Monday, March 31, 2008

Down syndrome

The pope's special intention for the month of February was to pray for an increased respect for the mentally handicapped. This prompted me to look into the care we, in the first world, give to those with "defects." While things have vastly improved since the days of Awakenings, there remains a deep-seated fear of life with the different. The statistic that most shocked me was this: Of women who discover (via ultrasound, amniocentesis, or other tests) they are carrying a Trisomy 21 fetus (Down syndrome), 85% will abort.

I could go on and on about the dignity of the human person and perhaps even demonstrate the evils of aborting the mentally ill. But I have no experience of these children. So, here is a rocking reflection by the mother of a 26-month-old Down syndrome girl named Penny.

Be not afraid!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

why fiction

A visiting friend and I recently had a discussion about fiction and its place in the life of wisdom. Of course, we didn't use such a lofty thesis statement, but that was the gist of it.

Why should we read things like Brideshead Revisited, Silence, A Man in Full, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Love in the Ruins, The Lord of the Rings, Kristin Lavransdatter, or even... Love in the Time of Cholera? If time is short, shouldn't we be almost exclusively reading the Catechism, the Bible, or various devotional works?

I'd like to think about this question sincerely, because there was a time in my life when all I wanted to read were works by saints or works on points of doctrine or ideas. There's nothing wrong with these seasons of life, so long as we do not absolutize them for ourselves or others.

The place of fiction and, in particular, modern fiction in the life of lovers of wisdom--philosophers!--has to do with knowledge of self, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of God.

The most important thing to remember is that all truth is one, and ultimately is found only in union with God. This does not mean, however, that only art or literature explicitly devoted to God speaks truth. As Augustine wrote, the human heart by nature groans and aches for God alone--all human works, however broken or disgusting, can give expression to this desire and thus to the fulfillment of this desire.

We should be reading the great works of modern fiction (amen, time is short, so skip the trash unless you're on a brain-vacation!) and helping our of-age children to do the same. We should read fiction because it speaks the language a whole dimension of ourselves that perhaps the Summa Theologica does not: the imagination, the will, the heart. It engages our intellect, too, in a new way: Rather than an analysis of a problem, it invites the reader to inhabit the questions at hand. If holiness or viciousness are only fully grasped in an encounter with a living person who is either holy or vicious, then fiction can draw us ore closely to a lived experience of these realities.

We should be reading modern fiction because we are moderns. Even more than that, we are post-moderns. It does not do for us to stop with the Greeks, the Medieval poets, Dante, or even Shakespeare. The reality is that, for us and our children, the world is a different place now than it was in 1900. I am glad I had to read 1984, Farenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Ordinary People, and even... ugh... Catcher in the Rye. I am even more glad that my 20th-century reading list did not end with high school but went on to include the works listed at the top of this page--and many more.

In reading the works of modern authors, we listen to the voice of our immediate companions on earth. We hear the influence of Nietzsche, WWI and WWII, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, the loss of confidence in natural science, the loss of so much. We also see the ongoing thirst for truth, beauty, and goodness--and the unlikely moments in which these are found in our own context. We learn to speak the language that those around us speak. This is the only way we ourselves can grasp the truth of our condition: in order, creatures, humans, moderns.

Now, truth is sometimes depressing. Especially Ray Bradbury's fiction. Ugh. Tom Wolfe is no walk in the sunshine, either. But they articulate and paint for our souls images, allegories, and stories from which Christ himself does not shrink. Neither should we. All truth is one; all truth is of God.

So, I'd like to see some curriculums including these works of fiction: teaching children to be modern Catholics--in the world, not of it. Able to speak the language of the modern world without receiving its despair. Having been taught to do so, they will know joy and hope all the more deeply.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Perfect television

The BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1981) is simply exquisite. You must see it. Rent it on Netflix and watch the episodes at your leisure--no need to swallow the seven hours whole!

You might also read the book, I suppose... (That's intended wryly.) It is one of greatest pieces of fiction in English of the 20th century. In my humble opinion. For me, it articulated all my hopes for and frustrations with that singular thing: the human condition.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a series of reflections on the characters. It's based on the film, but can be enjoyed by anyone who has read the book as well. And it may just incite you to pick up a copy.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New blog: Vocation Station

This is fun. I know I do not have a monastic vocation, but maybe some of you do! Pass it on...

Obedience and authority at home

Sadly, my heart has not been immersed in contemplation of the Deepest Things of late. Easter this year has been lived in a general aura of gladness, punctuated by early contractions and late nausea.

Therefore, following Melanie Bettenelli's good example, I will simply hijack the more "with-it" blogmoms out there.

Elizabeth Foss has a great reflection on parental authority and the obedience we demand of our children. I like the point especially that, for the mom and dad, obedience in children does not mean an easy time at home. It requires self-sacrifice and discipline. But the fruits are bountiful!

Here's an excerpt:

"We require obedience. We insist on obedience and we work day after day, every single day, to ensure obedience. When we ask a child to do something, we are polite. But we are firm. We embrace the fact that we are in authority over our children. God put us there and our children need us there. We teach them truth. We teach them that God’s laws are absolute and we require them to obey those absolute laws. For a child, the first law is "Children, obey your parents in the Lord." The only reason we need to give our children is: For this is right. God says so. We don’t shrink from our authoritative role. Rather we see it as a gift.

One of my favorite educators, Charlotte Mason, writes "Authority is not only a gift but a grace … Authority is that aspect of love which parents present to their children; parents know it is love, because to them it means continual self-denial, self-repression, self-sacrifice: children recognize it as love, because to them it means quiet rest and gaiety of heart. Perhaps the best aid to the maintenance of authority in the home is for those in authority to ask themselves daily that question which was presumptuously put to our Lord — ‘Who gave thee this authority?’"

Of course, God did. And by golly, we better be grateful good stewards of that gift. Let’s unpack the quote a little. To train our children, we must deny ourselves. We can’t administer occasional bursts of punishment and expect a good result. We must instead be incessantly watchful, patiently forming and preserving good habits. This means we are attentive and active. Those are habits to cultivate in ourselves.

To rid ourselves of bad habits, Mason suggests we replace them with virtuous ones. I know that in my house, my children misbehave a good deal when I have been on the phone or in front of the computer too much. They misbehave when routines slack off and meals are not given enough thought. They misbehave when bedtime isn’t observed or they are overprogrammed and too busy. They misbehave when I am inattentive or lazy or tired or inconsistent. Those are bad habits. I must consciously replace them with attention and diligence and action and consistent sleep.

Children recognize the Biblical living of our authority as love because it is love. Children who consistently misbehave are begging for moral guidance and a strong anchor. They are crying (or whining as the case may be) for someone to be in authority. As they grow, the real tangible relationship with the authority that is the parent flowers into full-blown relationship with God and an eager willingness to obey Him as an adult...

We don’t want self-controlled children. We want children who are controlled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — children who hear and answer the Lord. We need to give children choices within limits but we need to teach them how and why to choose right. We need to train their hearts and educate their minds. When they are fully informed of the consequences of their actions, we need to allow free will, just as our heavenly Father does.

In order to train the child’s will in this manner, parents must lay down their lives for them. They must be willing to spend large amounts of time engaged with them. They must believe that children are educated by their intimacies and they must ensure that the child is intimate with what is good and noble and true. And when the child needs correction, the parent must educate in the truest sense of the word. She must teach. Our children are created in the image and likeness of God. If she looks at the child, sees Christ in his eyes and disciplines accordingly, she will train her children well."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday

Surrexit Christus, alleluia!
Gaudete Domino, alleluia!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday

Christ descends into Hell.

"Something strange is happening--there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep." (from the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you. For by your holy cross
you have redeemed the world.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Holy Thursday

"I am the bread of life. Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup, you have no life within you."

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bow Tie

This one is for my dad, who began wearing bow ties upon entering grandfather-hood.

Nathaniel Peters over at the First Things blog tells us that the bow tie has returned. Praise God, all you righteous ones! My father, once again, is a trend-setter.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Population vacuums

The declining population in Europe is well-known among your generic, educated-Catholic circles. What is surprising, however, is to learn that the below-replacement-level fertility rates are actually endemic around the world. Take a gander at Steve Mosher's statistics in this well-written rebuttal to The Nation's latest polemic.

We want to see more Polish (and Mexican and Colombian and Filippino and Chinese and Japanese and Ethiopian and Congonese, etc...) babies!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

TS Eliot on education and the arts

Have you ever lamented the decline of the arts in our culture? Have you ever looked at the proliferation of, um, trash in Border's bookstores and wondered, "Whence?" "Wherefore?" "Foresooth!?"

Listen to TS Eliot:

"You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction--however undemocratic it may sound--between the educated and the uneducated. I observed in America, that with a very high level of intelligence among undergraduates, progress was impeded by the fact that one could never assume that any two, unless they had been at the same school ... had studied the same subjects or read the same books, though the number of subjects in which they had been instructed was surprising ... In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation."

~Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society

Happily, there are a number of concurrent and related experiments going on around our nation now, in the form the the classical homeschool and private academy curricula. I wonder, however, what the outcome will be.

Are the children of the public schools going to become Eliot's "uncritical and illiterate mob" that digs into any scintillating piece of writing/TV/cinema that comes their way? Do the children given the gift of classical education sequester themselves in a community--provincial and isolated--of "educated"? How to bridge the gap?

Of course, there will always be the odd ducks: the "mob members" who actually seek wisdom, the "educated" who graduate and never ask another question (is that so odd?).

But my heart bleeds to perceive that Eliot's rallying cry has been heard by so few, themselves fragmented, torn by disagreement, and isolated.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Give Easter hope

If you haven't given any alms yet this Lent, here is a great opportunity:

Jessica, at Shower of Roses, is hosting an Easter Hope Challenge. When you make a donation to help a family that has received heartbreaking news about the health of their children, you earn a chance to win one of three prizes.

One of which has to do with Starbucks.

Thanks to Danielle Bean for the heads-up!

beauty and truth: eternally one

Richard John Neuhaus reviews Austin Dacey's The Secular Conscience, a book I can safely assume I will not read until my children are grown and gone. But the review is quite readable, and stole my heart when Czeslaw Milosz made an appearance:

"The book opens with the splendid poem by Czeslaw Milosz “Incantations.”

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it . . .
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good . . .
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit,
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Of course, as Jeremy Driscoll explained in “The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz” in First Things, the poet’s confidence in the unity of reason and beauty was deeply grounded in his Christian faith. We should not be hesitant, however, indeed we should be eager, to acknowledge that non-Christians, too, participate in the wisdom to which Milosz bears witness. This is at the heart of what is meant by saying that all truth is one because the origin and sustaining dynamic of truth is one, with all things cohering in the logos—the word and reason who is Christ." ~ RJN

Music again!

For those trying to find more music they enjoy!

Check out Pandora Radio. You type in an artist or artists you like, and "they" set up a radio station of like-styled music. It's rockin'.

No, I'm not paid to endorse them. I wish.

Friday, March 7, 2008

On the body

If you haven't ever read Mother Mary Francis, PCC (+2004), you should. And this is a great place to start: Anima Christi: Soul of Christ. She's a good read for the dull of mind.

I was slogging through the mucus and the chapter on "The Body of Christ." Recent conversations with Catholics/non-Catholics reluctant to receive the Church's teaching on contraception have made me acutely aware of the radicality of the Catholic view of the body. So, here are some excerpts and thoughts.

"Our bodies are so noble. The infamous carnal sinners of history are, not those who loved their bodies too much, but those who loved their bodies too little. They are those who failed to respect or perhaps even to understand the dignity of that masterpiece of the Father, the human body. It is a creation so marvelous that the Father did not hesitate to give it to his own divine, eternal, all-comprehensive expression of himself in the Incarnation of the Son, in the same way that it is given to us with the same senses and faculties possessed by our own bodies."

I first came across the theology of the body--a theology based so much on this joy in the body's nobility--in college. What the Church says about the body is almost impossible to hear. We experience it as either a pain--colds, flus, hungry, lustful, flabby, pimply--or a means to a quick fix of our ills--sex, food, drink, highs, inebriation.

But then, for the Christian, comes the challenge: the Word became flesh. The Creator himself made a statement--a single statement--about the body. He took it on; he saved it. For the rest of human history (that means, also, in my own heart) it must be worthy of reverence and a source of our own salvation.

"A lowly estimate of our bodies results in our becoming prey to all manner of sins. When we consider the body only a necessary adjunct so that the soul can get about, we do our body a great dishonor... Body and soul are co-related, coordinated from the act of creation onward. Both will endure."

When confronted with the radical and seemingly impossible call of sacramental marriage--openness to life, our bodies at the (loving!) disposal of one another until death, sickness, death--I must remind myself that it is a call as well to reverence the body. To reverence is not to pamper or indulge. To reverence is to bring the body into cooperation with my soul for the sole purpose of imitating Christ.

"It is the body of Christ in his human functioning, during the historical period of his corporeal activity upon this earth, when his body perfectly served his soul and his animating principle perfectly coordinated its activity with his body, that saves us. We do not see in ourselves or of ourselves these perfect coordinations. Rather, we know how often we are tossed about by our lack of coordination. The soul says to the body, 'Do not pass this boundary', and th body replies, 'I will!' The body wishes to and often enough does disobey the incorporeal faculties.

"It is only in Christ, the perfect man, the firstborn of all creation, that we see the perfect functioning of the body. And so it is his body that will save us, that will show us how to be whole. Salvation is wholeness of life, just as sanity is wholeness of mind... We cannot order ourselves about with a: 'Get in line there, body!' Rather, we need humbly to pray: 'Body of Christ, save me!'"

I am reminded of Peter, sinking into the sea as his gaze left the body of Christ. Jesus stood in his flesh on the water and, as long as Peter kept looking on the Son's flesh, he was able too to walk over that sea. As soon as he started to look at the waters, away from the body of Christ, however, he sank.

So like the sea are the seemingly impossible invitations (and they are only invitations) God makes on our flesh: illness, sleeplessness, pregnancy, fasting, prayer! I feel in my body the protests of my friends: "But I could have 14 children!" "How can the Church invade my body like that?" "It is impossible for anyone to lie like that!" "You need to take care of (meaning: indulge) yourself, not stress yourself!" "What about my career?" They are the cries of the drowning Peter.

Christ replies: "Do not be afraid!" He has already saved us.

One more meditation. Since it is Lent, and the passion is upon us again (and childbirth is almost upon me and Todd!), I was trying to visualize the body of Christ in its pain. Somehow, this, too, must become beautiful to our hearts as we love him more and more.

I was looking at him stretched out on the ground as the soldiers beat him with rods and whips. It seemed we have only one choice: We can stand and watch (and perhaps even participate), or lie down with him on that ground. I don't know what this means--in real life--but I do know that whatever our choice, he has already shown his mercy. His body has already saved us.


Somewhere in the blogosphere, I heard it was "uncool" to explain long absences or silences to your readers. Oh, well. I'm not cool.

The philosopher mom has had to deal quite practically with toddler colds and mom colds. Philosophizing has been at a minimum.

To come: meditations on the effects of little germs on the flight of the mind. What is this body thing anyway?