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The question of how to “recognize” mothers at a Mother’s Day Mass is a fraught one.

There is, of course, the view (mine) that everything that happens at Mass should relate only to the liturgical year. Stop doing all the other stupid things, thanks. As a community, we’re free to celebrate whatever in whatever way we choose outside of Mass, but when it comes to Very Special Mass in Honor of Very Special Groups of any sort – scouts, moms, dads, youth, ‘Muricans….I’m against it.

But of course, over the years, American sentimental pop culture creeps into the peripheries of liturgical observance, and quite often, here we are at Mass on the second Sunday of May, with the expectation that the Moms present must be honored.

I mean…I went to the trouble to go to Mass for the first time in four months to make her happy…you’d better honor her….

This is problematic, however, and it’s also one of those situations in which the celebrant often feels that he just can’t win. No matter what he does, someone will be angry with him, be hurt, or feel excluded.

Because behind the flowers and sentiment, Mother’s Day is very hard for a lot of people – perhaps it’s the most difficult holiday out there for people in pain.

So when Father invites all the moms present to stand for their blessing at the end of Mass and the congregation applauds….who is hurting?

  • Infertile couples
  • Post-abortive women
  • Post-miscarriage women
  • Women whose children have died
  • People who have been victims of abuse at the hands of their mothers
  • People with terrible mothers
  • Women have placed children for adoption
  • Women who are now and might never be biological or adoptive mothers

And then there are those of us who value our role as mothers, but who really think Mother’s Day is lame and would just really prefer that you TRY TO GET ALONG FOR ONE STUPID DAY instead of giving me some flowers and politely clapping at Mass.

So awkward.

Nope. Making Mothers stand up, be blessed and applauding them (the worst) at Mass is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. It’s not that people should expect to be sheltered from the consequences of their choices and all that life has handed them when the enter the church doorway. The Catholic way is the opposite of that – after all, the fundamental question every one of us carries is that of death, and every time we enter a Catholic church we are hit with that truth, sometimes more than life-sized. No, the question is more: Catholic life and tradition has a lot to say and do when it comes to parenthood – in ways, if you think about it, that aren’t sentimental and take into account the limitations of human parenthood and root us, no matter how messed-up our families are or how distant we feel from contemporary ideals of motherhood – in the parenthood of God. Live in that hope, share it, and be formed by that, not by commercially-driven American pop culture.

So here’s a good idea. It happened at my parish yesterday.

Because we’re not walled off from the broader culture. People enter into that sacred space carrying everything with them, and Christ seeks to redeem all of it.  So knowing that Mother’s Day permeates the culture, accepting it, but also accepting that motherhood and parenthood in general is far more complex than the greeting cards and commercials let on, and that people come bearing, not only motherhood-related joy, but motherhood-related pain as well – the Body of Christ embraces and takes it all in.

So, quite simply, at the end of Mass as we were standing for the final blessing, the celebrant mentioned that it was Mother’s Day (it hadn’t been mentioned before this), and said that as such, it was an appropriate day to pray for our mothers, living and deceased, and to ask our Blessed Mother for her intercession for them and for us. Hail Mary…

Done.

And done in a way that, just in its focus, implicitly acknowledges and respects the diversity of experiences of motherhood that will be present in any congregation, and, without sentiment or awkward overreach, does that Catholic thing, rooted in tradition  – offers the whole mess up, in trust.

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— 1 —

This year, we celebrated the Triduum at the Casa Maria Convent and Retreat House, the boys serving Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday – we chose Sunday rather than the Vigil this year, and it was good, I think, because they were the only servers. Father John Paul, MFVA celebrated all the liturgies, and it was as it always is: simplicity, depth, reverence. Music that was offered as praise, and since this was so, was beautiful but not ostentatious or self-referential.

As I was waiting for the boys after one of the liturgies, a young man was speaking to his friend nearby. He was explaining what he liked about the liturgies at the convent. “It’s not too much,” he was saying, “It just is.

It just is.

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(For some audio clips of some of the liturgies, go to my Instagram profile/page.)

— 2 —

Next year, though, I am thinking that I want to take off for the Triduum. I see all these newsfeed and Instagram photos of processions and pictures on the ground fashioned out of flower petals, and I want to go to there.  I might try to go to a place where the culture is still all in on Holy Week. Suggestions? Somewhere in Mexico or Central America? Preferably no more than one time zone away from me?

— 3 —

We have a new driver in the house. As I said on Facebook, four down, one to go.  It really is, in my mind, the worst thing about parenting. I hate guiding a new driver through all this, and it causes me more stress than almost anything.  Yeah, potty-training is hassle, but wet diapers don’t risk anyone’s life or limbs. Usually.

We still only have one vehicle, though, so drive time is limited. As it happens, the day before his driving test, a car popped up on the local neighborhood discussion board – a fellow who seemed legit was selling a decent car for a very decent price – under 2K.  I almost jumped at it. I even emailed him about it, but after letting it swim in my brain overnight, I told him I’d pass.  For you see, I have been making regular speeches on the theme of We Are Not Getting Another Vehicle Until At Least Late Summer if Not Later  with clear (I hope) subtexts of how the new driver needed to probably kick in some funds to offset insurance costs, which was intended to incentivize job-seeking.  In a way, life would be a lot easier with another car right now, but upon reflection, I decided my original instincts were correct. We need a little bit of time to sit with the pain of being-able-to-but-not-having-the-means-to-do-what-we-want. Waking up with a set of wheels to drive, even if they’re old and not-shiny a couple of days after you turn sixteen doesn’t contribute to that cause and just encourages taking-for-granted, which no house which harbors adolescents, even good-hearted ones – needs more of than it already has.

— 4 —

Recent listens:

In Our Time program on Rosa Luxembourg, a Polish-born socialist revolutionary thinker murdered by her fellow-travelers in a divided movement in Germany. The whole discussion was interesting, since I had never heard of her, but what really caught my attention was the post-show discussion in which loose ends are tied up and missed points are made.

During the entire program, the scholar guests, particularly the two female academics had been working hard to make the case that Luxemburg was very important and had an enormous impact on German leftism in the early part of the 20th century, all of this despite being a woman, and thereby being prohibited from expressing her views and promoting her agenda through running for office herself or even voting.

Her contributions were outlined and emphasized, her major themes delineated including, it was said, her pacifism.

Well, hang on, said the third scholar at the end. In the post-Great War German revolution, leftist forces employed devastating destructive violent acts that we might even say verged on terrorism. Luxembourg, he said, said and did nothing to discourage this direction and even held positions that contributed to the climate in which such violence was acceptable and innocents were victimized.

Oh, no, no, no said the other two scholars – she really didn’t have that much influence – whatever she might have said along those lines or any perceived approval in silence had no impact on the events that were unfolding at the time.

It’s such a familiar pattern. My marginalized hero/heroine contributed so much when the cause is beneficial to my point of view, but when it gets uncomfortable…eh. She was really just a repressed marginalized voice, you know. Not her fault.

— 5 —

On Books and Authors, I heard a short interview with British Muslim writer Ayisha Malek, the author of a couple of so-called Brigid Jones with hijabs. I was intrigued, especially after being in London and being one of the 2% of non-Muslims in Harrod’s one evening.

What interested me was her statement that as a teenager, she couldn’t identify with contemporary young adult literature or chick-lit, but she could identify very closely with Austen and other writers because, as she said, as an observant Muslim, her social life had more in common with Elizabeth Bennett’s and Isabel Archer’s than it did with Brigid Jones’.

Well, that’s intriguing, and a good point, I thought – I’d like to peek into the lives of those women I saw in their hijabs and niqabs, toting Luis Vuitton and Chanel bags. So I downloaded the free sample of the first few chapters of her novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged..  Meh. The writing was pedestrian and the humor obvious and forced. Which was too bad, because I was up for it.

— 6 –

Start the Week had a program on the Reformation which initially prompted mild but decidedly ragey feelings as I stomped around the park and listened to a litany of caricatures of pre-Reformation England from people who really should – and probably do- know better. But the arrow swung back in the direction of “approve” as the topic of women came up and both women on the program, one of whom was novelist Sarah Dunant – began to rather forcefully make the point that perhaps the Lutheran and Calvinist movements were not great for women. One of the male scholars argued that the Reformation helped women because it emphasized their role as keepers of the faith flame in the home, but one of the women responded, quite correctly that well, yes, then according to most of the Reformers, that was it, then, wasn’t it? Hmmm…someone else has made that point recently, I do believe!

— 7 —

Are you in need of gifts for First Communion, Confirmation, graduation? Mother’s Day? End-of-the-year teacher gift? Perhaps I can help….

(For children, mom, sister, friend, new Catholic….)

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

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  • I did post a bit on Saturday, in case you don’t do Internet on the weekends, which a lot of people don’t. And good for you! Both were on fasting and the anxiety Catholics feel about our purportedly lame Latin Rite fasting regime. 
  • It was a weekend of camping, piano and basketball. Older kid went camping, younger one had two piano performances, plus a basketball game. Lost the game, ending the season, but I don’t think anyone’s crushed. Time to move on.
  • Piano. First performance was part of his obligation as a scholarship awardee from his music academy – they must do some extra performances during the course of the year, mostly in retirement facilities: two at Christmas, two in the spring.

 

(In which I finally learn how to embed Instagram here..because it’s code, I had assumed that you did it in the HTML editor, but no…you do it in the visual editor and it magically works…)

For more on Nathaniel Dett, go here. 

When I was trying to post the whole performance on Facebook, it wouldn’t let me, saying I was trying to post music or a performance under copyright to someone else. So I took “Beethoven” out of the description, and no problem.

  • We went to Mass at a parish I’ve only been to once before. It’s in a part of town far from my regular routes (but close to where one of the performances was, and the timing worked out perfectly). I was struck once again by now-familiar course of liturgical life:

 

  • When we strip down ritual to mostly words, we still carry the intuition that these words must mean a great deal, but since the ritual has been denuded of its dramatic elements and only has the most minimal level of symbolic material and gesture, the burden of conveying that meaning is all in the words now, and how the words are uttered. So the celebrant, in his person and in his manner, must convey all that was previously conveyed in what surrounded him. And what we are left with is a celebrant who might try to do this in  the most urgently deeply meaningful manner that, indeed, might move some in the congregation, but might tempt others to laugh, and give one more reminder to humbly stifle that inner liturgy critic, please. It’s Lent, after all. 

 

 

  • Martineau’s writing style is straightfoward and honest. Very accessible, even almost two centuries later. I will definitely be writing about this book when I’m finished, but some observations for now:
  • It was a six week-voyage across the sea. I am preparing for a trip to London in a few weeks.It will take us 9 hours or so to get across. That still astonishes and humbles me. People of Martineau’s era had much more challenging material and physical lives, but seemed to accomplish so much more. What’s my problem?
  • Martineau cannot get enough of the sea. She speaks of every night before retiring to her cabin, of having to go say goodnight to the sea. I think the following passage is a good example of her writing, and her ability to capture scenes, both natural and human.

Our afternoons were delightful; for the greater number of the forty-two days that we were at sea, the sun set visibly, with more or less lustre, and all eyes were watching his decline. There was an unusual quietness on board just about sunset. All the cabin passengers were collected on one side, except any two or three who, might be in the rigging. The steerage passengers were to be seen looking out at the same sight, and probably engaged as we were in pointing out some particular bar of reddened cloud, or snowy mountain of vapours, or the crimsom or golden light spattered on the swelling sides of the billows as they heaved sunward.Then came the last moment of expectation, even to the rising on tiptoe, as if that would enable us to see a spark more of the sun; and then the revival of talk, and the bustle of pairing off to walk. This was the hour for walking the deck; and, till near teatime, almost the whole company might be seen parading like a school. I never grew very fond of walking on a heaving floor, on which you have to turn at the end of every thirty paces or so; but it is a duty to walk on board ship, and it is best to do it at this hour, and in full and cheerful company.

After tea the cabin was busy with whist and chess parties, readers, and laughers and talkers. On damp and moonless evenings I joined a whist party; but my delight was the deck at this time, when I had it all to myself, or when I could at least sit alone in the stern. I know no greater luxury than sitting alone in the stern on fine nights, when there is no one within hearing but the helmsman, and sights of beauty meet the eye wherever it turns. Behind, the light from the binnacle alone gleams upon the deck; dim, shifting lights and shadows mark out the full sails against the sky, and stars look down between. The young moon drops silently into the sea afar. In our wake is a long train of pale fire, perpetually renewed as we hiss through the dark waves.

Once she landed in America, she spends the first part of her travels in New York – city and state. Her observations are fascinating. Just a couple of random citations to give you taste.

She rides a canal boat and is extremely irritated at the gaggle of Presbyterian ministers who take over the boat:

We suffered under an additional annoyance in the presence of sixteen Presbyterian clergymen, some of the most unprepossessing of their class. If there be duty more obvious than another on board a canal boat, it is to walk on the bank occasionally in fair weather, or, at least, to remain outside, in order to air the cabin (close enough at best) and get rid of the scents of the table before the unhappy passengers are shut up to sleep there. These sixteen gentlemen, on their way to a Convention at Utica, could not wait till they got there to begin their devotional observances, but obtruded them upon the passengers in a most unjustifiable manner. They were not satisfied with saying an almost interminable grace before and after each meal, but shut up the cabin for prayers before dinner; for missionary conversation in the afternoon, and for scripture reading and prayers quite late into the night, keeping tired travellers from their rest, and every one from his fair allowance of fresh air.

This is very funny. I’ve never thought of rocking chairs as a Newfangled Contrivance, but I guess they were:

In these small inns the disagreeable practice of rocking in the chair is seen in its excess. In the inn parlour are three or four rocking-chairs, in which sit ladies who are vibrating in different directions, and at various velocities, so as to try the head of a stranger almost as severely as the tobacco-chewer his stomach. How this lazy and ungraceful indulgence ever became general, I cannot imagine; but the nation seems so wedded to it, that I see little chance of its being forsaken. When American ladies come to live in Europe, they sometimes send home for a rocking-chair. A common wedding-present is a rocking-chair. A beloved pastor has every room in his house furnished with a rocking- chair by his grateful and devoted people. It is well that the gentlemen can be satisfied to sit still, or the world might be treated with the spectacle of the sublime American Senate in a new position; its fifty-two senators see-sawing in full deliberation, like the wise birds of a rookery in a breeze. If such a thing should ever happen, it will be time for them to leave off laughing at the Shaker worship.

I hasten to add that Martineau, in general, is a very generous-hearted and open-minded traveler. She has her critiques (and more in Society in America, which I will be picking up next), but they are rare. It’s just that they are amusing, which is they way life usually goes, isn’t it?

Just a few other random observations: She is generally appalled by the behavior of fellow Englishmen as she encounters them in the United States. She feels sorry for Canada, which suffers greatly, in her estimation, in comparison to the United States, and she blames her own country for this. She spends a lot of time at Niagara Falls, even venturing behind the falls – which you can do today, of course (I’ve done it), but I had not idea that kind of tourism at Niagara was established so early. And at one point in her journey – traveling across New York state – she connects with others from her sea voyage, and she is the only woman among a group of men and – those who would caricature the past – this is no big deal. 

As we surmounted the hill leading to our hotel, we saw our two shipmates dancing down the steps to welcome us. There certainly is a feeling among shipmates which does not grow out of any other relation. They are thrown first into such absolute dependance on one another, for better for worse, and are afterward so suddenly and widely separated, that if they do chance to meet again, they renew their intimacy with a fervour which does not belong to a friendship otherwise originated. The glee of our whole party this evening is almost ridiculous to look back upon. Everything served to make a laugh, and we were almost intoxicated with the prospect of what we were going to see and do together. We had separated only a fortnight ago, but we had as much to talk over as if we had been travelling apart for six months.

The Prussian had to tell his adventures, we our impressions, and the Southerner his comparisons of his own country with Europe. Then we had to arrange the division of labour by which the gentlemen were to lighten the cares or travelling. Dr. J., the Prussian, was on all occasions to select apartments for us;. Mr. S., the Dutchman, to undertake the eating department; Mr. H., the American, was paymaster; and Mr. O., the German, took charge of the luggage. It was proposed that badges should be worn to designate their offices. Mr. S. was to be adorned with a corncob. Mr. H. stuck a bankbill in front of his hat; and, next morning, when Mr. O. was looking another way, the young men locked a small padlock upon his button-hole, which he was compelled to carry there for a day or two, till his comrades vouchsafed to release him from his badge.

Here she describes the view from the (now gone) Catskill Mountain House. I’m breaking it up into paragraphs not in the original for ease of reading. Martineau was a devout, deeply spiritual (obviously) Unitarian.

The next day was Sunday. I shall never forget, if I live to a hundred, how the world lay at my feet one Sunday morning. I rose very, early, and looked abroad from my window, two stories above the platform. A dense fog, exactly level with my eyes, as it appeared, roofed in the whole plain of the earth; a dusky firmament in which the stars had hidden themselves for the day. Such is the account which an antediluvian spectator would probably have given of it. This solid firmament had spaces in it, however, through which gushes of sunlight were poured, lighting up the spires of white churches, and clusters of farm buildings too small to be otherwise distinguished; and especially the river, with its sloops floating like motes in the sunbeam. The firmament rose and melted, or parted off into the likeness of snowy sky-mountains, and left the cool Sabbath tobrood brightly over the land.  

What human interest sanctifies a bird’s-eye view! I suppose this is its peculiar charm, for its charm is found to deepen in proportion to the growth of mind. To an infant, a champaign of a hundred miles is not so much as a yard square of gay carpet. To the rustic it is less bewitching than a paddock with two cows. To the philosopher, what is it not? As he casts his eye over its glittering towns, its scattered hamlets, its secluded homes, its mountain ranges, church spires, and untrodden forests, it is a picture of life; an epitome of the human universe; the complete volume of moral philosophy, for which he has sought in vain in all libraries.

On the left horizon are the Green Mountains of Vermont, and at the right extremity sparkles the Atlantic. Beneath lies the forest where the deer are hiding and the birds rejoicing in song. Beyond the river he sees spread the rich plains of Connecticut; there, where a blue expanse lies beyond the triple range of hills, are the churches of religious Massachusetts sending up their Sabbath psalms; praise which he is too high to hear, while God is not.

The fields and waters seem to him to-day no more truly property than the skies which shine down upon them; and to think how some below are busying their thoughts this Sabbath-day about how they shall hedge in another field, or multiply their flocks on yonder meadows, gives him a taste of the same pity which Jesus felt in his solitude when his followers were contending about which should be greatest. It seems strange to him now that man should call anything his but the power which is in him, and which can create somewhat more vast and beautiful than all that this horizon encloses. Here he gains the conviction, to be never again shaken, that all that its real is ideal; that the joys and sorrows of men do not spring up out of the ground, or fly abroad on the wings of the wind, or come showered down from the sky; that good cannot be hedged in, nor evil barred out; even that light does not reach the spirit through the eye alone, nor wisdom through the medium of sound or silence only.  He becomes of one mind with the spiritual Berkeley, that the face of nature itself, the very picture of woods, and streams, and meadows, is a hieroglyphic writing in the spirit itself, of which the retina is no interpreter. The proof is just below him (at least it came under my eye), in the lady (not American) who, after glancing over the landscape, brings her chair into the piazza, and, turning her back to the champaign, and her face to the wooden walls of the hotel, begins the study, this Sunday morning, of her lapful of newspapers. What a sermon is thus preached to him at this moment from a very hackneyed text! To him that hath much; that hath the eye, and ear, and wealth of the spirit, shall more be given even a replenishing of this spiritual life from that which to others is formless and dumb; while from him that hath little, who trusts in that which lies about him rather than in that which lives within him, shall be taken away, by natural decline, the power of perceiving and enjoying what is within his own domain. To him who is already enriched with large divine and human revelations this scene is, for all its stillness, musical with divine and human speech; while one who has been deafened by the din of worldly affairs can hear nothing in this mountain solitude.

Substitute: phone for lapful of newspapers and once again…plus ca change. 

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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 of the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Gospel: Matthew 6, continuing our reading of the Sermon on the Mount which has been going on for a couple of weeks.

How about last year? The last Sunday before Lent began was the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time and the Gospel – calling of Peter, etc. from Luke. 

And before that? 2015 – 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Gospel – healing of a leper from Mark. 

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

(Remember there were only two readings)

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.

 

"amy welborn"

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?

 

 

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One week! One week from today!

If you’re on the lookout for resources for yourself, your kids or your parish or school, take a look at these. It might be cutting it close for parish or school resources, but maybe not – it’s worth a call.

So, yes. March 1. If you’re prepping for a parish or school, check out my Lenten devotional from Liguori, also available in Spanish.

(pdf sample of English language version here)

Kindle version of English booklet. 

Paper version. Still time to order with Prime. 

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The Spanish-language version is not available in a digital format, but here is an Amazon link, and yes, you can get it soon via Prime. 

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PDF sample of Spanish language version. 

Contact Liguori at 1-800-325-9521 for parish and school orders. No promises, but they can probably get orders to you by next week.

  • Reconciled to God, a daily devotional from Creative Communications for the parish.  You can buy it individually, in bulk for the parish our your group, or get a digital version. (.99)amy-welborn-3

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  • The Word on Fire ministry is more than the Catholicism or Pivotal Players series – as great as they are! There are also some really great lecture series/group discussion offerings.  I wrote the study guide for the series on Conversion – a good Lenten topic. 

  • A few years ago, I wrote a Stations of the Cross for young people calledNo Greater Love,  published by Creative Communications for the Parish. They put it out of print for a while…but now it’s back!

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Looking ahead to First Communion/Confirmation season? Try here. 

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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Today is her memorial. If you don’t know her story, take a look at B16’s encyclical Spe Salvi – in which the pope uses St. Josephine as his very first example of “hope.” You really can’t find a better brief introduction:

Yet at this point a question arises: in what does this hope consist which, as hope, is “redemption”? The essence of the answer is given in the phrase from the Letter to the Ephesians quoted above: the Ephesians, before their encounter with Christ, were without hope because they were “without God in the world”. To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.

The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.

Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

bakhita5Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited.

What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.

On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

There is quite a bit of biographical material on St. Josephine Bakhita, including an Italian film that doesn’t look lame, based on the trailer.

Ignatius Press published a translation of an Italian biography called Bakhita: From Slave to Saint. You can read big chunks of it online via a Google Book search. There is quite a bit of interest, including the account of how she came to stay in Italy.

Bakhita, as recounted above, had been kidnapped by Muslim slave traders. After being bought and sold a few times, she was finally purchased – for the purpose of redemption – by an Italian consul. After a time, he took her and another African, a boy, to Genoa. She was taken into the home of one Augusto Michieli, where she eventually became the nanny to Michieli’s daughter. Turina Michieli, wife of Augusto, was a lapsed, probably agnostic Russian Orthodox, so religion was not a part of the family’s life.

It was via a fascinating fellow named Illuminato Chechinni, who managed some Michieli’s land, that Bakhita was exposed to Christianity. There came a point at which the Michielis were going to return to Africa, and so Bakhita and her young charge were housed in an Institute for catechumens in Venice for a time, until final arrangements were made. When those arrangements were, indeed made, and the time came for the whole family to return to Africa…Bakhita refused.

It was quite a tussle, that even came to involve the Patriarch of Venice, and the authorities eventually decided that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita was not a slave, had always been free since she landed on Italian shores, and was free to do what she liked.

Bakhita had dictated an autobiography to a fellow sister, and this is an excerpt about that time:

Nine months later Mrs. Turina returned to Venice to claim her rights over me. But I refused to follow her back to Africa, since my instruction for baptism had not yet been completed. I also knew that, if I had followed her after receiving baptism, I would not have had the opportunity to practise my new religion. That is why, I thought it better to remain with the Sisters.
She burst out into a fit of anger, calling me ungrateful in forcing her to return to Africa alone, after all she had done for me.
But I was firm in my decision. She had a hundred and one pleas to make, but I would not bend to any one of them. I felt greatly pained at seeing her so upset and angry, because I really loved her.
I am sure the Lord gave me strength at that moment, because He wanted me for Himself alone. Oh. the goodness of God!
The next day Mrs. Turina returned to the Institute, with another lady, and tried again, with even harsher threats to convince me to follow her. But to no avail. The two ladies left the Catechumenate very irritated.
The Superior of the House contacted His Eminence, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice informing him of the delicate situation. The Patriarch referred the matter to the King’s Procurator who replied that, in Italy. slavery was illegal. I was therefore a free person. Mrs. Turina too called on the King’s Procurator, hoping to obtain from him permission to force me to follow her, but she received the same answer.
On the third day, there she was again, at the Institute, accompanied by the same lady and by a brother-in-law who was an officer in the Army. Also present were the His Eminence Domenico Agostini, the Chairman of the Charity Association, the Superior of the Institute and some of the Sisters belonging to the Catechumenate. The Patriarch was the first to speak: a long  discussion ensued, which, fortunately, ended in my favour.
Mrs. Turina was in tears, tears of anger and disappointment. She snatched the child, who was clinging to me, unwilling to part, and forced her to follow her. I was so upset that I could scarcely  utter a word. Finally, I saw them leaving. I was in tears myself.
And yet, I felt happy that had not yielded. It was 29 November 1889.

And so she stayed, was baptized, and eventually became a professed religious, serving her community and the surrounding people in various ways, giving mission talks, serving the wounded during World War II, and eventually dying in 1947 – canonized in 2000.

Today is, appropriately, a day of prayer and awareness against human trafficking. USCCB page here. 

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