Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Perfection

Please note: the link I'm about to share will take you to a site on which the cover of Redbook magazine is featured. The magazine's article titles are not all child-safe, so don't click if curious little readers are in the vicinity.

The website itself is actually a gossip site, which I only found because someone else shared the link to two rather interesting photos. The subject of the photo is Faith Hill, and on the left you will see the photo in its altered state on the aforementioned magazine cover, while on the right you will see the original and unaltered photo, which clearly shows Ms. Hill's slight arm flab, somewhat bulgy hips, face wrinkles, laugh lines et al.

Okay. Here it is.

Now, if you've seen it, your first reaction might be like mine (so what? She still looks a heckuvalot better than I do, especially following two family visits involving copious quantities of cake in the last month). But then you stop and think--or at least I did. Small as the bulge of skin above the waistline of her low-cut sun dress was, somebody erased it. Toned as her arms already were, somebody shrank them significantly. Natural as the roundedness of her hip area was, somebody lengthened and minimized it. And her human, real face, which might even be the face of an interesting woman, became a parody in plastic, with a smaller nose, shorter, more rounded chin, and more widely set eyes, making her look less like herself and more like this.

We live in a culture in which young women will routinely and calculatedly starve themselves in order to look like the women on the magazine covers--and even the women on the magazine covers don't look like the magazine covers. We live in a culture where young men are tantalized with images of sculpted female perfection, not realizing that the modern-day Pygmalion sits at a computer on the staff of a fashion magazine, turning images of living women into ideals of beauty which don't exist anywhere outside the graphic artist's brain. We live in a society that all but encourages people to go under the knife to achieve these impossible standards of beauty, avoiding the inconvenient fact that even the beautiful aren't this beautiful. And we live amongst people who think it's merely humorous, and not utterly ridiculous, for a presidential candidate to spend so much time and money on his hair.

The cult of superficiality is growing. Unfortunately, its quest for physical perfection ends up bleeding into other areas of our lives, beyond mere physical beauty.

We are tempted to want perfection in everyone and everything that touches our lives. We are tempted to want the best food, the best clothing, the best home, the best car, the best school, or the best homeschool curriculum, the best Montessori products, the best teacher's materials.

We struggle with our shortcomings, seeing them as frustrating lapses from the perfection we are tempted to seek. If the mirror reveals a few pounds too many, we are depressed; but we can be equally depressed about the state of the living room carpet, or the eaves that need painting.

We bring our quest for perfection into church with us on Sunday. We expect those around us to be as sensitive to issues of dress, reverence, and right liturgy as we are, and become irritated or annoyed if they are not.

We turn our search for perfection on to our families, too, sometimes. We can become critical. We can become nags, because our husbands or our children don't "measure up" to our mythical standards of flawlessness.

In the end, we have to remember that our ideas of perfection are as unfounded in reality as Faith Hill's hip line in the Redbook photo. We can always manipulate ourselves into believing that earthly perfection is a possibility; but it is an interesting paradox that the closer the saints became to perfect holiness, the more blindingly obvious the tiniest of their faults and imperfections became to them, since they were no longer seeking a shallow, unattainable earthly perfection, but seeing their own flaws magnified against their growing awareness of the perfect Love which is God.

Monday, July 30, 2007

In Search of Catholic Fellowship

Last week, Rod Dreher had a post up asking people why they decided to leave a church, instead of staying and fighting.

Mark Shea, on the other hand, has been pondering issues of friendship, particularly as they pertain to the Church, and has also been pointing to the experiences of some converts who particularly miss the warm social atmosphere of their former churches.

Why do I think these two discussions are connected?

Well, no one on Rod's site left any sort of comment indicating that they left the Catholic Church (or any other church, for that matter) because the people were just too d*** unfriendly. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that about their former church, whether they were converts to Catholicism or former Catholics. It's possible that Protestants who switch denominations may have this sort of criteria in mind, or at least in the back of their minds. For Catholics a truly unfriendly parish might be a reason for parish-hopping, but hardly a reason to sever one's ties with Rome.

That said, though, Mark's larger point about Christian friendship and Christian fellowship are quite relevant to the conversation which took place on the Crunchy Con blog. Perhaps no one leaves the Catholic Church over the parking-lot grand prix which takes place five-tenths of a second before Father's final blessing, but it can't be an encouraging sign to someone who is struggling with his Catholic faith, enduring an inner trial which in the end may be far less about doctrine and far more about emotion. A soul suffering from a darkness in his interior faith life will be particularly sensitive to the lack of ordinary Christian cheerfulness and the absence of a spirit of camaraderie in his own church; indeed, for a Catholic, this heightened sense that the other Catholics at Mass with him don't care about him, his struggles, the issues with which he's dealing, or indeed, any serious considerations regarding the faith at all, may be one of the devil's weapons turned against him to encourage him to fall away.

Unfortunately, there's not an easy solution to the problem of the disconnected Catholic, or the distant-seeming parish. Efforts have been made, many of them in recent times, to force a kind of fellowship on the Catholic parish which is not organic, which is not natural, and which in many circumstances is simply out of place. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not the time or place to have people stand up and introduce themselves, and say where they're from. Nor should the Catholic faithful have to run past a gauntlet of "greeters" on their way into the church for Mass; don't we do enough hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace? Other well-meaning programs have been tried, but aside from the tried-and-true coffee and donut gathering there hasn't been much success with efforts to create Catholic fellowship at the parish level.

Some of those who commented on Mark's post pointed to the notion that Catholics who get involved in things outside of Sunday Mass rarely feel the isolation of those who don't. Something as simple as daily Mass attendance can 'break the ice' and lead to the fostering of friendship among some Catholics. Others join the choir, become lectors, volunteer to help train altar servers or to wash altar linens, sign up for a telephone or e-mail prayer list; some go out under parish auspices into the wider community to help at crisis pregnancy centers, nursing homes, schools, and even prisons. While not everyone can do each of these things, most people can do at least one of them, and doing even one of these things can connect you to your parish in a way that simply wasn't a reality before.

But these ideas, good as they might be, still don't address the question of the disaffected Catholic. Such a person may have reached a point where they really don't want to be--to use a dreadful corporate term--proactive; they may not want to sign up for something which already exists or to meet with the pastor to suggest a new group, perhaps for the elderly or for young singles or for families with very small children, who may not be able to do the sort of volunteering I mentioned above. Moreover, if they are anything at all like some of the ex-Catholics who posted comments on the Crunchy Con blog, they may have reached a point spiritually where doing anything under the auspices of the Catholic Church seems distasteful to them; this may be regrettable, but it is nonetheless true.

This is why Catholic fellowship is as important as it is. The pastor of a large parish may, if he is a good, dedicated, hardworking priest, know the "spiritual pulse" of his parish and take quiet steps to help those struggling in the faith. But even such a pastor will not find it possible to know what each and every one of his parishioners' spiritual battles are, and in many cases those who are in the process of losing their faith don't even approach the pastor, or indeed any priest, with their spiritual darkness until it is already quite advanced, at which point even good, sound advice can seem like meaningless platitudes. For such a person, the benefits of having good Catholic friends who genuinely care about his spiritual well-being can hardly be overstated. At the very least, they will be able to direct him to seek appropriate spiritual guidance while such guidance may still prove helpful; at the most, they may have endured similar trials, and be able to offer insights culled from their own experiences which may be extremely helpful to the person who was beginning to be tempted to believe that no one had ever been asked to endure what he is enduring.

So how do we create, and foster, true Catholic fellowship, at the parish level and beyond?

When I talk to older Catholics, I'm always amazed by the number of Catholic associations of the lay faithful which were part of their lives. Some of these associations, like the Knights of Columbus, are still very visible, but others, like the Sodality of Our Lady, have all but disappeared. Still, the impression I get from many older Catholics is that Catholics in former days had a plethora of opportunities of service which, though operating with parish approval and guidance, extended beyond the parish level; many were members of these lay organizations and cheerfully devoted their time and prayers to the service of others. And by joining and associating with one or more of these organizations, lay Catholics were able to form smaller communities of friendship, fellowship and solidarity, which they then "carried with them," so to speak, when they gathered to worship at Sunday Mass.

It isn't necessary to reinvent the idea of the lay Catholic association. It is only necessary to resurrect it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Chimera of Cabin Fever

We're being visited by a Chimera, which, as everyone knows, is a mythical creature made up of bits and pieces of other mythical creatures.

This particular Chimera has several features I'm sure I recognize: the hostile stare of the Basilisk of Bickering, the listlessness of the Elf of Ennui, the bullying nature of the Ogre of Obnoxiousness, and the ponderous and annoying wit of the Troll of Teasing.

Because the Chimera of Cabin Fever is a composite creature, he tends to shift from one of these irritating aspects to another, one minute blanketing the family with a pall of dullness and inactivity, and the next, causing them to shriek at each other in a pitch that would shatter crystal and an attitude that would curdle cream.

I blame the weather, in some respects. This particular Chimera can only make an appearance when for some reason or other you and your loved ones have been cooped up indoors for days or even weeks on end, with little break. I know from the experience of friends and relatives who grace a more northern latitude with their addresses that he generally haunts them in the midst of a bleak winter, when only the most hopeless of hopeless optimists would call that gray-brown sticky sludge on the ground "snow," and when a round of winter illnesses would make playing outdoors inadvisable even if it weren't twenty below zero with the wind chill factor.

For us, a series of days that have alternated between thunderstorms and mid to upper ninety degree temperatures has decreased my children's enthusiasm for outdoor summer activity; this is the rainiest summer I've experienced in my years in Texas so far, and I'm torn between being thankful for all the moisture and being frustrated with the afternoons of giving in to television as the only form of entertainment that won't lead to actual carnage.

Since it was dry yesterday, I tried to get the girls outdoors to play; but the hot, sticky atmosphere (humidity in the summer! what a concept!), the persistent circling of bees (probably more bored than threatening) and the presence of seriously aggressive wasps in the garage put an end to it all too soon.

Even arranging outings to air conditioned places doesn't much seem to help; we're still indoors, after all, and when it's all over and we return home the Chimera makes his presence felt again almost immediately. He seems to shrink the rooms so that they feel even smaller than they actually are; he turns all manner of games and toys into a dull, uninteresting shade of beige; he robs creative ideas of their power to destroy the doldrums that have risen up around him; in short, he's a blasted nuisance, and we're ready to be rid of him.

Unfortunately, there isn't a good way to banish the Chimera; this is one way that he's different from a few other creatures I've written about. The only way for the Chimera of Cabin Fever to leave your home is for you to be able to go outdoors spontaneously and remain there as long as you'd like, which is why he tends to spend his summers in Texas or Arizona and his winters in Illinois or Ohio. I see from the weather forecast for the next week or so that there's a chance of showers and thunderstorms each and every day, which won't help the situation.

Still, he can't hold out forever. Eventually the weather will dry up, and the humidity will dissipate, and the bees will leave our drying lawn alone and go bother the fishermen sitting around the lake near our home. I have every confidence that all of that will happen, and soon.

Just in time for us to start school.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Last Week of July

I started writing a post about opening the boxes of new school books which have been arriving all week, but honestly, it wasn't going anywhere.

I'm supposed to be working on a new young adult fiction manuscript, and I've been so hung up on character/place names that I haven't even begun the outline that I wanted to have finished by yesterday.

I owe a friend an email from sometime back at the beginning of the summer, and I owe a relative a letter from so far back I'm embarrassed to mention it.

The two decent blog post ideas I've got jotted down on that slip of paper I've mentioned before both will require some research, and I haven't had either the time or the inclination to do any of it.

What is it about the last week of July that can be so enervating?

It's not just the heat; it has actually been somewhat cooler here than it usually is in the summer, and while I was bracing myself for triple-digit temperatures the weather seems to have decided, with great whimsy, to drench our state this summer instead, keeping temperatures from getting much above the mid-90s (though the humidity is another story all together). It's not just the inevitable letdown that occurs when the main social events you had planned for the summer, the visits from out-of-town relatives and so on, have come and gone and you see the rest of the before-school free time shrinking to a handful of days; afternoons, really, because the mornings are getting busier and busier as I plan and prepare for the advent of a new school year.

I think it has something to do with the fact that during the last week in July you realize, all at once, that the inevitable signs of the approach of fall have begun to materialize.

The shadows in the late afternoon lengthen, and the sunlight goes from brilliant to golden, crawling listlessly up the living-room wall. Despite the unusual amount of rain we've had, there are vague, premature hints of color here and there among what was a uniform green wave of foliage. Catalogs begin to arrive in the mail showcasing fall fashion looks; the back-to-school sales are in full swing, with the end-of-summer clearance waiting in the wings. And one bold retailer sends out a "Christmas in July" e-mail sale notice that seems almost frightening.

It's not really over, of course. August is a reprieve, a temporary stay of execution for those dying leaves and fading flowers. Late August, when we begin school, will still have the flavor of summer about it, especially in such a warm climate as we enjoy here; I probably won't herald the real advent of fall until sometime in early October, when it might actually feel cool in the early mornings or late evenings on occasion. The crisp cool breezes of November will swirl in triumphantly, shaking away the leaves that have tried to hold on to the memory of warmth and light, like an aging beauty who still clings to the fashions of twenty or thirty years ago.

But in the meantime, before August's green-gold fades to the warm rich ambers and burgundies and browns to come, I'm going to try to capture some last traces of the enchantment of summer, dissipating so quickly at the end of July that it's hard to remember that nearly a whole month remains before it will slip away.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"After Enlightenment, The Laundry" (Zen Proverb)

If I had my way, something like this, reproduced in either gold or platinum and perhaps jazzed up with a few pave-set diamonds, would be a classic milestone wedding anniversary gift.

No dewy bride, smiling tremulously at her brand new husband on their wedding day, is calculating the number of pairs of socks he's going to wear--and need washed--over the next forty or fifty years. Few new mothers can, while holding their sweet tiny infants clutched close, envision the loads and loads of tiny adorable outfits needing to be laundered over the next few years, or imagine the sort of day when everything baby is wearing has to be replaced and washed two, three, or four times, along with a load or two of crib sheets. But they will discover, as we all do, that nothing says "I love you" like a load of freshly washed and folded clothing.

I'm not in a position to complain. My girls have been washing and folding their own laundry for a while now, and only the youngest still needs some occasional help. For this I have a friend of my mom's to thank, who told her one day that since ten-year-olds are quite capable of using the microwave, running the dishwasher and programming a V.C.R., they can easily learn to operate a washing machine. This is probably even more true for today's kids, who can use computers and cell phones by the age of ten; compared to the technology the average ten-year-old can handle a washer and dryer seem downright antiquarian.

Still, the change in my role from sole laundry operator to chief operator/supervisor has occasionally led to a few problems, not the least of which has been the need to remind my children gently and sympathetically half a dozen times (or as they put it, nag them) to finish the loads they've started, so I can have a crack at the washer and dryer on occasion. I still do two people's laundry plus most of the household linens, so I need more than three hours on Wednesday to do the portions of the week's wash that continue to be my responsibility; once summer's over I'm going to have to insist on everyone's sticking to her predetermined laundry day, or there will be chaos.

And that would be a shame, because the thing I actually enjoy about laundry is that sense of accomplishment, the bringing about of order from chaos, turning the slightly rank and tangled contents of a laundry hamper into piles of neatly folded and organized clothing items. Few household tasks for a mother offer such an immediate payoff, in my view.

Dishes? Nah. Somebody's always got a glass or two hidden away somewhere, ready to plop into the nice clean sink exactly twenty minutes after you've turned on the dishwasher.

Vacuuming or mopping? Not unless your entire family is out while you're doing these chores; otherwise you may not even finish one room before dirty footprints mysteriously appear behind you, in the area you thought you already cleaned.

Clutter management? I'm not even going there.

But those clean piles of clothing represent a task well done, which will not have to be done again for at least a little while (maybe a whole day or two, if you're lucky). Few things in a mother's life have such a sense, even a temporary one, of successful completion.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Threads of Magic

In a post today Mark Shea linked to this article discussing Christian fantasy. Unfortunately, the Washington Post article seems to take the position that these books are merely being written as a Christian "alternative" to the Harry Potter books, and that the niche market they appeal to are those people who refuse to allow any books containing magic, witchcraft, or other fantasy elements into their homes.

I'm not intending to hold a huge discussion of the Potter books here, other than to say that I concur with those Catholics who do not think the books are inherently evil, and that provided parents take their responsibilities seriously they may be appropriate for some young adults to read. As far as the dangers of any of the thematic elements, I fail to see them as being considerably more dangerous than other books written for the young adult market, or indeed, as more dangerous than books written for adults which young adults may begin to read by the time they reach high school.

But the one thing the Washington Post article points out is that as far as many of our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters are concerned, the Bible's prohibition on magic pretty much forbids any and all fictional representations of magic or the elements of fantasy, not excluding fairy tales. But to believe that fairy tales are forbidden for Christian children is to ignore the uncomfortable fact that fairy tales were written for Christian children; it is also to misunderstand the type of fiction known as the allegory.

To quote this website, an allegory "... is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy.
Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning."

I think that nearly all of what may be loosely termed "imaginative fiction," that is, fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, certain types of epics, and so on, contain elements of allegory, on a level greater than than which occurs in more realistic fiction. Fairy tales in particular are often allegorical, and many of the great works of fantasy, such as the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, hearken back to the form and language of the fairy tale in many ways.

Which means that if we want to understand how the notions of magic operate in fantasy books, we first have to understand what they mean in fairy tales.

Does the fairy tale writer, for instance, really believe that magic exists in the everyday world? Does he further believe that some magic is good, and some is evil?

Those who told the stories that were eventually collected as fairy tales, as well as those who wrote such stories down, would probably have answered the first question in the affirmative. They would have know, however, that the magic that exists in our everyday world always comes about as a result of a collaboration with evil. They would, perhaps, have shuddered at the stories of the woman at the end of the village, reported to collect herbs at the full of the moon, who turned her evil eye on some poor fool just before all his troubles began--and though in the case of the village woman such tales may have been calumnies, it didn't mean that there weren't those who sought to bypass God's will by attempting to take control of dark and superstitious powers.

So the writer of the fairy tale, just like the writer of the modern-day fantasy, did know that there truly is evil magic in the world, and that seeking to gain such magic is a hideous sin against God. He also knew that there was no such thing as "good magic." But this didn't stop the imaginative writer from creating a mythical world in which it was possible for magic to be either good or evil.

What does this mean? To me, it means that even those who wrote and told fairy tales were well aware that the glittering threads of magic they embroidered into the tapestry of their stories was a device, and even an allegory. When the evil wizard trapped the hero in a magical oubliette, and the good fairy dissolved the bars of this enchanted prison with a touch of her feathered wand, they were not either of them in league with the devil to produce such effects (though the bad characters were as much in league with the devil as every bad character in every book, poem or play ever written). The rules of the world in which they operated allowed such enchantments merely to be, and to be accepted as being.

But if magic is an allegory, to what does it allude? What power does it, in the end, represent?

Let's take two well-known fairy tales, and examine them in this regard.

The fairy godmother in Cinderella appears, transforms Cinderella's appearance, and sends her to the ball. In many early versions of the tale there are actually three balls, and this transformation occurs three times; each time Cinderella is able to go to the ball.

The first transformation causes Cinderella great consternation. Will this unusual godmother really be able to change such humble things as pumpkins, mice, and indeed, her own dirty self, into someone who may pass unnoticed among a crowd of the rich and noble? Is it magic or faith that makes the girl venture forth?

The second transformation occurs like the first. Does magic, or hope cause the change?

The third transformation is the grandest of all. Magic, or love?

To examine evil magic we need look no further than Snow White's stepmother's mirror. Pride, envy, wrath, hatred--what is not reflected back at the wicked queen? Which of these lacks the power to change a once-lovely woman into a hideous hag--which of them will not spread deadly poison that seeks to destroy any image of goodness or purity around her?

Any good writer of modern fantasy books knows that the lifeblood of the fantasy novel flows from these simple tales. Such a writer will seek to create similar metaphors of good and evil, love and hate, humility and pride, forgiveness and wrath, generosity and greed, sacrifice and selfishness. The presence of magic elements in a story does not in any way mean that the writer of the story condones the wicked practice of evil and superstitious idolatry in the real world any more than the writer of the fairy tale would have wanted his readers to attempt to conjure a carriage out of a humble vegetable. Though it is sadly true that plenty of foolish people in the world seek to engage in occult practices, it is not the heritage of stories of magic to feed such people's sinful silliness any more than the medieval stonemasons who carved demons among the angelic faces on the walls of a church sought to encourage people to worship those graven images. Like those oddly interesting allegories in stone, stories that use the allegory of magic to teach lessons about good and evil capture the imagination and order it toward an appreciation of the good.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hidden Dangers of the Intentional Community

The thread below this one has generated a lively and thought provoking discussion on the idea of Catholic education and the possibilities of small, private Catholic schools providing a values-laden, truly Catholic education.

I'm still as convinced as ever that homeschooling through high school is what the Cardigan family has been called to do; unless God tells me otherwise in the form of some catastrophic event that makes it impossible for our family to continue to homeschool, I have every intention of teaching my children at home.

At least one of my concerns centers around the ability of our poisonous culture to impact our children when they are too young to appreciate its dangers, too immature to handle its ramifications, and too inexperienced to stand boldly against it. In a sense, everyone who accepts the reality that our culture is broken beyond mending has taken a radical and hostile stance toward it; is it really the job of our children to be culture warriors in the world when their ages demand that they should still be under our thoughtful parental protection?

Much of the discussion in the comment thread below has focused on one particular school which is trying to be a sign of contradiction to the values of the world. In theory, I appreciate their efforts; in practice, I see them as usurping the proper function of the family, whom they should support and serve but not command. In a very real sense, these are also my concerns about a growing topic of conversation regarding a similar issue: the discussion of the intentional community.

It's a topic that has been in the news lately. While, as the article cited mentioned, state and local laws didn't allow certain restrictions Mr. Monaghan had planned for the town called Ave Maria, there's no denying that more than a few Catholics will move there. They, like others who have formed intentional communities, will try to make Ave Maria a place where Catholics will be in the majority, able to foster and create an atmosphere far removed from the ugliness of modern American culture. Though the visionary founder wasn't able to restrict the kinds of cable channels people could subscribe to, there will be plenty of gentle pressure among the Catholic residents of the town for everyone to join in fighting against the wickedness and depravity that permeate much of modern existence.

And what could possibly be wrong with that?

Again, in theory, nothing. It's when theory meets practice that these things often fall apart.

What if a Catholic Town were to be built right where you live? What if you and your family moved there, full of excitement and optimism?

What follows is merely a thought experiment, but it is based on some reading I've done about intentional communities, and the pitfalls which may lurk there for the unwary. Most of the communities I read about were Christian rather than Catholic, though there was a detailed account of an erstwhile Catholic community as well:

Diary of Our Move to Heavenly Peace:

Day 1: We're finally here! J. and I and the kids are so excited, but we're exhausted too. Lots of our new neighbors came to welcome us, which slowed down our unpacking a bit, but who's complaining? They all said they love living here; it's great to be with such good Catholics. One slightly weird thing--well, maybe two. One of them said something about "all our nice furniture" as the movers were carrying things in--didn't have the heart to tell them it's all flea market stuff (J.'s so good at reupholstering and repairing things!) And the casseroles they brought us (how great is that!) were all, well, vegetarian. They said something about each street "adopting" an extra day a week to go meatless, and here on Blessed Ollegarius Street they've chosen Wednesdays. They made it sound like it wasn't optional...

Day 12: What a great place! Meatless Wednesdays--what a good spiritual sacrifice! And there's daily Mass at six a.m., the Rosary at noon, and evening prayers at six p.m. Well, that last could be changed a bit...I've been asked why J. doesn't join us for evening prayers, but of course with his crazy work schedule...

Day 20: Just finished our meeting with our "spiritual buddies." We were assigned the O'Rillys, who've been here eight years. Lots to think about. Are we still too much of the world? J.'s late hours barely pay the bills--is God really calling him to find a job where he'll be able to be at church by six every night? The evening prayers are wonderful, and all that, but I think J.'s job is, too...

Day 59: Had a bad night with Maria Grace Therese; she's teething. Anyway, too tired to make Mass this a.m. Phone started ringing at six thirty nine--doorbell by 7:15. So many people worried about us not being there! It's nice, in a way, but I could have used a little extra sleep...

Day 74: Still getting pressure from the "buddies" about J. not making evening prayers. Probably need a meeting with the Director...

Day 86: Met with Director--he was very understanding about J.'s job, and promised to talk to the O'Rillys. Odd, though; he asked a lot of questions about J.'s job, his salary, our assets, etc. Maybe he needed to be convinced that J. really can't switch jobs right now...

Day 108: The O'Rillys seem to think we've been given special "permission" to miss evening prayers; they said something weird about some people giving spiritually and others giving financially. We make donations to the Community, of course, but we're stretched pretty thin right now, so I hope they aren't suggesting we should be giving more...

Day 124: We're in trouble. Not only did the O'Rillys and the Director ask us to increase our donations, but several people aren't speaking to us: we had a birthday party for Ambrose Xavier Matthias on Wednesday, and some of the pizzas we served had sausage (his favorite) on them!
It's not that we forgot, but it was his birthday, after all. Dara Martin, who has always seemed a little distant, called me up afterward. She mentioned that she and Mel are putting their house on the market, and then she offered some advice that was strange: "Next time pretend it's sausage-flavored tofu, even if it isn't. They'll never know the difference." I told her I was uncomfortable being dishonest, but she just laughed nervously and then hung up...

Day 132: Some people still aren't talking to us. Unfortunately the O'Rillys are; they were over when Ambrose opened his grandmother's gift, a toy robot from that new movie. They were shocked, took us aside, and argued with us about our duty to send it back with a note explaining we don't allow such evil things in our home. J. said we'd seen the movie and thought it was cute and totally harmless--you'd have thought we were satan worshippers or something from the way they reacted to that! Eventually they left, but it was a miserable evening...

Day 138: Sunday Mass was uncomfortable. The Director glared at us at coffee and donuts--oh, wait, that's decaf coffee and whole grain bagels--after Mass, and said something loudly to the person he was talking to about the spiritually blind and financially selfish. Is he right? Are we putting our souls in danger?

Day 156: Things have been better since we wrote that check. Of course, it means not having the money to visit J.'s parents until next year, but at least we don't feel so ostracized. Tomorrow is my turn to host the Parents Against Fiction Society, and I've gone through the house with a fine-tooth comb making sure that anything that could be criticized or viewed as un-Catholic was hidden in the attic. I'm a nervous wreck that I might have missed something...

Day 157: Well, I missed something, all right. Apparently teddy bears are really evil, because they call to mind Native American fetishes and were foisted on unsuspecting children by Teddy Roosevelt because he was a Mason who wanted children's souls to be open to demonic influences. I called Dara Martin's new phone number, and asked her for the name of the realtor who sold her house so fast...

Day 180: It looks like our house has sold. By this time next month we'll be in our new home. No one will scold J. for owning an electric guitar or tell me teddy bears are evil or hint about more and more money or frown at sausage on a pizza. It will be peace. It will be heavenly...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Do or Die, Deo Volente, Grade 12 or Bust!

Over at Nutmeg's blog is an interesting post about how her children (and Nutmeg herself!) almost wound up attending (and teaching at!) a Catholic school for this upcoming school year.

I'm really glad she posted this. As the "do or die, Deo volente, Grade 12 or Bust!" sort of homeschooling mom it's genuinely helpful for me to be reminded that the homeschool umbrella provides more than one kind of educational shelter to more than one kind of homeschooling family for more than one kind of reason and for more than one kind of duration.

It's also helpful for me to sit down and articulate the reasons why I am the "do or die, Deo volente, Grade 12 or Bust!" sort of homeschooling mom. It's helpful because it's always a good idea to have one's clear purposes in mind as one prepares to leap into the maelstrom of a new school year; besides, I suppose there might be other moms out there who are still deciding a) if they are going to homeschool and b) what sort of homeschooling mom they're going to be, and in that case it's nice to be able to see different points of view about reasons to homeschool, including the reasons some of us choose to homeschool exclusively.

My perspective on this matter is, perhaps, a little unusual. As a child I never attended a public school; but from the year I began to go to school until my mother began homeschooling my siblings and I (save the eldest, who was already in college at the time) when I was in tenth grade, I attended a total of nine different Catholic schools in several different states.

Because I attended so many different Catholic schools, I don't have the luxury of thinking that perhaps my school was bad or problematic, but perhaps other schools are not. Because I attended Catholic schools alone, I don't have the luxury of blaming the public education system for the deleterious effects of institutional education. And because these schools were scattered around the country, I can't pretend that the various deficiencies I experienced were in any way localized, or confined to a specific geographic region. I have to consider the truth, and the truth is that as schools, the schools I attended were not bad at all--at acting like extremely overpriced day-care centers, that is.

As I've said before, one of the biggest problems in Catholic education today is that to all intents and purposes it's just secular education, with a little "snow on the dung-hill" (if you'll forgive the metaphor) of Catholicism sprinkled at the surface level, light and ethereal enough to avoid triggering the criticism of the many non-Catholic students and their parents. Perhaps the smallest and most private of Catholic schools, unaffiliated with any diocese, and unencumbered by either taxpayer funds or the problematic quest for accreditation, may indeed provide their students with a thoroughly Catholic education in the form of Catholic textbooks and none but good practicing Catholic teachers, but even where these schools exist it's far more inefficient for them to provide, in effect, the exact same education I can provide my own children at home, especially considering that I still have the luxury of tailoring my curricula to meet each child's needs and interests, something that even a tiny independent Catholic school could never really do.

And the larger diocesan schools don't even try. They teach to the same standardized tests that the public school students have to take, and if a timid Catholic student raises an objection to being taught, perhaps, in science class that overpopulation is a serious problem and that human beings are a drain on the planet, he will be told that his concerns are inappropriate for science, but that he may discuss them with his religion teacher, if he chooses. This, of course, sets the child up early for the notion that he will have to compartmentalize his faith, and keep it quiet and hidden, if he wants to succeed in the world.

If you've read anything at all about John Dewey, success in the world is what modern education is all about. Stripping educational principles of their tendency to convey eternal verities to children, Dewey, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, saw the purpose of education as the formation of good citizens, people who would leave school with the acquisition of positive work habits and the propensity for gainful employment. There were no eternal verities, no higher realities, no nobler purposes. Man was meant to learn, in school, to be obedient, to sit at dull and repetitive tasks for a period of six to eight hours (conditioning him for 'modern' post-agricultural work), to grow up, get a job, pay taxes and participate in the civic life by voting and other political activities. There was no need to teach him about an afterlife which the humanists saw, condescendingly, as not impossible, but neither likely nor empirically demonstrable.

Even today institutional education ends up reflecting Dewey's values. Sadly, this is true no matter what the institution; it is simply not possible in the modern classroom setting to avoid completely the harmful effects of this man's ideas.

But even if you could find a small independent Catholic school which taught authentic Catholicism, which deliberately and purposefully built a curricula designed to go back to pre-Dewey thoughts and ideas about education, and which was willing to tailor courses of study for your child's specific needs, there would still be one small--or not so small--problem.

Institutional education is expensive. Really, really expensive. What a homeschooling mother can do with a few hundred dollars and a lot of creative ideas requires several thousands of dollars per student at the institutional level; and this is one area where the small struggling independent non-federally-funded non accredited schools have even worse problems than the larger diocesan schools: to make up for the lack of government funding they must, in the absence of deep-pocketed benefactors or patient investors, charge appreciably more tuition for their students than the larger schools do.

Now, I'm not criticizing those who choose to spend their money in this way. But the fact of the matter is that when tuitions cost thousands of dollars per student, few single income families can afford to send their children to those schools. Some families make tremendous sacrifices to pay tuitions to good Catholic schools; but of necessity, a significant portion of the student body is going to come either from families with two incomes, or from families of considerable means.

In practical terms, from my experience at nine different Catholic schools across the country, this means that in time a culture of snobby elitism is going to permeate the student body. Children are exceptionally good at choosing their associates based on such criteria as the designer label of the uniform blouse or the price tag of the shoes pulled out of the gym bag for gym class; children are also exceptionally good at being mindlessly cruel to those of their peers who clearly do not have such assets, or whose families are barely able to afford the tuition the school is charging, let alone any expensive little extras. Moreover, children whose parents don't allow them to participate greatly in the diseased and decaying culture are identified and excluded as well; or else great delight is taken in introducing the more innocent and naive among their members to such earthly pleasures as their first R-rated movie, their first objectionable magazine, or their first experience with alcohol or cigarettes (and worse, sometimes). It's true that we can't keep our children from the world, and we wouldn't want to. But there's a great deal of difference between the child who asks about something he's seen on a magazine rack at the grocery store, and the same child, at the same age, being forced to choose between perpetual torment for refusing to read such a magazine with his classmates, or the spiritual guilt and threat of blackmail he faces if he does accept it and read it.

For all of these reasons I find schools, even Catholic ones, unacceptable for my family at this point in time. Maybe someday dynamic orders of religious sisters will again take over the education of Catholic youth; maybe they will reinvent modern education, bypassing Dewey altogether; maybe their vow of poverty will help such education be affordable to all Catholic children; and in the absence of this culture of wealth, maybe they will be able to reestablish the kinds of rules and order in the classroom that will keep the oligarch-bully culture at bay. But I suspect that before that day comes, before those sorts of Sisters can once again arise, there will have to be several generations of homeschooling families producing such dedicated women; I'm glad to be doing my part.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

All Creatures Great And...

So it was a typical busy dinner hour in the Cardigan home. I called DH as the homemade pizzas came out of the oven, confirmed that he would, in fact, be working late and running an errand before coming home, and signaled to the kids that it was okay to set up TV trays in the den and finish watching an old movie, which may not be the absolute best version of the Cinderella story but which definitely has the all time greatest fairy godmother.

(As a side note: I never do that. The T.V. tray thing. No, really. Honest. Or at least not since we had the den carpet replaced a couple of years ago because I'd been doing the T.V. tray thing entirely too often back when the girls were little enough to think of food spillage as a form of entertainment. But seriously, it's been years, so the girls were really excited that they got to have pizza in front of the last 30 minutes of their movie.)

Anyway, I was about to hang up with DH when DD#3 came and told me that the handle of the toilet in the master bath was stuck facing upward, and could I please come and fix it?

"I'd better stay on the line," DH said wisely. Boy, does he know me. "Just in case you need me to stop at the Giant Big Box O'Hardware store on the way home to pick up a new handle," he added diplomatically.

I finished cutting the hot pizzas and went into the master bathroom (thank goodness for cordless phones). "It seems to be working fine," I reported, removing the toilet tank lid and checking inside. "Oh, I see. I think you just need to tighten it."

As I replaced the lid I thought I saw something at least quarter-sized and brown dart under the wire rack I use to store extra toilet paper in our small rectangular space-challenged bathroom.

"A spider?" DH asked when I reported it.

"Gosh, I hope not," I answered a little fearfully, as I very gingerly moved everything off of the rack. But I didn't see anything. "Maybe it was my imagination," I said hopefully.

But then I moved the rack itself.

And saw one of these.

"Oh, no!" I squeaked into the phone. "It's a gecko! And you're not home! What am I going to do?"

"Call the children," my DH answered calmly. Boy, does he know them, especially DD#1, who was carrying large grasshoppers proudly around the backyard by the time she was four. She thinks all animals are cute, from microscopic insects to large frightening-looking dogs staring in menacing insolence from the backs of pickup trucks. I knew she'd be able to catch the surprisingly fast little lizard, and take it tenderly out into the yard.

"Girls," I called, "there's a tiny gecko in the bathroom. Can you come and catch it for me?"

In an instant they were all clustered in the bathroom, from DD#1 who was fearlessly assessing the situation and talking in a soothing voice to the gecko ("He's scared," she explained to her quaking mass of a mother) to DD#2 who was examining him and announcing in triumph that it was a gecko, and not a mouse, she had seen in the cereal cabinet last winter, to DD#3 who takes a bit more after her poor cowardly mother and who went back and forth in fearful fascination.

It took several minutes, an old plastic container, and some pieces of computer paper, but finally DD#1 triumphed. "Somebody open the back door!" she called, balancing one of the pieces of paper over the plastic container to keep the little visitor from a premature egress. DD#2 moved back to let her pass, and DD#3 sped on ahead of her--but not to open the door; her courage failed her and she jumped up on the couch with all the elan of a sixties sitcom housewife confronted with the sudden appearance of a rodent. In the end it was Mom who opened the door and stood by while DD#1 gently deposited the tiny gecko onto our back porch, which considering the number of ants we've had out there lately probably looked like an all-you-can-eat buffet to the small creature.

Dinner progressed as planned, but I was left marveling at the whole thing.

Sometimes, I think, we're rather like that gecko. Complacently minding our own business, we find ourselves startled into activity by a sudden change in circumstances; rather than accept the guidance from above we try to flee from it; finally, we are caught up in events beyond our control and constrained in a manner we find wholly disconcerting; and just when we're feeling truly trapped, we find ourselves at liberty again, and enjoying more freedom and a greater harmony with our natural surroundings then we ever would have dreamed possible.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Counting My Blessings

I'll be honest. I've been trying to put together a post concerning Cardinal Mahoney, the recent settlement of the abuse cases in his diocese, and the thorny question of what should happen now. Should the Pope demand Mahoney's removal? Should lay Catholics, especially those in the L.A. Archdiocese, agitate for Mahoney to resign? Are there provisions in either civil or church law that would allow some just punishment in this situation, provided it can be clearly proved that Cardinal Mahoney was complicit in protecting or hiding abusers?

But colliding with these chaotic thoughts has been another sort of thought altogether, and it is this: I don't, nearly often enough, stop and think about how grateful I am to God for so many different things in my life.

I'm glad I have a dear good Catholic husband, and sweet, helpful, almost frighteningly competent children. I'm glad that my husband supports our family's desire to live in a more traditional way, with him as the sole breadwinner, and me as the stay-at-home mom.

I'm glad we're all in reasonably good health, and that the minor nagging cold that's been going around is the only thing that's bothered any of us lately.

I'm glad that God called my own mother to homeschool, opening the door for me to embark one day on the same educational journey with my children. I'm glad I live in one of the homeschool-friendliest states in the nation and that I've gotten to know other homeschooling mamas, both in person and online: what a blessing you all are to me, in so many ways, on so many occasions!

I'm glad for the many opportunities I've had so far in my life (and continue to have). I'm grateful to God for challenging me, for giving me new ways to grow and learn, and for showing me the areas where I need to improve.

I'm glad to be a Catholic in America, where going to Mass on Sunday doesn't mean taking my life into my hands (provided I don't choke to death on a Marty Haugen song). Seriously, though, isn't it a wonderful luxury to be able to complain about the music and the aesthetics and those ubiquitous flapping banners, instead of having to dodge bullets and hide all evidence of our faith, as so many of our Catholic brothers and sisters around the world have to do?

I'm glad that God has sent us a new orthodox bishop, too, who is already making great strides in restoring a dispirited Church in this diocese. Though I'm deeply sad about the Scandal, and though I don't think even now the steps the Church bureaucrats are taking to resolve things are all that effective, I'm still glad that things are coming out in the open, and that the atmosphere of secrecy that shrouded these shameful crimes to the detriment of the victims is finally beginning to dissipate into the clear air. I have no illusions about how long it will take or how vigilant we'll have to be to make sure that things really do change; but even a small beginning is a beginning.

I'm glad that I don't personally know anyone who was abused by a priest, and that I've also never personally known a priest who was an abuser. I don't want to be misunderstood here: if I met, today, a former victim of abuse I would be deeply sorrowful and sympathetic. But I've watched and read enough coverage of the Scandal to realize how many people's faith was completely destroyed because a family member or close friend was a victim, or because the priest who baptized their children or who used to visit their second-grade classes turned out to be a molester. Would I have been strong enough to handle it, if a family member of mine were standing in front of those media representatives, discussing so horrible a violation by someone whom they trusted and even loved? Would I have reacted calmly if a priest who was a family friend was arrested for abusing children, and admitted to the crime? I can't help but be a little grateful that I wasn't put to that particular test.

And I'm glad that I'm not someone who is seeing all his ambitions and dreams come crashing down around him as he hears the baying of the hounds at his heels. Like a wolf himself, he abandoned his flock to the predations of other wolves, caring more for his own position and the facade he was building around himself, every bit as ugly as the facade of this building, than he did about the safety of the sheep in his care; someone who made the mistake of identifying the integrity of the Church with his own safety, not seeing that such a misidentification would inevitably lead to the destruction of both. And now, as the frenzied pack smells blood (or at least blood money) they increase their outcries, and he sees a future as bleak as this stretching out before him, instead of the comfortable and secure position of authority and honor he thought was his forever. Whether or not he ever faces punishment, he is facing disgrace; whether he is removed now, or in a few years when he reaches mandatory retirement age, he is forever tainted by the stench of corruption that permeates what has been done in his name: caring more for reputation than honor he has lost both, and in the absence of a true repentance and humility before Almighty God he will lose the most precious thing he has.

I'm glad I'm not Roger, Cardinal Mahoney.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hitting the Books

Ordinarily by this date, I would have completed my preliminary curricula selection process, made several slightly messy and not-wholly-necessary lists, placed my book orders with several online retailers, and right now I'd be sitting here in the anticipatory glow of the dawn of a new school year, waiting peacefully for the doorbell to begin ringing, the boxes to arrive, and the children to pull long faces before cheering up at the sight of crisp new books with interesting titles and, in many cases, attractive illustrations.

But this has not been an ordinary summer. July has been characterized by visits from out-of-town family members, and rather than start the whole book-ordering process and have to set it aside somewhere in the middle to enjoy our company, which would carry the inherent risk that I'd order some books more than once, I decided to postpone the whole thing until after the visits had come to an end.

Which they did. Sunday. And it's Tuesday afternoon, and there's a nice blank legal pad in front of me, just waiting for the lists to begin. But in the meantime the midsummer ennui that so often drapes like a hot dark velvet curtain over late July, all of August, and here in Texas, much of September, is shrouding all my would-be activity with a level of inertia that's as hard to fight off as a pleasant dream that begins five minutes before the alarm clock rings.

I know what I have to do. I know how to do it. I've been making practice lists in my head for the past several days. But I can't help thinking, rather sleepily, that it's all a lot of bother just now, and perhaps my family and I should consider unschooling this year instead. We've got lots of non-textbooks in the house, and I've even got a book with hundreds of easy science experiments, so why not?

At this point I know that what I really need is an infusion of caffeine.

It's not that unschooling's fundamentally a bad idea. There are lots of homeschooling families who take this approach, and take it quite well. My reasons for not trying it are many, though, and range from a serious deficiency in willpower that would turn unschooling into simply not schooling at all, to the fact that February still exists, and turns an icy and malevolent glare across my mad midsummer daydreams, freezing them so that they shatter into crystal shards that melt like the insubstantial things they were; because by February the early glow of a new school year has been replaced by the flickering light of an unsteady candle, and even with the help of textbooks, lesson plans, and the invaluable workbooks it still takes all my daily efforts to keep the light of our homeschool from going out altogether from the sheer dreariness of that dreary month.

So, I've got the caffeine, and in a few short minutes I'll be starting. I know that if I stay focused I can have everything selected and ordered by Friday at the latest, which should get all the books here in plenty of time.

But next year I'm definitely going to order my books by the last week of June.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Idols...And the King

I've been reflecting a bit on the first commandment. If you look it up in the Bible it's really quite lengthy, but the important part is that God says that He is God, and that we shouldn't worship any false gods, nor make any idols for ourselves. One might be tempted to think that this commandment isn't really a problem for most serious Christians; after all, when was the last time you saw any of your Catholic or Christian friends or neighbors making a graven image, or bowing down and worshiping a statue of what was supposed to be a lion but looks a bit more like a horse with a really fluffy mane which they made in the senior center last Wednesday?

We smile, of course. But we're wrong. Oh, not about the lion-horse and secret rituals in suburban garages; about false gods--at least, about a looser interpretation of what this commandment requires of us. Strictly speaking, to be guilty of the mortal sin of idolatry we'd actually have to worship something other than God (and besides this grave matter we'd have to be have full knowledge and sufficient reflection, the usual conditions for mortal sin). But in a lesser sense, we can make created things into "idols" without actually worshiping them; that is, we can seek them with undue focus and elevate them beyond what their material nature is worth. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, put it this way: "Earthly goods are not bad, but they are debased when man sets them up as idols, when he adores them. They are ennobled when they are converted into instruments for good, for just and charitable Christian undertakings. We cannot seek after material goods as if they were a treasure. Our treasure is Christ and all our love and desire must be centered on him." (Christ is Passing By, 35)

How do we know if we've made something into a false god? How do we know if some material good is more important to us than it has any right to be? How can we tell if our treasure is truly Christ, or if we've let other things get in the way of our desire for Him?

For those of us whose vocation is in the world, who have not taken a vow of poverty, this can indeed be difficult to determine. We aren't forbidden to use the world's goods, or to own property; as Josemaria Escriva's quote above reminds us, we can even do good in this way. But there are times when we don't have the proper detachment to our earthly goods, when we get caught up in materialism and make some things in our lives entirely too important.

If your house were on fire, what would you try to save? If the answer didn't relate to family members, that might be a clue that some of your possessions are becoming a bit too important to you.

If you had to go to the hospital overnight for minor surgery, what ten things, apart from the clothes you need to wear home, would you pack? If more than eight of those things are cosmetics, you may want to reflect a bit.

If you flew to another city for a three day visit to family members, and your suitcase was lost, how many things would you have to buy to replace the contents of your missing suitcase (other than any gift items you planned to give those family members), and how many items would you need to borrow each morning to get dressed (i.e. hair styling devices)? If the total number of purchased and borrowed items is more than twenty or so, you might have a bit too much in the way of earthly treasure.

Those examples, of course, are rather tongue-in-cheek. But the point is there: how many things in your life are so important to your daily comfort that the temporary or permanent loss of them would cause you to suffer great inconvenience, and put you seriously out of sorts? I'm not speaking, of course, of some prescription medicine you might have to take; nor do I include those things which make it possible for people with disabilities to live independently, or anything of that caliber. Of those things we don't have to have, but choose to have, how many of them have in some way become idols to us?

I used to be afraid that my contact lenses were getting to be false gods to me. I really, really like having contact lenses, and find my glasses uncomfortable, blurry, annoyingly in the way, and difficult to deal with. The thought, about my contacts, would cross my mind: could I actually live without these things?

Then I got corneal ulcers from the lenses, and had to go back to wearing glasses for three years. I'm very glad that happened, because I got the answer to my question: yes, I could. I even adjusted back to wearing glasses, and though I still found them annoying I preferred clear vision to removing them.

Now, I'm very grateful to the genius who invented these, which gave me the chance to wear contact lenses again. But I'm also grateful that God helped me see the whole thing more clearly, including the fact that as long as I could give up my contacts cheerfully when He asked me to, my preference for them wasn't a bad thing at all; and as long as I'm prepared to give them up again should it be necessary, it's perfectly fine for me to keep enjoying the benefits they provide.

That's the only test I know of to settle the question as to whether some material good has become more important to us than the King of Heaven, or at least more important that material goods have any right to be: the "Can you give it up?" test. Again, of course, I'm not speaking of things that are necessary to our health and safety, but only of those things we choose to own, which are not actually needed. If we found ourselves being called by Christ to give any of those things up for the sake of His Kingdom, could we do it? Cheerfully? Immediately? Joyfully?

If we're asked to make a choice, which will we choose? Idols? Or the King?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Okay. So How Should We Dress for Mass?

I know that I'm running the risk of causing my readers to grow weary of the whole topic of clothing, modesty, appropriate dressing, fashion, vanity and the like. But before I turn from this back to other topics of interest, I wanted to revisit the whole question of how we dress for Mass.

Specifically, I wanted to discuss appropriate dress for Sunday Mass, since few but the highest sticklers would insist that we pull our Sunday Best out of our closets on a daily basis if we are fortunate enough to be able to attend Mass daily. But why not? If dressing for Sunday Mass is really about dressing appropriately to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, or even to visit Him, why is it not taken as a standard of piety that we should put our best clothing on anytime we happen to enter a Catholic Church, whether it is for Sunday Mass, daily Mass, adoration, Saturday confession, Wednesday choir practice, or any weekday to help out by doing a little light cleaning?

The truth of the matter is that God knows quite well what we look like, inside and out. Provided we're not dressing immodestly it is not really inappropriate to stop by and make a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament even if we're attired somewhat casually, in a pair of slacks perhaps, or a loose knit skirt and a sweater that has seen better days. Anything that is not inappropriate for us to wear in public really isn't inappropriate to wear inside a Catholic Church most of the time.

However, it has been a long and honorable custom to make a little more effort with one's appearance for Sunday Mass, and this attention to dress was (and in some cases, still is) true even among our Protestant brethren for their Sunday services. There was a sense among Catholics that even if one did attend Mass daily, one could wear a slightly higher order of garment on Sunday morning. This was not only to show that we understood that Sunday Mass was the chief among our liturgical practices, no matter how many times those practices took us into a church during the week, but also to show our unity with and respect for each other. In other words, dressing nicely for Sunday Mass was an act of love both for God and for our neighbor.

In the past, it was both neighborly and a sign of one's own good manners to dress appropriately for any and all occasions. No one faulted the housecoat-clad housewife who went about with curlers in her hair as she cleaned and cooked for her family; what a transformation when the curlers came out and the housecoat was exchanged for a stylish street suit, as she sallied forth to do the marketing! If she'd gone to the market in her housecoat, though, she would have incurred censure, and wearing one's curlers out of doors was frowned upon. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, would be the eyebrows raised by the man invited to play tennis who showed up for the game in a coat and tie--showing up too formally dressed was considered as big a lapse in manners and judgment as showing up too informally dressed was.

These rules about dressing have sadly faded in our more casual age. Gone are the clear distinctions between articles of clothing; gone are the subtle differences that made a woman's street suit completely different from the flowered print dress she wore on Sunday morning. Gone, too, for most of the men I know, are the closets full of business suits and sports jackets, with the clear and distinct definitions of which should be worn when; sadly, most men today work in business casual environments, which in at least some instances is an open admission on the part of their employers that they aren't being paid well enough to own a wardrobe of suits and ties. The clothing we are left with to choose from on Sunday mornings is, like most of our clothing, a strange hybrid between dressy and casual, between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, and no amount of wishful thinking will transport us back into the age when "Sunday Best" meant something clear and definitive.

That doesn't mean, however, that we should just throw in the towel and settle for casual attire at Mass. The duty we have to love God and our neighbor, and even, when possible, to let our Sunday clothes reflect that love, hasn't really changed. But in attempting to determine how to dress for Sunday Mass, we can't completely ignore the reality that our clothes are what they are; I can't see how it would please God for us to think that in order to please Him we have to go out and purchase an expensive new wardrobe of Sunday clothing.

So how do we select from among the clothing in our closets those items which can become our own interpretation of "Sunday Best?" I don't have all the answers, here, but I do have a few suggestions. (These are mainly for women, as men still have this sort of thing easier in general, don't they? But the goal of dressing less casually on Sunday is one that men can take to heart, too.)

1. Shorts are only your "best" clothes if you are a male under the age of five. I'm sorry, but there it is. Even these ladies, whose completely secular fashion advice I don't fully endorse, are adamant that shorts are only appropriate for a grown woman if she's wearing them at the beach. (They are also adamant that no woman over the age of 35 should ever wear skirts above her knees, and they're quite right.)

2. Pants that could be worn to work in the garden are probably not your "best" clothes, either. If you find it necessary to wear pants to Sunday Mass, try to wear some that look dressy; I'd suggest a nice pantsuit, breezy palazzo pants (if you're tall enough and have the figure for them), or a skirt-like pair of gaucho* pants.

3. Sleeveless tops may not always be immodest, but they definitely look casual. If you live in the sort of climate that makes it a good idea to wear one in the summer, think about an open crochet sweater or shrug, or perhaps a light breezy scarf, which may be removed after Mass.

4. Do not make the mistake of overdressing, either. Ball gowns, formal attire, and the sort of thing you might wear to the opera aren't really appropriate for Sunday Mass with the possible exception of Christmas Midnight Mass.

In the comment boxes below, please feel free to add your own rules of thumb for choosing your "Sunday Best!"

*Update: The consensus in the comment box is that I mean a culotte or split skirt here. I certainly didn't mean those silly tight knit pants that so many unfortunate teenage girls wear!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What About Vanity?

In the comment boxes below the post about skirt-wearing, an excellent question was asked: what about vanity? In other words, as we consider our duty to dress modestly and with decorum, to what extent must we avoid the trends and fashions of the world, not only out of concern for modesty but also to avoid being vain about our appearances and choices of clothing?

Before I could even start working on this post, another commenter left a comment that heads pretty much in the direction I was planning to take, writing this:

"I don't think it vanity to enjoy clothing. We appreciate the world God gave us in all sorts of ways! The problem of vanity comes in when we spend an inordinate amount of time or money on these things -- when they become passions instead of appreciations, or when we use them to elevate ourselves above others."

The sin of vanity is very closely related to the sin of pride: it involves an inordinate or unjustified sense of conceit in one's appearance, accomplishments, abilities, possessions, and the like. It is directly opposed to the virtue of temperance, about which the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

"Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion..." (CCC, 1809.)

I think the key in understanding this is to consider closely the phrase, "...provides balance in the use of created goods." It would clearly be an unbalanced thing for a cloistered nun in full habit to read fashion magazines secretly whenever the opportunity presented itself to her; it is equally clearly an unbalanced act for a homeschooling mom on a tight budget to refuse to shop anywhere but Talbot's or Ann Taylor. But the thing about balance is that it implies the possibility that the scale may tip too far to the left or to the right; if vanity tips the scale on one side, what vice will bring it down on the other?

The vice which works on the opposite side of vanity is the vice of false humility. True humility is a good, holy virtue, one which should be cultivated by all Catholics and indeed all Christians, as it is essential to living a Christian life. True humility always points away from the self and toward God; a truly humble person doesn't pretend he has no gifts or talents, but always gives grateful thanks to the One who has given him those gifts. It is the person full of false humility who puts himself down and says he is untalented; what he wants, of course, is to be assured that this isn't the case, so his pride may be fed.

Is it vain to like a certain clothing style, or to be appreciative of fashion trends? Is vanity alone responsible for a trinket here, a cute pair of shoes there?

It depends on whether these things are inappropriate to one's state in life, inordinately pleasing to one, or of an importance truly inflated considering their fleeting worth. The interior disposition is once again at the heart of understanding this; we must reach beyond appearances and into the depths of the soul if we want to know whether we are being vain or not.

As the second commenter I quoted above points out, the mere enjoyment or appreciation of God's material gifts to us is not vanity in and of itself. Women who are not religious sisters or nuns are permitted some variety in their dress; not only is there nothing inappropriate in a married woman's choice of different colors or styles in her wardrobe, there is a possibility that it might be far less appropriate for her to limit herself to a single color or style of garment considering that her clothing will inevitably reflect upon her husband: his tastes, his ability to provide for his wife, even his sense of honor may be reflected in what his wife wears in public. Vanity will prompt a woman to wear clothes that flirt with immodesty regardless of what is due to her husband; false humility will cause her to dress in the same skirt over and over again because she enjoys the pity of her friends.

A good wife will be aware of these pitfalls and be willing to dress in such a way that her husband is properly (but not inordinately) pleased with her appearance. We do not dress solely and exclusively for ourselves, and plenty of men wish for the courage to tell their wives that some particular style of garment they've chosen cannot in any way be said to become them. Vanity would refuse to accept this sort of advice from a mere husband, but humility will appreciate it, and make the necessary alterations. False humility, though, will sigh at the attempt, and then explain as sweetly as possible that she knows she doesn't look good, but doesn't he realize that any desire to appear to advantage or to dress in something that actually looks nice is just vanity?

If you are invited to a wedding, and make a special shopping trip to purchase an outfit to wear to it, is that vanity? Not necessarily. If you have a closet full of lovely dresses that fit well and are all perfectly appropriate for a late spring wedding followed by an afternoon sit-down luncheon reception but you decide to go shopping for something new on the grounds that none of the dresses you own are as nice as the one your second cousin twice removed is planning to wear to the same wedding, chances are you're being vain. Most of us moms are less fortunate in our wardrobes, though, and even our nicest Sunday dresses might not work for a more formal occasion (particularly if you're like me and you got rid of the dry-clean-only stuff a long time ago). Choosing to go shopping to get something better than dear coz., as I said, is vanity; but choosing to wear something that isn't really dressy enough for the occasion on the grounds that it's holier not to go shopping would probably be an example of false humility, because at the heart of such a decision is a complete disregard for what is owed to one's hosts.

So how do we decide if we're sailing according to the dictates of temperance, rather than steering into the tempest of vanity or running aground on the rocks of false humility? It isn't always easy; nothing about attempting to live in holiness is. To me, remembering the word "balance" is the most crucial part: avoiding inordinate attachment to the things of this world, including one's wardrobe, on the one hand, while avoiding a prideful false detachment that appears virtuous but is really puffed up with vainglory on the other, is a balancing act indeed. But like all attempts to please God, this attempt is bound to succeed if only we ask Him to help us know ourselves, that we might comprehend our weaknesses and be strengthened to overcome them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Quick Bleg

Things at the Cardigan house are unusually busy today, so I only have this quick bleg to post. I've been considering whether or not God may be directing me to write a book of Catholic non-fiction. This doesn't mean I'm giving up fiction writing, but I know that realistically it may be some time before I find a publisher willing to publish subtly Catholic young adult science fiction, and in the meantime I've really enjoyed some dabbling in non-fiction writing, here and elsewhere.

I'd like to ask all my kind readers for any helpful comments they may have, and particularly for the answers to the following three questions:

1. Do you buy or read Catholic non-fiction books?

2. What Catholic topics are of most interest to you?

3. Do you prefer to read books that take a scholarly or philosophical approach to Catholic issues, or books that are friendly, conversational discussions of aspects of Catholic family living?

Thanks in advance to all who participate.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Skirting the Issue

I'm one of those women who tends to wear skirts and dresses pretty exclusively. While I own one or two pairs of pants, I never wear them except in extremely cold weather (or what seems like extremely cold weather deep in the heart of you-know-where). I have nice, dressy skirts for Sunday Mass, casual skirts for everyday wear, and one or two really comfy knit dresses that I enjoy wearing around the house but wouldn't be caught dead outdoors in unless I was fleeing from a house fire.

And there's not one single solitary virtuous thing about that.

Wearing skirts doesn't make me more of a woman, more feminine, or more truly a model of our Lady. Donning a loose-fitting dress instead of a cute pair of shorts to wear around the house is in no way a sign that I'm holy, or even trying to be. Skipping the racks of capri pants in the local discount store and making a beeline for the breezy cotton waves of loose, flowing fabric that boast an elastic waist and a scalloped or handkerchief hem doesn't mean I'm a member of some kind of inner circle of Catholic women who've made some great mysterious connection between skirts and sanctification.

What it means is that as a short but round woman I've totally given up on expecting fashion designers to realize that just because a woman is under 5'4" she is not automatically a skinny hipless flat-stomached, flat-bottomed gamin of a figure. And as a M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T. I lack the ability to buy the regular sized slacks that would fit me in the waist and hips, chop off the bottom three to eight inches of 'leg' and hem the slacks to fit--and I'm far too cheap to pay someone else to do it for me, especially when skirts are so affordable and so comfortable for someone shaped like I am.

I've been wearing skirts instead of slacks since I first realized how much more comfortable they are for a woman with my figure. Maybe someday if I lost all the weight I'd like to lose the cute pairs of petite 'gamin' pants might fit, but even then I'd probably opt for the skirt from sheer force of habit.

But because I know this about myself, because comfort dictates my choice of skirts rather than some deep spiritual longing to find the most virtuous apparel possible, I get a little bothered when the inevitable "skirts vs. pants" discussion comes up among Catholic women. There tends to be a default position that of course it's an act of pure virtue to wear a skirt, that if our hearts are truly fixed on holy ideals we'll inevitably choose the skirt or dress option, that there are really no circumstances which make it necessary to wear slacks, and that we can't more easily please the Blessed Mother than by imitating her style of dress.

Quite apart from the fact that if we really imitated our Lady's style of dress, we'd probably find ourselves under observation in the psychiatric ward of our local hospital, there remains the fact that wearing a skirt or dress isn't necessarily a virtuous option. It can be, of course, especially if a woman is the sort who really prefers pants, but who chooses to wear a skirt a few times a week as an act of private mortification, an offering to God that no one knows about but her. But deciding that the mere act of donning a skirt is always and everywhere an act of virtue is to overlook the simple but obvious truth that it's no such thing.

For someone like me, wearing a skirt is a clothing choice I make with comfort as the supreme consideration. A tall woman with lovely legs might choose to wear skirts in the serene conviction that nothing will be more flattering to her. A woman I know made several jumpers to wear to work when she had her first teaching job, because jumpers were an easy and practical "uniform" for the type of work she was doing. Other women might choose skirts or dresses because they are more chic, more stylish at a given point in time, more readily available, more professional for office wear, or for dozens of reasons that have nothing at all to do with a desire to be virtuous by avoiding slacks.

Which raises a question: is it virtuous for women to avoid wearing pants?

To answer that question in the affirmative is to affirm that it is somehow less than virtuous for women to wear slacks. It is almost to imply that there is something actually sinful for a woman to choose to wear a pair of pants instead of a skirt of dress. But can we say, or even hint, that?

Considering that female tourists in the Vatican may enter St. Peter's if they are wearing pants or jeans, but not if they are wearing a skirt that is too short, it seems clear that it is impossible to say that it is a sin for a woman to wear pants or jeans. (The issue of wearing skin-tight slacks is not the one we're discussing today, but let's just get this out there: it is clearly not right for a woman to wear either a skirt or dress, or slacks of any kind, if these garments are skin-tight. The tightness of the garment rather than its category is what makes it inappropriate.) If it were a sin for a woman to wear slacks of any type in public, then I think good priests from the Vatican to our local parishes would be making sure we knew that.

So, if it is not a sin for a good, holy, Catholic woman to garb herself in a pair of slacks from time to time, how can it be "more virtuous" to wear a skirt? Saying that one of two options is better or holier automatically implies that the other option is not as good or less holy, but it would seem that the Church considers the wearing of slacks by females to be a morally neutral act. Is it possible to say that wearing slacks is morally neutral, but wearing skirts is morally good?

No. I'm sorry, but there it is. The morality of our clothing choices has to do with our intentions in wearing the clothes, not in the specifics of the garments themselves (specifically and obviously immodest garments excluded). Skirts are just as morally neutral as slacks; what makes the choice of a skirt over a pair of slacks a morally good act is the intention of the wearer--but this works both ways.

For example, a woman could choose to wear a skirt instead of a pair of slacks even though, as I said above, she generally prefers slacks. If she is choosing the skirt as a tiny act of sacrifice, the choice becomes a morally good act.

A woman like me who generally wears skirts could make a similar choice to wear a pair of slacks as an act of sacrifice, though. The moral goodness of my choice of slacks would be the fact that though I find them confining and uncomfortable I am choosing to wear them as an offering to our Lord, perhaps offering my discomfort for the poor souls in Purgatory.

What if the first woman chooses to wear that skirt, however, because she's going to a homeschool group meeting and doesn't want to risk the censure of the group for wearing slacks? In that instance her choice might even be an act of hypocrisy, which is never good.

And what if I'm wearing the slacks to fit in with a style trend? Vanity's not so good, either.

The point is that virtue arises out of the heart, not out of the closet. We can't assume that one type of clothing elevates its wearer above other people, making her more holy and more good. And if there lurks in our hearts the tiniest scrap of judgment toward those who don't choose to dress as we do then any good we were trying to do by choosing the skirt option was erased before we even selected a coordinating blouse.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Narrow Path

I hope that everyone who has been interested in the motu proprio has been visiting What Does the Prayer Really Say? over the course of the weekend; Father Zuhlsdorf has been writing prodigiously about reactions to the motu proprio ranging from joyful celebrations to amazingly negative reactions; he has even had occasion to award his never-coveted "Sour Grapes Award."

What is interesting to me is that the positive and joyful reactions seem to come from the mainstream of the Church: bishops, priests, and lay men and women who do not deny the validity of either the Novus Ordo nor the Tridentine Mass but see this moment in history as a tremendous opportunity for the enrichment of both liturgical expressions of the Roman rite. But the negative reactions seem to come from people who are diametrically opposed to each other, a fact I'm afraid I find amusing: sedevacantists and wacky liberal clergy members holding hands (metaphorically speaking; good sedevacantists know that hand-holding is always of the devil) and singing alternating choruses of "We Shall Overcome" and a new Latin composition titled "Quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum viditur!" It would almost be funny if it weren't so sad.

And it is sad. The great liturgical history of the Church is nothing to fear; and neither is the newer Mass. But it has always been the case that some fear the light, and whether they are hiding in the dark corners to the right or to the left they have much more in common with each other than they'd ever care to admit. It matters little when you run off of the narrow path to salvation whether you end up in the brambles to the left, or the stream on the right; you have left the path, and must seek it out again if you would find salvation in the end.

As I reflect on all of this, I consider our Lord's dealings with the Pharisees, with Herod, and with Pilate.

To the Pharisees Jesus was always quite harsh in His speech. He knew how much their pride blinded them, how difficult it would be to shake them out of their complacency. I think He wanted not only to reach those of the Pharisees who might actually find themselves troubled by His words, but to remind all of us that being excruciatingly correct in our practices is not, in and of itself, enough to save us; moreover, the pride which results in our thinking we know the "right" way to do everything is a dangerous poison that is the enemy of the kind of humble and contrite worship which really does please God.

To Herod our Lord said nothing. Like many of the people out there in the mainstream media writing negative articles about the motu proprio and recycling all the tired canards about the Church's supposed antisemitism, Herod cared nothing for God or for worshiping Him. He only wanted to see Jesus because Herod had heard some amazing things, and was hoping to see a miracle the way someone else might hope to see an interesting parlor trick. In the face of such an egocentric focus silence was the only possible response; there are none so blind as those who think that vision should be a constant source of entertainment.

To Pilate our Lord said quite a lot, considering the circumstances. Pilate was someone who might have been reached; he was interested in philosophy, he didn't want to do the easy thing to appease the crowd, he wanted to learn something about Jesus and why He had such a following. In the end, though, Pilate is left pondering the meaning of Truth while sending Truth to an ignominious death; he reminds me a little of the more liberal wing of the Church today, which wants to say nice things about peace and justice while still coming up with excuses for abortion, the ultimate in unjust violence.

The Pharisees ran themselves off of the narrow path on its right side; Pilate on its left. As for Herod, he was never on the path in the first place.

As we celebrate and rejoice with all those who appreciate this wonderful gift that Pope Benedict XVI has given the Church, let's remember those who aren't in a position to enjoy it. Some of us may find ourselves in a position to reach out to those who have fallen away to the right; others of us may find ourselves quietly and patiently influencing those on the left; and as God takes this opportunity--and He will!--to stir the hearts of those not yet even on the path, we may be granted the awe-inspiring grace of being in a position to help those who as yet know little of God and live entirely in the world.

Friday, July 6, 2007

As We Wait In Joyful Hope

I have temporarily installed a clock showing the current time in Rome, Italy, as an aid to those who are eagerly awaiting the release of the motu proprio about the Tridentine Mass, which reportedly will be available to the public sometime after noon tomorrow, Rome time. For the best post-release analysis I'm planning to go here first of all; Father Zuhlsdorf seems eminently qualified to explain what the document does say, to expound, perhaps, on what it doesn't, and in general to provide the kind of thoughtful and detailed analysis he's known for.

I don't think I'll be blogging about it right away; like most people I want to take the time to think about what our Holy Father is saying, how he is saying it, and what the results of the motu proprio on the liturgical life of our Church will be. I am very hopeful, though, that this will be the first step in Pope Benedict's XVI's plan to 'reform the reform,' to return some sanity and standards to the actual liturgical life at the parish level.

For there can be no denying that things as they are are less than they should be; in some places, under some bishops, considerably less. Catholics shouldn't have to drive from parish to parish hoping to find a Mass they can attend which is relatively free from liturgical abuse; a diocese such as mine shouldn't have the dramatic contrast between this and this in one and the same geographic region (especially when there's a lot more of the latter and not nearly enough of the former). It would be a very good thing for a new appreciation of the sacredness of the Holy Sacrifice to be instilled in all of us, and for new reminders of the importance of reverence and the appropriateness of offering our best to God to permeate through the Church by the influence of the Holy Spirit Who is operating through His servant Benedict XVI.

The best result of a widespread resurgence of interest in the Traditional Latin Mass would not be for TLM enclaves to be formed wherein the weary souls of those buffeted about by the prevailing winds that howled in the aftermath of Vatican II might protect themselves from the rest of the Church (though I sympathize with that desire, especially among the Catholics of California who even now might be looking at my little Rome clock and murmuring "How long, O Lord?"). No, the best result would be for all Catholics to become inspired by the examples of the old liturgy, to reflect upon the solemnity and reverence, to gain a new appreciation of the Church's liturgical heritage, particularly that expressed in Latin and Greek, and to seek to blend elements of this richness with those things about the Mass of Pope Paul VI that were good. And some elements of the Novus Ordo were good; there had been an effect of time on the Tridentine Mass that made that liturgy, in the words of our current pope when he was still Joseph Ratzinger:

...rather like a fresco [in the early 20th century]. It had been preserved from damage, but it had been almost completely overlaid with whitewash by later generations. In the Missal from which the priest celebrated, the form of the liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings was still present, but, as far as the faithful were concerned, it was largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer. The fresco was laid bare by the Liturgical Movement and, in a definitive way, by the Second Vatican Council. For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact, it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences. Of course, there must be no question of its being covered with whitewash again, but what is imperative is a new reverence in the way we treat it, a new understanding of its message and its reality, so that rediscovery does not become the first stage of irreparable loss.” (From The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, copyright St. Ignatius Press, 2000.)

I like to believe that the release of this motu proprio is the first of those "necessary steps" referred to in the quote above, that are intended to stop the threatened destruction of the Mass by those who will keep seeing it as their personal plaything, of no more importance than the kind of "shared-meal-gather-community-experience" they're always comparing it to, whose highest form is the parish potluck picnic. It is imperative to the integrity of our faith that we see the Mass as it is, the unbloody Sacrifice which places us here. It would be no more appropriate for a picnic to break out at this holy place, than it would have been if some first-century idiotes decided to try to sell refreshments to those gathered at the foot of the Cross; and it is high time that all Catholics, clergy and laity alike, accepted and understood that fact.

The motu proprio will not change things overnight; nor should it. But as we wait in joyful hope for its release tomorrow, let's not lose sight of the fact that this is probably only the first step in what may be a long and sometimes even painful process of restoring what was stripped away only by accident, and building up and solidifying those aspects of the reform that were needed in the first place.