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Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB was a towering figure in 19th century liturgical studies. The following is taken from the section on Advent from The Liturgical Year. 

Gueranger discusses what he understands of the history of the season, and then how Advent informs the shape of the liturgy. In the third portion of his discussion, he turns to the individual believer: the various stances towards Christ human beings have, and how Christ seeks to meet each of us, no matter where we are, and how that meeting will change our life.

For this glorious solemnity, as often as it comes round, finds three classes of men. The first, and the smallest number, are those who live, in all its plenitude, the life of Jesus who is within them, and aspire incessantly after the increase of this life. The second class of souls is more numerous; they are living, it is true, because Jesus is in them; but they are sick and weakly, because they care not to grow in this divine life their charity has become cold ! 18 The rest of men make up the third division, and are they that have no part of this life in them, and are dead; for Christ has said: ‘I am the Life,’

Now, during the season of Advent, our Lord knocks at the door of all men’s hearts, at one time so forcibly that they must needs notice Him; at another, so softly that it requires attention to know that Jesus is asking admission. He comes to ask them if they have room for Him, for He wishes to be born in their house. The house indeed is His, for he built it and preserves it; yet He complains that His own refused to receive Him ;  at least the greater number did. ‘But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God, born not of blood, nor of the flesh, but of God.

One of the reasons I want to share this with you is that Gueranger, not surprising for a liturgical scholar, presents the individual believer’s spirituality in the context of the Church’s liturgy. I think this is very important for us to understand, in a culture – even a church culture – in which we are encouraged to shape our lives in response to the proddings of the Holy Spirit.

What is often forgotten, however, is that when Jesus promised the presence of the Spirit, he did not take individuals aside and say, “I’m sending you the Paraclete. And you – over there, let me talk to you. I’m sending you the Paraclete as well.”

No. He made this promise to the apostles, as a body – as the People of God, as the Church.

So when I, as an individual baptized Christian, seek to live my life in accordance with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the first place I look is the Church.

Living by the promptings of God’s spirit can involve complex dynamics and careful, even painful discernment. It may indeed put one in conflict with various elements of Church authority or tradition as it is being understood or misunderstood at a particular point in time. There is nothing new or radical about this, and anyone with an atom of understanding of church history understands this, and countless women and men we now honor as saints endured, usually painfully, these struggles of discernment as they were moved to serve in one direction, while bishops or other authorities told them to just stop.

But it all seems to shake out in the end, as we push and pull and move and serve.

And so it is with our prayer life and our individual spiritual lives. The Spirit dwells in the Word of God and in the prayer of the Church. Paul says, Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

So, Dom Gueranger picks it up:

He will be born, then, with more beauty and lustre and might than you have hitherto seen in Him, O ye faithful ones, who hold Him within you as your only treasure, and who have long lived no other life than His, shaping your thoughts and works on the model of His. You will feel the necessity of words to suit and express your love; such words as He delights to hear you speak to Him. You will find them in the holy liturgy.

You, who have had Him within you without knowing Him, and have possessed Him without relishing the sweetness of His presence, open your hearts to welcome Him, this time, with more care and love. He repeats His visit of this year with an untiring tenderness; He has forgotten your past slights; He would ‘that all things be new.’  Make room for the divine Infant, for He desires to grow within your soul. The time of His coming is close at hand: let your heart, then, be on the watch; and lest you should slumber when He arrives, watch and pray, yea, sing. The words of the liturgy are intended also for your use: they speak of darkness, which only God can enlighten; of wounds, which only His mercy can heal; of a faintness, which can be braced only by His divine energy.

So….how to observe Advent with yourself, your family, your kids? Don’t stress. Just keep it simple.

Start with the liturgy. With the daily Mass readings, and whatever else you can manage. It is worth the time, it is worth the awkwardness, it is worth the struggle. I have never looked back on that time on the couch, sometimes so painfully won from other commitments and distractions, and thought, “Well, that was a waste of time,” while I always look back at a day when I just gave up and gave in to Everything Else and said, “Well, that wasn’t worth it. I should have tried a little harder.”

Yes, when I make what I see, in hindsight, is just a small sacrifice, and open myself and try to help my family open up, I see that even a little bit is enough, for I know that all of our yearnings are met here, in the tiniest opening: The Spirit helps us in our weakness. 

Image source.

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Advent begins in a little more than two weeks.  The first Sunday of Advent is November 27.

Still time to order resources for your parish or school!
Here is the devotional I wrote for Liguori this year.

Link to English version.

daybreaks

Link to Spanish version.

2016 Advent Devotional

Link to excerpts from Spanish version.

And an endorsement from Deacon Greg Kandra!

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

Don’t forget that Bambinelli Sunday will be the third Sunday of Advent. Perhaps your parish would like to do this? Invite children (and everyone!) to bring the baby Jesus from their home nativity for a blessing.

Bambinelli Sunday” or Benedizione dei Bambinelli is a real thing.  It’s an Italian tradition, taking place most of the time on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), although I have seen it mentioned as being celebrated on the last Sunday of Advent.

It’s done in parishes, but the big celebration is in Rome…and we wrote a book about it!  (To order signed copies – even multiple copies – of the book, go here)

Here’s an interview Ann Engelhart did with Vatican Radio last year about it. 

Anyway, I’ll be talking more about this celebration this week, but I’ll start by giving some suggestions on how to celebrate:

You might be interested in this – The University of Santa Clara made Bambinelli Sunday the basis of a lesson plan.  It’s for Mary, the Mother of God, but you could easily adapt it for Advent. 

Here’s a link to my Bambinelli Sunday Pinterest board – all kinds of links there. 

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In this Year of Mercy, in which we have been called to focus on the works of mercy, remember that one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to Pray for the Living and the Dead.  From Msgr. Pope:

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! How prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. For by the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

So remember…All Souls is not just a day to “remember” the dead is the sense of recalling. It is a day to “remember” the dead in the sense of remembering them to God. Praying for them. 

From Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2008:

Today we renew the hope in eternal life, truly founded on Christ’s death and Resurrection. “I am risen and I am with you always”, the Lord tells us, and my hand supports you. Wherever you may fall, you will fall into my hands and I will be there even to the gates of death. Where no one can accompany you any longer and where you can take nothing with you, there I will wait for you to transform for you the darkness into light. Christian hope, however, is not solely individual, it is also always a hope for others. Our lives are profoundly linked, one to the other, and the good and the bad that each of us does always effects others too. Hence, the prayer of a pilgrim soul in the world can help another soul that is being purified after death. This is why the Church invites us today to pray for our beloved deceased and to pause at their tombs in the cemeteries. Mary, Star of Hope, renders our faith in eternal life stronger and more authentic, and supports our prayer of suffrage for our deceased brethren.

2011:

(I was going to excerpt, but the whole thing is so wonderful…here it is)

After celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints, today the Church invites us to commemorate all the faithful departed, to turn our eyes to the many faces who have gone before us and who have ended their earthly journey. So at today’s Audience, I would like to offer a few simple thoughts on the reality of death, which for us Christians is illuminated by the Resurrection of Christ, and so as to renew our faith in eternal life.

As I already said at the Angelus yesterday, during these days we go to the cemetery to pray for the loved ones who have left us, as it were paying a visit to show them, once more, our love, to feel them still close, remembering also, an article of the Creed: in the communion of saints there is a close bond between us who are still walking here upon the earth and those many brothers and sisters who have already entered eternity.

Human beings have always cared for their dead and sought to give them a sort of second life through attention, care and affection. In a way, we want to preserve their experience of life; and, paradoxically, by looking at their graves, before which countless memories return, we discover how they lived, what they loved, what they feared, what they hoped for and what they hated. They are almost a mirror of their world.

Why is this so? Because, despite the fact that death is an almost forbidden subject in our society and that there is a continuous attempt to banish the thought of it from our minds, death touches each of us, it touches mankind of every age and every place. And before this mystery we all, even unconsciously, search for something to give us hope, a sign that might bring us consolation, open up some horizon, offer us a future once more. The road to death, in reality, is a way of hope and it passes through our cemeteries, just as can be read on the tombstones and fulfills a journey marked by the hope of eternity.

Yet, we wonder, why do we feel fear before death? Why has humanity, for the most part, never resigned itself to the belief that beyond life there is simply nothing? I would say that there are multiple answers: we are afraid of death because we are afraid of that nothingness, of leaving this world for something we don’t know, something unknown to us. And, then, there is a sense of rejection in us because we cannot accept that all that is beautiful and great, realized during a lifetime, should be suddenly erased, should fall into the abyss of nothingness. Above all, we feel that love calls and asks for eternity and it is impossible to accept that it is destroyed by death in an instant.

Furthermore, we fear in the face of death because, when we find ourselves approaching the end of our lives, there is a perception that our actions will be judged, the way in which we have lived our lives, above all, those moments of darkness which we often skillfully remove or try to remove from our conscience. I would say that precisely the question of judgment often underlies man of all time’s concern for the dead, the attention paid to the people who were important to him and are no longer with him on the journey through earthly life. In a certain sense the gestures of affection and love which surround the deceased are a way to protect him in the conviction that they will have an effect on the judgment. This we can gather from the majority of cultures that characterize the history of man.

Today the world has become, at least in appearance, much more rational, or rather, there is a more widespread tendency to think that every reality ought to be tackled with the criteria of experimental science, and that the great questions about death ought to be answered not so much with faith as with empirical, provable knowledge. It is not sufficiently taken into account, however, that precisely in this way one is doomed to fall into forms of spiritism, in an attempt to have some kind of contact with the world beyond, almost imagining it to be a reality that, ultimately, is a copy of the present one.

Dear friends, the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of all the faithful departed tells us that only those who can recognize a great hope in death, can live a life based on hope. If we reduce man exclusively to his horizontal dimension, to that which can be perceived empirically, life itself loses its profound meaning. Man needs eternity for every other hope is too brief, too limited for him. Man can be explained only if there is a Love which overcomes every isolation, even that of death, in a totality which also transcends time and space. Man can be explained, he finds his deepest meaning, only if there is God. And we know that God left his distance for us and made himself close. He entered into our life and tells us: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26).

Let us think for a moment of the scene on Calvary and listen again to Jesus’ words from the height of the Cross, addressed to the criminal crucified on his right: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). We think of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when, after traveling a stretch of the way with the Risen Jesus, they recognize him and set out immediately for Jerusalem to proclaim the Resurrection of the Lord (cf. Lk 24:13-35). The Master’s words come back to our minds with renewed clarity: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:1-2). God is truly demonstrated, he became accessible, for he so loved the world “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16), and in the supreme act of love on the Cross, immersing himself in the abyss of death, he conquered it, and rose and opened the doors of eternity for us too. Christ sustains us through the night of death which he himself overcame; he is the Good Shepherd, on whose guidance one can rely without any fear, for he knows the way well, even through darkness.

Every Sunday in reciting the Creed, we reaffirm this truth. And in going to cemeteries to pray with affection and love for our departed, we are invited, once more, to renew with courage and with strength our faith in eternal life, indeed to live with this great hope and to bear witness to it in the world: behind the present there is not nothing. And faith in eternal life gives to Christians the courage to love our earth ever more intensely and to work in order to build a future for it, to give it a true and sure hope. Thank you.

Illustration by the wonderful artist Daniel Mitsui.  Find out more about his work here. 

An excellent interview with Daniel here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rectify returned last night.

For those of you who don’t know, Rectify is a television series seen on Sundance TV that’s “about” a man released from prison after 19 years on death row for a murder he may or may not have committed.

The point is not really that particular mystery. The point is the impact the incarceration and the re-entry has had on this character, Daniel, and his family. Rectify is about human connection and how we do or don’t live with ambiguity and change. The acting is magnificent, the pace is meditative.

I like Rectify for a lot of reasons. I appreciate the southern setting. It’s filmed in Georgia, in a town a bit southwest of Atlanta, and a couple of the actors have Birmingham connections. I once saw and chatted with actor Michael O’Neil, who plays the corrupt senator in the series, in the Whole Foods here in town. The accents are good – even though two of the leads are Australian!

It’s a profoundly spiritual piece, with more than a hint of Flannery O’Connor.

If you want to catch up, the first three seasons are currently streaming on Netflix. I’ve written about it a few times before – the last time here, I believe.

So let’s get back to this first episode of this fourth and last season of Rectify.

When the third season ended, Daniel Holden was leaving his hometown of Paulie, Georgia for Nashville. He had been convicted of raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, but released from Death Row on an evidential technicality. He had confessed to the crime rtfy_401_jld_0415_-0142-rtat the time, but we have seen in flashbacks over the course of the series that this confession was almost coerced and that there are certainly others who might have committed the crime. But what we see of and hear from Daniel in the present has never been enough to lead us to conclude on his guilt in one direction or another.  In fact, our general impression has been that he is not sure himself.

In any case, for various reasons, after a few months out of prison, Daniel has admitted to the murder and, as part of the plea, has been exiled from his hometown and the state and is taking up residence at a halfway house in Nashville, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the fourth season, which seems to be taking place a few months after the end of the last.

This first episode focuses solely on Daniel up in Nashville. We don’t see anyone from Paulie, and we have no idea what’s going on down there. The question is – how is Daniel adapting? The answer: he is walking and talking, but as if he is still in his death row cell that has shrunk, encased him and which he wears like a cloak.

At least in Paulie, he had his family, and as fraught and awkward as his relationships with them were, at least he had some degree of familiarity. Here in the halfway house and at his warehouse job, he functions, but he doesn’t interact. He just doesn’t know how, and in Aden Young’s performance – in his eyes, body language and strangled voice – we perceive that struggle and honestly, it makes us a little afraid.

Alan Sipenwall has reviewed the first two episodes of this season here, and I can’t add to that except to share a bit of last night’s episode that struck me on a spiritual level.

Near the end of the episode, Daniel returns to the halfway house, and is pulled into conversation with one of the counselors. One of the core events of the episodes has been that Daniel’s roommate tested positive for drug use and left the house in the middle of the night. This initially seems like a tangential event that has nothing to do with Daniel.

But doesn’t it?

Daniel was his roommate. Daniel even saw him leave and did nothing, said nothing. There have been no fireworks or drama about this, but as the episode builds, the central question emerges:

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Well, yes, you are. “New Canaan” is the name of the halfway house and here, in this community of hope and new beginnings, yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

But this is not something Daniel knows a bit about, not because he wants to be cruel, but because almost two decades of isolation have malformed his soul.

This comes out in a cathartic conversation with the counselor, in dialogue that might seem a bit overwritten from Daniel’s perspective at first, but does make sense when you consider it as the fruit of twenty years of introspection and reading. It is not surprising that he would talk this way about his own existence and the stripping of his soul.

But even this is not what I want to focus on. For the core of Daniel’s dilemma comes down to this:

He doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know anymore if he killed Hannah or not. That uncertainty, that unknowing about the past, makes living in the present impossible.

Here’s what this made me think about last night, then:

Do any of us know the impact of our actions/ Do we have any clue to the reality of our own sins? Is there even any way for us to grasp every sin of omission and commission, what we have done and what we have failed to do? How the words I spoke in the grocery store yesterday helped or hurt and what they led to in someone else’s life a minute or an hour or ultimately a week down the road?

How tangled and mysterious is human history, activity and experience.

This is not to diminish the impact of sin. It is not to say there is no space for justice or requirement for restitution or judgment.

It is simply a recognition that there is only so much we can do for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we can’t even begin to count the ways. God must do the rest. All of our efforts to make sense of our impact on others fall short not only because they are weak and limited but also because we don’t know what to do. We do not know how to pray as we ought, Paul says, and not just because human words are limited, but because we can’t comprehend the scope of our lives and our impact, for good and for ill, on others. We don’t know what we should be asking forgiveness for, not all of it, not really.

How can we rectify when our sins are either so great or so unknown to us?

So how do we live? In continued isolation, separating ourselves from others because we are afraid, we feel unworthy of them in our guilt, real or imagined, or we feel superior to them in our innocence, real or imagined?

Or do we do what we can, hand the rest over, and edge from the door to the side chair to the place waiting for us at the table with the other sinners in the house that is half way?

Rectify season 4

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Welcome Catholic Herald readers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Earlier this week, I read the book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons, a former Newsweek tech writer and editor and now a writer on HBO’s and Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley. I picked it up from the “new books” section mostly because I have a like-hate relationship with Silicon Valley – I think it’s brilliant satire at times, but at other times it’s just stupid and too filthy for its own good.

I enjoyed Disrupted. It’s an entertaining and even enlightening evening read – a longish Atlantic article could have probably covered most of the same ground, and Lyons’ Disrupted by Dan Lyonsidealization of journalism is annoying but that’s fine, and the time I spent with the book was more entertaining and fruitful than a couple of hours furiously scanning furious political commentary online. Although almost as frustrating, considering the insanity Lyons is writing about.

Short version: Lyons was fired from Newsweek in his early 50’s – the story of so many journalists – and eventually landed at HubSpot, a company that sells marketing software to other companies – as a “marketing fellow,” a title which sounds kind of cool but actually, as he discovers is expressive of the shadows of this tech-based economy in which no one is really committed to anything or anyone and everyone is landing somewhere for just a bit, until the next thing.

The book is very funny, not only because Lyons is funny, but because the culture he describes is so deeply insane and he’s a 50-something thinking he might be able to fit in, just a little bit.  HubSpot’s workplace is culture is just what you expect: 20-somethings brought in to have meetings and stare at screens for not a lot of money, but hey – there’s a music room! And a candy wall! And Tequila Tuesday!

Moving past the employees – er, team members – Lyons takes a look at those behind all of this craziness, from the founders of start-ups who sometimes have an idea for a product or service, but just as often don’t – to the venture capitalists.  Lyons’ description of DreamForce – a huge networking/pep rally/afterhours orgy sponsored by Salesforce.com  in which literally tens of thousands of online marketers get together in San Francisco – is jaw-dropping.

The whole thing makes me depressed, in part because Benioff is a buffoon, a bullshit artist, and such an out-of-control egomaniac that it is painful to listen to him talk. He lives in Hawaii and signs his emails “Aloha.” He’s a Buddhist and hangs out with Zen monks from Japan, and he gave his golden retriever the title “chief love officer” at his company. He is the Ron Burgundy of tech…”have you transformed the way you innovate?’ was Benioff’s big line at the 2012 Dreamforce show. Note that you can switch the two buzzwords in the sentence and it still sounds good and still means nothing.

And Dreamforce continues with Huey Lewis and the News, Green Day, Alec Baldwin, Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfels, CEO’s of Dropbox, Facebook and Yahoo, and the President of Haiti. It’s crazy.

If you’ve watched Silicon Valley, you’ll recognize some of the types and quirks, but I have to say – I think the world Lyons describes is even wackier than its fictional version.

Lyons’ critique is of an economy built on non-profitable entities selling intangibles – again, at a loss, most of the time – so that a few people can profit from this weird transfer of wealth going on. It’s of workplace cultures that are not only lame and distracting, but attract and sustain immaturity and are among the least diverse workplaces in the country. It’s about deception all around, about claiming, “no, we don’t send spam,” when actually, you facilitate sending millions of pieces of spam every day, it’s about calling aggressive selling “lead nurturing” and selling “lovable marking content.” That you’re not selling product, you’re leading a revolution…a movement.

It’s about this new thing, but it’s also about the old thing that has always characterize most workplaces, everywhere: Egomaniacs with tunnel vision exercising power over other human beings just because, whether those egomaniacs be CEO’s, department managers or the two blog editors twenty years your junior who have declared war against you – the turf being a blog run by a company that’s read by no one except a few hundred customers. Because that’s worth a war, definitely.

The stupid workplace trends that Lyons eviscerates are amusing to read about, but raise some serious points. First, what Lyons himself constantly points out – it’s almost like a shell game. Employees being given treats instead of more pay and greater job security. He tries to point this out to the employees three decades his junior: that instead of the treats they could actually be paid more..but they will have none of it. They prefer the candy.

The whole scene also made me think (of course) of (surprise!) church and faith and such.

The appeal of new management and marketing trends, bursting with buzzwords and exclamation points is strong for churches. Evangelical churches, with their emphasis on, well, evangelization, have always been particularly strongly tempted by American business culture, narrowing that line between evangelism and marketing to the point of invisibility. And because American Catholicism doesn’t trust or understand its own tradition of evangelization, and might even despise it, a few years after the evangelicals have pounced and wrung a trend dry, you can trust that the Catholics will be along to mop up the puddles and squeeze out what’s left in lameness that is no less lame for being two generations removed from the original and having schematized rosaries on the Awesome!
Engagement! Materials! with which they can hack  and blow UP this ministry. 

Not to speak of the management stuff, which too many Catholic school systems, in my experience, embrace. I mean…this was…familiar, even if the characters we encounter in the church world have a bit more years on them.

Try to imagine the calamity of that: Zack, age twenty-eight, with no management experience, gets training from Dave, a weekend rock guitarist, on how to apply a set of fundamentally unsound psychological principles as a way to manipulate the people who report to him.

And then, there is the question of the soul and what seeks to bind it and what it mean to be truly counter-cultural.

It is not a new story: in seeking security in this world, we find ourselves bound to entities that want to claim more than our labors, that set themselves up as idols demanding our highest loyalties. That might be the lord of the manor, the factory owner, the farmer, the office manager. That might be elements of a culture that don’t demand our labor but rather the fruits of that labor as they work hard to convince us that our wholeness and happiness depends on how well we fit.

It just seems to me that it’s the role of this Church of Jesus Christ to stand astride all of these idols, knock them over and quietly, constantly, faithfully point to the truth. Yes, this the world in which we live and work requires running and doing, and sometimes all of that is creative and interesting, but most of the time it’s not, and most of the time it just is. Work hard, give your best, make good things, no matter how small they are, and build each other up. But don’t be fooled. If this entity – this job, this organization, this culture – asks the world of you so it can save the world – remember that it can’t do that, you don’t have to and only God is God, and yeah, well, he’s…awesome.

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