Pearl S. Buck and the Importance of a Father’s Love

Happy Birthday, Pearl Buck!

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was an American writer born of missionary parents. She was born on June 26, 1892, and until 1934 she lived mainly in China, where she was also called by her Chinese name Sai Zhenzhu (written in Chinese: 賽珍珠; pinyin: Sài Zhēnzhū).

Buck was passionate about social issues ranging from women’s rights to adoption, and especially to the plight of babies of Asian women left behind when American soldiers returned to the U.S. following their tour of duty. In 1949 she established Welcome House, Inc.—the first international, interracial adoption agency. In 1964, Buck established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, created to address the problem of poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries. In 1965, she dedicated the Opportunity Center and Orphanage in South Korea; the center later expanded to the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

She was a writer of fiction, short stories, articles, children’s stories, biographies of her parents, and award-winning novels. Her novel The Good Earth was the best-selling book in America in 1932, and she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature.

This short story, Christmas Day in the Morning, is an inspiring story about the importance of a father’s love.

Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck

He woke suddenly and completely. It was four o’clock, the hour at which his father had always called him to get up and help with the milking. Strange how the habits of his youth clung to him still! Fifty years ago, and his father had been dead for thirty years, and yet he waked at four o’clock in the morning. He had trained himself to turn over and go to sleep, but this morning it was Christmas, he did not try to sleep.

Why did he feel so awake tonight? He slipped back in time, as he did so easily nowadays. He was fifteen years old and still on his father’s farm. He loved his father. He had not known it until one day a few days before Christmas, when he had overheard what his father was saying to his mother.

“Mary, I hate to call Rob in the mornings. He’s growing so fast and he needs his sleep. If you could see how he sleeps when I go in to wake him up! I wish I could manage alone.”

“Well, you can’t Adam.” His mother’s voice was brisk, “Besides, he isn’t a child anymore. It’s time he took his turn.”

“Yes,” his father said slowly. “But I sure do hate to wake him.”

When he heard these words, something in him spoke: his father loved him! He had never thought of that before, taking for granted the tie of their blood. Neither his father nor his mother talked about loving their children–they had no time for such things. There was always so much to do on the farm.

Now that he knew his father loved him, there would be no loitering in the mornings and having to be called again. He got up after that, stumbling blindly in his sleep, and pulled on his clothes, his eyes shut, but he got up.

And then on the night before Christmas, that year when he was fifteen, he lay for a few minutes thinking about the next day. They were poor, and most of the excitement was in the turkey they had raised themselves and mince pies his mother made. His sisters sewed presents and his mother and father always bought something he needed, not only a warm jacket, maybe, but something more, such as a book. And he saved and bought them each something, too.

He wished, that Christmas when he was fifteen, he had a better present for his father. As usual he had gone to the ten-cent store and bought a tie. It had seemed nice enough until he lay thinking the night before Christmas. He looked out of his attic window, the stars were bright.

“Dad,” he had once asked when he was a little boy, “What is a stable?”

“It’s just a barn,” his father had replied, “like ours.”

Then Jesus had been born in a barn, and to a barn the shepherds had come…

The thought struck him like a silver dagger. Why should he not give his father a special gift too, out there in the barn? He could get up early, earlier than four o’clock, and he could creep into the barn and get all the milking done. He’d do it alone, milk and clean up, and then when his father went in to start the milking he’d see it all done. And he would know who had done it. He laughed to himself as he gazed at the stars. It was what he would do, and he mustn’t sleep too sound.

He must have waked twenty times, scratching a match each time to look at his old watch-midnight, and half past one, and then two o’clock.

At a quarter to three he got up and put on his clothes. He crept downstairs, careful of the creaky boards, and let himself out. The cows looked at him, sleepy and surprised. It was early for them too.

He had never milked all alone before, but it seemed almost easy. He kept thinking about his father’s surprise. His father would come in and get him, saying that he would get things started while Rob was getting dressed. He’d go to the barn, open the door, and then he’d go get the two big empty milk cans. But they wouldn’t be waiting or empty, they’d be standing in the milk-house, filled.

“What the–,” he could hear his father exclaiming.

He smiled and milked steadily, two strong streams rushing into the pail, frothing and fragrant.

The task went more easily than he had ever known it to go before. Milking for once was not a chore. It was something else, a gift to his father who loved him. He finished, the two milk cans were full, and he covered them and closed the milk-house door carefully, making sure of the latch.

Back in his room he had only a minute to pull off his clothes in the darkness and jump into bed, for he heard his father up. He put the covers over his head to silence his quick breathing. The door opened.

“Rob!” His father called. “We have to get up, son, even if it is Christmas.”

“Aw-right,” he said sleepily.

The door closed and he lay still, laughing to himself. In just a few minutes his father would know. His dancing heart was ready to jump from his body.

The minutes were endless–ten, fifteen, he did not know how many–and he heard his father’s footsteps again. The door opened and he lay still.

“Rob!”

“Yes, Dad–”

His father was laughing, a queer sobbing sort of laugh.

“Thought you’d fool me, did you?” His father was standing by his bed, feeling for him, pulling away the cover.

“It’s for Christmas, Dad!”

He found his father and clutched him in a great hug. He felt his father’s arms go around him. It was dark and they could not see each other’s faces.

“Son, I thank you. Nobody ever did a nicer thing–”

“Oh, Dad, I want you to know–I do want to be good!” The words broke from him of their own will. He did not know what to say. His heart was bursting with love.

He got up and pulled on his clothes again and they went down to the Christmas tree. Oh what a Christmas, and how his heart had nearly burst again with shyness and pride as his father told his mother and made the younger children listen about how he, Rob, had got up all by himself.

“The best Christmas gift I ever had, and I’ll remember it, son every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live.”

They had both remembered it, and now that his father was dead, he remembered it alone: that blessed Christmas dawn when, alone with the cows in the barn, he had made his first gift of true love.

This Christmas he wanted to write a card to his wife and tell her how much he loved her, it had been a long time since he had really told her, although he loved her in a very special way, much more than he ever had when they were young. He had been fortunate that she had loved him. Ah, that was the true joy of life, the ability to love. Love was still alive in him, it still was.

It occurred to him suddenly that it was alive because long ago it had been born in him when he knew his father loved him. That was it: Love alone could awaken love. And he could give the gift again and again. This morning, this blessed Christmas morning, he would give it to his beloved wife. He I could write it down in a letter for her to read and keep forever. He went to his desk and began his love letter to his wife: My dearest love…

Such a happy, happy, Christmas.

Pearl Buck was born 119 years ago today. She died on March 6, 1973, leaving a legacy of humanitarianism and important literary works. Perhaps most importantly, she introduced the American reader to life in China, and exposed the problems of prejudice and discrimination.

CAN AN AGNOSTIC BE DIVINELY INSPIRED? “Babette’s Feast” Is a Eucharistic Allegory From an Unlikely Author

You probably know at least a little about Danish baroness and plantation owner Karen von Blixen-Finecke.  She was the heroine (Meryl Streep) who had a passionate but ultimately doomed love affair with a free-spirited big-game hunter (Robert Redford) in the 1985 romantic drama Out of Africa.  She was an author who wrote under the pen name “Isak Denisen.”

But you may not remember that she was an agnostic. 

My husband and I recently pulled out our copy of the film Babette’s Feast (Danish: Babettes Gæstebud), which won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The story was originally published, I understand, in Ladies Home Journal—and it was recreated in film by esteemed Danish writer and director Gabriel Axel.

Babette’s Feast is Dinesen’s parable about two spinster sisters who, once beautiful young women, had forsaken their chances at romance and fame, taking hollow refuge in religion and caring for their father, a pastor of a stern Christian sect in a rough Danish coastal town. 

The sisters are named Martine (after Martin Luther) and Philippa (after Luther’s close friend Philip Melanchthon).  [This is an important factoid—more on this later.]

*     *     *     *     *

The sisters are approaching old age when Babette Hersant appears at their door carrying a letter of recommendation from Philippa’s former suitor.  Babette is a refugee from the French counter-revolution; and the sisters cautiously agree to take her in as a housekeeper. For fourteen years, Babette works as their cook and housekeeper—gradually warming the town with her generosity and pleasant demeanor.  One day, she wins the French lottery; but rather than return to her hometown, she decides to use the money to prepare a delicious feast for the sisters and the small religious congregation on the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday. 

Babette, in a lavish expression of generosity, spends her entire winnings on the banquet.  Not simply an epicurean delight, the meal is the means by which Babette expresses her gratitude and her love for the sisters who sheltered her. 

The wary townspeople—unprepared for such a lavish pallet of strange new foods, distrustful of a Catholic foreigner such as Babette, and unaccustomed to joy—secretly determine to eat the meal without commenting, to consume without truly appreciating the generous repast. 

But as the guests experience the rich flavors and beautiful presentation of the extraordinary banquet, they are moved—and they are gradually transformed by joy.  The director amplifies this joy with color, focusing on the delectable dishes, bringing a pallette of rich colors into the cool whites and grays of the sisters’ modest home.  And as the color intensifies, so, too, does laughter and pleasure and love.  

*     *     *     *     *

What does it all mean?

  • The Washington Post called Babette’s Feast “edible art,” a tour de force for the taste buds. 
  • Marjorie Baumgarten, writing in the Austin Chronicle, called it the “food in film” equivalent of Valhalla. 
  • Christopher Null at filmcritic.com sees in Babette’s Feast a seminal work about repressed emotions and self-doubt. 

 A foodie film?  A gloomy story of repression? 

Well, yes but…. for a Christian, the parallel to the Eucharist, to a heavenly Feast, is striking.  In her sacrifice, her pouring out of her resources in an expansive love, Babette is a riveting Christ-figure.  The satiating meal, an earthly parallel to the heavenly banquet, is eucharistic.  And the grace it imparts, the rich outpouring of emotion among the gloomy Danish congregants, mirrors the spiritual life-giving nourishment of the Eucharist.

But curiously, Isak Dinesen herself seems to have been limited by her secularism, incapable of applying the story’s imagery within the context of faith.  Raised in a Unitarian household, she drew upon the Old and New Testaments and other spiritual works for her themes; but she remained an agnostic, never raising her eyes toward the heavens to gaze upon the transcendent God.  Her personal life was marred by a failed marriage and unsatisfying relationships.  She was addicted to painkillers, and she died in 1962 of malnutrition—starving both physically and spiritually.

So to the question in my title:  Can an agnostic be divinely inspired? 

My answer is a resounding “Yes.”  It seems that Dinesen reached beyond herself, beyond her wildest imaginings, to reveal a Truth which she, lacking true faith, could not understand. 

*     *     *     *     *

Now about Martine and Philippe, and their famed namesakes Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon:

Melanchthon, the younger and lesser known friend of Martin Luther, labored with him to reform the church.  However, there is an interesting difference between the two:  Whereas Luther stood firmly on his self-constructed platform of “justification by faith,” Melanchthon was more moderate.  He agreed that one must have faith; but also, he taught, one must demonstrate one’s faith by works. 

The two friends are buried side by side at the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  I’ve read that Martin Luther has a statue of Mary at his grave.

Truth and Beauty: Father Barron's "Catholicism"

Our cable carrier picks up WGN, the network from Chicago which aired several videos from Fr. Robert Barron’s 10-part series titled “Catholicism.”   The series–at least, four parts of it–will be coming to PBS in October, with the other six videos to be aired on EWTN beginning in November.  I jumped through hoops to see the first ones, adjusting my schedule so that I could attend Mass on Saturday, then sit glued in front of the TV on Sunday morning.  I’m here to tell you that it’s GREAT!!

I was more than happy, then, when I was asked to review the companion book, Catholicism:  A Journey to the Heart of the Faith for the Patheos website.  Here is a part of what I wrote:

For a brief moment when I first opened the book, I enjoyed a sense of smug superiority. The first line in the first paragraph in the Introduction asks the question, “What is the Catholic thing?” Father Barron explains that for Blessed John Henry Newman, “the Catholic thing” was the Incarnation, encapsulated in John 1:14, which says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

“No!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. “That’s the Christian thing!” For surely, I thought, Catholics share this core belief with believers from all the Christian denominations.

But two pages later, Father Barron burst my ego bubble, catching me unawares with a distinction that I’d known at some primal level but never elucidated: Catholicism, he noted, has a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation throughout space and time, an extension that is made possible through the mystery of the Church. Jesus didn’t just enter the world on Christmas Day in the year 6 A.D. He enters yet today in the liturgy; in the graced governance of popes and bishops; in the texts, arguments, and debates of the theologians; in Catholic writing and art and in great cathedrals. He enters yet today, I realized, in my own humble prayer and in my daily work.

There’s more, though.  Stop over at Patheos and read the rest.