Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When the king returns...

From NPR, a fascinating piece about a Royalist memorial Mass for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Church of Saint-Denis. They talk briefly about the Royalist movement in France, albeit with a little scorn. But I think there is something wonderful, noble, and dare I say, romantic about their loyalty to a long-gone king, improbable as the restoration of the French monarchy may be. "When the king shall come again" and all that. I very much like the way the story is centered on the requiem Mass (in Latin - an Extraordinary Form Mass, most likely). It highlights the ancient identity of France as royal and Catholic.

Although I am thoroughly American and as such believe in a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people," I admit I have always had a fascination with doomed royalty. In high school I was thoroughly obsessed with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family. The story of the mild autocrat, his strong-minded, religious wife, and their five children captured my imagination. I even have a term paper I wrote for 10th grade world history on the reign of Nicholas II - I seem to remember summing him up as a good man but a poor ruler.

Now my interest has turned to France, thanks to Antonia Fraser's bio of Marie Antoinette, which I've read so many time that it is starting to get quite worn and wrinkled. She was very far from the harpy she is often portrayed as - she was actually noted for her good works and her concern for the poor. There are certain similarities between Nicholas and Louis XVI - both inherited problems from their predecessors which they were ill equipped to deal with, their foreign-born wives became the center of the people's bitterness and discontent, and their deaths were and are considered as martyrdom by some. For those who are interested in learning more about the Catholic Monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the blog Tea at Trianon has a wealth of information.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Is Notre Dame intolerant?

The other day I wrote, "Unfortunately Mr. Klee's letter will probably go unnoticed in the brouhaha over an offensive cartoon published in the Observer..." Sadly I was correct. In true Observer fashion, the Viewpoint section has been utterly dominated by a single point of view on a hot-button issue. The resident progressives have spoken and apparently Notre Dame is "gay unfriendly."

It's sad that I should even have to state this, but I am bound by my sense of justice to state that absolutely nothing in Catholic teaching on homosexuality promotes hatred and injustice toward same-sex attracted persons. We are to love them just as we love every child of God. If there are people on campus claiming that their animus towards SSA people is due to their Catholic upbringing, I will be the first in line to call them out and shame them for their twisted understanding of Church doctrine, and remind them that the average undergraduate has plenty of sins of his own to worry about without concerning himself with his neighbor's. However, I doubt their loving adherence to Catholic doctrine is the cause of their animosity. Some students lacking in charity may be hiding behind a facade of Catholicism, but I think it's nothing but good old-fashioned bigotry at play - nothing Catholic about that!

Predictably, however, some people with an agenda are using this latest flap as a pretext to continue to undermine Notre Dame's Catholic identity and silence authentic Catholic teaching on campus. The cries of "backward" and "prejudiced" are being flung recklessly around, as are the words "hatred" and "discrimination." Not one of these people defines the nebulous term "hatred," which makes me think that "hatred" in this case stands for "holding the belief that homosexual activity is sinful." One particularly silly letter to the Observer urges us to look to the Jesuits on how to treat SSA persons on campus. I have to wonder whether this writer is aware that most Jesuit universities have distanced themselves from Catholicism, describing themselves as "in the Jesuit tradition" with little to no connection to the universal Church. Boston College is known as "Barely Catholic" for a reason, you know. I see that the author did go to a Jesuit school, so I suppose he thinks that kicking Catholicism to the curb is a plus. Needless to say, I vehemently disagree. Jesuit universities are hardly a model for Notre Dame to follow.

A final thought - is it real charity if you see your neighbor rushing headlong toward the edge of a cliff and you do nothing to stop him because you "accept his lifestyle choice?" If any friends or family members of mine were actively gay, I would love them just the same. Nothing would change for me. But for me to pretend that I do not believe that they are making wrong choices that are hurting their relationship to God, would be extremely dishonest and would be doing them a disservice.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A grad student speaks out

Today there was a letter to the editor in the Observer that was actually worth reading. Bravo, Mr. Klee! And it touched on a subject near and dear to my heart - quality of life for married grad students and grad students with families at ND. Read on, my friends: Family Life at Notre Dame

I don't know Mr. Klee personally, but we are most certainly on the same wavelength. He touches on a lot of the points I made in a previous post about women in academic life - the policy which allows grad student mothers a bare six weeks at home with their newborns and the lack of child care on campus for children younger than two years of age. He also brings out a point I had missed - the cost of grad student insurance for spouses. I had originally planned to put my husband on my insurance when he lost his job, but thanks to COBRA he can keep his US Steel insurance for a fraction of what it would have cost me to buy it from ND. Our stipends are small enough already, and insurance payments are a significant expense.

To my great surprise, Mr. Klee points out the family policies that benefit grad students at schools like Yale, Cornell, and the UC system school. I won't repeat what he wrote in his letter, but the plans they have sound great and frankly, put ND to shame. When I came to ND I didn't really see the maternity policies here as a problem, because I assumed the secular schools would be even worse. I just assumed that it was like this everywhere because grad students are fairly low on the academic food chain. Now that I see it isn't, I feel just a little bit angry. I trusted that a Catholic school would recognize the primacy of the family - and clearly, that isn't the case.

On a more personal note, this letter hit a real chord with me because of my husband's continuing unemployment and the financial difficulties resulting from that. He is still unable to find a job in the area because of the dismal economy, and is now starting to look out-of-state. I don't want to quit grad school - I worked really hard to get here and I love what I'm doing - but part of me wonders what the point would be in continuing. If he moves and I stay here to finish school, I'd only be starting all over again, looking for a postdoc in one specific area of the country with my very specific skill set. The never-ending two body problem would just continue to plague me. And I know couples do it, but living apart as a married couple would be very painful to me and, I feel, contradictory to the spirit of Christian married life. I want to start our family soon and continuing on in academic life would just throw up more hurdles in our way. I wonder why I should go on in a profession that is so very unwelcoming of women who actually want to be wives and mothers.

In any case, it makes me very happy to see a fellow grad student standing up for us. It's easy to feel neglected here, with ND being so heavily undergrad-centered. If ND really wants to become prominent in research, they need to be able to attract graduate students with family-friendly policies. Unfortunately Mr. Klee's letter will probably go unnoticed in the brouhaha over an offensive cartoon published in the Observer (which I apparently missed) but I say to him again, bravo, sir!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two by Undset: Part 1

The beginning of the semester is always a nice time for leisure reading. I'm not yet bogged down with classes and in the mood for more meditative pursuits. I have been reading two works by Sigrid Undset (you may recall my earlier post on her masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter). The first is her tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, and the second is her biography of Catherine of Siena, recently republished by Ignatius Press.

I actually re-read The Master of Hestviken, which is composed of the four books The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. I really can't do justice to the plot of this epic novel in a blog post - and it really is epic in the best sense of the word, as Undset was inspired by the old Norse sagas. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, the novel is set in medieval Norway, and is roughly contemporaneous to Kristin (a young Lavrans Bjorgulfson makes a cameo appearance towards the end of The Snake Pit). The main characters are Olav Audunsson, the eponymous heir of Hestviken, and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, his foster sister. Olav and Ingunn are betrothed as children and raised as brother and sister. When they grow into teenagers and succumb to temptation, they naively expect that their eventual marriage will shield them from the consequences. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The family intrigues come fast and heavy as Olav rashly kills a relative of Ingunn's and is forced to go into exile. When he returns to find that Ingunn has been seduced and borne an illegitimate child, he kills her seducer, and for complicated reasons, finds himself unable to confess the sin for many years.

This book is nothing short of depressing, in all honesty. Things never really improve for Olav and Ingunn after the sins of their youth. Just when you think it is impossible for them to make their lives worse, it gets worse, without fail - and they usually do it to themselves. In Kristin, Undset deals with the reality that there is no "happily ever after" and she makes that even more bleakly clear in The Master of Hestviken. Even after Olav secures his ancestral manor and marries Ingunn, she suffers ill health and dozens of miscarriages, dying after years as an invalid. He raises Eirik, her illegitimate son, as his own, alternately trying to do penance for murdering the child's father and hating the boy for not being his own blood. In the end, it is Eirik who resolves the conflict of his parents' sins, but only after following his own crooked path.

Reading this description probably doesn't induce you to read the book - but there is so much more to it than the bald list of Olav's endless sufferings. The love between Olav and Ingunn is beautifully described. Almost like Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, their childhood affinity grew into a love that has so shaped them that they cannot imagine life without each other. (Olav even begs Ingunn to come back to him after she dies, a scene which should be familiar to readers of WH.) In spite of all Ingunn's failings, Olav shows an amazing selflessness towards her which raises them above Cathy and Heathcliff's animal passion. Later, as Olav realizes the gravity of his sin and struggles to confess, we are treated to inner monologues that perfectly describe the crushing weight of sin and the pain of separation from God. It is a book well worth reading - not "leisure reading" but a novel that will help you grow spiritually. There aren't many books I can truly say that of.

After typing up this lengthy post on The Master of Hestviken, I realized that Catherine of Siena really deserves its own post. I will follow up in a day or two.