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.