• Nora Koch

As Production Manager, I was in a Coffee House Press production meeting regarding a typeset, handmade book for an Allen Ginsberg. A young homosexual artist was there and kept asking the Publisher if he could do whatever he wanted with the images for the book. The publisher ignored his questions. A month later his explicit drawings were rejected for banal, and benign drawings by another artist.

At a design meeting I picked out beautiful, though florid paper: purple with gold and black Jackson Pollackesque streaks all over it, and a red Japanese paper for the label. The publisher later chose these papers, but as he often did, gave me no credit. At first, I was baffled when this happened; it hadn’t occurred to me, but I came to accept professional jealousy.

I met Allen Ginsberg at the Publisher’s dinner, but bowed out of the book reading ceremony attended by many enthusiastic people. Because I’d worked printing the book, I was entitled to a copy of it; a valuable book, I knew. But I didn’t want one, so I printed a label with my name on it and asked Jill Jevney the very talented book binder, to bind me a blank one in the same materials. The book, with Its purple clamshell box, is beautiful.

I have been going through old journals and winced when I found this one. I plan to destroy them all once I have gone through them, and I really did not want to destroy this beautiful book. I prayed before opening it that I might find a way to keep it. I was astonished! I hadn’t remembered that I had singled it out as a spiritual journal, and I found nothing in it that I would hate for someone else to read.

I’d seen the stunning Broadway play three times before reading the book and watched the movie adaptation from 2012 just this past spring, unaware that I would be reading the book soon after. I do not regret experiencing either of them before the book. They helped me appreciate and admire how efficient those two mediums are in conveying characters and the plot line of the book, albeit greatly abridged. It’s a long book 1260 pages in the version I read. In that regard and others (it is written at, and of, virtually the same time period), it reminds me of War and Peace.

Since I first saw the play, as a protestant at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City in 1989, 1990, and then as a new Catholic in the Ordway in St. Paul in the mid-nineties, I thought the story was in large part about two men. I still believe that, only the two men have changed in reading the book. I thought for years that this most important relationship was between Jean Valjean and Javert. However, now I consider it in the contrast between Jean Valjean and Thénardier. It is the main theme of the book – the choice between doing what is good and suffering the consequences or doing only that which is self-serving.

Thénardier is found throughout the play and the movie, but the impact of his actions are not nearly as clear as in the book.

In the book I understood more and found myself sympathetic to Javert.

The significance of the silver, especially the candlesticks becomes clear in the book along with the goodness of the Bishop, which is only given a nod in the play and movie. The Catholic Church is beautifully portrayed.

As noted earlier, I was a protestant the first two times I saw the play and a new Catholic the last time I saw it. As a result, I found Cosset wearisome. She seemed like Thérèse of Lisieux, who until I actually investigated her, I found too good to be true. I preferred Epinine. But again, in the book, Cosset becomes real; her Catholic Convent upbringing becomes real and the goodness of it is obvious. Her rare goodness should be admired and protected. Cosset would be found boring in our culture, which finds chaste Catholic girls, as in my ignorance I once did, wearisome and irrelevant.

I still love Epinine, even better for not comparing her to Cosset. Her goodness is nearly unfathomable – where does she get it? It is clearly not from her upbringing. It is from love.

  • Nora Koch

Updated: Jun 22

If you are not Catholic, rosary beads seem very mysterious – one of those things that Catholics do. Catholics however, are not required to pray the rosary. Rosaries are not magical – they contain no power of their own. They are simply a physical enhancement used in prayer. They are often created from inexpensive plastic beads connected with nylon string, or wooden beads joined by a simple chain, but there are exquisite rosaries made of silver, or gold, some with precious stones. They all serve the same purpose – to help one pray.

Rosary beads are not worn, there is not a “right” way to hold them. However, there is a right attitude to have when using them: one of worship towards God and veneration for Mary, the Mother of God.

Until the 1980’s, saying a complete rosary consisted of going through three sets of five mysteries based entirely on incidents found in Scripture, mostly in one of the four Gospels: The Joyful Mysteries... The Sorrowful Mysteries... and The Glorious Mysteries. One meditates on each mystery while saying ten Hail Mary’s,* one for each of the beads in each decade (set of ten beads), of the rosary. Most people will say five decades at one prayer sitting, but some will say a complete rosary. In the 1980’s, Pope John Paul II instituted a fourth set of mysteries based on Jesus’ life and teachings, The Luminous Mysteries... So now a complete rosary is comprised of four sets of five mysteries (twenty decades instead of fifteen). However, when most people speak of “Saying the Rosary,” they mean that they have prayed five decades reflecting on one set of mysteries.

Simple instructions and copies of the prayers are easily found on-line.

The rosary is a good, simple, humble way to enter into a meditative state as one prays, while reflecting on Biblical truths. Passing the beads through one’s hands enables one to be physically engaged as one is mentally engaged in prayer. Using them is really not that mysterious at all. Anyone can pray the rosary; you do not need to be a Catholic, but you must have faith to do so.

* “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”

“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Is what the angel said when he greeted her during the annunciation. “Blessed are you among women.” Was said by Elizabeth when she greeted Mary during her visitation. “Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Is something every Christian believes. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” identifies Jesus as God/man, not simply man. The belief that he was not divine was a heresy in the early church. Catholics believe that Mary is Holy that God would not allow his son to be born of a woman who was not Holy and that God made her so before she was born. “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death” is something we would ask any friend to pray for us. Mary is most definitely our friend.

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