Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Hobbit Second Breakfast

A particularly flourishing tip of the hat to Mark Shea for this one!

I poked around the site and found some neat little mind-mathoms, including a few recipes. I think we will be sticking with our own seed cake recipe, with which (ahem) Aidan won the Award of Excellence rosette at the fair last year.

Bilbo Baggins' Seed Cake Muffins 

1 stick margarine 
1 cup powdered sugar 
1 egg 
1 cup self-rising flour 
pinch of salt 
1 ½ Tbsp caraway seeds 
2 Tbsp milk 

Cream the margarine and sugar until light and fluffy. 
Beat in the egg. 
Sift in flour. 
Add salt and caraway seeds and stir. 
Add milk and stir. 
Grease six cups of muffin tray and fill two-thirds with batter.  
Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. 
Remove muffins from tray and cool on wire rack.

I have more ideas for your hobbit menu and celebration posted here.

And you might as well make plenty, because the day after the Hobbit Second Breakfast is Hobbit Day.

If you join in, I'd love to hear about your plans!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Aging Wood and Overanalysis

I love Pinterest. Who doesn't?

(Actually, I love/hate Pinterest. Who doesn't?)

I love the ideas for beautiful, handmade things that you can find on Pinterest, one subset of which is all of the things you can make from wood. Do you have some favorites? I've seen (and dreamed up) carved toys, kitchen spoons, nativity sets, wood-burned icons, home decor items, kids' handmade blocks... But it all starts with the wood. And the purist "handmade" you can get is the wood you find yourself.

 There's plenty of wood where I live. This is a pine tree cut down by the power company earlier this year. I wanted to stack the pieces somewhere and season the wood and maybe learn to carve some rough items with my kids. I would forget in the face of all this bounty how heavy wood is. And I didn't know where to put it. Everywhere I thought of had some problem: too near the house, too far away to make it happen, too much in the way of the rest of life. I couldn't do it yet. Not with so many little ones running around, and frankly, other priorities for my time. Maybe later.

So here it sits. Getting old and useless.

But it seems like such a waste.

This is symbolic of the way I often see my life. The parable of the talents makes me tremble. I have been given so much: do I truly come close to giving enough back? And this piece by Ann Voskamp hit home yesterday: How do you know how to best invest your life? The answer is so obvious to some; but I keep getting paralyzed by the question, and I constantly feel myself in grave danger. In the battle for my soul, one side wants me to take the impetus of that question and move me to actionto love —and the other side wants to keep freezing me up in my own fears and insecurities, while it all goes to rot.

Those who think this proves some point about the banality of devoting one's life to motherhood, or homeschooling, or the likethey miss my point. It is exactly in the blessings of my family life that I am overwhelmed by possibilities. How best do I teach my children? How do I form their character? What system of chores should I use? What do I make for their dinner? What should they do today to learn to feed the hungry, know their math facts, honor their father and mother, know, love and serve God?

There are so many excellent ways of doing each of these things. There are so many difficulties to contend with in doing them. It's easy to sit and just... ponder on them all.

Those who already understand that the family is their first sphere of influencecharity begins at homeface another danger, that of becoming so insular that they don't recognize when God may be calling them to give of themselves outside of it. In fact, I am afraid that the more the world devalues this particular lifestyle of staying at home with my kids, the more reactionary I may become at the idea that I need to do something beyond, until "my vocation" becomes a reflexive shutting out of any other idea.

There, that. You see the pattern, no? Back and forth, analyzing everything, engaging nothing.

I used Jennifer Fulwiler's Saint Name Generator at the beginning of this year to choose patron saints for our family. St John of God "picked" me, and I immediately knew why. He is an impulsive one, so impulsive that he sometimes got it wrong. But he was motivated by the love of God, and that love was so great, so impetuous and tenacious, that he was able to do great things because he made the start and kept on going.

I've already made a start on a great thing. This family is my life and my vocation. But sometimes I need a little impetuosity to shake off the plodding, overthinking questions that cause me to stagnate. So here is a question, a wide-open invitation to act that has the capacity to be thrilling.

What shall I do first today?

It's Thursday. Time for some {phfr}

Marc Barnes has said, a few times, something along the lines of "You can never have too much beauty." The second time I read that phrase, I realized that I must differ. I am wholeheartedly in agreement on the great goodness of beauty, how it can lead you to God, teach you about God--is, all on its own, a gift from God. But you can be overwhelmed by beauty, overwhelmed to tears, and say, "Enough!" Think about it--who can see the face of God and live? Just the beauty of my children can knock me off my feet. Even all of those gorgeous blog posts some people put together about life, with glowing pictures and lilting prose, make me turn my head away so that I can get on with my own life.  And of course it is because of our sinful nature. My heart is sometimes so pinched from my own shortcomings that I don't have enough room to let in all of the beauty that God pours out in front of me. And then I must consciously loosen those drawn heartstrings, or have some kind soul unlace them for me, unwrap the beauty and blessings of life so I can breathe it in more freely.

I need beauty. Today I need beauty. That's what {phfr} is all about. So I'm collecting my pictures and my thoughts to reflect the beauty of today, of the days that have brought me here.


That is, Beautiful

The Sacred Heart chapel at my church.


The kids went to a skating party recently. First time skating for most of them. It was as delightful as a vaudville act. I have more pictures, but they're even blurrier. 


My attempt to photograph a rainbow out my window while driving!

I pulled over and got a better one. Can you see it? 

If I had managed to get better pictures, this would have been my "pretty." One evening as I went out for my swim, I drove into and under this rainbow. And on the way home, there in the sky was the blue moon, rising. I wish I could show you just how beautiful it was that night. 


This is a tree cut down by the power company several months ago. I muse upon aging wood and overanalysis here.


And my pretty, happy loud girls keeping it real outside the church one Sunday during Mass.


Check out Like Mother, Like Daughter for more.

round button chicken

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Why I Will Never Despair"

I usually don't pay much attention to what's trending at Twitter, but today I thought it would be fun to jump on a bandwagon. The hashtag #Forward2012 featured a lot of political stuff (my guess is the Obama campaign, or something, is responsible for promoting it). I don't have much of a stomach for politics. My thoughts immediately turned to Psalm 146:3, which is (approximately) what I tweeted with the trending hashtag: "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save."

Mark Shea alludes to this passage a lot when he talks politics and government. It's always a tonic to see those words when I'm at his blog. And if Elizabeth Scalia doesn't actually cite it, she frequently aligns with it in the tone of her posts. She consciously refuses to get bogged down by the political-cultural morass of an election year, entrusting with hope the process, and its results, to God.

Today, as the Anchoress shared a little witticism about last night's Democratic National Convention, she gives an example of this.
God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts, and we do well to remember that, every day, in every situation. God’s view is the longview, which we are not privy to.
Which is precisely why I will never despair; even if it all “goes wrong” I will never entertain the notion that God’s hand has gone missing in anything, or that a greater purpose than we can imagine is behind so much that confounds us. And because I will not entertain that notion, I will never fall into the trap of thinking that our own efforts, alone, will be the ultimate solution to anything.
It is very easy for me to fall into that trap, or rather to the trap that because it depends on our efforts, all is doomed. Which is why I like to read Mark and Lizzie; they remind me to pray, which is probably the most necessary and effective thing I can do.

And then she gives us something to reflection on, concerning the tense issue of religious freedom in our country these days.  It may seem rather less than hopeful, although Christians know better if they come at it the right way: the 16 Martyrs of the Carmel of Compiegne during the French Revolution, executed for their fidelity to their vocations. 
The silence was broken only by the singing of the sisters as they chanted the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus." One by one, the sisters made their way to the guillotine, youngest to oldest, each sister pausing to kneel before the Prioress, asking "Permission to die Mother." To which the Mother Superior responded, "Go, my daughter." The state had ordered their deaths, but their final act of obedience was not to the state, but to their mother in religious life.

The Mother Superior was the last to be killed.

The revolutionary government of France fell ten days after the execution of the sisters.
Read it all.

Jesus said, "Do not resist an evil person," and he himself was the lamb led to slaughter, opening not his mouth against it. These sisters obeyed and imitated their savior, their eyes so fixed on God that they seemed to have hardly even a glance to spare at their own oppression. It is wondrous to me that in their surrender to evil, they were instrumental in bringing it down--just like Jesus. What a profound mystery the Cross is!

I wonder if any of the Carmelite martyrs trembled in their hearts at the sight of the guillotine. I do not imagine that every martyr-saint passed from this life to the next in total serenity. Surely many feared death--they just trusted God more. This is the witness we are called to be in this world, and the confidence God asks of us. Even if I am never called to a literal, bodily death, I can make myself a living sacrifice by being faithful to the Church, and to what she teaches, and eschewing fear and anxiety, even in the face of real threats.

St. Catherine of Siena said, "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire." These sisters inspire me to see that I can transform the world just by living out the life to which I am called, and trusting God's hand in everything.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Support a Catholic Speaker Month: Joseph Pearce

September is Support a Catholic Speaker Month! Brandon Vogt has put together a list of the top 100 Catholic speakers as voted on by his readers. The best part is that that this list will include links to each of these speakers, featured at various blogs. The list includes some really interesting names; I would be tempted to hold an event just so I could invite some of these people to speak at it. 

For this project, it was my pleasure and privilege to interview Joseph Pearce, author of several books any of which a Catholic bibliophile would eat up. He is also writer in residence and visiting fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, editor of an international review of Catholic culture, the St. Austin Review, series editor of a series of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and executive director of Catholic Courses. He's been on EWTN to talk about Shakespeare and The Lord of the Rings (two of my literary favorites), and his books have been translated into at least seven different languages. You can read more about his work, and him, here

Joseph has generously shared his thoughts on a spattering of topics about his work, his faith, and the literary world. (Writers, check out his brief but beautiful prayer before beginning work.) I could have asked him a hundred more questions than I did. Maybe for some other project one day, he'll consent to another interview and I can share his answers with you. Or better yet, maybe you can have him at your conference, school, or parish, and you can hear him yourself.

I first came to know of your work in Tolkien: Man and Myth. Is Tolkien's Catholicism as evident in his book The Hobbit as it is in Lord of the Rings? Have you begun to see an uptick of interest in Tolkien (and his Catholicism) in anticipation of the first Hobbit movie? 
Tolkien referred to The Lord of the Rings as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work". Over the years I have written a great deal exploring this Catholic dimension of Tolkien's masterpiece. Now, however, I have written a book on the Catholicism of The Hobbit, which will be published later this year as "Bilbo's Journey" by Saint Benedict Press.

Tolkien's deeply-held Catholicism permeates The Hobbit in many ways, most notably as a meditation on Christ's words in the Gospel that "where your treasure is there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). The Hobbit is also a reflection on the nature of man as "homo viator", whose ultimate purpose is to love and serve God on the journey through this life that we may be with Him forever in the next. It charts Bilbo's spiritual growth in terms of the mystical relationship between free will and Divine Providence.

Judging by the amount of interest in the upcoming movie version of The Hobbit I am hopeful that it will present Catholics with the opportunity to evangelize through the power of Tolkien. In the wake of the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings ten years ago, I gave many talks at Ivy League schools and state universities, as well as at Catholic and Protestant schools and parishes, unlocking the Catholicism of Tolkien's work. It would be wonderful if the movie version of The Hobbit were to present the same opportunities to evangelize.

You've written two books about Shakespeare's Catholicism. Is this idea gaining traction in the literary world?
There is a residual resistance to the growing evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism amongst secular academics, not because they have any convincing counter-evidence but because many academics have built their reputations upon misreadings of Shakespeare's work. Such secular reading of his work becomes untenable if the Bard can be shown to be a believing Catholic.

I have now written three books, not two, exploring the mountain of evidence for the Catholic Shakespeare, the third of which will be published by Ignatius Press next spring. In the first of my books, The Quest for Shakespeare, I assemble the biographical evidence, i.e. the evidence that emerges from the facts that we know about Shakespeare's life; in the second book, Through Shakespeare's Eyes, I explore the textual evidence for the Bard's Catholicism to be found in three of his plays (The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear); in the third book, Shakespeare On Love, I reveal the Catholic moral dynamic of Romeo and Juliet, a play which is almost invariably misread and misunderstood. I have also had the honour of editing the Ignatius Critical Editions of several Shakespeare plays, each of which includes excellent critical essays by contemporary academics offering tradition-oriented readings of the works. Apart from the four plays mentioned above, there are also Ignatius Critical Editions of Julius Caesar and Macbeth. (For more details, please see

Last year, I had the immense privilege of filming an eight-lecture series on Shakespeare's Catholicism for Catholic Courses ( In addition, I regularly speak on the topic at Catholic parishes and at Catholic schools. Thankfully I am joined in this crusade to make Shakespeare's Catholicism better known by an increasing number of scholars who are doing splendid work on the subject. The extent to which this scholarship is having an impact on the wider culture can be seen by the response of a nationally-known director of Shakespeare plays to a question put to him at a talk he gave in Washington DC. Asked for his views on Shakespeare’s religious beliefs, the director answered that many people believe that he was a Catholic. This well-known Shakespearean was not a Catholic himself but was acknowledging the growing weight of evidence for the Bard of Avon’s adherence to the Church of Rome. There’s a long way to go but this battle is being won!

You underwent a radical change in your belief system, going from a twice-convicted anti-Catholic racist to Catholic convert and defender. You credit G. K. Chesterton with much of the impetus for your conversion. What happened?
This is a long story but, to make the long story short, I was a leading member of a white supremacist organization called the National Front in my native England back in the 1970s and 1980s. I was sent to prison twice for “publishing material likely to cause racial hatred”. I was also very anti-Catholic and was involved with the Protestant terrorist organizations, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. I was also a member of the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic secret society, and was very anti-American, demonstrating outside US airbases in the UK and demanding that the “Yanks Go Home”!

By a miracle of grace I was introduced to the work of G.K. Chesterton, whose books I began to read avidly, even though I didn’t agree with his Catholicism or his anti-racism. So much that he wrote made sense and I loved his personality, his wit and his sense of humour. Through my love of Chesterton I came to read the books of Hilaire Belloc and, later still, the work of C. S. Lewis, John Henry Newman and, finally, St. Thomas Aquinas. Slowly but surely I was being drawn to the truth of the Faith. I was received into the Catholic Church on St. Joseph’s Day in 1989. My first book, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, was an act of thanksgiving. I was giving thanks to God for giving me Chesterton but also giving thanks to Chesterton for giving me God!
I note that you were always a writer, even before your conversion. Afterwards, how did you get your foot in the door of the Catholic publishing world?
Yes, I’ve always been a writer – for as long as I can remember. It’s in my blood, or my genes, or my soul, or wherever these things reside! I made the final of a national poetry competition in the UK when I was about nine-years-old and launched a magazine, of which I became editor, when I was only sixteen-years-old. It was for articles published in this magazine that I was sent to prison.

Following my conversion, my books were published by mainstream secular publishers in the UK (Harper Collins and Hodder & Stoughton) but the US editions were being published by Ignatius Press, the great Catholic publisher in San Francisco. My biography of Chesterton, and my book, Literary Converts, were very successful in the USA, launching my long-term relationship with the folks at Ignatius Press. Although I am still publishing with Ignatius, I am now being published by other good Catholic publishers in the USA, such as Saint Benedict Press and St. Augustine’s Press. My books have also been published in foreign language editions, including Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Korean and Mandarin.  

Your biographies have been mostly about Catholic English writers. Do you have a favorite?
This is always a difficult question. I love G.K. Chesterton, of course, and owe him a great deal as being the most important influence, under grace, on my conversion. I’m also a great admirer of Hilaire Belloc, who deserves to emerge from Chesterton’s shadow. I have always been in awe of Shakespeare’s inestimable and incomparable genius. He is the greatest writer who ever lived, with the possible exception of the great Dante. In the final analysis, however, I must admit that Tolkien is probably my favourite writer. The Lord of the Rings is simply too astonishing for words.

Perhaps I can illustrate my admiration for Tolkien by way of a short tangential digression …
Samuel Johnson famously said that the man who is tired of London is tired of life. As a Londoner, I am forced to disagree with the great Dr. Johnson. I am tired of London because London is tired of life. It has become the epicenter of the culture of death. I would like to replace Dr. Johnson’s epigram with an alternative of my own: The man who is tired of The Lord of the Rings is tired of life! Tolkien’s masterpiece has so much life in it, and is a symphony to the wonders of Life, that only a cynic can fail to be edified by its beauty and majesty.

What do you do as a writer in residence?
I am so blessed to be a writer in residence and Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire ( because it allows me the time to write even though I have teaching responsibilities. The folks at TMC recognize my desire to write and the importance of my work as a writer and want to facilitate the writing of future books by showing great flexibility in the planning of my teaching schedule. I will be teaching at TMC intensively for four one-week periods each semester. Obviously such intensive teaching will require a great deal of preparation but I will still have time to write. This arrangement is heaven-sent! I hope to repay the faith that the people at TMC have placed in me by being a model member of the faculty and a tireless promoter of the great work that the college does in educating students in the tradition-oriented liberal arts.

You recently began teaching for Homeschool Connections, and you are executive director for Catholic Courses. What inspired these? How are they working out?
I began teaching for Homeschool Connections ( as part of my ongoing commitment to the Catholic homeschooling movement. I have spoken at homeschooling conferences throughout the USA for several years and met the Homeschool Connections people at these conferences. Teaching on-line, from the comfort and convenience of my home-office, enables me to engage in teaching homeschoolers in such a way that it minimizes disruption to my writing schedule. As with my position at Thomas More College, my relationship with Homeschool Connections is heaven-sent.

As for Catholic Courses, I was both flattered and honoured when Conor Gallagher, the executive producer of the series, asked me to become executive director. The series is very exciting. It’s meant to be a Catholic equivalent of the Teaching Company, offering courses on DVD, CD or in downloadable format in the areas of theology, philosophy, literature, history and the lives of the saints. We’ve managed to attract some of the finest Catholic lecturers to present the courses and I’ve had the pleasure of teaching four courses myself. The first two, filmed last year when the Catholic Courses were first launched, were on “Shakespeare’s Catholicism” and “The Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings”; the most recent two, which I filmed only a few weeks ago, are on The Hobbit and on “The Thought of G.K. Chesterton”.
You obviously have been influenced by your faith in the choices you have made in your career. How do you understand your aptitude for writing and teaching as a vocation in the service of God?

The Catholic Faith is at the summit and the centre of my life. It is my life’s very purpose. As such, I see my aptitude for writing as a gift from God which it is my duty to offer back to Him in service. The extent to which I see my role as a writer as a vocation is best summed up in the words of the prayer with which I begin the working day: “Lord, I pray that my labours today, by Thy grace, will bring my soul and the souls of others closer to Thee. In all that I do, Lord, may the desire to please you be paramount. Keep me free from worldly ambition and anxiety, and I ask only for material sustenance for myself and my dependents. Lord, may my words be your words.”

What are you currently working on?
I have been commissioned to write a full-length book on my conversion story, which I’ve tentatively titled “Race with the Devil: A Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love”. This will keep me busy until at least the end of the year. I am also engaged always with my responsibilities as co-editor of the St. Austin Review (, a journal of Catholic culture which is published six times per year. I have been co-editor of the St. Austin Review (or StAR) since it was launched back in 2001. It is an ongoing labour of love.

Do you speak primarily in academic settings? What does your speaking schedule look like?
I speak in all sorts of settings. Over the years, I have spoken at Catholic colleges, Protestant colleges, Ivy League schools, state universities, Catholic parishes, Protestant parishes, Catholic high schools, Protestant high schools, Diocesan conferences, Men’s conferences, homeschooling conferences, academic conferences, Chesterton conferences, C. S. Lewis conferences, et cetera. I’ve also given talks in disparate parts of the world including South America, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and England, as well as in many parts of the United States and Canada.

My speaking schedule is busy. I’m usually travelling several times a month, but I’m always happy to accept other engagements. Anyone wishing to obtain further details of my availability and the topics on which I speak regularly should contact me at the following address:


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