Book Review: Helena

Knowing my great loves of Evelyn Waugh and of St. Helen, my roommate recently bought me Evelyn Waugh’s book Helena. Helena is a novelization of the life of St. Helen based in the theory that St. Helen was born in Britain.

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The book entranced me. Waugh’s prose, per usual, was delightful. His descriptions drew me into the story and made me care deeply about what happened. The story begins with Helena as the daughter of a Roman governor (about age 16) living in Britain when she meets Constantius. She marries Constantius and gives birth to Constantine; then, history ensues.

Waugh presents Helena as a strong woman who lives her life seeking truth. She is not concerned with material possessions or earthly success. She wants Truth. This begins with her education as a teenager; her father is portrayed as a man who wanted his daughters to be well educated. Her early divorce from Constantius and her son’s absence from much of her life allow her to learn and explore the small world she inhabits. (And she does, as a woman, inhabit a small sphere.) She is deeply curious, and this desire to learn stays with her into old age. The picture of her exploring Rome and Jerusalem in her seventies is inspiring. She craves knowledge and truth in a way that should motivate others to do the same.

The novel is very Christian, which makes sense considering who Helena and her son are. Much of the last third of the novel focuses on Helena’s growing faith in Christ and her frustration with those who converted to Christianity because it was fashionable or politically beneficial. As I said earlier, Helena is a woman who seeks Truth. Her desire to find the True Cross, the Sign through which her son conquered at the Milvian Bridge, is the crowning jewel of her life. She has spent much of her life pursuing truth. Her crowning achievement is to attempt to share the Truth she finds with as many as possible. She wants the True Cross and the hope that it represents to be evident not only to her own place and time but to all of humanity.

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All I want to say is this: read it. Helena is beautiful. Waugh’s understanding of Truth is both encouraging and inspiring. You won’t regret it.

Lastly, I should admit that this book only strengthened my resolve to name my maybe-possibly-someday daughter Evelyn after my beloved Evelyn Waugh.

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Dairy-Free “Cream”

How do I replace cream in recipes that require it? I have a few different methods, but I want to share one of my personal favorites with you.

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All that is in that food processor is 1 cup of tofu “cream cheese” and 1/4 cup of soy milk. That replaces the 1 cup of cream that was called for in the recipe that I was using. I throw the two in the food processor and give them a whirl. I occasionally throw in a splash more soy milk if I think that is necessary. And I think it turns out pretty darn well.

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And the people who eat these scones seem to agree with me about that. I’ve even gotten people who swear that they’ll never try tofu to treat these scones…and enjoy them.

Why Should I Pray for the Great and Holy Synod?

So you’re not Orthodox. That’s not your background or your profession. You’ve heard that the Orthodox Churches are having a big and important meeting coming up soon. (It starts tomorrow-Sunday, June 19.) Maybe you’ve had a friend suggest that you pray for it. But you’re sitting there thinking that doesn’t seem worth your while. Why should I as a non-Orthodox person pray for a meeting that won’t impact me?

There are many things that I could say, but I keep coming back to one word: love. Christ calls us to love one another as he loves us. (John 13:34) I may not be a member of the Orthodox Church, but I share a common belief with them in the Risen Lord Jesus. I have a special fondness for them as my brother (and sister) Eastern Christians. They are my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I am called to love them. We are all called to love them.

Prayer is, as the late Madeleine L’Engle once said, an act of love. When we pray for others, we are demonstrating our love towards them. I don’t know what the Synod holds for my Orthodox brothers, but I know that the Lord has called them to this moment. It’s a big moment; they haven’t done anything like this in over 1200 years. Think about that; they haven’t done anything like this since before the Great Schism. It’s massively important in terms of the work of God among His people.

Now it appears that four of the churches will not be attending. They are calling for the council to be postponed, but Patriarch Bartholomew says that’s not an option. The council will continue, and any and all decisions will be enforced regardless of who attends or doesn’t attend. With this in mind, our brothers need prayers even more. They are making decisions for their Churches in a difficult hour. They need wisdom and grace from the Holy Spirit. They need our love and our support. At this juncture, the best way that we can do that is through our prayers.

We are called to love our Orthodox brothers and sister as St. Peter and St. Andrew loved one another. Let’s support them in prayer. Let’s pray for each of the bishops who will be there. Pray for Patriarch Bartholomew who will be leading his brother bishops. Also pray for those Patriarchs who have chosen to not attend. Pray that God will bring peace and unity among the Orthodox Churches and among all Christians.

St. Andrew, St. George, St. Nicholas, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Francis of Assisi, and Sts. Vladimir and Olga, pray for the Great and Holy Synod. Pray for unity among all Christians!

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Let me just start this by saying that if you haven’t read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, you need to do so. Immediately if at all possible. Julie at Knitted Bliss recommended it back in April, so I put it on my GoodReads list with plans to read it ASAP.

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 36. He was married, finishing up his residency, planning to start a family soon, and looking out at a seemingly limitless future. And then, boom, cancer reared its ugly head in his life. The book is his response to that.

It is a beautifully honest portrayal of one man’s final months, and it is completely heartbreaking. I knew walking in that he had passed away more than a year ago, but I still found his death heartwrenching. I cried not only for the hole that he left in the world and for the potential that he will never get to live out but also for the lives that he touched, for the people who were immediately impacted by his passing from the world. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of the characters tells another that it would be a privilege to have his heart broken by her. I can’t find a better way to phrase my emotions at the end of the book. Yes, Dr. Kalanithi died, and it broke a piece of my heart when I reached that part of the book. But that heartbreaking was a privilege because it was a sign that my life had been touched by his.

It has been said by various brilliant thinkers that learning to die well is learning to live well. We don’t know the numbering of our days. What matters is that we live well and then die well. At the end of the book, Lucy Kalanithi says that her husband died with integrity, and the book he wrote as he was dying shows that. He was a man of integrity, a solid and good man. He was brutally honest with the reader about the difficulty of his last months. That honesty is one of the great merits of the book.

Kalanithi also shows a great deal of courage as he dies. He does not seem afraid of the end of his days on earth. From the time of his diagnosis, he went forward knowing that he was facing a hard road but wanting the best for his family. We are all leave this life at this point; despite our best wishes or hopes, we cannot avoid that. We need to live the way that we want to die. This book shows a man who lived and died with honesty and integrity.

For me, the lesson of this book is to live well. Live intentionally. Life may be hard, but the hard bits are worth it. Life is all what you make of it. Make it something good, something beautiful