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Balancing Equations

This is sort of long, and offered, not because it’s fascinating, but because I known many parents are working over these same issues. Here’s how I got to the place where my conscience couldn’t say anything but “yes” to homeschooling at a particular moment in time. Others have different experiences: they never considered anything but homeschooling or the school options were all so very bad, they really had no choice. That’s not my experience – this is, and perhaps it will resonate with someone else’s dilemma.

And I really didn’t need to write this post. Not really. Because yesterday, in a comment, Sally Thomas said it all in the succinct way a poet does:

And largely what motivated us to stop going to school was the feeling that school was largely an annoying middleman that wanted to dictate our schedules for us.

 

But since, I started…..

At some point in the winter of 2012, I made a suggestion, asked a question, wondered aloud.

“What would you think,” I asked the first and fifth grader, “about homeschooling next year?”

They were horrified. Honestly, even though I’d been the one asking the question, so was I.

But there it was. The equation had become unbalanced. It had seemed to be for a while, but now the tilt was undeniable.

It wasn’t that something had to be done. Nothing had to happen. But as life and school kept happening the way it was, it seemed more and more clear to me that something should happen. It was becoming a conscience issue for me.

As I said yesterday, and have written before, I see this formal education thing as an agreement. A deal. It’s no different than any other aspect of life: a job, for example. The question is: what are you willing to put up with in order to receive the benefits? Hardly anyone adores their job a hundred percent, and many can barely stand it, but most of us do what we have to do in order to be support ourselves and our families and make some tiny contribution to …something.

Another way to put it is: How would you like your aggravation served today?

For there will always be aggravation, stress and frustration, today and every day. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about it, but sometimes you do. With the last two kids’ educations, I did have a choice, and that’s the way I had finally settled on working out the question.

How do I want my aggravation?

Do I choose to take it as I deal with an institution’s structures, rules and procedures – the folders, the particulars of supply lists and uniforms, the inadequacy of curricula – or…

…do I choose to take it in the form of having us all together most of the time, of planning, of teaching almost everything myself, of sorting out their learning, of being on 24-hour alert for resources and opportunities?

In other words, do I want to be annoyed about what others aren’t teaching them or do I want to be stressed about what I’m not teaching them? Do I want to be worried about what I feel they’re missing by being at school or do I want to be worried about what they’re missing by staying at home?

What had moved me to this point at which something I had never even considered in over twenty-five years of parenting was suddenly looming as a real possibility?

Mad Men Gifs

Long-term Dissatisfaction

Before I get going on this, let me make clarify what wasn’t an issue:

  • Concerns about instructional content that outright violated my principles.
  • Learning issues.
  • Concerns about social or cultural context.
  • A preternaturally  gifted kid who needed and wanted ten hours a day to develop his talent

None of that. Nothing odd was being pushed, neither boys experiences learning difficulties, we don’t have figure skaters or genius violinists, and we liked everyone and didn’t feel any need to be set apart. That, by the way, is not a part of my mental framework anyway. I simply mention it because homeschoolers are often accused of want to put kids in a cocoon. My issue was, as you’ll see, actually the opposite. I was concerned that school was narrowing their vision and experience, and I wanted to give them more, not less.

I suppose I should also mention that this was an elementary school issue for me at the time. The boys were in first and fifth grades, and I was not thinking about high school. The question was about the rest of elementary school.

Oh, and a word about other options. Public school isn’t an option , even given my own background – I have just really come to believe that the daily faith formation offered in Catholic elementary education is invaluable for a child. The only classical schools around here, sadly, are those offered by Reformed churches, so that’s not happening. A Catholic Montessori school would be great, too, but there’s none of that around here, either. The one local Catholic school that is not of the parish model, St. Rose Academy, is run by the Nashville Dominicans, might have been an option (and is indeed where my younger son will be going next year), but at the time, as you’ll see, it wasn’t so much which school, but school in general that was the problem, and I didn’t think that making the kids change schools and adapt to a new set of kids and teachers was really the answer to the question hovering over our days.

So, I’ll start with matters that had been festering for a while – the basics are in the previous post, but let me take it in a slightly different direction. Go grab a snack and settle in.

As is the case with many of you, I’m sure, I have never been impressed with contemporary pedagogical fads, movements and materials. So that was always there: A grudging acceptance of the reality of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator materials. Catholic schools that for the most part embraced secular curricula and made not attempt to integrate faith into the entire program. Catholic schools that, if they were not appealing to the lowest common and non-denominational denominator, were running in the opposite direction, anxiously pursuing “blue ribbon” status in order to appeal to upper-middle class striver parents.

Over the years, my kids had experienced many good teachers, but always in the midst of systems that seemed determined to undermine authentic Catholic education by emphasizing the priorities of the Secular Pedagogical Flavor of the Month. I remember once going into one of my kids’ Catholic elementary schools in which for a couple of weeks, they had been all about the rainforest. They had been reading about the rainforest, writing about it, and were super proud of the hallways bedecked as little rainforests in between cinder block walls. So much effort put into the rainforest in a school that could not be bothered to celebrate a single saints’ feast day in a memorable way. But hey, they were a Blue Ribbon School, right?

And then time went on, everyone got older, and my concerns and issues focused and got more specific, nagging me and not letting go.

First, I was just tired. Of all of it. I had been doing elementary education as a parent for twenty-five years. I confess, this did play a part  in the decision. Six different Catholic elementary schools, hundreds of weekly folders and envelopes, thousands of hours spent quizzing, checking planners, interpreting teacher and administrator instructions, running over spelling words, going over the water cycle, looking at one more unit on the rainforest, and oh don’t forget endless fundraisers, one after the other, coming at me in fat envelopes and bleak, empty order forms.

I was 51, my husband had been dead for three years, my parents were dead, my older children were moving on, as they should, and here I was, still checking those freaking weekly folders. Older than most of the teachers and other parents, I was over this routine, tired of their systems and rules and tired of being frustrated by and paying for lame curricula and well-meaning if superficial Catholicity.

Geez, I would think, we could do so much more at home, couldn’t we?

Which of course was then promptly answered.

So. Why don’t you?

Wait. What?

Listen. I was not opposed to homeschooling – for other people. In fact, I admired and stood in awe of homeschoolers.

I didn’t know many in real life, but it did seem to me that everyone I “knew” online professionally homeschooled. I mean – everyone.

So why not us? Well, a few reasons.

  • As I had raised the older kids, it never really occurred to me. It wasn’t a thing among anyone I knew in that stage, and I didn’t meet any serious homeschoolers until we moved to Indiana in 2001. I didn’t think it was crazy or weird, it’s just that it wasn’t a part of the lives of people I knew for a very long time.
  • I didn’t see the need. Up to that point, it seemed as if the balance was still holding. School was school, and while imperfect and not my ideal, it still left space for the rest of life.
  • Finally, even as the possibility seemed more possible, and my conscience spoke more and more insistently, there was just a simple, Are you kidding? I don’t…want to.
  • I’m an introvert. I get my energy from being alone. It takes me about three hours after everyone has gone to bed at night for me to recalibrate and feel like myself. What was going to happen if we were together? All day? Every day? Would I just….go insane?
  • Finally, I was skeptical about how healthy it would be for them to be with me all day. Not that we would be alone, stuck in the house or inactive, I knew. But still. I came from a rather intense , controverted family situation and knew that being homeschooled would have been disastrous for me. Basically, would my kids…go insane?

(Almost done. Be patient)

So there you have all the vague dissatisfaction, the fears, the suspicion that there was a better way, but inability to see the way there. It might have continued, but for some rather specific moments during that 2011-2012 period. Some of these things are going to strike you as silly, and perhaps they are, but taken all together, along with a zillion other small school-related aggravations piled up on a quarter of a century of the same, they were enough:

  • This actually begins a couple of years before, when my older son started at this school. As one would expect, he had spelling words. The first few weeks, he was a spelling ninja, and then his grades started to fall. He was missing more and more on the spelling tests, having assured me during the week that he didn’t need to study, no thanks. Finally, after he almost failed one test, I asked him what was going on. He admitted that he didn’t study the words. Okay, but didn’t he study in class? Doesn’t the teacher go over the words, break them apart and talk about them? Oh no, he said, that’s not the way it works. They give us the words on Monday, and we’re just supposed to study them at home. We never talk about the spelling words in class. And I thought…wait. I’m paying you so I can homeschool my kid in spelling? What?
  • The reading program was horrible. All the parents hated it. For all I know, the teachers hated it, too. I’ll just straight out say that it was Pearson’s Reading Street and it sucked: Boring stories written in flat prose, with, worst of all, impenetrable and ridiculously random comprehension questions. And I thought…we could be reading Treasure Island. Charlotte’s Web. Shakespeare. Poetry.
  • The “special” classes – that is, music, art, computer, foreign language and PE classes – that my children were experiencing were all unfortunately mediocre, rifled with discipline issues and makework. I thought…we could be going to concerts and plays, studying Latin, going on hikes, learning instruments, taking quality art lessons, music…

Mad Men - Peggy Skates, Roger Plays

  • I had various and more or less constant questions about matters of Catholicity and other issues of curriculum including Common Core, which was starting to rear its head with no one batting an eye about it.
  • For a couple of years, one of my son’s classes were quite small. As in, fewer than fifteen children, all capable and motivated, in a class. A perfect opportunity for lots of hands-on learning which did not happen. He’d say, “We talked about plants today.” I’d say, “What plants did you look at and examine?” He’d say, “None. We just looked at diagrams.” And I thought, plants..microscope, kitchen chemistry, botanical garden classes, science center classes, homeschool classes at the zoo….

  • And then finally, two relatively small incidents gave me the final push. First, my older son complained about being bored in class when he got his work done. I said, “You always take a book to read to school. Just read your book.” He said, “We’re not allowed to. If you get your work done early, you have to put your head on your desk and just wait for everyone else to be finished.”
  • A few weeks later, there was a big, school-wide event for which all students spent much time preparing. It was a good event. The theme of this even this particular year was related to Eric Carle. It was late April, as I recall, and I was going through homework with my fifth-grade son. I said, “Social Studies?” And he said, “Oh, we’re done with social studies for the next couple weeks, probably for the year. We’re going to be working on our projects for the program.” Oh, I thought, they’re going to be writing and peer editing and such. Nice!

    No, he said, they (fifth graders, remember) were going to need the time to CUT OUT TISSUE PAPER CIRCLES FOR THE ERIC CARLE PICTURES.

 

Image result for hungry caterpillar book

 

 

I was done. That was it. We were out. Nothing personal, but these were my last two kids that I would ever be given the opportunity to raise and form, and if I can give them more than this…I have to.

We have to change this up. And just maybe…we can. 

Rainbow Jimmy has arrived.

It was not about rushing them home, slamming the door, and shrinking their world, but about blowing it open, throwing out worksheets and textbooks, getting outside, getting dirty. I was privileged. I didn’t have to work at a job, I had no other family responsibilities, I was healthy and had the means..I had no excuses anymore. What was I doing, sending them off to well-intentioned mediocrity while I sat at home doing a bit of work that really didn’t even need to get done? I’d written over twenty books by then. Who cared if wrote more. I didn’t.

It might not be forever, but they were frustrated and felt as if their time was being wasted. They were hesitant mostly about leaving the social setting, but they would stay connected to all those kids through the parish, scouts, sports and other social outlets, so it wasn’t like they’d never see anyone again. In the end, by that spring, they were ready to try a new way of learning and daily life, that the initial horror gave way to openness to the possibility that this ride might not be too bad, after all. Right?

Right?

St. Dominic

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Dominicans in Benin, courtesy of the always interesting and inspiring African Catholics Instagram feed. 

Here’s Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the saint, in one of his General Audiences, part of the series that focused on great figures in the Church, beginning with the Apostles:

This great Saint reminds us that in the heart of the Church a missionary fire must always burn. It must be a constant incentive to make the first proclamation of the Gospel and, wherever necessary, a new evangelization. Christ, in fact, is the most precious good that the men and women of every time and every place have the right to know and love! And it is comforting to see that in the Church today too there are many pastors and lay faithful alike, members of ancient religious orders and new ecclesial movements who spend their lives joyfully for this supreme ideal, proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel!

Many other men then joined Dominic de Guzmán, attracted by the same aspiration. In this manner, after the first foundation in Toulouse, the Order of Preachers gradually came into being. Dominic in fact, in perfect obedience "amy welborn"to the directives of the Popes of his time, Innocent iii, and Honorius iii, used the ancient Rule of St Augustine, adapting it to the needs of apostolic life that led him and his companions to preach as they travelled from one place to another but then returning to their own convents and places of study, to prayer and community life. Dominic wanted to give special importance to two values he deemed indispensable for the success of the evangelizing mission: community life in poverty and study.

First of all Dominic and the Friars Preachers presented themselves as mendicants, that is, without vast estates to be administered. This element made them more available for study and itinerant preaching and constituted a practical witness for the people. The internal government of the Dominican convents and provinces was structured on the system of chapters which elected their own superiors, who were subsequently confirmed by the major superiors; thus it was an organization that stimulated fraternal life and the responsibility of all the members of the community, demanding strong personal convictions. The choice of this system was born precisely from the fact that as preachers of the truth of God, the Dominicans had to be consistent with what they proclaimed. The truth studied and shared in charity with the brethren is the deepest foundation of joy. Blessed Jordan of Saxony said of St Dominic: “All men were swept into the embrace of his charity, and, in loving all, he was beloved by all…. He claimed it his right to rejoice with the joyful and to weep with the sorrowful” (Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum autore Iordano de Saxonia, ed. H.C. Scheeben [Monumenta Historica Sancti Patris Nostri Dominici, Romae, 1935].

Secondly, with a courageous gesture, Dominic wanted his followers to acquire a sound theological training and did not hesitate to send them to the universities of the time, even though a fair number of clerics viewed these cultural institutions with diffidence. The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers give great importance to study as a preparation for the apostolate. Dominic wanted his Friars to devote themselves to it without reserve, with diligence and with piety; a study based on the soul of all theological knowledge, that is, on Sacred Scripture, and respectful of the questions asked by reason. The development of culture requires those who carry out the ministry of the Word at various levels to be well trained. I therefore urge all those, pastors and lay people alike, to cultivate this “cultural dimension” of faith, so that the beauty of the Christian truth may be better understood and faith may be truly nourished, reinforced and also defended. In this Year for Priests, I ask seminarians and priests to esteem the spiritual value of study. The quality of the priestly ministry also depends on the generosity with which one applies oneself to the study of the revealed truths.

Dominic, who wished to found a religious Order of theologian-preachers, reminds us that theology has a spiritual and pastoral dimension that enriches the soul and life. Priests, the consecrated and also all the faithful may find profound “inner joy” in contemplating the beauty of the truth that comes from God, a truth that is ever timely and ever alive. Moreover the motto of the Friars Preachers contemplata aliis tradere helps us to discover a pastoral yearning in the contemplative study of this truth because of the need to communicate to others the fruit of one’s own contemplation.    More

Then, in 2012, on this feast at Castel Gandolfo, he focused on Dominic and prayer:

There are, then, nine ways to pray, according to St Dominic, and each one — always before Jesus Crucified — expresses a deeply penetrating physical and spiritual approach that fosters recollection and zeal. The first seven ways follow an ascending order, like the steps on a path, toward intimate communion with God, with the Trinity: St Dominic prayed standing bowed to express humility, lying prostrate on the ground to ask forgiveness for his sins, kneeling in penance to share in the Lord’s suffering, his arms wide open, gazing at the Crucifix to contemplate Supreme Love, looking heavenwards feeling drawn to God’s world.

Thus there are three positions: standing, kneeling, lying prostrate on the ground; but with the gaze ever directed to our Crucified Lord. However the last two positions, on which I would like to reflect briefly, correspond to two of the Saint’s customary devotional practices. First, personal meditation, in which prayer acquires an even more intimate, fervent and soothing dimension. After reciting the Liturgy of the Hours and after celebrating Mass, St Dominic prolonged his conversation with God without setting any time limit. Sitting quietly, he would pause in recollection in an inner attitude of listening, while reading a book or gazing at the Crucifix. He experienced these moments of closeness to God so intensely that his reactions of joy or of tears were outwardly visible. In this way, through meditation, he absorbed the reality of the faith. Witnesses recounted that at times he entered a kind of ecstasy with his face transfigured, but that immediately afterwards he would humbly resume his daily work, recharged by the power that comes from on High.

Then come his prayers while travelling from one convent to another. He would recite Lauds, Midday Prayer and Vespers with his companions, and, passing through the valleys and across the hills he would contemplate the beauty of creation. A hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for his many gifts would well up from his heart, and above all for the greatest wonder: the redemptive work of Christ.

Dear friends, St Dominic reminds us that prayer, personal contact with God is at the root of the witness to faith which every Christian must bear at home, at work, in social commitments and even in moments of relaxation; only this real relationship with God gives us the strength to live through every event with intensity, especially the moments of greatest anguish. This Saint also reminds us of the importance of physical positions in our prayer. Kneeling, standing before the Lord, fixing our gaze on the Crucifix, silent recollection — these are not of secondary importance but help us to put our whole selves inwardly in touch with God. I would like to recall once again the need, for our spiritual life, to find time everyday for quiet prayer; we must make this time for ourselves, especially during the holidays, to have a little time to talk with God. It will also be a way to help those who are close to us enter into the radiant light of God’s presence which brings the peace and love we all need. Thank you.

From Word on Fire , by Fr. Paul Murray, O.P.:

Dominic, it is clear, possessed a strong instinct for adventure. He was daring both by nature and by grace. Dante calls him ‘il santo atleta,’ the holy athlete. No matter how difficult or unforeseen the challenge of the hour, he was not afraid to take enormous risks for the sake of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that within a few years it could be said of the young friars who followed in his wake, and whom he himself had dispersed far and wide to preach the gospel, that they had made the ocean their cloister. But was this spirit of risk and adventure reflected in the intellectual life of the first Dominicans? Study, we know, was given a place that was unheard of before in the history of religious life. It was no longer simply one exercise among others. It was now a central and sacred task. But, in terms of actual content and imaginative range, how striking and original were the studies of those first friars? The principal point to be made in answer to this question is that the early Dominicans were not attempting to be ‘striking and original’. Their studies were shaped by the needs of others, and given the nature of the crisis at that time, what was most urgently required for the task of preaching and the cura animarum was straightforward moral and doctrinal catechesis.

Here’s one of the many interesting Dominican web sites out there – focused on the Dominican liturgy. 

Godzdogs, the blog site of the Dominicans of England and Scotland.

The litany of Dominican saints and blesseds

Earlier this summer, we traveled to Bologna and enjoyed just a few minutes at the tomb of St. Dominic. We were shooed away by the caretaker because, of course, we arrived right as the gates to the tomb area were being closed for the lunch hour. And we didn’t hang around the church itself because there was a school Mass about to begin…but it was a nice moment, anyway, to be at the tomb of St. Dominic and to see the fruit of his labor – young people gathering for Mass – 800 years after his death.

Tomb of St. Dominic

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(Last image from Snapchat – amywelborn2 to follow)

And….St. Dominic is in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  Only a page is available in online, so here it is. He’s in “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray” section.

 

As promised, I’m going to be spending this week on the blog writing about homeschooling – how we got there, why we’re hitting the pause button, and what I learned from the experience.

And let me say before I get rolling here that I don’t fancy myself any kind of expert on homeschooling at all. There are people out there – mostly women – who have been doing this for decades. What I’m sharing is worth little in comparison to all of their wisdom and experience – Elizabeth Foss, Maureen Wittmann – and so many more. It’s just my experience that I’m putting out there, not only so I have a record for myself, but so that the curious who might be on the fence about homeschooling have one more perspective and set of experiences to consider.

I think, though, that before (again) you read about what lead me to the point of homeschooling, I might as well set out my bottom-line takeaway from the past four years – things I intuited before, but that homeschooling helped me see and articulate more clearly:

School is only one place where education happens. The problem has become that school-centered professional, predominantly government and corporate funded instructional systems have made themselves synonymous with “education.” This identification manifests itself on the local level when schools and their particular systems and expectations seek to dominate the lives of individuals and families. The growing popularity of homeschooling is an expression of dissatisfaction with this regime, a recognition that enabling and encouraging authentic education of individuals is not the goal of these systems at all and that real education is best found in freeing oneself, one’s children, and one’s family from these false and even damaging expectations. This freedom can take the form of creating or getting involved in alternative types of school more suited to a particular goal, or it can take the form of homeschooling…in all of its various forms.

In other words, what ultimately moved us into homeschooling was a deep dissatisfaction with days, weeks and months of inefficiently used and even wasted time and the expectation that of course we wanted to live a life dominated by the priorities and paradigms of the very institution that was wasting that time, and of course I wanted my kids’ self-image and understanding of what it means to be an educated person and person of wisdom to be formed by the paradigms of those schools, systems, testing companies, textbook corporations and state and federal governments.

And, since it’s private schools we were involved in, paying for the privilege as well.

In other words, after twenty-five years as a parent in these systems, about ten teaching, and of course, my own experience as a student over the years…I’d had enough.

The question would be, though, was I willing to make the sacrifices to do what my conscience was telling me was right?

But today, background:

My parents were both educators.

My Catholic mother (who died in 2001) attended both public and Catholic schools growing up in Maine. The public school classes were conducted in English, the Catholic school classes partly in French, partly in English. My mother developed tuberculosis as a teenager and never actually graduated from high school. She eventually got a BFA from the University of Arizona and almost a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Texas.

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(She didn’t want to write a thesis, so never finished). She spent a bit of time between Tuscon and Austin teaching English to mostly Native Americans high school students down in Ajo, Arizona in the mid 1950’s. She was a children’s librarian for a little while in DC, before she had me.

My non-practicing Methodist father (died in 2011) was public school all the way and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. All of his college degrees, culminating in his PhD in Political Science, were from the University of Texas. He taught at various state universities, landing at the University of Tennessee in 1973, from where he retired.

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Deep in study at Paris Junior College

His parents were both educators. His mother was a life-long public elementary school teacher, mostly in small and medium-sized Texas towns. His father was a public-school high school teacher who spent summers working for graduate degrees, eventually earning a PhD in History from the University of Texas, then teaching in junior colleges. His sister, my late aunt, was a life-long public school elementary teacher married to a life-long public high school teacher and coach.

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Between them, they taught thousands.

There’s not a similar lineage on my mother’s side – her background was so different in every way. She was older (born in 1924) and her family was all French-Canadian. She was the first generation born in the US (New Hampshire) and the men in her family were all business people with some professionals – the uncle who raised her was a dentist – and the women tended to be homemakers, as far as as I know. Her only sibling, a brother, was an engineer, aEPSON MFP imagend his wife, my aunt, was a life-long fifth grade school teacher, though.

(My mother had ended up in Arizona because of respiratory problems, as one did in the 1940’s and 50’s – producing, as I understand, in the present day in the Southwest, the most highly-allergic demographic in the country, as all those emigrants prone to asthma and allergies intermarried….)

Oh, and me? Public school up until high school. Diocesan Catholic high school. I had mostly positive experiences of public school growing up. Catholic high school started to get problematic, but that was perhaps more because of the times in Catholic education (1974-78) than anything else.  Public four-year university (Go Vols) and private graduate university (Vanderbilt). I taught theology and some history in Catholic schools. Have not been in a classroom since 1999.

All that is to say that my background does not see school as the enemy – not even public school! My grandparents and parents taught in public schools to diverse populations. My mother’s stories from her time in Ajo were something else. It was challenging and frustrating, like anything else, but they worked on, teaching, mostly supported from above (administration) and below (families/culture/society). My own experience as a public school student in the 1960’s and 70’s was not a burden to me. It was boring at times, but mostly fine, the only hiccup being the construction of an open classroom building where I ended up for 4th

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If you look at the next image..you’ll see the same picture. Almost 50 years later.  

through 6th grade. It was so modern….but I think it sort of drove the teachers crazy even as everyone was on board the New Classroom Model. If you can imagine, the way it was set up was that the 4th-6th grade module was a huge half-circle part of the building – I’m imagining the whole building was perhaps clover-shaped. The library was in the middle – my primary memory of the library being reading Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret during library time, being too timid to actually check it out.

Anyway, each grade had two sections, each of those arranged in one arc of that half-circle. There was a lot of movement and a lot of noise, but I actually have pretty strong memories of much of the work we did, particularly in 5th and 6th grade – some of it decent (projects on animals and countries that I can still picture), some of just too characteristic of the period – draw a picture illustrating Feelin’ Groovy. We sang Both Sides Now in chorus. We also sang One Tin Soldier , which was SUPER CONTROVERSIAL.

But here’s the thing: It was flawed, as all human activities are, but it served its fundamental purpose well and did not dominate our lives. There was homework, but not too much. There was some standardized testing once a year, but just a few days. There was not incessant, constant communication with home, and there was not, even though in some areas schools were an important part of community identity, this notion that when your kid entered first grade your whole family was becoming a part of a school family that was going to journey together towards human wholeness and mastery of the skills necessary to succeed in the 20th century.

No, there was still a sense that that journey towards human wholeness, the mastery of skills, and yes, even your own level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom – and where you chose to direct that – was on you.

We’ll help you develop the tools. We’ll teach to read, write, compute and point you in the direction of more specific skills and resources. Once in a while, a teacher might change a life and a school might be important to compensate for what was missing at home especially in cultures of low literacy, but really. Most of the time, school was just school.

Now, a caveat. We all know that any government school system has other goals, as well, mostly related to the formation of Good Citizens, and now, compliant consumers. Catholic schools are, and have always been about the formation of the whole person and salvation of souls. So if that pressure to have the school be such an important, formative part of a family’s life and a child’s formation was not felt, it was probably in part because cultural and social institutions were still tending to be on the same page, so there wasn’t the anxiety of a huge job that one of them was going to have to be tackling all alone. And while pedagogical pedants had been hard at work theorizing since the late 19th century, we (parents and others) had not ceded them complete power…yet.

So what am I saying?

My  family of educators were proud of what they did, but they also understood that schools were institutions like any other. They were systems that could change, that were run by flawed human beings with varied goals and agendas. There was nothing divinely ordered or inherently necessary about a school, much less a particular type of school or educational paradigm. And the higher up you got, the worse it could get and the less tied you were to The Way Things Are. There’s a reason the “academic novel” gets a whole genre of its own, and that genre is known for satire, irony, dark humor and the occasional murder.

My family of educators understood that the classroom gave you a start. It gave you a nudge, opened a space, but that one did not define one’s educational level by grades or by how much school one had completed. I mean…my mother was the smartest person any of us knew, didn’t graduate from high school, but still went to college. We lived in university communities, and when you do that, you know many people who have many degrees, but are also idiots.

Most education happened outside the classroom, by reading, being engaged in culture, religion, social life and politics, by creating music, meals, crafts or gardens, by traveling, by immersing yourself in local history, by going to church and Sunday school, through the spiritual life, by talking, arguing and discussing, and simply being quiet and contemplating the night sky, the ripples on a lake, the soft, smooth skin of your grandchild’s plump hand or the thin, spotted skin of your own.

And for kids, in being let loose at 3 pm, doing whatever until dinner, and running out and then doing it some more.

 

So, that’s where I came from, and that’s where I was. Schools and education were in my blood. All of my older children had gone to Catholic elementary schools, and one to Catholic high school, and I believed in Catholic education, but it wasn’t deep in my family background, either as an ideal or something to reject.  I was respectful and grateful for the institutions, but by no means in awe or idolatrous of any system and knew that most of my real learning – and that of everyone I knew – happened outside of the classroom.

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

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50 years later, hanging on a different wall in a different time, still amid stacks of books, with different people learning in different, unexpected ways. 

 

7 Quick Takes

Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Okay…Instagram Stories??

I had started using Snapchat before our Italy trip earlier this summer, and have continued since. Some people use it to document EVERY minute of their day, but, er..no. Why would you want to involve strangers in your life at that level? So, no.

My reasons for using it are related to the reasons I have for watching other people’s Snaps – to share a glimpse of interesting sights and sounds and experiences. So the Snapchat and Instagram accounts I follow are overwhelmingly in three categories: cooking, travel and Catholicing.

Further, if Snapchat went down today, the only account I would miss at all is David Lebovitz’s. Lebovitz is a Paris-based American cookbook author whose website is wonderful and who has made a fantastic use of Snapchat. I love following him around Paris as he shops the markets and then returns to his apartment to cook up his purchases. He’s absolutely mastered the Snapchat game.

From the Catholic perspective, two great accounts are Fr. Roderick Vonhogen, who puts most of his stories up on YouTube anyway, so you don’t even have to Snapchat to find him – his recent vlog and series of Snaps from Krakow made me definitely want to go there.

And then there’s the Catholic Traveler, Mountain Butorac, who makes great use of Snapchat – he’s currently doing a Novena tour of Rome, and he just does a wonderful job – succinct (as you have to be) but substantive, with a real eye for what will interest the viewer.

As for my own use, at this point, I mainly document interesting sights and sounds – if we travel, for example, or if the hummingbirds are active at the feeder. SUPER EXCITING.

But what I find useful about it is the video aspect. I have never done much with video and Snapchat is just a very easy way for me to do it – video Snaps strung together as a story can be downloaded and then uploaded to the blog very easily.

 

— 2 —

Oh, but now we have Instagram Stories, which is much the same thing as Snapchat, but with a couple of differences at this point – although I’m sure that will change. The one thing I don’t like about Instagram Stories is that you can’t download your whole “Story” at once, as you can with Snapchat – you can only do it one photo or video at at time.

But I am doing it. If you’re on Instagram, the stories are arranged at the top of your feed, and if you want to go directly to any one person’s, go to their profile, and if they have a story, there will be a little colored circle around their profile photo. I think it only appears on the phone app, not on the regular computer site.

(Here’s a tip – if you are using both, it is very possible to download, say, a Snapchat photo or video and then just post it to Instagram stories. And vice versa.)

That said, I don’t expend a lot of energy thinking or using social media, to tell the truth. It’s a tool for seeing and sharing, not, for me, for engaging. I try to save most of that for real life.

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— 3 —

Recent reads:

I finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and was so very glad I read it. I don’t know if you can really understand this period – or even American history – without having read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a polemic, to be sure, but a powerful one. Stowe does a masterful job of laying out the various, complex views of slavery via her character’s choices and opinions. Most important of all are the characters who are either torn or fancy themselves exonerated from culpability because they are not directly involved in slavery – Stowe does not spare them, of course, and even today, the dissection remains pertinent because moral issues are still hard-fought and we are still tempted to complacency and hand-washing if we fancy it not our problem or beyond our powers to have an impact.

I do wonder how much this novel is taught in the present day, not just because of the uncomfortable racial assumptions and portrayals that lent themselves, subsequent to publication, to terrible stereotypical representations, but because the book is such a deeply religious one.

For Stowe’s fundamental point, even more foundational than the immorality of slavery, is about Christian freedom. Tom may be enslaved in earthly terms, but he  is a free man because he belongs to Christ, even if the unjust laws of the United States do not recognize that freedom. Tom is a martyr, not for the cause of earthly freedom, but for the sake of the souls whom he dies to protect and who find real freedom – salvation – because of that death.

I can’t even imagine a modern public school classroom being able to deal with this intense religiosity.

 

 — 4 —

I read The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. Fascinating, subversively Catholic.  You can read my discussion of it here. Now I’m reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I have only read one Collins before – No Name, which I absolutely loved and was so surprised by – you can read that here – and am looking forward to getting into a book he’s actually known in the present day for.

 

— 5 

Some great feasts coming up next week! Dominic, Edith Stein, Lawrence….

6–

I am going to have a lot of education-related posts next week (see the next take to see why….), but I thought I’d share this with you today.

So you know how schools – Catholic and public both – are all on the technology train? That they want you to know that they are really up-to-date and Preparing Students for the 21st Century by having Ipads and Laptops for everyone and going textbook-free and having all the assignments done on Ipads or Chromebooks or whatever else they’ve been snookered into buying by modern snake oil salesmen?

Long-time readers know my skepticism on this score and how firmly I believe that the tactile experience of holding a book, turning pages on a book, locating information on a page in a book located in space and time and writing things down actually helps you learn better because more of your senses, more of your whole self is engaged in the process.

More and more studies are indicating that this is so, and here’s my interesting addition to the argument. My daughter just started law school and one of her professors has banned computers and other electronic devices from the classroom. You have to take notes by hand – which my daughter had been planning to do anyway.

And this is happening more and more on the college level.

So parents, don’t buy what the salesmen are telling you. If your kids’ schools are telling you that taking away their notebooks, pens and textbooks and replacing them with screens is preparing them for college….don’t accept it without question.

 

 

— 7 —

Oh, and yes. That news.

Well, I will talk a lot more about this next week, but…as of next week, the homeschooling journey has come to an end, at least for the moment. It’s nothing sudden – it’s been sort of the plan since mid-year last year – and it’s definitely nothing negative.

It’s just that the high schooler is content to stay the course in school (he’s in 10th grade) for another year, and M is going into 6th grade. I’ll go into more detail on the decision next week, but it wasn’t a terribly hard one. He’ll be going to the local school run by the Nashville Dominicans, their middle school is excellent (other son went there in 8th grade), they have a new building with a fantastic science lab, a Ph.D. who teaches in it (whom my daughter coincidentally had as a teacher in the public high school International Baccalaureate program here, and loved), and he just really wants a more consistent posse to hang with. He has neighborhood friends (who go to different schools) and the homeschool activities, but in terms of the latter, the populations that participated in the various activities wasn’t consistent – different groups doing different things – the boxing, the science, the zoo classes – and as I said, he just wants more than that & Mom during the day. Hard to believe, I know.

And…Nashville Dominicans.

I’ve told them both:  if either of you get dissatisfied and want to do homeschool again..it’s no problem at all. And I will say, even with three years to go to that point, I can’t see my rising 6th grader doing traditional high school at all. He has little interest in it and I think will definitely be doing homeschool for that, especially considering his entrance into high school will coincide with brother going to college, so we will be free to take off and really Roamschool at that point, which both of us would really like.

So next week, what I’m going to do is a whole series of posts – for the record, in one place – on why we started homeschooling in the first place, what it was like, what I learned from it, and my sense of a whole raft of education-related issues and the future. And much railing on the Catholic education establishment for being so….establishment. You definitely have that to look forward to.

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

St. John Vianney

Today is the memorial of St. John Vianney, patron of priests.

(And co-patron of my diocese, the Diocese of Birmingham. They’re having a special Mass for Vocations tonight at the Cathedral in honor of the saint.)

We can start with his own words, from the Office of Readings:

My children, your hearts are small, but prayer enlarges them and renders them capable of loving God. Prayer is a foretaste of heaven, an overflowing of heaven. It never leaves us without sweetness; it is like honey, it descends into the soul and sweetens everything. In a prayer well made, troubles vanish like snow under the rays of the sun.
  Prayer makes time seem to pass quickly, and so pleasantly that one fails to notice how long it is. When I was parish priest of Bresse, once almost all my colleagues were ill, and as I made long journeys I used to pray to God, and, I assure you, the time did not seem long to me. There are those who lose themselves in prayer, like a fish in water, because they are absorbed in God. There is no division in their hearts. How I love those noble souls! Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Colette saw our Lord and spoke to him as we speak to one another.
  As for ourselves, how often do we come to church without thinking what we are going to do or for what we are going to ask.
  And yet, when we go to call upon someone, we have no difficulty in remembering why it was we came. Some appear as if they were about to say to God: ‘I am just going to say a couple of words, so I can get away quickly.’ I often think that when we come to adore our Lord we should get all we ask if we asked for it with a lively faith and a pure heart.
Then move on to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who gave much attention to the saint in his declaration of the Year for Priests:

He arrived in Ars, a village of 230 souls, warned by his Bishop beforehand that there he would find religious practice in a sorry state: “There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there”. As a result, he was deeply aware that he needed to go there to embody Christ’s presence and to bear witness to his saving mercy: “[Lord,] grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life!”: with this prayer he entered upon his mission.[7] The Curé devoted himself completely to his parish’s conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the people in his care. Dear brother priests, let us ask the Lord Jesus for the grace to learn for ourselves something of the pastoral plan of Saint John Mary Vianney! The first thing we need to learn is the complete identification of the man with his ministry. In Jesus, person and mission tend to coincide: all Christ’s saving activity was, and is, an expression of his “filial consciousness” which from all eternity stands before the Father in an attitude of loving submission to his will. In a humble yet genuine way, every priest must aim for a similar identification. Certainly this is not to forget that the efficacy of the ministry is independent of the holiness of the minister; but neither can we overlook the extraordinary fruitfulness of the encounter between the ministry’s objective holiness and the subjective holiness of the minister. The Curé of Ars immediately set about this patient and humble task of harmonizing his life as a minister with the holiness of the ministry he had received, by deciding to “live”, physically, in his parish church: As his first biographer tells us: “Upon his arrival, he chose the church as his home. He entered the church before dawn and did not leave it until after the evening Angelus. There he was to be sought whenever needed”.[8]

The pious excess of his devout biographer should not blind us to the fact that the Curé also knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organized popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed funds for charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.

….This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led him – by a sole inward movement – from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence

…..

We priests should feel that the following words, which he put on the lips of Christ, are meant for each of us personally: “I will charge my ministers to proclaim to sinners that I am ever ready to welcome them, that my mercy is infinite”.[24] From Saint John Mary Vianney we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of Penance, to set it once more at the centre of our pastoral concerns, and to take up the “dialogue of salvation” which it entails. The Curé of Ars dealt with different penitents in different ways. Those who came to his confessional drawn by a deep and humble longing for God’s forgiveness found in him the encouragement to plunge into the “flood of divine mercy” which sweeps everything away by its vehemence. If someone was troubled by the thought of his own frailty and inconstancy, and fearful of sinning again, the Curé would unveil the mystery of God’s love in these beautiful and touching words: “The good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, he already knows that you will sin again, yet he still forgives you. How great is the love of our God: he even forces himself to forget the future, so that he can grant us his forgiveness!”.[25] But to those who made a lukewarm and rather indifferent confession of sin, he clearly demonstrated by his own tears of pain how “abominable” this attitude was: “I weep because you don’t weep”,[26] he would say. “If only the Lord were not so good! But he is so good! One would have to be a brute to treat so good a Father this way!”.[27] He awakened repentance in the hearts of the lukewarm by forcing them to see God’s own pain at their sins reflected in the face of the priest who was their confessor. To those who, on the other hand, came to him already desirous of and suited to a deeper spiritual life, he flung open the abyss of God’s love, explaining the untold beauty of living in union with him and dwelling in his presence: “Everything in God’s sight, everything with God, everything to please God… How beautiful it is!”.[28] And he taught them to pray: “My God, grant me the grace to love you as much as I possibly can”.[29]

In his time the Curé of Ars was able to transform the hearts and the lives of so many people because he enabled them to experience the Lord’s merciful love. Our own time urgently needs a similar proclamation and witness to the truth of Love: Deus caritas est (1 Jn: 4:8).

From a 2009 General Audience

His testimony reminds us, dear brothers and sisters, that for every baptized person and especially for every priest the Eucharist is not merely an event with two protagonists, a dialogue between God and me. Eucharistic Communion aspires to a total transformation of one’s life and forcefully flings open the whole human “I” of man and creates a new “we” (cf. Joseph Ratzinger, La Comunione nella Chiesa, p. 80).

Thus, far from reducing the figure of St John Mary Vianney to an example albeit an admirable one of 18-century devotional spirituality, on the contrary one should understand the prophetic power that marked his human and priestly personality that is extremely timely. In post-revolutionary France which was experiencing a sort of “dictatorship of rationalism” that aimed at obliterating from society the very existence of priests and of the Church, he lived first in the years of his youth a heroic secrecy, walking kilometres at night to attend Holy Mass. Then later as a priest Vianney distinguished himself by an unusual and fruitful pastoral creativity, geared to showing that the then prevalent rationalism was in fact far from satisfying authentic human needs, hence definitively unliveable.

Dear brothers and sisters, 150 years after the death of the Holy Curé of Ars, contemporary society is facing challenges that are just as demanding and may have become even more complex. If in his time the “dictatorship of rationalism” existed, in the current epoch a sort of “dictatorship of relativism” is evident in many contexts. Both seem inadequate responses to the human being’s justifiable request to use his reason as a distinctive and constitutive element of his own identity. Rationalism was inadequate because it failed to take into account human limitations and claims to make reason alone the criterion of all things, transforming it into a goddess; contemporary relativism humiliates reason because it arrives de facto at affirming that the human being can know nothing with certainty outside the positive scientific field. Today however, as in that time, man, “a beggar for meaning and fulfilment”, is constantly in quest of exhaustive answers to the basic questions that he never ceases to ask himself.

Pope John XXIII wrote an entire encyclical on St. John Vianney – on the 100th anniversary of his death.  It’s an interesting read from an historical perspective – published on August 1, 1959..it’s sort of hard to see why it’s an encyclical, exactly, rather than some other sort of papal document, but that’s not the first or last time that question could be posed.

It’s definitely worth your time, not only for what you might learn about St. John Vianney, but also for what it tells us about Pope John XXIII’s thinking on the priesthood on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council.

It is not Our intention at this time to enter upon a lengthy treatment of the Church’s teaching on the priesthood and on the Eucharistic Sacrifice as it has been handed down from antiquity. Our predecessors Pius XI and Pius XII have done this in clear and important documents and We urge you to take pains to see to it that the priests and faithful entrusted to your care are very familiar with them. This will clear up the doubts of some; and correct the more daring statements that have sometimes been made in discussing these matters.

52. But We too hope to say something worthwhile in this matter by showing the principal reason why the holy Cure of Ars, who, as befits a hero, was most careful in fulfilling his priestly duties, really deserves to be proposed to those who have the care of souls as a model of outstanding virtue and to be honored by them as their heavenly patron. If it is obviously true that a priest receives his priesthood so as to serve at the altar and that he enters upon this office by offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice, then it is equally true that for as long as he lives as God’s minister, the Eucharistic Sacrifice will be the source and origin of the holiness that he attains and of the apostolic activity to which he devotes himself. All of these things came to pass in the fullest possible way in the case of St. John Vianney.

53. For, if you give careful consideration to all of the activity of a priest, what is the main point of his apostolate if not seeing to it that wherever the Church lives, a people who are joined by the bonds of faith, regenerated by holy Baptism and cleansed of their faults will be gathered together around the sacred altar? It is then that the priest, using the sacred power he has received, offers the divine Sacrifice in which Jesus Christ renews the unique immolation which He completed on Calvary for the redemption of mankind and for the glory of His heavenly Father. It is then that the Christians who have gathered together, acting through the ministry of the priest, present the divine Victim and offer themselves to the supreme and eternal God as a “sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God.” (64) There it is that the people of God are taught the doctrines and precepts of faith and are nourished with the Body of Christ, and there it is that they find a means to gain supernatural life, to grow in it, and if need be to regain unity. And there besides, the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, grows with spiritual increase throughout the world down to the end of time.

From Fr. Steve Grunow:

In 1818, John Vianney was sent by his bishop to the parish of Ars, a godforsaken place with maybe 230 inhabitants. The place was basically a ruin. His bishop told him that “there is little love of God in that parish; you will have to the one who puts it there”.

That he did.

By 1855, 4 years before John Vianney’s death, some 20,000 pilgrims flocked to Ars in hope of just getting a glimpse of the holy priest.

John Vianney was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XI in the year 1925.

The lesson?

In my limited experience there are two approaches that characterize the way that parish priests will approach their vocation- one that is oriented towards the administrative and the other that it ordered towards the ascetic or to the athletic. MORE

Finally, French Catholic Novelist Georges Bernanos wrote a novel called Diary of a Country Priest, based on at least the spirit of the ministry of the Cure d’Ars.  I wrote a teeny-tiny article on the novel (why it was so short is at the link) for Liguorian ages ago. You can read it here. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century a philosophical perspective called positivism ruled the  intellectual climate in France.  Positivists like Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte claimed that all one can know about human life is what can be observed and that the laws of behavior and society discerned from these observations should be used to organize human life.

Into this scientifically-based and utterly materialistic mileu stepped, one by one over the decades before and just after the First World War, a group of writers who formed what we now call the French Catholic Literary Revival.  Francois Mauriac, Charles Peguy, Julien Green and Leon Bloy  rejected positivism and reclaimed a vision of human beings essentially defined, not by scientific law, but rather by our relation to God and struggle with evil.  One of the finest writers of this group was George Bernanos, author of Diary of a Country Priest.

Diary of a Country Priest, first published in 1936, is just what the title suggests:  the fictional journal of a young curate in rural France.  The premise may seem simple, but in Bernanos’ hands it emerges as a rich work in which the reader encounters the injustices of French society, the emptiness of an intellectual system that rejects God, the failure of the Church to fully embody Christ’s love for the poor, and above all, the power of a life dedicated to God.

Tomorrow (August 4), Pope Francis will visit Umbria, with the particular destination of the Porziuncola (or Portiuncula), a small chapel standing within a huge church, Santa Maria degli Angeli, which in turns stands at the base of the hill on which Assisi is built.

(If you ever go to Assisi and arrive by train, your station is at Santa Maria degli Angeli, and you then take some other means to get up the hill.)

The occasion is – a couple of days late – the 800th anniversary of the “Pardon of Assisi.”

EWTN Vatican correspondent  Joan Lewis gave a good explanation of both the Porziuncola and the Pardon last year:

Having prayed and meditated and discovered his vocation here in 1209, St. Francis founded the Friars Minor and eventually obtained the chapel from the Benedictines as a gift to be the center of his new Order.

Here, on March 28, 1211, Clare, the daughter of one Favarone di Offreduccio received the habit of the Poor Clares from Francis, thus instituting that Order.

And now we come to 1216 when St.Francis, in a vision, obtained what is know as the Pardon of Assisi or Indulgence of the Porziuncola (also written Portiuncula), approved by Pope Honorius III. This special day runs from Vespers on August 1 to sundown of August 2.

According to the official Porziuncola website, one night in 1216 Francis was immersed in prayer when suddenly the chapel was filled with a powerful light, and he saw Christ and His Holy Mother above the altar, surrounded by a multitude of angels.

They asked him what he wanted to be able to save souls and Francis’ answer was immediate: “I ask that all those who, having repented and confessed, will come to visit this church will obtain full and generous pardon with a complete remission of guilt.”

The Lord then said to Francis: “What you ask, Brother Francis, is great but you are worthy of greater things and greater things you will have. I thus accept your prayer, but on the understanding that you ask my vicar on earth, in my name, for this indulgence.”

Francis immediately went to Pope Honorius who listened attentively and gave his approval. To the question, “Francis, for how many years do you wish this indulgence?” the saint replied: “Holy Father, I do not ask for years, but for souls.”

And thus, on August 2, 1216, together with the bishops of Umbria, he announced to the people gathered at the Porziuncula: “My brothers, I want to send all of you to Heaven.”

Francis gathered his brother Franciscans here every year in a general chapter to discuss the Rule of the Order, to be renewed in their work and to awaken in themselves a new fervor in bringing the Gospel to the world.

It is also the site of St. Francis’ death. 

” He was at that time dwelling in the palace of the Bishop of Assisi, and therefore he asked the brethren to carry him with all speed to the “place” of St. Maria de Portiuncula, for he wished to give back his soul to God there, where (as has been said) he first knew the way of the truth perfectly….

…Then, for that he was about to become dust and ashes, he bade that he should be laid on sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes. All the brethren (whose father and leader he was) came together, and, as they stood reverently by and awaited his blessed departure and happy consummation, his most holy soul was released from the flesh and absorbed into the abyss of light, and his body fell asleep in the Lord. But one of his brethren and disciples, a man of no small fame, whose name I think it right to suppress now because while he lives in the flesh he chooses not to glory in such an announcement, saw the soul of the most holy father ascending over many waters in a straight course to heaven, and his soul was as it were a star having in some sort the bigness of the moon and possessing somewhat of the brightness of the sun, and borne up by a little white cloud.

It is also the spot where, according to her Spiritual Autobiography, Simone Weil prayed for the first time. From John Paul II’s letter on the occasion of the re-opening of the Porziuncola after the 1996 earthquake. 

The little church of the Porziuncola preserves and hands on a message and a special grace deriving from the actual experiences of the Poverello of Assisi. Message and grace still continue, and form a powerful summons to any who will allow themselves to be drawn by his example. This is borne out by the witness of Simone Weil, a daughter of Israel who fell under the spell of Christ: “Alone in the tiny romanesque chapel of St Mary of the Angels, a unique wonder of purity in which Francis had often prayed, I experienced a force greater than myself that drove me, for the first time in my life, to my knees”

 

The Porziuncola plays a part, naturally, in Adventures in Assisi It provides a climax of sorts, in the story in which the two children have walked in the footsteps of St. Francis, both literally and spiritually, having learned some lessons about humility and poverty of spirit.

Ann found it a challenge to do a painting in which the scale of the small chapel in the huge basilica was evident, but still include the children. But I think she did a great job!

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Remember, if you would like to order this book from me – you can go here. Perhaps it would be a good gift for you local Catholic classroom??

 

Perhaps you know Muriel Spark from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thanks to the film for which Maggie Smith won a 1969 Academy Award, it’s her most well-known novel.

But not, certainly, her only novel. I had read several others, most memorably, to me at least Memento Mori. I recently picked up another, The Girls of Slender Means, read bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks, finished it last night, and will probably re-read it today.

It is a novella, really  – only 142 pages long in the edition I have – but it’s dense and complex, spiraling down, then back up. To me, it’s the ideal of a “religious” novel, more girls-of-slender-means-sparkthought-provoking and real than the dreck that squats comfortably in the reassuring “inspirational” section.

(Spark was a Catholic convert)

As such, it’s difficult to summarize. It also would not be fair to summarize the novel in full because much of its power comes from surprise and even shock. It’s quite powerful in that way.

But let’s just say this:

The novel is set in a residence for single women, the events occurring in 1945, between VE and VJ Days, with a few flashbacks and flash forwards, which can be confusing – it’s why I had to re-read the first twenty pages or so probably three times.

The women are, as the title indicates, of “slender means” – but, as Spark writes, in her distant, vaguely acerbic, perhaps ironic way in the opening paragraph, in 1945, “…all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”  Slender, though, has other meanings. During the climax of the novel, the size of the characters impacts their potential to survive. In addition, I think it has meaning related to personal character.

There are a few older, long-term residences, but most are young, in their twenties. They work, date, and generally look forward to post-war life, which has not quite arrived.

At the center are Jane Wright, who works in publishing and is not slender; Joanna Copeland, the daughter of an Anglican rector who teaches elocution; and Selina, a slim beauty. Jane brings a self-proclaimed anarchist poet, Nicholas Farringdon, into their lives.

Very quickly, in a flash-forward, we hear news about Nicholas, news that the now-journalist Jane is spreading through phone calls to her former housemates, now scattered far and wide: she has heard that he was killed in Haiti, and, most surprisingly to her, killed in his role as some sort of Catholic missionary.

I am not going to even attempt to summarize the remaining plot of the book, for I think it would spoil the effect if you do choose to read it.  Just know that if you begin reading this expecting a homely, cozy little slice-of-life easy read…that’s not what you find. Spark is cutting and direct in her observations of her mostly self-absorbed characters who, either because of wartime survival mode or simply human nature, lead lives mostly disengaged from their raison d’etre – a subject about which Jane Wright has settled on as a useful, sophisticated-sounding question for the authors put in her charge.

What I will say, though, is that if are going to read it, take a look at Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland before you do – or at some point in the reading. This webpage gives an apt, accessible analysis that is helpful in understanding Sparks’ novel, for the poem weaves in and out of the events of the story as Joanna is heard to recite and teach snippets of it throughout. In fact, I don’t think many reviewers understand how important Hopkins’ poem is to the book – upon reflection, it almost seems like a re-telling of the story of these nuns who were driven from their home by evil, then shipwrecked in a way that might rob them of physical life, but through which God shows his power to save, re-create and rescue in a cosmic way.  The fact that the climax of both novel and poem involve a small, barely accessible window and a woman of faith calling out to God for his presence in the midst of imminent collapse lead me to think it is quite intentional.

But here’s the thing that’s so fascinating.

The Girls of Slender Means is, in part – in great part –  a conversion story. Most conversion stories seem to hang on the converted witnessing good. That’s not the case here. Here, the turning point is a character’s witnessing a gesture that the world might see as odd or even quirky, but, in the context, is really expressive of profound darkness of spirit. Early in the book, before we know what happened, this, to the world, meaningless or even understandable gesture is described as an “action of savagery so extreme…” It’s a shock to the system, to see one you had idealized as the embodiment of earthly beauty, with surely the potential to be more, prove you wrong.

It’s a conversion confirmed by an even more shocking final scene, in which we see what the cheery among us might describe as Spark’s darkness, but which is really just realism. We can celebrate a moment of earthly peace as raucously and optimistically as we like, but even in the midst of these high hopes, original sin still lurks in the crowds, having its way, the ship is still sinking, the fires are still burning, and perhaps the most radical, powerful response to all of it is to stay in it, take it in, but now in a different way, in touch with a intuition of something else, something more for which we were made and are being gathered up for, an intuition that leads us, in the witnessing, without evening understanding why and  despite ourselves, to give a sign that this is not all there is, that things are not what they seem. A sign, simply, of a cross.

 

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