Her epithet is deservedly illustrious, equal to her protean capacities for being multifarious: saint, mystic, and artist’s muse who was a curious kind of practical mystic with vision to match – that she would talk and hear God’s words from within and share them with the crowd in practice of charity, faith, and hope but never without heart. Protestant Elizabeth I of Great Britain might have envisioned the image of a Catholic nun of Spain a night before her Tilbury address that she had a woman’s body but had the bravery of a king. She is also the Doctor of the Church. She is Saint Teresa of Avila, the headstrong founder of the Carmelite Discalced and the woman of Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
My first encounter with this remarkable woman was not religious but academic; while researching women’s monasticism in the high medieval age during my college. Teresa saw many women who were too poor to pay dowry and didn’t want conjugal life found convents as shelters from social conventions without certain religious convictions. Consequently, convents became gossipy sonority houses populated with lackluster and jealous nuns backstabbing one another. The sad atmosphere of the convents used as a mere social institution propelled Teresa to establish the Carmelite Discalced – the Convent of Saint Joseph – with physical labor and disciplined monastic rules not without tenderness attended to individual nuns from all walks of life. She abolished land ownership and rent collections of and by nuns and instituted self-sufficiency of working without shoe but sandals, hence the name “Discalced.” The reformation within the Church was seismic but was a necessary medicinal receipt for the ailing monastic community.
What is most brilliant about Teresa was to create the idea of “The Interior Castle,” a philosophy that the creator of the Universe dwells inside the castle of our souls. That God is from within us, rather than the beyond betokens the idea of personal God with whom we can communicate and thus become a literal mirror image of him for what’s best in ourselves. In fact, this revolutionary philosophy is also linked to Giordano Bruno’s “The Memory Palace,” from which the knowledge needs to be unlocked to bestow upon us the power and joy of the knowledge from within. Further, it is related to the idea of the Nine Muses, whose inspirations are invoked from our minds, not from the Olympus or oracles. All of the mentioned above shares one origin in the cognitive technique employed in Christian meditation developed from the essential reading and contemplating the Bible. But Teresa’s Interior Castle is a beautiful poetic license to enrich power that is never esoterically prideful but blissfully joyful. Where Bruno’s Memory Palace and the Artist’s Nine Muses are not all-inclusive, Teresa’s Interior Castle is universal with tender charity and faith even if it is not necessarily Christian God.
Teresa of Avila was one brave and adventurous woman who was a prototype of feminist in the sense that she voiced out her mind to the patriarchal church authority in danger of being suspicious of heresy or witchcraft even in Catholic Spain, known for the Spanish Inquisition. But she was not a vociferous activist for abolishing the Church or would-be founder of an offshoot of the Church. Teresa was religious of the supreme kind. However, she never abandoned her femininity latticed with passion for helping a young priest in his spiritual crisis in war with physical temptation, tenderness for attending those in need of her consolation, and beauty that was both beautiful externally and internally. She shows us that a strong woman doesn’t need to shout out invective expletives or clamor for the reward for her damages in the name of womanhood when it is really for her sworn revenge. Aside from sectarian religious affiliations, Teresa of Avila deserves her reputation as a star in the Milky Way of the Great.
The delicacy of life that sprinkles flavors to our otherwise mundane routine of everyday life is not a prerogative of the rich. American Catholic saint Dorothy Day once gave a diamond ring donated by a wealthy woman to a poor demented old lady and riposted to a chiding onlooker thus: “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?” In this light of democratizing luxuries, Chef Marie-Antoine Careme championed the world of haute cuisine available to all walks of life and shared his knowledge and experience of Haute culinary arts for the use and enjoyment of the public.
Born into a poverty-stricken peasant family in 1784, Crame was abandoned at ten by his father, who told him to make use of his cleverness for his future. Before long, Careme found an apprenticeship to a famous patisserie. That was the beginning of his long, epoch-making legacy of master patisserie. With an innate intelligence and passion for culinary art, he opened his patisserie within a couple of years. His ingenuity for culinary art and a happy chance led him to a top diplomat’s chef to cook diplomatic banquets, for which he became the most sought-after chef in Paris. The success catapulted him to opening a famous patisserie at 19 on the rue de la Paix, baking the wedding cake for Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. If Napoleon conjures up an image of a scrumptiously layered piece of Napoleon, Careme is smiling in a constellation of artists in heaven. Careme’s popularity endowed him with a celebrity figure in post-revolution, industrial age Europe where the luminary la dolce vita aristocrats commandeered was beginning to shine on those on the low rungs of social ladders. Careme might have been an ambitious entrepreneur to mark his name all over Europe with the crowning glory of lucrative success, but no one else but he tried to share the taste with the crowd indiscriminating class distinctions in his time.
Careme’s success story has a familiar rags-to-riches repertoire with a combination of chance and apposite time surrounding his rise to success interacting with his talents. But why not the taste of the fame when his triumph of will over strife inspires achievable hopes and approachable aspirations? Careme personifies overcoming the mantra of existentialism that experience precedes essence. The fact that his own indigent family abandoned Careme didn’t dispirit his connatural intelligence nor did it plunge him into a Slough of Despondency. Or that didn’t really matter to Careme with his eyes, nose, and hands tuned for the world of delicacy that used to be exclusive for the rich and whose heart made it accessible to all. Indeed, the man was not a saint, nor do I intend to canonize him. But at least his actions and legacy deserve appreciation and admiration adorned with flowers and bonbons.
Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction, imitating art, and vice versa. Picture this. A man on losing streaks decides his last bet on life in the New World. But, instead, he finds on arrival himself surrounded by the grim-faced henchmen of law with the gray eyes scanning the debonair foreigner’s appearance, measuring his moral value, judging his life at face value. The compass of Goddess Fortuna’s Wheel indicates the downfall of Oscar Slater in the direction of HM Prison Peterhead in Scotland. But, even though fortune’s malice has thrown Slater overboard, it certainly has not deprived him of a lifeboat in the person of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The case of Oscar Slater is often dubbed a sensational Edwardian murder mystery characterized by a scandalous wrongful conviction by the stupendousness of a miscarriage of justice in the history of any subject related from social justice to penal system, from police investigation procedures to forensic science. It follows from a death of a wealthy elderly woman brutally assaulted in her Glasgow home in 1908 when the Victorian prejudice against poor immigrants and foreigners, especially Jewish extraction, was PC all over on the isles. Slater being a secular German Jew with dark eyes and hair contrasted with the fairness of angelic British blonde, the blue-eyed ideal figure was the poster man of a criminal among the police and became their convenient suspect without due diligence and beyond a reasonable doubt. The Scottish police applied none of the evidentiary truth to the Slater case. On the contrary, they projected all of prejudice and complacency into the person of Slater, who was a sort of likable roguish streetwise swinger whose attractive suaveness and sleekness are reminded of Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Arthur Conan Doyle s helped Slater set free after twenty years of hard labor at the prison for the crime he had not committed. Suppose a true writer sees the world’s corruption at its heart and stands furious with people instead of grandstanding with rants and slurs. In that case, Conan Doyle stands along with Voltaire, George Orwell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the pantheon of the great writers who lived in the crowd of life.
Although Conan Doyle himself could not entirely be free from the conventional preconception about lower-class foreign immigrants and the jews, his integrity and charity exceeded the flaws. They changed the fate of the wrongly convicted man, which should be highly esteemed for universal recognition of all times. In the particular alchemy of literature as connecting the reader to the universal empathy, Doyle’s support of Slater’s innocence seems particularly conspicuous in the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The British general whose Toyota Jeep took up the already limited space could have held more Afghan evacuees in an airplane. Also, the former British Royal Marine chose to take 200 dogs and cats from the shelter with him over his Afghan workers and their families. But that’s not the end. The former Afghan employees of the British Embassy in Kabul are still clinging onto a thin ring of hope that their British ambassador boss for whom they had worked even during the Covid-19 pandemic scare would come to rescue. Would there be another Arthur Conan Doyle who would act on his principle of morality in the spirit of humanity who regard the lives of the oppressed Afghans as equally valuable as their own or similar kinds- that is, white and Christians?
My reference of Doyle’s involvement in the Slater case to current Afghanistan and refugee situations may seem a bit of a stretch with over-flowing maudlin sentimentalism. But I think Doyle’s determination to help Slater cause following the case of George Edalji, another miscarriage of justice based on racial discrimination, stems from his good natural good-heartedness aided by the brilliant mind searching for truth. It is a triumph of good over evil in the semblance of law and order. Unfortunately, I have a hard time finding a famous writer or poet who actively puts thinking into action, just as Doyle, Voltaire, Dickens, and Sand, whose brilliance of the minds resembled the magnificence of the Sun benefitting the life on earth. Where are such great writers now?
Sometimes we see ourselves in animals – here I mean the mammals, especially — and relate our mental images to them, whether they are pets living under the same roofs or wild ones in nature or zoos. That is why animals are apropos mediums to project our mirror images into their figures without exposing our naked selves outright. And that is what Denise Gwen does in her elegantly poignant collection of essays My Girl, Fiona.
Fiona is a hippopotamus the author adopted emotionally from her struggling birth into the world at Cincinnati Zoo. Abandoned by her enormous mother, the vulnerable yet adorable baby Fiona chimed the emotional bell of the author on the octaves of her family. Fiona, the name of Gaelic origin, provokes the image of a vivacious fairy whose feistiness and resilience elements make her all the more mysterious and, not to mention, beautiful. But the beauty is uncommon and only kind, which strikes Edgar Allan Poe’s wise dictum that “There is no exquisite beauty without strangeness in proportions.” Then the adorable hippo Fiona becomes a kaleidoscope of images of women, representing the Exquisite Beauty Tribe. It consists of her youngest sister, whose name is also Fiona, her feisty Welsh late mother, and herself in midlife crisis blotted with sentimental reminiscences. Added to this tribe is Shrek’s wife is Princess Fiona. Her transformation from conventional slender beauty to a green-colored ogre-like her beloved hubby is a guest of honor in the Fiona Parthenon. One way or another, they all share the beauty marks of uniqueness, confidence, and self-esteem as the author brings them into life in the alchemy of words, brewing the images into a fascinating pastiche of the Fair Fiona.
Animal stories charged with human emotions may well turn to the art of anthropomorphism in which animals speak like us with accents varied from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. But the author nuances the overtly human sentimentality in her narratives lest they should become schmaltz through Fiona, the lovely hippo. Also, the way she narrates with an elegantly apt choice of words and poignantly witty expressions is reminiscent of the British writing style I am familiar with. In fact, before finishing the book, I suspected her of being British for the reasons mentioned above. Consequently, I wasn’t miles away from the speculation because her mother was a proud Welsh who remained Welsh in her spirit and language during her lifetime. My Girl, Fiona is a thoughtful and heartful memoir disguised as short fiction apart from egotistical meanderings, which many celebrities nowadays indulge in stories that lack universal empathy. It is also a compact book you can read without leaps of attention and boredom in your spare time.