Friday, September 10, 2021

Lessons from Left to Tell

 “I have killed 399 cockroaches,” said one of the killers.  “Immaculée will make 400.  It’s a good number to kill.”

In high school I read a historical fiction novel by Michael Shaara about the battle of Gettysburg.  I don’t recall the lines verbatim, but there is an exchange between two characters that has always stayed with me.  One soldier quotes a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man ... in action how like an angel!" His companion, in a dry tone, responds that if man is an angel, then he is a murdering angel.  (Hence the title of the book, The Killer Angels.)

It does seem that at times man is capable of tremendous acts of sacrifice, virtue, and goodness—even comparable to an angel.  Yet, there are seemingly as many examples of man committing heinous atrocities like brutal violence, rape, and sacrilege—much like a devil.

Both of these extremes of goodness and evil are present in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s biography, Left to Tell, which tells of her experiences during the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  The book is gripping and astonishing.

Sadly, Rwanda’s history—like many African nations—was altered for the worse due to the colonizing interference of outside countries.  Rwanda was composed of three tribes: a Hutu majority, Tutsi minority, and a small number of Twa (forest dwellers).  Originally, Rwanda enjoyed many years of peace under a monarchy, ruled by a Tutsi king.  However, German and then Belgian colonists purposely altered Rwanda’s social structure for their own personal benefit.  

Pinning the tribes against each other, the Beglians promoted the minority Tutsi aristocracy, providing them with a better education so they could run the country well … thereby earning more money for their Belgian rulers.  The Belgians distributed identity cards as a way to distinguish between tribes.  The Hutus grew resentful, an anger that perpetuated through the future generations.

When the Tutsis sought independence from Belgium, the Belgians turned against them, supporting a Hutu revolt in 1959.  The revolt overthrew the monarchy and killed many Tutsis (more than 100,000).  This was just the beginning.  In 1962 Belgium officially left Rwanda, leaving a Hutu government in control, which continued the persecution of Tutsis.

Immaculée and her family belonged to the Tutsi tribe, although, as a child, she was unaware of any such differentiation.  Her parents, faithful Catholics and leaders in their community, welcomed everyone into their home and extended a helping hand to those in need, regardless of tribe.  In reality, very little separated a Hutu from a Tutsi.  Due to intermarriage, their physical features often appeared identical.  They spoke the same language and shared a common history and culture. 

Nevertheless, as Immaculée grew, the discrimination against Tutsis began to affect her life in a more direct manner.  The Rwandan government had an “ethnic balance” plan to ensure that the Hutus received a better education.  So although Immaculée finished second in her eighth grade class, she did not receive a scholarship to high school, due to her being a Tutsi.  Her parents had to make a significant financial sacrifice to afford her continued education.

Things escalated in October 1990 when Rwanda was attacked by a group of Tutsi soldiers (called the Rwandese Patriot Front, or RPF).  These soldiers had been living in neighboring Uganda.  Grown children of previous Tutsi refugees, they sought to return to their home country.  Fighting spread and continued, on and off for years, in the north of the country between these Tutsi rebels and the Rwandan government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in local communities, radical groups sprang up.  The President of Rwanda encouraged the formation of these Interahamwe, meaning “those who attack together.”  The Interahamwe attracted homeless teens, many of whom were drug addicts, and became a Hutu-extremist militia.

While away at university one day, Immaculée received an urgent message from her father, imploring her to return home.  She had originally planned to wait until Easter break, but decided to answer her father’s request and arrived home early, armed with books for continued study.  Immaculée joined her parents and two brothers for what seemed like a regular family dinner at home.  Yet, after the jokes and shared stories, her older brother, Damascene, broke out:

“No, I’m not imagining things,” Damascene said, getting to his feet and speaking with urgency.  “And that’s not all I saw.  They have a list of names of all the Tutsi families in the area, and our names are on it!  It’s a death list!  They are planning to start killing everyone on the list tonight!” 

Immaculée was troubled, but her father reassured them that such news was being exaggerated and people were overreacting.  However, unbeknownst to them at the time, that was their last family dinner together.  The next morning news reports informed the citizens of Rwanda that the President was dead, his plane having been shot out of the sky.  The radio announced:

“Stay in your homes.  It is forbidden to travel.  Only military personnel will be allowed in the streets.  Do not go outside.  Public transportation has been suspended.  Do not leave your homes!”

The date was April 7, 1994 and the genocide had begun.  With it came evil of such magnitude, it’s hard to even comprehend.

Local radio stations immediately encouraged Hutu citizens to grab a machete and kill any Tutsi neighbors, no questions asked.  Government officials even handed out machetes at gas stations and the militia went door-to-door, delivering guns and grenades.  

The country came to a grinding halt: all phone lines down; businesses, stores, and schools closed; public transportation ended … all done so that every person could pour every effort toward the goal of wiping out the Tutsi population. 

The radio further instructed the Tutsis to seek refuge at churches and stadiums.  However, this was just a ruse: these became places of mass killings, as Hutus attacked the sites, burning the people alive inside and shooting anyone who attempted to escape.  

Ntrama Church Altar, where over 5,000 people seeking refuge were killed

Immaculée describes the Interhamwe as they scoured her neighborhood, seeking Tutsis to kill:

Hundreds of people surrounded the house, many of whom were dressed like devils … They whooped and hollered.  They jumped about, waving spears, machetes, and knives in the air.  They chanted a chilling song of genocide … These were my neighbors, people I’d grown up and gone to school with—some had even been to our house for dinner.

The evil directly attacked Immaculée’s family, who were all brutally and savagely murdered.  The genocide continued for three whole months and claimed the lives of almost one million Rwandans.  

And yet, through God’s grace, even in the midst of such profound darkness and pain, Immaculée found a way to find light and goodness.

The day the genocide began, Immaculée’s family, concerned what the Interahamwe would do to her (they were known to rape women before killing them), sent Immaculée to a nearby Hutu pastor’s house.  For ninety-one days she, along with seven other women, hid in the pastor’s bathroom.

The conditions these women endured are astonishing.  The bathroom was four feet long and three feet wide.  Near the ceiling was a small air vent.  The women couldn’t flush the toilet unless the bathroom toilet on the other side of the wall was being used.  There wasn’t enough space for them all to sit on the floor, so the tallest women sat with the shorter ones on top of them.  Every twelve hours they would stretch, but aside from that, they stayed in the same position day and night.  The women remained completely silent, communicating only via sign language.  They became emaciated, surviving only on the scraps the Pastor brought to them.

And yet, in this unlikeliest of places and such trying circumstances, Immaculée experienced a profound deepening in her relationship with God.  He became her refuge.  That tiny bathroom became a sanctuary for her soul.

Even as my body shriveled, my soul was nourished through my deepening relationship with God.

Immaculée centered her entire day around prayer.  After awakening, she would begin prayers of thanksgiving—for the Pastor who took them in, for the life she still had, for her faith.  Then she prayed the rosary, using the beads her father had given to her when saying goodbye.  She spent hours meditating on Bible passages, or sometimes even a single world like “hope.”  

God stayed with her and protected her.  When the Interahamwe searched the Pastor’s house, they originally bypassed his bedroom, thus sparing the women.  The killers vowed to return though and God gave Immaculée a vision of a wardrobe, pulled in front of the bathroom door, thus shielding their hiding place.

While war waged outside of the bathroom, at times it waged inside of Immaculée’s soul as well.  She clung to God because there were moments she was tempted to despair due to direct attacks from the devil within the interior of her soul.

I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me.  Everything strong and good in me—my faith, hope, and courage—was vulnerable to the dark energy.  If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive.  I could rely only on God to help me fight.

Her greatest struggle was being able to forgive the people committing the genocide—those who had killed her own beloved parents and brothers.  The devil taunted her as she called on God, mocking the hatred she had in her own heart and condemning her for her desire to destroy those who destroyed her family.  Immaculée at first couldn’t comprehend how she could forgive these killers.  She listened as, outside the window, the Interahamwe killed a young mother and left her baby alone, wailing the whole day, until the child’s cries weakened and then stopped, presumably dead.  Who could forgive someone callous and dreadful enough to commit such deeds?  Yet God spoke to her in prayer:

You are all my children … and the baby is with Me now.

Immaculée began to view the killers as children, children hurting others without thinking, hurting themselves in the process.  She began to pity them and to forgive them.

Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil.  Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy.

Left to Tell is a story of a genocide and it’s a sombering look at the egregious deeds man is capable of committing.  Yet, I don’t think Immaculée would want readers to walk away from her autobiography with only that message in their heart.  It is, ultimately, a story of goodness: God’s goodness that triumphs over evil, that loves and protects.  Even though Immaculée lost her family members in the genocide, God gave her a vision of them, joyful in heaven.  God took care of them, too.  Immaculée cooperated with God’s grace and emerged from an unthinkable experience stronger in her faith with forgiveness in her heart, breaking the cycle of hatred that perpetuates persecutions and genocides.

God is taking care of me and you as well.  Like Immaculée, we need to cling to Him and stay as close as possible through prayer.  God will give us the strength to resist our temptations, forgive those who hurt us, and grow in love if we lean on Him.  He will be our shelter, if we allow Him.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lessons from Far From the Madding Crowd

They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends.  Theirs was that substantial affections which arises (if any arises at all) when two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.

When I was in college, I read a book about dating and courtship.  It had a graph in it, depicting the various intimacies a man and woman can develop: physical, emotional, and spiritual.  The author made the point that the physical element of a relationship is the easiest and fastest to grow; the other two require more time and effort.  Yet, when a man and woman focus on the physical piece, to the exclusion of emotional and spiritual intimacy, it won’t be enough to really sustain and foster a true relationship.  

I think Thomas Hardy, author of Far From the Madding Crowd, would agree.  He states that passion, without the foundation of mutual friendship forged through shared difficulties, “is effervescent as steam.”

Written in 1874, Far From the Madding Crowd is Hardy’s fourth novel and first major success.  The title is based on a poem called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which Thomas Gray penned in 1751.  It reads:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The adjective “madding” here means “frenzied” or “raging.”  Gray asserts that the countryside, in contrast, offers a peaceful refuge, where life is calm and unaffected.  Hardy sets his novel in the fictional location of Wessex, in rural southwest England.  The main location is a farm and many characters are at work shearing sheep, going to the corn market, or gathering crops.  These scenic pastoral visions may call to mind the idyllic conditions of country life.  '

However, Hardy employs this line as his title in a stroke of literary irony.  The characters in his novel are “madding.”  His Wessex is far from calm: rumors, gossip, and scandals abound.  Even nature becomes a tempest, between destructive fires, thunderstorms, and even sheep that rush headlong to their deaths, destroying one farmer’s livelihood.  

The flurry centers around the female protagonist and her three potential suitors.  Hardy gives his characters incredibly rich, symbolic names that provide the reader with insight into their natures.  

Let’s start with the protagonist: Bathsheba Everdeen.  When we first meet her, Bathsheba is looking at herself in a mirror, a strong reflection of her proud nature.  She treasures her independence, at one point declaring that she has no intention of marrying anyone.  When she inherits a farm from her uncle, Bathsheba insists on managing the affairs herself, an extraordinary move for a woman in Victorian England.  

The name “Bathsheba” is an allusion to the Old Testament Bathsheba, whose beauty allured King David, who subsequently committed adultery and then murder to have her.  David’s lust for Bathsheba became his downfall, which foreshadows the fate of some of Bathsheba Everdeen’s suitors.  Additionally, the Old Testament Bathsheba eventually became the Queen mother and, as such, wielded great power, similar to this Bathsheba and her power as ruler of the farm.

The word “Everdeen” looks much like “evergreen,” a plant that remains green throughout the growing seasons, even the most rugged ones.  Bathsheba experiences both highs and lows in her dating life, but she never seems to lose her appeal.  Merriam-Webster further defines “evergreen” as “retaining freshness or interest: perennial,” and “universally and continually relevant: not limited in applicability to a particular event or date.”  Hardy’s Bathsheba has lessons for readers today, not just for his audience in the late 1900s.  

Interestingly, Suzanne Collins, bestselling author of The Hunger Games trilogy, chose to name her protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a nod to Bathsheba Everdeen, in recognition of Bathsheba’s proud, independent spirit (and maybe her knack for getting entangled in multiple romantic interests).

A final note on Bathsheba’s name: oaks are considered a kind of evergreen.  This becomes interesting, as Bathsheba’s first suitor is named Gabriel Oak, to whom I will now turn.  Gabriel and Bathsheba are closely related throughout the narrative, and not just by the similar symbolism in their names.  Bathsheba intrigues him immediately.  While both are working in the fields caring for sheep and cow respectively, they become acquainted and Bathsheba actually saves Gabriel’s life.  Shortly after, he asks for her hand in marriage, which she refuses.  

Their paths intersect again later on, though under very different circumstances.  Bathsheba has risen in society, due to her inheritance of her uncle’s farm.  Meanwhile, Gabriel has suffered a terrible financial loss and ends up working for Bathsheba.  

The name “Gabriel”—reminiscent of the New Testament angel—means “God is my strength.”  Many times Gabriel comes to Bathsheba’s rescue, like a kind of providential angel in her life.  Indeed, Gabriel possesses a quiet, humble, inward strength that guides him throughout the novel.  He is a shepherd, a protective guardian who disinterestedly advises Bathsheba, even in her romantic interests, always desiring her good.  The oak tree is known for its very strong and hard wood, a symbol of Gabriel’s strength and virtue, as well as his enduring love for Bathsheba.

One day, acting on an impulse, Bathsheba decides to send a valentine to a neighboring farmer named Boldwood.  Her pride is wounded by him because she is the sole woman present at the corn market and, while the other men are captivated by her presence, Boldwood seems completely indifferent to her.  Bathsheba teases him by sending a valentine with the words, “Marry me.”  

What does Boldwood’s name tell us about his character?  The woods are typically filled with plenty: numerous trees, vegetation, and animals.  Similarly, Boldwood is an affluent farmer—the most sought-after bachelor.  But, like the woods where the trees are so numerous they become almost anonymous, nothing about Boldwood himself really stands out as special and attractive.  He isn’t really singular: nothing specifically about him really attracts Bathsheba, aside from his original indifference to her.  He is actually very replaceable.  His name also might reflect that, when Bathsheba first spies him at the corn market, he seems wooden—unmoved by her beauty.  

This markedly changes, however, once Boldwood receives her valentine and traces its sender to Bathsheba.  He is far from interpreting it as a jest; instead, Bathsheba’s flirting has spawned him from a quiet, taciturn, emotionless bachelor into a courter emboldened in declaring his complete infatuation for her.  Bathsheba finds herself in a quandary, responsible for drawing this man into passionate feelings for her, yet simultaneously not feeling an iota of passion toward him.

She said in the same breath that it would be ungenerous not to marry Boldwood, and that she couldn’t do it to save her life.

Bathsheba’s third and final suitor is named Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy.  The city of Troy, of course, was the setting of the Trojan War, featured in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  It was a war of destruction over a woman, foreshadowing the projection of Troy’s feelings toward Bathsheba.  This military connotation of Troy’s name is also reflective of his position as sergeant.  As for his first name, “Frank” is someone who is literally frank.  He wears his heart on his sleeve: he is blunt to the point of rudeness and romantic to the point of indiscretion.  

And Troy’s deformities lay deep down from a woman’s vision, whilst his embellishments were upon the very surface; thus contrasting with homely Oak, whose defects were patent to the blindest, and whose virtues were as metals in a mine.

Bathsheba meets Troy in a very unexpected manner.  She is walking alone through the woods one evening and becomes  literally entangled with Troy, as her dress becomes caught in his coat button.  It is a very symbolic representation of their relationship: she becomes caught in her physical attraction to him, despite the impropriety or imprudence of it.  In fact, Bathsheba lays her independence at his feet, once so highly cherished, just in desperation to be with him.

Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance.  When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never felt any strength to throw away.

If this were the “Dating Game,” I think it would be fairly obvious which one of these bachelors—Oak, Boldwood, or Troy—is the winning match for Bathsheba.  Oak stands out as the man with the best virtues, who proves his genuine love for Bathsheba through selfless action and enduring friendship, which involves charitably correcting her for her wrongdoing.  But of course, Oak is not the man Bathsheba initially chooses.

Isn’t that a dynamic that happens over and over again though—maybe in your own life, or that of a family member or friend?  The man who would make the best husband is passed over for the attractive, enticing, romantic man.  What should seem so clear becomes muddled.  This is because, ever since the Fall of Man, our reason is not always in control.  Instead, our passions like to take over.  Without the reins of reason guiding us, passion is like a runaway horse, blind to prudence and decorum.  It runs the danger of being a headlong flight into destruction.

This is why, in a budding relationship between man and woman, it is wisest to focus on emotional and spiritual intimacy first, reserving physical intimacy only for much later.  With the clear sighted vision of reason, one can objectively observe a potential suitor, weighing his strength of character and virtue—essential qualities of any spouse.  A genuine friendship can blossom, one where both man and woman appreciate the other’s talents, as well as acknowledging their respective flaws (we all have them!).  Yet, in a physically-centered relationship, possession and obsession dominate, glossing over any defects in an effort to glorify the object of desire.

Though we live in a different world from that of Thomas Hardy, today we often find ourselves in a “madding crowd.”  May the true compass of reason guide us, particularly those like Bathsheba who are seeking someone to love.  

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lessons from The Cypresses Believe in God

If people talk about how the United States is politically divisive today, we have something we can learn from Spain in the early 1930s.  Jose Maria Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God is the Spanish version of the Russian novel: a myriad of characters, interacting and interrelating in various ways, with a long, historical plot that weaves in and out of their contrasting lives.  The protagonist is Ignacio Alvear and the story generally follows his growth into adulthood and the life of his family, living in Gerona.  The novel covers the years immediately preceding the Spanish Civil War: 1931-1936.  The author notes in the beginning that Spain is a complex country and that “there are in this land thousands of possible ways of life.”

What were some of those possible ways of life?  

There are anarchists, such as Ignacio’s cousin, who says, “You have to wipe out whatever stands in the way of the good of mankind.  So that tomorrow there will be a different kind of blood.”  Believing the individual perfect, the anarchists seek complete freedom.  “Jose went on to say that the means were unimportant in the achievement of freedom.  It was necessary to destroy all the fictions and limitations that society had created and imposed.”

There is also the Socialist Party.  Ignacio, though raised in a conservative Catholic family, has leanings toward this ideology, which become stronger as he takes classes from two teachers who are Socialists themselves.  David and Olga are a married couple, but they were never married in the Church.  They run a school called the Free School and put together a Manual of Pedagogy, their vision of education of children.  They advise not burdening children with something that would later cloud their judgment: no teaching, therefore, about evil, conscience, or religion until the child has reached at least ten years old.  While this education must wait, David and Olga encourage an early presentation about sexual education, using anatomical figures.  

The Communist Party is an active force, led by a man named Cosme Vila, who claims that he is neither moved by love nor hate, but only by discipline.  Cosme Vila presents the Communist Party program: a six-hour work day, labor’s control of industry, and a profit-sharing plan.  Politically, all current authorities should be dismissed and new elections held where only those holding workers’ cards are eligible to vote.  He calls for co-operatives that would distribute food and oil to people, free of charge to members of the Communist Party.  Though he favors the complete eradication of the Catholic Church, Cosme Vila realizes the opposition to that and instead calls for a prohibition to priests wearing cassocks and the closure of all convents not engaged in charitable works.

Some people are Freemasons and work toward an atheistic, anti-Church, secular society.  “Man with a capital, was free, the Absolute did not exist, because it ran counter to the achievement of evolution … In Gerona everybody wants to be Free, with a capital.”

On the far right are the Falangists (the Spanish fascist party).  Their purpose is to convince workers that they are not proletarians, but men, and that the economic factor isn’t the sole consideration.  Once people have their material needs met, they can address their more important spiritual needs.  The Falange have five points they emphasize: individual, family, municipality, fatherland, and God.

Ignacio is exposed to these different political theories and, as the reader, we see them through his eyes as he weighs them and discerns where he stands.  He struggles with questions about the poor: why do some people have cars and others do not?  One day he visits the slums and observes garbage, dilapidated houses, famished dogs running amuck, eyes full of suffering, and children playing with balls made of rags.  In the summers, the affluent visit private beaches while the impoverished stay in the hot, dusty streets of Gerona.  Ignacio struggles with these inequalities, yet he also has a strong formation in the Catholic faith, which his mother particularly cultivates in him.

Ignacio’s division within himself is a microcosm of the greater society in Gerona, which splits into factions and becomes more separated.  Even people of the same social class, with similar needs and concerns, join different political parties.  Each political party has its own headquarters and newspaper with its own advertisers, so that even commercially, people avoid buying from a company that supports the opposing political party.  

“To live each day in accordance with one’s ideas: this was the iron rule.  Nothing in this world would have persuaded a member of the UGT to put one peseta over the counter of a Radical.”   

In this confusion of various ideas and contrasting political theories, one of the main problems that arises is having the ability to understand the other person’s point of view.  Can we really see each other?  Ignacio comes to realize that behind the ideology, there is a person, an individual whose past forms his or her present.  While working at a bank, Ignacio observes that his fellow workers appear radically violent (someone, for example, mentions blowing up the bank on account of the unjust working conditions).  Yet, taken individually, each worker has his own personality: there is more to the story than just an ideology.  Ignacio even spies some of his co-workers at Mass on Christmas, though they had claimed to be atheists.

Ignacio was realizing that people are full of surprises.

Cosme Vila, the head of the Communist Party, had a father who hung himself because he couldn’t provide for his family.  El Responsable, the leader of the anarchists, has a wife in the insane asylum and visits her weekly.  At one point, Ignacio attends a meeting of the anarchists, where they discuss destroying the conservative printing press.  Ignacio opposes the idea, but during the conversation, he learns something about one of the anarchists: he suffered a terrible childhood. His parents abandoned him and he survived only by stealing chickens.  

Ignacio reached his home reflecting that there was bound to be a big difference in feelings about wrecking a printing press between a man who as a child had stolen chickens and one whose mother timed the boiling of eggs by the Creed. 

Understanding someone’s background gives important insight, as well as sympathy.  It doesn’t make wrongdoing right, but it does open the door (and heart) to seeing another’s humanity.  There are many instances in The Cypresses Believe in God where characters look past political allegiances to see a person in need.  When Ignacio’s teachers, David and Olga, are jailed, Ignacio’s mother (who vehemently disapproves of their teaching and political leaning) prepares a daily food basket for them.  Ignacio’s brother also asks her to prepare a basket for a communist who worked in the same art shop as he.  Then, at the end of the novel, David and Olga similarly extend a hand to help someone who, politically, should be their sworn enemy.  The chief of police, Julio, experiences this break-through of humanity while in the midst of interrogating Mateo, the leader of the Falange in Gerona.  Mateo is the son of a friend of Julio’s, as well as the boyfriend of Pilar, a young girl Julio has watched grow up.

Then suddenly he felt an unexpected emotion opening a breach in him.  He thought of Pilar.  He thought that Pilar loved the boy sitting before him.  And he thought, too, of Don Emilio Santos, with whom he had played so many games of domino at the Neutral.  The fact that those two persons, Pilar and Don Emilio, should be devoted body and soul to the Falangist suddenly touched Julio deeply.  He upbraided himself for having yielded to the temptation to use the light-reflector on the boy.

Conversely, the greatest danger is when people aren’t able to “see” each other.  Some characters find themselves acting in a way they never expected, spurned on by their political zeal.  On Election Day, Olga observes a group of nuns coming to vote.  They had hired a taxi so that the infirmed nuns could cast their votes as well.  Olga, infuriated, shouts out at them, “Pigs!”  She immediately wonders at her loss of control.  Cosme Vila prints an article in El Democrata, falsely accusing Brother Alfredo, a sexton at the school of Christian Brothers, of being a homosexual.  An angry communist and anarchist mob later attacks the school and kills Brother Alfredo.  The violence is not one-sided.  At one point, a group of Falangists violently attacks a German professor who criticized Spanish culture and temperament.  

“The capacity for hate that exists is terrible,” Ignacio went on.  “I am really ashamed.  There are thousands of Spaniards capable of any atrocity.”  

The worst example of all arrives at the end of the novel.  After a failed military coup on the Right, the anarchists and Communists seize control and drive about Gerona in cars armed with guns.  During the night they seize people who had supported the military uprising, and, taking them into the cemetery, shoot them.  One of the main reasons they work by night is so that they can’t see the person they kill.  The darkness takes away that person’s humanity.

Most of the militiamen were amazed to see how easy it was to kill a man or five men.  One had only to think the word ‘fascists,’ take aim at the heart or the head and fire--and that was all there was to it.  Besides, in spite of the stars, the night hid many things in the cemetery.  One could not see the eyes of the condemned person; that was the most important.

The Cypresses Believe in God is a very political novel that follows historical events in Spain.  Yet, it is also a narrative that focuses on the Alvear family.  I think Gironella purposely approached his work in this way, in order to illustrate the fundamental role of family in society and the political sphere.  Family is the basic building block of any society.  When the family is broken, so, too, is society.  Ignacio observes a direct parallel: the fewer the family ties, the stronger the violence; the greater family ties, the more moderation.  Within his own life, when Ignacio drifts from his family (the spiritual bedrock of his life), he falls into rash action and sin.  

It seems we observe this in our country now.  Indeed, there were many times in reading The Cypresses Believe in God that the historical events of Spain in the early 1930s felt reminiscent of the United States today (from censorship to election fraud to violence).  The noble struggle is to see the humanity in each other—especially in our enemies—and to keep working to protect and defend the family.  It may be the only way we will keep our own country from spiraling into a civil war.

Don’t ever forget my advice!  In the last analysis, love is always stronger than hate.  Make sure you are moved by love, not by the contrary.

Lessons from My Cousin Rachel

 There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion.

Author Daphne Du Maurier was known to me for her best-selling novel Rebecca, a book I devoured in my high school years and still love.  I haven’t revisited any of Du Maurier’s books since, which I now regret, since I couldn’t bear to put down My Cousin Rachel.  Du Maurier is a master of suspense, mystery, and foreboding.  There are no warm, fuzzy, happy endings here; she writes to unsettle and disturb, which in turn, prompt you to analyze the characters to see who may be in the right … if anyone.

My Cousin Rachel begins with a sympathetic protagonist.  Philip Ashley became an orphan as a young boy and subsequently was raised by his older cousin, Ambrose Ashley.  Ambrose owns a sprawling English estate and here Philip spent his childhood.  Ambrose had an unorthodox parenting style.  For example, he taught Philip his alphabet by giving a profanity for each letter.  A steadfast bachelor who has little regard for women, Ambrose ensures that his household contains only men.  As such, the home lacks any feminine touch: dust covers much of the furniture and the place smells like a dog kennel.  Ambrose, considering Philip his heir, prepares him for the management of the estate.  Philip, for his part, idolizes his older cousin and his main objective in life is to be just like him.  

I never had any desire to be anywhere but at home.

Of course, things abruptly change.  Ambrose’s doctor advises him to spend the winter abroad, in the dry, warm air.  During his third winter in Italy, Ambrose makes the acquaintance of his cousin, Rachel.  Rachel is a widow, her late husband having died in a duel.  She was left with a great deal of debt and an empty villa in Florence.  Like Ambrose, she has a love for gardening, which is how they first form a friendship.  A few months later, Ambrose writes to Philip that he and Rachel are married.

Philip’s initial reaction, which he feels guilty about, is jealousy.  Ambrose was his world and now he must share Ambrose with someone else … and not just anyone else, but a woman!  Philip paints pictures in his mind of Rachel: large and angular with a loud laugh; pale and covered with a shawl, an invalid confined to her chair; a curvy young woman with bouncing curls.  Philip despises all these images and suddenly his entire future and home seem to be in jeopardy.  

Philip’s only knowledge of what transpires in Italy between Ambrose and Rachel comes from Ambrose’s letters, which become increasingly concerning.  Ambrose mentions that he can only write when his wife is out of the house and that she watches him all the time.  Ambrose has also fallen ill with crippling headaches that drive him to almost madness and then leave him powerless in bed.  Philip has already decided to travel to Florence to be with Ambrose when, on his way out the door, he receives a final communication from Ambrose, written in scrawling, barely readable writing:

For God’s sake, come to me quickly.  She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.  If you delay, it may be too late.  

Philip, in great trepidation, travels to Rachel’s villa in Florence, but quickly learns that Rachel has left.  Ambrose is also gone: he died, just a couple of weeks prior.  His cause of death is said to be a brain tumor, which a relative of his also died from.  Philip is stunned by the news.  He asks for Ambrose’s possessions, but learns that Rachel has taken all of them with her.  Philip is convinced that had he been there, Ambrose would not have died.  

I swore that, whatever it had cost Ambrose in pain and suffering before he died, I would return it, in full measure, upon the woman who had caused it.  I believed in the truth of those two letters that I held in my right hand.  The last Ambrose had ever written to me.  Someday, somehow, I would repay my cousin Rachel.

Returning home is a comfort to Philip, realizing that the estate now belongs to him (though, by a technicality, it does not pass into Philip’s full ownership until his twenty-fifth birthday in a few months’ time).  Not long after his return, however, Philip learns that Rachel has also traveled to England and wishes to see him, to bestow upon him all of Ambrose’s possessions.  Philip’s godfather points out to him that Rachel has inherited nothing from Ambrose: Ambrose never rewrote his will after his marriage, thus the entire estate passes to Philip only.  Philip impulsively invites Rachel to his home, intent on confronting her.

But Rachel is quite unlike any of the pictures he has formed in his mind.  She is short, with brown hair and wide eyes, dressed in mourning black.  She speaks of Ambrose and his home in England with great familiarity and knowledge, making Philip realize how well she knew Ambrose.  She has an easy manner and a bubble of laughter in her voice.  In sharing a story Ambrose told her, Philip finds himself laughing alongside her.  

Soon Philip realizes that the woman he hated is not Rachel at all.  And from hated his emotions toward Rachel turn to quite the opposite: appreciation, admiration, attraction … and even obsession.  Philip’s actions become increasingly impulsive.

Du Maurier creates the perfect tension between guilty and innocent.  Is Rachel guilty of having a hand in Ambrose’s death—did she, in fact, cause his death?  Philip, once convinced of her wrongdoing, swings to the opposite extreme and refuses to even entertain the idea that she could do such a thing.  Yet, Ambrose continues to assert his viewpoint, through discovered letters hidden in one of his books and a coat pocket.  

Whom can the reader trust?  Is Ambrose a jealous husband or a victim of Rachel’s greed?  What are Rachel’s feelings toward Philip?  Does she genuinely care for him or is she simply interested in the inheritance she wishes belonged to her?

In all this drama, one questions whether love exists at all between any of these characters.  To them, love seems to drive someone literally mad, acting impulsively, desire gripping the heart in order to totally consume the other.  Love, as the opening quote indicates, seems to drive a man and woman to jealousy and suspicion.  I knew someone in college who dated a man.  This man was completely head over heels for her, yet, during a disagreement, he suddenly blurted out to her, “I hate you!”  His intense feelings for her actually drove him to a moment of hatred … his passion for her became like a knife, wounding him, when not fulfilled in the way he desired.  

I would argue that this is not love at all.  Perhaps one could label it as obsession or infatuation, but not love.  Genuine love does not destruct or tear apart; it builds.  True love is not jealous or consuming; it is freeing and respectful of the other person’s self.  Real love does not concern itself with fulfilling one’s personal desires; it seeks to serve the other, to sacrifice for the other’s good.

As I read My Cousin Rachel, I varied between sympathy and frustration toward Philip.  On the one hand, he sometimes acts like a child: selfish in what he wants and impulsive in trying to obtain it.  Yet, as he navigates a woman as complicated and experienced as Rachel, he is at a major disadvantage.  He has little to no exposure to the wiles, emotions, reactions, and mind of a woman.  

Long days in the open, working with the men at harvest time; arguments with tenants behindhand with their rent or involved in some quarrel with a neighbor which I had to settle; nothing of this could compare to five minutes with a woman whose mood of gaiety had turned in a single instant to hostility.  And was the final weapon always tears?  Because they knew full well the effect upon the watcher?

Ambrose neglected a critical component to Philip’s rearing, never preparing him for the experience of a woman: how to treat her, how to be wary of her, how to love her.  But maybe it’s because Ambrose himself never learned these lessons until too late.  Woman and man are not the same: complementary, but not identical.  But without understanding each other and the true nature of love, man and woman have the ability to tear each other apart … even in the name of love.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Lessons from The Woman in the Trees

 “The beautiful Queen of Heaven said, ‘Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they must know for salvation.’”

When I think about apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe come to the forefront of my mind.  But what about Wisconsin?

Theoni Bell’s The Woman in the Trees brings to life the first Marian apparition approved in the United States.  In October 1859, Our Lady appeared to Adele Brise, a twenty-eight-year-old Belgian immigrant.  The Blessed Mother wore a dazzling white dress, with a yellow sash tied around her waist.  A crown of stars adorned her head, over her long, golden hair.  Standing elevated between two trees, she entrusted Adele with a mission: catechize the young immigrant children and pray for the conversion of sinners.

Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do.  Go and fear nothing, I will help you.

In response, Adele traversed the wilderness on foot, catechizing children.  She also set-up a Catholic school and began a community of Third Order Franciscan women.  Adele’s father built a small chapel at the site of the apparition, in Champion, Wisconsin.  There many pilgrims experienced conversions and healings.  Eventually, a larger Shrine was constructed. 

An amazing miracle took place at the Shrine.  On October 8, 1871 the deadliest wildfire in history occurred.  Called the Peshtigo fire, it consumed areas of northeastern Wisconsin, burning 1,200,000 acres of land and claiming the lives of 1,500-2,5000 people.  Many people flocked to the Shrine and gathered there with Adele, where they formed a procession and prayed the rosary.  Though the fire surrounded them on four sides, it did not cross the perimeter of the Shrine.  The Shrine was left undamaged and the faithful gathered there were spared from any harm.

Current Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help

This is the historical context of The Woman in the Trees, which follows protagonist Slainie LaFont and her family, Belgian immigrants who arrived in the United States and settled in Wisconsin.  I saw two different themes emerging from the narrative.  The first focuses on the concept of motherhood.  Slainie has a strained relationship with her mother, who is practical, unaffectionate, and stern.  Her mother also nurses a strong animosity toward religion.  The narrative follows Slainie’s increasingly broken relationship with her mother, which parallels Slainie’s growing realization that she has a Heavenly Mother who loves her.  

She lost faith in some hidden goodness inside her mother.  She lost hope that she herself could resist growing into the callous person her mother was.  She now believed what had been true all along, that as she listened more and more to Adele she walked toward Mary—and walked away from her earthly mother.

The other theme centers on the harshness of the wilderness and how the immigrants were ill-prepared for it.  They arrived in the United States expecting an easier, freer life than the one they previously experienced in Belgium.  Yet, quite the opposite occurs. 

The cabin where Slainie lived as a child sat in the center of a hard-won clearing.  For thousands of years, a forest of conifers and broad-leaved trees had grown unhindered in that spot.  Some of those trees were as thick as four feet across.  Only Indians had traversed there.  In 1853, the Belgian settlers arrived, and with them, Slainie LaFont.  In those early pioneering years, the settlers had hacked and sawed unceasingly at the forest.

The Belgians named their settlement Aux Premier Belges (The First Belgians).  Slainie and her siblings spent their days doing laundry, milking the cows, feeding the animals, foraging for food in the woods, and digging up roots and preparing the soil for planting.  When her mother placed her on laundry duty, Slainie labored for whole days cleaning clothing, collapsing exhausted on her bed after the grueling work.  These scenes certainly did not evoke the warm, cozy scenes of Little House in the Big Woods!  For many years the Belgians barely survived, turning to wild plants for food and making flour from acorns.  For five years they lived alone, in total isolation from any other settlement.  

As dire as these physical conditions were, the spiritual condition of the settlers was even worse.  They did not know their faith: they buried their deceased without any proper prayers or Christian burial.  They did not attend Mass.  They suffered greatly, but did not know how to sanctify that suffering.  Slainie’s family, in their journey to the United States, endured a personal tragedy, but they had no spiritual tools for processing their pain and finding hope in Christ.

The LaFonts never spoke about their immigration experience—nothing mentioned of the discarded possessions, faring the seas, or the search for land to settle.  Slainie dared not speak about leaving Belgium, because of the tragedy that followed.  Immigrating and tragedy were one in Slainie’s mind.  The first had caused the latter.

Aux Premier Belges gradually developed and flourished, after many difficult years.  Yet, in the terrible Peshtigo fire, everything they worked so hard to accomplish and build vanished in an instant.  

Still to the west, the front row of trees stood calmly as if nothing was wrong.  When the fire reached them they ignited with energetic bursts of flame.  The leaves and needles burned first, right before Slainie’s eyes, so that the last thing she glimpsed of each tree was a black skeleton of branches.  It flashed for an instant before each tree disappeared.  Nearby barns and houses exploded into flames and burned to nothing in a matter of moments.

An image from Harper's Weekly, 1871, depicting people fleeing for the river during the Peshtigo fire

It is only the Shrine that withstands the fire: faith is the secure foundation to build upon.  Our earthly labor, without a heavenly perspective, may be in vain if not sanctified through faith.  Thus the critical need to teach people, young and old, about the hope we hold in Christ.  The Woman in the Trees is a beautiful reminder that Our Blessed Mother will take care of our needs—spiritual and physical—whenever we turn to her as children.