Julie Davis' new book owes something to Tolkien, and to Benedict XVI, and to Bram Stoker's masterpiece, too.
Julie Davis is the proprietor of Happy Catholic and author of a new devotional book, Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life. The book is a compendium of quotations and reflections on prayer that is intended to lead both new and experienced Christians to “begin again” in their relationship with Jesus. I was privileged to ask Julie some questions on her book and how it to came to be, and about the books that prompted her reflections. Her answers go some surprising places, including an extended story about her experiences reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
You’ve said that the book grew out of your own desire for a deeper relationship with Christ. Was there any particular event that prompted you to begin to dig deeper?
I was making yet another attempt to read the Catechism daily. (These attempts never stick but I always get something great from them.) And I was really struck by all the quotes from different saints about close, intimate friendship with Christ. There were so many that I couldn’t ignore them. You know, Catholics often tend to talk about that as if “it’s a Protestant thing”—a bit emotional and overwrought. But these were great saints from throughout the ages.
And I realized that I felt that way about God the Father and the Holy Spirit but not about Jesus, which did seem wrong for a Christian. And even if it was a “Protestant thing” that didn’t mean it was wrong.
That was probably about three years ago. So I began making a concerted effort to spend 15 to 20 minutes daily praying about this. Like Teresa of Avila, I have to have a book or some other prompt, so I began reading scripture and collecting quotes for reflection. As I do.
You quote many, many different books, authors, and saints. Of the books you read in your journey, which would you particularly recommend, and why?
I never read books specifically to help me on this journey. One of the things I love about the particular way God speaks to me is that he might use Raymond Chandler one day and a saint the next. But there is no one book I could recommend. It depends so much on the person, or so it seems to me, but there are three books that had a profound effect on me. Or to say it another way, that Jesus used to bring me closer.
Jesus of Nazareth: From Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Pope Benedict XVI, is particularly insightful on Jesus’ nature—and on how we can better understand him. You’ll find it quoted a lot in my book because he kept popping up when I was working on the Our Father section. Then I found myself sucked into rereading it and being really touched by the insights it contained.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is one that I tried for years to read. It took listening to the audiobook and a series of free podcast/on-line classes from Mythgard Academy to open the story up for me. And once that happened I never looked back. I’ve now read it five times. There are so many examples of Christ-figures, deep faith, evil’s self-destructive nature, and the servant’s way, that it is astounding Tolkien never mentions religion in the book at all. Each time something different is brought to my attention. The intricacy of the time lines, the necessity of each person to strive to do their utmost with complete obedience, and the importance of the “little” characters really stood out to me.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker, is a book I’ve read many times since my high school days. I’ve come to see what a master work it is in examining the difficulty modern man has in accepting the supernatural as real, in examining unselfish love and service to others as opposed to absolute selfishness, and in examining evil as a perversion of all that is good. Dracula isn’t the anti-Christ in the standard understanding of the term but he is definitely the anti-God. And, as in The Lord of the Rings, these messages are subtly communicated within the larger story. Once again, Mythgard Academy classes expanded upon and refined the points I’d already seen for myself. I reread Dracula when I was close to finishing the book and never has it spoken more to my soul in terms of who Jesus is and why I am so grateful for his love and friendship.
I’m intrigued by your choice of Dracula as a particularly significant book. Could you give some examples of scenes or passages that seem to reveal who Jesus is, and how? Or is it simply that the book strikes sparks from other things going on in your head?
There are so many. Just off the top of my head, Jesus walked on water. Dracula can’t even go over water. He wrecks a ship so that he can jump (in wolf form) directly from it to the land with no intervening water. That’s a brief look at the symbolism of Dracula as a perversion of the holy.
On a “touched me personally” level, I was rereading Dracula when I was struck down by norovirus. I hadn’t been sick in decades and had forgotten how it felt to be so absolutely leveled by physical pain and weakness. It took days to recover. I switched to the audiobook and kept on going, between dashes to the bathroom. During that time I reached the point of the book where Mina is attacked and corrupted by Dracula, so much so that the touch of the Eucharist on her forehead leaves a red scar. The group of friends now have a constant visual reminder of the result of their bad choices. They take up their task to release Mina and the world of this evil, or die trying, and they do it full of hope and enduring personal suffering. They are following in Christ’s footsteps and doing the opposite of Dracula’s anti-Christ methods. They give of themselves without stinting through love of the other:
Then Van Helsing turned and said gravely. So gravely that I could not help feeling that he was in some way inspired, and was stating things outside himself.
“It may be that you may have to bear that mark till God himself see fit, as He most surely shall, on the Judgement Day, to redress all wrongs of the earth and of His children that He has placed thereon And oh, Madam Mina, my dear, my dear, may we who love you be there to see, when that red scar, the sign of God’s knowledge of what has been, shall pass away, and leave your forehead as pure as the heart we know. For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God sees right to lift the burden that is hard upon us. Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His Will. It may be that we are chosen instruments of His good pleasure, and that we ascend to His bidding as that other through stripes and shame. Through tears and blood. Through doubts and fear, and all that makes the difference between God and man.”
There was hope in his words, and comfort. And they made for resignation. Mina and I both felt so, and simultaneously we each took one of the old man’s hands and bent over and kissed it. Then without a word we all knelt down together, and all holding hands, swore to be true to each other. We men pledged ourselves to raise the veil of sorrow from the head of her whom, each in his own way, we loved. And we prayed for help and guidance in the terrible task which lay before us.
That is all a long preface to the fact that I was offering up my suffering too. I was able to do it with an unusual degree of freedom and the sense of putting it into Christ’s hands to do with as he would. As I listened to that part of the book I kept thinking of Mina’s red scar and how everyone would tend to forget that things were as bad as they were…until they’d be jolted out of it by seeing that scar. Even Mina had this happen. And I thought of how I often have that same sense, that my sins aren’t that bad, that I’m a pretty good person. There was also a real identification of loving that band of determined friends and a sense of real gratitude and love to Jesus for his own love and suffering on my behalf.
How has your outward life changed as a result of this journey of faith?
If it has changed it isn’t in ways I’m aware of. [My husband] says there hasn’t been a big, dramatic change. However, he pointed out that there has been an increased turning outward to others. He says that as people get older they often tend to pull inwards. My movie group discussions with various senior communities all have been within the last few years. And they take me out into a community that I’d never have encountered otherwise.
You know, I hadn’t thought of the movie discussion groups that way, but they were directly inspired by The Hobbit, believe it or not: by Bilbo pinching the troll’s pocket in order to live out what he saw as his job being a burglar. In my case, I was terrified to read aloud to my mother-in-law in a room with other people in it. That was the initial push. That volunteering led to God pushing me to do something for more than just the one person I knew. And that turned into a broader effort to bring value to people’s lives through discussing movies and story and our lives. I now have discussions in four communities once or twice a month.
Honestly, I love it, but also honestly it has to be a God thing, because it is really against so much of my basic tendencies.