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.