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This is, I hope, one of two St. Ambrose posts today. It’s a repeat from last year, but please forgive, because this happened last night:

"amy welborn"

No damage to anything – right across the driveway – but I’m waiting for the tree guys….

So.

 

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St. Ambrose, today.

He’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints, under “Saints are People Who Change Their Lives for God.” 

"amy welborn"

You can peek at the chapter here, at Google Books.

Almost six years ago, we did a spring break trip to Milan (freaky low airfare.  I’ll bet if you flew to Orlando that year for spring break and went to Disney, I spent less than you did on our trip.).  And of course, Milan=Ambrose.

(What you might not know is that Milan, as the center of Lombardy in northern Italy, has been the focus of so much attempted conquest and other warfare over the centures, has very little ancient, medieval or even Renaissance architecture or infrastructure.  The basilica of St. Ambrose is an anomaly in the city. Leonardo’s Last Supper barely survived the Allied bombing of WWII.)

But first, to the Duomo –
In the crypt of the Duomo – the baptistry where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine:

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

The Metro stop is nearby, and an underground corridor passes the baptistry.  You can peek out at the passengers rushing by, and if you are on the other side you could peek in to the baptistry – if you knew it was there.

"amy welborn"

A different type of modern transport juxtaposed with the ancient.   Some wheels from the city’s bike-sharing service in front of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio –

one of the four churches built by Ambrose. (of course what we see is not the original – but is the result of building and rebuilding on the site.)

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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In other places you can find photos of the body of St. Ambrose in the crypt.  I  didn’t take his photo though. I probably could have – a little girl stuck her camera right through the grate and got a shot of the vested skeleton and no one stopped her. But it just didn’t feel right to me. Maybe because the boys were with me and I didn’t want to model “getting a good shot” as even Step Two (after “pray”) in “What To do in the Presence of Important Saints’ Relics.”

B16 at a General Audience, speaking about St. Ambrose:

Dear brothers and sisters, I would like further to propose to you a sort of “patristic icon”, which, interpreted in the light of what we have said, effectively represents “the heart” of Ambrosian doctrine. In the sixth book of the Confessions, Augustine tells of his meeting with Ambrose, an encounter that was indisputably of great importance in the history of the Church. He writes in his text that whenever he went to see the Bishop of Milan, he would regularly find him taken up with catervae of people full of problems for whose needs he did his utmost. There was always a long queue waiting to talk to Ambrose, seeking in him consolation and hope. When Ambrose was not with them, with the people (and this happened for the space of the briefest of moments), he was either restoring his body with the necessary food or nourishing his spirit with reading. Here Augustine marvels because Ambrose read the Scriptures with his mouth shut, only with his eyes (cf. Confessions, 6, 3). Indeed, in the early Christian centuries reading was conceived of strictly for proclamation, and reading aloud also facilitated the reader’s understanding. That Ambrose could scan the pages with his eyes alone suggested to the admiring Augustine a rare ability for reading and familiarity with the Scriptures. Well, in that “reading under one’s breath”, where the heart is committed to achieving knowledge of the Word of God – this is the “icon” to which we are referring -, one can glimpse the method of Ambrosian catechesis; it is Scripture itself, intimately assimilated, which suggests the content to proclaim that will lead to the conversion of hearts.

Thus, with regard to the magisterium of Ambrose and of Augustine, catechesis is inseparable from witness of life. What I wrote on the theologian in the Introduction to Christianity might also be useful to the catechist. An educator in the faith cannot risk appearing like a sort of clown who recites a part “by profession”. Rather – to use an image dear to Origen, a writer who was particularly appreciated by Ambrose -, he must be like the beloved disciple who rested his head against his Master’s heart and there learned the way to think, speak and act. The true disciple is ultimately the one whose proclamation of the Gospel is the most credible and effective.

Like the Apostle John, Bishop Ambrose – who never tired of saying: “Omnia Christus est nobis! To us Christ is all!” – continues to be a genuine witness of the Lord. Let us thus conclude our Catechesis with his same words, full of love for Jesus: “Omnia Christus est nobis! If you have a wound to heal, he is the doctor; if you are parched by fever, he is the spring; if you are oppressed by injustice, he is justice; if you are in need of help, he is strength; if you fear death, he is life; if you desire Heaven, he is the way; if you are in the darkness, he is light…. Taste and see how good is the Lord:  blessed is the man who hopes in him!” (De Virginitate, 16, 99). Let us also hope in Christ. We shall thus be blessed and shall live in peace.

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 More

— 1 —

You might know Elizabeth Duffy  – writer, long-time blogger whose writings are now featured, not only on her own website, but at Image. 

Well, she’s got a new gig – along with two other women, she is making music as Sister Sinjin. They have an Advent/Christmas-themed album about to be released, and the music is lovely. Check them out here.

— 2 —

Some politics. Last week, I wrote about the election, encouraging readers to reacquaint themselves with the the ideals of separation of powers and limited government and consider what a good idea that is. A couple of related articles. First, from Reason (trigger: Libertarian)

In December 2007 presidential candidate Barack Obama told The Boston Globe that if he won the 2008 election, he would enter the White House committed to rolling back the sort of overreaching executive power that had characterized the presidency of George W. Bush. “The President is not above the law,” Obama insisted.

Once elected, however, President Obama began to sing a different sort of tune. “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation,” Obama announced. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone…and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions.”…

…..Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. Once President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office in January 2017, he too will have a pen and a phone at his presidential fingertips. Should Trump grow weary of the constitutional limits placed upon him, and decide instead to ignore the Constitution and wield unilateral executive power, he won’t exactly have far to look if he wants to find a recent presidential role model to emulate.

— 3—

And this one – yes. I associate myself very strongly with this, by Michael Brennan Doughterty, in The Week – “How America’s Elections are Ruining America.” 

The presidential election increases our sense that all issues are national issues. Even people who say they are addicted to politics often have no idea what is happening in their state or county government.

Ask the 10 people around you at work about Donald Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush. All 10 will have an opinion.

Now ask those same 10 people who represents their district in their state’s lower chamber. You’d be lucky if a single one knows the name.

How in the world is a political system in which power is devolved to states through federalism supposed to work in an information environment like this?

One cause for the gigantism of our presidential election is the gigantism of the executive branch. The federal government employs more than 2 million people in the process of governing us. Our next president has to hire thousands of people just to take full possession of the office. Of course it is immensely powerful. And one problem for reforming the presidential election to make it tighter and shorter is that there is hardly anyone in the political class that stands to gain from doing so. The longer the campaign, the longer people get paid to work for it, or report on it. It’s easier to be seen and be hired for a nice job in journalism from the lowly position rewriting press releases about a presidential campaign than from your beat uncovering graft for a weekly newspaper in Wyoming.

But make no mistake: This system of long elections makes us more anxious, weakens bonds of civic trust and peace, debases the value of our citizenship, and corrupts journalism and our culture. And we’re going to start it all again before you recover from this one.

— 4 —

Today is the memorial of St. Rose-Philippine Duchesne. I really, really thought I had written about her…somewhere. In a book? Here? But apparently not. I must have researched her when I was teaching. Anyway, here’s her story from the Vatican website and here is a link to her shrine in St. Charles, Missouri, a fact which infuriates me because it shows how what I thought were Mad Travel Planning Skillz failed – we were in St. Charles a few years ago, and I had no idea this shrine was there. Grrr. I was so fixated on Lewis and Clark, I didn’t even look into the Catholic history…fail. 

A 70-day voyage across the Atlantic brought the five nuns to New Orleans, where they rested briefly with the Ursulines before resuming their travels in a paddlewheel steamer up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

The Bishop knew that they were coming but had no house in the city to accommodate the five nuns. A log cabin in St. Charles became the site of the first free school west of the Mississippi. That first year saw three little St. Louis girls come as boarders and 21 non-paying day students who came when they could during that long, bitter winter. The following summer the Bishop took the Religious of the Sacred Heart to Florissant, a village on the other side of the Missouri River, where they conducted their school and Mother Duchesne established her novitiate for the Society.

In 1828 the Jesuits built a parish church on the former (and present) school property and asked the Sacred Heart nuns to return to St. Charles—to that same log cabin which was known as the “Duquette Mansion” because it was the biggest house in town—and conduct the parish school. They did so and finally, in 1835, built their first brick building, which remains the center of the Academy of the Sacred Heart’s sprawling complex.

Mother Duchesne established other schools in Louisiana and Missouri. She was finally allowed to travel to Kansas at the age of 72 and made a very frustrating attempt at teaching the Indians. The Pottawatomi language proved even harder for her than English had been and so her superiors decided, after one year, that she should return to a more comfortable life in St. Charles. The lesson that she had taught the native Americans was a valuable one; the Indians called her Quakahkanumad (woman who prays always) and revered her for her deep devotion to “the Great Spirit

— 5 —.

In case you missed it, one of this week’s Living Faith devotionals was mine – November 16. 

— 6 —

Peace-of-mind suggestion: Every time you are tempted to fight about politics with someone on Facebook or Twitter…read a poem instead. 

Or the Bible.

Or this week’s grocery ads.

Anything  but that. Not the interest in politics (I’m obsessed, myself), but the arguing on social media about it. Nothing will come of it but ill-informed preening and virtue-signaling, and your time is better spent on …anything else.

— 7 —

Advent begins in a week!  The first Sunday of Advent is November 27.

 Here is the devotional I wrote for Liguori this year. It is perhaps too late to order them in bulk for your parish, but you can certainly order an individual copy – here (Amazon). 

Link to (Liguori site) English version.

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Link to (Amazon site) Spanish version.

2016 Advent Devotional

Link to excerpts from Spanish version.

And an endorsement from Deacon Greg Kandra!

“This ravishing collection brings Advent and Christmas, literally, home. In brief essays that are by turns inspiring, surprising, and unexpectedly moving, Amy Welborn helps us see the coming of the Christ child in things we take for granted. This captivating little book is one to read, treasure, share, give—and read again!

But…do you want something…right now? Okay, how about this:

Here’s a digital version of the family Advent devotional I wrote for Creative Communications for the Parish. Only .99!

And don’t forget…Bambinelli Sunday. 

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

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 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

-1 Samuel 8:19

Some post-election thoughts. These are very specific. I have a lot more, but who knows what will become of them.

As I watched the course of the presidential campaign over the past couple of years, my long-held convictions about a fundamental problem with the shape of the process were confirmed. The reactions of the supporters of Clinton since the election have only deepened those convictions.

It all comes down to this: the office of the presidency has become too important. 

There are both spiritual and political dimensions to this.  I’ll take the political first.

So most of you, I trust, are familiar with the United States Constitution and the general shape of our government. There are three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intention of the founders was to create a system in which power would be balanced and checked. Hence the term “checks and balances.”

The President is the head of one of those branches – the executive.

He is the head of the executive branch which “executes” the laws that the legislature enacts and the judicial branch evaluate in terms of their constitutionality.

Here is Article II of the Constitution, which delineates the powers and responsibilities of the president. 

He is not the king. He is not a “ruler.” Moreover, he is not the representative of anyone’s soul, identity or deepest yearnings.

But of course, that limited sense of the president has not held.

I sometimes think, although it was probably inevitable, that it was unfortunate that a hero was chosen as our first president. It sets the bar high and imbues the office with an aura prone to idealization and idolatry – hence the 1865 fresco in the rotunda of the dome of the US Capitol, The Apotheosis of George Washington– which depicts Washington rising to the heavens in glory. “Apotheosis” means deification. 

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How much better it would have been, I think, if John Adams had been our first president!

The temptation of make too much of the presidency is also an extension of this country’s deeply-rooted sense of its own role in Divine Providence, beginning with the Puritans, continuing through the Revolution and formation of the nation and reaching a peak of sorts in the 19th century.

The expansion of the federal government, especially the executive branch, has not helped.  Beginning with the Progressive Era then escalating, of course with the Great Depression and World War II – big, global problems that seemed to call for big solutions that, once in place, are all but impossible to roll back. And yes, books have been written on the “Imperial Presidency.”

But now we are at a point at which people spend years of their lives, sacrifice their family and personal lives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attain this office, an office which has far more power than the founders intended, partly because the branch of government which it heads has far more power than it should.

Yes, there are and always have been profound differences in views about the shape and direction that the United States government should take. People with varying views group themselves in political parties to put forward their view and bring it into power. So in a way, yes, the President does “embody” something and that something can involve not only administrative responsibilities but the ideals that shape this direction. Fine.

But it’s too much. 

There is something wrong when the country is more or less constantly thinking about the president: who it is now, and who it will be in a few years. Don’t you resent the obsession and the attention to the office of the presidency? I do.

It seems to be a sign of a fundamental instability and lack of a core, as well as celebrity culture.

And of course politicians play on this. “Make America Great Again.” “Build a better world for our children.”  It’s all part of the same thing.

Which brings us to the spiritual, as it always does.

Over the past few days, protests have broken out over the country, centered on the meme #NotMyPresident. The anger, shock, dismay and yes, grief, is on full display.

When I look at this on the news or on my social media feeds, I see, above anything else, a spiritual vacuum.

There is room, of course, and if your conscience demands it, an obligation to express hesitation and opposition to a stated program of action with which you disagree or feel some aspect of your life to be threatened by. But even so, most people would, you know, wait for the person to actually take office and make decisions to make a judgment on how to react to that. To engage in this kind of protest at this stage is nothing more than attempts at intimidation.

No, what I sense goes deeper, and it’s not just the events of the last couple of days that lead me to that, but also the spiritual dimension of what I wrote above.

It’s too much. It shouldn’t be that important. 

But for some reason, it is. Why?

Well, when God has been chased out of your life, when the transcendent is simply what you make it to be, it is almost inevitable that the inborn yearning that we have for certainty in identity, belonging and meaning will be transferred.

Basically, this: If the election of the head of the executive branch sends you spinning and feeling distraught because the president doesn’t represent your values and moves you to disrupt your life to cry out  #NotMyPresident! …the presidency is too important to you. It’s become an idol.

It is possible to have high expectations of our leaders’ competence and abilities without deifying them or expecting them to embody your personal values and be crushed and outraged  and moved to violence and hatred when they don’t.

Perhaps a good way to get my point is to take it down a level. Think about the governor of your state. The mayor of your city or town.

When you consider who to vote for those offices, what enters into your decision-making? I’m going to guess it’s pretty practical.  I would think it would seem pretty strange to deal with the identity of your governor or mayor in the deeply personal way that some seem to be dealing with the presidency.

I don’t vote for mayor, governor, Senator or President, looking to have my ultimate personal values reflected or my sense of the ideal human being or social construction represented. After all, then I would never vote, would I? And if a candidate I vote for happens to win and hold office, I don’t look to he or she to do anything but move the workings of government in the general direction which he or she promised, and do as little harm as possible.

I can understand being upset. I really can. I can even sympathize with the identity politics aspect of this and the disgust with Trump’s personal character. Absolutely! Perhaps you are saying that you will be “embarrassed” to have Trump as president. Well, there are some of us who have been mostly  “embarrassed” by the president of the United States since the Gerald Ford days, more or less continually, for various reasons, so it gets to a point at which you realize…he’s just the president and there’s no need for me to tie who I am, even as an American, to the identity of who the president is today. 

So yes, the angst seems totally out of proportion to what this office *should* be about. I mean…who among us who was alive and sentient in, say 1977, looks back and says, “Gerald Ford! His presidency was satisfying because it represented me and satisfied my soul!” ?  Or..”That Ford presidency really did a number on me. Never been the same since, and what is life, my friends, anyway?”

So yes, resist.

Resist the temptation to put your trust in kings.

Resist their attempts to exploit your yearning for meaning and the transcendent.

Resist…and be free. 

 

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In addition to the woman-and-the-Reformation specific material I’ve been reading, I’ve also been looking at a few books that cover the Reformation in general. Since today is the day the Reformation is in the news, I thought I’d talk about them a bit.

First, Carlos Eire’s massive Reformations.  Some of you might know Eire as the author of two affecting memoirs, including Waiting for Snow in Havana.  His day job is that of historian, being a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.

Reformations EireReformations is aptly titled, for as Eire points out, there is no single “Reformation” with a single source and direction, but rather a number of movements that erupted in the same era.

It’s a survey, yes, but it’s worth a look for a couple of reasons. First, history cannot be apprehended as an objective entity in the present. History is a story and is always remembered and told from a point of view. I am interested in Eire’s point of view, so I’m going to read his book on this topic.

Secondly, history may explore events that happened long ago, but we in the present are continually discovering new information that shifts or even radically changes our understanding of those events. History is also written with varied resources and methodologies. Forgotten or newly embraced methodologies shed new light on old narratives.

So it is with the Protestant Reformation. It’s helpful to periodically take stock and reevaluate this  set of events so complex and usually narrated from such entrenched, specific perspectives.

I’ve only read through the Luther material in the Eire book, but I do intend to finish it if I can renew it from the library enough times (700+ pages of text). If you are at all familiar with the basics, you might be skimming parts, but Eire does highlight some elements with which I was not familiar, primarily those related to Catholic life on the Continent before the Reformation, and particularly reform movements within Catholicism that sought to strengthen Catholicism, rather than break it apart – and succeeded, especially those in Spain. Very interesting.

The material on Luther himself provides not much new to me and draws on standard sources (Bainton, for example) with surprising frequency, but what the general reader might find most illuminating is, indeed, the juxtaposition of the pre-Reformation material with Luther. Given the liveliness, breadth, depth and seriousness of Catholic reform happening in Europe pre-1517, it makes it all the more tragic that the particular, peculiar and narrow theological stylings of one individual gained so much traction and came to dominate and shatter the landscape.

Brand Luther is a very interesting book that offers one angle on how that happened. Historian Andrew Pettegree surveys the Lutheran movement in great detail, but through the particular prism of the history of printing.

Even if you only have the vaguest familiarity with Luther, you probably associate his movement with the still relatively new technology of moveable type. Pettegree explores that relationship in great depth, making clear that this association was no accident. Brand LutherLuther came from a craft/business family background and knew what he was doing. He was quite particular about how his work was presented, knew that this was a powerful tool, and was deeply involved in making his work attractive, easy to read and accessible. And the printers loved him, of course – well, those of whom he approved that is. Luther and his controversies were a boon for the printing industry, and the particular political and economic arrangements of Germany only helped deepen the bond. In most other areas of Europe, printing was centrally controlled by stronger central governments. The political patchwork that was “Germany” meant that even if your local Duke had more Catholic sympathies and refused printers permission from printing Luther’s works, the neighboring duchy which was going all in could flood the area with Luther’s tracts nonetheless.

An interesting side point. Luther’s works were immensely popular and millions were printed and sold over just the span of a few years. His theological and political arguments, his Bible translations, his catechisms and his works for the laity were the bread and butter of German printers for decades. One gets the impression from histories of the Luther movement that the Catholic response to all of this was characterized by not much more than ineptitude and short-sightedness. There may have been some of that, but what stands out from Brand Luther is the sheer marketing force and ingenuity that Luther exerted. He saw right away that if his cause was to succeed and if his life was to be preserved, he had to take this beyond academic circles to the popular arena. Therefore, he wrote in German rather than only in Latin, and he wrote works specifically directed at laypeople. This is what the Catholic side could not or would not understand.  And, to come back around the printers – Pettegree points out that it got to a point at which Catholic writers had plenty of responses to Luther ready to roll, but printers were uninterested in taking them on because they didn’t sell.

As I was reading Brand Luther,  I toyed with a slightly different take on this early period of the Reformation and the fire it spread – and so quickly- through German lands at the time. There are countless reasons for this wildfire: the authentic appeal of Luther’s ideas of “freedom” from Roman Catholic religious ritual and spiritual sensibilities, real, scandalous and problematic Catholic corruption, the support of secular rulers, disdain of Rome as a foreign power, and the new technology. It’s all there. But what struck me in the reading was, honestly, the titillating, profitable appeal of scandal and taboo-breaking. When I read Luther’s best-selling bold, cocky, profane and dismissive invectives against almost every aspect of Catholic life that every person reading him would have grown up knowing and holding as sacred, and contemplate the violent, scatological images of clergy and religious practices that were printed and distributed by the thousands,  it doesn’t seem like a culture in which there is calm-truth seeking happening. It feels frantic, taboo-shattering, dam-bursting and addictively scandalous. And that, as we know, will always, always sell.

(By the way – this is being posted on October 31 – “Reformation Day” – the day Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door. both Eire and Pettegree point out that there is little evidence that such an event happened on that date, or even happened at all, at least to any fanfare or notice. FYI.)

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Busy week. Let’s get started.

First off, Publisher’s Weekly carried a brief notice about the book I’m working on with Loyola – the exciting completion of the Loyola Kids trilogy! Well, at least the third book I’ll have "amy welborn"written under that brand. It’s simple – a collection of Bible stories, but with an angle that I hope will make them particularly helpful to Catholic children, parents, families and catechists. When I wrote the Loyola Kids Book of Saints sixteen years ago, I never thought it would still be selling as well as it does – usually one of the top two or three titles in children’s religious biography on Amazon, and really still unique in approach.

My deadline for this manuscript is early February, so I’ll be working to get that done over the next few months as well as on some smaller projects.

— 2 —

The past week has been busy, with an odd recurring theme of organization and information – or really, a lack of it.

High Point climbing gym is one of my youngest son’s favorite places. It’s a huge gym in downtown Chattanooga, notable for the outdoor climbing wall.

They’re building a branch here in Birmingham, and last weekend, they had an open house for their still-under construction facility. So we started there – it looks good, although not as large as the Chattanooga place and sadly, no outdoor climbing wall. It’s also a bit far from our house on road that is often marked by horrendous traffic, but I told my son that if got up early on Saturday mornings to go, I’d take him once in a while. He was all in. What have I done?

— 3 —

After a brief stop back at home, I headed out and up the hill behind our neighborhood to the Altamont School, which was hosting a celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of Walker Percy’s birth. You’ll recall that he was born here in Birmingham, and it was from here that his mother moved the family after his father’s suicide. Percy attended a school that was the predecessor of Altamont, which explains the event. Unfortunately, it was barely advertised – I only knew about it because someone in my parish sent me an email saying, “Whenever I see something about Walker Percy, I think of you. Have you seen this?” No, I hadn’t. Neither had many other people, for the panel discussion part of the afternoon, which is what I attended, featured four people on stage and ten in the audience. Even with the Crimson Tide on the field at the time, that’s surprising. A few days later, I spoke with someone local who is a big Percy fan, well-connected into the local cultural scene and he was astounded that this event had occurred – he’d heard nothing about it.

Anyway, what I took away – besides marketing, people – was, first of all, how challenging it is for people to get a hold of Percy’s Catholicism, probably because hardly anyone understands Catholicism properly, not getting the fundamental point that a character who defines himself as a “Bad Catholic” is actually expressing a sort of ideal Catholicism. Secondly, I was struck again by the Percy Effect, best summarized on this occasion by the young academic on the panel who described his feeling upon first encountering Percy’s writings. “I was splayed open” – he said, and then filled with an urgent sense that Percy was onto something and that it was important, even essential, to follow and see where he led. The person I was talking to a few days later said that when he was in campus ministry he would often give The Last Gentlemen to students, and after reading three chapters, they would return to him wondering…was Walker Percy in my dorm room? How does he know?

Something I wrote about Percy for CWR a few months ago.

 — 4 —

Then it was back down the hill, fix dinner, and then my younger son and I headed out to the Alabama Theater to see Post Modern Jukebox. It was a good concert – even with a couple of dicey moments that I think went mostly over his head anyway. The talent level is amazing, which you know from watching the videos. Two of my favorites – Casey Abrams and Aubrey Logan– were both in the troupe for that performance, although a major, major disappointment was that Scot Bradlee himself was not. My 11-year old pianist son was quite let down by that – the pianist performing that night was excellent of course, but my son has really enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s stylings and style and was a little stunned that he wasn’t actually there – I wouldn’t say I was stunned, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing.

— 5 

Sunday morning – serve Mass at Casa Maria.

In the afternoon, we went to a big local state park – Oak Mountain State Park – for an advertised “reptile program.” Here’s what was advertised – come see reptiles from noon to three. Really not much more than that. We arrived at the interpretive center at 1:30 to an room empty but for refreshments. The program would be across the road in the other building, at would start at 2.

Which it did, to a full room, and with lots of interesting animals and expert educational offerings. But it was far more formal than advertised and did go on. So instead of the drop-in and see and chat about animals at your leisure during a time frame experience I thought we were getting, we sat in chairs for 90 minutes – including thirty minutes past the advertised ending time. Yes, snakes, lizards and tortoises are well worth our time – why do you think we were there? – but there was certainly a big difference between advertising and reality. Do people not even read their own copy and think about how it matches their plans?

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6–

Back to school on Monday, and then Tuesday night, Birmingham – in the form of Rev. Peter Leithert’s Theopolis Institute – welcomed Joseph Bottum to town.

I had met Jody years ago at an informal event First Things organized for me on a visit to New York. He was here from his South Dakota home to speak on “The Novel as Protestant Art” –  the article upon which his talk is based is here. It was a good talk with interesting engagement from the audience. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed that kind of in-person adult intellectual engagement, and what made it even better was that Avondale Brewery, where it was held, is about two minutes from my house. Always a plus.

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We won’t have that level of activity this weekend. What’s on tap? One kid gone Friday and much of Saturday at a robotics competition, the other serving a Saturday retreat Mass and having a make-up piano lesson (his teacher was on a short recital tour earlier in the week and had to reschedule). A family Halloween party Saturday night – almost forgot about that! – and then..it looks like Sunday is going to be what I hate most – Finish The Project Day – around here. One has an Archimedes project, the other on The Scarlet Letter.

"amy welborn"

Have a Happy Halloween, Slash.

— 7 —

Oh, I did do a bit of television watching, aside from Rectify. I have been poking around for a show to binge on – I missed the Stranger Things fad. By the time it had cycled through from New Hotness to Old and Almost Busted, I lost interest. But then I started hearing about this Australian show called Glitch just come to Netflix, so I thought I’d try it out.

And I did, and I watched the whole thing, sort of hating myself by hour four. Not exactly hating, but knowing by that point that this was going to be a Lost kind of experience in which an initial intriguing hook ends up taking you for a fairly contrived ride. And Lost was a lot better than Glitch.

The conceit is that several people have risen from the dead, crawling out of their graves in the cemetery in a small Australian town. Those first scenes are quite arresting, and a couple of the story lines are affecting, but the writing is formulaic and stiff, serious questions are glossed over and really, it all comes down to the fact that the reaction of a widower to his once dead, now-standing-in-front-of-him wife is not much more intense than if she had surprised him by arriving  home early from work. It’s clear by the end that this event has not been caused – as the devout Catholic among the resuscitated exclaims – by any miracle – but by pharmaceutical hijinks of one sort or another, and there’s a major twist at the end of the series that makes the, er, dead affect of one of the non-risen characters finally understandable – and so that’s where this first season ends. So yes, I kept watching for that dumb reason we all do – just to see what happens – but I’m not proud, especially in light of the intelligent, nuanced experience of Rectify a couple of nights later. I should have spent those six hours reading a book instead. Walker Percy, probably.

“Yes. Death is winning, life is losing.”
“Ah, you mean the wars and the crime and violence and so on?”
“Not only that. I mean the living too.”
“The living? Do you mean the living are dead?”
“Yes.”
“How can that be, Father? How can the living be dead?”
“I mean their souls, of course.”
“You mean their souls are dead,” says Max with the liveliest sympathy.
“Yes,” says Father Smith tonelessly. “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

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

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Welcome Catholic Herald readers!

For those of you interested in pursuing the question of the impact of the Protestant Reformation on women, there is a wealth of resources.

As I said in the article, the weight of scholarly opinion now tilts to the view that the impact of the Reformation on women was largely negative. Any “gains” from an increased respect for the vocation of marriage (which was not, of course disrespected in Catholicism anyway!) and an emphasis on literacy (for Bible-reading) were outweighed by the constriction of woman’s proper sphere to the domestic and the stripping of the feminine from the spiritual realm. I am in the process of writing another, longer and perhaps even more heated article on this subject that will be appearing in another online venue next week or the following, so look for that.

Here are just a few resources you might find interesting. They treat not only the specific issue of the Protestant Reformation’s impact on women, but also women in pre-Reformation Europe as well as women in the context of early modern, or “Counter-Reformation” Catholicism.

Don’t be put off by the thought of reading a scholarly, academic book on this subject. Those that I’ve highlighted here are well written and completely accessible to the non-scholar. They tell intriguing stories, the reading of which will illuminate not only the past, but the present as well.

Note that these works are not by Catholic apologists, but rather by historians and even Lutheran theologians.

Nails in the Wall: Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany looks specifically at the experience of "amy welborn"religious women in Strasbourg. Historian Amy Leonard expertly establishes context and writes very well. What I particularly appreciated about Leonard’s work is her fair-mindedness. She gives individuals the benefit of the doubt and trusts them in their own account of their actions. That is to say, when a Dominican nun expresses deep faith, Leonard doesn’t inform us that there must be more to it than what the woman is saying, and it is probably sexual. I would say if you’re interested enough in this topic to want to read one book – this is a great one.

Women and the Reformation contains very helpful introductory chapters on Catholic and Protestant women, then tells the stories of several of them.

The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg by Lyndal Roper is a bit more technical in thesis than the others. Roper is arguing a point about the role of the guilds in shaping Reformation notions of gender and domesticity, and therefore, she suggests, the shape and direction of the movement itself. You may not have deep interest in that particular argument, but Roper’s examination of women and the Reformation in Augsburg can be appreciated even outside the context of her thesis.

Women and the Counter Reformation in Early Modern Munster.  Interesting in a lot of respects, including Laqua-O’Donnell’s use of women’s wills to explore their spiritual priorities.

Devout Laywomen in the Early Modern World is an anthology edited by Alison Weber. The articles deal mostly with what we would call post-Reformation issues, but of course most of the time the scholars must consider the Reformation in establishing context. I am still working my way through this excellent collection, but one of the more striking articles so far has been “Nursing as Vocation or Profession? Women’s Status and the Meaning of Healing in Early Modern France and England” in which historian Susan Dinan compares nursing in both countries post-Reformation and finds that the forced collapse of women’s religious life in England was detrimental to nursing as a profession, health care in general and women’s role in it. “Devout laywomen did important work inn France serving the sick and poor. They were trained as professionals, usually lived in supportive communities, and did valued work in their towns and villages. Their liminal status between nuns and wives offered them a place that women in Protestant nations did not have…”

A Companion to the Reformation  has helpful articles reflecting newer scholarship.

I’ve been reading a number of scholarly articles – as many as I can with the limitations of access – about various aspects of the period. For example, this article on the controversy over declaring Teresa of Avila a co-patron of Spain got me thinking about the role of authoritative female figures in the spiritual and social landscape.

More to come. It’s a fascinating subject, and a good entry point for thinking about the realities and mythologies of the Protestant Reformation.

 

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.

Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.

It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.

 

— 2 —

 

I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.

For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.

— 3 —

Here’s my piano history.

When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.

photogrid_1477066028446.jpg

I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.

The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.

There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.

 — 4 —

 

When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.

At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.

Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.

— 5 

And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?

Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.

Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.

And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.

Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.

 

6–

I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.

Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.

Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.

So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me.  But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.

I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?

— 7 —

My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?

But yet.

I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.

We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.

And then I sit down to play.

"amy welborn"

 

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