The Harrowing of the Barrow Downs

Melanie has some great insights into the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the barrow-wight:

It struck me as I read that the whole scene is a type of the harrowing of hell, the moment that according to ancient tradition we recall on Holy Saturday when Jesus goes to the realm of the dead and smashes open the gates to release Adam and Eve and the patriarchs and prophets, all the holy men and women who have died since the beginning of time. He leads them out of the realm of the dead and into the kingdom of paradise. Not only that, but it’s also full of baptismal imagery, appropriate because baptism is also a type of resurrection.

Beneath New York Public Library, Shelving Its Past for High-Tech Research Stacks

Beneath New York Public Library, Shelving Its Past for High-Tech Research Stacks:

“Since March, after abandoning a much-criticized plan to move the bulk of its research collection to New Jersey, the library has been working instead to create a high-tech space underground for the 2.5 million research works long held in its original stacks.

The books will begin arriving in April, and by the end of spring library officials expect to be using a new retrieval system to ferry the volumes and other materials from their 84 miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts — a bit like miniaturized minecars carrying nuggets of research gold.”

I remember the uproar last March when the plan to move the books to New Jersey was announced because it meant that researchers would have to wait hours at best, if not days, to get their books. From reading this, it doesn’t sound like this is a completely automated, robotic system, which is a shame, but still involves people pulling from stacks and restocking. But it’s at least an improvement.

The Sorting Hat into Religious Orders

The Sorting Hat Chats • “The Basics”

This Harry Potter fan site puts forward a theory for what the four different houses of Hogwarts signify about the people in them and their motivations, which is interesting.

Gryffindor Primaries trust their moral intuitions and have a need and a drive to live by them. They feel what’s right in their gut, and that matters and guides them. If they don’t listen to and act on that, it feels immoral….

Ravenclaw Primaries have a constructed system that they test their decisions against before they feel comfortable calling something right….

Hufflepuff Primaries value people–all people. They value community, they bond to groups (rather than solely individuals), and they make their decisions off of who is in the most need and who is the most vulnerable and who they can help….

Slytherin Primaries are fiercely loyal to the people they care for most. Slytherin is the place where “you’ll make your real friends”– they prioritize individual loyalties and find their moral core in protecting and caring for the people they are closest to….

As Melanie and I were discussing this and whether it’s justified from the text, I speculated on which Catholic religious orders aligned with each house and it was a surprisingly quick decision:

  • Gryffindor is Carmelite
  • Ravenclaw is Dominican
  • Hufflepuff is Franciscan

And Slytherin? Oh, that’s easy: Slytherin is Jesuit.

A Penny for Your Books

A Penny for Your Books – The New York Times:

“But Thriftbooks’s Ward and Discover Books’s Hincy are quick to paint themselves as book lovers, and savers. ‘We feel we give books the best and maximum opportunity to be sold or redistributed or recycled,’ Hincy says. ‘When I started with this company, it was all about keeping books from landfill demise.’ Or, as Ward puts it, ‘10 years ago, before companies like mine existed, those books were seen as having no value at all.’ And even Moss concedes that his store’s used-book sales have been fairly steady over the past 10 to 15 years.”

Ever wonder how anyone makes money selling used books for a penny on Amazon?

Book Review: Shadows in the Vineyard

Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest WineShadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine by Maximillian Potter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At the surface Shadows in the Vineyard is a true come story of an extortion plot against the world’s greatest vineyard, a tiny patch of land in Burgundy, France, which grows the universally acclaimed best wine in the world. But it’s also the story of the family that grows the wine, the generations that have owned and run the vineyard, treating the vines like their own children, back to when they bought it after the French Revolution. It’s also the story of the man, the Prince de Conti, from whom the vineyard gets its name, Romanee Conti. He was a close confidant of King Louis XV, an enemy of the king’s mistress Madame de Pompadour, and ultimately a traitor to the king in favor of the oppressed people of France.

We also get the story of wine in France, how deeply rooted in culture and society wine is. We learn how the monks first came to the great valleys, carefully examining the land and micro-climates in order to grow the very finest grapes, not making wines themselves, but servants of the Divine Will who produced the wine so that it could become the Blood of Christ. We learn how wine is classified and delineated, how French wine was almost wiped from the earth through a blight brought from America and then saved by vines from America.

Ultimately, it’s also the story of a broken man and his son who plot to steal from the great son of a great man and in the process threaten to rob France and the whole world of the great patrimony of the great wines of Burgundy.

If you’re a wine lover, you’ll want to read this, but even if all you know about wine is that comes in bottles, it’s still a great education about a topic nearly as old as bread and grapes and so very vital to civilization. And it’s a great story about some very interesting people.

View all my reviews

Maple Syrup and Book Review of The Sugar Season

The Sugar Season cover

After the worst winter in Boston’s history[1], any sign of spring in New England was welcomed with not just open hearts and open arms, but open weeping. And there is no more sure sign of spring in New England than the running of maple sap and its boiling into the elixir we call maple syrup.

While Vermont is famed for its maple syrup production and Wisconsin comes in a close second, maple syrup is produced in sugar maple trees all over the northern reaches of the US, even as far south on the Easter seaboard as New Jersey. But every ounce of US production is dwarfed by the massive amounts of maple syrup produced in Canada, especially in Québec.

The 2014 book The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest, by Douglas Whynott gives us a glimpse into the maple syrup industry, dominated by large Québeçois confederations, American family-run farms, and corporations buying up those farms. Whynott brings us up close with the Bascom family of New Hampshire, who’ve been running their sugar bush for several generations and who’ve also made a business as wholesalers and brokers for other, smaller operations. We get a brief history of maple production, from the days of spouts and buckets hung on trees to today’s vacuum tubing snaking through maple groves, from small hobbyist sugar shacks in people’s backyards to giant production facilities that use reverse osmosis and other advanced technology to wring every last drop of syrup possible from the trees.

The sugar shack at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg
The sugar shack at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg

Maple syrup is a harbinger of spring because its production always take place in that twilight between the meteorological seasons of winter and spring. When the days begin to warm up the trees start to wake and the sap starts flowing up to the branches as fuel for producing the leaves they will need over the summer. But the nights need to drop below freezing to keep sap flowing and the leaf buds from starting and producing off-flavors in the eventual syrup. It’s a brief intense period most years, lasting just a few weeks in which a whole year’s crop must be gathered, cooked, and stored. Whynott documents the human elements of families and farmers racing the calendar while eyeing the price per barrel which fluctuates more than oil on the open market and costs more per barrel than oil to boot. We learn what makes people want to deal with the stress and the uncertainty every year and the compelling addiction of watching something you take for granted–the trees in your backyard–produce something so wonderful and perhaps even so lucrative.

Stocking the arch in the sugar shack at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg
Stocking the arch in the sugar shack at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg
Breakfast at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg
Breakfast at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg

Whynott does spend a substantial portion of the book marveling that the 2011 season he’s documenting occurs so early and how global warming is changing everything and that the future of maple production will never be the same because the sap was running earlier than ever and ended so quickly. Which was a bit odd considering that this winter saw the start of the sap run begin so late and last so long. But as they say, one winter is not an indicator of climate change trends so what do I know? The doom and gloom atmosphere did tend to bring the tone of the book down by the end.

Goodies from the sugar shack at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg
Goodies from the sugar shack at Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and it inspired me to take my family to check out a local sugar shack this spring and so, in late March, I took everyone to Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg, Mass., to see a real evaporator at work and to taste real fresh maple syrup. Hollis Hills isn’t just a maple syrup operation though, but a real working farm with fruit orchards and vegetable fields and many farm animals. They raise pigs and cows for meat as well, which they sell in their store along with their maple products. On weekends they also serve breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage and of course, all the eggs, bacon, sausage and syrup come from the farm and it was all incredibly delicious. The bacon and sausage were amazing as was the syrup. I even made a little video of our visit there which I hope you’ll enjoy below.

  1. That’s not just hyperbole. It really was the worst, according to this blog post on MIT’s web site.  ↩

Book Review: The Glory of the Crusades

The Glory of the CrusadesFrom the time I was a child, I had a passing interest in the Crusades as part of that exciting time of knights and chivalry known as the Middle Ages. They showed up, sometimes tangentially, in many of the books I read, including Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and others. Later, I read about them in connection with current events involving the Middle East and Islamic terrorism. And of course, I absorbed the prevailing narratives about the Crusades that cruel hypocritical Christians slaughtered peaceful Muslims in the Holy Land (not to mention Byzantine Christians as well) in the name of Christ and conquest.

I didn’t really begin to seriously challenge those narratives until I read Hilaire Belloc’s The Crusades, written in the beginning of the 20th century, long before the rise of post-WWII radical Islam and yet prophetic about that future. Belloc’s book was good, but is based on century-old scholarship and really only covers the First Crusade, essentially ignoring those of the next six centuries or so (depending on how you count the Crusades). I looked at other histories of the Crusades as well, but all of them approached the subject from an essentially neutral secular academic outlook.

The new book, The Glory of the Crusades by Steve Weidenkopf, on the other hand, provides a look at the complete history of the Crusades, combining the latest scholarship with a distinctively Catholic viewpoint that explains the phenomenon frankly, but without the a priori hostility so often found in popular treatment of the Crusades.

He begins by addressing the common myths about the Crusades right up front. Noting that the currently accepted narrative about the Crusades accepted in the English-speaking world comes from a Protestant perspective followed by anti-religion Enlightenment philosophy, which was built upon by an anti-colonialist ideology in the 20th century and the current apologetic in the face of Islamic extremism, Weidenkopf outlines the seven myths to be debunked:

  1. The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression.
  2. The Crusaders were motivated primarily by greed and the prospect for plunder and riches.
  3. When Jerusalem was liberated in 1099, the Crusaders killed all the inhabitants of the city—so much blood was spilled that it ran ankle deep.
  4. The Crusades were colonial enterprises.
  5. The Crusades were also wars against the Jews and should be seen as the first Holocaust.
  6. The Crusades were wars of conversion.
  7. The Crusades are the source of the modern tension between Islam and the West.

His responses were good and among other things, emphasized the reality that Christians had a different way of thinking about violence in the defense of the Christian faith than they do today, and in fact the word “crusade” is a distinctly modern appellation, whereas those who actually engaged in the practice saw it as an armed pilgrimage. Weidenkopf notes that “it was the teaching of the Church for nearly 700 years that men had a moral obligation to take the cross in order to liberate and defend Christian territory.” Modern approaches to the crusades, even from orthodox Catholics, seem to have difficulty with the idea that the crusaders would have primarily religious reasons for going on crusade, as opposed to primarily mercenary or bloodthirsty impetuses.

In fact, it was the rise of a militaristic Islam bent on conquest that provoked the response of the crusades and specifically it was the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Calpih al-Hakim in 1009 and the persecution of Christians in the Holy Land. This prompted Pope Urban to call for the the First Crusade in 1095, an action that would change the world.

Weidenkopf takes us through each of the crusades–although the definition of crusade got looser over the centuries, Weidenkopf sticks mainly with the various confrontations with Islam–and details both the successes and failures. He doesn’t shrink from the abuses perpetrated by crusaders, but he delves into the hows and whys, dismissing the overly simplistic tales of horror and revealing the truth of the various actions and motivations on both sides.

I was struck time and again how often it was one decision, one bad move, that would doom a crusade and set back the cause. I also learned some new things myself, including the fact that the famed Saladin was never considered a great warrior by his own people, but it was Christians who elevated his legend, even to the point of naming their children after him! It was only after the rise of Islamic extremism in the 20th century that Saladin became a legend in the Middle East, and specifically it was Saddam Hussein who styled himself a new Saladin, both of them coming from the same town in Iraq.

I also enjoyed the exposition about both King Richard the Lionhearted–an English folk hero who, it turns out, was born in France, spoke mainly French, and spent little of his life in England–and King St. Louis IX, the example par excellence of a Catholic king who was said to be the “perfect crusader” and about whom it was said the 13th century was his century more than any other of his contemporaries.

So what about that word “glory”? Are the crusades glorious or are they something of which we should be ashamed? Weidenkopf writes that he uses the word in the same sense as the Hebrew word for glory used in the Old Testament kabod, which means “heavy in weight.” Thus to write of the glory of the crusades is write of their importance to history.

To recognize the glory of the Crusades means not to whitewash what was ignoble about them, but to call due attention to their import in the life of the Church.

Given the many ways the memory of the crusaders has been used and abused in both popular culture and in violent ideologies, we owe it to ourselves to understand the truth of them.

But the time has arrived to change this narrative and present to the modern world the authentic story of the Crusades. For that to occur, Catholics must first learn for themselves the authentic story of the movement that was an integral part of the Church’s history for six centuries. Too many see the Crusades as an aberration in Church history, a sin that should be forgotten and never discussed, swept into the dustbin of history along with equally misunderstood historical cases such as the Inquisition, Galileo, and Pius XII and the Jews. For many Catholics, “the wars of the cross have become like a lingering bad smell in a lavishly refurbished stately home.” The Crusades were an inherently Catholic undertaking. They were promoted by the papacy, encouraged by the clergy, and fought by Catholic warriors. An authentic understanding of the Crusades, rooted in a contemporary perspective, is best achieved by those who believe today what the Crusaders believed. Catholics are uniquely positioned to understand the glory of the Crusades, and to help those outside the Church begin to see it.

Weidenkopf’s The Glory of the Crusades is a good place to start.

Book Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir


On the sixth day of the third manned mission to Mars everything went wrong. A planned 30-day mission was cut short and while everyone was rushing to the spaceship to escape disaster, one man was left behind, thought to be killed, and now left to figure out for himself how to survive until he can be rescued. That’s the premise of Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian”, a great science fiction story that’s funny and thrilling and plausible.

In an unspecified near-future, NASA is sending regular manned missions to Mars, traveling nearly a year each way to spend 30 days on the surface. As each mission requires so much material just to survive, unmanned missions start sending supplies years in advance, even before the previous manned mission has returned.

Astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist and engineer, has to figure out how to use what’s been left behind from his mission and what he possibly can reach from other missions, not just to survive, but even to start communicating to let Earth know he’s not dead.

The narrative takes place solely from the point of view of Watney’s journals of his experience at first and later in standard third-person omniscient later on for scenes on Earth. It makes for a lively read and keeps us asking the question, Are we only reading his journals because he didn’t survive and it’s the only record we have?

Watney is himself a bit of a wise-ass who makes plenty of pop culture references and jokes. The language is salty, with many f-bombs sprinkled throughout, but other than that there’s little to upset the sensitive reader. The science and engineering is spot-on accurate to exisiting and soon-to-exist capabilities of NASA, i.e. stuff that’s already on the drawing boards for real Mars missions. In fact, the science may be a little too spot-on at times as once or twice I skimmed over elaborate explanations in order to keep moving.

Like Tom Hanks’ movie “Castaway”, “The Martian” raises interesting questions. Would I be able to survive in such extreme circumstances? If I were all alone on an entire planet with the closest human contact years away under the best-case scenario, how would I hold up mentally? To what lengths– and expense– should NASA and the whole planet really go in order to save one man? That last one is really the best question as it highlights the importance of every human life, that there is something inside of all of us that says that we should never abandon someone who can possibly be saved.

A bit like “Ready, Player One” meets “Castaway” meets “Survivorman” meets “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Martian” is well worth your time even if you’re not a super scifi geek.

Book Review and Giveaway: Win a copy of The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home


Update: We have a winner! Congratulations to Maureen Hallagan. You should receive your book soon and I hope you enjoy it. If you didn’t win and you’d like your own copy, feel free to click on the image of the book cover. Melanie and I will get a little bit of credit from Amazon, which we promise to spend on more books for our family. Thanks!

Recently on my radio program, The Good Catholic Life, Michael Lavigne and I interviewed Leila Lawler and David Clayton, authors of the new book “The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home”. As you might expect, if you’ve read Leila’s blog, it’s an immensely practical book full of common sense advice, and if you’ve read David’s blog, you’ll know it has a deep connection to the understanding of art and beauty as essential to the Christian life.

The central idea in the book is that in order to live an authentic Christian life we need to live our Catholic faith beyond the walls of the church on Sunday and bring it into our home. But what form should that take? Leila and David walk us through the Why of praying in the home, but also the What and the How. While the title says it’s for beginners, even those of us who’ve been struggling to live the Christian life in this way for many years will find nuggets to interest us.

The heart of their idea is that we need to ensure that there’s a corner of our home that becomes a prayer sanctuary, a center from which all else flows. It could be a shelf or a table. It could be simply decorated with holy cards or elaborately with icons. It could take many forms. As I said, the book is very practical and so it provides suggested designs for the shelf, perhaps even something to build–perfect for Father’s Day!–and suggestions for what to put on it. David even included prints of some of his original icons in the back of the book that you could tear out and frame and use.

Beyond the prayer shelf, there’s helpful tips for how the way we organize and decorate the rooms of our house lead to a deeper spirituality. There’s suggested content for the prayers themselves, a variety of devotions to fit your particular style and the ages and capacities of your children. Singles aren’t left out either, with advice for how they can make their home a domestic church too.

It was a great interview and a great book and it’s highly recommended. And due to the generosity of Sophia Institute Press, I have a copy that we can give away. Enter your name and a valid email address in the form below (so we can contact you if you win). We’ll draw a winner on Tuesday, June 10, and if the winner responds quickly, we can get the book in the mail in time to receive it for Father’s Day.

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