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St. Blaise

Today’s the feast of St. Blaise.

In the collection of previously (mostly) unpublished letters of Flannery O’Connor, we run across this:

The Churches ceremony of Baptism is so elaborate! I keep trying to think of some way in fiction that I could convey the richness against the threadbareness of the other but my thought is none to productive. The Church takes care of everything and I am always struck fresh with it on St. Blases Day when you have your throat blessed. The One True Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church taking time out to bless my throat! And these people around here have to scratch their religion out of the ground. (16)

The One True Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church taking time out to bless my throat!

So much of the verbiage we hear these days from Church people, ordained and lay, is really all implying that two thousand years of practice and tradition is not only inadequate to the 21st century, but actually an obstacle to authentic faith, giving you that feeling that you’d be better off scratching your religion out of the ground, daily.

Watch out for that.

He’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints under “Saints are people who help in ordinary ways.”

(Click on images for larger versions. I just grabbed these screenshots from whatever is available online. I don’t have any copies of the book at home at the moment!)

St. Blaise is the figure standing in the cave to the left.

It seems to me that this is such a vital point – saints are people who help in ordinary ways – to remember, especially in these days of empowerment and awesomeness.

Mass, instant communication, mobility and relative prosperity and political and social freedom have had an interesting impact on the way we think about and present spirituality. It’s something I think about a lot. It’s something I wonder about.

In short: even in spiritually-minded circles, the spiritually-fulfilled life is presented as one in which you are doing the amazing, world-changing things that God put you on earth to do and – although this part might go unsaid, it’s certainly implicit in the way this is hustled: in doing the amazing, world-changing things and not hiding your light under a bushel, you’ll find satisfaction, make a living and be known and affirmed. 

This isn’t the Gospel.

The Gospel, as concretely expressed in the crucifix hanging in front of you as you go to Mass this morning, and as you’ll hear articulated in the second reading from Paul is, Let God love others through you. They might kill you for it. It doesn’t matter. Keep loving.

Not “fulfillment.” Sacrifice.

As St. Francis of Assisi emphasizes over and over again – the Christian life is rooted in love that calls, bottom line, for sacrificing our own will to the will of God. That’s the poverty to which St. Francis aspired: a poverty of will. That’s why Philippians 2 was one of his primary Scriptural reference points.

We like to refashion the saints as model 21st century achievers and doers, but Christian virtue and the power of the Christian life isn’t about using the circumstances of your life to build yourself up or feel fulfilled. It’s about being in the midst of the circumstances of your life, surrounded by the people that God has put there, and trying to love them as Jesus loves us: sacrificially and obediently.

In ordinary ways, here in Ordinary Time.

Note: I had purchased that collection when it came out, and was decidedly put off by the editing and commentary. In that respect, I agree completely with Cassandra Nelson’s review here.

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Selective Hearing

There’s been a lot of conversation over the past week or so about Cardinal McElroy’s piece in America and, by extension, once more, the synod on synodality. I often wait to enter these discussions, first because, it’s tedious to just jump in if you don’t have anything new to say – and it usually takes me a little while to be able to articulate considered opinions, rather than my usual, long-brewing reactions. Secondly, I can always trust that others will come forward and express my opinion far more ably that I can. And guess what? If someone else does it…I don’t have to.

That’s happened with this matter, as per usual. I do have a few points to add that I haven’t seen anywhere else (not that I’ve looked everywhere), and I’ll do so by playing off what others have said.

So this is going to reflect McElroy’s essay as well as the latest news on the synod.

First, from Carl Olson: Dialoguing with the most incoherent document ever sent out from Rome

In his piece, Olson refers to Mark Regnerus’ study of the recently produced “Document for the Continental Stage.” I think this is a very important piece, one that summarizes much of what’s problematic about this situation, primarily from the standpoint of process

In short: this current primary reference is a mediated synthesis – not a summation of data. And therefore of no value in objectively determining any sensus fidelium.

The DCS is the Vatican’s interpretation of the data and a document that will be the focus of the seven “continental” meetings scheduled over the next few months. It serves as a precursor to the instrumentum laboris (or working paper) that the October 2023 synod’s participants will discuss and debate. In other words, it’s an important document. I also refer to it as the “Frascati report,” because it was the product of two weeks’ worth of work in late September by its authors at a retreat center in Frascati, Italy, not far from Rome. It was there that a few dozen select interpreters—mostly theologians—were asked to “authentically” synthesize the national reports made by 112 participating episcopal conferences from around the world. Hence, it’s a powerful group.

…Making sense of interview and focus-group data from a solitary parish is not a simple task. Add another 10,000 like it from across the globe and you have an impossible challenge. Then ask for “syntheses” instead of summaries? What results is a very expensive, time-consuming set of interpreters’ personal opinions, with little accountability (and no public access) to the original data…

….“We’re not inventing anything new,” asserts journalist, papal biographer, and Frascati participant Austin Ivereigh. And yet the Frascati group employed an “empty chair” at their meeting to symbolize “missing voices,” enabling them to inject further subjectivity. Did they? We have no idea. If the data were competently collected from a representative sample of the targeted population, then who the analysts are should not make much difference. But if the data come from a multi-stage, unrepresentative cluster sample of self-selected participants from an unclear target population, then who the data analysts are and what they intend means everything…

….But I would caution against confidence that what the synod fathers start with—the product of unwieldy data in the hands of partial mediators—is stable ground for discerning divine intention, let alone the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Let it instead be a guide for the mission field….

Now to McElroy.

From Fr. Robert Imbelli, at First Things: “A Bodily Faith.”

And so I suggest that prior to any talk about “enlarging the tent,” Catholics and particularly their bishops should strive to realize anew whose “tent” it is, and the doxological end it serves. If it is the tent where God’s glory dwells, then Paul’s imperative must apply: “You are not your own; you were purchased for a price. So, glorify God in your body!” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). As ever for Paul, the “body” is both the body of individual Christians and the ecclesial body of Christ into whom they are incorporated, initially by baptism and ever more fully in the Eucharist. But each must seriously examine him or herself, that each may discern the condition of the body: for those “who eat or drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment upon themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29). As is evident in Paul, this discernment concerns both sexual and social conduct. For both reveal the self we are becoming or failing to become.

This is not rigidity; it is simply the cost of discipleship.

At The Catholic Thing, from Stephen White of Catholic University: “A Road to Nowhere”

As I’ve written before, nowhere is the individualist strain in American Catholicism more manifest than in the ubiquitous belief that reception of the Holy Eucharist is a private matter rather than a fundamentally ecclesial reality. Here we see it from Cardinal McElroy in its starkest form.

And now, the barnburner, from Larry Chapp.

Chapp has published two pieces about this, one at the Pillar here and the other at Catholic World Report: “Cardinal McElroy’s Grand Deception.” From the second:

There is nothing different or new in McElroy’s language. What it all amounts to is code for the ascendancy in the Church of the moral ethic of secular modernity and its imposition on everyone in the Church via the pathway of deceptively pre-engineered, faux democratic processes designed to produce predetermined results. And since the conclusions reached are putatively democratic, in our modern ethos, that means the Holy Spirit is speaking here in the “voice of the people.” Which means if you object to it all, you are against God himself. And those who are anti-God cannot be in the Church.

This is precisely the move that is now being made by McElroy, Austen Ivereigh, and others, with regard to the synodal “listening sessions” which they characterize as expressions of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Why is this? Because the opinions trickling up from the listening groups are coming from “the people of God”. Never mind that only 1% of Catholics worldwide participated in the synodal sessions. Never mind that the vast, vast majority of Catholics worldwide probably do not even know there is a synodal process. Nor would they care if they did know. Never mind that the questions asked in the sessions were not developed according to the now well-established scientific protocols for developing polling questions. Never mind that the 1% who did participate were also not selected according to any scientific metric for gathering a truly representative sampling of opinions. Never mind that the collating and curating of the various results is being done by a small group of ecclesial elites who are well-versed in the language of Cardinal McElroy ecclesial double-speak. And never mind that there appears to be no forthcoming promise of total transparency in publishing in-full all of the various responses…

….(He quotes from Lumen Gentium)

This is hardly a description of a process of revolutionary synodal change wherein a few random voices of average lay people will be raised to the level of the very voice of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even if the voices so expressed do not represent or even evince the “universal agreement” Lumen Gentium says must be present for it to count as a movement of the Holy Spirit, they will stipulate to it all the same since it is the results that matter and not really the process, a process which is at the end of the day a mere ruse and a stalking horse for a much broader agenda. It is all very cynical, mendacious, and deeply manipulative.

In reality, what McElroy is advocating for is a synodality that is a kind of crypto Vatican III where the progressive wing of the Church will finally have their day absent the peskiness of a universal meeting of bishops in Council, and where the Holy Spirit will be, apparently, quite busy “doing a new thing”.

I wrote this in 2021 – an invitation to use discernment when people in leadership and ministry talk about the movement or presence of the Holy Spirit. In short – it can be weaponized, and often is.

Is there anything in life easier to weaponize, because we are yearning so deeply, than the promise of something new, coming to us via the warm assurances of those who identify the movement of the Spirit – good! – with whatever they want to happen next?

Resistance to “new” can, indeed, be resistance to the Spirit. It can also be fidelity to Christ. Whether that thing is “new” or not has absolutely nothing to do with the authenticity of the moment, idea or expression. “New” as I said before, is not a meaningful category for discernment in either a positive or negative sense, and neither is “old.”

Now. A few more thoughts:

  • I really can’t agree more strongly about the, well, uselessness of this synod, as it has evolved, for getting any understanding of what the Church- over a billion people – thinks or believes about anything. Really, those who present it as meaningful for that purpose should be mocked. That’s borderline insane. Ridiculous.

  • I wish there were a few bishops out there who would look at all of this and just #Resist. Any of us could probably come up with a list of at least 293 more pressing needs in this broken, hurting world than the “need” to spend a lot of money and, more importantly, untold amounts of human energy and time in this self-referential exercise. It’s shameful. The organizers obviously see this process a witness to the Gospel, but they might consider the possibility that it functions as a counter-witness, as a sign of indifference and cowardice.
  • I am very interested in watching the weaponizing of the action of the Holy Spirit, the implication, as Chapp points out, that questioning the process is somehow an act of faithlessness and a lack of trust in God. It’s something I take note of and contemplate when I study history. I say: Always be suspicious when people in power in the Church pull out this rhetoric, and I don’t care from what side.

But specific to this issue, considering it is, using shorthand, “progressives” who use this tactic, I will point out some irony, because irony is one of my favorite things. I would bet money that the same people who attempt to label questioning of the context and modalities of this synod process as a lack of faith have, in their day, done plenty of contextual analysis of everything from the Scriptures (Well, what Paul was really talking about here was…) to practically every single Church council, act of authority and yes….synod in the past. The conclusion always being: You have to understand this thing in its historical and cultural context. That’s where our analysis begins – and that’s what determines how we’ll accept the usefulness and applicability of this decision/teaching/practice in the present.

Which…I don’t argue with, mind you. (Much). It’s kind of what I do. All I’m saying is that, hey – if you’re going to tell me that I not only can, but must examine the Church’s past with an eye to social, historical and cultural context, and it’s permitted to critique them on that basis – well, then it’s permissible to do it in the present as well. Necessary, even. Might save us time later.

In short: if the process is questioned or critiqued ….try answering those questions in a reasonable and mature manner, treating the interlocutor as the mature, intelligent member of the laity you keep telling us we all are.

Or, to put it more bluntly: If we’re allowed to interrogate Church teaching and practice, we are allowed to interrogate the Synod process as well.

  • I haven’t even addressed the whole presumption that this process will – the organizers clearly hope, even as they deny it – result in a Church that is more reflective of the actual lives and beliefs of its members – as synthesized by the committee.

In support of what this could or should look like, surveys are often cited that indicate strong levels of support among Catholics for all the permissive takes on the hot button issues. There!

Well, guess what: surveys also consistently show that almost 2/3 of American Catholics believe that it’s moral to use capital punishment.

So what is it, folks? Sensum Fidelium for that, but not for this? Prophetic, counter-cultural witness for this, but not to that?

Or maybe there is something to this consistent, coherent vision of apostolic Christianity that calls for prophetic witness across the board because we are all slackers and yes, the way actually is narrow?

Finally:

  • I have never really understood how these people cannot see that in their vision, they are planting the seeds of their own destruction. Guess what, guys in red hats : if you are going to tell us that the grounds of authority are simply sand and infinitely shifting, we might just eventually draw some conclusions and turn around and ask – well, then where’s your authority? You expecting anything from me – attention, assent, support – doesn’t jive meaningfully with my lived experience. I’m not really understanding why I should listen to you anyway. Come to think of it, I’m not really understanding why any of these rituals you’re talking about have any meaning at all.

How far can you go….indeed.

Related: A 2021 series on Eucharistic Coherence.

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Candlemas

The Feast of the Presentation, today.

Mostly neglected among North American Catholics now, this feast has been – and in some parts of the world still is – a big deal.

When we try to establish the parameters of the Christmas season, we go from the beginnings on Christmas Eve to, first the Octave of Christmas (January 1 – once the Circumcision of the Lord, now Mary, the Mother of God), Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and then the Feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas.

(It’s…confusing.)

Celebration of this feast – called Candelaria in Spanish-speaking countries – persists, marked by feasting (of course) and fires (of course). Here’s a brief survey – note how in some cultures the person who’d found the Baby Jesus in the Three Kings cake would be responsible for the Candelaria feast!

The Virgin of Candelaria is the patron of Tenerife, her statue venerated, appropriately, in the town of Candelaria.

I was in Living Faith last year on this day. Here’s that entry.

From the Oxford University Press blog: The music and traditions of Candlemas:

The theme of light is central to Candlemas. Christians believe that Jesus, the “Light of the World”, came at Christmas, and the celebration of Candlemas presents Jesus as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Lighted candles are carried at key points in the liturgy, and the church’s beeswax candles to be used for the coming year are blessed during the service. Anthems such as Malcolm Archer’s Eternal Light, shine into our hearts, or Thomas Tallis’s O nata Lux di Lumine (Oh Light, born of Light), that both draw upon the theme of light, are particularly appropriate for a Candlemas service.

It is also natural for the music chosen for Candlemas services to draw upon the imagery of winter departing, and spring emerging. This is captured in Robert Herrick’s poem “Down with the rosemary and bays“, which was arranged for SATB voices by Edgar Pittman in his “Candlemas Eve Carol”, adapted from a Basque melody.

Candlemas also marks the transition from Christmas to the forthcoming season of Lent and Passiontide, and is the time when the church switches the “Anthem of the Blessed Virgin” from Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving Mother of our Saviour) to Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, O Queen of Heaven).

A playlist I made.

Two entries on candles from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. One in the section on “In Church” and the other in the section “At Home.”

Another great piece from Roseanne T. Sullivan in Dappled Things. 

On Candlemas, the prayers said by the priest as he blesses the candles with holy water and incense include the symbols of fire and light as metaphors for our faith and for Christ Himself. The choir sings the Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel” (“Light to the revelation of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”) after each verse. A solemn procession may be made into the church building by the clergy and the faithful carrying the newly blessed candles to reenact the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple.

From a sermon by Saint Sophronius, bishop in today’s Office of Readings.

Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. 

 The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.  

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

From a 1951 book of family faith formation:

Finally on the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, we put the light of Christ into our children’s hands for them to carry still further into the world. The Church has never been reluctant to place her destiny in the hands of the rising generations. It was once the custom at Candlemas for her to give each of her members a blessed candle to hold high and bear forth to his home. It was a beautiful sign of our lay priesthood and its apostolate in action. Now the blessed candles seldom get beyond the altar boys who are wondering whether to turn right or left before they blow them out.

Because the ceremony has died of disuse in many places, because we want our family to appreciate the great gift of light as a sign of God’s presence, because we all must have continual encouragement to carry Christ’s light of revelation to the Gentiles on the feast of Hypapante (Candlemas), we meet God first at Mass and then we meet Him again in our home in the soft glow of candles relighted and carried far.

And now for some #B16 from 2011

This is the meeting point of the two Testaments, Old and New. Jesus enters the ancient temple; he who is the new Temple of God: he comes to visit his people, thus bringing to fulfilment obedience to the Law and ushering in the last times of salvation.

It is interesting to take a close look at this entrance of the Child Jesus into the solemnity of the temple, in the great comings and goings of many people, busy with their work: priests and Levites taking turns to be on duty, the numerous devout people and pilgrims anxious to encounter the Holy God of Israel. Yet none of them noticed anything. Jesus was a child like the others, a first-born son of very simple parents.

Even the priests proved incapable of recognizing the signs of the new and special presence of the Messiah and Saviour. Alone two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, discover this great newness. Led by the Holy Spirit, in this Child they find the fulfilment of their long waiting and watchfulness. They both contemplate the light of God that comes to illuminate the world and their prophetic gaze is opened to the future in the proclamation of the Messiah: “Lumen ad revelationem gentium!” (Lk 2:32). The prophetic attitude of the two elderly people contains the entire Old Covenant which expresses the joy of the encounter with the Redeemer. Upon seeing the Child, Simeon and Anna understood that he was the Awaited One.

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I’d like to you consider a 16th century woman from the Low Countries. No, don’t run. Give me a minute.

If you take a look at what I’ve got below, you might see a couple of things:

First, to intelligently discuss “the role of women in the Church” is not as simple as some try to make it. The woman discussed below was the first vernacular writer to gain fame through the printing press. And much of what she wrote was directed against Martin Luther – and she was encourage in this work.

Secondly, when you get to the end, you will see plus ça change in action. The perception that those with actual power and responsibility to do something about urgent Church problems are staying silent while the building’s burning down around them? And the willingness to publicly voice that criticism?

As you see below – it’s been done. There’s a history of it, and this is one tiny moment in that history.

” Each Should Tend His Own Garden”: Anna Bijns and the Catholic Polemic against the Reformation

Anna Bijns was a well-known poet of her period and  – 

She was in fact the first writer in the vernacular to achieve widespread fame through the printing press. Everything she experienced in her city was material for her sharp pen. Nothing was taboo: badly thwarted love, the vain illusions of Luther and his followers, the threat of freebooters from Gelderland at the city gates, the insufferable policy of tolerance pursued by the city council, deceit and conflict within marriage, the sad but well-deserved lot of hen-pecked husbands and the need to relax with the hilarious nonsense of the repertoire of popular festivals.

She is able to express all that excitement with a verbal dexterity almost unequalled in Dutch literature. Complex rhyme-schemes, alliterations and neologisms gave her texts an irresistible cadence, while the subtly orchestrated passion still came across as natural. She was also the first author in Dutch literature, to present herself emphatically as an individual with personal views and emotions of her own. 

She was also a devout Catholic and determined to do what she could, in her small way to fight heresy. So she wrote poems and disseminated them. The article explores this aspect of the culture – most of the poetry-making and disseminating was oral, but she, as a woman in Antwerp, did not have access to the public fora in which that occurred. (In other cities women did, but not in Antwerp.)

80annabijns

Bijns was one of the very few Catholic lay people in the Low Countries who was prepared to take her fight for the Catholic cause into the public domain, and she was the only one to do this in vernacular print.

…..Although we know of many Catholic poems that derided the Reformation, these were rarely published in print, and mostly date from after 1560. The first author genuinely to follow in Bijns’s footsteps was another woman, Katarina Boudewyns, whose Prieelken der gheestelyker wellusten [Bower of Spiritual Joy] appeared in Brussels in 1587. Like Bijns, Boudewyns presented both (Marian) devotional poems and spirited attacks on the heretics, especially the Calvinists who had ruled Brussels in the early 1580s. So why was work like that of Bijns such a rarity?

The article explores that last question – and concludes that in the early years, heresy had been presented as a moral problem – one was a heretic because of pride – and therefore a problem for clerics and spiritual directors to address. A lay person didn’t interfere in another lay person’s spiritual battle. But then, eventually, the issue came to be seen as one of principle and ideas, and could  – and should be – argued in the public square.

Note that at one point, though, Bijns complains about the way in which the clergy are not picking up the slack and doing their job:

Decades earlier, Bijns had also expressed her frustration at the perceived lack of leadership in a struggle for which she declared herself willing to die. One of her refreinen in Book II responded to the praise heaped on her by a Flemish cleric:

When I let my eye dwell over the various estates, I am amazed that there are so many learned men today who do almost nothing to resist Luther’s arrogant teachings [. . .] and however much I try, one person can’t make a dance. Heretics may note my work, but they make fun of it, thinking it’s just woman’s work [. . .]. So put your mind to it, priest, as a brave champion, take up the pen, and it will easily have an impact. You have been appointed watchman, let your trumpet sound, seeing the enemies surrounding the people of God. 

Do you see what I mean about history helping to understand the present? Four hundred years later – what’s changed?

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Tuesday Random

Got writing to do this afternoon, then to AAA to get one of these.

First – this morning I had the honor and pleasure of participating in a career day at St. Rose School here in BHM, run by wonderful Dominican sisters – the two youngest of my kids both did a couple of years there – including 8th grade for both.

It was me and a variety of other professions talking to middle schoolers. Listening to everyone prompted the thought: We all need Career Day, regularly.

That is – we all need to be reminded of the ins and outs of life, the need to listen to the signs we’re given through life events, through our gifts and talents, through prayer, through what the world needs – and to keep listening throughout out our lives. You might not do what you expected. You might have to do what you really don’t want to for a while. You might take a completely different turn. The gifts you really believed would be the core of your professional life turn out to be a great, nourishing, part of your life – but you have other interests, too that take you on a different road.

Of course, this is the kind of thing you learn and know through your own life experiences and being friends with people in real life. But it’s interesting to hear a panel of people from various backgrounds and of various ages and stages in life all come down to essentially the same point, one which a lot of need to hear, regularly: listen, give, and be open.

Yes, Career Day for everyone!

Anyway, a few random links:

(I don’t have that app on my phone. Usually, as someone somewhere commented, “No, I don’t have TikTok. I wait two weeks and watch everything on Instagram – LIKE AN ADULT. )

More than merely siblings, the Brontës are a literary sisterhood. “We are three sisters,” Charlotte famously said when their anonymity could no longer be hidden from her publisher. A trio has a powerful allure, summoning all the number’s witchy connotations. Lucasta Miller argues in The Brontë Myth (2001) that the Brontës are constantly reinvented to suit each generation. Yet too often they are still seen as unworldly spinsters in a desolate Yorkshire landscape, warmed by their surprisingly fiery imaginations. Alongside such mythologization, the sisters’ arduous path to publication was a remarkable collective effort…

….The fabulism of the genii is still elusive. As the most recent chapter of the Brontë myth, Emily proffers some hoary old chestnuts: women’s writing is directly autobiographical, proximity to masculinity cultivates genius, and such genius grows alone. Sibling relationships often include a struggle for autonomy, but the Brontës deserve a richer, more challenging exploration of their kinship. Many more filmmakers will attempt to fill in Emily’s drawing of sisters writing at their table, specifying facial features, adding washes of color, shadow, and dimension. Perhaps Emily’s small sketch will always be more alive and suggestive than such representations. The sisterhood still circles their table.

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St. John Bosco – January 31

I’m in Living Faith today. Go here for that:

Today is the memorial of St John Bosco. The old Catholic Encyclopedia entry is a good place to start.  I wrote about him in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints.

(Book links do not go to Amazon. I try to link to them as infrequently as possible. You can buy them almost anywhere, of course, but links go directly to publisher’s website.)


(You can click on individual images to get a clearer view.)


A preview of the book from another website.

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Monday Digest

Let’s digest, rather than randomize this morning. It’s been a while:

Writing: In the zone. Absolutely, thrillingly in the zone. It took a couple of weeks, but I’m there. I have no idea what will come of the two things I’m working on – they’re on spec, you could say – but I’m finally back in my mental writing space, which is basically the space in which I wake up in the morning wanting to write rather than looking for all kinds of excuses not to.

I’ll be in Living Faith tomorrow.

Of course blog things here.

Reading: Lots of Italy-related stuff. H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in South Italy and In the Shadow of Vesuvius: a Cultural History of Naples by Jordan Lancaster. Both are through archive.org – and both can only be borrowed on an hourly basis, so that’s a little annoying but it’s better than not having them at all.

Of course, I did read both of Cormac McCarthy’s new ones: The Passenger and Stella Maris. I wrote last week, I believe, that they are books about which I can either write 3000 words or two paragraphs. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and do the latter, I think.

If you want to follow my reading, you can go here it seems like a decent website on which to record books read – less cluttered and demanding than Goodreads.

(I did it mostly for myself, so at the end of the year, I’m not having to go through the blog wondering…what did I read this year, anyway?)

Last night, I read an interesting academic article: “Good men gone bad? Resistance to monastic reform in the tenth and eleventh centuries” It’s a look at two works – one chronicle and one poem – that have survived, expressing monastic criticism of reform efforts, including Cluny. Conclusion: the critics saw the reformers as busybody hypocrites.

Listening: I was going to see the Atlanta Opera’s Don Giovanni yesterday, but, as I said, I got in that zone and decided it was best not to disrupt it. It was too bad, because it looked like a fantastic production, and if I lived in Atlanta, I probably would have gone, but the driving back and forth – including what would have been in steady rain on the way back – would have meant a whole day, and, as I said, I’m in that zone.

Some people play crossword puzzles to keep mentally sharp as they age. I’m choosing piano instead. I am working on two Scarlatti pieces:

They’re not hard, but neither can I just pick them up and play perfectly, so it does require some mental exertion.

Watching: Not much. The other night I watched Big Brown Eyes, inspired by a short note in a recent New Yorker.

It’s a shock to hear Cary Grant say “ain’t” in the snappy 1936 comedy “Big Brown Eyes” (now streaming on the Criterion Channel), but it comes with the turf that he covers as Danny Barr, a New York police detective who’s pursuing a gang of jewel thieves. The action is centered on a Manhattan hotel’s bustling and brassy barbershop that’s frequented by the underworld and the law alike, and where Danny’s girlfriend, Eve Fallon (Joan Bennett), works as a manicurist, sasses the customers, swaps gossip, and talks her way into a job as a cub reporter. When one of the thieves commits a murder, Eve and Danny—frustrated by the seeming impunity of mobsters—join forces to entrap him, in ways that would never pass muster with libel law or the Constitution but which generate a whirlwind of clever complications.

More, from an earlier note of his:

Walsh may offer a conservative and sedimental, as well as sentimental, view of New York—but it also comes off as a roiling, boiling cauldron of constant change and endless possibility.

Here’s a video by Richard Brody on the movie. It’s a great little (5-minute) look. As he says of one scene in particular: “Cary Grant seems to be becoming Cary Grant before our eyes.”

Directed by Raoul Walsh, there’s some fun camera work, but a disjointed, contrived script. It was enjoyable nonetheless, as Brody says there, because of the performances- Grant, of course, and Bennett, but also Walter Pidgeon, who plays a suave, cultured criminal mastermind, and most notable to me, a young Lloyd Nolan (clink on the link – you’ll recognize him). His performance – as a thug who also has a thing for flowers – was very natural, in stark contrast to much of the staginess around him. I learned in a blog post – somewhere – that Nolan was profoundly hearing-impaired, which prompted a second look at his performance, as well.

I also enjoyed the look at that mid-30’s context, one in which men filled up fancy barber shops to get pampered and manicured, and it was taken for granted that a sassy, smart dame could of course finagle a job on a newspaper and bring down a criminal gang.

Oh, and one more thing about this minor film – the intent is comedy-crime caper, but the central crime, that happens in the middle of the film is – get this – the killing of a baby caught in some crossfire in Central Park. Big tonal shift there, and it’s bizarre. But that might explain why Graham Greene liked it, describing it as a “fast, well-directed and quite unsentimental gangster film – pleasantly free from emotion.” I’ll say.

Speaking of Greene, I had every intention last night of watching This Gun for Hire, based on a novel of his, but the Criterion Channel wouldn’t load, so I took it as a sign and went back to work.

Tangential to “watching” – the company that made The Chosen (of which I have not seen a single episode) is starting to film a new movie here in Birmingham today. It’s a sci-fi thing called The Shift. Jorge Garcia (Hurley of Lost) was originally announced as part of the cast, but had to drop out, which was too bad, because he would have been easy to spot around town. But Sean Astin is in it, too, so I’ll let you know if I see him.

Cooking: I’m alone most of the time, so I’m not scrambling every day to make something, but I am cooking a bit. Last week I made a delicious black lentil stew thing (no recipe, I made it up) – with carrots and celery sauteed in bacon fat, dried mushrooms from Mepkin Abbey , purchased on my trip there last fall – which none of my normal food-gift recipients wanted, go figure, so I was stuck with them – deglazed with wine, and cooked up in chicken stock. I ate on it for several days, chopping up ham to put in it every night, topping with parmesan cheese. No, I do not require variety in my diet.

My neighbor had surgery last week, so I attempted on Friday to bake her and her mother a cake, but I took it out too soon and well, you know what happens then. I texted her and told her I’d try again the next day, but she answered, “Well, but you know I love your bread….” So….I did that instead.

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The Gospel for today’s Mass is one of my favorites.

There’s much to contemplate here, various aspects of the event that will strike us, depending on where we are in life.

We could be anywhere and anyone in this scenario: Bound, possessed, despairing, existing on earth, but dwelling among the dead and their tombs, among the things dead and gone and lifeless. Living among and being defined by, if we think about it, the things that actually have no power over us, but still, here we are. Or we could be in the town watching, curious, but then forgetting about the man living in chains among the dead, content to go on as if he didn’t exist down there in his pain.

We could be there when Jesus arrives, and again we could be anywhere and anyone. Despairing, struggling with the forces within that will fight to stay where they are, controlling us.

And then, like that, free.

We could be watching the man Jesus, wondering, and then, despite what should be good news, seized ourselves now. Seized with fear, that’s us. So afraid that we respond to the triumph of goodness and new life with panic.

Leave us.

I am always writing about today, this moment, the present. For the truth is that yes, Jesus has arrived in your district. At this moment. He’s here. Healing, calling, inviting, challenging, sending.

The townspeople are watching, fearful. What are they afraid of? Why do they want Jesus to just depart?

What does this mean practically?

It will mean different things to different people, depending on where you are. Your temptations, the voices discouraging and fearful, will vary.

It can come from nothing more than life’s responsibilities, distracting us from the goodness and grace of the present moment.

It might come from the walls we’ve put up ourselves – I’m undeserving, I’m too far gone, no way I can be changed, no way things can be different. These are the tombs, and this is where I live, chained.

It might come from others in our real life and the lives we lead online. Voices that can do a number on us in various ways, but fundamentally in this moment, I think, will look at the possibility of a person living in peace and joy here and now and be horrified at the prospect: How can you? In all of this? Don’t you understand what’s going on?

And proceed to pull us into one more conversation fraught with tension, despair and anger, pushing aside the possibility of healing, joy and good news – as we end up just like the townspeople ages ago, begging him, in our own ways, to leave our district, to leave us as we were, where we were, no matter what possibilities we have, indeed, seen with our own eyes.


Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea,
to the territory of the Gerasenes.
When he got out of the boat,
at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him.
The man had been dwelling among the tombs,
and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain.
In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains,
but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed,
and no one was strong enough to subdue him.
Night and day among the tombs and on the hillsides
he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.
Catching sight of Jesus from a distance,
he ran up and prostrated himself before him,
crying out in a loud voice,
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?
I adjure you by God, do not torment me!”
(He had been saying to him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!”)
He asked him, “What is your name?”
He  replied, “Legion is my name.  There are many of us.”
And he pleaded earnestly with him
not to drive them away from that territory.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside.
And they pleaded with him,
“Send us into the swine.  Let us enter them.”
And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine.
The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea,
where they were drowned.
The swineherds ran away and reported the incident in the town
and throughout the countryside.
And people came out to see what had happened.
As they approached Jesus,
they caught sight of the man who had been possessed by Legion,
sitting there clothed and in his right mind.
And they were seized with fear.
Those who witnessed the incident explained to them what had happened
to the possessed man and to the swine.
Then they began to beg him to leave their district.
As he was getting into the boat,
the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him.
But Jesus would not permit him but told him instead,
“Go home to your family and announce to them
all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”
Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis
what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.

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I am currently getting ready for a solo trip – Trip #3 of the Empty Nest Show, and was thinking about how it’s just not a big deal for me to go to places alone. Despite living the past decades surrounded by the people I parent, I still, as an only child, conceive of my identity essentially solo. I’m alone in my head all the time, and contentedly so, so what’s the difference? I like traveling with my family and there are maybe three friends I would travel with (and have) , but beyond that, not interested. Don’t even talk to me about touring with group. I cannot conceive of that feeding my soul, at all, ever.

But then I was also thinking that in the part of the world I’m going to, my solo self might get a second look or two here or there, so I searched for  “dining alone in…..” and was reassured by a host of posts on discussion boards declaring, “no problem.”

It put me in mind of my first, kind of strange, trip by myself, as an 18-year old, to New York City.

And as I was mentally retracing my steps on that trip just now, I was just so amazed that I survived I thought I’d tell you about it.

Nova Scotia with drying fish, probably 1976.

It was 1978 – the summer before my Freshman year at UT.  I’d taken a couple of classes in my major (history)  during the summer, my dad taught at UT and I lived in Knoxville, so I wasn’t a hardcore, never-been-there Freshman. I knew my way around and wasn’t hugely stressed about the fall.

My mother was a New Englander – born in New Hampshire and raised in southern Maine, and because of that we spent about a month every summer up in Maine, at the home of the uncle and aunt who had raised her after her father died in a car accident and her mother went off to live in a rest home.

That summer, I had gone with them up for that  Maine month, but because I needed to move into the dorm earlier than they’d be returning (my dad had a visiting year at the other UT in Austin that year, so I guess they weren’t having to head out until later for that reason too), I decided I would do just that.  I’d come back.  On the bus. Yes,  I’d ride the bus from Maine to Tennessee. And, since that route would naturally take me through New York City, I also decided that I wanted to see the place, so I arranged my itinerary so that I’d arrive  in the city (I guess) in the afternoon and then leave again late the following late afternoon, taking a night bus down to Tennessee.

(First digression:  How did we make these kinds of arrangements before the Internet?  I’m at a loss. I guess I found a Greyhound or Trailways  schedule and figured it out? Right?  I have no idea.)

So far, my parents were totally on board, and didn’t seem to give the plan a second thought.  In fact, they never did, to my knowledge. The questions then became  – where would I stay or  that night?  My mother, being older – she was born in 1924 – and not having spent a great deal of time in New York City and still evidently having her vision of the place shaped by My Friend Irma and other tales of Smart Girls Alone in the City in 1952 said, “Well, of course you’ll stay at the Barbizon,” not understanding that the Barbizon was a residential, rather than tourist hotel and that, well, it wasn’t 1952.  I am not sure how we figured it out – that it was a residential hotel, but we did. Scratch the Barbizon.

Next idea? Well, of course, the fallback would be the budget-friendly travelers’ rest that everyone knows –

the YMCA!

Now, the Manhattan YMCAs – as well as others around the world – are indeed known for providing such hostel – like accomodations. I guess we knew they admitted women.  I guess.

(Okay – I did have a printed, magazine-like guide to New York City Hotels I had picked up in a travel agency – remember those? For some reason I can even remember the layout of the silly thing, all these years later.  I must have studied it so extensively – a premonition of hours  days spent in travel research in my future life. The YMCA must have been on the list.)

So, that was the plan, such as it was. The departure day came, I got on the bus (not sure where – Sanford? Portland? Portsmouth?), waved good-bye and off I headed back to the South, with a slight detour.

I disembarked at the Port Authority hours later – after witnessing a street brawl between two women through the window –  and yes, this is Times Square in 1978, and yes I saw it all, right there. Grime, porn shops, prostitutes (very aggressive prostitutes almost accosting men, angrily), the works.  A little bit of a culture shock, but I forged on, because I was going to the YMCA!

Without a reservation. 

Not one of us had imagined that such a thing would be necessary.  How crowded could a YMCA hostel in Manhattan be? I mean, isn’t that what the YMCA hostel experience is all about? Showing up and finding that Young Christian hospitality, just… there?

Hahahahahaha. 

So, yes, I was turned away at the front desk. They didn’t laugh, but I do think they were incredulous.

And there I was, an 18-year old girl from the Midwest and the South without theatrical or artistic aspirations… in Manhattan….without a place to stay!

I don’t remember my state of mind at the time.  I’m assuming I was upset and worried, but I also don’t remember it being overwhelming or throwing me into a panic.  I whipped out my hotel guide, found the cheapest ones that were nearest to where I was standing (thank goodness for the numbered street grid system) and started the search.

I have absolutely no idea the name of the place I found or where it was, although I’m fairly certain is was on the east side, not far from the UN. But I did find one – with a room the size of a closet with a shared bathroom down the hall.

(Do you see why I’m such a patient, tolerant traveler? THIS was my first big trip alone!)

What did I do that night?  What I remember doing is going to a deli down the street, getting a sandwich, being amazed at the size of it,  and eating it in my room while reading a book.

Some things never change.

Next day:

(Prelude:  I’ve never worn a watch. For some reason, I feel naked without a hair tie around my wrist, but a watch has always bugged me.)

I was awakened by the sun, and indeed, felt wide awake. Get up! Get out! Experience the city! Pack up your backpack, go down to check out!

See by the clock behind the desk that it’s 6:30 AM!

Gee, if only I’d been more sophisticated, I could have wandered to the right places and met Andy Warhol or someone emerging from their night partying….

Well, of course I was not going to say, never mind and slink back up to the room.  So I did what any good Catholic girl would do when faced with this situation at this hour: I went to Mass.

Again, I don’t know where I was, but it was not at a great distance from St. Patrick’s because that’s where I ended up for Mass.  After which it was still about 7:30, I guess, with no place open except breakfast joints. So I started walking.. And for the rest of the day, up until my bus left from the Port Authority late in the afternoon…I walked.

I took my scruffy self into Saks and for the first time in my life, felt quite out of place.  Looked at some price tags. Blanched.

I walked down, down, down, and around and around.  At one point, seeing little but empty storefronts and the homeless, I looked up and saw a street sign.  “THE BOWERY” it said, and once, again, having been formed in a milieu in which Tin Pan Alley and show tunes were the soundtrack, immediately thought: 

The Bow’ry, the Bow’ry!
They say such things,
And they do strange things
On the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
I’ll never go there anymore!

…and turned west, knowing that I’d hit the financial district soon enough.

Which I did.  I got there and went into the Stock Exchange, which you could still tour and watch the trading floor from above, pre 9/11 – I had the leather souvenir key chain I bought there for years – then started walking back up north, hitting Macy’s, I think, and I don’t recall what else.  You see where I was, so I never did any museums or saw Central Park. It was all central and lower Manhattan, me, the 18-year old with the backpack, making her way back to the Port Authority to catch the night bus to Knoxville.

As I said, I don’t remember every being panicked or scared. I tend to take things in stride, and I guess that was part of my psyche then, as well.  What do I remember? I remember a contrast between scruffiness and sleekness, but I remember far more scruffiness. But nothing I saw that trip was a scruffy as what I saw a couple of years later when I returned with my father, who was attending a professional meeting – and as we walked down the street after dinner with some of his colleagues, a fellow standing in the street, needed to go, and yeah, whipped it out, and..went.

Awkward. 

Years later, I asked my dad…”Why did you let me go to New York by myself that time?”  It’s not that they were protective and this was some sort of departure from that stance, but in retrospect, it did seem pretty crazy. He shrugged. “Everyone who doesn’t grow up in one need to do it – to go to the big city, deal with it, and discover that yes, you can handle it.”

Maybe with the slightest of plans, but definitely without a data plan, which is the most amazing part of it all to me now. 

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St. Thomas Aquinas – January 28

If you haven’t already, today is the perfect day to check out the wonderful Aquinas 101 series:

Over the past few years, this date has ended up being one of my Living Faith days. From 2019.

 2017: 

Who is he? Who is this man–this Lord, friend, teacher–full of power but hanging powerless on a cross?

Our faith is marked by questions. We seek, trusting that there must be a source to satisfy the hungers we have been born with. St. Thomas Aquinas was a man of questions and answers, all born of deep hunger and love for God. Balanced, he prayed the Mass with intense devotion, wrote beautiful hymns, sacrificed much to give himself wholly to God and share with the world the fruit of his search.

Also, if you have seen Bishop Robert Barron’s Pivotal Players series, you know that Aquinas is featured in the first set. Here’s a teaser:

I wrote the prayer book that accompanies the first series, and so did several chapters on Thomas.  There are no excerpts available online, as far as I can tell, but here’s a couple of paragraphs from the first chapter:

Catholicism is not all theology. It is caritas . It is sacrament, communion, art, family life, religious life, the saints. It is all of this and more, but what we can’t help but notice is that even these seemingly uncomplicated aspects of the disciples’ lives lead to questions. What is “love” and what is it proper for me to love and in what way? How does Jesus come to meet me through the sacraments of his Body, the Church? How do I know the Scriptures that I’m supposed to be living by are God’s Word? God is all-good, why does evil and seemingly unjust suffering exist? How can I sense God’s movement and will in the world, in my own life? And what is the difference?  Theological questions, every one of them.

So our own spiritual lives, like Thomas’ call for balance. Emphasizing the intellect too much, I find a cave in which to hide, avoid relationship and communion with God and others.  But in disparaging theology, I reject the life of the mind, a mind created by God to seek and know him, just as much as my heart is. I may even avoid tough questions, not just because they are challenging, but because I’m just a little bit afraid of the answers.  Theological reflection from people with deep understanding helps me. It opens me to the truth that God is more than what I feel or personally experience, and this “more” matters a great deal.

He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints not surprisingly,  under “Saints are People Who Help Us Understand God.”  Here’s a page:

amy_welborn_books

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