Friday, February 19, 2016

A Misfittian Inspiration from Thomas Merton

The Seven Story Mountain was an excellent book to read before Lent.  We were inspired by Merton’s detachment and aestheticism as we enter this holy season on Ash Wednesday.  However, the book was not without its practical challenges.  Several Misfits confessed to not being able to finish the whole book (the paperback edition is 462 pages), but vowed to do so when it became apparent that most of the meat is served at the end – especially the last 100 thought-provoking pages.  We agreed that it is an excellent source for those searching for God.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Merton’s early life –childhood, travels with his father, education, independence, lapse into sin, and call to conversion.  This narrative could have been judged to be somewhat mundane were it not for Merton’s ability to season it with detailed recollections of key people, places, and events that were the seeds of his eventual conversion as well as his philosophic and theological wisdom sprinkled throughout.  Writing was his true calling.

The tone changed in the second half of the book.  There was less action and more focus on Merton’s thoughts.  He had a close circle of friends during his journey, but he was most influenced by reading poets, philosophers, and theologians.  He had an immense intellect to comprehend dense material, but it was his will that enabled him to apply what he read to his life, which ultimately led to repentance, conversion, and a religious vocation.

There was one passage in particular that reminded me of The Misfits because I think it captures the essence of why we do what we do. The following was paraphrased from Part 2, Chapter 1, Section II (paperback edition page 197).

That course on Shakespeare was the best course I ever had at college.  It was the only place where I ever heard anything really sensible said about any of the things that were really fundamental – life, death, time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity.  The material of literature and especially of drama is chiefly human acts – that is, free acts, moral acts.  Literature, drama, and poetry make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way.  You miss the deepest meaning if you reduce the vital and creative statements about life and men to the dry, matter-of-fact terms of history, or ethics, or some other science.  They belong to a different order.  All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear.

The final line of the book is an apt summary of Merton’s entire life as an author and seeker.  I also submit that it would make a fine motto for The Misfits.  And it is already translated into Latin for us! 
(This is the end of the book, Not the end of the searching)

The Sign of Jonas was suggested to those who want more Merton.  It covers his life in the monastery.  The final chapter, The Fire Walk, was especially recommended and can be read as a stand-alone piece.  A copy of this book is available from the St. Thomas More Library at the Church of St. Michael.  It is also possible to view a short video of Fr. Louis (Thomas) Merton speaking on YouTube.

Consideration of Merton’s later writings posed questions for us about whether or not he lost his way.  However, instead of focusing on his personal life and celebrity or the subject matter in his later books we gave discussion to the times in which those works were done, namely the early years of Vatican II implementation.  We expressed regret for the Catholic institutions and devotions that were lost almost overnight.  If anyone can recommend a good source or essay explaining the reasons for the rapid decline of religious communities in the United States following Vatican II, The Misfits would like to hear of it.

MARCH  We will read Letters of Flannery O’Connor:  The Habit of Being.  It was suggested that Buzz might highlight selected letters to be discussed at the next meeting.

APRIL  We will re-read The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.  I believe this is the first time that The Misfits will discuss a book twice, but The Way of the Pilgrim is well worth a second look.  Here is the preview that was posted in March 2009.

We will be reading a very unusual and profoundly spiritual book, The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way.  This is widely regarded as one of the most deeply spiritual and enduring classics to come out of Russia.  It is the tale of a nineteenth-century peasant's quest for the secret of prayer.  It tells the story of an anonymous pilgrim as he travels over the steppes of Russia seeking the answer to this question:  How does one pray constantly?  "Ultimately, he discovers the different meanings and methods of prayer as he travels to his ultimate destination, Jerusalem."  I hope you will be as intrigued by this book as I am.  It is available from Amazon for $9.95 in the edition translated by Helen Bacovcin with a forward by Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.  (Father Ciszek is now deceased and is being considered for canonization by the Church.)  [Update:  The Amazon price for a new copy is up to $12.20.]
Yours in Christ,

Misfit Steve

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Kurtz in Trump

Tonight we affirmed that “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad is an important book to read and that it is as relevant today as it was in 1899.  The novel is short – 80 pages or so depending on the edition – but it is very dense.  We agreed that this book needs to be read more than once in order to better grasp the intended messages and themes.  Conrad makes frequent use of foreshadowing and foretelling as the narration moves forward.  The symbolism and meaning of the heart of darkness is to be taken on many different levels.

On the surface Conrad sheds light on the injustice that was Belgian Colonialism in the Congo at the height of the ivory trade.  And by exposing these evils, we felt that he was offering commentary on England’s own colonial endeavors.  It was noted that publication of this novel was the catalyst for some reform in England.

The main characters in the novel are Marlow, the narrator, and the enigmatic Kurtz.  As Marlow steams up the river he begins to hear stories about Kurtz’ accomplishments, exploits, and methods.  He becomes intrigued by this “remarkable” man despite all signs that Kurtz has gone mad.  The farther he travels upstream, the deeper the darkness becomes.

Parallels were drawn between Kurtz and latter day dictators:  Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and dare we even say Donald Trump?  Now no one suggested that Mr. Trump seeks to be a dictator or is capable of the atrocities committed by Kurtz, but it is hard to argue some similarity to Kurtz when you consider the megalomaniac tendencies, charismatic personality, and seeming willingness to use any means necessary to accomplish stated objectives.  The point is that we are constantly surrounded by Kurtz's in our modern society.  And we must be vigilant so that we do not become Kurtz's ourselves.

We came to understand that Kurtz represents the heart of darkness that is in all of us, or at least the potential for it.  We wondered if at the time Marlow finally met Kurtz, did Kurtz have any free will remaining?  Had his soul become so dark through habitual evil transgressions that he was unable extricate himself?  Kurtz seems to have been at this point as witnessed by him leaving his sick bed and crawling through the jungle to attend again the wicked rites with the native people who worshiped him.  Marlow blocked his physical path, but would Kurtz be saved?

We spent a great deal of time discussing Kurtz’ last words, “The Horror!  The Horror!”  We wanted to know if the meaning of those words was rooted in utter despair or reflected the first glimmer of repentance.  While the text above and below that passage didn’t provide any definitive clues as to Kurtz’ ultimate salvation, the episode had a profound effect on Marlow.  It is here that Marlow decided to remain loyal to the memory of Kurtz, the nightmare of his own choosing.  Later, Marlow is faced with a choice as he approaches Kurtz’ “Intended” fiancĂ©e.  He would be doing justice to expose Kurtz and tell of all his wicked deeds – but in the end he chose mercy, because telling the whole truth would be altogether too dark.

Marlow’s tale told, the novel ends abruptly with Conrad’s foreboding synopsis.  He seems to be warning us that success in our immediate future is not at all certain and if we are not careful and diligent we could easily become immersed in the immense heart of darkness.

Misfit Steve Ward

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is the Child the Gift or is the Gift for a Child?

Dear Misfits,

We entered into the Christmas Season with a meeting devoted to the birth of the Christ Child and to our becoming like the Christ Child.  The meeting began with a discussion of T. S. Eliot's perplexing poem, "The Journey of the Magi". We generally concluded that the plot of the poem was not difficult to understand but the sheer depth of the symbolism Eliot packed within the story of the Magi is another matter altogether. We recognized references to small bits of Shakespeare and several specific Bible passages. We found that a rough grasp of the poem wasn't all that difficult.  However, reading it for a deep understanding of all that it contains is another matter.  As an example, for the Magi, "this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us" because the Magi could foresee, in the birth of the Christ Child,  the loss of their traditions to the impending Christianity that would transform "the old dispensation" of their faith and gods.  It is also necessary to mention that this is the first poem Eliot wrote after his conversion.  Elements of the poem do reflect his conversion but also show lingering doubts as to the full meaning of Christ's birth and resurrection.

Our discussion then shifted to Hans Urs von Balthasar's book, Unless You Become Like This Child.  The central theme of the book is a very deep, theological examination of the meaning of Christ's statement, "Amen I say to you: Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter into it." (Mark10:15)  It is the last book von Balthasar wrote before his death in 1988.  The book is a moving, profound meditation on the theme of spiritual childhood. In the book, von Balthasar's presents his conviction that the central mystery of Christianity is our transformation from world-wise, self-sufficient "adults" into abiding children of the Father of Jesus by the grace of their Spirit.  The book is theologically dense in the beginning (the first three chapters) and somewhat difficult to read and understand.  Then, the book shifts to examine this core statement on the meaning of Christianity:  "Only the Christian religion, which in its essence is communicated by the eternal child of God, keeps alive in its believers the lifelong awareness of their being children, and therefore of having to ask and give thanks for things. Jesus does not insist on this 'say please', 'say thank you', because the gifts would otherwise be refused, but in order that they may be recognized as gifts."  And the greatest of the gifts we can be given, is the gift of Faith.

Before we concluded our meeting, we discussed a "Bookplate" for the Misfits.  We were greatly inspired by the beautiful bookplate the St. Agnes Misfits designed.  Misfit Nick Markell has agreed to design ours....and would like any input you can give him on what our Misfit bookplate should represent/reflect.  We are also interested in creating a motto for our reading group.   Once we have a motto, Misfit Brad Lindberg will render it in Latin.  One initial proposal is "We read, therefore we are".  Can we do better than that?  Let me hear from you.

Our Future Books:

Our novel for January is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.   In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.  I think it will be a good novel to begin our new year of reading. 

Our book for February is The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton.  I remember reading Merton's story of his conversion many years ago and thinking that this could be a novel.  It is a fascinating read and one of the most "accessible" conversion stories ever written.  (My opinion!)

Then in March, we will read Letters of Flannery O'Conner:  The Habit of Being.  This from a New York Times review:   “To compare her with the great letter writers in our language may seem presumptuous and would have elicited from her one of her famous steely glances, but Byron, Keats, Lawrence, Wilde and Joyce come irresistibly to mind: correspondence that gleams with consciousness.”

Finally to remind:  Our next meeting will be on Wednesday, January 13, 2016, at 7:00 pm, in the St. Thomas More Library, The Church of St. Michael, Stillwater, MN.

In the Light of Christ,

Misfit Buzz

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities Today

Dear Misfits,

Our meeting last Wednesday evening was "the best of times".  As mentioned in my last email, we decided to hold our meeting at the Maple Island Brewery in Stillwater, MN.  I have to say that the insights and comments made by the Misfits on Charles Dickens classic novel,  A Tale of Two Cities, were particularly insightful.  I can also say that the comments became more insightful and at times, even brilliant, as the evening progressed.  I can only conclude that the beer produced by the Maple Island Brewery is an elixir conducive to a great book discussion and certainly to male fellowship.  Or so it seemed.

As to the novel itself, what can I say that has not already been said a million times--it is a timeless novel and will remain timeless.  Two things do come to mind

1.  Is there any other novel that has more memorable, iconic, opening and closing lines?  The novel begins "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....." and ends with "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have every known."  I can think of no other novel that has a more dramatic opening or a more moving conclusion than A Tale of Two Cities!  (Ok.  Someone out there prove me wrong.  Please cite author and title if you choose to engage!)

Dr Manette in Bastille

2.  Secondly, it is sadly topical that we have just read A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in a city that has just experienced a barbaric act by men gripped by a hatred of the civilization that could produce a novel of such high literary regard.  The barbarism described by Dickens during the time of the "Terror" is mirrored by the men who struck Paris last Saturday.  The French aristocracy was the crucible that produced the "terror" of the French Revolution.  The twisted ideology of militant Islam has resulted in the terror of the modern jihad and the civilizational clash we are experiencing.

Now to the future: For December, we will read and discuss a short book and a short poem, both appropriate to the advent of our Blessed Savior.  Our book is Unless You Become Like This Child, by Hans Urs von Balthasar;  the poem is "The Journey of the Magi" by T. S. Eliot.

Unless You Become Like this Child is one of the last books written by van Balthasar before his death in 1988. The great theologian provides a moving and profound meditation on the theme of spiritual childhood. He argues that the central mystery of Christianity is our transformation from world-wise, self-sufficient "adults" into abiding children of the Father of Jesus by the grace of their Spirit. "This is an excellent book for those Christians who wish to gain a deeper understanding of Jesus's teaching "unless you become like this child...". This book also provides a helpful resource to Catholics who may be constantly challenged by fundamentalist Christians to be born again. Cardinal Von Balthazar very clearly explains what is involved in being like a child unto the Lord and gives his readers many insights into the mystery of life with God, the Father. It is a short book in terms of pages, but each page is packed with reflections."  The book is available on Amazon for $9.95 (Paperback)

[A copy of "The Journey of the Magi" is found here]

...  This is one of the first poems written by Eliot after his conversion to Anglicanism.  I look forward to discussing the poem with you as all of us will soon share in the quest of the Magi for the Christ child.


To remind:  our next meeting will be on Wednesday, December 9th, at 7:00 pm in the St. Thomas More Library, The Church of St. Michael, Stillwater, MN.

In the light of Christ,

Misfit Buzz

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

From Waugh to Dickens and Onward!

Dear Misfits,

We had a very lively evening last Wednesday discussing Evelyn Waugh's novel, A Handful of Dust.  The novel is generally regarded as one of Waugh's best.  Set in the 1930's, the novel's protagonist, Tony Last, is engaged in trying to maintain his anachronistic Victorian values in an increasingly volatile society while his wife, Brenda, involves herself in a pointless affair with her fatuous lover, the generally clueless, John Beaver.  As the story develops, Tony, having been betrayed by his wife, sees his illusions shattered one by one.  He seeks solace by joining an expedition to the Brazilian jungle where he finds himself trapped in a remote outpost as the prisoner and plaything of an insane settler, Mr. Todd. It has been noted that "Waugh incorporated several autobiographical elements into the story, notably his own desertion by his young wife."  Then, in 1933–34, he undertook a journey into the South American interior where a number of incidents and personalities from the voyage are incorporated into the ending of the novel. Tony's singular fate in the jungle at the end of the novel was first used by Waugh as the subject of an independent short story, published in 1933 under the title "The Man Who Liked Dickens".  In other words, the ending of the novel stands alone as a separate story.  And it works!  The ending "fits" and makes for a very poignant and effective end of the story.

Now to our book for October.....and November!  We will read and discuss  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  "The novel is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution.  It shows the brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution and has many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same period. The novel follows the lives of several characters through these events. A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments from April 1859 to November 1859 in Dickens's new literary periodical titled "All the Year Round".

We will read the novel in two bites:

For October, 2015:  Read the Book The First: Chapter I-Vi and Book the Second: Chapter I-XXIV

For November, 2015: Read Book the Third: Chapter I-XV.

The novel is available at Amazon or can be downloaded and read at The Project Gutenberg web site:

For December: We have decided to read and discuss two works reflective of the birth of the Christ Child.

The first is Hans Urs von Balthasar's Unless You Become Like This Child. This is one of the last books he wrote before his death in 1988.  The book provides a moving and profound meditation on the theme of spiritual childhood. In this book, von Balthasar argues that the central mystery of Christianity is our necessary  transformation from world-wise, self-sufficient "adults" into abiding children of the Father of Jesus by the grace of their Spirit.  The book is quite short at 75 pages.  It is available from Amazon for $ 8.26.

The second part of our December read is a poem by T. S. Eliot, "Journey of the Magi"  It is a 43-line poem written in 1927 by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). In the poem, Eliot retells the story of the Magi who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. The narrative of the poem is told from the point of view of one of the magi.  The poem expresses themes of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed dramatically. The poem's monologue incorporates quotations and literary allusions to works by earlier writers Lancelot Andrewes and Matthew Arnold.  The poem is widely available on line.  You may wish to use this website:

For January 2015:  We will begin the new year by reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  The novella is by Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa, as told by the story's narrator, Marlow.

For February, 2015:  We will read a work of non-fiction, Thomas Merton's now classic conversion story, The Seven Story Mountain.

For March, 2015:  We return to one of our most beloved authors, Flannery O'Conner.  We will read, Letters of Flannery O'Conner: The Habit of Being.

For April, 2015:  We will read The Idiot written by the 19th-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was first published serially in The Russian Messenger between 1868 and 1869. The Idiot, alongside some of Dostoyevsky's other works, is often considered one of the most brilliant literary achievements of the "Golden Age" of Russian literature.

For May 2015:  We will read The Quiet American, an anti-war novel by English author Graham Greene.  The novel was first published in the United Kingdom in 1955 and in the United States in 1956. It was adapted into films in 1958 and 2002. The book draws on Greene's experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a "third force in Vietnam”.

That should keep us busy well into the new year.  It is going to be another exciting and challenging year of reading he great books and authors of our Catholic literary tradition. Hard believe we've been at this for over 13 years!  We are so blessed.

Yours in Christ,

Misfit Buzz

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Presence of God Under the Gazebo

Dear Misfits,

Last Wednesday evening, The Misfits met at Claret Farms under the Gazebo to discuss and recite the remarkable faith-centered poetry of Denise Levertov.   It was a beautiful evening with each of us reciting a poem...and then sitting in silence to reflect and consider the profound depth of Levertov's deeply spiritual poetry.  It is difficult to describe the spiritual ethos of the men at the meeting other than to say that we felt we were in the presence of God.  If you haven't read The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, you really should do so.  You will read and experience poems that are like prayers.

And now to our next book: for September, we will read A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh.  In what many consider his greatest novel, Waugh creates a savage satire of modern Britain.  "Tony Last (presumably the last of his tribe) is a member of Britain's declining landed gentry.  He's barely managed to hold the family estate together but he has a successful marriage (or so he believes) and a wonderful son.  Then, in short order, the boy is killed in a horse riding accident, his wife leaves him for a callow youth and Tony travels to the Amazon on an ill-fated expedition.  In the end, Tony finds himself stranded in the jungle with a reclusive Englishman who makes him read the works of Dickens aloud."

"From the wife who casually abandons her marriage, to the member of Parliament whose greatest achievement is a new regulation on pork bellies to the similarities Tony finds between the civilized British and the Amazon savages, Waugh depicts a Britain that is sunk in amorality and has abandoned all pretense of greatness.  Long before WWII brought down the final curtain on the Empire, he presents a despairing portrait of a society bereft of any moral bearings.  The final image, of the decent Englishman reciting the greatest of England's cultural achievements into the wilderness, is an especially poignant metaphor for what Waugh felt his country had been reduced to in the Modern age."

A Handful of Dust  is available on Amazon for $14.13,

Our book for October and November is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  The Misfits have long considered reading this novel...and now we will.  "The novel is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same period. It follows the lives of several characters through these events. A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments from April 1859 to November 1859 in Dickens's new literary periodical titled "All the Year Round".  

We will read the novel in two bites: October, 2015:  Book the First-Chapter 1 through Chapter 16 of Book the Second; November, 2015: Book the Second-Chapter 17 through Book the Third.  

The novel is widely available and can be downloaded and read at The Project Gutenberg web site:

The Misfits want to thank Chris Hagen for hosting our Summer meetings at Loome Theological Booksellers/Claret Farm.  We had three wonderful summer meetings under the Gazebo and intend to continue that tradition next summer if allowed by our host.

Our meetings will now be held in the St. Thomas More Library at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater.  Our meetings are always held on the second Wednesday of the month and begin at 7:00 pm and end at 8:30 pm.  Our next meeting will be on Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Yours in Christ,

Misfit Buzz

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Monday, July 13, 2015

"All believing Catholics should have this book in their personal library"

Dear Misfits,

Last [Wednesday] evening, we met for our final discussion of Lucy Beckett's examination of great writers of the past two and a half millennia.  Our meeting was again hosted by Misfit Chris Hagen and set beneath the gazebo of Claret Farm.  It was another warm summer evening with male fellowship, good talk, and a few beers.

Blaise Pascal - Illuminating Hero of Beckett

We all emphatically agreed that In the Light of Christ is a truly remarkable book.  Beckett's survey explains in brilliant detail how Catholic thinkers and writers from ancient to modern times have shaped our Catholic faith.  There are many excellent reviews of In the Light of Christ so I won't try to review the book in any depth other than to say that all believing Catholics should have this book in their personal library.  They should read, and reread, the book as it will explain and illuminate the great theological depth and intellectual scope of our Faith.

Now to the future:  Our book for [August] is a short one...but it is dense!  We will read Denise Levertov's, The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. This collection of "selected poems on religious themes" is by a renowned poet, "who embraced the Christian faith late in life, interacting with spiritual sources that crossed her path while on her journey of faith."  I should add, that her searching led her to the Catholic faith.  The book is available on Amazon for $9.92.

Also, and as a part of our next meeting, let's each of us bring a favorite poem to read and make it a real evening of poetry

Our book for [September] is another novel by Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust.  Laced with cynicism and truth, A Handful of Dust satirizes a stratum of English life where all the characters have money, but lack practically every other credential. Murderously urbane, it depicts the breakup of a marriage in the London gentry, where an errant wife suffers from terminal boredom, and becomes enamoured of a social parasite and professional luncheon-goer.  This is perhaps Waugh's most biting novel yet, his perspective is always that of a Catholic man.  The novel is available at Amazon for $13.86.

Our next meeting will be on Wednesday, August 12, at 7:00 pm at Claret Farm/Loome Theological Booksellers.  The address is: 2270 Neal Ave N, West Lakeland, MN 55082.

. . .

Yours in Christ,

Misfit Buzz

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