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Thoughts, of course, are leaning towards the fall and a new school year. As families drive by and drop off books, tablets and laptops at school, you can’t avoid the question, what next?

Some systems and schools in some areas probably won’t change much of what they were doing. Others will institute new policies directed at greater cleanliness and distancing – which, I’m going to say, for a school, is not a bad thing. Schools – as is the case with all public places – are probably going to be a lot safer, health-wise, now that we’re plunged into this sanitizing craze. More thoroughly clean those spaces inhabited by six-year olds all day? I’m for that. Make sure they keep their grimy hands off each other? Spacing in buses, giving less proximity to the bullies? Good idea.

There are various graphics circulating which purport to summarize CDC recommendations on this score. I don’t know how accurate those are, but this is the CDC’s actual page on recommendations for schools – and it’s updated regularly, it seems. 

Looking through it, I’m struck by some of the same thoughts that I’ve had in considering back-to-Mass regulations. As in: all those innovations we’ve been pushing on you for decades?

Never mind. 

In this case, for example: “Turn desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other)”

File:Queensland State Archives 1640 Kelvin Grove State School ...

Hah.

Of course, they’re not six feet apart.

But. 

This is for parents.

If your school – private or public – or system starts instituting procedures and rules that strike you as over-the-top, guess what….you can check out. Leave. Walk away. Don’t have to send the kid there.

It will be hard. It’s hard. You will have to rethink so much about your life.

You don’t have to be a part of it.

You just don’t.

Yes, your child needs an education. He’s a human being with a mind and soul that naturally wants to learn and figure things out. School is not the only place that can happen.

And guess what – a school environment filled with rules and regulations and loads of invisible lines is not, to say the least, one friendly to learning.

School  – while it can be great – can also be very hard  for children and families. It can be stressful and harmful to a child’s sense of self. Peers can be brutal. A highly competitive atmosphere can skew a child’s understanding of what it means to be human. A  chaotic atmosphere can lead to days and days of nothing but frustration and wasted time. From a parent’s perspective, the hassle of understanding school procedures, keeping up with pedagogical fads and demands, and just signing all those damn forms can be exhausting and alienating.

Very simply: if it looks to you as if school this fall is going to be a stressful, ridiculous mess in which your child will be spending eight hours a day being told don’t get so close – don’t touch that – don’t talk, just listen – no you can’t play catch because you’ll be touching the same ball – no you can’t sing because that spreads the virus – 

….Get. Out. 

Getting out can mean any number of things. Depending on the situation in your particular area, it definitely doesn’t have to mean what it’s meant for so many over the past months:  an “education” based on isolation, with your kid’s work reflecting someone else’s educational priorities and philosophies, with little contact with friends or activity outside the home.

It can mean anything. I’m not going to do a rehash of what it means to homeschool. You can go here in case you’re interested in my perspective and (limited) experience.

But what I hope is that if, indeed a school or a system embraces extreme, stress-inducing procedures for this fall, parents and families will, yes, #resist and engage, creatively with each other and find the will and strength to create alternatives – which can be all over the map, ranging from online classes to individual tutoring to small-scale co-ops or tutoring groups.

As I say over and over again – this is hard. People have to work. Hopefully, they’ll be able to work in greater numbers by the fall, which makes taking a kid out of school daunting and perhaps near-impossible. Supervising a child’s education responsibly takes far more effort that switching on a laptop at the beginning of the day. I’ve written over and over about this – I’m not anti-school in general.greatly appreciate what a quality school and dedicated teachers give my children.

But….

am anti-schools that restrict, restrain and limit a child’s experience and horizons. I’m anti-schools that present a child with a single vision of “success,” “achievement” and “accomplishment” based on the current pedagogical fads and social expectations. I’m anti-schools that don’t respect family time and a child’s need for unstructured time.

My fear is that this pandemic will only lead to more of what’s most damaging about the school experience and will just encourage the worst, control-freak instincts of educational administrators and that parents, stressed-out, fearful and seeing only very limited options, will just say yes, convinced that this is the only way.

It’s not. 

***

Kerry McDonald writes:

We should care deeply about children’s health and safety, but like much about this pandemic, it’s important to make sure that the response isn’t more damaging than the virus itself. Many parents and educators are rightfully concerned about children’s mental health during these lockdowns, but when lockdowns end and schools reopen, children’s mental health could be worsened with extreme social distancing measures that remove any of the potentially enjoyable pieces of schooling, such as playground time, extracurriculars, and gathering with friends.

Stripped of these accessories that can often compensate for the more oppressive parts of conventional schooling, it’s not surprising that some parents and students would choose to continue with homeschooling or virtual learning until the pandemic ends.

****

Now, as I was writing this, something else occurred to me.  We could actually go either way on this, right?

This situation could encourage megalomaniac school administrators to, indeed, go even deeper into their authoritarian fantasies, making everyone’s life hell – or….

…just as the work-from-home situation has alerted employers to the efficiencies and cost-saving aspects of increased working from home, so might those engaged in education, from families to churches to schools, be forced, by circumstance, to a different way.

That is: maybe we can best protect everyone by getting students in and out of this place as quickly as possible. 

Minimizing social aspects of the day. Moving away from the ideal of school-as-community and simply focusing on what needs to get done. No meals served on campus, no extraneous group activities.

Get ’em in. Sit ’em down (all facing the same way!). Teach them some stuff. Everyone’s on the clock, since we’re in smaller groups, perhaps one half of the school here in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. No time to waste. And then, after three or four hours of focused work – off you go, back home.

The only glitch being, of course, that no one would trust that this 3-4 hours (the actual instruction time in a typical school day these days anyway)  would actually be “enough.” The kids would be followed home by all sorts of assignments and websites to check in with at home. And it would be endless. 

Or maybe not. Maybe the challenges and of these past few weeks will have soured the taste for that sort of thing, too, as teachers and families reflect on the fact that one of the meanings of online school is that….school’s never out. 

And who wants that?

1967, SCHOOL LAST DAY SCENES | Historic Images

 

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Noreen: Camus says knowin’ we’re gonna die makes life absurd.

Betsy : Well, I don’t know who that is. But I’m guessing he doesn’t have a 6-year-old girl.

Noreen : He’s French

Betsy : Ugh, I don’t care if he’s from Mars. Nobody with any sense would say something that foolish. We’re put on this earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord… Well, you try tellin’ Him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.

We just finished watching season 2 of Fargo. 

I’d watched seasons 1 and 3 a while back by myself. But they’re both old enough to appreciate it now, so when Better Call Saul ended and the lockdown continued, I thought it might be a good choice to fill some time. It’s rough, and Coenesque and violent, so perhaps it’s not your cup of tea. Lots of exploding heads. Sorry. Know that going forward. I don’t “recommend.”  People are just too different, with varying tastes. I mean. Don’t watch it. You’ll hate it. There.

Anyway, as I said, I’d watched the bookend seasons, but never season 2, for some reason. So this was my first-go through, and I’ll say that I enjoyed it very much. I’m torn about ranking the seasons , though. Perhaps a rewatch will change my mind, but I still think I like season 3 the most, although what season 2 has going for it is a far, far bigger heart than either of the other two. All of the characteristic Noah Hawley/CoenesqueVision aspects are there – extreme violence, weirdness, randomness, chance – but this one has a greater number of sympathetic characters that provide more of an anchor in goodness than the usual almost solitary-figure in the others.

Hanzee Dent - Wikipedia

The cast is amazing – from Patrick Wilson to Jean Smart to Ted Danson to Zahn McLarnon (above) to Bokeem Woodbine (below).

Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan in Fargo's Season 2 | Mike ...

I wrote at length about season 3 here, but was surprised to see that I seem to have never written about season 1. Well, I won’t begin now. Let’s just move on to two.

As per usual, what we have here is a battle between good and evil in the upper Midwest. Here, with the added attraction of evil v. evil driving a great deal of the action as well.

It’s 1979. The big picture here is that the Kansas City mafia – modern, business-oriented and efficient – wants to take over the Gerhardt family mob that runs the northern territories, rooted in their German heritage, out of the rambling family farmhouse.

Jean Smart on 'Fargo': Performance in Season 1 | TVLine

Getting things in motion, as usual, is an accident. The most hapless Gerhardt son, in order to prove himself, puts out a hit on a judge in a waffle restaurant, but on his escape, distracted by (yes) a UFO, he pauses, and in that moment, is struck by a car driven by local beautician Peggy Blumquist, played by Kirsten Dunst. Who’s married to local butcher Ed, played by Jess Plemons, which means that for most of the series, I called him “Todd.” 

The resultant mess and attempt to clean up the mess and avoid trouble gets the Blumquists deeper and deeper into trouble and, without their knowledge, also brings the Kansas City and Fargo sides closer and closer to outright war.

There are lots of fantastic lines in this season of Fargo, but the best probably go to the Blumquists who say things like:

Hon, you got to stop stabbing him.

and

It’s just a flyin’ saucer, Ed. We gotta go.

Well, I guess you had to be there, huh?

Trying to figure all of this out and somehow stay the bloodshed and dig out justice are local law enforcement, some of whom are fools, but two of whom – Lou Solverson and his father-in-law Hank (played by Ted Danson) – are rocks of integrity, humanity and courage. Lou’s wife and Hank’s daughter – Betsy, featured in the scene at the top of this post – is suffering from cancer. During most of the course of the show, she’s part of a clinical trial, taking pills which may or may not be the real thing – or may just be a placebo.

Everyone, it seems, is fighting a battle.

The primary link between seasons 1 and 2 here is, of course that Lou Solverson is the father of Molly – the good cop with sharp intelligence and sound instincts at the center of season 1.

As one expects, the Fargo world is sharply drawn, hilarious, bloody, tragic and ultimately, even in its crazy absurdity and outlandishness, about an important reality: the reality of goodness and the reality of evil.

In season 1, evil was personified in Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who may not be the devil himself, but could also be a close relation. He wreaks havoc and destruction on his own, certainly, but his diabolical nature is expressed most powerfully in his role as Tempter. He tempts every single person he encounters, and that temptation takes a particular form: the temptation to see other people as less than human – as no more than animals. Prey, if that’s what you’re into and that’s what you need them to be. Why not?

Evil here is not so individuated. It’s widespread, although it’s just as senseless. The only check against this evil is the goodness and courage of people like Lou, Betsy and Hank, who refuse to objectify human beings, who are content with the beauty and simplicity of human life on earth, instead of lusting for more just because.

Lots of folks have written about this season, but I just want to take a quick look at the setting. I think it’s very important.

The show is set in 1979, and this is about more than simply situating our season 1 characters properly. For the social, political and economic setting is mentioned constantly and is a vital part of the mix.

What’s at hand are first, the repercussions of war – mostly Vietnam, but World War II as well. Most of the male characters served in one capacity or another, and suffered because of it – although one describes a moment of grace he experienced as well. But mostly, this is a time, and these are people who are in a way shellshocked. Some have been desensitized to brutality and violence by what they experienced, others made more determined than ever to right wrongs when they encounter them.

Secondly, there’s the tail end of that Carter-era malaise and the glimmers of Reaganism – Reagan as an actor and as a candidate plays a part in the show, offering, it seems hope (
The first episode is called “Waiting for Dutch.”) – but, as it turns out – false hope.

Third – you have the bumping up of the new, late 20th century all-business ethos up against family and small town.

Fourth- and you won’t be surprised to know that this is my favorite aspect of the show’s 1979 setting – there’s the drive for self-actualization and personal growth that’s in the air, personified here in Peggy Blumquist’s quest to be someone. She lives in a sea of beauty and travel magazines. She’s committed to going to a self-help seminar with her boss. She endlessly jabbers on about being “actualized” and “realized” all the while being absolutely clueless to the reality of the situation around her. Dunst is fantastic in the role – aggravating and heartbreaking all at once.

Why Kirsten Dunst Could Be TV's New Style Icon (With images ...

I had that sweater. I HAD THAT SWEATER. 

The world, it seems, is a brutal place. Life is short and hard and random and even kind of weird (hence the UFOS). Evil is actually real. How do we respond to that? Do we give into the temptation to just try to get more of what doesn’t last anyway? Do we try to make ourselves feel more alive by dehumanizing and objectifying others? Do we deny our own suffering? How do we face the randomness and the chance? Do we pay attention, own up and try to grow – or do we deny, close our eyes and shut our ears?  Do we try to fabricate an alternative reality for ourselves, ignoring the ground under our feet at the moment?

Do we look at this strange mess and just declare it meaningless?

Or, as sick as we are, do we accept why we’ve been put on earth, hold the six-year old all the more tightly, and keep carrying her?

 

 

 

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In a week to few weeks, most Catholic parishes will be reopening for regular Sunday Mass. It’s already begun in some places. There will be much reflection about What This Has All Meant and How We Have Been Changed.

I’m going to do something I generally try very hard not to do – which is to make suggestions about what other people should do. Sharing information and trying to make connections is more what I’m about. Hell, I don’t even see myself in the business of encouraging and inspiring you.  But I am feeling, as we say, a burden on my heart, so here goes – from someone who just sits in the pews and listens. And is sort of dreading it.

Speaking of burdens, it will be a heavy burden and responsibility to get up in front of a congregation – deacons, priests, bishops – and preach for the first time after months of empty churches. There is a great deal to unpack. But here’s my simple suggestion as a way to begin thinking about an approach:

Don’t assume that everyone has had the same experience of this time. 

Just start there.

And for sure..

Don’t assume that everyone shares your experiences and opinions of this time. 

Let’s survey the range you might find in a typical congregation:

  • Those who have suffered from Covid-19 personally. Those who have been ill. Those who have known individuals who have been ill and cared for them. Those who have known individuals who have died from Covid-19.
  • Those who have seen their businesses skate to the edge because of shutdowns, those who have lost their businesses.
  • Those who have lost their jobs.
  • Those who have have been sent home from school, who have missed milestones like graduation.
  • Those who have been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and are sanguine about it.
  • Those who have been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and are confused, angry and resentful.
  • Those who haven’t known anyone personally impacted.
  • Those who have kept working during this time, who’ve not lost time or money.
  • Those worried about the stock market, not because they are fat cats, but because there goes their retirement income.
  • Those who have welcomed this as an opportunity for change and growth.
  • Those who have resented the experience and are angry. Outraged, even.
  • Those who are impacted in a negative way by the constant flow of news and speculation.
  • Those who are at peace with it all.
  • Those who are totally on board with restrictions.
  • Those who are restriction-skeptics.
  • Those who are afraid of being infected.
  • Those who aren’t afraid – those who don’t think that they are at risk, or those who are accepting of whatever comes.
  • Those who started wearing a mask on March 1.
  • Those who pull their shirt collar up over their nose for a mask and resent that. 
  • Those whose family lives have been deepened and enhanced by the time in quarantine
  • Those for whom the quarantine and extended time with family has exacerbated tensions and made problems more obvious
  • Those who think this is a Very Big Deal
  • Those who think this is Not Such a Big Deal
  • Those who have experienced this as a call to change.
  • Those who just want things to go back to the way they were.
  • Those who have, for the first time in their lives, thought seriously about questions of life and death. And are maybe coming back to the church for the first time, or for the first time in a long time because of it.
  • Those who are rethinking their priorities and choices as a consequence of the shutdown and the mystery and possibility of serious illness

You may not find every permutations of this variety in your pews, but I think you’ll find a lot of it. Don’t be fooled by the echo chamber of news, reporting and discussion that most of us fall into that confirms our own biases. Some of those perspectives might drive you crazy and strike you as so very wrong, but well…there are as many different experiences and opinions of this time as there are human beings. That’s just the way it is.

My point?

I am dreading a slew of homilies that do little more than echo the endless drumbeating of We’re All In This Together PSAs with a particular modern Catholic flourish of We’re an Easter People, everything will be all right!  Nice to see you again!

So how can a preacher, teacher or speaker communicated in this moment without assuming too much, but then, as a consequence, simply falling into platitudes and pious generalizations?

I don’t know. There! That solves it!

Well, perhaps part of the answer might come from Bishop Robert Barron, whose homily we watched yesterday.

(We have, as I mentioned, been attending Mass at the parish where my son is employed as an organist. But a week ago, he had a bike accident, lacerated his elbow, and is still on the mend, so we stayed home this weekend. He’ll be back on the bench this coming weekend.)

 

 

Here’s the recording.The point Bishop Barron makes, in his words mostly addressed to other preachers, but applicable to all of us, since all of us are called to give witness, is to look to Peter’s approach, as described in the first reading from Acts:

Focus on Jesus, not yourself, your own doubts, your own experience, your own ideas. And pray, not that your words give superficial comfort, but that they cut to the heart. 

I’ve always felt that the great strength of Catholic liturgy – of any high liturgical tradition – is to give space. It all seems, from the outside, very full  – but all of the proscribed words, gestures and symbols function, in the end, as a space of freedom. Your worship is not about an individual standing up in front of you telling you how to feel in a certain moment or how to respond to God right now.

Within the space of a highly structured, rich liturgy, there’s room for everyone to feel whatever they are bringing with them – joy, sorrow, confusion, doubt – and to sit with it, pray with it, present it to God, and respond to him freely. And it does so in whatever context it’s happening, in a place of privilege or poverty, comfort or insecurity.

It’s a space in which, when we are open, no matter who we are, or where we’re coming from, there is the chance that we might be cut to the heart. 

Powerful preaching, it seems to me, should fit that paradigm. Proposing the Gospel, presenting it in all its fullness, pointing to Jesus, clearly and joyfully – but without manipulation, respecting the wild variety of hearers, respecting God’s power to redeem and save, offering the Gospel that the Church has always preached, forcefully, clearly and humbly – and then stepping back. Letting the Spirit do its work.

So where do we start? Where we always do.

With the liturgical season, with the liturgy, the Scriptures that we’ve been given. It’s Easter Season. Maybe your parish will be gathering for the first time on Pentecost, or Trinity Sunday or Corpus Christi. That’s where we begin.

And I do think, no matter how different the experiences of each of us have been, it’s possible to draw connections without platitudes or incorrect generalizations.

For what have we all experienced?

The cold hard fact that the “control” each of us have over our lives is limited.

My life on earth is transitory. Ephemeral.

I don’t walk on earth as an isolated individual. I’m impacted by things I can identify, and many which I can’t, and are unpredictable and mysterious. It may not have felt like it over the past weeks, but I am in deep communion with every other person on earth. I affect them, they affect me.

Suffering and death are real. Unintended consequences are real.

Human beings stumble as they attempt to solve problems.

Life surprises us. Maybe I don’t know as much as I thought I did – about my own life, my family, about how the world works and why.

Maybe I need to change.

A yearning for permanence, health, security, normality, life – but a realization that none of that can be promised to me on earth. But still I yearn for it. Why? Is it perhaps because I’m created to yearn for this Good, and it is, indeed promised? Promised to me in an eternal way, to feed my eternal yearning?

 

Traditionally, Catholic spirituality is intensely centered on the Incarnate presence of Jesus in this broken world, in our broken hearts. It’s about reassuring us that yes, indeed, he’s present, that he loves us and that his Risen Life can be ours as well.

And it’s about helping each of us – no matter where we are or who we are – recognize that Presence and that Voice.

Essentially:

Where is God present in this weird, unpredictable life we lead?

and

What is God teaching me right now? 

Posing the question isn’t the same as answering it. The crucial thing is to propose that ancient truth that every moment of life on earth, no matter who we are,  provides an opportunity to do the most important thing: to know Him. To hear these words that we’ll hear in next Sunday’s Gospel and understand that they are true – right now. 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.

And no matter who we are, and where we’ve been over the past weeks, no matter what our opinions or experiences are – that’s what we all have in common. We need Him. Every experience we have can, if we are open, alert us more deeply to that reality – that right here, right now, we need Him – our only Way, our only Truth, our only Life.

 

 

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From previous years, but still worth a read!


How did I happen up on this? In the usual, wandering way. I went to archive.org and typed in “ash wednesday” in the search box, and after wading through a bunch of sermons and pamphlets (including one had written!), I happened upon this, and stumbled into a huge rabbit hole.

In that rabbit hole I was introduceed to one Baron Ferdinand de Geramb, (probably) born in Lyons, but of Hungarian descent. An adventurer, a soldier, a prisoner of Napoleon, and eventually…a Trappist. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In 1808 he fell into the hands of Napoleon, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Vincennes until 1814, the time when the allied powers entered Paris. After bidding farewell to the Tsar and Emperor of Austria, he resolved to leave the world. It was at this time that he providentially met the Rev. Father Eugene, Abbot of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval (France), of whom he begged to be admitted as a novice in the community. He pronounced his vows in 1817.

After having rendered great services to that monastery, he was sent, in 1827, to the monastery of Mt. Olivet (Alsace). During the Revolution of 1830 de Géramb displayed great courage in the face of a troop of insurgents that had come to pillage the monastery; though the religious had been dispersed, the abbey was at least, by his heroic action, spared the horrors of pillage. It was at this time that Brother Mary Joseph made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return in 1833, he went to Rome, where he held the office of procurator-general of La Trappe. He soon gerambgained the esteem and affection of Gregory XVI, who, though he was not a priest, named him titular abbot with the insignia of the ring and pectoral cross, a privilege without any precedent.

Abbot de Géramb is the author of many works, the principal of which are: “Letters to Eugene on the Eucharist”; “Eternity is approaching”; “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”; “A Journey from La Trappe to Rome”, besides many others of less importance and of an exclusively ascetical character. They were often reprinted and translated. His style is easy and without affectation. The customs, manners, and incidents of the journey which he describes, all are vividly and attractively given, and the topographical descriptions are of an irreproachable accuracy. Even under the monk’s cowl the great nobleman could occasionally be seen distributing in alms considerable sums of money which he had received from his family to defray his expenses.

I spent a good deal of time skimming through the book to which the search took me: A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria.  It is quite evocative, as this excerpt about Ash Wednesday shows:

 On the 20th I was awake long before dawn. I went
out of my tent, and seated myself at the entrance. My
Bedouins, at a little distance, were sleeping around some
half-extinct embers. At the slight noise which I made
their camels raised their heads, but laid them down
again immediately on the sand. Silence reigned around
me. It was Ash- Wednesday, a day specially set apart
by the Church, to remind its members of the curse pro-
nounced against the first man after his fall, and in which
his whole posterity is involved. I picked up a handful
of the dust of the desert, marked my brow with it, and,
giving myself the salutary warning which it was not pos-
sible for me to receive at the foot of the altars of Christ,
from the lips of one of his ministers, I pronounced these
words : — ” Recollect, O man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”

Then, joining in spirit and in heart the Christian
people, who, on this day more especially, beseech the
Lord ” to have pity upon them according to his great
mercy’ I waited for sunrise, meditating upon that
awful sentence of death pronounced upon the human
race, the execution of which none can escape, and which
it will by and by be my turn to undergo. It has often
been the case, my dear Charles, that I have felt deeply
moved and violently torn from the things of this world,
while listening to the powerful words demonstrating
their nothingness, issuing from the pulpit amidst the
doleful solemnities with which the holy season of penance
commences ; but I declare to you that this desert, where
the plant itself cannot live ; this soil, which is but dust,
and from which the blast sweeps away in the twinkling
of an eye all traces of the footsteps of man, telling him
that thus shall he be swept away by the blast of death;
this universal silence, not even interrupted like that of
the grave by the voice of grief or the song of mourning;
those ruins, and those empty sepulchers ; those carcasses
of kingdoms and of cities, which had just passed before
my eyes ; and that holy Bible, which related to me the
crimes of generations upon the spot where they were
committed, explained to me the transitory nature, the
paltriness, and the term of human life, and showed to
me, as still dwelling in the heavens, Him who will have
man know that he is the Lord, and that He infallibly
overtakes by his justice the presumptuous mortal who
disdains his mercy — all this spake to my soul in much
stronger language, in a language the energy of which
no words can express.


Now…for the 12-year old….

 

…1935 style.

More from a 1935 7th-grade text, part of the The Christ Life Series in Religion.

Note, again, how the child is treated as a full-fledged member of the Body of Christ, with responsibilities and the capacity to know his or herself and receive grace fruitfully and grow in union with Christ. No pandering, no dumbing-down. Nor is it about rule-following or a shallow embrace of external actions, as our caricatures of pre-Vatican II life tell us it must have been.  It is, as the textbook says, about becoming “more intimately united with Christ.”

Read and contrast to the prevalent contemporary understanding of Lent, which is that it’s about focusing my efforts so God can help me get my life together and feel better about it all.

There is a difference between the two emphases. Subtle, but real between “strengthening the soul’s life” and “having a great Lent.” It’s all about the focus. Is it about me or about Jesus, the Gospel and our mission, as parts of his Body, in a broken world?

And news flash: there is not much about Lent in the CCC, but what is there emphasizes that yes, it is still a penetential season. 

(click on graphics for bigger versions)

 

As living members of Christ’s Mystical Body we must participate in all His life. Today this means waging war on those passions which have been gaining ground in our soul and usurping the reign which belongs to Christ alone. Only a coward flees from a call to arms in a just cause. We, who in Confirmation have been sealed with the Spirit as soldiers of Christ, must fight courageously under His leadership. Is there any special self-indulgence weakening our spiritual life? Let us have entire confidence that with God’s grace we can overcome our faults.

Lent is a time of action and spiritual growth—not a time of gloom and repression, but a time of strong positive effort. Through our vigorous efforts of this season, we grow stronger spiritually, for we become more intimately united with Christ. It is in the Mass, above all, that we receive the grace we need in order to be victorious in the struggle upon which we are entering. Is it possible for you to assist at daily Mass during Lent, offering yourself with the divine Victim to atone for sin and to gain renewed vigor? Exactly what spiritual gains will you aim to make during this Lent? Join in the prayer of the Church today “that our fasts may be acceptable to thee and a means of healing to us. Through our Lord”

ashwednesday1

 

ashwednesday2

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Yes, it’s Sunday – Quinquagesima Sunday, no less – but in other years we’d be celebrating St. Polycarp, so…why not?

Today is the feast of the great martyr bishop who was also a disciple of St. John the Evangelist.

Here is the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on him, which includes, of course, information on the sources for his life. 

Here’s a translation of the “Acts of Polycarp” – the account of his martyrdom sent from the Church in Smyrna.

He is in my Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  

……..

saints

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This is an adapted reprint from previous years. Last year, I’d gone to Mass that Saturday evening thinking, “Wow, it’s almost Lent,” and expecting some kind of mention of the fact…which never came…which brought this to mind again. Perhaps you’ll appreciate it. 

I have been on a bit of a hobby horse about pre-Lent. And yes, I am still on it.

In reading over some older devotional materials (more on that in the next post) and thinking about this Sunday’s Mass readings, the problem (one of them) clicked into place in a very simple way.

Lent begins next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Which means tomorrow is the last Sunday before Lent begins. What are the Mass readings?

They are the readings from the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) – the Gospel being from the Sermon on the Mount.  Mt. 5:38-48.

How about last year? 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C).   Jesus heals a leper, from Mark 1:40-45.

And the year before? 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B: Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:24-34

Quinquagesima Sunday readings, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, everywhere in the Catholic world before the Second Vatican Council?

(Remember there were only two readings at Sunday Mass)

Corinthians 13:1-13 – ….but do not have love…

Gospel: Luke 18:31-43

At that time Jesus took unto Him the twelve and said to them: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things shall be accomplished which were written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man. For He shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and scourged and spit upon: and after they have scourged Him, they will put Him to death, and the third day He shall rise again.

And they understood none of these things, and this word was hid from them, and they understood not the things that were said.

Now it came to pass, when He drew nigh to Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the wayside, begging. And when he heard the multitude passing by, he asked what this meant. And they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying: Jesus,  son of David, have mercy on me. And they that went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace. But he cried out much more: Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus standing, commanded him to be brought unto Him. And when he was come near, He asked him, saying: What wilt thou that I do to thee? But he said: Lord, that I may see. And Jesus said to him: Receive thy sight, thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he saw and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

So the entire Catholic world would hear these Scriptures , not just whatever happens to be the readings of that last Sunday of Ordinary Time, but these Scriptures (and Propers and prayers) specifically and organically evolved with the coming of Lent in view.

(Catholics who participate in the Extraordinary Form or the Anglican Ordinariate still experience this form of pre-Lent, and of course Eastern Rite Catholics have their own form as well, with set readings that don’t change from year to year.)

In that older post I highlight the work of scholar Dr. Lauren Pristas, who wrote an essay detailing the thought and politics that went into the elimination of pre-Lent in the Latin Rite. As I say there, the conclusion is essentially that it was too hard for us poor lay folk to keep it all straight and stay focused.

Unintended consequences, anyone? Not to speak of weirdly wrong thinking. Pistas entitled her essay “Parachuting into Lent” and that is exactly the effect, isn’t it?

The best-intentioned post-Conciliar reformers (in contrast to those who simply didn’t believe any of the stuff anymore) seemed to me to be operating from the assumption that the  Church’s life and practice as it had developed over time functioned as an obstacle to deeply authentic faith, and that what was needed was a loosening of all this so that Catholics would develop a more adult faith, rooted in free response rather than adherence to structures.

Well, you know how it is. You know how it is when, on one day out of a million you have a blank slate in front of you? No rigid walls hemming you in? No kids to pick up, you don’t have to work, no one’s throwing obligations and tasks at you? And you think, Wow…a whole day free. I’m going to get so much  done! 

And then it’s the end of the day, and you realize that maybe what you had thought were restrictions were really guides and maybe not so bad because you look back on your Day Without Walls and you wonder…wait, how many cat videos did I watch today? Do I even want to know?

Yeah. That.

Where’s my parachute?


 

All right then, now that I have vented, some reading. And perhaps the reading will make more sense having read the venting and knowing that these writers have a common reference point: the Scripture readings for Quinguasesima Sunday, which are 1 Corinthians 13 on love and Jesus’ speaking of his coming passion and healing of a blind man.

Reading Vintage Lent, you might come away with a slightly different sense of self than much contemporary Spiritual-Speak delivers. You – the person embarking on this Lenten journey – are not a Bundle of Needs whose most urgent spiritual agenda is to feel accepted, especially as your energy is consumed by staring sadly at walls erected by rigid hypocritical churchy people.

No. Reading Vintage Lent, you discern that you’re a weak sinner, but with God’s grace for which your Lenten penance makes room, you are capable of leaving all that behind, and you must, for Christ needs you for the work of loving the world.

Here, as per usual, is an excerpt from my favorite vintage Catholic text book, originally published in 1935 for 7th graders:

 

 

 

Then this, from a book of meditations tied to the Sunday Scripture readings, published in 1904. It’s called The Inner Life of the Soul, and it really is quite a nice book. Not all older spiritual writing is helpful to us – the writing can be florid or dense in other ways, it can reflect concerns that perhaps we don’t share. This isn’t like that, and the reason, I think, is that the chapters were originally published as columns in a periodical called Sacred Heart Review.  The author is one S.L. Emery, and contemporary reviews of the book indicate that many readers assumed that the author was male, but a bit more research shows that this is not true. Susan L. Emery was, obviously, a woman, and is cited in other contemporary journals for her work in translating Therese of Liseux’s poetry. 

Anyway, Emery’s reflections, which tie together Scripture readings, the liturgy, the lives and wisdom of the saints and the concerns of ordinary experience, are worth bookmarking and returning to, and, if I might suggest to any publishers out there…reprinting.

What I think is important to see from this short reading, as well as the Ash Wednesday reflection that follows, is how mistaken our assumptions and stereotypes of the “bad old days” before Vatican II are. Tempted to characterize the spirituality of these years as nothing but cold-hearted rigidity distant from the complexities of human life, we might be surprised at the tone of these passages. The call to penance is strong. The guidelines are certainly stricter and more serious than what is suggested today. But take an honest look – it is not about the law at the expense of the spirit or the heart. Intention is at the core, and there are always qualifications and suggestions for those who cannot or are not required to follow the strictest reading of the guidelines: those who are young, old, or sick, or, if you notice, the laborer who must keep his or her strength up.

And the second paragraph? The description of the pressures upon the self in the modern world of 1904?

Don’t be fooled by the purveyors of novelty, especially of the spiritual kind – the very profitable kind – which would have you think that everything is so different now that nothing of the past is useful.

The season of Lent is at hand; in three days Ash Wednesday will be here; our Mother the Church calls upon us to fast, and pray, and to do penance for our sins. Each one who cannot fast should ask for some practical and methodical work of piety to do instead ; and perhaps few better could be found than ten minutes’ serious meditation, every day, upon the Passion of our Lord. This practice can be varied in many ways, some of them being so simple that a child might learn them ; and God alone knows of what immense value to us this practice, faithfully continued through one Lent, would be. Let us consider, then, by His assisting grace, that most helpful spiritual devotion called meditation.
In our day the necessity is really extreme of keeping the minds of Christians filled and permeated with an abiding sense of the love and care of Almighty God for each individual soul. The ceaseless hurry and worry prevalent amongst us, to become rich, to be counted intellectual, to know or to have as much as our neighbor, tends to destroy that overruling sense of spiritual things which would give ballast and leisure to our souls. Then, when earthly props fail us, and loneliness, sickness, or great trouble of any kind confronts us, the utter shallowness of our ordinary pursuits opens out in its desert waste before us, and our aching eyes see nothing to fill the void. The ambition dies out of life. If we have means, people begin to talk of change of scene and climate for tired souls who know but too well that they cannot run away from the terrible burden, self ; though their constant craving is, nevertheless, to escape somehow from their “ waste life and unavailing days.” The unfortunate, introspective and emotional reading of our era fosters the depression, and suicide has become a horribly common thing.
Even a Christian mind becomes tainted with this prevailing evil of despondency, which needs to be most forcibly and promptly met. Two weapons are at hand, — the old and never to be discarded ones of the love of God and the love of our neighbor. …
…. Oh, if in our dark, dark days we could only forget our selves ! God, Who knows our trials, knows well how almost impossible to us that forgetfulness sometimes seems ; perhaps He ordains that it literally is impossible for a while, and that it shall be our hardest cross just then. But at least, as much as we can, let us forget ourselves in Him and in our suffering brothers; and He will remember us.

I did a search for “Quinquagesima” on Archive.org and came up with lots of Anglican results, but here’s a bit of an interesting Catholic offering – an 1882 pastoral letter from the Archbishop of Westminster to his Archdiocese. The first couple of pages deal specifically with Lent, and the rest with Catholic education, which is interesting enough. But for today, I’ll focus on the Quinquagesima part. He begins by lamenting a decline in faith – pointing out the collapse of Christian culture. And then turns to Lent:

We are once more upon the threshold of this
sacred time. Let us use it well. It may be our last Lent, our
last time of preparation and purification before we stand in the
light of the Great White Throne. Let us, therefore, not ask
how much liberty may we indulge without positive sin, but how
much liberty we may offer to Him who gave Himself for us.
” All things to me are lawful, but all things edify not ; ” and
surely in Lent it is well to forego many lawful things which
belong to times of joy, not to times of penance.

The Indult of the Holy See has so tempered the rule of
fasting that only the aged, or feeble, or laborious, are unable to
observe it. If fasting be too severe for any, they may be dis-
pensed by those who have authority. But, if dispensed, they are .
bound so to use their liberty as to keep in mind the reason and
the measure of their dispensation. A dispensation does not
exempt us from the penitential season of Lent. They who use
a dispensation beyond its motives and its measures, lose all
merit of abstinence, temperance, and self-chastisement. If you
cannot fast, at least abstain. If you cannot abstain, use your
dispensation as sparingly as can be, and only as your need re-
quires. If in fasting and abstinence you cannot keep Lent,
keep it by prayer, and Sacraments, and alms, and spiritual
mortifications. Chastise the faults of temper, resentment, ani-
mosity, vanity, self-love, and pride, which, in some degree and
in divers ways, beset and bias if they do not reign in all our
hearts. In these forty days let the world, its works and ways,
be shut out as far as can be from your homes and hearts. Go
out of the world into the desert with our Divine Redeemer.
Fast with Him, at least from doing your own will ; from the
care and indulgence of self which naturally besets us. Examine
th^ habits of your life, your prayers, your confessions, your
communions, your amusements, your friendships, the books
you read, the money you spend upon yourselves, the alms you
give to the poor, the offerings you have laid upon the Altar, and
the efforts you have made for the salvation of souls. Make a
review of the year that is past ; cast up the reckoning of these
things ; resolve for the year to come on some onward effort,
and begin without delay. To-day is set apart for a test of your
charity and love of souls. We may call it the commemoration
of our poor children, and the day of intercession for the orphans
and the destitute.

Finally…do you want to be correct? Well, here you go.

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—1 —

Hey, there – I’m in Living Faith today – here you go for that! 

 

— 2 —

Today’s the feast of St. John Bosco. Want to know more about him?  The old Catholic Encyclopedia entry is a good place to start. 

I wrote about him in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints.

 

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

— 3 —

Ashwednesday

You know it. 

Here’s a page with many Lent-related posts. 

Next week, I’ll be ranting again about Septuagesima. But if you’re interested, you can catch the gist of it here. 

Short version, to newcomers – used to be that all Catholics (not just Eastern Catholics) celebrated a “pre-Lent” – three Sundays that, through the readings, prayers and practices, prepared your soul and readied your spirit for the sacrifices ahead.

But…well…some people thought they new better. Go here to read the tale. 

— 4 —

We spent the first part of this week in South Florida: the Everglades, the Upper Keys, and Biscayne, with the quickest of shots through Miami Beach – as quickly as one can do such a thing a few days before the Super Bowl…in Miami.

For the posts and photos, just click back through this week’s entries. And go to Instagram for some video – if you would like to see the highlights of the trip for us which were, respectively: kayaking out to an island in the Gulf; seeing manatees, stumbling into a citizenship ceremony, and watching a large gator munch on a waterfowl of some sort. Yup.

— 5 –

And sure, teachable moments. The emphasis was on history and ecology – we learned about the history of South Florida, focusing on the Seminole presence – where and why – as well as the history of development. (The PBS American Experience episode The Swamp is very good. Long, but good.) Lots of natural sciences and ecological considerations – the flora and fauna, the invasive species, the function of the Everglades and the formation of the Keys.

And manatees!

IMG_20200129_104752

— 6 —

Thanks to Dom & Melanie Bettinelli (on Facebook), I was reminded of P.D.Q. Bach. 

Wow, how could I have forgotten, with a music guy in the house? Well, a couple of weeks ago, it was Flight of the Conchords – this week, we’ll dive into the Maestro.

Music related, also from the Bettinellis – I’ve not yet listened, but we will certainly try out the podcast “How Does Music Do That?” Looks good! 

— 7 —

 I’ve recommended this before – but it bears repeating – of the many digest/newsletter type resources out there, Prufrock News is one of the best. Always good links to follow, and not so many that it’s overwhelming.

Today, he links to a piece on the history of the  Memphis (Tennessee) pyramid – in case you’d ever wondered!

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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