students, I was not where I was supposed to be, and that was a problem. One day my English teacher charged into the library and confronted me, demanding to know why I wasn’t in the cafeteria. My sanctuary days were over.
Fortunately, that year I met my best friend in that school. She was not Catholic, but Christian, and we bonded over books, spending lunch periods throughout sixth and seventh grade comparing notes on the best reads. She listened avidly to my own stories and became my first fan. We also found common ground in Christianity, as my faith was becoming more vital to me, and I was on the verge of my high school commitment to Christ, as was she.  Years later, I would finish what became my first published novel at the request of her younger sisters.  She would remain a close friend and kindred spirit, who shared my passion for C.S. Lewis and introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (which I admired but would not read since it had no girl main characters.). This past spring, she shocked me by announcing that she and her husband were planning on joining the Catholic Church. Our Lord is full of surprises.
My time in Catholic and public school coincided with what Montessori called the second plane of development and Dorothy Sayers the dialectic stage. It is characterized by working together bits of information to fit into a system and bits of experience and accumulated knowledge into a story, and a fixation on moral categories, the meaning of the story.
 Traditional Catholic education calls it attaining the age of reason, with the budding of the moral sense. It is the discerning of the universal story, the conflict between good and evil, asking the question to which the Old Testament and the Gospel are the answer. The child in this stage feels a need to separate light from darkness, right from wrong, and most overtly, fair from unfair. They seek stories with heroes and heroines, come up with complicated schemes to deal with evil: dealing with the possibility of being orphaned, laying plans for defeating death and escaping slavery or kidnapping or quicksand. If they are presented with the Ten Commandments at this time, they will usually memorize them easily, as well as endless catechism questions and the basics of moral theology. Rules and systems for clubs and codes, secret languages and trivia, all of these are categorized happily and codified. This stage is marked by an intense thirst for justice and fairness. As an example, my grade-school children are still debating whether, during last year’s end-of-school picnic games, the opposing team cheated, and whether the moral failure of the parental judges and the moral depravity of the other team should be forgiven or held against them for all eternity. I am forced again and again to be the lawyer for the defense, arguing “before the awful eyes of innocence,” for forgiveness, understanding, and mercy. As Chesterton notes, “children, being innocent, want justice, whereas we adults, being guilty, want mercy.”
So, my best friend and I, questing over the gamut of grade school and high school, were quickly learning that the most alluring story could “slime” us by forcing us to read depictions of sex or bodily grossness that we, at age 12 and 13, found appalling. The Age of Blume—Judy Blume—was upon young adult fiction, and my persistent English teacher seemed determined that I should read it all. We secretly agreed she was weird and strange. We both rebelled with the passion of Puritans and developed a personal code as strict as that of any PTA guidelines. I would skim the back pages of any romance book for bedroom scenes, rejecting the book if it contained them. We deduced accurately that books that used swear words, particularly the F-word, usually contained slimy sexual content. This was sheer survival for our imaginations: our peers were reading V.C. Andrews, horror, and fiction full of drugs and suicide, of which our teachers apparently fully approved, and we decided we had to start judging books by covers, despite the aphorism. In these pre-Columbine days, teen fiction and music seemed to revel in horror and gore, and I began to struggle, not surprisingly, with depression. The required seating in public school which meant I had to stare a skull with teeth dripping blood on the back of the shirt of the classmate in front, probably didn’t help matters. The more I read of secular fiction, the more I hated it, and hated the culture which promoted it. In terms of socialization, the free-for-all and lack of guidance was making me more derisive than the most hardline culture warrior could have hoped. It was clear to my best friend and I that right was being mocked and wrong was being tolerated approvingly, and we were in a moral wilderness.


Violating a child’s sense of justice during this stage can have profound consequences. This world does not recognize this stage, and if they do, misunderstands and mocks. Librarians, please respect them. And in the name of the fumbling, shy tween that I was, please don’t try to rush them through this stage.  Innocence is almost more crucial to a person now than earlier. This stage of black-and-white ideals will evaporate naturally during the teenage years, but while it endures, trying to convince a child that something their conscience is screaming is wrong is right or ok – whether that something is their parents’ divorce, their sister’s abortion, or blasphemous artwork – plays havoc with their sensibilities and can crush them, creating anger, alienation, depression, and self-hatred.  The age of understanding moral complexity will come. But for now, they ask for answers: clear answers, uncomfortable answers, courageous answers. Don’t worry, they’ll probably go back and hunt down every loophole and explore every nuance when they are teens.  
Understanding this stage used to be what Catholic education excelled at: giving a coherent and holistic picture of the world, assuring students of meaning and purpose and connection. Many of us have lost confidence in that vision. We need to regain it.
And the children in this stage are right—as children usually are: right and wrong, good and evil DO exist. There will be final choices. Moral choices do matter: in fact, they’re usually the most important aspect of our lives. What is the truth? How can we live the Truth? This is the question the Gospel answers: and the moral law in the form of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, expressed in the Catechism – these are the limbs and branches of the Catholic faith which we as Catholic educators should be outlining for our students. There will be time enough for older students to perceive the fine twigs and shifting patterns of leaves around it.




If your library is a garden, Christ is the tree at the center of that garden, the Tree of Life Who is also our tree of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, whose branches reach out to all the world, whose roots are as ancient as being itself. Bring your students to that tree and let them climb it and eat of its fruit and see how everything else in the universe is ordered in relationship to it. There aren’t differing realities, different truths, different educations: there is one Truth, and He is the Life.  Be confident in that Truth. Don’t be afraid.  
Then there is the third stage of learning: the rhetoric stage, the stage where the child, now approaching adulthood, looks over the system and code of being and says, “That’s all very nice, but how does it apply to me?” Some fear this stage as the questioning stage: I prefer to think of it as the personalization stage. This is where the student decides whether he or she is going to live out the faith, and how. It’s a necessary stage, because the student goes from being a recipient to becoming an active contributor. We would not want to have Catholicism without it, and for years, Catholic educators have been trying to time Confirmation to coincide at the just-right moment so that it can encompass the questions and give the grace to face them.  And courage and strengthening are just what our teens need during this stage, to become who God created them to be and follow the vocation He is offering them.
By now, the student already knows right from wrong.  That, they learn, is fairly easy, the confusions of this society aside. The thorniest question confronting the confirmed Catholic is not the choice between good and evil, but between good and good. Evil, when seen clearly, is not creative, dynamic, or fun: it’s a repetitious and pathetic surrender to the same-old, same-old addictions, a loss of freedom, boring as sin, as one priest said. But good, coming from God, is endlessly creative. While there are no new sins (all the types of sins that can be committed have already been committed, and most of them in Biblical times), in every age the Holy Spirit will raise up new ways of being good, and of doing good. What this means is that people motivated by the good will come up with different solutions to the same problem, and they will disagree. How do you choose among the goods?  Only by God’s gift of wisdom, the hallmark grace we beg for in Confirmation. Wisdom is being able to choose the best good for the right moment. It is entirely possible to make things worse by doing the wrong good at the wrong time.  Being good and stupid is almost as damaging as evil.
So Catholic education at the high school level is education to discern how to choose the best good: among vocations, among tactics, among initiatives. Literature gives an endless depiction of nuance in doing good, and the teen has an appetite now for learning about human beings and understanding them more intimately, so as to better understand himself or herself.

In eighth grade, my best friend and I switched to a new public high school, and a new library. I can’t recall exactly what it looked like, but I do remember the caliber of literature. One book I recall which I eagerly started and still regret finishing pretended to be a mystery, but it was a seduction story, whose male adolescent narrator was more intent on getting his girl partner into bed than catching the bad guy. The story was disgusting and should have been demeaning to any girl reader, but it was found in our 8th grade library. I still fault the poor gatekeeping shown by the librarian, which undercut any moral guidance she might have been able to give to students about proper relationships with the opposite sex. She might have included the book because she assumed that teens were “all doing it anyway,” which I have always found the most insulting—and incorrect—assumption adults can make about teens. Moral evil brings with it a moral blindness and lack of self-awareness. If you lie, you assume everyone else lies. If you cheat on your taxes, your conscience might assure you that anyone else would have done the same thing.  I have since learned that when anyone, whether a celebrity or an expert in adolescence, tells you that teens “can’t be chaste,” it tells you more about them than about teens. Most teens are romantics who really do what to save themselves for their future spouse. It would be heartening if teen fiction gave them some encouragement in that ideal, and if librarians had more faith in their patrons.
In eighth grade, every truly interesting book seemed to include sex scenes, and it seemed to us that the modern world wanted to convince us that we should want to sleep with any rock star or alpha male who presented himself. I recall our shared outrage when one of our favorite authors, the purportedly Christian Madeleine L’Engle, had one of her best heroines throw away her virginity on a college guy she barely knew. I wrote her a letter expressing my shock. She startled me by kindly writing back, to explain that at least her heroine’s choice was “not lust.” We were not impressed by her reasoning.  Her answer increased our sense that the modern world wanted to fill our mind with garbage, seduce us, or see us surrender to drugs or depression. It drove us both to choose differently: to choose Christ. And thank God for that.
I knew I wanted a Catholic education. My parents agreed. So I found my next library: a tall narrow room with aqua walls and a bright blue carpet at the top of an industrial-style old Catholic school building. It had huge glass windows, overlooking a depressed section of town where the school was located. I liked the students better: it was a mix of inner-city and suburban students, with a nice variety. The boys held doors open for girls instead of calling them dirty names, and I was grateful there were no more ghastly shirts.  

The library was small, however, and I quickly discovered its limits. I began using the public library as a supplement for recreation and research, both academic and personal, reading about the history of clowns in literature, T. S. Eliot, more Shakespeare, and yes, romance and fantasy.  I was reading adult fiction now but keeping the code. My friend and I discovered Christian fiction, and it was a welcome relief to be assured of not being "slimed," though we agreed some of it was dull and silly, or only surface-Christian. There was no Christian fiction in the Catholic-school library, and the fiction section was so small I quickly gave up on it.
But in the exploration of the nonfiction sections of the school library, I stumbled upon a book written by a priest about Catholic sexuality. I read it and found that when he encountered couples who were sleeping together outside of marriage, he did not tell them it was wrong, he merely asked if it was meaningful. If it was, he let them be. This sounded problematic, but I thought maybe it was a nuance I didn't understand. Then the priest went on, saying sexual encounters outside of marriage were not at all bad, and even incest could be a “meaningful relationship.” In hindsight, after the sex abuse scandal in the American church, these writings are unfortunate, to say the least. I put the book back on the shelf and did not know what to do. I was rather afraid of the librarian, a religious sister. I had already discovered the sister teaching theology at the school barely knew her bible, and another rhapsodized about the rock star Madonna, so I was already skittish about asking any direct moral question.
Years later, after I had graduated from high school, I returned to the school for a visit, and finally worked up the courage to confront the librarian.  When I showed her the book, her smile grew frosty, and she informed me that the people who would read this book were adults, and adults would understand what it meant. I wanted to say, “Sister, this is a HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY.”
I left that high school junior year for a new kind of high school, not run by religious or by the diocese, but run by parents, though some religious still taught there. It was an outlier in the late 80s, with a sometimes-confrontational relationship with the diocese, a private school which taught the Catholic faith. It promised a more intensely Christian environment, and I wanted that. When I told my English teacher why I wasn’t returning, she told me I wasn’t going to learn anything in a Catholic fishbowl, as she termed it.  It’s easy to mistake a greenhouse for a hothouse.
For me, the private Catholic school was me giving the Catholic Church one last chance to prove to me that it was not the corrupt, unfaithful, lax and useless institution that my public-school history teachers told me it was, an idea which the diocesan high school had ironically only enforced. Influenced by my Christian friend and my diet of Christian fiction, I thought it was just a matter of time before I left the crumbling cultural edifice of Catholicism for a vibrant evangelical Christianity. I knew I wanted to follow Christ: surely this was how He would lead me.


The library at my new school was tiny in the extreme: it consisted of the two window-seat-height bookshelves in the English classroom, presided over by another religious sister, Sister Julia. Small pickings indeed. No puppets, theatre history, or film research: I would depend on an assortment of nearby public libraries for that. In her classroom I discovered new loves I went on to research in those libraries: John Keats. The Canterbury Tales. And then, one memorable day, Sister Julia pulled me aside (my English teachers were always targeting me! I was immediately wary) and asked me to read an essay called, “The Paradoxes of Christianity” by a man named G.K. Chesterton. I dutifully began to read it, and as I did, my mind exploded. For in that essay, Chesterton, himself not even yet a Catholic, explained Catholicism to me as a collision of opposites which were made to balance, and in doing so, created orthodoxy.
Chesterton explained Catholicism for me, and for the first time I saw it. He made imaginative sense of the excesses of the saints, the precision of the creeds, the warfare of the councils, even the failures and the sin, the crud of centuries like the weather-beaten stains in the cloak of an adventurer. He made me see why doctrine was important: “it might only be a matter of an inch, but an inch is everything when you are balancing.” I have not been the same since.
Chesterton helped bring my faith into the third stage, where I could see and appreciate the nuances now that I was sure of what was certain. Though the Church might sway in the wind, the tree still stood. I understood that false teaching would dry up and fall away like dead branches, but that clinging to Christ and His Church gives life. In any tree, some branches are growing even as others are dying off: it isn’t obvious, but time reveals it.
And I had discovered Chesterton, and he became my lifeline in the storm. When I researched him further and discovered he had struggled with depression as a student, particularly when his fellow students were seducing girls and dabbling in the occult and he was mocked for his innocence, I felt an immediate kinship with him. The Man Who Was Thursday and the Father Brown stories became some of the most important fiction in my life. Through Chesterton, I learned to find other good guides and good teachers, who could grapple with the mess and the muddle, but had the confidence and good humor of faith, a self-awareness of sin, and a defiance of evil.


My last school library was at the Catholic college I choose to attend, where at last I could read and research to my heart’s content. This library was a new building, a bit self-important and space-wasting in design but nicer to look at, perched halfway uphill between the dorms and the academic complex. It had soaring shelves, a labyrinth of quiet, marked on the top story with narrow floor-to-ceiling windows with deep sills that were just wide enough to curl up on with a tome or two.
During my classes in theatre, media, theology, and history, fireworks would go off in my head as new ideas collided and connected. And between lectures, I would hurry down the hill to the library where I would bury myself in the topic or tangent I had just heard. I read about the Romanovs and the Gnostics, feminism and French intellectuals, Aquinas and Broadway musicals, fairy tales and Restoration playwrights, Watergate and cable networks, contraception and experimental theater, the Eucharist and the Middle Ages. Now I was not afraid to read secular ideas and novels. I read the Gnostic Gospels and shuddered with relief that they had been rejected from the canon of Scripture. The Christ of those Gospels was unrecognizable, and the apostles were bigots, declaring, “women do not deserve life,” and Christ responding, “Unless a woman become male, she will not enter the kingdom of God.” Striking word. Poetic, even. But wrong. Wrong. Christ, in whom there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, called both men and women to baptism, equal in dignity, effervescent in their complementary gifts. Mother Church cut through the chaos and chose. And what she chose bravely, with Spirit-inspired human choice, has given generations life, and saved ages of endless doubt and division.
The development of doctrine is a terrifying history to contemplate. Doctrine doesn’t drop as a book from the heavens, but it comes about, mostly, through arguments. Messy, serious arguments with enormous consequences.
Mother Church, that disreputable Bride of Christ, is a busy mother, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and like most overworked loving mothers, she only really pays attention when a fight breaks out. And even then, most times, she’ll say, “Work it out, you all,” and go on working, until the screams become unbearable and maybe there’s even blood. Then she intervenes. And like most mothers, her commands are mainly in the negative. “From now on, no one is allowed to do X.” “To those of you who do X or say X, even if you don’t say it but imply X in a nasty sneering kind of way when you think I’m not looking, let him be anathema!”
Some complain the pronouncements of the Church are mainly negative. Well, of COURSE they’re mainly negative! Just as mothers who love their children and respect their freedom don’t tell the children how to play, only how not to play. What mother says, “You must climb trees, then play in the sandbox making castles out of bark bits, then spend fifteen minutes throwing balls, then play nonviolent games with sticks.” No, when Mom sends her kids out to play, she says, “Don’t leave the yard. Stay off the fence, don’t throw sand, and absolutely no sword fighting with sticks: you nearly poked your brother’s eye out last time.”  Negative, yes, but much more freeing.   And yes, Mom makes weird rules sometimes as a result of fights: “No one in the house is allowed to answer, ‘Chicken Butt’ when asked ‘what?’”
This is just how moms are. They keep us real. They want to see the rubber hit the road, not hear about lofty ideals. Christ says, “Take up my yoke and learn from Me. Take and eat, this is My Body. Go into all the world and tell the good news.”
His Bride says, “That means seven years of Catholic education before receiving confirmation. Okay, six. Ok, we’ll make it five. Stop arguing with me! And I expect you all to show up for dinner once a week? You hear me? No, not whenever you feel like it, once a week! No exceptions! And wash your hands and face first, see?”
Sometimes Mama Church is no fun. But she’s right. Sometimes she’s distracted and confusing. Sometimes she holds family councils and they’re a disaster, and no one follows the rules there anyhow. But she’s patient, and she waits on us, and seldom throws anyone out, just keeps reminding us, waiting for us to get it right.
And she gets no love from the world. They hate her and will say and write the nastiest things about her. They’ll seduce and steal away her children, kill them if they get the chance. And even her own children will criticize her and publish endless catalogs of her mistakes and failings. But being the gutsy and independent woman that she is, she doesn’t care, much. She just keeps on working and singing and cleaning up dirty kids and wiping their noses and putting on Band-Aids and repeating lessons for the thousandth time to stubborn humanity. And giving endless second chances. But she warns us: Daddy’s coming home. And when He does, even the dead will not be able to hide from His judgment.
But until then, we are living in the time of His mercy, and I say thank God for that. And so as Catholic gardeners, our job is to cultivate our garden, so Mama Church’s children can run and play in them and learn.
A last word about technology, which, even in this wonderful age of online conferences and easy research tools, if not tamed, threatens to fragment and make obsolete the very libraries we love. I believe with Neil Postman that it is time to stop figuring out how to use technology to teach our students, and instead switch to teaching our students how to use technology.
There is something subversively private about reading a print book. No marketing software can track how many pages you read, no research company can deduce your values from where you stopped or build your government profile based on what sentences you highlighted. Your soul is still your own.
As a Catholic school student, I struggled through scanty library materials, but now we all suffer from an overabundance of sources, making my students’ research reports a muddle of a different kind. Although information flows from every hyperlink, students need more guidance about sources than ever before, and face-to-face guidance. Walking through the research process with them, is more crucial than ever.
Just as personalized service in stores and online sites becomes rarer, I hope and pray that personalized guidance by librarians who understand and appreciate the planes of learning will become a hallmark of Catholic education. We care more about the soul and more about the person, or we should. And we can let our students and patrons know that a few good authors can be good guides through a maze of sources. Drawing attention to them is more crucial than ever.
Fight against the dopamine-addiction and illusory invulnerability of social media and online technology by reviving face-to-face relationships and a shared love of the printed page and the experience of reading, including the grace-filled power of reading Scripture. Recover and value the power of memory: actively cultivate recitation and internalization of knowledge instead of letting easy access to a database wither away those non-visual synapses in the child's brain. Of course, all these things are under siege—but Catholic education has always been under siege. Maintain a greenhouse of sanity against the virtual assault, using the Theology of Bodily Presence and Locality to counter the denigration of the human and the objectification of the body.

Who would have thought that a half or quarter room full of good books in the basement of a school building could become a launching pad for a new human culture? With a good Catholic library, such things are possible. For the Holy Spirit is never done with the Church, or with us. In fact, He may have just gotten started.  Thank you.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Thoughts from Shutting up and Listening


Dear friends,
I've been silent for a long time on many issues because I don't really feel I have much to say. But I do have a tremendous need to pay attention and listen.
I am a novelist who has trouble now finding time to write novels. I am a comic book writer in search of funding. In the meantime, I am raising young adults, teens, children, and toddlers, and teaching English and Religion to a pretty amazing bunch of teenagers. So when I come online, I mainly listen. I listen to my old friends and my parents' friends. I listen to those I've met once and regret not seeing more often, my colleagues in the Catholic press (so many of them excellent hardworking people), those I've never met, those I know from my own town or parish, and to my fellow authors and artistic friends. And the listening is better than the speaking.
Back in college, I came to the realization that I actually liked people. I was a loner with few friends as a child, self-absorbed and self-centered. Even my relationship with Christ was immature, Pharisitical, and self-referencing. In college I passed through two years of hellish isolating depression, and when I emerged from it, I realized that I had actually come to truly appreciate other people, during the time when I was separated from my own self and my own creativity. I believe Christ allowed that because He did not want me to follow my vocation as a Catholic writer full of the smug and certain ardor of my youthful conversion. That sojourn in a mental wilderness where I learned the hard way that I could not trust the ranting feverish profanities of my own brain prepared me to more fully embrace the Church. God proved to me that I could not trust myself and that I needed other people, as problematic as they are. He also showed me in particular at Franciscan University a sketch of the Church, the Catholic Church, in all her messy, tangled, disreputable, chaotic, and persevering glory.
That vision of her has informed my life as a Catholic. I have no doubt that I'm serving Christ, but I am also serving His Bride. Forgive the genderisms, but in my experience, women keep men real. Men may have high-flown ideals and kingdom-wide plans for greatness, but women ask them for a ring on their finger and a regular paycheck. In the same way, the Catholic Church keeps Christianity real. It's what it all looks like when human beings put the words and deeds of Christ into practice. It's a mess, but it's real, and it's human. And God wanted a human church, not a spiritual idea. The whole idea of the Lord God, from creation to this holy present moment, is to empower human beings to actually do things that have consequences and which last. Woman is an embodiment of this idea: we make humans, with the help of the Lord, as Eve said in the Bible. The Church is that Woman who by joining we get to help make something that will last.
Now, I have never been an idealist, perfectionist type. I never expect much from human beings. I feel I’ve known enough good and holy people to realize that no one, not even Mother Teresa, is Christ Himself. (I met Mother Teresa once, and she was clearly holy, but too busy to make eye contact.) And I discovered I never really expected that. So I confess I do not understand the rage of my good friends who are scathingly disappointed in fellow Catholics, fellow pro-lifers, fellow Americans because of the revelation of this or that (very real) failing. I have been listening to the rage and trying to understand it, and I feel it springs from bitter disappointment in humanity.
I have read Church history: I never want to go back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance because I know that having a political profligate sinner on the papal throne would have hurt my faith. I feel gratitude for all the popes we have had in the modern age. I love Pope Francis, but he’s a different kind of leader, more of the radical poet, not really concerned with helping others to agree with him. And I always thought being Catholic wasn’t really about the Pope anyway, any more than it’s about your local bishop (who has seldom been anything more than a name to me, aside from real giants like John Cardinal O’Connor). So I don’t get the disappointment and the rage, and the criticism, and the conspiracy-building-connecting-the-dots that so many of my friends are engaging in. Have circumstances always been this dire, human beings always been this malevolent, Christians always been so vile and racist/nativist/selfish/leftist/rightist/communist/hedonist/puritanish/istististish?
Well, yes.
I know for a fact that I myself have always been vile and lazy and hypocritical and vain, so I can at least speak from my own experience. But you all have befriended me anyhow, society has not incarcerated me (yet), and the grass does not burn under my feet, and, in truth, I eat my bread in peace and go to sleep in comfort without care for the morrow. I hope to keep Hell and my promises to God for a truly uncomfortable conversion at equal and safe distances from myself. I deduce from this (forgive me) that other people I love might also be quite as bad as myself, but I try to be charitable. Yet in my truthful moments, I acknowledge this sham existence I lead, and I begin, yet again, to solve the problems I have caused that are right in front of me, and patch up and repair the evil I have done in the past.
Yes, we have problems. The horror of abortion marches on heedless. The idolatry of contraception and the idiocy of pornography and the tragic destruction of micro-civilizations by the millions that is divorce roll their jagged wheels through our relationships, our towns, our cities, our countryside. We block our borders and ignore world horrors. The wealth of American resources is frittered away on silliness while those in other countries starve and lack. Globalization paralyzes us into inaction. Participating in the Internet (like this, which I’m typing while my children dally about finishing their homework and my to-do list glares at me) redefines our emotions and conceptions. We are always reacting, never acting, harried by the comforting addiction of the screen. What will history think of we adults, who fought television boldly in our youth, but succumbed to social media with nary a whimper of regret? I suspect the worst evils, the cancer that will kill us in the end and damn our souls to hell, are the ones that seem the nicest and most comforting now. Which is why I don’t see racism and Nazism as the danger because, simply, they are obviously evil. And just as I’ve criticized Christians for piling on condemnations of homosexually-attracted people while ignoring divorce, I do see telling off others, the shaming, the public sneer, the bulls-eye of rhetoric that feels so good through the keyboard as doing far more damage to fragile friendships, to relationships gone cold through failure of face-to-face contact, than any amount of alt-right immaturity.
Our problems are dire. And yet, we have lights that turn on, and grocery stores that have food, and people who are civil and who don’t murder and rob us, though we are strangers to them. We should be grateful, and far more grateful than we are. If we were to burn everything down and start over, what kind of selfish righteousness assures us that we won’t make things in our utopia much, much worse? America is bad, Western Civilization is bad, but it could easily be much, much worse. We do need to right the injustices, cut out the cancer, rebuild and so on, but let’s be realistic about the state of the infection and the precision of the cure, lest we cause more evils than we intend. We are trying to cure the patient, not kill him, and that requires holding back and not destroying everything for the sake of eradicating something. John Cavanaugh- O'Keefe once said that what keeps pro-lifers real is the reality that fighting abortion means being kind to desperate, fearful pregnant women. You can’t save a baby without helping the muddle that is the mother. That means oftentimes you need to slow down, shut up, and listen. Most of real life is like that, and eradicating real evils in a civilized society involves that too.
We take the miracle of civilization for granted. But the Church came of age in a society that was losing civilization, and she knows the value of it. That’s why I refuse to use profanity and avoid vulgarity in public: because I respect the civilization of which those rules are the outward forms. Doing good is easier because we are civilized, because we are polite and respectful and stand in line and follow the rules. The Church saw what the world was like in the ruins of Roman civilization, and emphatically decided that civilization was better than barbarism and chaos, better for children, better for the poor, better for the weak. It was a woman’s choice, and a very womanly choice, and I believe it was a wise choice. Individual choices are stronger in a civilized world. If we value individual freedom, we should value civilization.
We are connected more than we know to one another. That was the lesson I learned through depression, and both our independence and our feelings of isolation are illusions. Our environments are made of people, each connected to the other by a relationship, and poisoning one relationship opens the possibility of poisoning many others. We should tread carefully because we can block one troll, but we can’t block humanity from our lives. God made humans in such a way that our actions have consequences that spread further and faster than we wish or know, and the only salvation for us is forgiveness and reparation. Which brings me back to being Catholic, since we Catholics are supposed to forgive and have our sins forgiven, and our spirituality includes doing reparation. What makes you Catholic?
Catholics are Catholic because they don’t leave the Church.
Not leaving the Church is like not leaving your spouse. Marriage has taught you that your spouse is a jerk, selfish, tyrannical, exacting, cold, unimpressed, cynical. But if you are honest, you will acknowledge that you are the same. And you will stay, because you are not giving up on yourself, and you are not giving up upon your spouse. And if you are wise, you know that hot coal of anger can be wafted into a smoking hot passion of love and comfort with just a little bit of shifting your position. You don’t settle, you don’t give up. Like the Von Balthasaar position on Hell, you don’t expect them (or you) to change, but you also can’t stop hoping they (and you) will change for the good and for the better. Hope is life. And hope is action is love. We are fragile wimpy creatures. We will not change if we run away. That freely-chosen bondage is what frees us from ourselves.
Every day you don’t leave your spouse is a good day. Everyday you don’t leave the Church is a good day. Every day you don’t give up on humanity is a better day for humanity.
If you want to improve your marriage (and I hope you do!), shut up and listen to your spouse and family. And then when you speak, speak wisely (and you’d better pray first).
If you want to improve our Church (and I hope you do!), the same advice might be in order.
And just as, in the case of improving your marriage, you should probably stop complaining about your spouse in public, so many Catholics prudently refrain from directly criticizing in public the Church they hope to reform. This is not purely fear or co-dependence or the money trail, just long-term thinking. There are many, many valid criticisms of the Church they could air if they wanted (just as you could humiliate your spouse much better than any stranger could) but they choose not to do so.
The more I listen, the more I feel the need for prayer. We do need change, world-transforming change. But it will not come through violence or voting or political action, but through conversion of heart, one heart at a time, one marriage at a time, one family at a time, one institution at a time. We need to keep listening, and keep talking wisely, fearlessly, but with an eye to the future relationship, not keeping score, but figuring out how to keep the marriage going.
You see, we are all, this mass of humanity, treading water, holding onto one another, and keeping one hand, at least, on the Church. We are afloat because of Her. She is like Peter walking on water, and a terrifying spectacle it is, especially when you know Peter and know what a flake he is. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the entire thing is a (pardon me) freaking miracle, sustained from moment to moment through history.
She is not sinking because of Christ.
Catholics are Catholic because they don’t leave the Church.
Stay strong, my friends.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Easter basket tour 2017!


We've got books for teen girls, tween boys, babies, and more in our third Easter basket tour with more baskets and more sweet ideas for Easter treats! Take the tour.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Spanish Match & Christopher


Spanish Match & Christopher http://eepurl.com/icmvA

Monday, May 2, 2016

Regina Doman's Updates: Questions about Black as Night and Waking Rose

Regina Doman's Updates: Questions about Black as Night and Waking Rose: It's been a while since I've posted reader questions about Black as Night and Waking Rose, so I thought I'd post this latest one:

There seems to be symbolism in the book Black as Night that I don't understand. The main one I have trouble comprehending happens to be the title of the play Rose was in in that book, Through the Looking Glass. I noticed that Elaine is the founder of the Mirror Corporation, and towards the end of the book Bear happens to literally be on the other side of the looking glass in his father's house. 

Another question I have is for Waking Rose. When Rose is in her coma and Dr. Murray is giving her something to make her stay in her coma, I was wondering what Rose sees. She sees Dr. Murray as a serpent and it talks about what she sees as a type of palace and everyone is sleeping and she can't seem to wake them up. Is what she seeing the inside of Graceton? So when she wakes up she can go throughout Graceton? Thank You!  -- B.F, 4/18/2016  read more...

Friday, April 15, 2016

New baby and new books!


In my first day in the office after giving birth to little Irene Margaret (born April 4th, pictured above), I found two new books waiting for me which I wanted to share with Chesterton Press fans. SOMEDAY is a timely thriller in novella form by British Catholic YA author Corinna Turner.

Two years ago today, 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria were kidnapped by radical Islamists. The whereabouts of most of them are still unknown. Lest the world forget and move on, Corinna Turner, partnering with Aid to the Church in Need, has retold the story in modern Britain, giving a twist to the story, making it surprisingly relevant and inspiring. The best part is that all proceeds from sale of SOMEDAY go to Aid to the Church in Need, which ministers to persecuted Christians worldwide. Also available in Kindle and eBook formats: and if you buy the hard copy, you can get the ebook for free.

The second book is my first non-fiction, No Longer Strangers: The First 40 Years of Franciscan University Households, written with Fr. Gregory Plow, TOR. Why do we Christians need community? Why is the "small group" an essential part of human life? How does community help to ground us as human persons? How does it affect our spiritual life? This history of the implementation of student "households" at my alma mater, Franciscan University looks at these questions in context of the real-life campus-wide experiment begun by Fr. Michael Scanlan in 1974-5 and how the concept has developed and changed over the course of 40 years.

Anyone interested in the concept of Christian community, at the parish level or in some other form, will find this book fascinating.  How it helped bring about a revival of faith on a dying college campus is a story both miraculous and instructive. You can find both at ChestertonPress.com.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Regina Doman's Updates: RIP: Jerome Heckencamp, Computer Expert Extraordin...

Regina Doman's Updates: RIP: Jerome Heckencamp, Computer Expert Extraordin...: Asking for prayers for the soul of my friend Jerome Heckencamp, brother to Catholic YA suspense author  Therese Heckenkamp Popp , who passed away this week. I became acquainted with Jerome when I was writing my fifth Fairy Tale Novel, Alex O'Donnell and the 40 Cyberthieves...

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Sisters of the Last Straw author Karen Kelly Boyce: Avoiding the Preachy and Boring

Posted in this week's Trenton Monitor:
“When I read the books I was buying for my grandchildren, they were preachy and boring,” Boyce said. “I wanted to make them laugh. People have faults. I wanted to teach the kids to forgive.” In response and recalling the Sisters of Mercy who schooled her as a child, she created the Sisters of the Last Straw series of mysteries for children ages six to 12.

...“With hindsight, I now realize the wonderful education and faith that the Sisters of Mercy gifted me. Most of the sisters were kind, hard-working and faithful. I remember them with great delight and I am grateful for them,” Boyce wrote. “I realize now the sacrifices they made… As an adult, I understand that nuns are human beings with virtues and flaws. Perhaps that is why God inspired me to create characters who work hard to overcome their human failings. In Sisters of the Last Straw,…all of [the nuns] are good, all of them human. I can present the sisters and the faith with truth, humor and gratitude. It goes to show that what they taught me must be rubbing off.”

As described in the book synopsis, the fictitious order of nuns in the series is so named by their bishop because they had been dismissed from other convents for their bad personal habits. All have strong faith…. and foibles. Mother Mercy is a born leader who struggles to control her temper; Sister Krumbles loves all God’s creatures, but is disorganized and clumsy; Sister Shiny is vain but keeps the convent spotless; Sister Lovely struggles with cigarette smoking but is kind and generous; Sister Lacey is rough-and-tumble who fights her impulse to curse with silly rhymes and exclamations, and Sister Wanda is always getting lost but never loses her gentle personality.

The series, published by Chesterton Press, details the nuns’ exploits in three novels thus far: The Case of the Haunted Chapel, The Case of the Missing Novice and the The Case of the Stolen Rosaries book which garnered the CPA award.

Read More...

Monday, October 12, 2015

Introducing our picture books! The Monks and the Story of Job




I am very pleased to let you know about two picture books we have recently released, the first ones ever published by Chesterton Press. The Story of Job is my retelling of the book of Job which I told to my own children, and which my friend Ben Hatke kindly illustrated. It's been a family favorite which I've shared with audiences when I speak on suffering. After years of audience members requesting their own copy, I am pleased that it's finally in print. I hope it will help other families the way it helped ours. As for the other book...


Several years ago, I was acquisitions editor for Sophia Institute Press, and The Monks' Daily Bread manuscript by my friend Sylvia Dorham found its way into my inbox. I was charmed by the concept, delighted by the Dr. Seuss-like rhymes, and wanted to see the book get into print. But although publisher John Barger shepherded Sylvia through several grueling rounds of revisions which made the book better and funnier each time, Sophia Press ultimately decided not to publish the book.


So when I went back to working full-time for my own company, Chesterton Press, and I found that Sylvia hadn't yet found a publisher, I couldn't resist offering... Sylvia's response? "Ok, twist my arm! Harder!"


  

The final piece of the puzzle arrived in the form of a clever little art portfolio tucked into an envelope which I found in the mail later that year, featuring an accordion of original superhero trading cards, three original tiny comic books, and a handwritten card from an artist I had never heard of: Christopher Tupa. At some point, it occurred to me that he would be the perfect artist to illustrate this funny story.

So it is with much pleasure that I introduce to you the first picture books from Chesterton Press: I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed helping to create them! 

Peace and good.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Regina's Reading Table: Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life

I began as a C.S. Lewis geek and I still am. I was a Lewis geek before I was a Tolkien geek, a Chesterton geek, or even a fairy tale geek. If there is a writer I self-identify with, it's Lewis. He writes as I would like to write.  I've heard some Chestertonians say of Lewis, "Oh, everything you can find in Lewis, you can find in Chesterton." If you're only looking at Lewis's apologetic works, then perhaps that might be true (but I feel Lewis is different in tone and emphasis and tactic from Chesterton), but I feel that Lewis is superior to Chesterton when it comes to writing fiction.

Chesterton is Chesterton, no matter what he writes: but Lewis morphs. Narnia is quite different from Mere Christianity, and the Space Trilogy and The Pilgrims' Regress are each its own creature, written for specific audiences and I suspect it might be difficult to imagine the author of Narnia as the author of a book as brutal as Till We Have Faces.  I also love Lewis's literary works, although I have not finished English Literature in the Sixteeth Century, Excluding Drama (but maybe I'll read it next).   Last time I checked, I think I had about three books to read before I could say I'd read the entire Lewis canon, but I'm sure there's a few more pieces of unpublished work they've dug up since then. And I used to have read every published book about Lewis, but as his fame has spread, I'm afraid I'm far behind in my Lewis studies.

That being said, I'm familiar enough with the life and work of C.S. Lewis to be a fairly good judge of biographies about him, and this old one, which I just finished reading, was excellent. I found it in a stack of someone's giveaway books, and picked it up because, you know, Lewis. But it's taken me several years to actually read it. And even though it was published in 1986, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life was worth reading: after a while, I enjoyed it so much that I made myself stop before I'd read more than a year's worth at a time, so I could savor the experience. That's high praise of any book, and particularly a book about Lewis. Even though the title is awkward: Lewisians know C.S. Lewis hated the name "Clive" and insisted on being known as "Jack," the book is much, much better than its title and dated cover might lead you to guess.

I'm intrigued in the storytelling techniques that biographers use, and I admired Griffith's structure of using years instead of chapters, and instead of using a strong narrative voice, letting the subject and those who met him speak for themselves. For instance, one chapter might begin with a snippet from a New Year's letter Lewis wrote to a friend, and then next section would be a recollection from Tolkien's diary about a meeting he had with Lewis in their favorite pub. There were copious and interesting quotes from the near-thousands of letters Lewis wrote to people all over the world over the course of his life, as well as recollections from others who knew or met Lewis, such as T.S. Eliot and his fellow professors at Oxford.  This fascinating collection must have been quite a task to amass, but it has the overall effect of letting the subject and his contemporaries present the man, while the narrator recedes into the background.

I appreciated that, since the last biographies I happened across of Lewis took adamant sides in the various controversies surrounding Jack Lewis's life. Some hate his Protestant Christianity (Humphrey Carpenter): others find him lacking as a person (A.N. Wilson). Others (usually those who knew Lewis such as George Sayer) have a bone to pick with other biographies. And then there's the controversies, a lot of inside baseball. Most prominent is the Warnie Lewis vs. Walter Hooper spat, which sometimes transmorgifies into a Protestant vs. Catholic spat.

The short version: Lewis's older brother and close companion Warner Lewis struggled with alcoholism, leading to Jack needing to hire a private secretary--Hooper--the last year of his life.  After Jack's death, the two apparently quarreled, leading to a fight over the unpublished papers and memorabilia Jack left behind, and a regrettable subsequent muddle over his legacy. Hooper allegedly found Warnie Lewis trashing a huge cache of Jack's papers and took (stole? rescued? depends on who you read) them from the burn pile, later publishing them in various collections. Warnie responded by donating nearly everything else to a Protestant college in America, Wheaton College, which today houses the Marion E. Wade Collection, containing much material about Lewis and his fellow "Inklings."  That Walter Hooper later converted to Roman Catholicism and has opined that Lewis himself might have been close to conversion embittered the already personal controversy.  I won't go into the nastiness, and I'm grateful that Griffith sidesteps it.

Griffith also manages to be fair and sympathetic to both the controversial women in Lewis's life: Minto and Joy. Paddy Moore's mother, "Minto," was an older woman whom Lewis adopted as his own mother shortly after Minto's son, a friend of Lewis's, was killed in WWI (Jack Lewis had lost his own mother while still a child and missed her terribly). Jack supported both her and her daughter Maureen, even when Minto grew old and crochety and unpleasant. Warnie Lewis and Minto came to hate one another: Jack Lewis managed to love them both. Biographers tend to believe either Warnie's version or Jack's version of Minto's character. Griffith does an admirable job balancing the two and graciously omits the scurrilous speculation of later biographers who are unduly influenced by Warnie.

And then there's Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, the American poet exiled in England and dying of cancer, who began as a charity case and ended up marrying Jack Lewis, bringing him incredible happiness the final years of his life. Warnie liked Joy, so she gets a fair shake in most biographies. But some biographers suspect she seduced Lewis with her pushy American ways. (I personally find her endearing and funny: among her last words were, "Don't get me a posh coffin. Posh coffins are all rot." and "I am at peace with God.") No one can help but be moved by their late-in-life love story, which will I think, stand the test of time, and the canonization efforts of bad movies like Shadowlands. However, some Catholic admirers of Lewis suggest that it was her influence that stopped Lewis from converting to Catholicism. I find this unconvincing, and Griffiths gives evidence to the contrary: he reports that the Bishop of Oxford told Lewis that he could not marry Joy in the Anglican church because she had been previously married, and the Anglican Church was not permitting second marriages at that time (the 1950s). Lewis pleaded that Joy's previous marriage was to a man who was already married, so wouldn't that make her previous marriage invalid anyhow?  Bishop replied that while the Roman Church might give him an annulment on those grounds, Canterbury would not.  Griffith also cites Lewis's growing distress with Anglican theological dissent: in one case, Lewis even told an Anglican priest that if the Anglican Church ceases to believe in the miraculous, he would be forced to leave, and become a Roman Catholic.

I admit that the controversy of whether Lewis might have become Roman Catholic doesn't interest me as much as might be supposed. It doesn't affect my love for him as a writer, and although I sympathize with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien's frustration that Lewis didn't convert while alive (apparently Lewis was a very prejudiced Northern Irish Protestant--talk about baggage!), I find many reasons to value Lewis despite his non-conversion to my own church. Mere Christianity is one of the most important books I've ever read, outside of the Bible, and That Hideous Strength remains my favorite fictional work ever.  Plus I share Lewis's periodic experiences of mysterious phenomenon which he called "Joy" which still unsettles and enriches my life, and his autobiography Surprised by Joy, affected me deeply. When an author is able to help you make sense of a highly personal spiritual experience, you never cease to value them. Lewis connected the dots for me, and I will always be grateful.

So even though I did not read this biography until now, I highly recommend it, especially in the light of more polemical and personal biographies that have been published since that time. It's a most enjoyable read, and an excellent first biography for those who know the author's works but not the person of the author. Sometimes Lewis as a person will frustrate you, sometimes he will shock you, but in the end, his suffering and his abiding love for Christ and belief in Him overcome all the rest.

Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life: Harper & Row, 1986.