Sunday, April 29, 2007

Everything's online now, even Elvish!

No, not Elvis. He really is dead.


This can provoke thought about whether Tolkien's stories about little people have any moral merit, whether it is a waste of time or a noble use of our speculative intellect to create alternative worlds, etc...

or Elvish can be used the way kids use it: as a secret language to speak in when you don't want the teacher, boss, party officials, etc to know what you're really talking about. I believe it sounds quite a lot like Latvian. Others claim Tolkien based it on Irish.

Analyzing how Grimm's Fairy Tales differ from pagan folk tales because of our Christian beliefs is an area of interest... My reservations about Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, etc, is that to my knowledge, in 20th century England people didn't really believe in witches [or did they?]. Was it an inauthentic device, kind of like our liturgies that involve faux folk music-- written in New York apartments?-- to whip up inauthentic emotions? Also a real caution for Catholics is the problem of focusing on magic-- a thing forbidden by the Lord our God. A complex topic-- certainly we are allowed to imagine; but how do we tell stories without swallowing the evil we are trying to smash? WWJD?

Gentle reader, I hope these are enough distractions for today.

Comments most welcome!


P.S. WWJD: back to Genesis: did giants like Finn McCool really live on the earth in antediluvian times? Maybe so....

My favorite website on the Middle Ages

Dear Catholicwriters fan,

This website provides many hours of distraction, as well as edification.

Learn all about the first Irish monastic settlements, and the beehive-shaped stone cells the ascetics lived in. Also fascinating: St. Brigid's Fire, lit for the poor to warm themselves at Kildare by this saint called "The Mary of Ireland." The fire has burned continuously and the nuns at Kildare tend the flame of hospitality to this day. Learn about Iona, St. Columba's home in the Outer Hebrides. Or Clonfert, the ruins on the Shannon, consisting of a door....

The thought has struck me again and again that the British Isles will not be reconverted to ardent faith while the holy places, where learning and faith were nourished, are left in ruins. We have no memory of what we cannot see, whether it is the battlefield of Manassas under a shopping mall, or four lands with silent monasteries destroyed by pagan Danes, or those lying wasted under manors built after the seizure of lands during King Henry's tenure. The British Isles once sent missions to Charlemagne's court which led to the reconversion of the continent ... if these halls of prayer, song and writing stand again, what could happen? Dream big dreams. God like big prayers, not little ones.

Never again have an unpublished thought!

Today a fan knee-deep in work wrote in and asked me to post some distracting updates. I think this update, "Never again have an unpublished thought," will, if properly pursued, lead to at least an entire week of distractions!

A bit of brainstorming and inspiration conspired to serve up the Big Rock Candy Mountain of writer's websites:

That's right: a whole site devoted to "Calls for Papers in English and American Literature." Jump on the listserv, browse the archives of announcements, or join in a conversation on Brit Lit. Hours of entertainment, and a listserv subscription too!

If you yearn to deliver papers on Catholic writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, John Henry Cardinal Newman-- or examining how Catholicism influenced and haunted writers like Hemingway and Hawthorne... here is your site!

As well we must remember that to be Catholic does not always mean pursuing theology... Pursuing beauty for its own sake is good. After the VA Tech tragedy, the world could benefit from a sound paper on "Call me Ishmael," [not Ismail Ax] or an analysis of what George really meant when he showed Lucy Honeychurch the interrogation mark [another literary illusion possibly copied by the assassi, whose paper header one day replaced his name with a "?" Is this to be taken at face value? Or was this a bright loose cannon who was trying to flirt with the teacher, Brit lit style? Was a literary allusion mistaken by illiterate journalists as a sign of deep disturbance? Surely the eventual killer had read "A Room with a View."]

The disturbing VA Tech massacre, perpetrated by a student of English, causes us to pause and think about the real purpose of letters. Art and beauty can lead us to God, or we can distort the arts into an egoistic and meaningless pursuit. Catholic writing must serve our ultimate end and the glory of God.

A frivolous distraction has provoked some serious thought. We need good papers, hard-thought, courageous papers, to address the topic of literature's moral purpose, and we need good literature that honestly address free will, good and evil, our ultimate end of Heaven, and the like.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Distance Ed for Catholic Writers

The founder of a Christian screenwriter's guild tipped me off to this distance ed resource:
UCLA has a prestigious Writer's Certificates program. You can take classes in creative writing, screenwriting, writing for TV, etc. Great basic training at a time when the market needs and demands Catholic content onscreen and in books! I hope to take a class this summer...

Lots of great Catholic distance ed programs exist, but the International Catholic University is singular in its versatility as well as its faculty. Started by Ralph McInerny in the 1990's, the ICU pairs audio/video material with a course syllabus. The courses are offered for M.A. degree credit, in either theology or philosophy, from Holy Apostles' Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Courses are also offered for self-study on DVD/audio or VHS, at a reasonable cost of $75 a course. Starving Catholic artists can purchase a course on, say, the Liberal Arts, Religious Art History, or Christology... and then when they sell their first novel and their budget for continuing education is greater, enroll in the M.A. program.

More on this topic later!

Government Funding Deadlines May 1st

It is a little-known fact that the National Endowment for the Humanities offers research grants to independent scholars. Affiliation with a university or think-tank is not a requirement for receiving government funding for a worthy project.

While endorsements of a particular religion using government funds is prohibited, many humanistic topics that are faith-related could be researched, provided they are tied to the greater goals of the NEH guidelines. The current NEH head, Dana Gioia, is an accomplished writer with a sound mind.

Several deadlines are coming up on May 1st. Whether or not you intend to apply this year, bookmark this page:

Who knows, maybe this year's winning research project could be the "Collected Works of St. Katherine Drexel"?

Catholic Journalism Scholarship Fund Apps Due May 1st

Freelancers or staff writers who are members of the Catholic Press Association are eligible to apply for the Catholic Journalism Scholarships.

Unlike many writing fellowships, the CPA Scholarships can be used for continuing education:
"Scholarships given are in the $250-$1,000 range, and a person who received one grant may apply for a second within five years, up to $2,000.
Scholarships have been granted to learn Spanish, enhance graphic skills, take pastoral ministry courses, go on study trips for Appalachia, pursue M.B.A’s--anything allied to the communications field and their job in the Catholic press.
Applicants need to have been employed in the Catholic press for at least three years."

For complete information, and for eligibility requirements for belonging to the Catholic Press Association, go to:

This blog will endeavor to publicize funding opportunities, conferences, recommended courses, lectures, etc. Stay tuned for more announcements!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

They shave the heads of the novitiates, poor girls!

Got your attention! This is not the title of a Father Dowling mystery, but an ad of sorts for one of our newly listed Writer's Resources. [see left]. The Oxford English Dictionary [OED] word of the day features not only a word but info about etymology, proper usage, etc. Today, no surprise, the word of the day is "novitiate." If you are wondering why notiviates get their heads shaved, go to the OED; "go look it up," as your fourth grade teacher used to say.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lost Catholic Classics

Father Kinsella's letters remind us of the mentor/ student relationship that is fundamental to any writing endeavor. This certainly holds most true when the students of Catholic literature seek to find source material that transcends current Oprah offerings that aim at a neutral goal of "getting people to read good/ great books."

In order to search for truth, this website will phase in discussions of Great Catholic Sources.

In the meantime, here are a few of my favorites from the lost ages of Christendom. It is imperative that we rediscover this source material:

  • St. Benedict, Rule of St. Benedict
  • Pope St. Gregory the Great, Life of St. Benedict
  • Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translation
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • On Marriage and Family, St. John Chrysostom [available from St. Vladimir's Press]
  • Catena Aurea, St. Thomas Aquinas' collected commentary by the Church Fathers on the Four Gospels
  • Hymns and Prayers of St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Prayers of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who had a great devotion to Our Lady

By now, it may be obvious that JMD is a Jesuit-trained firebrand, a talented apologist for the faith. I had the privilege of being schooled and trained by Dr. Ralph McInerny, whose knowledge of all things medieval surpasses Fr. Dowling's knowledge of all this deadly.

Next time: A list of what's on my art book shelf [I am a former art history student, with a concentration in the medieval and high renaissance periods]. Visual imagery is a key to rediscovering our Christian identity.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

"Letters From Fr. Kinsella, S.J."

I have had the writing bug in me for quite awhile now, but being an amateur I have always had difficulty in (1) getting started and (2) putting my thoughts into a format that folks would enjoy reading. Most of my friends know that I have been very blessed to be educated at Jesuit schools. From St. Ignatius High School, where I first developed my tastes for the classics and was introduced to Chesterton, to Loyola University Chicago, where I continued my classical studies and was introduced to the rich heritage of the Catholic intellectual life--especially the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the writings of Belloc, and the academic tradition of the Jesuits. Integral to this education was my purposeful seeking out of the Jesuit professors in their 70's and 80's and above. These were the most brilliant men in the world. They could hold court with any of the reigning Oxford dons and they would also be just as interested--if not more so--with daily life of a housewife taking care of multiple children. Sadly, most of my professors are now gone. There are only 2 left--both in their eighties--and still teaching at the university. I can say with a fair degree of certitude that I likely learned more through conversations with them than through formal classes.

In this spirit, I have chosen one of these men, Fr. John Kinsella, S.J., Professor of Law (Requiescat in pace), as the inspiration for a series of "letters to a young man" that I am writing. Though Fr. Kinsella is the name I am using, the particular literary device of a "priest-letter writer" is an amalgam of all the old Jesuit professors that I have had and also (Ellen, you'll like this) Prof. Charlie Rice. One of the reasons that I have chosen these gentlemen is that they have maintained the faith throughout most of a very turbulent century, and they have that rare blend of common sense and humility which is severely lacking today.

I will be periodically submitting these "letters" for comment and critique by our friends and colleagues here. I hope that they will be both entertaining and substantive and I look forward to your comments--if you hate it don't be sparing in the criticism!

(This letter is handwritten, it is just typed here for ease of reading.)

July 31, 20--
The Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola

Dear Joe,

It was good seeing you and the family several weeks ago. It sounds like you are quite busy with conditioning for your upcoming football season and getting ready for your junior year. Today is a very special day for us Jesuits as it is the Feast of St. Ignatius. I arose and offered Mass early, as is my custom. Our house has an old chapel with multiple altars where the Fathers may offer their private Masses. I prefer the stillness of the early morning hours when all is quiet and I can most prayerfully unite my heart and mind to Our Lord’s sacrifice. Today I offered Mass for my fellow Jesuits and also for you and the family.

While I have email, I thought that I would write you this letter as it seems to be becoming a lost art. In our technological age, where everything can be done at a moment’s notice, a handwritten letter seems to be a rarity. I recently read a wonderful piece by Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian--I suspect your father may have read some of his stuff--on letter writing. I think it is a wonderful piece and I wrote down several of his passages that really struck me. (Incidentally, I will try to obtain a copy for you and send it to you as I’m sure that you will enjoy it.) Anyway, Kalpakgian writes:

As the world becomes more impersonal and dehumanizing, a personal letter cheers and warms the heart and humanizes daily life. Life is not just business or work but play and delight, and a friendly letter serves no utilitarian purpose but is an activity enjoyable for its own sake.” (New Oxford Review, “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” Sept. 2004)

How true this is! Today, the world seems to be lost in efficiency. A latent attitude that seems to prevail is, “if it takes time, it is not being done right.” Hence our fast food culture. We Americans are famous for our desire for instant gratification. Kalpakgian continues:

Personal letters reassure people that they are unique, not merely social security numbers or anonymous customers. Someone found the time and took the interest and gave priority to the importance of communicating to a friend, relative, or loved one; someone realized the importance of the little things that beautify and civilize daily existence; someone still knows and practices the virtue of graciousness. A friendly letter testifies to the goodness of the human heart.

The arrival of a letter, however, not only rejoices the spirit of the recipient but also expands the heart of the writer. The art of letter writing involves imagining the presence of the other person. The writer must recall everything about the person being addressed -- his character, temperament, sensibility, interests, and background -- and imagine being in his company and holding a conversation with him. Letter writing cultivates in the correspondent the art of pleasing another person by engaging in common topics of interest, displaying a sense of humor, offering wise advice, acknowledging gratitude, or expressing love. Letter writing requires effort, concentration, and thought, even though it can be lighthearted, whimsical, and informal. One must find something to say that is substantive, engaging, or entertaining. In short, letter writing cultivates contemplation, an essential higher mental activity that transcends the mere exchange of information. (NOR, “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” Sept. 2004)

Kalpakgian says it so well! In my day, letter writing was a common thing. It was always exciting to receive a letter from a friend and especially when it was unexpected. I still have some personal handwritten letters from the past that I have saved--some from loved ones, others from very holy men that have meant a lot to me. Anyway, I write these thoughts to you because I prefer to communicate in this way. You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger and I hope that you would consider coming to me should you need anything. I won’t lie to you. I sincerely hope that you consider being a Jesuit one day. I know that you have a girlfriend (didn’t you call her a “knockout?” I would tend to agree.), but you can’t blame me for bringing it up! Anyway, I hope to hear from you soon. Do well on the football field--I hear you guys have a tough schedule this year. Don’t forget to focus on your studies when the term begins as well. Please give my regards to all the family.

In Domino,

Fr. Kinsella

Thoughts on a Catholic Press

A special thanks to Miss Rice for inviting me to contribute to this blog, which I hope will be a promising venture to bring together good Catholics and good writing. In an essay on the need for a Catholic press, Hilaire Belloc once opined that a "Catholic press" is not one that is overtly Catholic, i.e., expounding upon the great dogmas of the faith or citing theological treatises in its writing; rather, a Catholic press--and the one that is needed--is a press that sees the world as it truly is, i.e., making full use of the arsenal of faith and reason. It is a press that that recognizes truth from error and seeks to bring others to the true, the good and the beautiful--for that is indeed why we have been created.

Thus, the Catholic press should and ought to speak not only to Catholics but to everyone. This is not to say that such a press should be silent on the theological or the explicitly ecclesial, certainly not. But it should nonetheless be able to intelligently comment on the issues of the day or bring forth literature that is common sensical and oriented towards man's end. This blog, in a small little corner of cyberspace, I hope will contribute to such an effort.

Ad multos annos!

Update: Though not the essay I was referring to, here is another by Belloc that touches on the same themes.

Monday, April 2, 2007

John Paul II: Artists, Be Yourself!

Not said quite that way. But on the second anniversary of his passing, here is a notable line from his Letter to Artists, which will be quoted often here:

"The history of art... is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture."

There can be as many types of artists and writers as there are individuals. "Works of art speak of their authors" and "enable us to know their inner life." This takes great courage, especially when formalists demand a uniformity of product. Greatness, and great writing, consists in developing the unique and special gifts given by our Creator and Father.

Restraint in portraying evil

From the Vatican II Decree on the Media of Social Communications, Inter Mirifica:

"the narration, description or portrayal of moral evil, even through the media of social communication, can indeed serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity and, with the aid of appropriately heightened dramatic effects, can reveal and glorify the grand dimensions of truth and goodness. Nevertheless, such presentations ought always to be subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls, particularly when there is question of treating matters which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them."

This provides food for thought. It demands order and charity and restraint in the artistic handling of moral evil.