The Little Minister

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The little minister           Everyone should make it a point, once in a while, to wander through a good used book shop and select a couple of titles he has never heard of before.  I recently took just such a stroll, and I have found myself reading the way I used to when I was a kid: under the covers, completely absorbed, without a thought about what might be happening in the world outside the yellowed, dusty pages.  Such was the spell cast by a smallish, blue hard cover volume, light-weight and without a dust jacket: The Little Minister by J.M. Barrie.  I picked it up because I recognized J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.  I knew (because I have seen Finding Neverland) that he was a well-established writer before Peter Pan, but I had never heard of a single other one of his works.  The little blue volume was frustratingly reticent about its contents.  The publisher did not deign to print so much as a copyright date.  There is nothing at all in the way of blurb or synopsis.  When I bought it, I knew nothing about the book except that its author was famous for writing something else and that my particular volume had once belonged to Mary Louise Boone of Agnes Scott College.  Not a single word gave me any insight about the story.

Lucky me.  How often does anyone get the chance to embark upon a story without any preconceptions about where it will lead?

If you wish to leave off reading this review right now and dig up a copy of The Little Minister at your library to embark upon your own untainted journey, by all means do so.  It’s a lovely little book.  But if you must have something more to tempt you, then read on.

The Little Minister contains one potentially sizeable stumbling block for non-U.K. audiences, which is Barrie’s too-faithful rendering of Scotch accents.  The book is set in a small Scottish weaving town called Thrums, and if I had not once had a friend from Airdrie, outside Glasgow, I might have given up trying to comprehend the characters’ gregarious prattle.  Thankfully, I was able to play an imaginary recording of my friend’s voice in my head and persevere.  It was worth the effort, because what unfolds in The Little Minister is as sweet a love story as I have ever read.

The title character is Gavin Dishart, a twenty-one-year-old newly-ordained “Auld Licht” (“Old Light”) minister who has come to take his first church (or kirk) in Thrums.  The term “Auld Licht” means precisely nothing to this American cradle-Catholic, but I surmise that it refers to one of the more severe denominations of Scottish Protestantism.  Gavin is wildly popular among his congregation, a rousing preacher, not afraid to beard lions in their dens by going out into the community to reproach its most obstinate sinners, which he does with some success.  He is warned that the weavers of Thrums recently participated in a labor riot, and soldiers will inevitably return to exact punishment on them.  The coming of the soldiers is heralded one night by an “Egyptian” woman (which is what the people of Thrums call a gypsy.)  She rouses the weavers from their beds and warns them to mount a defense.  Gavin bravely marches out to warn his people against violence and shame them into accepting the just deserts of their wrongdoing, which is how he first meets the Egyptian.  Thus begins the telling of yet another star-crossed romance, this one between a straight-laced minister and a rabble-rousing gypsy.

The story is narrated by the dominie (schoolmaster) of nearby Glen Quharity, a stand-offish but not at all disinterested observer of Gavin’s story who offers many poignant insights about the nature of youth, infatuation, and love.  The dominie knows a few things about love and love lost, things he learned from Gavin’s mother long ago.

Many things separate The Little Minister from other star-crossed romances, including Barrie’s inimitable style (if you’ve read Peter Pan, you will recognize his voice), the book’s unexpected ending (I will not tell you if it is comic or tragic, only that I was expecting one and found the other), and its distinctly un-modern understanding of love.  Gavin and the Egyptian are subject to all the usual foibles of doe-eyed infatuation, including trying to deny that they are smitten.  But they come to understand that love is a weighty thing, heavy with responsibility.  The dominie is quick to remind both Gavin and the reader that any sacrifice made in pursuit of one love will come at the cost of many others.  For Gavin to pursue marriage with the Egyptian will mean forfeiting not only his church, but also the security his mother enjoys from her son’s employment.  The Egyptian, too, is tied by many connections that forbid the match even if she were willing to let Gavin sacrifice his livelihood, which she is not.  One life is tangled up in many others, and to pull one thread too hard may unravel many more.  And yet, who can ever help but pull the thread of love?

The Little Minister won me over because it is a lovely story, lovingly told.  But more than that, it is a book about a true hero–a kind of book I have found to be all too scarce these days.  “He was an obstinate minister, and love had led him in a dance, but in the hour of trial he had proved himself a man.”  I would say, rather, he proved himself a man of God.

Karen Ullo is the author of Jennifer the Damned, now available from Wiseblood Books.  Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Books for the Bedridden

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Welcome, November.  Such a beautiful month.  The temperature has finally dropped below Oppressive, you’ve dared to don a sweater, and you’ve driven to the grocery store in search of cranberry-flavored happiness.  And popsicles, because tomorrow will be Oppressive again, even though Thursday’s low is supposed to drop below freezing, and there might be sleet.  That will all be gone by Saturday, which will be filled with golden crispness like a postcard sent by the goddess of Fall.  You won’t be able to enjoy it, however, because you will be bedridden by fever, body aches, and searing sinus pain brought on by the wicked roulette wheel of weather that is November.  So you might as well get your bookshelf prepared.

For me, reading when I’m sick is an entirely different experience from reading when I’m healthy.  The small part of my brain that is not infected tells me that I should challenge myself, dive into the works of exciting new authors, brave thousand-page tomes of philosophy because, hey, what better time to catch up than while I’m stuck in bed?  But my germ-infested body quickly slaps that part of my brain and says, “Just watch a House Hunters marathon, you moron.”  The compromise between Ambitious Me and Sick Me is usually to read books I’ve read a thousand times before.  It’s healthier than worrying about a stranger’s lack of amenities at a postage-stamp flat in Bombay, but not as energy-intensive as actual reading.  Here are a few favorites for cold and flu season from my library.  What are yours?

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia

NarniaNow is not the time to finish the dissertation you never wrote about the not-so-hidden Christian typologies and ontologies and whatever other –ologies you meant to cram into it.  We all know Aslan is Jesus, and right now, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that there’s a giant talking lion and a lamp-post tree and a ship that can sail to the edge of the world, and time doesn’t make any sense, and you can get to this place from England as long as you have a magic wardrobe or a freaky painting or some rings made by a crazy uncle.  It’s exactly where you want to be after swigging NyQuil but still not getting any sleep.

  1. Pride and PrejudiceP&P

There are few things quite as restorative as a good romance novel, and this is the mother of them all.  “Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you.”  Sigh.  It’s hard to go on feeling sick in a world where even jilted lovers sound like poets.

  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireHarry Potter

Let’s face it – you desperately want to pay a visit to Madam Pomfrey, but you don’t want to put up with Quirrel, Lockhart, or Umbridge to get there.

  1. Slaughterhouse FiveSlaughterhouse Five

“Listen:

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

“Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.  He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941.  He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963.  He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.”

Billy Pilgrim makes sense when you’re drugged.

  1. Crime and Punishment

Crime and PunishmentWatching Raskolnikov thrash around in self-induced delirium for a few hundred pages would make even a dying man grateful not to be that miserable.  It might also put you to sleep, which is what you really want to be doing, anyway.

Happy November!

A Visit From My Sister

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Maria Goretti

November 1, 2015

As many of you know, the major relics of St. Maria Goretti are currently on tour through the United States.  Today–on All Saints’ Day, of all days–they are here in my hometown of Baton Rouge.  The glass reliquary edged with gold holds a wax statue of the church’s youngest canonized saint.  Inside the statue is her skeleton, minus her right arm, which was donated to the church in her birth town of Corinaldo, Italy that now bears her name, and some small flakes of bone that have been removed for placement in altars and for use in the church’s ministry.  Such are the facts; you can read them on the tour’s website.  What the website does not tell you is that inside that glass box lies the body of my sister.

By the laws of biology, I do not have any sisters, only one brother.  He is as good a brother as anyone could ask for, but growing up, I could not help but feel that there was something missing from my life.  When I saw other girls interacting with their sisters–even when they were fighting, as sisters often do–I could not help but feel lonely.

When I was sixteen and the time came to choose a saint as my patron for confirmation, a story that I had heard somewhere called out to me from the murky depths of half-remembered thoughts.  A young girl who had chosen to be murdered rather than surrender her virginity…  As a sixteen-year-old just getting my feet wet in the bewildering world of courtship, it was a story that spoke volumes to me.  Here was someone who could guide me, someone neither too old nor too far removed by centuries to be relatable.  I told what I remembered of the story to my priest and asked, “Do you know which saint that was?”

“Maria Goretti.”

“No, I don’t think that was it.”  The name did not sound even slightly familiar.  To this day, I cannot make her name connect to that first half-memory of her tale.  Maybe whoever told it to me never said her name.  Maybe whoever-it-was got her mixed up with someone else.  Maybe it was Maria herself who whispered the story to me through my dreams.  But eventually, after asking around and consistently receiving the same answer, I accepted that the story could only be connected to one person.  Then I asked St. Maria Goretti not only to become my patron through confirmation; I asked her to become my sister.

On the day when the bishop laid his hands on my head and said, “Maria Goretti, receive the Holy Spirit,” the Spirit rushed upon me, and my sister held my hand.  There are several moments missing from my memory of that day, not because I have forgotten them but because I did not witness them in any earthly sense.  I never could remember walking back to my pew.  Nor could I figure out how I had gotten there, because I could not feel my legs.  The ability to consciously control my body seemed utterly gone.  Yet my body did what it needed to do.  No one but me ever noticed that I was not genuinely present in that church.  Where I was, I cannot tell you because it was not a “where.”  I was with the Spirit, and it was my sister who led me there.

Since that day, Maria Goretti has been as much a sister to me as if we had been born to the same parents.  She never fails to answer my late-night “phone calls.”  She hugs me both in sadness and in joy.  She does not get mad at me when I am two or three days late to remember her feast day, as I usually am.  She smiles tolerantly and shrugs.  For many years, I used to wear her medal every day.  I suspect that my thesis professor from my MFA still remembers me as The Girl with the Medal of St. Maria Goretti; he had never met anyone who wore such a token before.  But I never did any research about my sister’s life beyond learning a few superficial facts.  On the one hand, it felt unnecessary.  Who researches her own sister?  It did not feel like a proper way to get to know someone.  On the other hand, I think I have always been afraid that what I would learn about the “real” Maria Goretti would not fit with my experience of the one I call my sister.  I think I was afraid to discover that our friendship was all a product of my own imagination.

I finally faced that fear last night when I went to view her relics at Our Lady of Mercy Church.  When I first arrived, I was indignant at the lights that seemed to turn the church into a stadium, an effect made worse by the din of chatter from the pilgrims and the table in the vestibule arrayed with “spiritual” wares for sale.  I had not come to view some gaudy, theatrical show led by the dead on Halloween.  I had come to visit my sister–or rather, she had come to visit me.  But once Maria reminded me that the noise and lights and salesmanship were inevitable foibles common to every human crowd, I got in line and took my allotted fifteen seconds kneeling by her side.  I forgot to bring a handkerchief: a stroke of idiocy, given my personal history with spiritual experiences.  There is now a shirt in my laundry hamper that desperately needs to be washed.  But I remembered to bring the medal, which I touched to the glass and then returned to its place around my neck.  I slinked into a pew and, through my tears, began to pray my rosary.  I made it only to the second joyful mystery, the Visitation–the greeting of one holy woman by another, her kinswoman–before the church bells tolled and a man stepped up to the ambo to lead the hourly Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

It is probably for the best that I forgot my handkerchief; otherwise, I might have sat in that pew and prayed all night.  Instead, I finished the Chaplet, then crossed the street to the parish hall to find a bathroom and a paper towel.  The parish hall was also the temporary home of the St. Maria Goretti Museum, where I sat down and (finally) learned more about her life from a film.

Everything I have discovered about St. Maria Goretti through our mutual prayers is true.  The historical figure I met at the museum was no one else but the sister I have loved for twenty years.  On the drive home, I was continually tempted to try to find some moral in her coming, something that she was calling me to change.  Continually, she stopped me.  “I came because I love you,” she said.  “What other reason do I need?”

Maria Goretti’s relics will be gone from Baton Rouge by the time you read this.  Just as any relative from out of town comes to see all those she loves, Maria has a special kiss to bestow on all the thousands who are flocking to her relics’ tour.  I know she must move on to see her other brothers and sisters, too.  But I also know that someday it will be my turn to go to her, to finally meet my sister face to face in the place that we will both call home.  Until then, she will always be here to hold my hand and lead me toward the Spirit.

Let her do the same for you.

Karen Ullo is the author of Jennifer the Damned, now available from Wiseblood Books.  To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.