Posts Tagged ‘religious life’

"amy welborn"

This is the cover of a pamphlet introducing the new, stripped-down, freedom-o-the-Christian-centered Lenten framework for American Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is part of Notre Dame’s Catholic Pamphlet Collection, which was available on archive.org for a very short time – I discovered it one night, and then, it seems as if a couple of weeks later, it had been taken down, I presume because of copyright issues. 

It being the first Friday of Lent, you’re probably going to herethere have been the usual minor rumblings about the purported relative ease of the fast for post-Vatican II Latin Rite Catholics.

Well, here’s my problem with that yearly ritual….

…(the apologizing and complaining, not the fasting, that is)…

The whole idea of the post-Conciliar changes to penitential fasting and abstinence was to present, as it were, a minimum on paper, with the expectation that the individual, flush with the glory of the Freedom of the Christian (and the Spirit of the Council), would take it from there.

The legal minimalism was supposed to unleash an internal maximalist lurking in all of us who had just been waiting to be treated like an adult instead of a child defined by adherence to rigid rules.

The rules are supposed to be minimal. That was the intention of the changes. 

And just a slight detour –

First, St. Francis de Sales had excellent advice on fasting. Read it here.

Secondly, a century and a half ago, people were complaining that the Catholic Lenten fast was too lax. John Henry Newman addressed it, and I talk about it here.  It’s startlingly prescient. Really…life and human nature does not change that much. These words could have been written today:

For example, in respect to curiosity. What a deal of time is lost, to say nothing else, in this day by curiosity, about things which in no ways concern us. I am not speaking against interest in the news of the day altogether, for the course of the world must ever be interesting to a Christian from its bearing upon the fortunes of the Church, but I speak of vain curiosity, love of scandal, love of idle tales, curious prying into the private history of people, curiosity about trials and offences, and personal matters, nay often what is much worse than this, curiosity into sin. … Hence this is the way in which we are called upon, with this Lent we now begin, to mortify ourselves. Let us mortify our curiosity.

So back to the issue of fasting and abstinence.

I think it’s a good idea to read Paul VI’s document on this, as well as the US bishops’.

From Paul VI, in February 1966

The US bishops, in November 1966.

I’m going to post excerpts in a second, but before we get lost in that, I’ll just venture to say that although I don’t think they should have eliminated the year-long Friday abstinence for any reason, in any way, these efforts to deepen a Catholic’s understanding of the practice are really not bad! In fact, Eamon Duffy, in his excellent article critiquing the loss of Friday abstinence, gives the American Catholic bishops a shout-out for offering a much more grounded articulation of the changes than the British bishops did, who, acccording to him, basically said, “We know this is a lot of bother, chaps, so you don’t have to do it anymore.”

In reading Catholic observers of the pre-Vatican II era, we do see concern with a distance between practice and understanding (that was the motive for the Liturgical Movement, as a whole, after all), and the rapidity with which Catholics after Vatican II ditched Friday abstinence without replacing it with any other penitential practice reveals that distance. Long ago, a Catholic blogger recounted his parents’ reaction to the lifting of Friday abstinence – they and their Catholic friends in the neighborhood celebrated by having a huge steak barbecue!

What I see then, is one more example of the misguided nature of the “renewal” of the Church. Instead of truly starting from where people were and what they already practiced, and trying to help people understand that, they moved to a state of minimalism, stripping the hard-to-follow and hard-to-understand stuff away, trusting in an ideal: people, flush in their mature Christian freedom, would just do what the deeper, yet now impenetrable intention of the “rules” had been guiding them toward through the centuries.

Perhaps for some that happened, but for the bulk it didn’t, and the other consequences were dire:

  • Loss of Catholic identity in that shared practice
  • A shaking of faith as Catholics, who had been presented with these practices as an expression of the solid, unchanging rock of the Catholic faith, were told, in essence: “KIDDING!” What was solid and worth taking seriously? What, that the Church taught, could be trusted?

Now, back to it. I’ll just end with two official documents detailing the changes in practice. They are worth reading, and honestly, when you are even lightly familiar with two thousand years of Catholic thinking and writing on fasting and other penitential practices, the call to go deeper than the minimal and just use that as a starting point that is the center of these documents, is not inconsistent with that tradition.

The mistake – and it was huge – was in, really, changing anything. It shouldn’t have been changed, for it stripped Catholic life of a deep connection to centuries of Catholic practice and was too idealistic about human nature.

From Duffy’s article:

The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting “good” and “bad” Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.

Now to the US Bishops, from 1966:

  1. Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called “Good” because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.
  2. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s ConstitutionPoenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.
  3. For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge, particularly during Lent, generosity to local,national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification.”


This paragraph relates to Vigils and Ember Days, but I think it succinctly summarizes the whole intent:

Vigils and Ember Days, as most now know, no longer oblige to fast and abstinence. However, the liturgical renewal and the deeper appreciation of the joy of the holy days of the Christian year will, we hope, result in a renewed appreciation as to why our forefathers spoke of “a fast before a feast.” We impose no fast before any feast-day, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.

On the Friday abstinence, year-round:

  1. Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.
  2. Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
  3. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
  4. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.
  5. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
  6. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.


Back to Duffy:

The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor; the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is both fundamental and structural. By making fasting and abstinence optional, the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and the prophetic witness of the whole community—the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.


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(This is a repeat, but worth a revisit. Feel free to use the image at the bottom of the post.)

(Welcome new visitors – check out a new posts with some more Vintage Catholic thoughts on fasting – from St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Augustine. )


What’s Lent? This thing that’s coming soon?

You might have the impression that Lent is all about you. Your personal growth. Your spiritual health. Your happiness.


Or maybe not. Maybe there’s more to Lent than how it’s going to make your life better.

For you see, there’s a difference between understanding Lent as a particularly listcicle-friendly (40 days! 3 disciplines!)  opportunity for an individual’s spiritual growth and understanding it as the entire Church’s solemn call and responsibility to do penance and grow in faith.

Are those different things? Yes.  Think about it. Not in tension, not opposed, but slightly different roads and paradigms.  The first is centered on pleasing ourselves, the second on pleasing God.

It is the distinction highlighted by Francis de Sales’ last of three pointers for a good fast, highlighted below: fast to please God alone.  To many of us, this sounds odd, since we have been formed to believe that we need to nothing to please God other than accepting ourselves as we are, haven’t we?

For what happens in modern spiritual discourse is that we have collapsed the two – we please God most of all when we are ourselves and are content with ourselves.  When you dig deeply, that’s true – when we are the selves God created and that above all brings us contentment and peace.

But what our spiritual wisdom has also reminded us of is that reaching that point requires stripping and sacrifice and a hard journey – not simply acceptance of the Good News that we are God’s creatures and loved by him. It is complicated, yes, but the bottom line seems to me that when you remove penance and the organic nature of fallen creation and the role of our fallen selves in that, you really are just left with individuals on a journey to feel okay about themselves, and not much more.

It’s an intriguing distinction. As an amateur student of the strangeness of modern Catholicism, I am most often struck by the sharp ironies and waves of unintended consequences that mark our slice of history.

We post-Conciliar Catholics were formed in a way that emphasized both individual spiritual freedom yet also the greater weight of  community, perhaps best encapsulated by the sense that no, Mass is not the time to come and focus on God’s presence as an individual. Rather, it is the time in which individuals freely come, but not to pray individually, but rather to do “the work of the people” in liturgy.

(This is why some liturgists think the worst sin one can commit during Mass is to kneel and pray quietly after receiving Communion instead of standing with the group and singing that you are bread ready to be chewed for justice or some such. We are here as the people of God, by God.)

The irony to me is that when you consider pre-Vatican II materials, the sense of communal identity was actually much stronger in those bad old days when (we are told) indvidual piety was emphasized above community.

So why is it that now, we are continually having to be told that we are community, experience community-building experiences and asked how we would like our parishes to create stronger communities?

Part of it is simply cultural and social.  “Community,” period was stronger, sometimes to oppressive extents.  You didn’t have to build community, you were born into it, you lived in it your entire life, and perhaps woe to you if you attempted to crack those walls.

Double-sided and full of shadows – that’s everything, that’s life.

But you see it in older treatments of Lent.   If you read pre-Vatican II popular and catechetical works on Lent, you encounter an unmistakable sense of the season being about the entire Church – the community – engaged in a journey – being willing to sacrifice in order to form itself to be more like Christ, in gratitude for all God has given, in sorrow for sin, with each individual’s efforts being a part of that greater whole, and being important because of it.

But today, we are on our own. Lent is about you and your walk with Jesus and making that better. It’s ironic. Matthew Kelly’s “Best Lent Ever” marketing campaign is the pinnacle of this sensibility: it’s all about Lent as a peak individual consumer experience – like Sandals for the soul.

As an aside on the “best Lent ever” slogan…I’m reminded of the more traditional way of inspiring spiritual fervor during the season, something an older priest up in Indiana used to regularly pull out and that I’ve heard on retreat…not make it your best Lent ever but a reminder that we should approach the season as if it were our “Last Lent ever.”

(The same template might be used for Advent or even about Sunday and reception of Communion….receive Communion as if it might be your last..)

Dire, yes, but as the kids say, you’re not wrong. 

Because it could be, indeed.  Both “best” and “last” indeed center us on the self and the needs of the soul, but with different orientations and expectations. 

And then there is penance.  Fasting serves many purposes, as St. Francis de Sales will tell us. But at root, it is a penitential act, not simply one to help us to “grow in faith” and find peace and joy and focus.  Yes it does, indeed do so, but it does so, Catholic tradition has normally held, because, among other things, the penitential act of fasting is part of the process of ridding our lives of sin and its effects – a process which  of course brings us closer to Christ. Not just because it’s fasting and giving stuff up, but because it is penitential.  I’ll let St. Francis de Sales explain.


To treat of fasting and of what is required to fast well, we must, at the start, understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue. The good and the bad, as well as Christians and pagans, observe it. The ancient philosophers observed it and recommended it. They were not virtuous for that reason, nor did they practice virtue in fasting. Oh, no, fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God. Thus it happens that it profits some and not others, because it is not undertaken by all in the same manner.

We find some people who think that to fast well during the holy season of Lent it is enough to abstain from eating some prohibited food. But this thought is too gross to enter into the hearts of religious, for it is to you I speak, as well as persons dedicated to Our Lord. We know very well that it is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit.


The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally and entirely. If I recount to you St. Bernard’s words regarding fasting, you will know not only why it is instituted but also how it ought to be kept.

He says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days. But this glorious saint adds that, as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul’s powers and passions — yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.

How many sins have entered into the soul through the eyes, as Holy Scripture indicates? [1 In. 2:16]. That is why they must fast by keeping them lowered and not permitting them to look upon frivolous and unlawful objects; the ears, by depriving them of listening to vain talk which serves only to fill the mind with worldly images; the tongue, in not speaking idle words and those which savor of the world or the things of the world. We ought also to cut off useless thoughts, as well as vain memories and superfluous appetites and desires of our will. In short, we ought to hold in check all those things which keep us from loving or tending to the Sovereign Good. In this way interior fasting accompanies exterior fasting.

This is what the Church wishes to signify during this holy time of Lent, teaching us to make our eyes, our ears and our tongue fast. For this reason she omits all harmonious chants in order to mortify the hearing; she no longer says Alleluia, and clothes herself completely in somber and dark colors. And on this first day she addresses us in these words: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return [Gen. 3:19], as if she meant to say: “Oh man, quit at this moment all joys and merrymaking, all joyful and pleasant reflections, and fill your memory with bitter, hard and sorrowful thoughts. In this way you will make your mind fast together with your body.”

This is also what the Christians of the primitive Church taught us when, in order to spend Lent in a better way, they deprived themselves at this time of ordinary conversations with their friends, and withdrew into great solitude and places removed from communication with people…….


The second condition is never to fast through vanity but always through humility. If our fast is not performed with humility, it will not be pleasing to God…..

But what is it to fast through humility? It is never to fast through vanity. Now how can one fast through vanity? According to Scripture there are hundreds and hundreds of ways, but I will content myself with telling you one of them, for it is not necessary to burden your memory with many things. To fast through vanity is to fast through self-will, since this self-will is not without vanity, or at least not without a temptation to vanity. And what does it mean to fast through self-will? It is to fast as one wishes and not as others wish; to fast in the manner which pleases us, and not as we are ordered or counseled. You will find some who wish to fast more than is necessary, and others who do not wish to fast as much as is necessary. What causes that except vanity and self-will? All that proceeds from ourselves seems better to us, and is much more pleasant and easy for us than what is enjoined on us by another, even though the latter is more useful and proper for our perfection. This is natural to us and is born from the great love we have for ourselves.

Let each one of us examine our conscience and we will find that all that comes from ourselves, from our own judgment, choice and election, is esteemed and loved far better than that which comes from another. We take a certain complacency in it that makes the most arduous and difficult things easy for us, and this complacency is almost always vanity. You will find those who wish to fast every Saturday of the year, but not during Lent.{2} They wish to fast in honor of Our Lady and not in honor of Our Lord. As if Our Lord and Our Lady did not consider the honor given to the one as given to the other, and as if in honoring the Son by fasting done for His intention, one did not please the Mother, or that in honoring the Virgin one did not please the Savior! What folly! But see how human it is: because the fast that these persons impose on themselves on Saturday in honor of our glorious Mistress comes from their own will and choice, it seems to them that it should be more holy and that it should bring them to a much greater perfection than the fast of Lent, which is commanded. Such people do not fast as they ought but as they want.

There are others who desire to fast more than they should, and with these one has more trouble than with the first group.

The glorious St. Augustine, in the Rule that he wrote for his religious (later adapted for men religious), orders that one follow the community as much as possible, as if he wished to say: Do not be more virtuous than the others; do not wish to practice more fasting, more austerities, more mortifications than are ordered for you. Do only what the others do and what is commanded by your Rule, according to the manner of living that you follow, and be content with that. For although fasting and other penances are good and laudable, nevertheless, if they are not practiced by those with whom you live, you will stand out and there will be some vanity, or at least some temptation to esteem yourself above others. Since they do not do as you do, you experience some vain complacency, as if you were more holy than they in doing such things.

Follow the community then in all things, said the great St. Augustine. Let the strong and robust eat what is ordered them, keeping the fast and austerities which are marked, and let them be content with that. Let the weak and infirm receive what is offered them for their infirmity, without wishing to do what the robust do. Let neither group amuse themselves in looking to see what this one eats and what that one does not eat, but let each one remain satisfied with what she has and with what is given to her. By this means you will avoid vanity and being particular.


The third condition necessary for fasting well is to look to God and to do everything to please Him, withdrawing within ourselves in imitation of a great saint, St. Gregory the Great, who withdrew into a secret and out-of-the-way place where he remained for some time without anyone knowing where he was, being content that the Lord and His angels knew it.


This is all that I had to tell you regarding fasting and what must be observed in order to fast well. The first thing is that your fast should be entire and universal; that is, that you should make all the members of your body and the powers of your soul fast: keeping your eyes lowered, or at least lower than ordinarily; keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually than is usual; mortifying the hearing and the tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless; the understanding, in order to consider only holy and pious subjects; the memory, in filling it with the remembrance of bitter and sorrowful things and avoiding joyous and gracious thoughts; keeping your will in check and your spirit at the foot of the crucifix with some holy and sorrowful thought. If you do that, your fast will be universal, interior and exterior, for you will mortify both your body and your spirit. The second condition is that you do not observe your fast or perform your works for the eyes of others. And the third is that you do all your actions, and consequently your fasting, to please God alone, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever.

Lent 2016

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Repost from last year, but Newman is always worth revisiting. 

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Scripture readings speak to us of what God promises his faithful ones, and of the need to prepare, for that is what we do during this season: prepare for his coming.

There is no lack of resources for keeping ourselves spiritually grounded during this season, even if we are having to battle all sorts of distractions, ranging from early-onset-Christmas settling in all around us to  the temptation to obsessively follow the news, which seems to never stop, never leave us alone.

Begin with the Church. Begin and end with the Church, if you like. Starting and ending your day with what Catholics around the world are praying during this season: the Scripture readings from Mass, and whatever aspects of daily prayer you can manage – that’s the best place to begin and is sufficient.

I found this wonderful, even moving homily from Newman, centered on worship as preparation for the Advent of God. The spiritual and concrete landscape that is his setting is particular to England in the early winter and might not resonate with those of us living, say, in the Sun Belt or in Australia, but nonetheless, perhaps the end-of-the-year weariness he describes might seem familiar, even if the dreary weather does not. I’ll quote from it copiously here, but it deserves a slow, meditative read. 

YEAR after year, as it passes, brings us the same warnings again and again, and none perhaps more impressive than those with which it comes to us at this season. The very frost and cold, rain and gloom, which now befall us, forebode the last dreary days of the world, and in religious hearts raise the thought of them. The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have {2} come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.

And such, too, are the feelings with which we now come before Him in prayer day by day. The season is chill and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and worshippers are few, but all this befits those who are by profession penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims. More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them. True faith does not covet comforts. It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel, when it reclines upon cushions, is protected by curtains, and encompassed by warmth. Its only hardship is to be hindered, or to be ridiculed, when it would place itself as a sinner before its Judge. They who realize that awful Day when they shall see Him face to face, whose {3} eyes are as a flame of fire, will as little bargain to pray pleasantly now, as they will think of doing so then….

….We cannot have fitter reflections at this Season than those which I have entered upon. What may be the destiny of other orders of beings we know not;—but this we know to be our own fearful lot, that before us lies a time when we must have the sight of our Maker and Lord face to face. We know not what is reserved for other beings; there may be some, which, knowing nothing of their Maker, are never to be brought before Him. For what we can tell, this may be the case with the brute creation. It may be the law of their nature that they should live and die, or live on an indefinite period, upon the very outskirts of His government, sustained by Him, but never permitted to know or approach Him. But this is not our case. We are destined to come before Him; nay, and to come before Him in judgment; and that on our first meeting; and that suddenly. We are not merely to be rewarded or {4} punished, we are to be judged. Recompense is to come upon our actions, not by a mere general provision or course of nature, as it does at present, but from the Lawgiver Himself in person. We have to stand before His righteous Presence, and that one by one. One by one we shall have to endure His holy and searching eye. At present we are in a world of shadows. What we see is not substantial. Suddenly it will be rent in twain and vanish away, and our Maker will appear. And then, I say, that first appearance will be nothing less than a personal intercourse between the Creator and every creature. He will look on us, while we look on Him.

….Men sometimes ask, Why need they profess religion? Why need they go to church? Why need they observe certain rites and ceremonies? Why need they watch, pray, fast, and meditate? Why is it not enough to be just, honest, sober, benevolent, and otherwise virtuous? Is not this the true and real worship of God? Is not activity in mind and conduct the most acceptable way of approaching Him? How can they please Him by submitting to certain religious forms, and taking part in certain religious acts? Or if they must do so, why may they not choose their own? Why must they come to church for them? Why must they be partakers in what the Church calls Sacraments? I answer, they must do so, first of all and especially, because God tells them so to do. But besides this, I observe that we see this plain reason {8} why, that they are one day to change their state of being. They are not to be here for ever. Direct intercourse with God on their part now, prayer and the like, may be necessary to their meeting Him suitably hereafter: and direct intercourse on His part with them, or what we call sacramental communion, may be necessary in some incomprehensible way, even for preparing their very nature to bear the sight of Him.

Let us then take this view of religious service; it is “going out to meet the Bridegroom,” who, if not seen “in His beauty,” will appear in consuming fire. Besides its other momentous reasons, it is a preparation for an awful event, which shall one day be. What it would be to meet Christ at once without preparation, we may learn from what happened even to the Apostles when His glory was suddenly manifested to them. St. Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And St. John, “when he saw Him, fell at His feet as dead.” [Luke v. 8. Rev. i. 17.]….

…. It is my desire and hope one day to take possession of my inheritance: and I come to make myself ready for it, and I would not see heaven yet, for I could not bear to see it. I am allowed to be in it without seeing it, that I may learn to see it. And by psalm and sacred song, by confession and by praise, I learn my part.

And what is true of the ordinary services of religion, public and private, holds in a still higher or rather in a special way, as regards the sacramental ordinances of the Church. In these is manifested in greater or less degree, according to the measure of each, that Incarnate Saviour, who is one day to be our Judge, and who is enabling us to bear His presence then, by imparting it to us in measure now. A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next. We mortal men range up and down it, to and fro, and see nothing. There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed; it remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. {11} Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave. Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged,—He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready….

…And what I have said concerning Ordinances, applies still more fully to Holy Seasons, which include in them the celebration of many Ordinances. They are times {12} when we may humbly expect a larger grace, because they invite us especially to the means of grace. This in particular is a time for purification of every kind. When Almighty God was to descend upon Mount Sinai, Moses was told to “sanctify the people,” and bid them “wash their clothes,” and to “set bounds to them round about:” much more is this a season for “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God;” [Exod. xix. 10-12. 2 Cor. xii. 1.] a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be. Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts; and though He delays His coming, let us watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end. Attend His summons we must, at any rate, when He strips us of the body; let us anticipate, by a voluntary act, what will one day come on us of necessity. Let us wait for Him solemnly, fearfully, hopefully, patiently, obediently; let us be resigned to His will, while active in good works. Let us pray Him ever, to “remember us when He cometh in His kingdom;” to remember all our friends; to remember our enemies; and to visit us according to His mercy here, that He may reward us according to His righteousness hereafter.

From a 1945 9th grade religion textbook, Our Quest for Happiness: the Story of Divine Love


Expectation or waiting is a dimension that flows through our whole personal, family and social existence. Expectation is present in thousands of situations, from the smallest and most banal to the most important that involve us completely and in our depths. Among these, let us think of waiting for a child, on the part of a husband and wife; of waiting for a relative or friend who is coming from far away to visit us; let us think, for a young person, of waiting to know his results in a crucially important examination or of the outcome of a job interview; in emotional relationships, of waiting to meet the beloved, of waiting for the answer to a letter, or for the acceptance of forgiveness…. One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for.           -B16, 2010




Expectans Expectavi

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children’s faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit’s exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

-Anne Ridler (1912-2001) , who introduces the poem: 

This poem, ‘Expectans Expectavi’, which is the title of a psalm, “I waited patiently for the Lord”, is about waiting, written at the end of the last war when the whole world, really, seemed to be holding its breath for the return of ordinary life, and all the soldiers from overseas, and I thought of it in the wintertime, at Christmas, with the carols and the children’s faces, recalling the refugees of the time. The poem happened to be chosen to be posted up on the underground, so although I never saw it myself, several of my friends have been surprised by it in the middle of a crowd of people standing up in the tube train.

Links to good commentaries on the readings of Advent are at the blog called The Dim Bulb. Excellent. 

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It’s the 100th anniversary of her death today.

Such an amazing woman.  Do you feel tired?  Read her story.

This is one of the best online – it’s thorough, with lots of good quotes from her, and a good image that lays out the scope of her travels:


Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on St. Frances Cabrini from my Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  To reiterate – it’s an excerpt.  There’s more at the beginning at the end to relate her story to a younger child’s life.  It’s in a section called, “Saints are People who Travel Far From Home,” along with St. Boniface, St. Peter Claver, St. Francis Xavier and  St. Francis Solano. 


By the late 1880s, Mother Cabrini became interested in a new problem. Hundreds of thousands of Italians moved to America, seeking a way out of the poverty of their new land. Very few of these immigrants were successful right away. Most lived in worse poverty than they’d endured back in Italy. They lived in crowded and dirty apartments, lived on scraps, and were unable to find work. Sad stories traveled back to the home country, right to Mother Cabrini. So Mother "frances cabrini"Cabrini set out on the long trip to America.

Over the next thirty-seven years, Mother Cabrini was constantly on the move, starting schools, orphanages, and hospitals for Italian immigrants, and others in need. In the first few years she traveled between New York, Nicaragua, and New Orleans. After having a dream in which she saw Mary tending to the sick lying in hospital beds, Mother Cabrini started Columbus Hospital in New York City.

After she founded the hospital, Mother Cabrini made trips back to Italy to organize more nuns for work in America. Between these trips, she and some sisters headed south to Argentina. The sisters went by way of Panama and then Lima, Peru. They made the journey by boat, train, mule, and on foot.

Back in the United State, Mother Cabrini traveled constantly taking her sisters to Chicago, Seattle, and Denver. It was in Chicago that Mother Cabrini, at the age of sixty-seven, passed away. She’d begun her work with just a handful of sisters. By the time she died, fifty houses of sisters were teaching, caring for orphans, and running hospitals. Her order had grown to almost a thousand sisters in all.

Image source

“I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus to those who do not know Him or have forgotten Him.”

We visited the Cabrini shrine in NYC in 2003. That was when the high school to which the chapel where her relics rest was still open.

A pilgrimage group from a local Catholic school filled some of the pews, so Katie got the benefit of hearing the last part of the Shrine staffer’s very enthusiastic talk about Mother Cabrini, which she probably absorbed much more deeply than she would have if I were lecturing her. She caught the stories of the two miracles associated with Mother Cabrini’s beatification and canonization – a nun cured of cancer, and a baby whose retinas had been damaged by too intense of a solution of silver nitrate drops after birth. Eyesight restored, baby grew up to be ordained a priest at Mother Cabrini’s tomb, and, according to the staffer in her memorable (to Katie) accent, “He had the biggest blue eyes you ever saw!”

Of course, Mother Cabrini’s remains are there under the altar, and the staffer also said that for a time, the eyes on the face (a reconstruction) were open, so it was a very useful place to send misbehaving schoolkids for contemplation of their sins.

Here’s the story of that miracle:

Into infant Peter Smith’s eyes the rushed nurse has deftly dropped, carefully pulling back each lid to get it all in, not 1-percent silver-ni­trate solution, but 50-percent silver-nitrate solution. Even 5-percent to 25-percent solution is used only on unwanted human tissue — tumors, for instance — because it eats away flesh as effectively as electric cauter­izing tools. Fifty-percent solution will gradually bore a hole in a solid piece of wood. And it has already been at work on the soft human tissue of infant Peter’s eyes for two hours…


That afternoon and evening as the spiritual daughters of Frances Cabrini, foundress of the hospital and their religious order, go off duty, they gather one by one in the chapel. All the long night they remain there begging Mother Cabrini, dead only three years, to obtain from the bountiful heart of Jesus the healing of the Smiths’ whimpering infant. Mae is with them, praying her heart out too.

At nine o’clock the next morning, when Kearney and Horan arrive at the nursery, to their astonishment they find baby Peter’s eyelids much less swollen and pussy. Gently the eye specialist opens the eyelids, his stomach tightening as he prepares to see the ravages on the delicate eye tissue of the deadly acid.

Instead, looking back at him with the vague, slightly unfocused gaze of the one-day-old are two perfect eyes.

And he did, indeed, become a priest, as did his brother:

On Friday, January 13th, Missionary Sisters along with many others, had the opportunity to join Fr. John Frances Xavier Smith at the St. Frances X. Cabrini Shrine in New York City as he shared the story of the miracle of his brother, Fr. Peter Smith. Fr. Peter Smith’s eye tissue and sight restoration was Mother Cabrini’s first miracle.

Fr. John took us back in time to old New York as he shared the story he had heard from his mother, Margaret Riley Smith. She would retell time and time again the particulars of this miracle that occurred on March14, 1921. He repeated several times how she commented on seeing Peter after his birth and how blue his eyes were. Peter was born healthy and normal but a nurse’s mistake of [administering] the [incorrect dosage of] silver nitrate solution [to baby Peter] ate through his corneas and some of his facial skin.



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— 1 —

Wow. Has it really been a week…and I’ve posted nothing ? Sorry about that. I am focused on finishing writing this book, which I hope will happen today (Friday). It’s a very solid first draft. I’ll let it sit for a couple of weeks then take a couple of days to go back through it. That’s the point at which I’ll sharpen the writing, strip out the verbiage and tighten the lines of thought.  That’s the enjoyable part of the process, to me. Much better than the “Sitting looking at the computer on the other side of the room knowing you need to work but you don’t want to” part.

Then it will be on to The Next Thingwhich will keep me very busy until March. Which is good.

(I do tend to post daily on Instagram Stories. Some of that finds its way here, but not all.)


 — 2 —

This is a fabulous story of faith and life, from the Catholic Spirit.   

The ultrasound technician squeezed gel onto Justina’s abdomen and positioned the wand, picking up a gestational sac and a heartbeat. The couple was elated. Then, a second sac and a second heartbeat. Twins! As the Kopps were wrapping their head around two at a time, the technician found a third sac and a third heartbeat. They were now outnumbered, and they started laughing.

Justina recalls teasing Matt, telling him that parents of triplets must automatically grow a third arm.

Then the technician came across a fourth sac. Empty, she said, suggesting that there had been a fourth baby, but he or she had never developed. Justina recalled feeling a sense of peace with that, trusting that he or she would join a sibling in heaven.

That’s when her doctor came into the room and grabbed her foot. As the technician was going over the three babies again for the doctor and to get more photos, she moved to show him the blighted ovum in the empty sac. This time, it didn’t look empty, and the technician found a heartbeat — the strongest of the four. The Kopps just continued to laugh in disbelief, they said.

“This is quite the shock, huh?” Justina recalled the doctor saying, obviously shocked himself. Even with Justina’s fertility treatments, the probability of quadruplets was so low that statistics didn’t exist.

Justina and Matt said they laughed about the news for two days, and then, overwhelmed, they panicked. Family and friends’ joy helped them have courage that they could handle the task, with God’s help.


— 3 —

Tonight, they’re filming a movie just a block from my house:

Bigger Movie

It’s called Bigger. Here’s the synopsis:

The inspirational tale of the grandfathers of the fitness movement as we now know it, Joe & Ben Weider. Battling anti-Semitism/racism as well as extreme poverty the brothers beat all odds to build an empire & inspire future generations.


The movie, which spans the 1920s to the 1970s, is adapted from the Weider brothers’ book “Brothers of Iron,” and it stars Tyler Hoechlin from Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” and MTV’s “Teen Wolf” as Joe Weider and Aneurin Barnard from Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” as Ben Weider.

“It’s the story of two poor, young immigrant boys who grew up in a Montreal ghetto, and they experienced anti-Semitism, they experienced extreme poverty, (and) they cobbled together eight dollars to launch what became a multibillion-dollar empire,” Jones said….

…The Weider brothers founded the International Federation of Body Builders, which sponsored the Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe competitions, and in the late 1960s, Joe Weider groomed a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had moved to America from his native Austria and began training under Weider in Los Angeles.

Why are they filming here?

“We originally were going to shoot this in Montreal because the Weider brothers are from Montreal,” Jones said. “We actually went up there and did location scouting, but we ended up choosing Birmingham because our director (Gallo) does not like to fly. It’s a quirky situation.

Birmingham locations will double for Montreal, New Jersey and Los Angeles, Jones said. Near the end of the filming, the “Bigger” crew will film in the Mobile area, which will double for the beaches of California, he said.

Among the Birmingham locations will be the Alabama Theatre, the Lyric Theatre, Temple Emanu-El and serveral others, he said.


— 4

I do think that if a person is convinced they want to work In The Movies, all that’s needed to cure that bug is take them to a film location. I suppose it has its charms and attractions but it’s really a whole lot of waiting….and waiting…


Speaking of lurking around movie sets, some of you may recall that I spent an evening watching the filming of a little tiny scene of a movie in London in the spring. That was The Phantom Thread  – the trailer was released this past week and my post about the little I saw is here.  The very first shot in the trailer (it’s quick) is of Fitzroy Square, which was right around the corner from our apartment and through which we walked every day to get places.

— 5 —

This is good news and perhaps the backstory is news to many of us as well:

Pence delivered the keynote address at the JW Marriott hotel for the annual In Defense of Christians conference’s Solidarity Dinner and told the hundreds of attendees that President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. State Department “from this day forward” to stop funding the United Nations’ ineffective relief efforts. Instead, he said the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would also funnel support to the churches, agencies and organizations working directly with persecuted communities victimized by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terror groups.

“Christians in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly,” Pence stated.

“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” he added. “The United States will work hand in hand with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need.”  …

…Andrew Doran, IDC vice president and senior policy adviser, told the Register that Pence’s announcement is “a game changer” for the survival of Christians and other minorities in Iraq.

“All organizations doing aid for the victims of genocide and crimes against humanity, who were working with religious institutions, Christians in particular, have to be feeling enormously encouraged following the vice president’s speech tonight,” he said.

Throughout the past three years, Iraq’s displaced Christians, consisting mostly of Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans living in their ancestral homeland of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, were completely supported and sustained by the region’s churches and other forms of private support — not the United Nations. Christians considered U.N. camps too dangerous to enter and consequently did not receive direct humanitarian aid through U.N. agencies.

— 6 —

Of course, there’s going to be a lot of Reformation talk over the next few days. I’m with the Cardinal on this one:

German cardinal Gerhard Müller has said the Protestant Reformation was not a “reform” but a “total change of the foundations of the Catholic faith”.

Writing for Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said modern-day Catholics often discuss Martin Luther “too enthusiastically”, mainly due to an ignorance of theology…

…Cardinal Müller strongly contradicted this view, however, saying it is wrong to think Luther’s intent was simply to fight abuses in indulgences or the sins of the Renaissance Church, the Cardinal said.

“Abuses and bad actions have always existed in the Church. We are the Holy Church because of the grace of God and the sacraments, but all Church men are sinners, all need forgiveness, contrition, and penance.”

Instead, Luther abandoned “all the principles of the Catholic faith, Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, the Magisterium of the Popes and Councils, the episcopate.”

It is therefore unacceptable to say that Luther’s reform was “an event of the Holy Spirit” because “the Holy Spirit helps the Church to maintain its continuity through the Church’s magisterium”.

— 7 —

Here’s art historian Elizabeth Lev on another aspect:

Against the Catholic claim of the rootlessness of Protestant thought, Luther said his teaching was “not a novel invention of ours but the very ancient, approved teaching of the apostles brought to light again.” The Protestants sought not “to have anything new in Christendom” but instead struggled “to hold to the ancient: that which Christ and the apostles have left behind them and have given to us.” They claimed that this teaching had been “obscured by the pope with human doctrine, aye, decked out in dust and spider webs and all sorts of vermin, and flung and trodden into the mud besides, we have by God’s grace brought it out again … to the light of day.”

So, who had the claim to tradition? Which teaching had the martyrs died for? What role did relics play — testimony to ancient history, or were they, as John Calvin wrote in his Treatise on Relics, an “abomination”?

An astonishing find on the Via Salaria on May 31, 1578, gave the Church a potent response. The entrance to one of the Christian catacombs was accidently discovered by some workmen, leading to the underground burial sites with thousands of tombs. These mass graves, lost since the 9th century, were decorated with hundreds of paintings, witnesses to the early Christian Church and its beliefs.

Antonio Bosio, a young lawyer-turned-archaeologist who was close to Philip Neri’s new congregation of the Oratorians, took it upon himself to explore these underground sites. Dubbed the “Columbus of Underground Rome,” his lifetime of work was crowned with the publication, three years after his death, of Roma Sotterranea Cristiana: a guide to the catacombs, complete with illustrations.



And maybe, in “honor” of the anniversary, take a look back at this article I wrote last year on women and the Reformation.
For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Remember when I used to do those? Well, maybe I’ll sort of start again. Sometimes.

This week is going to be pretty busy, and Monday and Friday would be the only two days in which there would be much uninterrupted actually-at-home time. Because:

  • Tuesday is a two-hour science center class (squid dissection! Mom gets two hours to work on her next book at the trendy food court across the street!) and boxing class in the afternoon.
  • Wednesday morning, a repair guy is coming to start the process of fixing the various broken things and places that have started piling up around here. Then Wednesday afternoon is Zookeeper-for –  (half) – a – day.
  • Thursday morning is the two-hour photography class (2 more hours for mom to work!) and then piano.

So we tried to pack it in today – and we did – and still had time for an outing.

  • Prayer: Saint of the day (John Cupertino), Mass readings, prayer, practice Pater Noster.  First reading was from 1 Timothy, so I spent a couple of minutes reviewing the Pauline epistles with him and the difference between the Pastoral Epistles and the others.
  • Religion-related. Someone he knows a bit from the Catholic group Fraternus entered the Benedictine monastery up the road as a postulant this past weekend. We read about that on the monastery’s Facebook page and then watched the excellent video that was produced last year about St. Bernard’s with the added bonus that the (familial) brother of one of his friends who is a (religious) brother in formation there is in the video here and there.
  • That was followed by a discussion of the stages in the monastic vocation, using the page from St. Bernard’s website. 
  • Animal Farm. He has his leisure reading always going on, but he also will have “school” reading, assigned by me. Over the past couple of weeks it’s been this. I selected it because it’s short, interesting, accessible and a good way into discussions of history (which he wanted to emphasize this year)  and literature (allegory). He finished it over the weekend, so we went over the Sparknotes analyses of those chapters and reviewed some of the charts I’d printed out about the allegorical associations. Talked a bit about post World War-II Soviet expansion and watched a short video about the Berlin Wall.
  • One of his own goals that he has set for himself this month is memorizing all the US presidents in order as a beginning framework for studying for the History Bee (exam coming in January – so this is just beginning). He recited what he knew and we had some random discussions about some of the presidents.
  • Spanish: this was his desire – to start more serious work on Spanish. I’d purchased a curriculum (which I will be writing about soon – it has given me Food For Thought in a couple of areas). We’d been dipping in and out of the introductory chapter over the past couple of weeks and got serious today with the first actual chapter  – going over the vocabulary, watching the videos and doing the activities.
  • Math: He’s on Chapter 3 of the Art of Problem Solving PreAlgebra book. Today he watched the video associated with the first section and then went over the material and did the set of problems – the topic is number theory and, more specifically, multiples.
  • I showed him a form I’d printed out for him to log all the books he reads this year. I just think it will be good for him to have, and he’ll enjoy looking at it at the end of the year. And yes, we’ve been very good about my plan of recording learning instead of planning it. It works very well for us. We note every topic discussed/dealt with over the course of the week in a planner, and then at the end of very week, he fills out a log summarizing the week’s learning and activities.
  • He got up around 9:30 and when we finished all this it was about 11:45. Yah. So there was time for a requested jaunt for him to finish his photography homework – made all the better now because his brother drives himself to school so we don’t have that upper boundary of a necessary return time. We do have the limitation of a car I’m still afraid to drive too far away, but maybe sometime soon I’ll actually take in the used car I bought for $2k to get checked out and get an assessment of whether it’s safe to drive. (It feels fine – I’m just a little skittish about taking it too far….)
  • So the jaunt was to a “nature park” that’s about ten minutes from my house, but I had no idea existed until about two weeks ago when I was driving on the road and saw the sign for it. It’s on the side of a substantial hill in between a residential area and a commercial area of Irondale (where EWTN is located), and it doesn’t have amazing rock or water features, but it was a decent walk, with good trails, bright orange lichen and many spiders. Good subjects. (Photos below were taken by me with the phone – he had control of the camera, and I don’t know what he ended up taking photos of and keeping.)


And back home, we discovered that the moon had apparently fallen to earth:


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Frost In May is a very  Catholic book, and I am really wondering how I’d never heard of it or its author before a couple of weeks ago, me being the self-styled pseudo-“expert” in Catholic Lit that I fancy I am.

Humility is always just around the corner, it seems.

I won’t leave you in suspense: it’s an excellent little novel, terse, painful, ironic and complicated.

People have various views on how much the biography of an artist should weigh on our evaluation or understanding of the art. I tend to land on the “let the piece stand on its own” side most of the time, even though there’s usually one significant biographical fact that helps illumine a work and is good to know before you go on: Walker Percy’s grandfather and father both committed suicide. Flannery O’Connor’s father died young from lupus, and she knew she’d die young from it too after a certain point. And so on.

I think with Frost in May¸ knowing a bit about Antonia White is helpful. I hasten to say, though – not too much, for there’s an event in her young life that makes its way into the novel and is a definite, sad twist – and it’s good not to know what it is going in.  So don’t do exhaustive research, and don’t read the introductions to modern editions before you read the novel.

(This is a pet peeve of mine – I have found this time and time again that these introductions to older novels, usually penned by popular contemporary authors, tend to give a lot of the plot away – so I’ve started skipping them. Perhaps it would be better for them to be supplementary essays in an appendix?)

But I will say that this incident – what happened to White and what happens to her protagonist – is an almost perfect distillation of the Plight of the Catholic Artist….

What’s helpful to know is this – Antonia White’s fiction is mostly autobiographical, pulling from her own life as the young Catholic convert only child of a Catholic convert father/schoolteacher, and then, as she got older, from her experience of mental illness and terrible relationships.

(Side note: when I was first running across mentions of this book and this writer, I thought I was reading about Antonia Fraser – and was a little confused. Not the same person.)

Her personal life was very, very difficult, and her own children weren’t spared from this difficultly – both daughters wrote negative books about their mother.

There’s an autobiographical entry from White at the Catholic Authors website – but be warned, it does relate this incident I’m talking about that figures in Frost in May – but I’ll quote here White’s assessment at the time she wrote the entry, of her own faith journey, as we say:

Though bad reviews can wound a lot, good ones do not always inflate one as much as they might. So often the flattering remarks seem to bear no relation to the novel one has actually written’ so that one feels rather like a cat that has been awarded a prize in a dog-show. What is far more heartening than even the kindest review is the letter from the stranger who has read the book and taken the trouble to write a personal appreciation. Best of all is the stranger who finds something in what one has written that corresponds to their own experience of life or even illuminates it. One such letter from a stranger in New Jersey (she is now a friend of many years’ standing) gave me courage to tackle a difficult theme . . . that of insanity. It is to this Catholic woman doctor that I dedicated my last novel, Beyond the Glass.

My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other. The fact that I lapsed from both faith and practice for fifteen years is naturally something I bitterly regret. Nevertheless, I think that it has given me a real understanding of those outside of the Church and of problems for Catholics themselves which those who have been spared ‘doubts’ do not always appreciate. Since I was fortunate enough to recover my faith in 1940, every year has given me a deeper conviction of its truth. If anything I have written or may write one day could reduce some of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholics, I would be more than rewarded for all the qualms and miseries I have every time I embark on the seemingly impossible task of writing another novel.

Frost in May is a novel about a young girl’s time in a Catholic boarding school at the Convent of the Five Wounds. We meet Nanda at the age of nine as she is on her way, with her father, to the school, and we say farewell to her at the end, when she is leaving – having been sent away – a few years later.

During those years, she encounters the sisters, strong women, one verging on the sociopathic, it seems, but the others, while strict and focused on their perceived mission, never really actually cruel. She makes friends – the girls do not come from a terribly varied background, given that this is a school that mainly caters to elite Catholic families, both British and Continental – but their personalities range in the ways you would expect, from the deeply pious to the scandalously skeptical, and, as is often the case in this genre (see The Trouble with Angels)  – those most deeply affected by life with the Sisters are never those you might expect from their external affect. Emotions run high and heated in such an atmosphere, as well.

The spirituality of the order is harsh and even a little nutty by modern standards. But what I appreciate is that White always presents these practices and traditions in a full human and spiritual context, so that while we, from a distance, can say..well, perhaps that goes a little far and isn’t necessary – we can also see that the rationale is rooted in a sincere desire to help these young women be faithful followers of Christ in all that life will be handing them.

We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.

It’s harsh:

Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.

The intention was always to teach the virtue of humility before God and other human beings – but this worthy goal can easily be perverted into a system of humiliation administered by flawed and sinful human beings in systems that ossify and lose sight of their original charism.

I think that Frost in May dramatizes that tension very well, and does so in a way that takes the root positive motivations seriously, and thereby avoids cheap shots or easy, cynical black-and-white post-mortems that don’t so much clarify the truth as heighten the pride of those of us who have the luxury of hindsight.

I’d also say that from the perspective of 2017 – almost a hundred years after the fictional Nanda is taken to the Convent of the Five Wounds – we can look at the fruit of that swinging pendulum with clear eyes. Yes, perhaps it was too much for the little old sister to correct Nanda’s sleeping posture on her first night:

“Now, lie down,” said the nun kindly, “you were not, by any chance, crying when I came in?”

“No, mother,” said Nanda decidedly.

“That is good. But you were lying in such a strange way. Did your mother never tell you at home to lie upon your back?”

“No, mother.”

“But it is more becoming that you should.”

Nanda straightened herself out from her comfortable ball, turned her back and thrust her feet bravely down into the cold sheets.

“So, it is better,” said the nun gently, “and now the hands.”

She took Nanda’s hands and crossed them over her breast.

“Now, ma petite,” she said, “if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night, you would be ready to meet him as a Catholic should. Good night, little one, and remember to let the holy Name of Jesus be the last word on your lips.”

She passed silently out of the cubicle.

Nanda retained her new position rigidly for a few minutes.

“I shall never get to sleep,” she thought miserably as she heard the outdoor clock strike eight. But even as she thought it her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus” before she was fast asleep.

But…you know what? There’s that tension I’m talking about – at first glance, the sister’s insistence of proper Catholic sleeping posture sounds crazy and definitely over the top. God meets us where we are! But then….Nanda falls asleep and yes, Jesus is the word that takes her there.

Hindsight. We can look back, and hear witnesses attest to how this spirituality harmed or helped them – but then we can also look back, not so far, at our own recent history and see that perhaps the externals are irrelevant…do what’s in your heart…has its own less-than-perfect fruit as well.

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