Friday, December 30, 2011

The Saints in My Life.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel has been a great friend (via his books) for many years. The Saints in My Life, however, is now among my favorites. In it, he profiles 19 saints who have played significant roles in his own life. He begins with a beautiful explanation of what saints are in the Church--and of what they are not. He writes not only for Catholics but also for those who are simply interested in what Catholics mean by "the communion of saints."

In each chapter, he writes a brief biography, a short glimpse into their theological or mystical contributions to the Church, some personal anecdotes of who they have been for him, and a selection of the saint's writings.

His selections include the predictable "superheroes of heaven"--Therese, Teresa, Catherine of Siena, Augustine--as well as the lesser-known or the "helper saints"--Catherine of Genoa, John Fischer, Catherine Laboure, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. These are only a few of the many, delightful lives.

The book is perfect for the distracted mother or father--each chapter is a whole unto itself, even though the saints all together tell the story of Groeschel's life. Small, baby-sized bites. It would also be a great present for someone you know who is entering the Church this year (or recently entered) and wants to get to know some new friends.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company, and the reviewer received a free copy of the text in exchange for her opinion. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Saints in My Life. They are currently having an end-of-the-year sale!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Booklist 2011.

2011 was not a great year for reading, but here are the real standouts. I did a lot of re-reading, which is always a little like coming home to find a good friend waiting.

The best book I read is actually not yet in print. Wait for it! But here are the highlights--in no particular order--of what money can buy.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy -- So maybe a mom suffering from postpartum depression should not spend three days in the bleak midwinter reading Cormac McCarthy (he also wrote No Country for Old Men, of movie fame). This novel is, however, just fabulous. Set after some un-named apocalypse in the near future, it is the story not of the rape of nature or even of the worst in man, but of the very best. Written by a man often described as a nihilist, it is anything but nihilistic. He is dark, but he is not dark about nothing. I loved it.

Arise from Darkness, Benedict Groeschel -- After reading McCarthy, this was absolutely necessary.

Sigrid Undset -- Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is possibly my favorite fiction of all time (Brideshead Revisited is the possible rival). I was so excited to discover that she wrote a biography of Catherine of Siena, the peculiar mystic who ordered popes around. Undset is a master class in medieval thought, customs, and imagination, and she brings all of her skill to her work. She is not afraid to offer natural explanations for some of the phenomena surrounding Catherine, but never dismisses the supernatural either.

The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchins -- Christopher Hitchins' less famous, but possibly more interesting, brother. The book is less a point-by-point argument against atheism than it is a painting. Peter Hitchins draws a sketch for us of his life behind the Iron Curtain and his own encounters with a world without God. It's ugly, and you suddenly see--with the eye of the artist--the suddenness with which the world can change. Worth a gander.

Busman's Honeymoon, Dorothy Sayers -- I re-read all of the Sayers mysteries during my battle out of depression last winter. In the dark hours, I would read and read and read her whimsical prose. Perhaps I was being obsessive, but it worked. And, aside from its therapeutic qualities, her fiction is wonderful, grown-up brain candy. Busman's Honeymoon is my favorite: It has to be one of the best treatments of sex in modern fiction. It's real and beautiful without glossing over the humor of the conjugal act. She maintains a perfect modesty without being prudish in the least. Oh, and it's a great mystery. You learn a lot of Donne while having a lot of fun. (Oh, that was bad.)

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis -- I read this on Melanie's recommendation. I haven't read science fiction since high school, but I enjoyed the novel enormously. The basic story involves time travel, exchanging deadly viruses across centuries, medieval Oxfordshire, and the bubonic plague. Anything set in England, 1348, is bound to be slightly nauseating. I am grateful for Purell and soap on a deeper level.

And that's the Best of 2011. The Booklist for 2012 is already much longer--I'm feeling ambitious as per usual during Christmas vacation. If you have any suggestions, please send them this way.

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nativity 2011.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his face.

And we hope to see Him again. Merry Christmas to all! Joy and peace and all that is good, true, and beautiful.

~The Philosopher Familia

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Delighting and grieving.

"The Lord delights in those who revere him
In those who wait for his love." ~Psalm 147:11

The days have been short and the nights long. The waiting for Christmas was interrupted this year: my Uncle Billy died suddenly last Thursday night. The family is so close, and that makes it both easier and harder all at once.

We've all been feeling as though it will be "always winter and never Christmas."

This morning, the Office was perfect. The perfect pattern of prayer.

Psalm 143--the song of those in distress: "Lord, listen to my prayer..."

Isaiah 66-- the quieting of the crying child: "Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort!"

Psalm 147--"He binds up all their wounds..."

And then 147 ends with that oddity: "The Lord delights in those who revere him
In those who wait for his love."

Grief and fatigue leave me--from a human perspective--anything but delightful. If death is the end of all things, there is no more delight in a person. Memories may bring a smile or some comfort, but only with the thought that "things will never be the same."

But the Office, after allowing us to rail at God and weep, after promising to quiet us like a mother quiets her screaming infant, tells us that "the Lord delights in those who revere him."

One of the great blessings of the funeral home was that its men walk the mourners through every step. They let you grieve, but also help you move through the necessary motions. They tell you what to do so that you can survive those first few days.

In a similar way, that last Psalm tells the grieving soul what it must do: First, praise the Lord, for he is good. His wisdom can never be measured. Consider his creation. The mountains are covered in clouds, the ravens cry to him for their bread.

And then, sad soul, know this: The Lord delights in you.

The soul must know--must contemplate--this. She, who praises God in her grief, is a joy. God's infinite love is entirely directed toward her, and her praise opens her sad heart to receive this knowledge. "The Lord delights in those who revere him." Only those who revere him can know this.

So, once again, the Divine Office walks us through our days. We know it will not always be winter. We know Christmas will come, and that the Final Day will come, as well. Then we will see clearly, as my uncle sees now, the face of God who delights in us.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

for my uncle, who died suddenly one night.

“These souls cannot think,‘I am here, and justly so because of my sins,’
‘I wish I had never committed such sins
for now I would be in paradise,’
‘That person there is leaving before me,’
‘I will leave before that other one.’

They cannot remember the good and evil in their past nor that of others.

Such is their joy in God’s will, in His pleasure that they have no concern for themselves but dwell only on their joy in God’s will,
in having Him do what He will.

They see only the goodness of God,
His mercy toward men.
Should they be aware of other good and evil theirs would not be perfect charity.

They do not see that their suffering is due to their sins for that awareness would be a want of perfection
and in purgatory souls cannot sin.

Only once do the souls understand
the reason for their purgatory:
the moment in which they leave this life.
After that moment, that knowledge disappears.

Immersed in charity, incapable of deviating from it,
They can only will or desire pure love.
There is no joy save that in paradise
to be compared with the joy of the souls in purgatory.

This joy increases day by day."

~St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Heart set free: John Cassian gets real.

A trusted friend gave me John Cassian for the Advent season. It's required reading, and I must admit I was a little frightened. Cassian is one the earliest (c. 365-435, A.D.) writers on the monastic life. He lived out in deserts in Egypt, caves in Provence, and swamps around Marseilles. He wrote for monks. I am anything but a monk, and the times I've tried to be monkish have usually ended in frustration.

(See photo. Don't I wish.)

But this was required reading, so in a spirit of obedience in I go. And here is section 6 of his first conference:

"...[A mind which lacks an abiding sense of direction veers hither and yon by the hour, and by the minute is a prey to outside influences and is endlessly the prisoner of whatever strikes it first.]"

Well, that doesn't sound like it's only for monks. I'm a little less apprehensive. In fact, now I'm desperately longing to find out a remedy for this "hither and yon" heart. It's particularly poignant this Advent season: the world is a mass of sensations, feelings, activities--all striking the soul again and again. The busy-ness is overwhelming--spiritually, physically, and emotionally--and the endless entertainments do not set us free, but take us prisoner.

We are slaves to our entertainments, addictions, preferences. John Cassian, I'm right there. Tell me more:

"This is why we see many who, having given up the greatest wealth not only in gold and silver but also in splendid estates, nevertheless become very upset over a knife, a scraper, a needle, or a pan."

Ha! That's the hassled housewife he's describing! I've given up doctorates, careers, substantial incomes, ridiculous little worldly pleasures to be a Good Christian. And I'm still upset by... pans.

"If they had looked unwaveringly to the purity of their hearts they would never have become involved with such trifles and they would have rejected these just as they did great and valuable possessions. There are some who guard a book so jealously that they can barely endure to have someone else read it or touch it."

Ouch. Oh, stop it, John. That hurt the book-nerd in me.

"They have given away all their wealth for Christ and yet they still hold on to their old heart-longings for things that do not matter, things for whose sake they grow angry."

This is such a good reminder in these days: Books and pans Do. Not. Matter. Becoming angry, or driving yourself to anger, over these little things is a sure sign that something is misplaced. Our hearts are not pure, they have become slaves to what is outside because they have lost sight of what is inside--the life of God himself.

Then, in section seven, he goes on:

"This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture... we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love."

"To trap and to hold our hearts free"--the glorious paradox of the divine life in human flesh. We can only be freed from our books and pots and pans if our hearts are captured for something else. The loneliness, fasts, and vigils or the housewife are not the same as those of a monk. But they can serve the same purpose: "to rise step by step to the high point of love."

And what mother (or father) who has spent those long nights in vigil with the newborn can say that she still cares as much for her books and her clothes as she did before the child was born?

Who can say that life together in marriage does not offer countless opportunities to be freed from our attachment to things that do not matter in order to preserve the love that does matter?

John Cassian, I believe we are going to be the best of friends.

(See photo. Is this what your 3 AM looks like?)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gaudete! and a new order is born.

In honor of "Pink Sunday" (I mean, "Rose"), Miriam and Bella decided to found a new religious order. Bella is the rich Queen who is giving all the money to the convent.

Miriam: "In our order, we have no blankets. Except for you because you're not really a sister, just the rich lady who gave the poor sisters money."

Bella: "OK. I like to have blankets."

Miriam: "Yes. Some sisters don't have pillows either, but in our order we do have pillows because you bought us some."


Miriam: "That was grand silence. We are supposed to practice silence."

Bella: "Yes, but I want to talk about it to Mary."

Miriam: "Okay, we need to talk about the silence."

Ah, yes. We talk a lot about silence here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Saint Nicholas and why I don't say 'Merry Christmas.'

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas! Down with Arius!

This is just great: 19 days before Christmas my kids get to open presents and eat chocolate stuff. It's almost as good as being Jewish and opening presents for 8 nights in a row while all the Gentile kids are still doing their Advent penance (My best friend growing up was Jewish for Hanukkah, and I envied her.). We did it up in style this morning, thanks to a dear old friend who sent a play kitchen for the girls. We'll do it up again Thursday for the Immaculate Conception and then hunker down in the bleak midwinter until Christmas Eve.

Advent isn't very long and, punctuated by all these feasts, it becomes even shorter. It's like a pregnancy--a time of waiting and preparing--made brief by the birthdays, feast days, and celebrations of a bustling family life.

In years past, I felt inescapably annoyed for most of Advent. I bought into all those movements to "Keep Christ in Christmas," I felt righteous when we saw the insistent manger scene in the Town Square, I rolled my eyes when the White House ended the tradition of the Christmas Tree. "It's Christmas time!" Not "holiday time," no "holiday parties," no Kwanzikahmas for me.

And it's still that way sometimes. I've been less bothered this year by all the frantic, secular holiday decorations. The songs in the grocery store roll off a little more easily. Go ahead. Play "Rudolph" and "Winter Wonderland." If the world feels weird about saying "Christmas," that's fine.

Actually, it is more than fine. It is good. The words match the reality. Bill O'Reilly makes a yearly grump about "Christmas," but we shouldn't insist on saying "Christmas." There are two reasons.

First. It's not Christmas. For the apostolic churches--the Orthodox and Catholics--it isn't Christmas. The weeks before the great solemnity are a time of fasting and preparation. If the clerk in the grocery store doesn't wish you "Merry Christmas," he's doing you a favor. It's not Christmas yet. The "Holiday Tree" lighting in town is just fine. It's not Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving. Word matching reality.

Second. Our culture is not Christian. Observant Christians are a subculture. It is folly to expect the popular media and stores to celebrate Christmas. We were Christian long ago and in a different era, but those days are fading even from our oldest generation's memory. For our children, looking forward, the world is a different place. The more secular the "holiday season" becomes, the more obvious becomes the difference between what the Church celebrates and preserves and what the sitcom "holiday specials" promote. This could be a good thing. Words matching reality. Symbols finding their true meaning.

So, we're letting it go. I won't immerse our kids in the holiday culture--we stay at home more these days--but I won't avoid it either. Todd and I have chosen to propose an alternative to them: a liturgical year that follows the liturgical years of all the ages. And unto ages of ages. Amen.

And besides, we're too busy practicing to be St. Lucy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Doctors of the Church.

Bl. Pope John Paul II made the Wednesday audiences famous with his series of catecheses on the Theology of the Body. These weekly addresses continue and offer endless food for thought.

Doctors of the Church collects Benedit XVI's catecheses on 32 men and women from throughout Church history, who have "been recognized for both holiness of life and profundity in learning." The result is an outstanding--and highly inviting--history of Christian thought, spirituality, poetry, song, and high adventure (for adventure, check out Catherine of Siena!).

I really can't say enough about Benedict's writing. It is clear, simple, and... best of all for the busy among us... concise. Each address gives a biography of the saint, the historical context of his or her work, and then a brief lesson on the major contributions he or she brought to the search for God. You will become fast friends with them all: Even the headier saints, it turns out, have something to say to a little housewife in the 21st century.

This book is great for anyone exploring the Faith for the first time, for RCIA classes, high school classes, and just any Catholic who wants to know her pope and her forbears more intimately. A great buy.

Sadly, it seems to be out of stock over at The Catholic Company (it's that good!). But you should still receive it by Christmas if you order now!

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company, and the reviewer received a free copy of the text in exchange for her opinion. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Doctors of the Church. They also have some beautiful Christmas gifts!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oh, blawg.

I miss you, too. Be back soon, if it please God.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What the Church should do.

Yesterday I went to my final Mass in the old (it's old) translation of the Novus Ordo (it's novus). For the last time, I responded to the priest's "The Lord be with you" with "And also with you." Tomorrow evening, at sundown, the Catholic Church in America rejoins the rest of the world: "And with your spirit," "my most grievous fault," "on earth peace to people of goodwill."

There are many more changes--some small, some great--and we are blessed to have them. It is always good to be reminded that the Church in America is not the center of salvation history, but rather only one, small place that is home to a small number of saints among the vast throng of the saints throughout time and the world. Our words can be more closely joined to theirs and so our hearts and minds formed to be more like theirs. (Note to Catholics who haven't been to Mass in a long time: You may feel confused and alienated if you come home this Christmas. Don't worry--everyone else is a little lost, too!)

The "change," which is more specifically a reform, has been in the works for decades. Along the way, at every mention of it, in every social, academic, and liturgical circle I've walked, I have heard the invariable phrase, "The Church should..."

"The Church should..." is often followed immediately by, "The Church has not..." or "The Church isn't doing it right." Then--if the conversation continues--we hear that "the Church burned the heretics." "The Church persecuted Jews." "The Church has failed to listen to its people (meaning, to me)." "The Church never explained that very well."

All change inspires such a litany of accusations and complaints.

The missing element of these litanies, however, is this: I am a piece of the Church. What I find the Church has failed to do, I have also failed to do. What I believe I have done well, the Church may rightfully claim it has done well in me. I am as guilty of this as... well, as the entire Church. I find smug self-satisfaction in complaining about priests who have hurt me, priests who have failed to teach, prophets who have spoken falsely, and theologians who claim the authority of bishops. It's so easy and nice for Catholics--and for any apostolic church--to blame the "institution," rather than ourselves. It's so convenient to blame the Catholic Church for why I am a Bad Catholic.

If we feel that "the Church" has failed to educate us in the Faith, that we have been handed this translation with little or no explanation, and that "the Church" has, once again, just told us all what to do, then we would do well to take action. But the action should not be to tear down "the Church."

The action is, first, to assume the best. The Church is, for all her broken members, our Mother. We have never been betrayed by our Mother--only by her very bad children. The first action is to make this distinction in our hearts.

The second action is this: run to Mother. That means: get on the Internet (you're on already!), search Google, and find what the Mother says. Ignore the Bad Children. The Mother--the apostles, the Desert Fathers, the Doctors, the saints--has spoken. Her words are available to us (in English!) directly. There is no end of resources for Catholics today: no one with Internet access or a library card can claim that "the Church" hasn't explained herself. If you feel like there's no real reason for some teaching, some reform, some change to the liturgy, then go find out what the reason is. There is always a reason--usually more reasons than we could grasp in a lifetime.

The third action is this: pray for submission. "Submission" is an ugly word around these parts (i.e., America and the West), but think about it. "Sub" means "under," and "mission" comes from the Latin for "to send." The mission of the Church--what God has put before us to do--is something we should want to be "under." If we don't, we should at least want to want to be under it. Our hearts can change from the frustrated, petulant "the Church should..." to a humble, peaceful "I should."

There is profound joy in submission--even for amateur intellectuals. There is profound freedom and peace in the realization that my failure is my own, but my goodness is the power of God--beauty of the eternal--simply being in me. So, when changes come and our hearts fret and we feel betrayed by "the Church," let us assume our Mother loves us, let us seek to know her mind, and finally let us pray for hearts conformed to her mind.

And let the feast begin!

(Not)Dead Poets Month: a guy named Brandon.

This was floating around Facebook. Thank you, Melanie!

I thank you, Lord, for fruitful fields,
for wide and healthful skies,
and for the fact not everyone
who is out at war will die;
and for the limits you have placed
on corruption and despite,
that we need only deal with them
a dozen times each night.

I thank you, Lord, for cheerful suns
that rise at every dawn,
and that my students learn to hide
the sound and sight of yawn,
that education is a joy,
filled with love and awe,
and, on those crazy grading days,
that there are murder laws.

I thank you that we live here free
in houses without bars,
that there are things that we can own,
that no one owns the stars,
that joy and virtue freely flow
without a market price
while we have markets fully full
of grain and fruit and spice.

I thank you, Lord, for politics,
for presidents and such,
that they work so hard to get their way,
that they never get it much,
who teach us that the foolish thirst
to rule and reign on high
dishonor brings upon our hearts
when to ourselves we lie.

Thank you, Lord, for infant smiles
and children bright at play,
for all the crabbed and silly souls
who annoy us every day.
(We appreciate those most, O Holy Lord,
those crosses that we bear,
and we thank you that we are not bald
from pulling out our hair.)

Thank you, Lord, for mirrors,
for when I most despise
the follies of my fellow man,
I look, and see pride's lies.
And thank you, God, for mysteries
you have left for us to solve
upon this strangely floating ball
that rotates and revolves.

Thank you for your mercy,
which saves us from the brink;
and thank you, Lord, for righteous wrath,
we need it more, I think.
Thank you for all gentle souls
who can their tempers keep;
protect them, Lord, from the rest of us,
lest we kill them in their sleep.

And for all the blissful marriages!
There are three of them, at least,
and given how hard the whole thing is,
that's quite an abundant feast.
And for all the others as well, my Lord;
they stall and sputter and spin
like well-loved cars that barely move,
they're so nicely broken-in.

And also for the ones that fail,
as they might have been worth the try
if they had words that told it straight,
and laughs, and gentle sighs,
and that they in their saddest loss
yet stand as vivid sign
that the commitment is to person there,
not a signature on a line.

Thank you, Lord, for critics
who attack with whip and flail,
and for reviewers and polemicists,
and, because of them, for hell.
And thank you, Lord, for stupid folk,
that we can clearly see
all the things that shock the mind
from which none of us are free.

And thank you for those shocking times
when pedants who lecture all
on every foolish folly
into those follies fall,
for it teaches us the wisdom
of gentleness and restraint,
lest we in turn be painted
with the brush by which we paint.

Thank you for absurdities;
they overflow the bank,
so if I but thank you for each one,
I'll never cease to thank.
And thank you for sweet irony;
it gives the wit to see
that all the things we moan about
may be thanksgiving's seed.

But most of all, I thank you, Lord,
that long before we die,
we can see ourselves with wry regard,
and laugh until we cry.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dead Poets Month: Joy Davidman.

We have snow, so casual, lovely, for Thanksgiving. I can only think of this poem, by the woman who would later be famous for marrying CS Lewis. A formidable poet in her own right.

Snow in Madrid

Softly, so casual,
Lovely, so light, so light,
The cruel sky lets fall
Something one does not fight.
How tenderly to crown
The brutal year
The clouds send something down
That one need not fear.
Men before perishing
See with unwounded eye
For once a gentle thing
Fall from the sky.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dead Poets Month: the Psalmist.

I've been fretting.

Christmas songs blaring in the stores. Somehow, "Let it Snow" sets off all my puny rage and I spend the day in a funk over the ills in the world. Everything--from Soviet Russia to Health and Human Services to dirty socks under the couch--brings me to tears.

And then, the psalms step in. Perhaps the greatest poetry of all time, the psalms take all the darkness, name it, and give it over to light.

From today's Office of Readings, here is Psalm 37.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not envy those who do evil:
for they wither quickly like grass
and fade like the green of the fields.

If you trust in the Lord and do good,
then you will live in the land and be secure.
If you find your delight in the Lord,
he will grant your heart’s desire.

Commit your life to the Lord,
trust in him and he will act,
so that your justice breaks forth like the light,
your cause like the noon-day sun.

Be still before the Lord and wait in patience;
do not fret at the man who prospers;
a man who makes evil plots
to bring down the needy and the poor.

Calm your anger and forget your rage;
do not fret, it only leads to evil.
For those who do evil shall perish;
the patient shall inherit the land.

A little longer–and the wicked shall have gone.
Look at his place, he is not there.
But the humble shall own the land
and enjoy the fullness of peace.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dead Poets Month: Isaac Watts for Christ the King.

The liturgical year draws to a close, and the man-God reigns from the cross. My heart is singing "Crown Him," but Isaac Watts' beautiful words and the gentler, peaceful melody fit the November days.

Have a beautiful feast, give thanks for the year, and remember you are a son of the king.

  1. When I survey the wondrous cross
    On which the Prince of glory died,
    My richest gain I count but loss,
    And pour contempt on all my pride.
  2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God!
    All the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.
  3. See from His head, His hands, His feet,
    Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
    Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
    Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
  4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were a present far too small;
    Love so amazing, so divine,
    Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It ain't poetry, but it's close.

Regarding the outright disdain layered upon parents of large families, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach tells it like it is.

“Why are people impressed that Jay Leno owns 20 motorcycles, but disgusted that some religious families choose to have 10 children?

Let’s not finesse the response. We all know why. A world that has lost its innocence has trouble appreciating beings who are innocent. A world that has become selfish has soured to the idea of leading a life of selflessness. A world that has become grossly materialistic is turned off to the idea of more dependents who consume resources. And a world that mistakenly believes that freedom means a lack of responsibility is opposed to the idea of needy creatures who ‘tie you down...’

By just looking at my children, I become more innocent. By loving them, I become more noble. By spending my money on them rather than myself, I find transcendence. And by being a father and liberating all of the love in my heart, my spirit soars free."

Amen to that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dead Poets Month: George Herbert.

From a dear friend, this by George Herbert.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here."
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Visions of Judgment

With the end of the Church year upon us, HG Wells' short story "A Vision of Judgment" seemed appropriate--both to the liturgy and the general malaise settling over the political candidates and their constituents alike.

Wells is not (disclaimer!) attempting to communicate facts about the End Times, nor is he attempting to formulate new and heretical doctrine about the nature of God and the new heavens and new earth.

The point of the story is that evil is banal. Sin is boring. The narrator arrives at the Day of Judgment and sees everyone: Darwin and Henry VIII make an appearance, as does his publisher. The first man to be judged is lifted up onto God's palm and ordered to tell all of creation his sins. He does so:

I was a king," said the little figure, "a great king, and I was lustful
and proud and cruel. I made wars, I devastated countries, I built palaces,
and the mortar was the blood of men. Hear, O God, the witnesses against
me, calling to you for vengeance. Hundreds and thousands of witnesses." He
waved his hands towards us. "And worse! I took a prophet--one of your

"One of my prophets," said the Lord God.

"And because he would not bow to me, I tortured him for four days and
nights, and in the end he died. I did more, O God, I blasphemed. I robbed
you of your honours----"

"Robbed me of my honours," said the Lord God.

"I caused myself to be worshipped in your stead. No evil was there but I
practised it; no cruelty wherewith I did not stain my soul. And at last
you smote me, O God!"

God raised his eyebrows slightly.

"And I was slain in battle. And so I stand before you, meet for your
nethermost Hell! Out of your greatness daring no lies, daring no pleas,
but telling the truth of my iniquities before all mankind."

He ceased. His face I saw distinctly, and it seemed to me white and
terrible and proud and strangely noble. I thought of Milton's Satan.

God asks whether all this is true. The Angel Gabriel answers that, well, yes. In a manner of speaking, all this is true. But then he goes on to tell the true story: The king had a bad stomach, he ate too much... the Angel reads out all the little, stupid sins and weaknesses that destroy "the dignity of defiance."

The king who imagined himself a great individual, unmatched in his accomplishments (evil though they were), was in fact not unlike the hairy prophet he tortured and killed. An upset stomach tempts us to rage. An embarrassing belch tempts us to imagine our importance offended. And on and on.

By the end of the litany, shame overcomes the little king.

The Wicked Man on God's hand began to dance and weep. Suddenly shame overcame him. He made a wild rush to jump off the ball of God's little finger, but God stopped him by a dexterous turn of the wrist. Then he made a rush for the gap between hand and thumb, but the thumb closed. And all the while the angel went on reading--reading. The Wicked Man rushed to and fro across God's palm, and then suddenly turned about and fled up the sleeve of God.

The whole story is really a treat. I should like to read it to my children--once they have reached the rhetorical stage. It is good to laugh at sin, especially when the evils of the world seem to weigh us down and the hours are long and dark in the night.

We are all as infants before God, before judgment. We can't even distinguish our selves from others by rebellion. There is nothing new under the sun.

There is only home. We only need the sense to run toward it.

Dead Poets Month: Gerard Manley Hopkins

This one is new to me. I'm leaving in the accents found on Bartleby's website, because Hopkins is so very odd in his emphases. Read it out loud and try bobbing your head every time you say an accented word--it helps with the rhythm.

Line 11 is the reassurance and the reasoned line: The just man "acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is." To do this is to live authentically, to be fully human: to act in accordance with who we are. Do it, momma, do it.

34. As kingfishers catch fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dead Poets Month: D.H. Lawrence

I'm barely familiar with Lawrence, but this poem reminds me of falling in love when I was 16.

And because he was Todd, the story has a happy continuance.

Letter from Town: The Almond Tree
You promised to send me some violets. Did you forget?
 White ones and blue ones from under the orchard hedge?      
 Sweet dark purple, and white ones mixed for a pledge    
Of our early love that hardly has opened yet.        

Here there’s an almond tree—you have never seen            
 Such a one in the north—it flowers on the street, and I stand      
 Every day by the fence to look up for the flowers that expand    
At rest in the blue, and wonder at what they mean.        

Under the almond tree, the happy lands      
 Provence, Japan, and Italy repose,      
 And passing feet are chatter and clapping of those    
Who play around us, country girls clapping their hands.        

You, my love, the foremost, in a flowered gown,      
 All your unbearable tenderness, you with the laughter      
 Startled upon your eyes now so wide with hereafter,     
You with loose hands of abandonment hanging down.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dead Poets Month: the Wisdom Authors

I often forget the power of the Book of Wisdom, one of the seven Sapiential books in the Old Testament (it is not included in the Bibles of the Protestant communities).

These lines open today's first reading in the Liturgy of the Word.

When peaceful stillness compassed everything
and the night in its swift course was half spent,
Your all-powerful word, from heaven's royal throne bounded,
a fierce warrior,
into the doomed land,
bearing the sharp sword of your inexorable decree.
And as he alighted, he filled every place with death;
he still reached to heaven, while he stood upon the earth.

Wisdom 18.14-16

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dead Poets Month: John Updike


The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain

~John Updike, A Child's Calendar

Image Source.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dead Poets Month.

November is usually my Dead Poets month. Not because I liked the movie (I didn't).

This year, however, we have somehow arrived at November 9 without a single living poem from a dead man. To remedy that, and because all philosophers desperately need poetry in their lives, here is my darling Yeats.

To a Young Girl

My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

Through the Year with Padre Pio.

St. Padre Pio became one of my very dearest friends last year--he battled for me when I was too exhausted or depressed to even pray. If you buy me a coffee, I'll tell you the whole story.

So I jumped at the chance to review Through the Year with Padre Pio, a collection of his letters and sayings edited by Patricia Treece. This book is so sweet: for every day of the year, there is a brief excerpt from Padre, followed by a parallel Scripture passage. It's simple, gentle material for lectio divina and a great companion to the Divine Office.

The prevailing popular impression of the Padre is one of a cranky, crotchety old gheezer who yelled at women in the confessional. There are grounds for that impression (although, don't you think that even church ladies ought to be yelled at once in a while?). But the overwhelming written evidence is of a man filled with mirth, gentleness, wisdom, and peace. After spending several weeks with him, day by day, you will be chastised but happier.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company, and the reviewer received a free copy of the text in exchange for her opinion. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Through the Year with Padre Pio. They also have some beautiful Advent wreaths!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Miriam and a postcard from the volcano.

Yesterday, the Scientist Dad stayed home from the university so that I could go meet with a priest for spiritual direction and Confession. It was blessed.

This afternoon, as I sliced red peppers and whisked together the curry, 3-year-old Bella queried:

"Miwiam, why dost (she really says dost) Mummy have to go to Kerfeshun?"

The Mother Superior responded, "Well, Belly, sometimes Mommy is a Bad Catholic. So, she has to go and tell the priest, who is really Jesus just for a minute, that she was a Bad Catholic. Then she is a Good Catholic again, until she does something else bad. Then, if she wants to be a Good Catholics again, she has to go back and tell Father."

Yes. That just about sums it up. It's simple. Baptism: We are all good Catholics. We get lazy, we drift, we fall asleep on the watch, we sin. Bad Catholics. The fix is simple: if we want to be good again, we just tell father.

I loved the "if," which reminds me:
I'm finishing Lucy Beckett's A Postcard from the Volcano, a fabulous crash course in 20th-century history, the Western canon, and... well, all of Western philosophy. (I have raved about her In the Light of Christ, a more formal introduction to the canon.) Not to give it away, but one of the main characters, originally a convert to Catholicism, ends up spending three years without the sacraments. He attends Mass, sitting in the back row, but never reconciles with the Church. In effect, a Bad Catholic.

Max's dearest friend, Adam, questions him: Why has he stayed away so long? His affair had ended, his 18 months of the lusts of the world had ended, tragically in an abortion. Why had he not confessed, been absolved, and returned home? Max's answer is poignant.

During his time of "real life," in the world of sex, drugs, and jazz (no rock 'n' roll in pre-War Germany), he had found himself feeling alive, feeling unhappy, but electric. His lover would tell him, "You're not really a Prussian bureaucrat who only likes Brahms. You just look like one, talk like one, work like one. Take it all off with your clothes." And he did. He even felt relief when she had the abortion--although he also immediately left her--just because he wouldn't be tied down to her forever.

He tells Adam he is uncertain now--after it all--of who he is, what he believes, even of God's interest in him. Confession seems too certain, Mass only a fragment of his self. How can he confess a sin he enjoyed, a sin that he felt relief at?

Adam listens--and this is good--but then brings Max back to the simplicity: "Now listen to me. Eros is the only sickness for which we volunteer. You are anwerable for what happened between you and Eva, in a way that she's not, or not yet--no one knows... Your reaction to the abortion shows that you know [there was hardly any connexion between you]. It also shows that you understand the self-indulgence, the distance rom God, of the whole thing. You understood this all along. The fact that Eva didn't understand helped you to hide from the fact that you did."

Adam continues, "What I would like you to do is this. Tomorrow is Sunday. The village Mass is at nine. Come with me half an hour early and make your confession to Father Stanislaw. He's a good man--not that it matters what he's like. Tell him the simple facts. Be given absolution. be given Communion. Pray for your child. Pray for Eva. And for me."

And that is what they do. Then Max takes the train back to Breslau and realizes that he can once again play Bach. "Adam had restored him to a place where the truth was steady."

That's what Confession does. The sloth of sin and the the grime of accumulated falls make the world spin. Reality is unsteady. Was it really so bad? Did I even mess up? Does God really care?

The only clarification is in absolution. When you want to be a Good Catholic again, after you fight through all that grime and grasp the rock, the light breaks through.

I can play Bach again.

Miriam has the instinct, if her vocabulary is a little reminiscent of the 1950's CCD teacher. Mommy was, for a little while, a Good Catholic again. And I found that the truth was steady.

Come to think of it, I think Miriam's ready for her own First Confession. Next month.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Way and the Saints.

One of the most beautiful feasts of the year: The Solemnity of All Saints.

Reading and meditating on the lives of the saints is an act of true devotion to Christ. There is no better way, for such social creatures as human beings, to know and love God's ways, which are truly "not our ways." In them, God's light shone so clearly. We can only love God more for having known His children. And we, too, can only become His children in the company of our elder brothers and sisters.

"To become saints means to fulfill completely what we already are, raised to the dignity of God's adopted children in Christ Jesus... The saints bring to light in creative fashion quite new human potentialities... The saints are themselves the living spaces into which one can turn ... There is no isolation in heaven. It is ... the fulfillment of all human togetherness." ~Benedict XVI, via Magnificat

Sunday, October 30, 2011

"I believe..."

This looks like it could be grand. I have the highest respect for any one of these Christians, and fond memories of the glory days of First Things. Give it a try!

It's for sale here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

That bare minimum mode.

Jen over at Conversion Diary is asking about those seasons of life called "Bare Minimum Mode." And, oh, do I love to dish on the intimate details of those darkest days.

For our family, Bare Minimum Mode can be very, very long (I'm thinking the entire first year of Ana Therese's life), more to middling (those first three months of pregnancy), or a few days (flu season!). The longer stretches share several characteristics:

1. We ask for help. We have never, ever had the funds to hire a nanny or even a mother's helper. We beg. I have begged my parents to adopt my small children for three months and take me in as a patient. I have begged my deacon to find older couples to come cook, clean, and entertain kids. I have begged college students to donate hours of their time to change diapers or just take the kids away and return only for bedtime.

2. People come out of everywhere to help. Seriously, we have made the most wonderful friends during our Bare Minimum Time. Men from the Knights of Columbus have cooked amazing quantities of food. Their wives have played with babies. Students have taught my children how to read and paint and knit. Without exception, every person among them has thanked us profusely for asking for help. And we, of course, just gape and thank the good Lord for the communion of saints, for bringing us to our knees, and providing such company in the vale of tears.

3. Nap time becomes sacred. This echoes Jen, but ain't it the truth? Nothing touches the 1-4pm. No one. Nothing.

4. Post-dinner, too, is sacred. No one comes near the Philosopher Home after 8pm. This is time for nursing the baby down, catching a nap while Scientist Dad holds the baby, doing physical therapy, a just winding down and encouraging each other.

5. Laundry is not folded. Now we get to the knitty-gritty: I put two laundry baskets on th living room floor. One is for clean Grown-Up Clothing. The other is for clean Childrens Clothing. I don't care if the 6-year-old puts on the 3-year-old's underwear every day for a month. It's clean, the kids are warm, and I didn't spend my sleeping hours folding laundry.

6. The kids' routine is simplified, but not abandoned. They eat sitting together three times per day. They have snack. They may watch more movies, but also have play time (usually in the happy, morning hours). They have nap (or quiet-time). When their lives are sane, it's easier for the parents to stay sane.

7. Confession and Mass. Both mom and dad must cling to the sacraments. This is the hour. Whatever else goes away--homeschool, ballet class, recreational reading, exercise--these two sacraments must never go away. Monthly Confession and weekly Sunday Mass. It's hard, but these indeed are the Bare Minimum.

It sounds cliche, but it's so true: These times are passing. They come and they go. We always emerge from them blinking a little in the glare of day. Did that really happen? During the dark times, life becomes so physical but also so pure. Our focus is narrowed, but single-minded. We escape the distractions and flurry of ordinary life, and even in the suffering we find a certain peace.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A little plug: UPDATED.

UPDATE: Here is the link to "Parenting Advice" (previously run here).

I haven't had much time to explore CatholicLane yet, but it looks like a great home-on-the-web for Catholics. My favorite bit so far is that they have two liturgical calendars: "In the Ordinary Form" and "In the Extraordinary Form." That's the spirit! No, literally. That's the spirit.

And I have a column going up there tomorrow. Keep your eyes peeled!

That pesky sixth commandment.

Miriam and I were reviewing the Ten Commandments this past week. She's regulation-oriented and loves a good "To Do" (or "Not To Do") list. I didn't censor any words, had a headache, and was relieved when we got through "Thou shalt not commit adultery" without comment.

We finished the list, and she turned to me and asked, "Mom, what's your favorite commandment?"

"Oh, gosh," I mumbled. "Uh, I guess the first. It sort of sets the whole stage for the rest."

"Mmmm," she nodded wisely, glancing up and down the list. "Well, that's okay. My favorite is, of course, number six."

Oh, she did not just say that, I choked, "Huh. Well, Miriam, why is that?"

"Well, I just need you to tell me what adultery is. Then I will explain."

Of course. "Okay, well. You know how Daddy and Mommy are married?"


"And what if I decided I was tired of being married and left Daddy to marry some other guy? That would be adultery. If you pretend someone is your husband who is not really your husband."

Her eyes grew very wide, "Oh, that would be a bad decision. That would make lots of people very sad. And if Daddy pretended there were more mommies, that would be bad, too."

"Yes," I concluded.

"Well," she sighed, "That's why it's my favorite commandment. Because I love just one mommy."

At this point Belly chirped in, "Well, I would like to have morwe mommys."

And that, as they, say, is that.

Friday, October 21, 2011


... it's Friday again?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Parenting advice from the brink.

The Gray Lady ran an opinion column this weekend by Emily Rapp, mother to 18-month-old Ronan. Ronan has Tay-Sachs disease and, by all medical estimates, will die in a particularly gruesome manner before he is three.

The subject is chilling, but I was particularly struck by her critical analysis--wisdom gained in suffering--of our parenting culture. Today's parenting advice, she writes, is entirely future-oriented:

"All parents want their children to prosper, to matter. We enroll our children in music class or take them to Mommy and Me swim class because we hope they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart. Traditional parenting naturally presumes a future where the child outlives the parent and ideally becomes successful, perhaps even achieves something spectacular. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is only the latest handbook for parents hoping to guide their children along this path. It’s animated by the idea that good, careful investments in your children will pay off in the form of happy endings, rich futures."

Then she throws the punch.

"But I have abandoned the future..."

Emily, I know you say that no one ever asks advice from the parents of a terminally ill infant. But I have learned so much from you, and from reading and knowing the mothers of children who have died. Your particular wisdom is this:

"But the day-to-day is often peaceful, even blissful. This was my day with my son: cuddling, feedings, naps. He can watch television if he wants to; he can have pudding and cheesecake for every meal. We are a very permissive household. We do our best for our kid, feed him fresh food, brush his teeth, make sure he’s clean and warm and well rested and ... healthy? Well, no. The only task here is to love, and we tell him we love him, not caring that he doesn’t understand the words. We encourage him to do what he can, though unlike us he is without ego or ambition."

While parents of dying children didn't ask to be signposts, they have in fact become reminders of a truth all parents forget at their own peril: Our children are not ours first. Their lives are not directed to an imagined future, a blank slate on which we get to draw what we would see. Children themselves are not future-oriented. They live now and today.

Miriam loves ballet class today, in this moment. She dreams of getting bigger and making stronger leaps and more powerful turns, but those dreams do not yet diminish the drills and little jumps she can make right now. Belly loves to work out puzzles and build towers, regardless of the future I imagine for her of mathematical prowess or craftsmanship.

For these little people, their lives are already a whole. If Miriam were to die tomorrow (and who knows what the hour is for any one of us?), Todd and I would be devastated and the world would wonder, "What could have been?"

But she would not.

The one who dies has made a complete life. The end and the beginning are known to her and to God.

So, before we parents of the healthy, strong children leave Emily Rapp and Ronan to the mercy of God, perhaps we can admire her wisdom and learn from her how to prepare our children for the only future we know: that moment when the veil between this world and the next lifts. Are they ready to step peacefully from God's hidden presence into his unhidden presence? Have we reassured them that death is not the end or the destruction of dreams? Is our confidence in the victory of life over death the guiding principle of our parenting style and our parenting advice (which we so freely dish when it comes to sleep schedules, slings, and breastfeeding)?

If first things are first, then in our homes, too, "the day-to-day is peaceful, even bliss." And the end will be awful, but it will not be the end.