Friday, June 29, 2007

A Lovely Bit of Writing

No, not here. Here.

Mark Shea's lovely afternoon adventure has prompted what follows; I apologize to Joyce Kilmer for stealing the format, and to everyone else for inflicting badly written poetry on all of you. It's Friday, though, and I have a rather busy weekend ahead of me, so I hope you'll overlook it just this once:

I think that I shall never see
Prose like Mark's on the cherry tree.

A tree whose dryad arms wave wild
Round both the grown and growing child;

A tree that fills a warm gray day
With joy like sunshine's piercing ray;

A tree bejeweled, sparkling, draped
With dark rich red and kingly cape;

A tree whose choicest gifts are seen
And snatched, and given to a Queen.

Though this I write with stolen style
Joyce Kilmer, reading Mark, would smile.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

July 7

I have written before about the motu proprio, expressing my opinions, both positive and negative.

It now appears that a specific date for the release of the motu proprio has been assigned, and that a week from this Saturday we will have the document, know all its particulars, and look forward to its implementation.

Many people have written extensively about this; I would go here for the most thorough and analytical information.

Some people think that this motu proprio is an unprecedented reversal of an earlier Church decision. Granted, a decision about liturgy doesn't fall under the "faith and morals" realm, and therefore is neither infallible nor irreversible; the same authority that allowed the Church to change the Mass in the first place is now more than allowed to rethink those changes, and take whatever actions it deems appropriate. If the Church were to forbid the Novus Ordo Mass altogether at some point in the future there would be nothing in that decision to shake the faith of the most fervent admirer of Marty Haugen music and felt-banner architecture; anyone who would allow his faith to be shaken by a broader permission for the TLM might want to spend some time in prayerful contemplation about the depth of his faith.

A similar situation took place in the year 1456. The issue wasn't liturgy; the issue was whether or not representatives of the Church had acted rightly or wrongly in convicting Joan of Arc of treason, and sentencing her to death. An exhaustive retrial was held; major places where Joan had lived or gone into battle were visited, and as many eyewitnesses to her life and deeds as could be found were carefully interviewed about her actions, her mode of life, and her visions. All of this took place twenty-five years after her death, at the request of her mother and other family members.

I imagine that some among her family and friends were somewhat bitter. Twenty-five years! What a long time to wait, and for what? If only the Church had scrutinized things a little more closely at the second trial, instead of allowing angry partisans to undo the results of the first trial of 1429, the one where a panel of clergymen had found that Joan was a good Christian and pure in motive. But now, after twenty-five long years, the Church was going to re-examine all the evidence against Joan, long since executed, dying in ignominy? Even when they began to suspect that the trial was going to be a triumph for them I wonder if they weren't still a little angry, and very sad.

On the other hand were the private thoughts of some, perhaps, who had decided against Joan, or who had approved of the decision against her. How agonizing all of this must have seemed! If they had been wrong, then they had put an innocent woman to death, caught up in the madness of war and the exaltation of their own personal feelings about the Maid. Some of them may even have been tempted to think that they hadn't been, couldn't have been wrong; and if the Church declared them wrong now, well then, it must be the Church that is wrong, this time.

But on behalf of the Church, the inquisitor of the Faith, Jean Brehal, carefully examined all of the evidence, and he couldn't help but see Joan's holiness shining through all of the testimony.

The Church is like that; she may be wrong, occasionally, on prudential matters, but if some imprudent decision is brought to her attention she tends to move slowly, carefully, exhaustively in the direction of what is good and true, drawn to what is of God as surely as a moth is drawn to a flame. The decision to reform the liturgy was not, I believe, wrong, but the sudden and complete suppression of the older Mass may very well have been a misguided choice; and the patience with those who played with the New Mass as if it were a garish toy seems foolish to us now, just as the people of 1456 could see with twenty-five years' hindsight just how wrong the decision to condemn and execute Joan of Arc had been.

And so there will be great and understandable joy among those who truly love the TLM on the day the motu proprio is issued; their patience rewarded, their faith affirmed. Even those of us for whom this isn't an earthshaking event will find cause to rejoice; anything which furthers and enriches the Kingdom of God on earth is worth celebrating.

I'm sure that the vast majority of the people of Joan's day felt the same way, when the nullification trial reached its momentous verdict: that Joan was not a heretic, that she was innocent of all the charges, that no taint of infamy should remain attached to her at all.

I'm sure they rejoiced when that verdict was announced on that day in 1456:

July 7.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ubi Caritas Est?

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.


"Where charity and love are, there God is.
Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one:
Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware.
Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way.
And in the midst of us be Christ our God."

I was going to write a lengthy post about this beautiful verse from the Latin hymn. I was going to talk about how central charity is to our faith; how St. Paul called it the best of the three things that endure, how true it is that without charity any good we try to do would be in vain.

I was going to talk about how important it is to remember that, how we must seek charity at every turn, how we ought to be careful to be charitable even when we find ourselves in a position where we must offer correction, how we can tell when we actually should offer this correction, and when we might be tempted to think that we should 'meddle' for all the wrong reasons. (At this point I was going to talk about such a duty always being a painful one for the charitable soul; any time we find ourselves enjoying, in a malicious way, the "obligation" to tell someone that we think they should correct something they're doing, we'd better examine the necessity of doing so in the first place.)

I was going to say a word or two about how the duty to get along with each other doesn't mean that we have to be namby-pamby-nicey-wiceys, but that true charity permits strong, even vigorous dissension with each other on all the non-essentials. But we should be united in the essentials, and vigorous dissension doesn't give us the license to judge, look down on, despise, or hold contempt for each other.

I was going to say all of that, with lots of examples and, if I were lucky, a clever turn of phrase (or maybe even two).

But I'm not.

Because tonight my husband put together four new bookshelves for me, a task he doesn't much like and would probably never do on his own, a task that causes him stress and bother, a task that probably rates near the bottom of his list of things he wants to spend an evening doing.

And because he got started rather late, he just finished a few minutes ago. It's 1:30 a.m. as I write this, and he has to get up for work in the morning.

And he did it because he loves me. That's charity for you, charity in action, which speaks so much louder and stronger and clearer than all my silly words.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

How Public, Like a Frog

One of Emily Dickenson's most famous poems reads as follows:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Clearly, as any self-respecting advertising executive might say today, poor dear Emily didn't understand the concept of branding.

We live in a consumer paradise, here in America. We can buy almost anything we want, whenever we want it (thanks to "Twelve Months Same As Cash!" and similar easy credit plans). We don't merely shop for the things we need; we've moved far beyond that.

Many people, including Rod Dreher, whose book I discussed in the post immediately below this one, have begun to find this pace and focus on shopping and spending to be disconcerting, an example of our national lack of self control and our rejection, by and large, of the virtues of thrift and caution which characterized our ancestors. I tend to agree with this assessment, and think that in many ways our habits of consumerism are a dangerous symptom of the larger disease of hedonism which plagues our society.

However, in tackling this problem I think we sometimes fall into a new one, as I discussed here; we can change our material focus from quantity to quality transforming but not overcoming our impulse toward materialism; this is especially dangerous when it gets packaged as a virtue, in my opinion.

Thinking about all of this made me reflect on why this is so. Why do we veer from mindless shopping to mindful and focused shopping without ever bypassing 'shopping' on the way? Why do we seek to define ourselves by the things we buy and where we shop, whether it's the biggest of the big boxes or the smallest of the trendy crunchiques?

Some of this, I think, has to do with the culture of advertising which we find ourselves inhabiting in the twenty-first century.

In every medium, at every turn, advertisers are pushing us to shop, buy, spend. They don't really care if we see ourselves as "sensible" shoppers or "practical" shoppers or "discriminating" shoppers or "careful" shoppers or "crunchy" shoppers--as long as we see ourselves as "shoppers."

The single college class I took which dealt with writing advertising copy talked about some basic advertising concepts, and how the ad would use these concepts to sell you goods you might not need. One of the most basic of all is the problem...solution ad format. You've seen dozens of these ads on television, in print, everywhere; ads which show a 'problem' and then propose the product as the 'solution.' Can't get those stubborn stains out? Try "Obliterate!" Or a more subtle version might show the man who just can't get a date, until he switches to "Scintilla" toothpaste.

But deep below the surface of this kind of conscious advertising is something else entirely; I think it's possible to look at our national "stuff" fixation in a new way.

I think that there's a new kind of "Problem" out there in the world of ads: "Problem: Nobody Knows Who You Are."

And the "Solution," or at least part of it, is "Stuff."

Buy this brand of car or bicycle or cell phone, to show you're "This" type of person. Buy that brand of golf clubs or computer or living room furniture to show you're "That" type of person. Define yourself as completely as possible by the things you choose to buy and own and watch and subscribe to and pay for.

The underlying context of this national spirit is that we moderns don't have time to get to know people. We don't have time to form friendships or enter relationships or reach out to family. We form instant connections with people who are Just Like Us (or at least who own the things we do), and an Us and Them mentality characterizes everything we are and do.

Politics. Religion. Clubs. Hobbies. Sports. Recreation. Television.

Us. And Them.

I think that's probably why Crunchy Cons seemed so radical to some people when it was first published. What? You can be a right-winger and buy organic produce? You can hate both abortion and environmental pollution? You can have your small-farm beef steak, and eat it too? Impossible.

Unfortunately, in the consumer paradise we live in, the idea was radical for about 29 minutes, or however long it took for someone to come up with this sort of thing.

I'm not sure I have more than observations here; it's hard to think of a solution to such an all-pervasive problem, especially when self-sufficiency isn't really possible for most Americans today.

Then again, maybe thinking of this situation in terms of Problem--Solution is what got us into this whole mess in the first place.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rod Dreher's "Crunchy Cons"; A Review

Readers may remember that quite some time ago I mentioned that I was reading Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons, and that I planned to write a review on the book when I had finished reading it.

One thing I've learned is not to make such an announcement so prematurely. My long silence on the subject may have caused some people to think that the book is a difficult read, or that I didn't have anything to say about it. Nothing could be further from the truth; when a homeschooling mom decides to do something like this, though, especially when it involves reading a nonfiction work and taking extensive notes while doing so, she should avoid talking about it until she's finished, or nearly finished. Our lives are states of constant interruption, aren't they?

Now for the review.

Upton Sinclair, Jr., was the author of The Jungle, a novel that was intended to show the injustices of capitalism and move the public toward socialism, which Sinclair thought would be the only way to combat the evils inherent in a capitalist economy. His book utterly failed to do this, but his horrific descriptions of the meat packing industry eventually led to the formation of what is now the FDA. Sinclair is famously quoted as having said of this experience, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

The chief concern I have with Crunchy Cons is that, like Sinclair, Rod Dreher is aiming for the public's heart, but Dreher's book may also score an accidental hit, not on the public's stomach, but on its taste in footwear and its penchant for organic produce.

Part of this is due to Dreher's writing style, which manages at one and the same time to be endearingly discursive yet conversationally disorganized; this isn't a fault, really, since it makes the book easy and pleasant to read, but it does make it hard sometimes to isolate the kernel of some of his ideas. For example, there are at least five different places in the book where Dreher begins to give the definitive description/manifesto of what it means to be a crunchy conservative, yet the one place where in my opinion he most brilliantly succeeds in doing this is not identified by him as a definition at all: "Every one of us can refuse, at some level, to participate in the system that makes us materially rich but impoverishes us spiritually, morally, and aesthetically. We cannot change society, at least not overnight, but we can change ourselves and our families." (p. 23)*

Had Dreher begun the book with that (to me) ringing definition of what it means to be both crunchy and conservative, the structure of the book would, I believe, have flowed much more naturally than it does. As it is, though, Dreher's way of writing about these things frequently, and most unfortunately, tends toward giving the impression that he and a handful of other people have figured things out, and that they alone truly know the "right" way to live. To be fair, I really, really don't believe he means to create this impression; but it is easy to see why some of his harshest critics have faulted him for the perceived inconsistencies between his ideas as stated in this book, and his publicly admitted fondness for such things as Sonic burgers, diet soft drinks, and his ipod (which was a gift to him).

Following the first, somewhat nebulous chapter, Dreher launches into a discussion of six different areas where people can chose to live apart from the mainstream in some way: consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion. The scope of this review doesn't allow me to discuss each of these areas in the detail I'd like, but I'm at least going to touch on them.

The "Consumerism" chapter was a little disappointing to me, only because I think this whole topic is vitally important, and was hoping for some concrete suggestions regarding ways to bypass the prevailing consumer culture. In some ways, this section reads more like an extended feature article about E.F. Schumacher and his ideas than a discussion of the practical ways that crunchy-inclined people can limit their contact with the shop-o-rama circus of modern American society. There were two particular questions I wished Dreher might have answered: What about people who simply cannot afford to bypass the big box stores? And how do we ensure that we're really rejecting the "paper or plastic" of modern consumerism, or merely replacing it with a reusable organic cotton canvas tote bag so that "it feels better" when we shop? Those readers familiar with my concern that it's just as materialistic to shop with a focus on "quality" as it is to shop with a focus on "quantity" will especially understand why I want Dreher to answer this question.

The chapter on "Food" had some points I really agreed with, and some I found easy to disagree with. Readers of this blog know that my family hasn't eaten beef for years owing to our concerns about the safety of our country's beef supply, so Dreher's discussion of the issues surrounding factory farming, food safety, health, and related issues resonated with me; in fact, I think we need to have a national conversation about these issues, and come up with realistic ways to regulate factory farms without punishing the small family farmer. Most of our legislation does the opposite, benefiting factory farms while pushing the family farmer to the brink of nonexistence, and that has to change for the safety of our food and the security of our nation.

But in other areas of this chapter, I found myself having concerns again. For one thing, the people who shop at chain grocery stores or big box stores rarely do so in the context of having dozens of other feasible options; and despite Dreher's sanguinity, not all of us have farmer's markets close enough to where we live to justify the gas money and pollution it would take for us to get to them. It's easy to forget that when you live in a city that has a weekly farmer's market, but in plenty of places in America fresh-grown produce isn't all that available.

A bigger concern for me is that Dreher sometimes seems to confuse substance with accidents: it isn't the organic ingredients or the fine wine that makes hospitality; it's the desire to share your home and food with friends and family. Food isn't sacramental; the meal is.

This concern continued into the next chapter, "Home," where Dreher once again seems to focus on the type of home, or age of home, instead of on the family itself within it. It is the fellowship of the family, not the Craftsman creds of the cottage, that make the home. Otherwise, even the crunchiest dwelling can be an empty, soul-killing domicile, just like the largest McMansion can be.

This doesn't mean that I like McMansions, of course. But as a case in point, my family lives in a modern suburban house because my husband's military service qualifies us for the VA home loan program, which means that we can buy a house without a down payment (and no PMI). There's just one catch: the VA inspectors have to approve the home, and they're not too keen about approving hundred-year-old bungalows in need of repair. Does this mean that our house can't be a home? Not at all; it's more important that we buy what we can afford on one income so I can stay home with, and teach, the children than it would be for us to work day and night to be able to afford a house like the Dreher's house, which judging by the book's hints cost considerably more than our house did--and then required work! The point is that different families may have to make different choices here; even apartment dwellers can try to create a home for themselves, if that is the only financially available dwelling for them. Again, I really do think Dreher realizes this; I admit to believing that he's often unaware how forceful his writing really is.

I tended to agree with much of the "Education" chapter, though unfortunately I think that the Drehers may, at this point, have mainly encountered the view of homeschooling which sees it as designed to produce super overachiever kids as its natural result. I'll be quite happy if my girls can read, write, spell, and do basic calculation, thank you very much; if I thought homeschooling was about filling our schedules with enrichment activities beginning with learning Arabic and ending with Zydeco lessons, I'd probably quit. To be fair, Dreher has talked about his son's learning disabilities that made the Drehers decide not to homeschool him after all; I know there are lots of moms out there homeschooling special needs children, and I applaud them all for the strength of their commitment, but I'd never say that someone has to choose to go that route; family circumstances can vary quite a lot, after all. The chapter contains a long digression in which Dreher recounts a conversation with his wife about being a stay-at-home mom; though not unpleasant, it doesn't seem to belong here, and probably should have been further edited for length and adherence to the chapter's theme. Another option would be for a chapter specifically focusing on traditional families, because I think a lot of people would agree that you have to be at least a little crunchy to choose to live in a traditional family that involves one stay-at-home parent; here, Mrs. Dreher's observations would be invaluable, and a chapter hashing out what it means to try to adopt a consciously traditional lifestyle would probably prove interesting.

Chapter six is the "Environmental" chapter, and my only concern here is that Dreher doesn't point out why it's so hard for conservatives to get involved in environmental causes, which is that it's pretty hard to find common ground with people who believe that having children is a form of pollution. That said, his reminders of the notions of stewardship and conservation are timely ones, and if we do manage to find common ground with the left on these issues it will be by taking this sort of approach. I did think, though, that what Dreher was trying to articulate here was the notion that utilitarian capitalism can't be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, only the efficient, cheapest, or most profit-producing thing. It can be important for those of us on the right to remember that capitalism is ordered towards its own ends, and those ends aren't necessarily conservative.

The most difficult chapter for me to read was the chapter on "Religion." Dreher was still nominally Catholic at the time he was writing this, but his anger over the Scandal and his growing discontent with his local church was pulling him away, and that fragmentation is all too visible here, in such out-of-line quotes as, "If the only contact a typical American Catholic has with Catholic teaching and thought is what he hears at mass (sic), he will remain a self-satisfied ignoramus." (p. 183)* Setting aside the lack of charity in such a statement, one can clearly see that Dreher is no longer in a position to be completely objective about Catholicism, a point driven home by the fact that in the mini-featurettes about individual believers only the Catholic is negative and depressed about life in his church; this is thrown into sharp contrast by the story of the Orthodox believer, who is quite happy but is also a convert of only five years' standing. I'd have found it more balanced if Dreher had managed to find someone who's been Orthodox a bit longer to talk to, who has moved beyond the "rose-colored glasses" state of conversion. And there is this odd quote: "Yet their (Orthodoxy's) numbers are fast increasing through the conversion of other Christians, especially evangelicals, who want the historical well as the lavish liturgy and intense sacramentality, without buying into Roman Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology." (pp. 204-205, emphasis mine)* I think that phrase may betray a bit of a consumer approach to religion. To be fair, I don't think you can separate this chapter from the very real pain Dreher was in at the time, as he stood at the crossroads of a decision to leave Catholicism; but it was difficult, as a Catholic, to see so much bitterness between the lines.

Of course, reading about Dreher's own initial conversion to Catholicism was somewhat helpful to me; it would appear that he may in some senses have a more emotional approach to religion than even he may realize, and he further seems, sometimes, to write in such a way that it appears that to him purpose of religion is often to restrain people from their bad impulses and make them behave. Perhaps his current Orthodox parish, with its focus on individual holiness and the life of prayer, will be truly beneficial to him.

The final chapter in the book is titled "Waiting for Benedict" and outlines the ideas Dreher is working on for his next book, a book about actually withdrawing from the mainstream and prevailing culture to form intentional communities. To me, there is a vast difference between forming intentional communities, and forming the intention to live and behave as though you're already part of a community; but I'll admit my few experience with community-esque Catholic "apostolates" may cause me to take a rather negative view.

In summary, I think that Crunchy Cons was an interesting read, but I'm not sure that it accomplished what its author set out to achieve. More people on the right may buy and wear Birkenstocks as a result of this book, or be less afraid to venture into the world of organic food, but if too many of them act as though the underlying notion behind the book is that Crunchy Conservatism is really just Crunchy Consumerism, a niche market to be exploited by cynical companies who are only too willing to pander to the American habit of defining ourselves by what we buy, then in the end its principled and caring author may be groaning over its misfire with all the rueful passion of Upton Sinclair Jr.

* all quotes from Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots
c. 2006 by Rod Dreher, Three Rivers Press, first paperback edition.

Friday, June 22, 2007

You Can't Take It With You

I'm not sure what it is, but there seems to be a blogging mommy zeitgeist out there right now that's zeroed in on the problem of clutter, the constant war against Too Much Stuff, the need to find areas of simplification, the ever-present problem of the child who has outgrown two drawers full of slacks before you've finished giving away the last sack of clothing he recently outgrew, and related issues.

I've enjoyed reading them, seeing helpful hints, being motivated by a successful decluttering or two, and sharing in the angst and humor that seems to accompany the process of pruning, paring, and purging. It has been especially nice since I'm in 'clean-out' mode myself; there's nothing like seeing what a clever mom has done to solve a persistent area of clutter magnetism to encourage me or give me direction.

All of these things seem to me to be a normal and expected result of living the life of a lay married Catholic mother with children. Children grow, their clothing and shoe sizes change, their interests develop, their creativity demands appropriate stimulation, their reading explodes from the simple picture books to complex novels in such a short time that it's almost dizzying; in short, children are surrounded by things they're swiftly moving past or beyond throughout the tiny window of freedom and joy we call childhood.

Dealing with the aftermath of a growth spurt or a dramatic shift in the materials required by a budding painter to those required by a budding crochet wizard (thanks, Auntie!) seems to me to be one of the ordinary, sometimes vexatious, but ultimately rewarding aspects of a mother's life.

There's something sweet about boxing up those tiny shoes to pass them along to a neighbor or stranger in need. There's something exciting about seeing a child move from Play-Doh to real modeling clay. There's something wonderful about collecting children's classic literature when your four-year-old still likes pop-up books. There's something satisfying in figuring out, on your own, the ultimate storage solution for your child's favorite building blocks or her button collection. And here in the land of hundred-degree summers, there's something magical about seeing the reappearance of soccer balls and baseball equipment when late autumn finally brings a hint of energizing frost in the welcome swirls of cool wind.

We don't want our children to be rampant materialists. But we do want them to be children.

Which is why I must confess to a feeling of dismay upon reading a few blogs where the resident mom has taken the notion of decluttering, of having a clean and tidy home, to a level that some extol as being simple and uncomplicated, but which strikes this admittedly outside observer as being austere and cold. There seems to be a focus on having only a few things, but on making sure that the things are of good quality, which nearly always means expensive. There seems to be a sense that this is virtuous, to skip, for example, birthday or Christmas gifts altogether in favor of some more meaningful party, assuming that what is meaningful to the adult is also meaningful to the child. There seems to be an underlying assumption that being materialistic always means having too many things, but that it never means having too many conditions set up around the things you have, restrictions and rules based on the number, material, quality, utility, or perceived longevity of each and every object you purchase for your child or your home. This is not true; the harried mother who quickly grabs a few pairs of pajamas at a discount store for her growing children is being far less materialistic than the mother who is exclusive about where she shops, what material the pajamas have to be, how long she expects the pajamas to last, and whether or not the pajamas satisfy some inner aesthetic rule known only to her.

Lest the above seem too harsh, I'd like to be clear. I don't mind if someone decides that this kind of austerity works for her and for her family. I do mind if it is in any way set up as some kind of overwhelming act of virtuous anti-materialism that it behooves other Christian mothers to copy and follow. It may be many things, but it does not avoid being materialistic; it simply changes the focus from quantity to quality.

Because, you see, anyone who is not living as a priest or religious, who has not taken a vow of poverty, is going to be concerned in some way with material things. When Our Lord told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part, He wasn't telling Martha to quit cooking His dinner. Some of us live vocations that require us to meet the needs of other people besides ourselves, and we will intersect with the material world whether we want to or not. We will have to make choices about the things we allow into our lives and our homes, but if we want to avoid being materialistic we have to learn to avoid thinking and acting as though things are important to us. The person who shops constantly and the person whose children aren't allowed to read books that didn't come from the library are both making the same error: they are both letting material goods become the king of their lives.

In the end, the discount store pajamas and the nice quality, 'better' version will both be dust. The silly plastic beads in the dress-up box will fall into the same decay as the expensive, handcrafted wooden blocks residing on the artisan toy shelf. Our simple but costly hand-fired earthenware dishes will meet the same fate as Great-Aunt Betsy's pre-war Woolworth 'fine' china; the library of leather-bound classics will moulder just as badly as endless paperback copies of "Little House" books.

We can see this clearly, if we open our eyes to it.

What bits and pieces remain of ancient Greece or Rome? How much of ancient Crete survives? What is left of Ur of the Chaldeans? Alas, Babylon; you, too, are dust. The fragments of once great cities hide a favorite vase or pot, left in shivered fragments in the mud; from the tomb of the Pharaohs a gold mask is lifted, and placed in a museum for our edification, its wearer long past the point where he could complain that the colors didn't please him or that he had too many gold masks already.

Jesus put it this way, speaking to His apostles: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." (Matt 6: 19-21)

My greatest earthly treasure is my family. I don't mind if I have to help my children clean out the things they've outgrown; I don't mind buying more paint or yarn or buttons here and there, if these things are helping them to learn and to grow into the adults that God wants them to be. He will someday call them to a vocation, and it's true that if I've let them become selfishly materialistic and this impedes a call, say, to a convent, then I'm failing them; but I would also be failing them if I raised them in an enforced ascetic and austere lifestyle that caused them to overcompensate as adults by buying for themselves the childish things they always dreamed of having when they were children, and never received.

St. Paul tells us that he put aside childish things when he became an adult, and I'm already seeing this at work in my family, though my children aren't all that grown-up yet. Toys they squealed with delight over at age five or six no longer entrance them; birthday wishes are more likely to include a piece of clothing, a book and some art supplies than anything that can strictly be called a toy. The years of the over cluttered toy box will soon be behind me, at least for now, and in some odd way I'll probably miss them. The next years will fly by so fast, too, as the girls go from pink lipgloss and pretend games to real lipstick and real life. Time is relentless, and nothing we have on earth will last.

In the end, letting ourselves be too focused on things seems like the most childish thing of all.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Think I Know Enough of Hate

Over at Danielle Bean's, there's been a discussion about the word "hate" and whether or not that word has any place in a Catholic/Christian home.

I've posted a couple of comments, which I'll briefly summarize here: essentially, there's nothing wrong with the word "hate" in itself; we should, and do, hate evil; I'm not a big fan of the idea of banning ordinary English words from the vocabulary of our homes in an attempt to regulate our children's emotions or behavior.

I don't mind that we, as Catholic parents, want our children to practice temperance of speech. I don't think letting our children swear, or use blatant vulgarities, or cultivate slang is particularly good for them spiritually, emotionally, or linguistically. I applaud parents who try to root out negative attitudes and contempt, and replace these with a "can-do" spirit and an appreciation of others which shows that we see them as reflections of God and brothers in Christ.

But I don't think that creating a sense in their hearts that the word "hate" is evil and forbidden is a good thing. I don't think that having them flinch anytime they hear someone else use this word is a healthy thing. I don't think having them judge the playmate who says, "Gosh, I hate it when I scrape my knee like that," is a spiritually positive thing. I don't think allowing themselves to become prideful of the fact that they know better is a wise thing.

Certainly, we don't want our children to hate others; but the kind of hate that is sinful and dangerous isn't a mere emotion, or the mild form of dislike expressed by one common definition of the word. The kind of hate that destroys is, like love, an act of the will. And we won't change our children's wills by changing their vocabulary. All we will do is make them hide such decisions from us, or become childish experts in the art of rationalization.

If we want them not to hate, we have to model love, tolerance, peace, patience, forgiveness, long-suffering, and true charity. It does them no good for us to wag an admonishing finger every time we hear the H-word, but then spend hours tearing down others in their hearing, detailing the faults of family and friends in a faux-Christian way: "She'd be so much healthier if she'd just lose some of that weight...he'd be much easier to get along with if he didn't spend all his time talking about sports...she's a nice enough person, but her children are so badly behaved...he might be very friendly, but I certainly don't approve of those television shows he talks about..."

We can't tell them not to say "hate," and then cut people out of our lives for failing to conform to our every standard, look down on those who don't do everything that we do, judge our brothers and sisters for being less Catholic than we are, insist on the non-essentials and grow angry when our preferences don't prevail, and bludgeon our neighbor with the beam in our eye as we painstakingly point out the speck of dust in their inoffensive irises.

Hate is so much more than a mere feeling of dislike or momentary annoyance. The word is remarkably powerless, in the absence of the actions.

When Righteous Anger Goes Wrong

A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things. G.K. Chesterton

I've written before about the motu proprio, but for readers who've recently joined me I'd like to summarize my post on it:

1. I think it will be a good thing for the Church.
2. I like the Novus Ordo Mass.

Lots of bloggers of much higher stature than I am have written much, much more, talking in a learned and scholarly way about when they think it will be released, what will be said, what it will mean, and what it will all boil down to. I've enjoyed reading what they've had to say; much of it has informed me about aspects of our recent liturgical past that I was unaware of.

And Bishop Trautman's "John and Mary" article that I blogged about earlier this week helped to put something in context for me: the appearance of an arrogant sweeping away of all that went before us that was very present to those who actually endured, and remember enduring, the post-Conciliar changes. It is not surprising in the face of that kind of condescension to find that so many people, frustrated for so long by a spirit of experimentation and novelty that is anything but holy, long for a return to the ways of the past, to the Tridentine Mass, to a type of worship that, to them, will foster a rich rebirth of worship and holiness throughout the Catholic world.

But as deeply as I sympathize, I'm beginning to be a bit concerned.

When we study the history of America we can't help (unless we're in a public school that strictly forbids any discussion of it) noticing the role played by the Puritans. In point of fact, this role ended up being good for America; the Puritans were so convinced of the rightness of their own views (they never called themselves Puritans, preferring the simple humble term "the godly") that they ended up throwing out those who didn't disagree; many of the more illustrious of those people then went and founded their own colonies, or at least settled in large numbers in colonies that weren't under Puritan control.

The Chesterton quote above points out the danger of harboring, and using, righteous indignation as a weapon. Righteous anger may indeed be justified, and often is. God doesn't expect us to accept blithely the misuse of the liturgy or the outright abuse of it; He Who threw the moneylenders out of the Temple not only understands, but approves, the flame of indignation that may rise unbidden in our hearts if we are so unfortunate as to hear a priest, for example, refer to God as "She."

But Satan weaves around even our best motives a web of intrigue and deceit. We may begin by hating the abuse of the liturgy, and progress to hating the abusers of it. We may sincerely despise the "Gather" hymnal, and from that point start to despise the choir who sings from it. We may abhor the casual clothing some people chose to wear to Mass, and end by abhorring the people wearing it.

Nowhere has this been more evident in the recent past than the casualties of the anger, truly righteous indeed, fostered by the Scandal and the apparently weak and inadequate response to it. No just person, hearing or reading tales of the horrific abuse of innocent children, could fail to be moved to tears for the children and to anger at those who betrayed and defiled them; nor could that anger fail to be exacerbated by the further knowledge that many in the Church's hierarchy seemed more interested in protecting themselves than in putting a stop to the problem, and showed little sympathy to the victims and their families while secretly moving the abusers from parish to parish, school to school, religious institution to religious institution.

But as justified, as necessary, and even as holy in some cases as that anger was, it was also dangerous.

Like a malevolent spider, Satan spins around the core of what is good, our righteous indignation, picking it apart with his malice and redirecting the strands of it to his evil purposes. Some who began by hating the Scandal ended by losing their faith, and leaving the Church: victims, those who worked with them, those who supported them in word and deed.

And the same thing has happened since the earliest days of the Novus Ordo Mass: some who began by raising what seemed to be mild objections to some of the changes ended by deciding that the "real" Catholic Church existed elsewhere, or that it was up to them to go off and start it, even going so far as to elect their own popes.

The motu proprio will, no doubt, be a very wonderful thing, but I'm afraid that like most wonderful things, it has grown impossibly wonderful in anticipation. There will, most probably, be some element or provision in it which will disappoint. Even if it exceeds the wildest dreams of those who long for it, there is the danger that the automatic rebirth of traditional Catholicism many of them all but expect will not take place. And there are many peripheral issues that some will continue to insist must be settled, right now, or they'll never trust those modernists in Rome again: issues like veils and vestments and Communion rails and extraordinary ministers and female altar servers etc., most, if not all, of which the motu proprio will not mention at all.

Righteous anger is only good when it serves God's purposes. It can quickly become unrighteous wrath directed against God, His Church, and His servants. Whether you long for the motu proprio with all your heart or are only mildly interested in it, it's important to remember how horrifyingly destructive anger can become, when instead of being godly it becomes corrosive, poisonous, and a grave danger to the soul.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Power of Beautiful Words

I think that the hardest thing to write believably is romantic dialog.

Sure, it might be hard to write accurate scientific dialog, too, but it can be done; or you can settle for scientific dialog that sounds accurate and will annoy terribly the approximately 0.037% of your readers who happen to be actual scientists.

And the same thing might be true if you're putting words in the mouth of a fictional doctor, lawyer, political activist, police officer, and so on--writing their conversations believably means listening to groups of them talk, and doing other research into their fields of expertise.

But none of this is even remotely like the problem of writing a scene of romance, because all such scenes have this instinctive tendency to fall terribly flat. The writer of fiction has the worst time of it, because at least the screenwriter can count on several important things happening when his characters say the actual words of love to each other: a swell of heartrending music, a clever camera angle, a close-up on the actors' intent faces, and, usually, the resolution of a major plot point at that moment; all of these tend to drown out the commonplace nature of the actual words used.

Because the words are, "I love you." And they're so common as to be unremarkable.

And if they're expressed just like that, bald and naked on the printed page, they're nearly always going to seem trite and contrived and even a little ridiculous.

So it's no wonder that love has always been expressed in exalted language. The sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the sonnets of Shakespeare, the poems of Byron and the verses of Keats, the lyrics of love-song writers of every generation, have fought to capture in some exquisite turn of phrase just what love is, just how deep the feeling and how constant the reality and how glad the joy of it is. And sometimes the best of them have almost succeeded.

At some point in what I hope will be the very near future the ICEL will approve a new translation of the Mass in English. There's been a lot of discussion of the proposed new translation in the Catholic blogosphere, particularly in light of this article by Bishop Donald Trautman. Bishop Trautman doesn't like the proposed new translation, and in this article he worries quite a lot about poor John and Mary Catholic, who will be hopelessly confused and even--dare I say it?--marginalized by such words as: ineffably, inviolate, suffused, unvanquished, consubstantial, incarnate, dew, sullied, unfeigned, gibbet, wrought, and thwart (all but two of which were recognized by a computer, which is a lot less intelligent than John and Mary Catholic). The bishop even issues a "Call to Action," if you'll forgive the phrase, in the hopes that Catholics who think like he does will storm the Vatican demanding an end to polysyllabism and the kind of words that are fraught with religious and biblical significance. (Is it still okay to use "fraught?" Or would John and Mary Catholic only understand "loaded?" Hmm. Can I say that my baked potato was fraught with bacon and cheddar cheese?)

I'm not trying to attack Bishop Trautman here, but I think, with all due respect, that he may be missing the point of attempting to rewrite the Mass in English in the first place.

The words of sacred ritual should be, well, sacred. They point to higher realities, to things sanctified and set apart, and ultimately, to the worship of God.

Chalice, not cup. Paten, not plate. Incense, not holy smoke.

Our words should lift us up, from the moment the Holy Sacrifice begins until we chant the final Amen. They should be, whenever possible, words that signify the great mystery we've entered into, the truly transcendent aspect of what we have gathered to do, and to become, and to be.

Because in the final analysis, the Mass is the ultimate romantic dialog, the words of love spoken by God to His beloved creatures, whom He was willing to, and did, suffer and die for. And words of love are spoken in reply by those gathered in humble worship, who know how far they fall short, and how inadequate are all their best and grandest words, to respond to that ineffable and incarnate Love, Who unvanquished by the death He endured for our sins, wrought upon the gibbet our eternal salvation, His Sacred Heart suffused with love for us as He, unsullied, thwarted the power of death once and for all.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Is Homeschooling Selfish?

Rod Dreher today links to this article by Sally Thomas in First Things. It's well worth a read, as it provides a good answer to that perennial question homeschoolers must field, "But don't you think it's selfish to keep your kids out of the public schools?"

I have to admit, that attitude has always bothered me. Do people get criticized or questioned for keeping their kids out of public health clinics, choosing instead to take little Bob and Jenny to a private doctor? Not at all; it's expected that public health clinics are a necessary safety net for those who don't have other options. Why don't we view education the same way?

Of course, part of the reason has to do with the tie between Protestantism and American public schools. It was taken for granted for many, many decades in this country that 'public' schools were going to provide a nonsectarian American Christian education, and that 'religious' schools were suspiciously unpatriotic and probably Papist or Jewish. In fact, in 1922 the voters of Oregon passed a referendum that was designed to force all children to attend public schools and eliminate private and religious schools altogether; this led to the Supreme Court decision in Pierce vs. the Society of Sisters, in which the Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary successfully won the right to continue the religious education of Oregon children.

In recent years religion has been removed from the public schools, but the attitude that it's somehow unpatriotic, anti-communitarian, elitist or the like to choose to educate your children away from the taxpayer-funded brick boxes continues to exist. Just like previous generations' opposition to public school alternatives, this current opposition, I believe, has its roots in hostility to religion.

Unlike countries which identify strongly with one denomination of Protestantism or another, America has always been a nation of many churches and many forms of Protestant Christianity. The hegemony that America achieved was largely the result of creating institutions that stressed a common Christian basis but left the doctrinal details deliberately fuzzy; chief among these nondenominational institutions was the public school.

In the public school, Methodists and Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, Episcopalians, Adventists, and even Quakers could be united under one roof, and engage in a course of study that was acceptable to all of them. And the most important subject was history, which was written in such a way as to prejudice the children against the achievements of old Catholic Europe, and to stress the importance of the accomplishments of Protestantism and of America. The reason the Oregon voters wanted to abolish Catholic education was that they thought it impeded 'assimilation;' those Catholic immigrants were going to be too likely to cling to the customs and traditions of Europe and of Catholicism unless they could be re-educated to understand how wrong, backward, unenlightened, and anti-progressive Europe and the Catholic faith really were.

By the early 1960s the subtle Protestant Christianity of the public schools was being replaced by a new militant atheistic secularism that was, and remains, hostile to any and all public expression of religion or religious values. How that came to be is a topic well beyond the scope of a single blog entry; but it's interesting to note that the same established framework once used to indoctrinate all children into a formless Protestantism was, and is still, used to indoctrinate them instead into that militant atheistic secularism that quietly teaches our children that God doesn't exist and that religion is bunk.

It was easy to expand hostility to Catholicism and make it hostility to Christianity. It was easy to downplay the roles of historically identifiable Christian figures in the same way that Catholic figures had been downplayed. It was easy to translate the loathing for old Europe into a self-loathing for America that was named 'multiculturalism.' It was as easy to tear down the traditional family as it once had been to tear down the traditions of the old world.

But in making this sea-change, the peddlers of public education tipped their hand. They showed once and for all how little grounded is an education that is not grounded in faith and virtue. They showed that whatever the prevailing cultural fad or fancy is, it can be incorporated into the curriculum and taught as gravely and sternly as if it were unchanging eternal truth. They showed once and for all that they, the powers-that-be behind public schooling, are merely the whores of the Leviathan they serve, and that they are more than willing to sell themselves and the innocent children in their charge for even less than the proverbial thirty pieces of silver.

Is it selfish to keep your kids out of the public schools? No; it's just necessary.

Friday, June 15, 2007

This is All Annonymouse's Fault

Sitcom: Veil of Tears

It is morning. Mrs. Veil, in a lovely dress and with her hair and makeup neatly done, is seated at her breakfast table, smiling happily at her family: Vera, age 12; Valerie, age 10; Vivian, age 8; Victor, age 6; and Baby Benedict Ignatius Aloysius, age 2. Sunlight is streaming through white lace curtains; the table is set with lovely china, and the children are smiling and talking softly and happily as they eat.



The image of the breakfast table dissolves; we see Mrs. Veil in her bedroom, the bed covers pulled up under her chin, her hair disheveled. She raises herself up on her elbow.


Vera? Good grief...what time is it? Why am I still in bed?


Dad said to let you sleep in. He said Benny's still on his 'sleep strike.'



He sure is. I got more sleep when he was still nursing. (Sighing) Just give me a minute, o.k.?


Sure. It's just...


Just what?


Benny won't sit in his booster seat, and he won't...


I'll be right there.

Cut to the Kitchen, as Vera reenters. There are no lace curtains on the window, and the dishes on the table are mismatched; some of them are plastic.


(hands on hips)

Mom's coming.

Valerie quickly mops up spilled milk; Vivian moves to a counter opposite the table; Victor stops rocking backward in his chair. Footsteps are heard; then Mrs. Veil enters the room, dressed in a wrinkled denim jumper, her hair precarious in a partially-fastened banana clip. She wears no noticeable makeup.


Good morning. Sorry I'm late. Good grief, Valerie--how much toast did you make?


Some of it burned.


Can I make the coffee now? Vera wouldn't let me.


I thought the smell would wake you up. Besides, she makes it too strong.


Go ahead, Vivian.


Is it eight cups water and six scoops of coffee, or...


Other way around. Come on, Benny--into the booster seat.



No boosr seet!


He's been saying that since he got up! He won't say anything else. Watch (to Benny) hey, Benny, wanna go play trucks?


No boosr seet!


Fine. Stay there.


But he's in your chair.


I'll sit in Dad's chair. He won't care.

Mrs. Veil moves to a counter, and begins slicing a banana into a bright red plastic bowl. She adds some milk and sugar, and places the bowl in front of Benny; she adds a plastic-handled spoon, and reaches through the pile of toast until she finds one that's not burned. She puts this on a napkin beside the bowl and then cuts the toast into four squares.



Here you go, Benny!


(stares at bowl, then pushes it away)

No nanna!


You don't want a banana for breakfast?


No nanna!


Then what do you want?




You want me to make you eggs and toast?




Tell you what, Benny. I'll make you some eggs for breakfast if you'll get in that booster seat.


(considers for a long moment)

No boosr seet. Nanna wif toast.

He pulls the red bowl toward him and begins to pick out the banana slices with his fingers.


Oh, Benny, yuck! Use the spoon!





Just ignore him. Please.


Mom, the coffee's ready. (Worriedly) You DID say ten scoops of coffee, right?

Mrs. Veil begins pouring a cup of coffee so dark it looks like ink.


Ten scoops is perfect, dear.

As Mrs. Veil reaches for one of the many burned pieces of toast, we FADE OUT.

Adam and Eve and the Shoeshine Man

Rod Dreher is back from his visit to Istanbul, and he has an amusing story posted of his encounter with a Turkish shoeshine man. Though the story itself is light and entertaining, I found it to be food for a great deal of thought.

For one thing, Mr. Dreher is Mr. Crunchy Con, and is always extolling the virtues of the small, local, old, and particular. I don't disagree with the notion that there's much about the past that's worth preserving; but it does amuse me to reflect on the irony that this shoeshine man is probably very 'crunchy' in many ways, and quite possibly is operating the same scam on Mr. Dreher that his father used on American visitors in the sixties or seventies, and his grandfather may have used on credulous American troops passing through Istanbul on their way to the trouble spots of the East in the thirties or forties. Not all the customs and traditions of the past are worth preserving, in other words.

But there's more to this, really. We Americans have a tendency to think of poorer countries or cultures as being backward, innocent, naive, while we, with our great technological advances and our wonderful institutions, have passed beyond the old world's ways. This encounter between a Dallas Morning News writer and a man who shines shoes (scamming at least some of his 'customers,' apparently) shows quite clearly that the situation is the opposite of what we tend to think it is: it is the American, nice, friendly and naive, who picks up the shoeshine man's brush; it is the shoeshine man, cunning, sharp, and opportunistic, who works his scam, takes the American's money, and comes out with all the dubious 'honors' of the situation.

We forget, we young Americans, how old the world is, how old sin is, for how much longer than we can imagine the reality of the Fall has been affecting the world.

And we also forget, seeing daily the worst fruits of the sins of the world, the rot of the flesh, and the hatred of the devil, that the first sin was more like the actions of the shoeshine man than the murder of Abel by his violent-tempered brother.

The serpent in the Garden tempted our first parents to disobey, to gain for themselves an advantage, to become more like God. He lied, of course. But he did trick them, and they were self-interested and self-absorbed enough to fall for it.

And immediately Adam and Eve turned to thoughts of concealment, to an attempt to cover up their culpability. When God (who already knew what had happened, and what they were up to, of course) came walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, He found them hiding. I can almost imagine Adam trying to say that of course, nothing was really wrong, they'd just realized they were naked, no big deal, they were forming a task force to deal with the problem and planned to hold weekly staff meetings and issue status reports until they could come up with a solution.

Man has, since the Fall, resorted more often to trickery and concealment, to scams and excuses, to lies and deceptions, than he has to murder and mayhem. We view the bloodstained past and see the blood because it's vivid and graphic and gory; but we don't see all the petty little crimes and sins and harms done by neighbor to neighbor, partly because they don't stand out in violent and crude relief like the really big sins do; but partly because they are so familiar, so normal, so much a part of our own lives that they seem unremarkable and nearly innocuous.

They're not, though. It's easy to see that the serial killer's soul is in jeopardy, but the serial liar is teetering on the edge of ruin, too, however much we may want to excuse the behavior. The man who robs his neighbor is clearly at fault; the store owner who cheats in tiny ways may not be as visibly wrong, but he is wrong. The punk who knifes a man is obviously bad; the gossip whose knife is just as sharp, but invisible and bloodless, is bad too. Clearly there are differences in the degree of wrongness; but taking comfort that our sins are less wrong than the sins of others is a clear sign that we lack the sanctity we should be striving for; the saints felt sorrow at the slightest fault, for their measure was not the evil that other men do, but the goodness that God is, the radiant love and mercy expressed to the world with every beat of His Sacred Heart.

So the shoeshine man is not, perhaps, the worst man we will ever encounter. The person who tricks us, who exploits our willingness to be nice, or kind, or good, doesn't really harm us, unless he provokes us to anger or unless we aren't willing to forgive him. But we shouldn't take comfort from the fact that we are not the shoeshine man--we are. Our own petty sins might not involve tricking credulous strangers out of handfuls of coins, but they are just as ugly and mean, stripped of all our excuses and rationalizations. We share with the shoeshine man the heritage of the Fall, the stain of Original Sin. That first sin wasn't the murder of Abel, violent, crude, and horrible--and easy to distance ourselves from; it was a simple act of self-serving disobedience, followed by the first attempt ever to excuse one's own faults and blame the whole thing on someone else.

The Hiding Place: A Review

Blog readers may remember this post, where I talked about meeting Barbara Kreger Washburn, the author of The Hiding Place. I mentioned in that post that I would try to post a review when I'd finished reading the book; happily, the author e-mailed me the other day and reminded me that I'd said that, because with the end of the school year and several family appointments and events, my promise to post a review had slipped my mind.

I want to begin with one small disclaimer. I've never been a professional book reviewer; my background is in English Literature, and while I'm certainly capable of writing literary criticism it wouldn't be appropriate to turn the floodlights of intense literary critique on a book that is written to be enjoyed.

And The Hiding Place is meant to be enjoyed; it's the kind of book with which you may while away a pleasant summer afternoon or two, especially if you enjoy reading murder/suspense tales. I enjoyed the fact that this book was written as Christian fiction, as I once had the disappointing experience of picking up a bestselling author's newest mystery and reading less than half of it before the incessant dreariness of the repetitive and unimaginative use of four-letter words throughout the dialog, and the explicitly immoral scenes of the protagonist's life, became too much for me. When I read a book for fun I don't want to have to use a mental Sharpie marker to obliterate all the nasty words and references, and I give Barbara Washburn full credit for not compromising her Christian faith in writing a tale of intrigue and suspense.

I can't tell you too much about the plot without ruining it, as is true with any mystery story. But the action of the novel follows a few years in the life of Amanda White, who moves to the town of Eureka Springs in the Ozark Mountains in an attempt to escape the pain of an abusive, failed marriage. Will Eureka Springs become a place of peace and tranquility and new beginnings, or does a nightmare even worse than her troubled past await Amanda here?

There are a few 'glitches' in The Hiding Place, which I suspect is something that could be said with honesty about any new author's first book. But I'd like to mention something which I think is a real strength for Barbara Washburn, and it is her obvious love for Eureka Springs, and the attention to detail and vivid, lively descriptions of the place itself. She uses lots of local color to make the places in her book seem real, and pays careful attention when she is describing a place or town feature which actually exists. Many times as she followed her fictional characters down a colorful street or into an interesting local attraction, I found myself thinking that I'd like to visit Eureka Springs; despite the sometimes-sinister subject matter of the book, Barbara manages to make the setting seem charming and innocent, making Eureka Springs an interesting contrast to the turmoil in the lives of her characters, especially Amanda.

Barbara now has a blog, and she mentions that she and her husband are at work on another thriller, set on a cruise ship. I'd personally love for her to write another book set in Eureka Springs, especially if it were a murder mystery set in the town's Victorian past, which would allow her to put her love for the town and her extensive knowledge of its past to work.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Catalog of Concerns

I'd like to thank those who commented in the "At the Crossroads" thread below, suggesting that I try to find a Catholic publisher for my manuscript. Unfortunately, from the research I've done so far, it appears that there simply aren't any Catholic publishers who publish young adult fiction; in fact, other than the new company I've already heard from, there don't appear to be any Catholic publishers who accept fiction at all at the present time.

(If I'm wrong, please, please correct me. I'd love to be wrong about this.)

So I'm continuing to ponder my choices: secular publisher or Christian publisher? But while I think about it, I've got to wonder what has happened to Catholic publishing.

It's no secret that Catholic publishers are struggling; it's also no secret that they're not alone. The world of publishing is a complex one; booksellers have much more power than many people realize, and the larger the bookseller, the more power they have to dictate price, send back unsold inventory which then becomes the publisher's problem, even decide for seemingly arbitrary reasons not to carry a certain type of book at all. In this day and age of leviathan booksellers who have both physical stores and huge Internet presences, publishers, especially small, specialty publishers like those who publish Catholic books, are fighting just to stay in business.

This, naturally enough, means that they have to be careful about their resources. They may not have the money or the skills to market books by unknown authors; it's safer and more lucrative to publish the works of well-known Catholic writers, and then round out their catalogs with some new editions of old Catholic favorites by such people as Chesterton or Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

But this strategy may be beginning to backfire.

There are more and more Catholic converts, smart, faithful people who are used to buying and reading vibrant new Christian literature, fiction and non-fiction. Are we really reaching them with our dusty old displays of the latest book by a random EWTN celebrity and handsomely-bound new editions of What's Wrong With the World?

There are more and more Catholic reverts, too; smart, faithful people who have decided to separate themselves in some way or other from the poisonous prevailing culture of the present age, and who would like to encounter other Catholics like themselves, Catholics who are rediscovering their ancient roots while looking forward to a bright, positive reflowering of the faith. Are we reaching them? What do we have to offer?

To be honest, when I receive a catalog in the mail from a Catholic publisher, I tend to glance through it and then throw it away. This is largely because my husband and I have a fairly nice selection of Catholic books in our home, and many times the books being featured by the publisher are books we already own! Oh, sure, they might have a nice new cover, or a new introduction by the author written on the tenth anniversary of the book's original printing, but there's nothing new about the substance of the book. I'm not really a big enough fan of any Catholic author to shell out roughly thirty dollars for a new cover or a new introduction, and I'm not alone. But many publishers out there don't seem to understand this simple truth, and will take up a whole page of their catalogs with breathless copy that says, "New edition! New cover art! Introduction by Father EWTN Celebrity! Read what Noted Catholic Personality says about this book!" followed by a quote in which the Noted Catholic Personality says something nice about the author that somehow manages to point back to the NCP's own books.

Unfortunately, the Internet hasn't really made things much better for Catholic publishers. Ads will show up in my email inbox as well as in my physical mail box, but the ads are much the same. If I do hear about a book I want to buy, chances are I'm also going to use the Internet to find the best price rather than buying the book from the first company to send me a catalog. Again, I suspect I'm far from alone, here.

Do I know the answers? Not at all. But from what I can see it seems as though the old way of doing things just isn't working anymore for Catholic publishers and small Catholic booksellers.

Is is all about religion? That is, is this a problem because people aren't buying or reading religious books? I suspect not. There are, after all, people publishing all kinds of new books about faith and family, who seem to be doing a rather good job of marketing them and selling them. Maybe we need to learn a few things from our Christian brothers and sisters who manage to publish a not insignificant number of books that sell very well indeed.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Felt Banner Rejection Syndrome

One of the things I was thinking about on this past Sunday, the feast of Corpus Christi, is the fact that like many Catholics of my generation I suffer from Felt Banner Rejection Syndrome.

This syndrome is characterized by the unreasoning desire to reject as untrue anything which has ever appeared on a felt banner, been written across a smile-face button, or been featured prominently in a song by Marty Haugen.

"God is Love?" Yeah, right. "Peace?" Sure. "Lord, Send out Your Spirit?" Oh, please. "We are the Body of Christ?" Don't get me started.

The problem with FBRS is that sometimes the felt banners are right. True, sometimes they're only telling part of the story, which is part of the reason why we may want to reject their misleading oversimplifications. But sometimes they reveal some aspect of the truth that we don't really want to have to accept; it's easier to snarl about modernism or pray for the Restoration of God's True Holy Catholic Church which has been operating in absentia for the last forty or sixty or hundred or nine hundred years, depending on which schismatic group appeals to us the most.

But God really is Love. Peace that passes all understanding really is a Christian experience. We need the Holy Spirit, sent forth, helping us to grow in wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.

And we are the Body of Christ. The mystical Body. The Church.

This teaching, of course, does not in any way minimize or detract from the Eucharistic reality, the fact that the bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord through the Holy Sacrifice on the altar. It is, in fact, our partaking in the Body of Christ which unites us in Him.

In practical terms, this means that Christian unity isn't just a felt-banner slogan. It's a reality.

The bossy woman who scolded your children before Mass for no good reason? She's one with you. The nice man who has been involved with the local Knights of Columbus chapter so long he jokes about having come over on the Santa Maria? He's one with you. That girl with the sleeveless top? She's one with you. The lector who mumbles? He's one with you. And your job is to be one with them, and to love them as you love your own self, with the same focus, the same depth, the same level of interest.

As we kneel and pray after receiving Communion, we are one. With each other, with all the other Catholics in our city, our nation, our world. We are one with those who've gone before us, the Church Suffering, the Church Triumphant. We are one with more Knights than those of Columbus; we are one with the knights who kept vigil throughout the lonely hours, in service to both an earthly and a Heavenly Lord. We are one with women who prayed and wept over their children, who rejoice with them now in the holy Court of Heaven, beside St. Monica, beside Our Lady. We are one with our holy Queen, caught up in her joy, close to her as we draw close to her Son.

How petty our little divisions seem at that moment! How short-sighted our criticisms and complaints! How ungenerous and ungrateful our willful separation from those who kneel beside us, for no reason other than our own faulty human judgment of them!

We rise, and pray, and are blessed, and depart.

The world crowds in again, and before we know it, we are annoyed or irritated or exasperated with each other once more. Our selfish natures come again to the forefront, despite our best efforts; we seek the sacrament of Penance again, knowing how far we've fallen short of the Kingdom. Knowing, in our hearts, that "We Are the Body of Christ" isn't just a felt-banner slogan; it's a sign along the road that both points to and reveals one of the great mysteries of eternal union with God.

At the Crossroads

I've really enjoyed last week's conversations and plan to have more to say on the subjects we were discussing, but for the moment, I hope you'll indulge me as I reflect on something a bit more personal.

As regular readers of this blog know, I've written a couple of young adult science-fiction manuscripts and have just started looking into the possibility of publishing the shorter, stand-alone manuscript. A kind reader gave me a link to a small new Catholic children's book publisher, and I sent my manuscript along to them.

Today I got my first-ever rejection letter, though the letter was so amazingly kind and generous that I almost feel that calling it a rejection letter is a bit of a misnomer. The person who wrote it explained that at the present time this company is publishing fiction for the younger grades exclusively, and it will probably be a considerable time before they tackle young-adult fiction.

It was fun to 'get my feet wet,' so to speak. Anyone who writes knows how difficult it can be to talk yourself into letting anyone else read your work, let alone total strangers who have dozens of manuscripts to sort through, so I'm glad I tried this company, even though I'm going to have to keep looking for a publisher.

But that's where I feel as though the time has come to make a decision.

I've always wanted to find and work with a small publisher. I don't mind being even a rather tiny fish in a smallish pond, but I've never wanted to be an amoeba in an ocean, which is how the role of the writer who works with some enormously large publishing company strikes me. I don't want to have to go around begging some fourth or fifth rate literary agent to read my manuscript in the hopes that he or she will agree to represent my work to some huge media conglomerate during the approximately fifteen minutes a year he or she manages to speak to actual people there. (Okay, so I'm exaggerating, but not by all that much from what I understand.)

My wish would be to work with a small Catholic fiction publisher. Unfortunately, such companies are virtually non-existent, and the few that do exist primarily handle adult fiction, not children's or young adult fiction.

So now I have to decide whether to look for a small secular publisher, or a small Christian one.

Which is another way of asking the question: do I write Catholic/Christian fiction, or don't I?

As I wrote in the letter which accompanied my manuscript, I don't write overtly Catholic/Christian fiction. But I believe that writing for young people places a particular duty on the Catholic author, who must take into consideration the age of the child for whom he/she is writing, and who should not intentionally violate the child's conscience by presenting him with material he simply isn't ready to read. Raising adult issues or approaching the world from an adult standpoint often crosses the line, in my opinion; the fact that young preteens/early teens may know about drugs, violence, sex, abusive behavior etc. doesn't mean that we can fill young adult books with these topics with impunity. In my case, it simply isn't possible for me to write without approaching things from a Catholic standpoint, from a view of the world that involves hope, salvation, and the ultimate possibility of the redemptability of every character.

When it comes to science fiction, there's a bit of a gap between books about astronauts, space, and little aliens written for the earliest readers, and the darker, atheistic/agnostic/materialistic view of the world found in the novels of such writers as Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and the like. As a teenager I wasn't ready for Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, though I came to appreciate it later; I found the loose morals and deconstruction of the family too difficult to overlook in the Asimov novels I encountered (though I enjoyed the short stories); and the less said about the ugliness of Clarke's Childhood's End, the better. Things aren't much better for young science-fiction enthusiasts these days; though a plethora of "Star Wars" novels and a few series books based on TV characters are out there, there's still a tendency to see the future of humanity as naturally progressing beyond any notion of religious faith or morality and toward an "enlightened" state of post-theistic utilitarian utopianism. This is, of course, terribly problematic for the young Christian reader of science fiction.

And so the closest thing to a mission statement I've ever written is the following: my wish is to write fiction in a genre which is unfortunately known more for an agnostic/relativistic world view than a Christian one, and to provide young readers with stories of space and adventure which reinforce, rather than threaten, their religious values and beliefs.

So, my question is this: does this make me, in effect, a writer of Catholic/Christian fiction, even if my stories don't contain obvious elements of religion in them? Does my desire to present a positive view of future worlds in which man is still motivated by such things as family, friendship, love and sacrifice make me different from a writer of secular fiction?

If you were I, would you be looking for a Christian publisher?

Friday, June 8, 2007

Lower the Shield

The discussion on modesty, veiling, vanity, gratitude, and related topics continues here and elsewhere on the Internet. I'd like to extend a special welcome to those clicking in from the Catholic Answers forum on veils--please feel free to look around, get acquainted, and leave comments, even if (especially if!) you disagree. All voices are welcome here.

Some comments left in the comment boxes beneath the earlier post made me think about the problem of vanity and its related ills a bit more. The following speculation is pure fiction; any resemblance to actual people or conversations is both accidental and regrettable:

You are meeting your cousin Edwina for tea. You've always thought of Edwina as a good Catholic wife and mother, overall, but you do think she tends to be a tad critical sometimes. As you choose your outfit for the meeting, you notice that you're being a bit more careful than usual. Slacks? No; last time you met Edwina she mentioned that her spiritual journey had led her to a place where she saw slacks as being the textile equivalent of satanic clothing as far as women were concerned. She expressed her sadness that your journey was lagging a bit behind. No need to go there again.

A skirt, then. Not that one; she's seen you in it at four family gatherings, and at the last one she jokingly called it "Miranda's uniform." Not this one, either; it falls a mere four inches below the knee, and is therefore what Edwina calls a 'hussy skirt.' The two which meet or exceed Edwina's length requirements are scarlet and a sober brown, respectively. You take the brown, bracing yourself for the inevitable question about your "Franciscan" spirituality, but knowing that it will be better than Edwina's conclusions about such an 'abandoned' shade of red.

Jewelry and makeup are easy; none but your wedding set, and none but a little powder. Edwina has made it clear that she disapproves of jewelry-wearing as "frivolous" and that she thinks of makeup as something that would only be worn by the kind of woman who'd choose the red skirt. Shoes are a bit more difficult, as you usually wear sandals in this kind of weather, but unless you're prepared to play off the "Franciscan" thing to the point of having to endure discussions about how secular Dominicans are much, much better for you spiritually, you'd better not. So you choose closed-toe loafers, plain brown, and then realize that you will have to wear stockings, too, as Edwina considers the absence of them to be "uncouth."

By the time you add the stockings, you are running late. Edwina is never late. You grab your purse and go.

When you reach the little cafe that Edwina always chooses for these little outings, you see that she's already there, and that she's already ordered the tea, which means it is jasmine tea, or as Edwina says, "The only tea fit for a lady's consumption." You hate jasmine tea, but it wouldn't have mattered even if you'd been there on time.

"Miranda! I was just wondering if my watch had stopped," Edwina calls out, a thin vinegar-ish smile crossing her lips.

"I'm sorry, Edwina," you say, sliding in to the chair opposite her.

"That's a nice handbag," she adds, zeroing in at once on the one weak point in your armor. "Where did you get it?"

Time almost freezes, but not quite.

Which way do you go? Do you tell her the name of the discount store whose clearance bin you found it in, which will make her despise you as a bargain shopper? Do you tell her the designer, which will make her despise you as an extravagant spendthrift? Or do you act as if you've had it a long time and can't remember where you bought it, which will make her despise you as a liar, and a fairly unskilled one to boot?

You thought your armor was sufficient, and that your shield would deflect her poisoned barbs. But she's been engaging in these sorts of battles all her life, and she could outflank you in her sleep.

You mention quickly the name of the designer, mumble something about a sale and a gift certificate, and turn the topic of conversation elsewhere. But the damage has been done. Edwina's eyes glitter with thwarted vanity; she carefully feels you out, testing your position. That wonderful Catholic book she just read--oh, you've read it, too? Father X, her new pastor--oh, he used to teach at your high school? This wonderful new recipe for vegetable soup--your mother's recipe? Really? One wonders how Aunt Caroline ended up with it, then...

Your shield takes hit after hit. It's going to crumble, sooner or later. A chance remark about your three-year-old's struggles with toilet training does the trick. "Really?" Edwina purrs, retracting her claws as the shield of your self-esteem falls to pieces. "Three? Why, all of mine were trained by eleven months--except poor Ethelbert, of course; we were so worried that he might be slow in other ways, too, since he wasn't trained until a month after his first birthday. But the flashcards and the Mozart CDs have done the trick, we think," and she leans back in her chair as if there were an actual mouse between her paws.

For the rest of the interminably long tea-party she's like a cream-fed cat, contented to give you stinging advice on the management of your children, and the name of a really good child specialist who can help with "that toilet issue," which she whispers behind her hand, attracting a lot of attention from the two tables closest to you. Her whisper has always been more like a very audible hiss than a sotto voce.

You are very glad when it's time to go.

I enjoy science fiction, as I've mentioned before. Writers in this genre have a tendency to create technologically-advanced shields to protect spaceships, space stations, planets, cities, and the like. But one thing I've noticed about these shields is that nearly all of them can only be operated with a significant amount of power. Often there isn't sufficient power available to operate the shields and other important functions (engines, weapons, life-support) all at the same time. The shields borrow power from something else; they are draining; they are enervating; sometimes they simply cost too much.

The shields we put up to protect ourselves from other people's vanity, judgmentalism, envy and spite exact a similar toll from us. They force us to engage in a battle we have no taste or inclination for on terms we'd never willingly accept. They make us crawl inside someone else's dark and narrow reality and navigate the unfamiliar labyrinth of their hatred and anger toward the whole world. We think we can manage to protect ourselves, but the more we try to deflect their criticisms or appear to absorb their 'advice' the more we run the risk of losing all our power to avoid being injured or damaged by our contact with them. The shields fail, and we are diminished yet again.

Defensive weapons, however valuable, can only do so much, even in the fight between good and evil. If we really love the people we encounter, we will be willing to use some offensive weapons, like honesty and truth and even mirth.

A Miranda who enters the cafe on time, dressed in slacks, wearing her usual makeup, and ready to laugh aside all of Edwina's silly prejudices and to show her, gently, persistently, compassionately, how wrong it is to sit constantly in judgment on her fellow men, to rob them of their God-given worth, is a Miranda who needn't be afraid of being judged herself. Oh, Edwina may still judge her, but Miranda isn't given her the ammunition necessary to do any real damage; Miranda isn't cowering behind that power-draining shield, which will only do its job as long as Miranda is willing to let Edwina be the one with all the power.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Dark Glass

The aphorist Mason Cooley, whom I quote in my profile, had this to say about the vice of vanity: "Vanity well fed is benevolent. Vanity hungry is spiteful."

I've been reflecting a bit about vanity, due to my own posts on appropriate dress for Mass and the Ugly Babushka test, but also because of this thoughtful post from a blogger mom I admire. Any person, male or female, who believes he or she has never suffered from vanity is only proving that he/she has, indeed.

Vanity is a separate issue from modesty, but I think they are often confused. We may, for instance, call a well-dressed woman "immodest" because her well-coiffed head catches the eye, and her expensive tailored outfit outlines (but doesn't place undue emphasis on) her slender figure and defined curves; but what we are really upset about is that we think she must be vain to spend so much money on her hair and clothing. And maybe she is, but the Mason Cooley quote quite sufficiently points out that the only known vanity in such an experience is our own, which engenders such spiteful thoughts about someone else.

And though vanity is often identified with one's pride in one's physical appearance, there are many, many other things people can be vain about. One is vain about his motorcycle; another is vain about her garden. One is vain about his leather briefcase; another is vain about her jewelry. One is vain about his boat; another is vain about her living room furniture.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look nice, or with enjoying one's boat or one's jewelry properly, as gifts from God which He might require back at any moment. But vanity reflects the world in a dark glass, a poisoned mirror that makes everyone else and their possessions a threat. Like Snow White's evil stepmother, we hiss, "Art we not still fairest?" and very like that old witch, we harbor deadly anger when the answer is "No."

And we act on it, encouraging a friend to wear an outfit we know will not flatter her, questioning another on the purchase of a new car, raising our eyebrows in surprise at the furniture a relative has just bought, stealing from them the momentary and honest happiness they had in the enjoyment of these things, dulling their joy, casting a cloud of dissatisfaction over their pleasure. We stand there in the ruins of their confidence or their gladness, feeding off of their confusion or unhappiness like the vampires we become at those moments.

We do this for ourselves, so that we will be able to climb ever higher on those ruins of our friends' or family's enjoyment of the simple things in life. We must be the best, or the brightest, or the most beautiful; or we must be the most frumpy, the most humble, the most demonstratively pious. We must have the newest home or flashiest car or nicest clothes; or we must have the most humble yet artistic hut, the oldest clunker, and the dowdiest skirt in Church.

The dark glass reflects a world of horror, where our own worth is constantly measured against everyone else's: appearance, ideas, possessions, even our way of doing things must measure up to the distorted images cast outward by the mirror of vanity. If we can't be perfectly confident at every moment that we are the most superior, we twist our features into an expression of tantrum not unlike that of the toddler who demands cookies we don't actually have in the house five minutes before dinner, and who won't listen to reason on the subject. We are attractive, and everyone else is not; we are dumpy, and therefore morally superior to the attractive people; our house is the perfect retreat from the world, and everyone else's is either too expensive/too large/too showy or too decrepit/too tiny/too cluttered; we are Right, and everyone else is Wrong.

Vanity is closely related to pride, the deadliest of sins. What begins as vanity will often become full-blown pride, if we let it grow unchecked in our souls. But we can fight it, with humility and honesty and charity; we can shatter the dark mirror that distorts everyone and everything around us into a source of spite and anger and fear, and instead begin to treat them as if they were as worthy of praise and happiness and even a nice outfit or two as we ourselves are.