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Showing posts with label The Saints. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Saints. Show all posts


Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."


The Beautiful Lady: Our Lady of Guadalupe (2012)

Written by Pat Mora

Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Alfred A. Knopf

It's a funny thing that on the same day I read this book, I also read a chapter from The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan (my current man-crush) in which he talks about the psychological underpinnings behind visions of the Virgin Mary and attempts to tie them into the then-current alien abduction mania.

"[T]he criteria for recognizing a credible witness of an apparition [was] the willingness to accept advice from the political and religious hierarchy," he writes. "Thus anyone seeing a vision disturbing to those in power was ipso facto an unreliable witness and saints and virgins could be made to say whatever the authorities wanted to hear."

He goes on to write:

"Possible motives for inventing and accepting such stories are not hard to find: jobs for priests, notaries, carpenters and merchants... rousing public spirit against enemies... improving civility and obedience to canon law... confirming the faith of the pious."

So the church was just fine with people having visions of the Blessed Virgin, because it proved that the church was right! How convenient for them! However...

...beginning in the fifteenth century, the attitude of the Church changed. Those who reported an independent channel to Heaven were outflanking the Church's chain of command up to God.

In other words, if supernatural apparitions were just appearing to random people directly, then what did they need the Church for? And what if the visions actually suggested to their supplicants a change in the status-quo?

Ask Joan of Arc.

Speaking of Joan of Arc, did you know that the reason the Church chose burning its victims alive as its choice of execution was because of a canonical law which forbade them from spilling blood? It's kind of like when I tell Arlo to stop hitting me, and he says, "I'm not hitting you, I'm slapping you!" Hopefully he won't join the clergy.
Her cloak shone with stars. Her skin was brown and beautiful.

Anyway, The Demon-Haunted World is a pretty interesting book, and it's perhaps unfortunate that all that was swimming around in my head when I opened up this lovely picture book, featuring a young girl gazing doe-eyed at the statue of the Virgin Mary.

"One of Mexico's most loved stories is the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe," writes the author, Pat Mora. "Her image was carried in Mexico's War of Independence and is still carried today as a symbol of freedom and justice by groups struggling for their rights, such as farmworkers in the United States."

Well, how can a Woody Guthrie lover like me possibly argue with that? It's not an easy business, to parse supernatural apparitions, and decide: This is how I must feel about this. It's a story, and stories are alive and mean different things. Listen, here is the story:

Juan Diego hikes to the top of Tepeyac Hill, near what is now Mexico City. The year is 1531. There is a blinding light ahead. Removing his sombrero, he kneels before the floating Virgin, who asks him to build a church for her, there, on the hilltop, for all to see, so that all may find rest.

"Oh, Senora!" he gasped
The conflict of the story involves Juan Diego trying to convince the bishop that the apparition is true. The bishop demands a sign and so a sign is had. "In 2002," Mora writes, "the Catholic Church canonized Juan Diego as the first indigenous saint of the Americas."

I enjoyed this story very much, it's simple and magical, and the paintings evoke a Mexico long past. I love the attention to the rolling clouds, which compliments the rolling hills and landscapes, and even the texture of the fabrics worn by the people of the village. Everything seems to belong, it's all a part of one thing. The landscape, the clouds, the fabric... the apparition, the bishop, the architecture of the town... right on that edge between history and folktale.

I am glad for books like The Demon-Haunted World, and I am glad for books like this. They co-exist and hit different parts of my brain. It's all a part of one thing.


Brother Sun, Sister Moon (2011)

Reimagined by Katherine Paterson

Illustrated by Pamela Dalton

Cut paper and watercolor.
God bless you!

Type set in Sonopa

Handprint Books

We come to sing a song of praise to you,
O God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth,
who by your power and out of your love have
created all things and called them good.

Arlo got this as a Christmas present last week from a friend. I had gotten it from the library myself a while back and meant to review it for the blog, but never did. Seeing it in his bag of Christmas Eve loot made me think the time was nigh.

  Most of the books I've reviewed on here will state on the title page that they are 'retold' by the author. This is the only one which is 'reimagined.' What Katherine Paterson has done is take the text of St. Francis' "Canticle of the Creatures' and rewritten it. It's not a new translation, it is, as the title page insists, a reimagining.

For example, the stanza I quoted above was originally:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all
blessing. To you, alone. Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

No one could confuse me with a God-fearin' man (God forbid), and I must say, phrases like, "No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name," bring to mind the recent images of weepy North Koreans wailing hysterical over the death of their former Master. It brings an ill taste, and I'm glad Paterson has jettisoned it. I think, if I'm reading her note at the back of the book correctly, that she was trying to reimagine the text as less of a worshipful comment on the divine supremacy of a magical man living in the sky, and more of a comment on the connection humans have with the natural world.

"It was such a wonderful exercise to see myself as close kin to all the rest of the natural world," she writes. "Sun, moon, stars, wind and weather - even to look death in the face and call her my sister."

I also noted that she excised a reference to, "Woe to those who die in mortal sin," completely. Good riddance!

The real show-stopper is the artwork, I must admit. Scherenschnitte it's called. Each illustration in the book was made from one continuous piece of paper which she painstakingly (I would imagine) cut and painted with watercolors. The harvest is represented during each season, every beet, every tomato, sheaves of wheat, new life and death, with detail which grows with each reading.

"For this life and the life to come, we sing our praise to you. I Lord, the Father and Mother of all creation," reads Paterson's version of the prayer, and I'm pretty sure St. Francis never explicitly stated the maternal aspect of God, but nevertheless, it is there, in this book, and in the nature which surrounds us. This is a beautiful book to own.


The Legend of Saint Nicholas (2003)

Written and Illustrated by Demi

Paint and Ink

Text set in Packard

Margaret K. McElderry

We call upon Your mercy, O Lord. Through the intercession of St. Nicholas, keep us safe amid all dangers so that we may go forward without hindrance on the road to salvation.

This is not - as one might be expecting - the true story behind jolly St. Nick who would one day be transformed and reiterated as Santa Claus. It's more of the myth behind the myth. Which at first frustrated me, as I had read with genuine curiosity about the historical Saint Nicholas. But upon reflection, I like the idea of there being myths within myths. A true hall of mirrors, this.

"As soon as he was born, Nicholas showed amazing and miraculous powers. On his very first day, he stood up in his bath and prayed to God!" Demi writes, and there he is, a newborn babe, standing with his head bowed and his hands folded. Was baby Jesus himself as pious as this? I think not.

As a toddler, Nicholas fasted on every holy saint's say. He refused to nurse, preferring to pray all day.

There's an absurdity to the premise which brings to mind Oskar Matzerath from Grass' The Tin Drum (who in turn serves as the literary ancestor of The Family Guy's Stewie Griffin), the baby who is born with complete cognition and maturity intact. Demi goes on to chronicle several other miraculous events in your Nicholas' life, illustrating them in her gorgeous, gilded style, which culminate in story of a nobleman who had fallen upon hard times, and was forced to sell each of his three daughters so that he could collect the dowry. St. Nicholas, learning of the man's troubles, anonymously sends him bags of coins at night, tossing them in through open windows. On the third night, the bag falls into the youngest girl's open stockings. Aha! Thus is born the long-lasting Christmas tradition.

From there, Nicholas travels the world, performing miracles and dispensing wisdom and piety, calming stormy seas, rescuing the unjustly imprisoned. Perhaps the greatest of all miracles comes when he learns that "a wicked innkeeper kidnapped three little boys, killed them, and salted them in a tub of brine, intending to serve them as food." Yikes. Nicholas, praying to the Lord, raises the bodies of the dead children from the brine and brings them back to life.

So, not only does Santa Claus see you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake, but he can raise the dead as well.

It is only in the last several pages that Demi shows his transformation into Santa, as he mingles with the Dutch character Sinter Klass and we see him flying in his sleigh packed with goodies, led by his team of reindeer. It's an image which seems rather incongruous with the preceding pages of formal beauty and religiousness.

Throughout the world today, whether he goes by the name of St. Nicholas, Sinter Klass, or Santa Claus, this figure who shows enormous generosity, a love of children, deep care for the poor and needy, and a completely selfless nature is considered to embody the spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of the Lord.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."
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