Monday, December 24, 2012

The Vigil of Christ's Nativity

Glory to Your coming that restored humankind to life.
Glory to that One Who came to us by His First-born.
Glory to that Silent One Who spoke by means of His Voice.
Glory to that Sublime One Who was seen by means of His Voice.
Glory to that Sublime One Who was seen by means of His Dawn.
Glory to the Spiritual One Who was well-pleased
that His Child should become a body so that through Him His power might be felt
and the bodies of His kindred might live again.
Glory to that Hidden One Whose Child was revealed.
Glory to that Living One Whose Son became a mortal.
Glory to that Great One Whose Son descended and became small.
Glory to that Great One Who fashioned Him,
the Image of His greatness and Form for His hiddenness.
With the eye and the mind–with both of them we saw Him.
Glory to that Hidden One Who even to the mind
is utterly imperceptible to those who investigate Him.
But by His grace through His humanity
a nature never before fathomed is now perceived.

St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th C), "Hymns On the Nativity" 

Image source.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preparing for Christ with Newman.

Sorting through the Advent reading I meant to do, I found this sermon of Newman's and actually read it. Holy smokes (no pun intended)! Not for the faint of heart, it is the perfect piece for Advent during this Year of Faith. I always feel so disconnected by the time that little baby is in the manger--the pardonable but still lamentable signs of original sin--and wonder, "Why is it so rare to feel awe, wonder, total submissiveness when I believe with all I am that one night in 1st-century Palestine, the Creator of the Stars was born in blood and water?" 

Really. That's pretty awesome.  Newman's commentary is fabulous, so here are some of the highlights. Bear in mind, of course, that fear here is not terror. Newman was no Jansenist. Fear, rather, is that perfect piety (holy, servile fear) that inspires submission to the only One who holds all good in himself.

A masterful attempt to articulate how feeling ought to follow faith. Read the whole thing here.

"I say this, then, which I think no one can reasonably dispute. They are the class of feelings we should {22} have,—yes, have in an intense degree—if we literally had the sight of Almighty God; therefore they are the class of feelings which we shall have, if we realize His presence. In proportion as we believe that He is present, we shall have them; and not to have them, is not to realize, not to believe that He is present...

"Who then is there to deny, that if we saw God, we should fear? Take the most cold and secular of all those who explain away the Gospel; or take the most heated and fanatic of those who consider it peculiarly their own; take those who think that Christ has brought us nothing great, or those who think He has brought it all to themselves,—I say, would either party keep from fearing greatly if they saw God? Surely it is quite a truism to say that any creature would fear. But why would he fear? Would it be merely because he saw God, or because he knew that God was present? If he shut his eyes, he would still fear, for his eyes had conveyed to him this solemn truth; to have seen would be enough. But if so, does it not follow at once, that, if men do not fear, it is because they do not act as they would act if they saw Him, that is,—they do not feel that He is present? ...

This will be seen more clearly, by considering how differently we feel towards and speak of our friends as present or absent. Their presence is a check upon us; it acts as an external law, compelling us to do or not do what we should not do or do otherwise, or should do but for it. This is just what most men lack in their religion at present,—such an external restraint arising from the consciousness of God's presence... When a person is absent, we are tempted perhaps confidently to say what his opinion is on certain points;—but should he be present, we qualify our words; we hardly like to speak at all, from the vivid consciousness that we may be wrong, and that he is present to tell us so. We are very cautious of pronouncing what his feelings are on the matter in hand, or how he is disposed towards ourselves; and in all things we observe a deference and delicacy in our conduct towards him. Now, if we feel this towards our fellows, what shall we feel in the presence of an Angel? and if so, what in the presence of the All-knowing, All-searching Judge of men? What is respect and consideration in the case of our fellows, becomes godly fear as regards Almighty God; and they who do not fear Him, in one word, do not believe that He sees and hears them. If they did, they would cease to boast so confidently of His favourable thoughts of them, to foretell His dealings, to pronounce upon His revelations, to make free with His Name, and to address Him familiarly."

And of course, because this was a homily, he offers some practical and doable ideas:

"Is it wonderful that we have no fear in our words and mutual intercourse, when we exercise no acts of faith? What, you will ask, are acts of faith? Such as these,—to come often to prayer, is an act of faith; to kneel down instead of sitting, is an act of faith; to strive to attend to your prayers, is an act of faith; to behave in God's House otherwise than you would in a common room, is an act of faith; to come to it on weekdays as well as Sundays, is an act of faith; to come often to the most Holy Sacrament, is an act of faith; and to be still and reverent during that sacred service, is an act of faith. These are all acts of faith, because they all are acts such as we should perform, if we saw and heard Him who is present, though with our bodily eyes we see and hear Him not. But, "blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed;" for, be sure, if we thus act, we shall, through God's grace, be gradually endued with the spirit of His holy fear. We shall in time, in our mode of talking and acting, in our religious services and our daily conduct, manifest, not with constraint and effort, but spontaneously and naturally, that we fear Him while we love him." 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

It's quiet around here...

Very quiet. 

Then I read this poem by George Herbert. Since I'm off Facebook for Advent (Oh! Blessed silence!), here is my sharing place. It's not Christmas yet, and the poem is "Christmas." But in defense of my liturgical weakness, the poem is about what we should be doing during Advent.

So, go do it.

All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger:
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger;
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack, or grave.
—George Herbert, "Christmas," 1639

Read more:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Strangers in a strange land.

This election cycle, I tried to stay away from online debates. I was happy to post thoughtful articles (mostly reflecting on "all nations are as rust on the scales") or "like" other people's posts, but in the blogosphere silence was my rule. The first trimester of pregnancy also kept me well away from... everyone. This made it easy to avoid heated arguments or even heated commiseration with like-minded friends. Solitude and silence is, after all, not a bad way to pray for the nation. 

I got to be Mary instead of Martha for a few weeks.

Now, however, the election is over and I'm back home with the kids, the neighbors, and friends. Those of us who, in good conscience, cannot pay for abortions, birth control, or euthanasia feel acutely that our government does not represent or even protect our most cherished liberties. 

Yes, that's Pompeii. No, I'm not comparing President Obama to Vesuvius. Keep reading.

For (some) Catholic Americans--especially those of us who grew up in the 80's and 90's bubble of prosperity and freedom, this comes as a shock. We thought of America as "safe" and as "home." Our fellow Catholics long ago didn't have that shock: Charles Lwanga hardly expected his pagan king to respect the Faith. Elizabeth Ann Seton knew full well that the American government did not protect her new Church from prejudice. Edmund Campion knew what he was getting into.

But I never thought, growing up, that America was anything but the most advanced human government on earth. "We live in a free country," was the motto of 3rd grade history class.

Maybe we do live in the best possible human government--this may be the best the poor banished children can come up with. Compared to Christians in China, Nigeria, India, and the Sudan, we are free to practice certain aspects of of our faith, if not all. America is still exceptional in that regard. The late great Richard John Neuhaus warned, however:

"The United States in its founding, as is evident in the Religion Clause of the First Amendment, is the great exception to this general pattern [of religious intolerance]. But “American exceptionalism,” also on this score, needs constantly to be reexamined and, when necessary, defended. Without that, the state drives out prophetic religion and establishes a monopoly on public space and public meanings. That is the circumstance referred to as “the naked public square.” Which, as we must never tire of recalling, does not remain naked but is taken over by the pseudo-religion established by state power."

We watched this "naked public square" exercise its might yesterday. Religious freedom is clearly not a fundamental concern for the majority of Americans. Even "religious" Americans believe that faith is a private opinion, compartmentalized and removed from public life. The pseudo-religion of the state takes many forms and is still evolving, but it has driven out the prophetic religions. 

This is not an accusation: it is simply an observation. There is the City of God, and here is the City of Man. Here is Babylon. 

Neuhaus reminds us later in the chapter that, as St. Augustine wrote, no Catholics --no Christians-- can be citizens of this world. Because of a fundamental choice we made, because of the undeserved gift of an eternal King, Babylon has no power over us.

Thomas More lived in Anglican Babylon. Its greatest lion could not tame him.

Lwanga lived in Ugandan Babylon. Its fearsome fires burned him to dust but they could not conquer his soul.

And we live in American Babylon. Nothing can harm us if our hearts belong to God alone.

Cardinal Dolan's letter of congratulations to President Obama echoes More's own "the kings' good servant, but God's first." It's worth a read and I will read it to my children this evening and in the years to come as they learn to navigate their American Babylon--or whatever Babylon they encounter. 

My eldest Philosophical Child was disturbed to learn of the election results this morning. She knows that there is a "bad law" that the bishops and Catholic schools, hospitals, and institutions are trying to resist. She knows what abortion is and which candidates support it. 

I reminded her of the story of Thomas More and asked her if she could remember it. She reflected for a moment and then said, "Well, Thomas More lived with a Bad Law. And now he is in heaven!" 

The perspective of St. Paul! We must encourage each other to be more More and Lwanga than flag or fireworks. Babylon becomes an elevator to heaven when we place our loyalties first in eternity. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

Happy Feast of St. Teresa of Avila!

She is truly one of my all-time favorites-- a woman of drive and passion, with a real love for the world, but who found herself, mid-life, always wanting. God alone supplied that want, she received him, and the Church will never be the same because of what he did in her.

A few years ago (okay, 5 years ago), I wrote a series of synopses of her Interior Mansions. Today's a good day to link to them, re-read some of her sayings, and rest in the certainty that our God is the center, beginning, and end of all.

And this bit from her autobiography is hilarious. I can hear the tongue-in-cheek restraint of the last line. It sounds exactly like something my choleric child would do...

"One of my brothers was nearly of my own age; and he it was whom I most loved, though I was very fond of them all, and they of me. He and I used to read Lives of Saints together. When I read of martyrdom undergone by the Saints for the love of God, it struck me that the vision of God was very cheaply purchased; and I had a great desire to die a martyr's death, — not out of any love of Him of which I was conscious, but that I might most quickly attain to the fruition of those great joys of which I read that they were reserved in Heaven; and I used to discuss with my brother how we could become martyrs. We settled to go together to the country of the Moors, begging our way for the love of God, that we might be there beheaded; and our Lord, I believe, had given us courage enough, even at so tender an age, if we could have found the means to proceed; but our greatest difficulty seemed to be our father and mother." ~Life, Ch. I

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The year of faith.

From our Papa:

 "The Year of Faith which we launch today is linked harmoniously with the Church’s whole path over the last fifty years: from the Council, through the Magisterium of the Servant of God Paul VI, who proclaimed a Year of Faith in 1967, up to the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, with which Blessed John Paul II re-proposed to all humanity Jesus Christ as the one Saviour, yesterday, today and forever. Between these two Popes, Paul VI and John Paul II, there was a deep and profound convergence, precisely upon Christ as the centre of the cosmos and of history, and upon the apostolic eagerness to announce him to the world. Jesus is the centre of the Christian faith. The Christian believes in God whose face was revealed by Jesus Christ. He is the fulfilment of the Scriptures and their definitive interpreter. Jesus Christ is not only the object of the faith but, as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, he is "the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith" (12:2)."


Thursday, September 27, 2012

No scheme of man.

As the pregnancy hits the peak hormonal shift (I'm 8 weeks!), so comes the very worst of the first trimester sickies. After struggling with postpartum depression, I know I'm especially vulnerable to the mental anguish that physical suffering can bring. It's no different this time.

The past two days have been especially bad, and I'm often tempted to despair that I could ever suffer "well" (whatever that means--sounds too much like the fictional "good divorce"). After all, if I was truly good, wouldn't I suffer cheerfully, without feeling discouraged and depressed? But this is a lie. Didn't Christ himself beg for deliverance? I am certainly not greater than he!

St. Josemaria Escriva had some words of comfort yesterday: in The Forge, he says repeatedly that in suffering we will always feel that natural, fleshy discouragement (and, in the case of depression, it's literally fleshy!). The way to holiness is not an escape from these feelings. It is, he says, perseverance through suffering.

But how to "persevere"? What does that mean? It hardly seems like persevering could mean "just lie there in bed for 8 more weeks, and your body will work itself out of it." It couldn't mean "produce a baby in 7 months." I want a way to live through this, not just grit my teeth and bear it until it's over.

There is more to perseverance, because perseverance means that after all this I will be more than who I was before. I will be more His, more Him, and much less me. How can the sick persevere in decreasing that He may increase? It is quite simple: first, recollect my final end always, and second, pray for fidelity to way to attain that end.

Our final end is that eternal "weight of glory," that joy beyond all comparison. But I'm terribly forgetful. Every hour or so, I lose sight of heaven and just want to go for a run, a bike ride, all sorts of things I can't do right now... I need constant (okay, perpetual) reminders of heaven--an icon, a Bible verse from a friend, a crucifix, beauty. When I keep my eyes on the prize--that blessed Day, when every tear will be wiped away and all will be joy in Him--then even if my body rebels against its cross, my heart is free and at peace.

The second step--fidelity to the way-- is harder, in a way, but also very simple. We know the way and the truth in Christ, proposed faithfully by the Church: to love the Lord our God will all our hearts, minds, strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we find that very difficult (I do), there is help:

"We are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal." (2Cor. 4.16-18)

The very sufferings that throw us into such confusion and despondency are "producing for us an eternal weight of glory"! All the distractions and lies that make that fidelity so difficult are evaporating in our suffering. The transitory and fleeting empires of social media, celebrity culture, the culture of death, and our own selfish grasping--they cannot even touch the promise that "our inner self is being renewed day by day." The more we die to them, the freer we are to love without condition.

Blessed are the poor, the meek, the suffering. They shall inherit. They shall see. They shall be satisfied.

That's a promise I'm willing to wait on.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


St. Hildegard of Bingen, soon to be Doctor of the Church, wrote beautiful chants to ease the pain of her sisters' patients. The songs still heal, but this Dominican version of the Salve Regina will always be my favorite:

 Salve, Regina, Mater misericordi√¶, vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve. ad te clamamus exsules filii Hev√¶, ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle. Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte; et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Comparing crosses.

I am guilty of comparing my crosses in the worst way. During my second pregnancy, and first bout with hyperemesis gravidarum (HEG), I resented friends who "threw up once or twice, I think." Before conceiving the third child, I begged God, "I'll suffer HEG again... anything, if I can only have more kids!" And then, as I lay in the hospital with four needles in my arm, I of course resented all those women who were barren.

My cross is rarely what I want.

Another way I compare crosses is the "humbler than thou" technique. How dare I complain when women throughout history have suffered HEG in wartime, in rice paddies, and even died from lack of medical care? Clearly, they suffered more. I should shut up and get on with the IV's.

It is all a ridiculous attempt to make myself God and judge. In my own heart, I would say it's as deadly as the drive to abort a child, use IVF, or any of the terrible sins against a person. This is a dreadful thing to say, but here is why. The bargaining with God is a hidden sin of the apparently sinless--the seeming saints--who lie suffering and feel they are automatically doing something beautiful for God.

The drive to compare our sufferings to others begins like a creeping darkness. We hardly notice our hearts have fallen into the snare.

When friends see me lying in bed or listen to the vomiting in the next room, I can begin to hear it in them, too.

"You poor thing. I shouldn't complain to you about x, y, z. You're so sick. Don't listen to me."

Don't be silly. I look pretty bad, but who can possibly know what it really costs or does not cost me? There is enough each day for me to give you my ear. How can I agree with you if I don't know what it is you want to say? And so, please tell me what you are going through. I want to know and hear and offer something for you if I can. Do not assume my burden is heavy (it is not).

The next most frequent sorrow: "I hope you are remembering how blessed you are to be able to have children." This is usually from the dearest and holiest souls--who know my desire to serve God and my total faith in the eternal gift of a human person. It is a good reminder. Until the punchline hits, "I can't. I would suffer everything you suffer for even one child."

That is good. What a beautiful desire. And what a difficult, terrible burden.

But it sounds so close to that bargaining we do with God, "Lord! If you will only give me A, I will do x, y, and z for you!"

Or, "Lord, take this cup away from me and I will _________________."

This is terribly human. Terribly noble in a sad and hopeless way. We were made for more than this.

We are not created to compare crosses, hold them up for measure, take our pick, and live happily ever after. There is no eternal bargain, hidden from view, that once discovered will mean we can demand of God every crown we desire.

There is nothing I can offer God that would "convince" Him to change the course laid out for me, because the course was set from eternity so that my nothingness would be filled completely with His Being. The only response to His total gift of self on that one and ultimate Cross? To trust. To surrender. To receive.

There is so much joy in every cross--in sickness, in health, in children, in barrenness, in early death, in long life. How could I anticipate or plan for my happiness? I am too small, too finite. There is only submission to love and trust in that love.

This obedience to God's will for my irreplicable and irreplaceable life is that something beautiful for God. I will listen and observe the struggles and crosses of all the saints and then say, "How wonderful!" And if my own life seems a little tepid when I turn back to my cross, I know that is my own telescope vision.

The reality is that there is no other cross I can bear today. There is no other suffering and no other reward for me than a brief, brief trial and an eternal joy won for me by the Cross that contains and is perfected in all our trillions of crosses.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

There's a first time for everything!

Well, the blog's been up for almost 5 years now, and I've never asked for anything. Except maybe a little sleep... And y'all have given so much, with comments and messages of support and questions and challenges. Thank you.

Today, however, I'm adding a little button to the sidebar: a PayPal link for donations to Regina Caeli Academy. Through this button, 100% of your gift goes toward the Philosopher Family's fundraising commitment to this fabulous program. 

Regina Caeli Academy is a private, independent academy and offers pre-school through 12th grade classes that meet twice a week. This unique, hybrid model builds up the family as a domestic church, because children have the opportunity to spend the majority of their time at home with their siblings and parents. 

We are committed to faithful adherence to the Holy Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and particular obedience to the Holy Father. Regina Caeli Academy is a response to the need for affordable, authentic, classical education taught in light of the Catholic tradition. And let me tell you... this is solid education. A good example: do you remember hearing stories of the inner city parochial schools run by sisters-- the children copied everything. They copied, memorized, and spoke aloud to the teachers, because they were too poor for laptops (didn't exist), paper (only for public schools), and ink (in short supply). That methodology, which produced the best-educated population in the country, is the classical methodology. 

Another example. Do you remember when it was fun to memorize those childhood chants for jump-rope or hand-clapping? The classical method capitalizes on those years when memory-work is fun by emphasizing memorization of everything--the Catechism, Scripture, states and capitals, mathematical operations, names of bugs, etc... And then, when kids are really ready to argue (say, around 6th grade), they get to use those facts to debate and learn to give reasons for what they believe. This is precisely the method Regina Caeli Academy uses in the classroom and offers training for parents to use in the home. You can see our booklists here

RCA is a very special place-- now actually, four places in Texas, Georgia, and Connecticut! --and your help toward our opening costs up here in the north country is much appreciated. 

If you choose to donate, please leave me a note so we can send you a personal "Thank You!" 

RCA is a 501(c)3, but if you donate here, I can't get you the letter because, sadly, I am not myself a 501(c)3. 

The Big News!

Too quiet. But it might stay that way a little longer... because, well. Here's where I'm at:

To be precise, Baby4 is at about the left-most box right now. And until we're well past the right-most box, this is going to be one sick momma. 

We've been this way before, and the results have always been worth every moment. I'm watching the Scientist Dad rediscover his extreme domestic skills, the girls draw closer together as mom fades out of the picture, and it is good. The love of dear friends and the assurance that this time we'll have help at every turn has made the prospect of the next 10 weeks a burden both easy and light. In the Biblical sense, of course. 

WHEN night is almost done,
And sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the spaces,
It ’s time to smooth the hair
And get the dimples ready,        5
And wonder we could care
For that old faded midnight
That frightened but an hour.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How life has changed.

10 years ago (or even 5), I read a lot of philosophy. On cleaning day, my coffee table looked like this.

Now at the end of the day, it looks like this.
And I'm singin' my "Boo-yeah, Momma!" song! (Don't you have one, too?)

I can recite Go, Dog, Go without actually reading the words in front of me because at the same time I'm answering the question, 'Mommy, do you think Mother Teresa had any sadness?' while cleaning dog poop off of Teva sandals. And I also can find a tiny Lego block dropped in the bushes behind the house. During allergy season.

In other words, life is less studious but more philosophical.

Boo. Yeah.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

St. Augustine, Father and Doctor

“Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved you. You have called to me, and have called out, and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light and have put my blindness to flight! You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.” ~St. Augustine

Image source.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cash does nails.

Many thanks to Jennifer of Conversion Diary for her beautiful commentary on this Johnny Cash cover of the Nine-Inch Nails' "Hurt." Jennifer is truly a Philosopher Mom par excellence! It truly makes us more human, and I can't wait to thank Johnny personally someday... when all the empires of dirt are washed away.

The political season always recalls me to poems like The Destruction of Sennacherib and Shelley's brilliant Ozymandias. The feeling of great nations is a dramatic lesson for understanding the ultimate transience of all human empires.

But a song like this -- a much smaller, but more fundamental scale than Shelley or Keats -- is somehow more proportional to our human minds. It's hard to grasp the part I play on the scale of Egypt, Persia, Rome, or Great Britain. But I sure know exactly where my own little "empire of dirt" lies. Nations fall because they are dust--and so do we.

A human scale. A human story. A human song.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where you been, yo?

The dog days of August, and the Philosopher Mom is limping back into the blogosphere. A little more worn, a little more weary, but oh! so happy, too.

The Big Project brewing has come to fruition.

Opening day for Regina Caeli Academy, Connecticut, is Monday, August 13!

The demands this new part of our vocation has made have been so heavy--and one of the hardest sacrifices has been the loss of writing. "This, too, Lord?"

It has not been nearly as hard as the hours away from the children (I have a newfound respect for mothers who must work full-time). Those hours apart from them and from Todd have reinforced our commitment to homeschooling and being a one-career family. You simply cannot replace quantities of lost time with intensive "quality time." We have tried. It is true.

But... from now on, I get to bring the Philosophical Progeny to the academy. They came today to help clean and sort (the 2-year-old helped to dirty and destroy). It was wonderful to work alongside them, to see their excitement at "our new school," and to hear them say, "This is wonderful!" It is. And it can only be a gift and signal of the Father's love.

Below are the opening remarks I jotted down for yesterday's parent orientation. I was so flustered I couldn't bear the thought of having no printed words to go by! Perhaps someday I'll wing it. But, so you might rejoice in our gift, read on. And then... pray for us!

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

'O My God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage, and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me. And I shall meet with peace.'


That prayer is from the diaries of St. Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), whose feast we celebrate in the Roman Rite today. How beautiful that we gather together for the first time as a community on the feast of this beautiful convert, brilliant scholar, devoted teacher, who ultimately gave her life not only for the Catholic Faith but also for her Jewish people.

“It is good, Lord, that we are here.”

These words kept coming to me as we prepared to begin this new adventure in CT. “It is good, Lord, that we are here.”

I want first of all to acknowledge every parent and student gathered here in this room: You are pioneers. When you describe Regina Caeli Academy to your family and friends, they probably say, “Oh… kind of like a co-op?” or “Oh, so you’re a Catholic school” or, the worst, “Oh, so why did you decide to stop homeschooling?”

No, we are neither a school nor a co-op nor are we giving up the most precious gift, time together in the home.

We are parents who have taken full responsibility as the primary educators of our children. Most of us here have—perhaps for years, perhaps on and off—“gone it alone” or largely alone in the home.

And now, simply, we are no longer alone.  We are here together, committed to support one another in our vocation and to support our children as they discern their own vocations.

You have come here—many of you at great personal cost—for your family, your marriage, your children.  You have come here for a rigorous, classical education and the discussion-based courses. You have come here first and foremost for a community faithful in everything to the teachings of Christ and His Catholic Church. Your children will form friendships with their peers and with adults who are fully committed to the life of holiness, prayer, and study. They will work hard both here and in the home. They will play with greater freedom during those awesome vacations we have scheduled!

This is a great gift. “It is good, Lord, that we are here.”

But you will also be yourselves a gift to the other families. You have also come to give of yourselves in a new way. You, as spouses and mothers and fathers and students, each have some irreplaceable gift to give. No one here is dispensable or “just another body” or another tuition check (heaven forbid).

Your family’s presence here today makes this entire community possible. It is good that you are here.

We are a new campus with an unknown path before us. We have all received piles and piles of information, some of it confusing. You have all persevered, and now we get to see the piles sort themselves out, the pieces fall into place. You will see mistakes—including many of mine—but you will also see purpose, meaning, and ultimately the rewards.

I was often reminded this summer of the Psalm 126:

They go out, they go out full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing,
They come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their harvest.”

The harvest will be great. If you have asked God, our Father, for a fruitful year, a year of growth in holiness, love, and knowledge for your children, He will give it to them and he will give it to you.

Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your gift of self. Thank you for your patience with and forgiveness of me and all our leaders.

In the mercy of God, let us begin!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women and the Medieval Church.

I'm slowly savoring Stages on the Road, a collection of Sigrid Undset's essays on saints. I'm half-way through St. Angela Merici, an Italian woman of Medieval times who explodes every preconception about the downtrodden Catholic women of the "Middle Ages."

Undset opens the essay with a sharp, incise overview of the Medieval view of the fairer, weaker sex:

"[W]e can find expressions of every possible conception of the relations between man and woman -- except the view that after all there may be no great difference between men and women."

She goes on to make and defend the astonishing claim that, "[T]he fact is that, so long as Catholicism was the dominating element in the intellectual life of Europe, a woman who really had a contribution to make to the spiritual life of her time was given an opportunity to do so."

Hold the horse and milk the cow, what did she say?

That's right: "Even in such spheres of work as in general were looked upon as the property of men were not closed to those women who really had the power to accomplish something in them. People did not exactly expect to find such qualities in women every day, but if a woman possessed unusual gifts nobody thought her unwomanly on that account; she was merely considered to be an unusual woman."

She cites as examples the tremendous (and--in our post-Protestant school systems--forgotten) lives of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp of Lynn, Hildegard of Bingen, Paula of Rome and her daughter, Eustochium, Roswitha of Gandersheim, St. Gertrude, St. Mechtild of Magdeburg, and St. Mechtild of Hakeborn. To these more obscure names are added Bridget of Sweden (Undset's own native land), Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila. I could spend years and still not read everything these women wrote, travel to the cities they traveled, or even approach all the prelates and so-called "men of power" to whom they prophesied.

(Side note: What in heaven's name do we mean by "power in the Church"? Can anyone explain why power is even an issue? If power is an issue for me, then I'm obviously a very bad Christian... which I am, but you know.)

Undset notes, "What made it possible for all these women to develop and make free use of their peculiar and unusual gifts was the fact that they lived in a world in which women were encouraged to cultivate what talents they had. If they could read and write, and that excellently, this implies of course that women who had learnt to read and write were no rarities--that they were surrounded by women and men who shared the same intellectual life in some degree."

Then the kicker:

"The necessary condition for the lively correspondence between the nuns and their spiritual leaders was the recognition of a sphere in which men and women could meet as human beings of equal value; the belief that in the sight of God a masculine soul and a feminine soul were equally precious, alike of such eternal value as to deserve His imparting Himself to them and forming them--but a masculine soul was a masculine soul and a feminine soul was a feminine soul. The differences and variations were a part of the diversity with which the Creator had adorned His creation."

Hot dang. A "recognition of a sphere" in which men and women can be equally precious in the very fact of their existence sounds much better than the current NPR trope: "It's vital that we have the same number of women in science as men in science! Inequality in the math department is unacceptable! Until there's a woman in the White House, this country cannot be safe for women!" Really.

Undset's essay is a must read--and it's worth buying the book to let publishers know that we want more of her caliber. She has a way of cutting to the essentials of the faith that is so utterly refreshing that, for the first time in weeks, I have enough energy to write those letters to the editor I ought to be writing.

Me and St. Mechtild.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Butterflies wings in Carmel

In honor of the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Thanks to the Anchoress!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

NFP or Condoms: What's the difference?

I wrote my senior thesis for the Catholic University honors program nearly 10 years ago. In my youthful zeal and eager for my own upcoming marriage, I tackled the prompt of "Nature and Technology" with a 35 page analysis of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI's vision of human nature, nature and morality, and contraception as "technology." 

It probably needed either 700 pages, von Balthasar style, or two paragraphs, Catechism style. But it sure was fun.

At the reception following our senior defense, however, a young freshman (upstart!) cornered me. "That was really interesting, but I still just don't see the difference between using NFP to prevent pregnancy and using condoms." 

He was right: At that point I had no good reason. 

He was also not alone: How many of us have heard that, in order to be holy and love fully, we must completely submit our fertility to God and that NFP is merely another way of contracepting Him out of our beds? Isn't timing our acts of intercourse simply setting up another barrier between each other? 

However we live, we throw up barriers. Every human person holds fast to some aspect of his life and refuses to let God reign there. We all lock Him out of some room or corridor in our hearts. He offers us the abyss of love, and we want the shallows. Before we discuss whether or not NFP is inherently a barrier to God, we have to recognize that every created thing can become a barrier. These are the shadowlands.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: ‎"There is all the difference in the world between using one's awareness of the periods of infertility and arrogating to oneself the right to impose radical restrictions on fertility by the use of artificial contraception." That is, he claims there is a radical difference between using NFP and using a condom. Acknowledging that NFP can become a sort of "condom" in our hearts, we can nevertheless say with confidence that it is not "Catholic birth control." 

Why? Hans again:

"For in using the infertile days they are not setting bounds to their love. Otherwise, one would have to say that intercourse in the full Christian sense is impossible after a woman's menopause. Married persons who think as Christians set no barriers between the two objects of marriage: procreation and the expression of mutual love. They let the two stand together, the physical side, with its own proper laws, and the personal side. One's awareness of the opportunities provided by nature does not mean one is imposing calculation on the inner spirit of love."

That is, sex with a condom disregards the natural cycles of a woman's fertility (and, I would add, the power of a man's perpetual fertility). The condom sets a barrier (literally and spiritually) on procreation and the physical laws of our animal nature: the couple grasps at mutual love, mutual pleasure without acknowledging that in fact there can be no mutual love when we seek to escape our mutual responsibility to our fertility. 

Using a woman's infertile days as a time to express that mutual love, however, does not inherently involve the rejection of nature, physicality, and the integrity of the person (although, again, as human beings we are prone to misuse even NFP!).

The Church has not said that NFP is just fine in any circumstance or for every couple. We have a list of broad guidelines to bring to prayer as a couple, prayer with the Church, and the counsel of those we trust: 

"If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile..." ~Humanae Vitae, no. 16

Von Balthasar's words only echo the words of Paul VI:

"[It is] lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period [and is] always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love." ~HV, no. 16 (emphasis added)

Particularly striking in Humanae Vitae is the pope's concern for the "reverence due to women" in particular and human love in general. 

"Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."

Finally, though, all the explanation and clarity in the world are useless if the Church cannot honor and uphold the living example of men and women willing both to control birth by abstinence only and welcome with generosity the possibility of children when their circumstances allow. That is our mission: to be the men and women described by the pope and dear Hans. 

Without our witness, the words remain dead and without power. With our witness, the power of Christ is made manifest.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gosh, wow.

When a publicly-professed atheist of highest intellectual calibre announces she's praying St. Patrick's Breastplate, along with the Liturgy of the Hours, the blogosphere's elite sit up a little straighter at their keyboards and take notice. Thus, Leah Libresco's post over at Patheos healed me of my slouch for the day. Read the whole thing. I particularly love her closing quotation:

It makes me so happy… A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.

Can anyone hear an echo of Edith Stein in there?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Good works, failure, and love.

A great undertaking (at least, one that appears great) is a frightening thing. 

For the more phlegmatic, the fear comes in the guise of work and conflicts. 

For the diffident, any demand that he really care about anything smacks of torture. 

For the controllers, the prospect of failure is terrifying. 

Controller. But that's a great bridge!

I fall into that controller group (strong northern European stock!). My natural vices tend to a real hatred of waste, laziness, and indifference. By nature, I also fear failure. 

And so, I am caught. I cannot help but undertake what seem to me Great Things. I often stall mid-way because I am afraid the efforts will come to Nothing. This is simply the sort of person I became through nature, nurture, and my own, regular rejection of God. Grandiosity, failure, shame. 

How does a controller--choleric, driven, and impatient--escape the brutal cycle? I'm facing this odd little project and all sorts of fears pile up. Have I disobeyed my archbishop? Have I tried too hard? Have I promised something unreal? Have I overreached my health? Is this to the detriment of my children?

Notice: at the heart of every fear is "I". I, I, I... as if everything depended on me. It does not. St. Ignatius wrote (and Mother Teresa was fond of recalling): "Work as if everything depended on you, and leave all the results to God."

Song of my heart. 

This is the salvation of the controller. If I must work (and I must, I am part German!) at some apostolate, then how has Christ redeemed my broken nature? 

In five words: You did it to me. 

The controllers and leaders can find freedom from all fear if they put all hope of success in this simple statement: You did it to me. 

It is a declaration and a promise. If I undertake this mission for Christ, to Christ, then whatever the outcome in human terms, all is fulfilled. He has fulfilled every action already. The goal of all our projects--great, small, successful, and futile--is to love God. And while our motives are always mixed and broken in life, He sees our hearts. He knows our love as intimately as our sins. We become "worthless servants," but servants set free by their worthlessness. Whatever we do is His, for Him to bless with success or to discard so that He might embrace us. 

My daughter brought me a painting yesterday. "Mummy, this is yours." I praised the effort and then I hugged her and told her I loved her. Now that painting is in the garbage outside, covered in milk and cracker crumbs. Failure? Only a cynic, closed to love, would think so. 

How beautifully the Father loves us, his poor little busy workers. I will bring Him a painting that He might discard it and hold me close.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Education Alternatives: Unschooling.

What with burying my life in alternatives to traditional education (hybrid academies! distance learning assistance programs! dig a hole in the dirt and sit in it! take a nap!), I've come across several families in which "alternative education" means "unschooling." It's always a little scary to address educational decisions--talk about tapping our deepest passions as parents--but it is also vital that parents working in alternative education face and discuss the implications behind our educational choices. What we do speaks to our children and they will ponder what we did for them (or to them!) all their lives.

Unschoolers tend to be as separate from home educators as they are from traditional educators. While "unschooling" suggests a negative--what it is not--there are actually a number of shared, positive principles in the unschooling community. Most parents believe that their children are natural learners, that a child driven by his own interests will learn more efficiently than a child driven by testing standards, and that a parent's role is to help the child set goals so he can reach goals he sets for himself. (Of course, within the unschooling community, these beliefs manifest in many different ways.)

Unschooling families choose to learn free from a set curriculum--unlike in many homeschool homes, there is no attempt to recreate the traditional school syllabus or scope and sequence.

The biggest question is, of course, Does it work? The maddening answer is, of course, yes and no.

First, the yes. Unschooling can work very well in particular situations. I've found that it can be fun and fruitful for a mother (or father) who enjoys hands-on work, long walks through muddy fields, and doesn't feel much need to "check" her kids' progress against the rest of the world. Unschooling is generally what does happen (by default) for small children in a large homeshcooling family. The 3-year-old doesn't need a curriculum, but does need lots of time to absorb herself in play, a little guidance in getting started (or finishing) on a project. Even a 5-year-old can flourish with a pile of books, a sketchbook, and lots of time.

Again by default, we naturally find ourselves in "unschooling" periods of life. Mom is pregnant and sick, or postpartum and tired, so the syllabus just doesn't happen in full. She can get everyone to the library (maybe) and order art supplies online, but that's about it. Great things can happen.

But then there's the no.

There does come a time when the parents must answer this question: What is the goal of education? Clearly, the goal of everything we do as parents must eventually redound to eternal salvation. There are many ways of bringing our children up in the Faith. But if education at eternal salvation, it does so in a more specific way. Education both helps the individual to flourish as an individual and as a social animal.

The basic philosophy of unschooling presupposes a sort of Rousseauian "voluntarism"--or, the assumption that all a child's activities should voluntary, as far as is possible. The problem is that, in the Catholic worldview, a child's capacity to choose the good is not yet fully formed. A child is not a "noble savage." He's just a savage.

Once the children reach a certain age, there are certain skills that become necessary for her to pursue her passions. There are virtues and strengths that she has not yet encountered and which she will need in order to--later in life--be both a strong individual and a "servant of all." Not all children will become the next Pascal, but all children need an ordered and sequential introduction to the beautiful numbers Pascal saw. Not all children will become teachers, but all children need to learn how to communicate effectively--not just in lengthy opinion pieces on a blog--but also in the specific situations in which their world and culture place them.

In a sense "unschooling" is a wonderful way to introduce children into the world of a more formal course of study. It's also a perfectly normal and acceptable break from the formal lesson plans over which most moms slave. For a few children, unschooling may indeed be the only way they will ever learn--think of Mozart. But parents must make the decision to abandon all structure in the full awareness of what unschooling implies about human nature, human society, and the reasons we exist.