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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Yeah, I’m fed up. 

Time to return to trans issues. Why now? Because while it seems to be something that’s sucking all the air out of every single room every single day, over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen an uptick in the news:

But the general picture is being painted in pretty bright colors, isn’t it? (Although pastel – not bright – blue is the trans color).

Here’s what I have to say – resist. 

This is a bizarre, deeply damaging moment we’re living in, driven by a tiny minority of people suffering various forms of mental illness. And yes, there are various forms. Once you start looking into this world, you come to understand that there is really no such thing as a monolithic gentle group of “trans folks” we’re gently reminded to welcome by gentle Fr. Martin, all gently seeking understanding for their differences.

No – there’s a little more to it than that.

There are different iterations and roots of this type of dysphoria, obviously, like any mental illness, not all understood.  There are men who experience this desire, frankly, as a fetish. It’s called autogynephilia, and it’s a thing – a male being aroused by the idea of himself as a woman. There are young people who have been abused, who are on the spectrum, who are deeply influenced by what they see online, there are pre-teen and teen girls who are confused, disturbed and revolted by the physical changes they’re experiencing. There are teen girls and boys, young adults, who look at this weird world of strict gender conformity, the land of pink and the world of blue, and think…I don’t fit here. I’m different. Maybe I fit….there. 

There’s a lot to say and lot to do and much to resist, but here’s where it starts – here’s the bottom line:

Resist and reject gender self-identity in all spheres of life, including the law. 

That is to say: You are not a woman because you believe you are. You’re not a boy because you’ve decided you are.

Don’t let the law budge an inch on this score. 

This – the notion that one can simply decide what gender you are and then merit treatment and rights on that score – is the root of all current trans activism, including political activism, embodied in this country in the so-called Equality Act – endorsed by all the current Democratic candidates for president and passed by the House last spring. (You know your constitution, so you know that “passed by the House” means nothing unless it’s also “passed by the Senate” and signed by the President. But still – it’s there.) Most people don’t understand this. They think that transing is all about people who have gone through counseling and years of medical treatment and surgery – right? Nope. Not at all.

At the core of the Equality Act and similar efforts in England, a person should be treated according to the gender he or she (?) claims, even if they are still physically intact, have never had surgery – and maybe never even intend to. It doesn’t matter if they “pass” or not or what they look like to you.

You’re a girl because you say you are.

Image result for rachel mckinnon

No. Resist.

Resist attempts to change the law, resist the intrusion of this into your schools, your public spaces  – snort derisively  when you’re asked your pronouns – and never stop being deeply and annoyingly logical. So if your community passes some sort of Self-ID in terms of gender, the next time you go to the DMV or have to fill out a form indicating your identifying characteristics – go crazy. If you’re Asian with straight black hair, demand to be accepted as an Irish redhead. If you’re obviously a woman, calmly claim that you’re a dude. If you’re 60, put down 1982 as your birthdate. And don’t let go – demand to know why – if that guy over there can be named “woman of the year,” can win women’s sporting events, can be awarded a woman’s spot on a committee – it is perfectly logical that I, too, can self-identify in any way, respect or category I decide. 

There is no logical argument. None. 

It is mostly misogynistic, crowd-driven, profit-fueled gnosticism. 

And those of you who call yourselves feminists, take note here. The greatest energy in the trans movement is of biological males demanding access to women’s spaces: restrooms, athletics, locker rooms, shelters, prisons and honors. You do not see female–to-male individuals making the same demands. As I’ve said before, I see this movement in part as Peak Misogyny, enabled by medical technology and profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies. (Because if you do physically transition, guess what? You’re on medication…for the rest of your life.)  Peak Misogyny which is trying to create a world in which actual girls and  women hopefully commit to their own erasure and the best women always turn out to be  men.

Yes. Erasure of actual women, is what it all seems to be about, in the end.

From a great column in the UK Telegraph a few days ago, by Celia Walden:

“This cloakroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression,” reads a notice on the toilet door of the bar I’m in on Saturday night. This is designed to give me a hit of self-importance. I have choices, options, both in terms of who I am and how I decide to express that all-important self to the world: a world waiting with bated breath for me to tell them why I’m special.

And yet I don’t feel reassured by this open-minded toilet, because everyone in the bar is drunk, the corridor it’s situated in is dimly-lit – and the only other people queuing outside it are men. So instead what I feel is uneasy, undignified, un-safe.

I’m guessing younger women are getting used to the feeling of vulnerability I felt so acutely on Saturday night. Just as British schoolgirls are getting used to their Mao-esque, gender-neutral uniforms, and “holding it in” all day at school (with the risk of contracting infections): anything to avoid using the gender-neutral toilets.

****

But this is an attack on women. And I don’t think the leading feminist campaigner, Julie Bindel, was exaggerating when she said on Sunday: “We’re now moving towards the total elimination of women’s biology.”

This isn’t about feminists, activists, sociologists and the deliberately impenetrable jargon they all choose to use in their very public duels. And it’s not about who gets to claim periods, with all their paraphernalia, either (but have them, please, along with stretch marks, the menopause, and the certainty that you’ve been ripped off by every MOT guy you’ve come across).

This is about fragile young girls still struggling to come to terms with their own changing bodies being forced into preposterous intimacy with boys. It’s about transgender athletes like Rachel McKinnon – who won the Masters Track Cycling World Championships on Saturday for the second year running – killing women’s sports.
It’s about the series of future crimes, assaults and intimidations that will have to happen before someone works out that having a load of drunk men and women using the same toilets in bars and clubs was Not A Smart Move. It’s about rapists being indulged and coddled by the police while their victims are effectively mocked.

And it’s about knowing when we’ve reached peak gender insanity. Please God, let this be it.

“This” will not be “it” all by itself. It won’t be “it” unless human beings stop it.

And it needs to stop – and the law could play a part in stopping it – or opening up the floodgates. Either way. The citizens of this country – who make the laws, remember – could demand, for a start, that their state and federal representatives ban medical transitioning of minors – no drugs, no puberty blockers, no hormones, and God help us, no surgery. No teen girls lining up for binders and mastectomies, no boys, their genitals shrunk by years of puberty blockers and estrogen, having their penises and testicles sliced off, the remaining skin tucked in to form what amounts nothing more than an open wound that must, for the rest of their lives – the rest of their lives  – be dilated daily for….what? 

Start with banning that in your state. Don’t allow it and run the medical professionals who profit from it out of business. And then stand firm against the Equality Act. If you have the opportunity to interact with one of the Democratic candidates, ask them about it and don’t let go. Don’t accept platitudes. Ask, over and over – Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces such as locker rooms? Well, we need to be an inclusive society, welcoming of all people. Great. Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces such as locker rooms and restrooms? Trans folks experience a lot of discrimination, you know. That’s too bad. Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces such as locker rooms, restrooms and prisons? I’m for equality for all people. Good for you. Should any biological male who says he is female be granted access to women’s spaces such as locker rooms, restrooms, prisons and shelters for abused women?

As noted above, I’ve written about this before – links at the bottom of this post. I want to end, though, with a lengthy excerpt from a column by Janice Turner in a September issue of the UK Times, reproduces here at the Fair Play for Women FB page:

The Oscar-winning singer Sam Smith, a gay man, has “come out” as non-binary because, rehearsing a dance routine, he discovered a “vivacious woman inside my body”. He said of his fat-deposits: “There’s a bit of a woman in me who won’t let me look like that. I put on weight in places women put on weight. That spring-boarded everything.” So Smith knew his “gender identity” wasn’t male because he frets about his figure like us ladies. Just as Eddie Izzard believes that he has “girl genetics” because he paints his nails.

This is progress, I’m told. Feminists must embrace the idea that womanhood is predicated upon hoary old stereotypes while flamboyant or “vivacious” gay men must accept they are not really male. That I refuse to call Sam Smith “they” is not from disrespect (I never misgender trans people) but because the concept “non-binary” is sexist, homophobic and, above all, damaging to the mental health of fragile young people. And we should have the courage to say so.

Yet because policymakers and broadcasters prefer to surf rainbow flag approval than suffer a Twitter storm, in just a few years, with zero debate, public institutions have converted to a new state religion: the magical, wholly unscientific belief that biological sex does not exist while “gender identity” is real.

Let’s start with the Office for National Statistics, whose definition of “sex” includes “something that is assigned at birth”: ie a child being male or female is not an observable fact even in utero but randomly allocated and therefore provisional. The ONS also notes “gender is increasingly understood as not binary but on a spectrum . . . along a continuum between man and woman”.

“Increasingly understood” suggests some scientific breakthrough when it is merely a fashionable theory. Because postmodern academics such as Judith Butler believe sex can be erased, the government may change the census question from birth sex to “lived sex”, thus undermining the very integrity of government data.

Gender religion has now swept into schools as shown in a leaked Equality and Human Rights Commission report, which proposes that male pupils who identify as female should be taught sex education with girls. Not only would they remain ignorant of their own developing bodies, but such classes are supposed to spare shy girls from talking about periods among boys.

The EHRC states that natal male trans pupils must use girls’ changing rooms: any girl upset about this should use, say, the disabled lavatory. Sports should be divided by gender identity, even if girls will no longer win their own races. All these plans breach the 2010 Equality Act where sex is a protected characteristic — but they preach the new gender liturgy.

Even more zealous is the BBC Teach website which provides classroom materials. In a film for key stage 2 pupils — seven to 11-year-olds — a small child asks a teacher: “How many gender identities are there?” The teacher replies that it’s a really exciting question: “We know we have male and female, but there are over 100 if not more gender identities now.” (Note the “now”, implying cutting-edge new research.) The unease and puzzlement on these kids’ faces — what are all these genders? which one am I? — made me furious.

The government’s own No Outsiders programme simply teaches primary kids that some families have gay parents, and boys can like mermaids just like girls. Yet the BBC believes nine-year-olds should go googling the supposed 100 genders. Which include “Perigender: identifying with a gender but not as a gender” or “Vapogender: a gender that feels like smoke”. In other words, they are made up, mystical nonsense: gender Pokemons.

At puberty, developing a new sexed body can distress many children. Girls, especially, hate their breasts, are appalled by periods, loathe the sudden attention from men. Ruth Hunt, the former head of Stonewall, told me she thought teenage girls often declare themselves “non-binary” as a temporary holding bay, while they come to terms with their bodies and a world which expects them to look like Love Island babes. A fair point.

Watching videos by “non-binary” young people, I was struck by their reasoning. “I can avoid beauty standards of either sex,” one crop-haired girl said. “I always hated rough sports but my dad made me play,” a fey boy said. They saw the problem: a constricting world, but their solution was to identify out of it. Instead of challenging rigid ideas about masculinity, say you’re not a man.

The non-binary fad would be as harmless as goths or punks, if social media and peer pressure weren’t pushing so many towards medical transition: if you don’t fit with society’s gender rules, change your pronouns or ultimately, via hormones, your body. Besides, is it wise to send vulnerable young people out to battle against our very language, telling them that anyone who fails to call them “they” is hateful, has even committed a crime? How can this not amplify, rather than lessen, your anxiety and alienation?

Better to understand that your sex is immutable, that you don’t need some off-the-shelf gender identity because instead you have a complex, unique personality. “I’m not male or female,” says Sam Smith. “I think I flow somewhere in between.” Darling, don’t we all.

My posts:

An introductory post.

The Feminine Genius of the Cowgirl in Red

But Look How Much I Gained

Peaked?

Peaked yet? – if you want to read a shorter summary and skip all my meanderings, go here.

It’s called dysphoria. It’s about not feeling quite right. It’s about not feeling at home in your body or even in the world.

I am careful in speaking about mental illness, because it really is a challenge to understand and discuss. Who among us is “normal” or “whole?” Who relates to themselves and to the world with complete clarity? None of us. Not a one.

So I am not sure how to talk about this – what is not normal, what is clearly mental illness – without being required to define what normal is. You feel as if you are not a woman? Well, let me tell you what you should feel like.

Who can do that? I don’t think it’s possible. That was one of my points in those previous posts.

But clearly, body and gender dysphoria are forms of mental illness. They are rooted in various factors, they can present in different way for varying lengths of time, and healing, if it comes, is as varied as the individuals involved.

Now, honestly – once you accept that – this is a form of mental illness – much of the present moment clicks into place, especially if mental illness has ever played a part in your life:  the insistence of putting oneself and one’s felt needs in the center of every, single conversation and issue, the unblinkered focus on the self and trying to find a way to feel okay and then being affirmed, from every corner, in that okaynes. No matter how difficult it is to define “healthy” and “ill” we do know that healthy people, in general – don’t act this way. 

So yeah, that’s what’s going to happen. If you’ve ever been part of a group – a class, a workplace, a family, a neighborhood – where there’s someone who’s struggling with mental illness, quite often, those struggles tend to dominate everyone’s lives and every gathering, don’t they?

Understand that, and the pieces of that puzzle – how has the issue of such a tiny, tiny minority come to dominate the culture, and so quickly and why do they act like this? – click right into place.

They’re not well.

***

Finally, to close up this tedious Wall of Text with some philosophizing.

For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Add to my list above: an affluent, sterile, leisure-oriented, performative culture – a material one stripped of the transcendent, with no road but an earthly one and no destination but a grave.

And being taught from the beginning of your life on this earth that fulfillment and happiness are not only possible, but expected. That a great deal of this happiness and fulfillment lies in just who you are and the wonderfulness that you are and being accepting of the marvelous being that you are.

But what if you’re not feeling it? What if you’ve had horrendous experiences in life that have made, it seems, a sense of self – much less a contented, whole self – challenging? What if what’s inside doesn’t match what your family, your community or even the big world tells you is correct and normal?

Raised in a material, appearance, emotion and achievement-oriented culture – despair for the dis-oriented might seem to lie just on the other side of every door, around every corner.

But consider another way – formed to value this life and who you are, but also understanding that, because of weighty mystery, you – along with everyone else on earth – is broken, sees through a glass darkly – including yourself – and that as hard as it is, it is also okay, because this is not your home. 

Oh, the suffering remains, and strangeness. But one just might be spared the perceived need to fix oneself right here and right now and make what’s outside “match” what’s inside.

And the older you get, the more true you see this is.

I turned – unbelievably – 59 this week. A few weeks ago, on our way back from Spain, I spent time with my friend Ann Englehart, who also turned 59 this summer. Over great Greek food in Astoria, I looked at her and asked the question that had been weighing on me:

“Do you feel fifty-freaking-nine years old?”

“NO!” she exclaimed, clearly relieved to hear someone else say it.

What does it even mean? we wondered, articulating the same thoughts aloud. What does it mean to be “almost sixty” – but to feel no older than, say forty, and to wonder – was I ever even 45 or 52? I just seem to have leapt from still almost youngish adulthood to AARP discounts without blinking. My appearance is changing, and I look at women two decades older than I and I know – God willing I make it that far – that there will be a day when I, too, will be unrecognizable to my younger self.

It’s very, very weird. It’s challenging. I completely understand why people – especially those in the public eye – get work done to stave off the sagging and the wrinkles. It’s so strange when what you look like on the outside doesn’t match what you feel on the inside. It’s disorienting. You might even say it’s dysphoric, if that’s a word. Centered in those feelings, living as though this were the only reality and all that matters, the temptation to use all the technology at one’s disposal to fix it – to make it all match up – might be very strong.

But understanding that disassociation and sense of dislocation in another way, as an invitation. An invitation, a hint to listen to the heart that seeks and yearns for wholeness and unity, to understand that while it’s not perfectly possible on this earth, the yearning for it is a hint that somewhere, it does exists, and it waits – and the hard, puzzling journey we’re on does not, in fact end where the world tells us.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.

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A friend from Red Mountain Park on Sunday.

Just a bit of blogging this past week – scroll back for that. Some homeschooling thoughts, some El Camino thoughts. Important, big stuff.

I’ll be in Living Faith on Tuesday – go here for that.

And per usual, check out my son’s writings on film and his fiction!

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After flailing away for months, trying to find thinkers and thoughts that in some way echo my own chaotic thoughts on the Present Moment, particularly in regard to mass and social media, the self and spirituality, I’ve stumbled upon a couple of works that I think might help – one I should have read decades ago, the other new to me:

The Culture of Narcissism – duh. It’s one of those books that for years I’ve just thought, yeah, I get it – as I’ve read other authors referencing it. But then I thought – yeah, I should probably just read it.

and then Society of the Spectacle by Frenchman Guy Debord, referenced by Catholic thinkers here and  here and available here. 

So perhaps at some point, you can return for any insights gained from that.

— 3 —

Debord wrote from the position of a cultural Marxist, and before you get all frazzled by that, consider:

It goes without saying that Western culture is saturated with images. They are on our billboards, on sides of vehicles, buildings, clothing and phones. We cannot even answer nature’s call without the walls of toilets calling to us with the latest offer we cannot refuse. The explosion of smartphone technology means that users have round-the-clock screen time. Our world is awash with signs and symbols that flood every corner of our social space and fill our collective imaginations.

But what is the cultural effect this image-saturation? This is where Kulturkritik comes in. The heart of Kulturkritik is the well-known Marxist analysis of the process of commodification ― the conversion of things into units of exchange. In brief, Marx saw commodities not merely as things but also carriers of meaning acquired through the process of industrial manufacture and commercial distribution. This cultural meaning accrues in the form of a series of images that surround the commodity, the most important of which is the conceit that the commodity possesses self-contained value ― and it is this value that facilitates commodity-exchange. The upshot of this is that, for Marx, a commodity is a thing with an image fused to it. And through these images, the commodity acquires a symbolic power over its creator, shaping ― and clouding ― the creator’s perceptions of the world around him. This was described by Marx not only as an illusion, but also as a “religious fog.”

But Marx was talking about tables and chairs. What happens when non-physical goods like images become commodities in themselves? This is where Baudrillard and Debord make their singular contributions. In 1967, Guy Debord published his landmark work Society of the Spectacle, in which he argued that images have the mobilising power they have now because “the commodity has succeeded in totally colonising social life … we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” Images are not distractions from the real world, they have become the means by which we apprehend the real world. They, moreover, give a certain consistency to the world; as Debord writes, images are “a means of unification … the focal point of all vision and consciousness.”

That’s from Matthew Tan, who blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian – a spot I will be exploring with great interest. 

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This is the Debord reference that piqued my interest:

This debris, the culture of late-modern industrial society – as has been realized at both ends of the political spectrum – is really little more than a spectacle designed to reproduce and inculcate a secular, consumerist ethos and order of production, which itself is essentially a theatre. This partly lies in the fact that the gratuitous consumption fundamental to our society is driven not by need, but by wants related to the construction and maintenance of “identities” and “lifestyles” paraded about in a collective charade with little connection to authentic human realities. Thus, to paraphrase Guy Debord, cultural Marxist par excellence, spiritually lifeless mass culture in late-modern capitalism is just a spectacle for the sake of maintaining a spectacle. 

It’s from Catholic Insight – another online publication, this one Canadian, that is also worth your time. 

— 5 –

Today’s the feastday of St. Vincent de Paul:

He’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

 

An account of his life:

Thus, although he had no advantages of birth, fortune, or handsome appearance, or any showy gifts at all, Vincent de Paul’s later years became one long record of accomplishment. In the midst of great affairs, his soul never strayed from God; always when he heard the clock strike, he made the sign of the cross as an act of divine love. Under setbacks, calumnies, and frustrations, and there were many, he preserved his serenity of mind. He looked on all events as manifestations of the Divine will, to which he was perfectly resigned. Yet by nature, he once wrote of himself, he was “of a bilious temperament and very subject to anger.” Without divine grace, he declared, he would have been “in temper hard and repellent, rough and crabbed.” With grace, he became tenderhearted to the point of looking on the troubles of all mankind as his own. His tranquillity seemed to lift him above petty disturbances. Self-denial, humility, and an earnest spirit of prayer were the means by which he attained to this degree of perfection. Once when two men of exceptional learning and ability asked to be admitted to his congregation, Vincent courteously refused them, saying: “Your abilities raise you above our low state. Your talents may be of good service in some other place. As for us, our highest ambition is to instruct the ignorant, to bring sinners to a spirit of penitence, and to plant the Gospel spirit of charity, humility, and simplicity in the hearts of all Christians.” One of his rules was that, so far as possible, a man ought not to speak of himself or his own concerns, since such discourse usually proceeds from and strengthens pride and self-love.

From his own words, in today’s Office of Readings:

Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to understand the poor and weak. We sympathise with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men. Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbours’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.

 

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The writings that St. Vincent left behind are mostly in the form of correspondence and conferences, which are in print today and easy to find. Some of these thoughts were collected in a small volume of “Counsels” which you can access via archive.org. For example, here.

I find reading works like this instructive for a number of reasons. First, naturally, because they are the thoughts and advice of a great saint, and that’s always good to put in your brain and fill your time with.

But secondly – what a contrast. What a contrast to the contemporary spiritual gestalt and yes, I’m talking about Catholic gestalt, too. Perhaps especially.

I am ever intrigued by popular spirituality, no matter what era, and in particular by the give and take, ebb and flow between Catholicism and secular thought and culture. When does the latter help illuminate the former? When does it obscure, distract and point us away from Christ? When we tease it apart, what should be retained, and what should be tossed?

When you read these Counsels of St. Vincent de Paul, you might start suspecting that much of what you’re encountering in contemporary Catholic spiritual and pastoral efforts falls into that latter category.

Harsh!

But why?

Because traditional Catholic spirituality, from St. Paul on, has been about humility and emptying the self and allowing Christ to fill you. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. 

Consider what you’re being sold these days, even from Catholics. In every way, in every corner, it seems to be about you and your self. We are constantly told that the core of spiritual seeking is to discover who you really are, with gifts ‘n’ talents at the ready, accept who you really are, accept that God accepts you as you really are, arrange your life around the self you have accepted, be passionate about that self and its potential for greatness, find a church community that accepts you as you really are, and then get upset if you feel that you’re not being accepted as you really are. Lather, rinse, repeat.

 

There’s that concept of being stuck in perpetual adolescence, and this seems to me to be one manifestation of it – that unrelenting focus on and anxiety about the self and how well we are understood and accepted. As well as a spirituality formed in a context of relative material prosperity and social segregation. Does it nudge us in the proper direction, open us to the fullness of the Gospel? Sometimes, perhaps. God can work through anything, no matter how weird and odd and even bad, and does. But really, this moralistic therapeutic deism, as it’s commonly called in this, yes, culture of narcissism –  and what St. Vincent is preaching – to not speak of oneself and one’s own concerns –  are…different.  It’s good to pay attention and question your spiritual paradigm, not just once in a while, but every day.

— 7 —

Here’s my tonic for that temptation. From the Counsels:

The methods by which God chooses to work are not in accordance with our ideas and our wishes. We must content ourselves with using those small powers which He has given us, and not be distressed because they are not higher or more far-reaching. If we are faithful in a little, He will give much into our charge ; but that is His province, and does not depend on efforts of ours. We must leave it to Him, and try and fill our own niche.

The spirit of the world is restless, and desires to be active in all things. Let it alone. We must not choose our paths, but follow those into which it is God’s pleasure to direct us. So long as we know ourselves unworthy to be used by Him, or to be esteemed by other men, we are safe. Let us offer ourselves to Him to do or to suffer anything that may be for His glory or for the strengthening of His Church. That is all He asks. If He requires results, that is in His hands and not in ours ; let us spread out heart and will in His presence, having no choice of this or that until God has spoken. And, -‘meanwhile, pray we may have grace to copy our Lord in those virtues that belonged to His hidden life.

Remember always that the Son of God remained unrecognised. That is  our aim, and that is what He asks of us now, for the future and for always, unless He shows us, by some method of His which we cannot mistake, that He wants something else of us. Pay homage to the everyday life led by our Lord on earth, to His humility, His self-surrender, and His practice of  the virtues such a life requires. But chiefly pay homage to the limitations our Divine Master set on His own achievements. He did not choose to do all He might have done, and He teaches us to be content to refrain from undertakings which might be within our power, and to fulfill only what charity demands and His will requires.

I rejoice at this generous resolve of yours to imitate our Lord in the hiddenness of His life. The idea of it seems as if it must have come from God, because it is so opposed to the ordinary point of view of flesh and blood. You may be quite sure that that certainly is the state befitting children of God. Therefore be steadfast, and have the courage to resist all  the suggestions that are against it. You have found the means by which you may become what God asks you to be and learn to do His holy will continually, and that is the goal for which we are striving and for which all the saints have striven.

Another way to think of this, traditionally, is in terms of will. One of St. Benedict’s rules is “to hate one’s own will.” Again – harsh! Isn’t happiness about fulfilling our deepest yearnings?

Well, yes and no, and of course it all comes down to definitions.

We all suffer because we believe that happiness lies in fulfilling our will. But if we have the gift to reflect on our past, we quickly come to the realization that much of what we “will” does not bring us happiness and in fact is quite fleeting and arbitrary–changing with the wind.

To fight “our will” does not mean going off into another direction but rather facing reality. Our “will” often pulls us away from what most needs our attention. We often will to be somewhere other than where we are, to be doing something other than what needs to be done and to be with someone other than the one we are with at the present moment. These are exactly the moments when we are to “hate” our own will and seek to do the will of God.

 


 

Coming Monday: St. Jerome’s feastday:

 

 

From The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

 

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

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Fascinating:

Construction on the Church of St. Dismas began in 1939.  It was the brainchild of Fr. Ambrose Hyland (1900-54), the chaplain of the facility, who had previously celebrated Mass in the prison auditorium, which he thought was “not adequate” for their needs, said Fr. Bill Edwards, chaplain of the facility 2002-11. Fr. Hyland went on to “put his heart and soul into building the church, which created a good environment in which the inmates could worship.”

Materials and funding for the church were donated; gangster “Lucky” Luciano (1897-1962) was an inmate at Clinton in the 1930s and donated red oak for the pews. Other significant donations include two angel carvings said to be from the flagship of explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521). The angels were donations from the Magellan family.

Inmates supplied labor to build the church, trained by prison guards, volunteers and other inmates. Among the most notable was forger Carmelo Louis Soraci, who used his talents to create the structure’s colorful stained glass windows, modeling faces after the inmates he knew.  Soraci’s contribution led to his being freed from prison in 1962. Deacon Bushey told the North County Catholic, “It’s really a beautiful church, and the vast majority of the population will never see it.”

Other notable features include a Lourdes grotto located outside the church.  The structure was dedicated in 1941, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

See the slideshow here

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Elsewhere in the state of New York:

A New York City public arts program has said it will not build a statue in honor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, despite the saint receiving the most nominations in a public poll. 

She Built NYC was established in June of 2018 under the patronage of Chirlane McCray, wife of New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, to create more statues of women around the city of New York. The public were asked to nominate women for a potential statue and the campaign received over 2,000 votes for over 300 eligible women.

The results of the nominating period were published in December, with Mother Cabrini receiving 219 nominations – more than double the number received by second-place finisher, Jane Jacobs. 

Despite the public vote, the New York Post reported on Aug. 10 that the selection committee, led by McCray and former New York deputy mayor Alicia Glen, had excluded the first American saint from the planned statutes, instead choosing to honor Rep. Shirley Chisolm, Katherine Walker, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Billie Holiday, and Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias. They received the third, fifth, seventh, 19th, 22nd, 24th and 42nd-most nominations, respectively. 

LGBT rights activists Johnson and Rivera were biological males and will be featured together in a single statue. Both were self-identified “drag queens” and co-founders of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The pair received a combined 86 nominations.

So….two men will be recognized as notable New York women.

Got it.

I keep telling you….

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Some of us may not give two figs about college football, but it’s always great to see SEC Shorts back in business:

 

-4–

Learn to read, you know, books again:

But what does this science have to do with the discussion surrounding modern, digital culture? Wolf outlines three major concerns with the way digital media affects the malleable neurology of our reading brain. The first is the way in which it encourages our novelty bias. Already wired to give primary attention to new signals in our environment, a feature which protects us in the event of danger, it takes concentrated effort and time to teach the brain to focus on letters and words. However, the scrolling and constantly updating sound bytes of the internet split our attention. As Wolf describes it, “In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers becomes rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.” As we give into this rhythm of reading, we lose what she calls cognitive patience. Not only do we struggle to focus our attention on the page, but we fail to spend time with the content of our reading. The digitally-trained brain has a harder time pausing to digest the meaning and implications of what has been read. In this way, the highest purposes of reading, self-reflection and the pursuit of wisdom, are lost. 

Her second concern addresses the substantive nature of the page. The physical dimension of print provides readers “a knowledge of where they are in time and space” and “allows them to return to things over and over again and learn from them.” She calls this the recursive dimension of reading. Screens do not have quite the same “thereness” as hard copy. The words disappear as we scroll, and we therefore lose the sense of their permanence. In early years the recursive dimension is especially important as children experience repeat encounters with a book. Wolf says, “It involves their whole bodies; they see, smell, hear, and feel books.” 

Such repetition allows them to develop the quality which comprises her third concern: background knowledge. Human beings can only acquire insight by comparing new concepts with those they already know. Wolf recounts her attempt to read Ethiopian children a story about an octopus. They had never seen or heard of such a creature and could not comprehend the context in which the story took place. For modern children of the West, Wolf sees a similar problem: “That environment is providentially rich in what it gives, but paradoxically today, it may give too much and ask too little.” 

 

–5 —

Today, I’ve got a post up about St. Rose of Lima – worth your time, I think. I hope!

As well as an earlier post on St. Bernard here and here. 

Also check out a post earlier this week on what the television shows Dead to Me and After Life say about death, loss and grief. 

Finally, take a look at our Cathedral rector’s post on Mass options: “The Options that Divide Us”

Yes, the multiplicity of options that I listed above are legislated by the Church, and so are legitimate variations: I am not disputing that. What I am pointing out is the way that they have led, in practice, to a subjective approach that has contributed to our being divided into camps. We may well choose certain options, and legally — but we may choose them for the wrong reasons. And we often have done so.

The way forward, which I think will help us to achieve better unity within our worship, is two-fold:

  1. Realize, through liturgical education, that worship calls us out of ourselves and challenges us – it is not something we create based on personal tastes or questions of efficiency or convenience;

  2. Seek always those options that are in continuity with what was done by our ancestors.

 

— 6 —

And we’re off. It’s college move-in day this weekend, followed by Son #5 and I doing some gallivanting for a week or so. We’ll be heading to a spot that I’ve never seen before, so do check back in for posts on that. As well as Instagram, of course.

Be sure to check back in to see how my big plans about Being Educated in the car go in reality…

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2020 Devotional available. 

Son’s new novel available.

Son posts film thoughts every day during the week – here’s his take on the new Dumbo. 

 

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

 

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Sorting out St. Rose of Lima can be a challenge.  Perhaps you know the basics – what I knew for most of my life: mystic, extreme ascetic.  When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.

Digging deeper,  I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Quartet in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.

What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother,  thought she was going too far?

It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill.  She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.

But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate st. rose of limaand to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.

In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.

St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.

They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.

In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.

She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.

It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.

St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death.  Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.

I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.

I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.

It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.

Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong. 

The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly.  She’s not wrong.

“Success”  in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.

She’s not wrong.

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He’s dead, she’s dead, they’re dead, so now what?

I’ve experienced some loss and grief, and so have you. This past year Netflix has brought us a couple of high-profile short series that, you might have noticed, have death and its aftermath at the center: the unlikely-friends-comedy-mystery Dead to Me and the Ricky Gervais comedy After Life.

I’ve watched them both – Dead to Me when it came out in the spring, and After Life just Related imagethis past weekend. Neither was entirely satisfying, and I’ll say that Dead to Me was especially disappointing considering the cast and that I was predisposed to dislike After Life anyway.

This won’t be a full-scale review, but more of a (brief) reflection on what interested me in both shows: the particular aspects of grief and loss they evoked.

Dead to Me stars Christina Applegate as Jen, a woman whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident while out jogging. At a grief retreat, she’s befriended by Judy, played by the wonderful Linda Cardellini (you may know her from Mad Men). There are all kinds of plot twists and the show lurches between dark comedy and more than one mystery – not only who killed Jen’s husband, but who exactly Judy is and why she’s latched on to Jen. I eventually lost interest in the plot machinations. Less convolution would have served the story well.

But there was a truth at the core of Dead to Me that went beyond female bonding.

What gets everything going is Jen’s obsessive, driving need to know what happened. How did her husband die? Why was in that place at that time? Who did this? What could she have done differently? Was she herself at all responsible?

It’s a natural series of questions for this character, given the very real mystery and crime that caused her husband’s death. Nonetheless, it highlights, rather effectively, similar questions that any less dramatic death tends to raise in the hearts of the living: How did this happen? Whose fault is it? Could we have done anything differently?

And whether the death in question was sudden or expected, accidental, natural or criminal, whether our initial reaction is acceptance, relief or shock, eventually the questions and doubts hit, and depending on the specifics and who we are, we might spend some time wondering about it all and even obsessing about our own mysteries. We run scenarios in our head, we ponder the chain of choices that got the dead to the point at which death found them and wonder if there could have been different choices made that would have cleared a different path.

And – as Jen discovers – sometimes the answers we uncover can make us, at the very least, uncomfortable, or even rock our world. When death irrupts into life, the living suddenly find themselves with access to the dead’s secrets – as we go through our parents’ houses and papers, our spouses’ and friends’ records and letters. Some questions are answered, but more will probably be raised – with no one around to answer them any more. We thought we knew them, we thought we understood, we were confident that past events told one story, but in fact the real story might have been something quite different all along.

The thing is, this is true all the time, even apart from death. How well do we know others? Not very well. We live in a narrative that’s only a sliver of reality. That doesn’t make it unreal, necessarily – although then again, it might be.  Death has the power to force the question – what really happened here? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? Did I understand anything at all?

That’s the real, essential question of Dead to Me, and I just wish that it had more of a place in the show than wacky hijinks and mystery for its own sake.

After Life is also dark, also a comedy, none of that unexpected as it comes from the mind and pen of Ricky Gervais. I’m not a huge fan of Gervais, especially in his self-important Professional Atheist guise, although I did like The Office and Extras and very much – very much –  appreciate his firm dismissal of transgender activism and other aspects of Cancel Culture. He’s one of the few consistent public figures out there on this score: Yes, I have the right to express my views, no matter how noxious they’re judged to be – and that means others do as well.

Gervais plays Tony, a man whose wife died of cancer some months before we get rolling. They were together for twenty-five years, and childless. Tony works at a small-town newspaper and spends his days having foul-tempered run-ins with various townspeople and co-workers. Episodes are peppered with Tony watching videos left by his wife when she was in the hospital, as well as videos he made of their life together.

The bottom line of the plot here is: Tony has lost his world, and doesn’t see a reason to Image result for after life gervaiskeep existing. Suicide is continually on his mind, even when he chooses against it – that choice gives him, as he puts it, a “superpower” – to keep on living life exactly as he pleases, saying and doing what he wants, knowing that at any point he can just end it.

After a few episodes of this jerk behavior, we have a shift – a decision Tony makes results in a tragedy (although he never really takes ownership of it), which results in him rethinking things – along with a few other encounters, he comes to understand that, yes, he has a “superpower”  – to impact the lives of others for good.

So…(again, spoiler alert) – the last episode gives us the equivalent of a Hallmark/Lifetime movie or It’s a Wonderful Life as Tony opens up to life again, finally realizes that he’s not the only person in the world who’s suffering and sprinkles the fairy dust of good deeds over his surroundings. It’s almost shockingly sentimental.

There’s truth about grief and loss in After Life. Dead to Me brings out the questions a death can prompt. After Life centers on the wrenching world-shifting of loss, the question of what is the world now if my world as I knew and loved it is gone? As well as the possible answer of – it’s whatever and it doesn’t matter and so what.

Probably the truest statement in After Life is Tony’s account of his feelings – he’s an atheist remember – that  “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.” As I’ve written before, one of the flashes of empathy I experienced in the aftermath of my husband’s death was just that kind of feeling – being drawn to where ever the deceased was. I wasn’t tempted myself – honestly, I wasn’t – but I understood, in a way that I never had before, how someone, completely lost and thrown out of their world by this kind of loss, could attempt to follow.

The other very true big thing in After Life is the role of others in pulling us out of a loss-centered existence back into life. For Tony, it’s his dog – every time he’s seriously tempted to kill himself, the presence and needs of the dog pulls him back.

The dog plays another interesting role that I’ve not seen commented on – perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

Tony is a person with some warmth, but he’s also got (not surprisingly) that Gervais cruel humor thing going on, even with those he loves. Besides the videos left by his wife, Tony watches old videos that he’d made of moments with her – and up to a point, most of these moments involve him surprising her in a borderline cruel way – dumping water on her, and so on. But then, as events start to turn and some light begins to dawn to break through Tony’s nihilism, the clip he watches has a different tone – it’s the moment when he awakens his wife, not with a loud noise or water, but with this brand new puppy, a ribbon tied around its neck. A sign of the goodness of which he’s capable – a reminder.

Back to the bigger truth – it’s what I found over and over again. In the face of loss, I had to ask a question, and the question centered around my kids. How do I want them to live? They lost their dad at a young age. Devasting. Life-changing. Potentially disastrous. How do I want them to live with that? If I choose to live my life defined by loss and who’s not there any more, that’s one thing – bad enough – but to raise kids to be centered on the hole, the shadow, the absence – instead of on the joy that life promises – well, that’s just cruel and even a little sick, isn’t it?

And what follows from that?

If I want this for my kids – why not want it for myself as well?  If it’s good enough for them – to move on and embrace reality, which includes joy as well as pain – it’s good enough for me, too. Live the way you hope those you love will live.

So there’s the truth bombs of After Life: Death rips your world apart, and healing happens when you recognize that you’re not the center of the world.

Life goes on is one way to say it – but in a bigger, more generous sense: Life goes on, and life is full of hurting people – and despite your pain and loss – or maybe even because of it – you can do something to help.

That’s the superpower of loss, when we are honest about it and ourselves – empathy.

There are a few more things to like about After Life and some that turned me off.

  • The vulgarity is that off-the-charts British mode which makes frequent use of a word that starts with c that even I can’t stand to hear. Hate. It.
  • Gervais is, of course, an argumentative, proud atheist, and gives his characters a couple of opportunities to show off against weak theist strawmen. These are boring. The show is Gervais’ and comes from his worldview, fine. But what makes it less interesting in the end, is the underlying assumption that the theist’s answer to loss and grief is of course simplistic and easy and less “realistic” than the atheist’s. Because no believers ever grapple with mystery and shadow and questions,
  • What’s ironic about this is that the conclusion of After Life is certainly heartwarming, but also…simplistic.
  • I’m not big on demanding things of a piece of art – saying, for example, that a character shouldn’t have done something or said something. But I’m going to go ahead an violate that rule here. Gervais’ character is, indeed a selfish, self-centered jerk, but I still found his reaction to his wife’s death wanting – even in that context. He doesn’t, for example, articulate any resentment or questions about her suffering. I mean – she had cancer. So I guess she suffered? And she certainly suffered in the mental and emotional challenge of confronting death. Most people would bring this into their expressions of loss, atheists and theists both.
  • Nor do we have any sense at all of who she – Lisa – was as a person. The “loss” is all about Tony – about his life and his loss and the hole in his world. Yes, it fits in a way, and simplifies the dramatic trajectory, but it’s almost too simplistic. A big part of recovery in loss, I discovered, is being able to live with the dead in a healthy way – not as ghosts, not as dead and buried, but as a presence whose existence had – and has – meaning. You know you are turning the corner when “thank you that this person existed” begins to outweigh “dammit, this person’s gone” in your thinking.
  • And that’s a thought that’s echoed in a broader context by another character in the series – a woman that Tony encounters in the cemetery. He goes to visit his wife’s grave, she’s there visiting her husband’s of 49 years: I wouldn’t change anything. If I went back and changed one thing I didn’t take, I might lose something that that bad thing eventually took me to. You shouldn’t regret anything or think: “Well, if I went back, I might do this or I might do that”

 

All fine. But in the end After Life falls way short because, ironically, the atheist worldview that critiques Christianity for being all simplistic-pie-in-the-sky-easy-answers offers…easy answers. Why? Because mystery and meaning essentially have no place. Tony learns to live better and move on because he finally listens to the people who are constantly telling him he’s good and funny and “lovely.” And his dog needs him. That’s really….it.

This Baptist blogger puts it very well, I think: 

 Far from portraying grief in grey or gritty terms, the series’ world is permanently sun-lit and serene. Tony lives in a fictional town which is lightly populated, he works a dead-end job but is obviously affluent, giving the whole sequence of events a dream-like, heavenly feel. This is undoubtedly intentional, but one has to question the creative ambition behind this. Are we being consoled that grieving without God and without future hope is hard but ultimately enlightened? Are we really probing the pain of personal loss by using utopia as a backdrop?

The conclusions of the drama are as sunny as the summer bleached pavements on which it unfolds. At the opening of After Life Tony is at war with the world, standing up to opportunist thieves, feeling irked by other people’s eating habits, threatening a school bully with being bludgeoned to death with a hammer, starkly rejecting a date, showing impatience with his elderly father, and knowingly helping someone else to commit suicide. So far, so fearless. But the gradual turn around in Tony’s life is hard to quantify against these earlier behaviours, his empathy for others seeming to be restored through conversations with an elderly widow and a feckless psychotherapist. The resolution to the drama is vacuously redemptive with Tony’s goodness turning around the lives of all who are in his orbit. He resolves to treat others well as a means of grace, reserving his ire only for those who deserve to be handled with contempt.

This is all too easy. It is such a shame that a programme which purports to probe grief, which interrogates God, which heralds humanism, is so lacking in self-awareness and auto-critique. Gervais writes as though Beckett never had, as though existential angst is a thing of the past, as though creation simply awaits its redemption through human good. This is desperately naive, and utterly insufficient to face the true realities of living in the rough stuff of a broken world. Gervais does not want God but he longs for good, he does not want absolutes but he does want altruism, he wants to talk about grief but only as a vehicle for humanistic grace. There are depths to loss which are not plumbed here, there are anxieties and contradictions and cross-pressures which plague our existence as human beings, there are deep wounds which cannot be healed lightly, and After Life does little to address or grapple with any of this.

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St. Ignatius was in my Loyola Kids Book of Saints, and you can read the entire chapter here:

Because he had spent all those months in his sickbed, Ignatius got bored. He asked for something to read. He was hoping for adventure books, tales that were popular back then: knights fighting for the hands of beautiful ladies, traveling to distant lands, and battling strange creatures.

But for some reason, two completely different books were brought to Ignatius. One was a book about the life of Christ, and the other was a collection of saints’ stories.

Ignatius read these books. He thought about them. He was struck by the great sacrifices that the saints had made for God. He was overwhelmed by their love of Jesus.

And Ignatius thought, “Why am I using my life just for myself? These people did so much good during their time on earth. Why can’t I?”

Ignatius decided that he would use the talents God had given him—his strength, his leadership ability, his bravery, and his intelligence—to serve God and God’s people.

While Ignatius continued to heal, he started praying very seriously. God’s peace filled his heart and assured him that he was on the right path.

When Ignatius was all healed and ready to walk and travel again, he left his home to prepare for his new life. It wasn’t easy. He was 30, which was considered old in those days, and he was getting a late start in his studies for the priesthood. In those days, the Mass was said only in Latin, and Latin was the language all educated people used to communicate with each other. Ignatius didn’t know a bit of Latin. So for his first Latin lessons, big, rough Ignatius had to sit in a classroom with a bunch of 10-year-old boys who were learning Latin for the first time too!

That takes a different kind of strength, doesn’t it?

saints

 

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

In The Words We Pray, I wrote about the Suscipe Prayer. That chapter is excerpted here:

The more you roll this prayer around in your soul, and the more you think about it, the more radical it is revealed to be.

One of the primary themes of the Spiritual Exercises is that of attachments and affections. Ignatius offers the account of “three classes of men” who have been given a sum of money, and who all want to rid themselves of it because they know their attachment to this worldly good impedes their salvation.

The first class would really like to rid themselves of the attachment, but the hour of death comes, and they haven’t even tried. The second class would also like to give up the attachment, but do so, conveniently, without actually giving anything up.

Is this sounding familiar at all?

The third class wants to get rid of the attachment to the money, which they, like the others, know is a burden standing in the way. But they make no stipulations as to how this attachment is relinquished; they are indifferent about the method. Whatever God wants, they want. In a word, they are the free ones.

The prayer “Take Lord, receive” is possible only because the retreatant has opened himself to the reality of who God is, what God’s purpose is for humanity, and what God has done for him in a particularly intense way.

A Response to God’s Love

The retreatant has seen that there is really no other response to life that does God justice. What love the Father has for us in letting us be called children of God, John says (1 John 3:1). What gift does our love prompt us to give?

In ages past, and probably in the minds of some of us still, that gift of self to God, putting oneself totally at God’s disposal, is possible only for people called to a vowed religious life. Well, God didn’t institute religious life in the second chapter of Genesis. He instituted marriage and family. I’m not a nun, but the Scriptures tell us repeatedly that all creation is groaning and being reborn and moving toward completion in God. Every speck of creation, everything that happens, every kid kicking a soccer ball down a road in Guatemala, each office worker in New Delhi, every ancient great-grandmother in a rest home in Boynton Beach, every baby swimming in utero at this moment around the world—all are beloved by God and are being constantly invited by him to love. And all can respond.

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A final chapter from Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies (full text available here for .99).  I have skipped a few – this is chapter 10, which describes the role of Mary Magdalene in the lives of late medieval and counter-reformation mystics and spiritual writers.

For excerpts from other  chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

MARY AND THE MYSTICS

The heart of the Christian life is prayer, and throughout our history Mary Magdalene has often been found in that heart, pointing the way to Christ. Like any saint, Christians have looked to her as a model, and have prayed for her intercession.

In this chapter, we’ll look at some important figures in the Christian spiritual tradition, mostly women, and how they have been inspired and nourished by the example of Mary Magdalene. Some found parallels between their lives and hers. Others found strength in her identity as a repentant sinner, or in the model of solitary con-templation offered by the legends they knew. The lives of all of these prayerful people help us see the tremendous positive power the figure of Mary Magdalene has held in the lives of many Christians.

Like a Sister

Margery Kempe is one of the more vivid figures to emerge from the medieval period, partly because she left extensive autobiographical writings (dictated to a priest), but also because her experiences are so extreme to the point that today we might indeed diagnose her as mentally ill.

She was an Englishwoman, born in the late thirteenth century, married, and the mother of fourteen children. She eventually convinced her husband to live with her as a brother, and from that point embarked on a number of pilgrimages — to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Norway, and Germany. Her Book of Margery Kempe is an invaluable record of the period in general, and of religious life and sensibilities in particular.

The Book records visionary experiences, most of which involve Margery, who refers to herself as “said creature,” in the midst of a biblical scene, observing and interacting with the other participants, often weeping copiously. Her visions reflect a knowledge of some of the medieval religious plays featuring Mary Magdalene, as well as a work called Meditations on the Life of Christ, a very popular devotional believed to have been written by St. Bonaventure, but now ascribed to a figure known as “Pseudo-Bonaventure.”

Margery joins Mary Magdalene and others at the cross. She mourns with them. For ten years, on every Good Friday, she weeps for five or six hours. After the Resurrection, she displaces Mary Magdalene, and converses with Christ herself, receiving his assurance that if Mary Magdalene could be forgiven of her sins, so should Margery. She, along with the Virgin, expresses sorrow at the imminent physical departure of Jesus, and is comforted by him.

Margery draws strength from Mary Magdalene, then, as a model of a sinner who loved Christ and was devoted to him. The imagery she offers, of herself mourning over the dead Christ, kissing his feet and caring for his body, is evocative of spiritual writing and art of the period in which Mary Magdalene is playing that same role:

[Jesus to Margery Kempe:] “Also, daughter, I know . . . how you call Mary Magdalene into your soul to welcome me for, daugh-ter,I know well enough what you are thinking.You think that she is the worthiest, in your soul, and you trust most in her prayers next to my mother, and so you may indeed, daughter, for she is a very great mediator to me for you in the bliss of heaven.” (Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 86, in Medieval Writings on Female Spiritualityedited by Elizabeth Spearing [Penguin Books, 2002], p. 251)

The Second Mary Magdalene

Similar comfort was found by St. Margaret Cortona (1247-1297), who is actually called the “Second Mary Magdalene.” She was born in Tuscany, and as a young adult woman she became lovers with a nobleman, bore him a child, and lived with him for nine years. The man File:Giovanni Lanfranco - Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona - WGA12453.jpgwas murdered, at which point Margaret took her child and fled, first to her family’s home, where she was rejected, and then to a Franciscan friary. Her subsequent life as a Franciscan tertiary was marked by continued battles with temptations of the flesh (she is a patron saint of those battling temptation), repentance, and service to the poor.

Obviously, her past life led to her identification with the popular memory of St. Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner — and like Margery Kempe, Margaret found solace in Mary’s penitent life. The following was related by one of her early biographers:

“Shortly before her death, she had a vision of St. Mary Magdalene, ‘most faithful of Christ’s apostles, clothed in a robe as it were of silver, and crowned with a crown of precious gems, and surrounded by the holy angels.’ And whilst she was in this ecstasy Christ spoke to Margaret, saying:‘My Eternal Father said of Me to the Baptist:This is My beloved Son;so do I say to thee of Magdalene:This is my beloved daughter.’ On
another occasion we are told that ‘she was taken in spirit to the feet of Christ, which she washed with her tears as did Magdalene of old;and as she wiped His feet she desired greatly to behold His face,and prayed to the Lord to grant her this favor.’ Thus to the end we see she was the same; and yet the difference.” (
Saints for Sinners, by Alban Goodier, S.J. [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 46)

Bathed in Blood

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, and considering the competition, that is saying quite a bit.

Born in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children, Catherine was intensely devout, but uninterested in taking the usual route for young women like herself, which would have been joining a reli-gious community. She became associated with the Dominicans — whose patron was Mary Magdalene, remember — as a tertiary, but operated with a startling degree of independence for a woman of her era. We remember her today for her letters, her spiritual writ-ings (dictated to her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua), and her determination to play a role in reforming the papacy, at that time in exile in Avignon, France, and corrupted by luxury.

Catherine saw Mary Magdalene as a second mother, having dedicated herself to her in a special way upon the death in child-birth of her sister, Bonaventura, an incident that seems to have been an important motivator in Catherine’s spiritual life. When Bonaventura died, Catherine envisioned herself at the feet of Christ, with Mary Magdalene, begging for mercy. Her biographer noted Catherine “doing everything she could to imitate her to obtain forgiveness” (quoted in Haskins, p. 179). Blessed Raymond summarizes Catherine’s devotion in the following passage:

“‘Sweetest daughter, for your greater comfort I give you Mary Magdalen for your mother.Turn to her in absolute confidence; I entrust her with a special care of you.’ The virgin gratefully accepted this offer. . . . From that moment the virgin felt entirely at one with the Magdalen and always referred to her as her mother.” (Quoted in Jansen, p. 303)

In terms of her personal spirituality, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as a model of repentance and faithfulness, never leaving Jesus at the cross. Nor, she determined, would she, faithfully persevering in fidelity despite the extraordinary risks she faced in confronting the most powerful figure of the day — the pope — with evidence of his own sins.

[Catherine of Siena on Mary Magdalene, the “loving disciple”:] “Wracked with love, she runs and embraces the cross.There is no doubt that to see her master, she becomes inundated with blood.” (Quoted in Haskins, p. 188)

St.Teresa of Ávila

The sixteenth century was a period of conflict and reform for the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, there was only one Christian Church in the West, but by the end there were scores of different churches and movements emanating from the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church, faced with the consequences of, in part, its own weakness and corruption, responded to the Reformation with its own inner purification, commonly called the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Reformation. The Council of Trent, meeting over several years mid-century, standardized prayer and liturgical texts, mandated seminary training for priests, and confidently restated traditional Catholic teaching on justification, Scripture, Tradition, and the life of the Church.

Change doesn’t come only from the top, though. When a reforming spirit is in the Catholic air, inevitably groups rise up to meet the challenge and undertake the work. It happened, for example, in the thirteenth century with the rise of the mendicant orders.

Some argue it is happening today with the rising popularity of groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

The sixteenth century was no different. It was the era that saw the establishment of the Jesuits, who evangelized with vigor and focus, under the direct supervision of the pope. It was also the era that saw the reformation of many religious orders. One of the most important leaders on this score was St. Teresa of Ávila, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites in Spain.

Not that she started out life as a reformer. Teresa entered religious life at an early age, but did not pursue holiness with much vigor. Many convents in that period had devolved to essentially groups of well-off women dwelling together, living only nominally religious lives.

Teresa lived this way until her forties, when illness prompted a change of heart. In the wake of her conversion, Teresa was inspired to reform existing houses of her order and establish new ones that would be expressions of a sacrificial road to holiness. Teresa was also a great mystic and teacher of prayer. Her works — including her Life, the Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle — are still widely read today.

In these works, we see the influence of Mary Magdalene on Teresa, primarily, as she has been for the other women we’ve looked at, as a model of fidelity and repentance:

“I had a very great devotion to the glorious Magdalene,and very frequently used to think of her conversion — especially when I went to Communion. As I knew for certain that our Lord was then within me, I used to place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be despised. I did not know what I was saying; only He did great things for me, in that He was pleased I should shed those tears,seeing that I so soon forgot that impression. I used to recommend myself to that glorious saint,that she might obtain my pardon.” (Life, 9:2)

The story of Mary Magdalene’s contemplative years in the wilderness and her association with the quiet, listening Mary (in contrast to the busy Martha) also Teresa_de_Jesúsappealed to Teresa, unsurprisingly:

“Let us, then, pray Him always to show His mercy upon us, with a submissive spirit,yet trusting in the goodness of God. And now that the soul is permitted to sit at the feet of Christ, let it con-trive not to quit its place, but keep it anyhow. Let it follow the example of the Magdalene; and when it shall be strong enough, God will lead it into the wilderness.” (Life, 21:9)

Asceticism, an important part of Teresa’s spirituality (although never to extremes, she firmly taught), was understood by her and others in this period as a means of penance for one’s own sins, as well as the sins of others. Here, again, Mary Magdalene was a model:

“Indeed the body suffers much while alive, for whatever work it does, the soul has energy for far greater tasks and goads it on to more, for all it can perform appears as nothing.This must be the reason of the severe penances performed by many of the saints, especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always spent her life in luxury.This caused the zeal felt by our Father Elias for the honor of God, and the desires of St. Dominic and St. Fran-cis to draw souls to praise the Almighty. I assure you that, for-getful of themselves, they must have passed through no small trials.” (Interior Castle, 4:16)

Teresa, like many other women, saw in Mary Magdalene a model for faithful discipleship through difficulty, an ideal penitent, and an inspiring contemplative.

Practical Advice

During this same era, another kind of Catholic reformer was working in another part of Europe. St. Francis de Sales — a gifted writer, preacher, and spiritual director — was the bishop of Geneva, although throughout most of his career, because of the Calvinist control of that city, he could not openly lead his flock. He wrote, unusually for this period, specifically for the laity, very aware of the particular challenges of living in the world.

His Introduction to the Devout Life is a lovely, practical, and charming classic, and it is still indispensable. His letters of spiritual direction, many of them written to his close friend and fellow reformer St. Jane Frances de Chantal, are carefully crafted to answer the specific needs of their recipients. In one of his letters of spiritual direction, written to one Rose Bourgeois, an abbess who, much like Teresa of Ávila, was attempting to reform her own life and that of her convent in a way more faithful to the demands of the Gospel, Francis draws on the image of the contemplative Magdalene in a lovely way:

“Dear daughter,what a good way of praying,and what a fine way of staying in God’s presence: doing what He wants and accept-ing what pleases Him! It seems to me that Mary Magdalene was a statue in her niche when,without saying a word,without mov-ing, and perhaps even without looking at Him, she sat at our Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying.When He spoke, she listened; whenever He paused, she stopped listening; but always, she was right there.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal [Paulist Press, 1988], p. 152)

Silent Witness

Mary Magdalene’s place in medieval and early modern Catholic spirituality was firm and clear. Her example encouraged Christians to see their own sins clearly and honestly, and hopefully approach the Lord for forgiveness. Her faithfulness to Jesus, an important part of the Passion narratives in the Gospels, was an accessible expression of fidelity. Her identity as a contemplative, fueled by the legend of her time in the wilderness, as well as her identification with Mary, sister of Martha, provided a model for women who sought to pursue a life of deep prayer, singularly devoted to Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways did these medieval spiritual writers find Mary Magdalene inspiring?
  1. How did they respond to her identity as “Apostle to the Apos-tles,” within the context of their times?
  2. Does the image of Mary Magdalene inspire you in similar ways?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

 

 

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