Louisa May Alcott, the Pope and me

I write articles and a monthly column for our local Catholic newspaper. This is my October column.

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17-houseAutumn in New England turns my heart towards Concord where an antique brown colonial stands. In that house a woman wrote a story that has resonated with readers around the world for nearly one hundred and fifty years. Many women cite this book as a game-changer, inspiring them to do great things whether it be running for political office, heading a large corporation, fighting for a righteous cause or simply making their homes a sacred space for their families.

That book is Little Women and the author, Louisa May Alcott.

I have been passionate about Alcott since childhood, finding a soul mate in “tomboy Louy.” Together we struggled with bad tempers and depressive episodes, wrote stories in apple trees, staged plays in the family barn (or in my case, the basement) and searched for a way to fit in.

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard
drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

I didn’t read Little Women until shortly after my mother’s death. Reading her copy dated 1911, complete with her personal nameplate, helped me feel close to her again. We turned the pages together, horrified over Amy’s dastardly deed of burning Jo’s manuscript; laughing over the escapades of the sisters with Laurie, the boy next door; incensed over the injustice of Amy winning the trip to Europe with Aunt March when it had been promised to Jo; shocked and saddened by Jo’s rejection of Laurie, and crying copious tears over the passing of sweet Beth.

little women combined
My mother’s copy of Little Women, dated 1911

I discovered something else as I read this book: beautiful spiritual lessons tucked inside of everyday life experiences. While Alcott called her children’s books “moral pap for the young,” I found analogies of God’s tender love for us.

One episode in particular struck me as I watched Pope Francis give his impromptu homily at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia on September 26:

from http://ladylimoges.tumblr.com
from http://ladylimoges.tumblr.com

“There were six dolls to be taken up and dressed every morning, for Beth was a child still and loved her pets as well as ever; not one whole or handsome one among them; all were outcasts till Beth took them in; for when her sisters outgrew these idols, they passed to her because Amy would have nothing old or ugly. Beth cherished them all the more tenderly for that very reason, and set up a hospital for infirm dolls. No pins were ever stuck into their cotton vitals; no harsh words or blows were ever given them; no neglect ever saddened the heart of the most repulsive, but all were fed and clothed, nursed and caressed with an affection which never failed.”

Little Women, chapter 4

A scripture came to mind as a result:

“The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed,
A stronghold in times of trouble;
And those who know Your name will put their trust in You,
For You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.”

Psalm 9:9-10 (NASB)

Suddenly the Pope’s message became concrete to me. In Little Women, Beth March did not just take care of broken dolls; she would later risk her life to cradle a baby from a poor family dying of scarlet fever.

Pope Francis has shown through his own actions how he cares for the marginalized in our world. How many times have we seen him step out into the crowd, putting himself at risk, to kiss babies and the handicapped? We’ve witnessed him washing the feet of inmates in a Rome prison on Holy Thursday. How often has he, like Jesus, deliberately sought out those whom society considers “different” or “outcasts?”

And how have we reacted to his actions?

Seems to me Louisa May Alcott was on to something. A reformer at heart, championing the causes of women and children, I believe she would have heartily approved of the pontiff’s words and actions. Now it’s time for me to act on those words too.

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